The sun gently warmed the earth. The squirrels were hopeful waking up. Peeking out, softly, just enough to see snow, always snow. The cold cracked their dry noses harder than a bad nut.
Slowly, reluctantly, shades went up in houses. Pulled up by invisible hands. People, chained to their beds by the relentless cold. Ice-lined windows stared out defiantly, still believing that spring would come. Then their inhabitants would, once again, take pleasure in looking out of them at the beautiful vista of the park beyond. A girl scurried out from her bed, not in one of the surrounding houses, but in a building within the park itself. She wore a thick brown coat, a barrier against the frost. Her dark hair was all but lost under a densely knitted hat the color of roasting chestnuts. Turning, she looked with dark amber eyes at the park, her conquered territory.
The carriages started to wake up, eagerly awaiting their morning meal of people and elbow grease. The clacking rose from the streets, a pleasant sound that would go on all day, lulling people to sleep at sundown. The girl in the brown coat flew across the road into a small bakery across the street. Disappearing inside, she appeared a few minutes later with a hot cup of tea and something in a happy-looking brown bag. Silently, she slipped back into the park through the forgotten back gate. Lowering herself lightly onto a bench, she promptly started to eat. The mist from her tea obscured her face for a moment.
The main gates of the park open at eight, she thought to herself, I have some time.
Church bells rang across the city. Calling proudly to everyone that it was eight o’clock. Now everything was awake. She dove behind a bush as the absentminded constable walked by to open up the park. He always forgot to close the back entrance, which was her way in and out. He unlocked the heavy iron bolt with a large tarnished key, which turned with a protesting moan. The floodgate opened and people started to flow in. Ladies in big dresses full of lace, still ignorant of the fact that you do not wear white in midwinter when the snow has lost its sheen.
Looking out from behind her nook in the bush, she saw a seated girl about her own age, staring at an old oak tree, absently turning something in her hands. The girl’s pale blond hair was luminous but her face was still, missing its light. Unfurling herself from her hiding place, brushing the snow off her knitted hat, she walked over to the girl on the bench and perched next to her. “What is your name?” she asked the sad girl curiously.
“Celia, and yours?” the girl said, still not blinking, her pale hair wafting in the breeze, almost blending with the weather.
Amber eyes shining, the girl whose home was the park responded, “Just call me Z.”
Celia was a child of privilege but neglected. Her parents only seemed to care about money and lush parties. She was lonely, trapped in an endless expanse of riches, dances, and emptiness. Z was as mysterious as her name—a single letter that gave nothing away. But she had a warm heart and a quick mind. Everything she knew she had found out for herself. They were from two different worlds, but as they talked they found that they fit. Like two sides to the same person. The next day Celia came back. A pattern arose. Celia would come and bring Z food in return for knowledge about the park. Z taught Celia about the birds that lived in the crackling bushes and the ones that lived in the snow-heavy trees. Z showed her the ancient stone toolshed that she lived in at night, and Celia started to feel that she had a place in this world. One day, when the few brave flowers were beginning to crack through the slowly defrosting ground, Celia asked Z if she ever got lonely in the park without a family. Z mysteriously invited her to come and see for herself that night, saying that the park was far more beautiful then.
The park was just beginning to change from day into night. The animals and people were changing shifts. Birds were settling down in their nests for a cold sleep where they would dream of what it would be like when spring finally came. The bats were taking to the air, their wings making the sound of a late river. Fast and unsteady. The robbers of the daytime, squirrels, were being replaced by the thieves of the night, raccoons. Their masks slipped permanently over their faces, their satchels on their backs, they stalked out of their houses to find anything unlucky enough to be dropped in their way. The constable took up his shift as the night watchman. Immediately after the other guard had left he fell into a deep sleep.
Celia and Z slipped in the back entrance, unseen. They walked along the main path, devoid of all other human life, deep into the park. The only sounds were those of the chirping crickets and soft rustling of raccoons furtively stealing somebody else’s dinner. Finally they arrived at a big clearing with the old oak tree in the center. Z made a long, low whistle and people started appearing out of the trees. They gathered around and Z introduced Celia. They made a fire and started to tell stories, stories about finding beauty in the relentless cold and frost. Tales of finding truth in the very flowers that grew on the ground. Stories about themselves and how they had found that the most beautiful thing was propping each other up in times of trouble. This is why they gathered in the park at night when it had emptied, a large family, a new family. Celia fell in love with the park that night and with these people.
The next night Celia went back, and then the next. Soon she couldn’t remember the time before she had met these people. She was now at peace, she had found friends who cared for her, who loved her not for how much money she had, or who she had met. She was filled with a joy that she had never felt before. Z had stripped away the sad colors of Celia’s world and revealed a rich and beautiful surface below. Shifting it to bring in light into what had been a dark life.
One morning Celia sat down on the bench in front of the old tree as usual. She waited, as the sun softly stalked the clouds across the horizon, scaring them into non-existence. She waited as it started to seep into the earth and melt the last shards of tired ice from the ground. Finally, her hands rattling, she walked to the old stone building that Z lived in. The path had never felt so long. She knocked on the door, not her old insecure knock, but a new, rippling knock of the girl she had become. She carefully opened the door. It desperately moaned, longing for some company. Celia stepped in, boots clicking on the worn stone floor. Calling out a name that bounced around the room, a fly caught in a jar. And it hit her, a ball kicked in her face, Z was gone.