Frost People

For a long time the people lived in the frost beneath the ground, where they’d made their homeland since ice had covered much of the northern world. Slowly they’d been forced from the surface of the earth by hunger, weariness and predation by other peoples, until they all rested in the permanent frost, no longer walking people, but still very much alive. There they became part of the stone, the soil and the fungus and learned to live off it. They learned every underground river that coursed through the world, and how to know the weather and the movements of the earth better from below than they ever had from looking at the sky. They knew that they had neighbors, or at least that they must, because they had when they were still walking, but the other peoples, who’d met similar ends above ground as they had, never made contact. Humans buried their dead in the ground, but, though separated only by the boundaries of bones and cloth, the human dead seemed only to know how to die out entirely and never try to join the people. Perhaps the others were stuck in their ways like how the people were encased in their frost. It was a long, quiet peace.

Nevertheless, the world began to get warmer and warmer, the humans’ method of living began to show itself for how destructive it was of the earth, and their lack of sensitivity to what else may be living in the world, let alone under the ground, grew to be dangerous negligence. The frost was able to last for millennia, and here and there it came and went, but it only took one forest fire or any kind of disturbance to drive the frost away. After one moment in which the frost left, it could take centuries for it grow back, should the ground be fit for it. The winters were falling lighter and lighter into the ground, and the cold couldn’t be saved. The people were losing their home almost too fast to respond.

Knowing that they would die in homelessness much surer than they would suffer in displacement, the people decided that they must find a new place to try and live. The world above ground was full of irony: though the humans had chased and killed the people off, as they had done and were doing to so many other living things, they also seemed to be one of the most stable life forms in the world. Surely the people knew that the humans were frightened and cruel, and that it could be disastrous to mix with them again. But everything in the world eventually gives in to forgiveness, hopefully long before, but latest upon, its dying breath, and the people had long since forgiven themselves of their need to hate the humans, and so were able to forgive the humans as well.

Now their forgiveness would be tested. They were now aware that, if the humans could destroy the frost and wreck their home, then they must be capable of destroying just about anything else. The people resolved to reenter the world of the sun and sky through the humans, and to send a message to them that they needed to help the frost return. It made practical sense, since after all they and the people had been so alike.

The people didn’t take many things into account, however. They had gone from the fields and mountains before the humans had acquired language, and couldn’t begin to understand how the humans relied upon it for everything, even though –obviously enough to the people –there was an infinity of perfectly effective alternatives for communication. It seemed to the first explorers that the humans would die without their verbal language. It was also difficult to measure, for now their verbal symbols were beginning to rely on other symbols impressed on the world for their meaning. The people found this altogether absurd, since the symbols weren’t straightforward, like the hand prints and other drawings of the world that the people had left in their old dwellings.

In any case, the first babies born to the people soon proved to be less than ideal vehicles. The humans looked upon them with terror and anger, as if they’d given birth to a monster, even before trying to make the most preliminary contact. They were blinded by what they had been expecting. And that was only a response to the babies’ behavior. When the babies predictably didn’t acquire any language, for the people’s brains weren’t built for it, their parents locked them away from the world and engaged them in a ridiculous game of painfully slow instruction in meaningless concepts. The agents of that game made no pretense to really trying to connect to the people, and their consolation was distant and empty. It was a frustrating obstacle. It’d been easy enough to place themselves into the humans from the ground, for all that they had ever been was lying ready in the ground, but the people could not gain entry into the humans’ minds enough to simply tell them the message. Their language was like a terrible stormy mountain range, whose other end exists only in the realm of faith, and whose crossing would last more generations than the memory of why one undertook to cross it.

Then, one day an old spirit from the people made a much better match. It entered into an old man, whose family responded to his new ways with fear. They treated him as if he had died, since his habit for language and other human customs was summarily tossed aside. But they let him be, for the most part, and the old spirit took advantage of his age and knowledge to gain some ground in the human mind. He looked out through the old man’s eyes and his heart felt warm and full as he gazed at the mountains whose youth he had shared, and felt fondness for the sight of the deep grooves cut into them by the ice that had only revealed the mountains beneath in his old age. It certainly wouldn’t be bad to be a human, if the people could simply help them with their habits.

Slowly the old man began to acquire an understanding of language. It was still a trial on his patience, for each human seemed to have one of his or her own, and they used their language to deflect each other’s attempts at contact. They bore the relatively small differences in their utterances like wounds and used them to erect walls and build nations in order to feel master of the distances that the world couldn’t help setting between their tribes. Not even the ever-present underground water could make their symbols flow together in one direction.

Nevertheless the old man persisted. He knew that for now, and there was only now, the humans were his people’s only hope for finding a new home. The birds and other animals, even the wind, to an extent, treated him differently now that he was a human. They all advised him of the absurdity of his ways, and when he responded that he knew it, they were consistently shocked to find that he wasn’t deaf. It made for great comic relief.

Another thing that the people hadn’t considered was that, though the humans had by now lasted in their present form quite a bit longer than the people ever had in theirs, they still had quite a problem with forgiveness. One day as the old man was being fussed over by his incomprehensible family while tending his plants, which the humans had ingeniously learned to manipulate, perchance he learned about reason. The humans seemed to use it like his people used forgiveness, but it didn’t create togetherness like forgiveness did. It was overused, like language, and it seemed not to produce anything but arguments for the need of more reason. Evidently his family couldn’t get it to work on him. As we can guess by now, this was too much for the old man, and he let it go lest it drive him up the wall.

As the old man gained the ability to speak, his family brought all kinds of ideas to him that they were expecting him to understand, as if he were coming back to unfinished business, but he had to let that go too. He felt sorry for the humans; they were unable to know that he hadn’t taken their old man away from them, and at the same time he couldn’t speak for the old man.

One day, as he saw his people dying out of their human vessels and returning to the shrinking frost, the old man stood up before many people, for they were willing to listen to him for reasons owing to his body’s other life. He told them his people’s story, where they came from, how they and the humans had once been neighbors, and how they were guests now in the human world. He begged them to stop craving things that couldn’t be had without hurting the world, to stop stealing the ground from each other. He begged them to understand that they weren’t the only things that were in danger, and to forgive themselves of the need to keep settling scores and opening wounds so that they could end their circle dance of reason and destruction.

But the humans didn’t understand the old man. Some reasoned that he must be trying to do him harm, or else he wouldn’t be asking them to change. Some listened to what he had to say, understood it, and then used what they had understood to reason and argue for their own desires. The great volume of the humans who had listened was far worse than the silence of those who hadn’t. It broke the old man’s fragile human heart, and he died, returning empty-handed to the frost.

The people saw what had happened; they didn’t need an explanation, and they couldn’t have one in any case. It was clear to them now that their habits had led them as astray as the humans’ had them. When the old man thought of what he had told the humans, he realized that it wasn’t just the humans that were clinging to what they lived on.

One can never return to the same place that one has left. The people let go of their need to live in the frost and rose through the ground, now living in the old frost and soil, and also the stone, the grass, the trees and the air. In these places they found their neighbors, many of which had already learned to let go and simply be. The people no longer needed to know the weather or the seasons, for they now were all moved by the same force. As long as there was a world, the people would get by in it.

A few days after his leaving the human body, the old man decided to go back to the humans and tell them of his people’s success. When his living body returned, those who had known him were frightened, overjoyed and confused that he had somehow risen from death. The old man explained to them that his people had let go, and that was why he could visit again. On the subject of his fleeing death, the old man advised the humans that one can never return from the same place that one has left, and he told them that they could move on from what they thought was life and death as well, if they could just let go, learn forgiveness, and leave off the activities that had caused his problems in the first place.

Then the old man returned to his people, leaving with a whisper that now could float freely on the wind forever and cross the entire world; in this way the old man and his people would never have to undertake a migration again. The whispered words were a simple request to listen.

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