You could see the little white cottage from a distance: it was easy to spot on top of a small hill at the end of a vast field, covered by an intricately colored patchwork of wild midsummer flowers.
The noon sun was at its hottest, a scorching monster, and by the time I finally climbed all the way up and came close to the house, I had drunk all the water that I had carried with me. The cottage looked inhabited, with its neatly trimmed hedge and freshly cut lawn, and I wondered if whomever lived there was agreeable enough to allow me to refill my flask, knowing that I had a long walk back ahead of me still. I hoped that a friendly person was home, so I crossed my fingers and came straight up to the door: it was painted green and decorated with an old-fashioned brass knocker. I scrounged up my courage, took a deep breath and knocked.
So, I knocked again, this time a little louder.
Nothing stirred at first; even the birds must have been too hot to sing. I could not hear a sound. I stood there for a while.
Feeling hot and disappointed, I was on the point of turning around and walking back down the hill when suddenly I heard heavy steps coming from inside and the door swung open.
Before me stood a tall, elderly man sporting a bushy, luxurious, snow-white beard and equally snow-white, longish hair, fetchingly framing a pink and shining bold patch. He was a man of what you might call generous proportions. Well, he was tall and he was fat; his portly belly prominent under a sash holding together a loose crimson dressing gown. His eyes were very blue and looked surprisingly sharp for his advanced years. For some obscure reason, the old man looked vaguely familiar. He looked at me with those icy-blue eyes of his for what felt like an eternity, and then I heard a booming voice echo:
“What is your wish? Tell me!”
I was taken aback both by his direct manner and by his turn of phrase. Still, I was very thirsty, so, trying not to drop my eyes, I answered him bravely:
“Hello! If you be so kind, I would simply like to fill my flask up. It’s very hot and I’ve been walking for miles already and it looks like apart from your cottage there is nowhere else to get a glass of water around here… And… Well, I’m truly sorry to have disturbed you! I didn’t mean to…”
I kept gibbering nervously and he kept ogling me without uttering a sound: I was beginning to feel rather foolish and awkward, cowardly wishing that I could turn around and quickly run away from his icy stare. Then, suddenly the old foggy blinked and smiled. Did it transform his face? Yes! Totally and as if by magic. I saw before me a kindly, beaming grandfather that would not be out of place in an advert urging you to consume vast amounts of sickly-sweet caramels, chocolates or other such tooth destroying, fat producing treats. He opened the door widely, holding it for me in an exaggerated gesture of welcome:
“Do come in, dear girl! Make yourself at home, have a rest, relax and enjoy all of the things that you plan on enjoying!”
Now, it all sounded too kind to be true given his earlier tone, but when I looked closely at the old man’s face, it radiated so much genuine concern and benevolence, so much evident pleasure at simply seeing me there on his doorstep, that it immediately made me feel quite on edge.
“All I need is to refill my flask, honestly”, I whimpered. But the old man was already pulling me into the house. I gingerly looked around what turned out to be a one-room cottage: the curtains were tightly drawn, but enough sunshine was seeping through to see and appreciate how very big, and how very cozy the room was.
There were two enormous armchairs standing on both sides of a huge fireplace, with just the right number of coffee tables on all sides to keep your books, newspapers, coffee mugs, spectacles, brandy glasses and the rest of the similar requirements within easy reach. Looking around, one felt immediately like sinking into one of those seats and drifting away. There was a darkened corner with a small kitchenette in the distance, and another with a huge bed, just as dark; but what gave the room its actual warmth and depth were the floor to ceiling shelves, which covered every wall. I also had a faintly bizarre feeling of disorientation, which came from a sneaky suspicion that the cottage had just not looked big enough from the outside to accommodate the room that I was standing in.
The shelves lining the walls were all filled up with what looked at a first glance to be a collection of miscellaneous mini replicas of completely random objects. There were toys of all description, books on all subjects and in different languages, bottles filled with different beverages, pictures, calendars, gloves, gowns, scarves, perfumes, bars of soap; there were ties, shoes, toy cars, TV sets, radios, laptops… and the longer I looked the more filled and crowded with things each shelf became: and those were not the only things that I saw.
It occurred to me that the hours I had spent walking in the blazing sunshine without a hat may have somehow affected my vision: for now, the longer I stared at each individual shelf, the bigger the objects on it became, each of them expanding until it reached life-sized proportions. With difficulty, I managed to tear my gaze away from the shelves and turn towards the old man. I was going to ask him about that water when he sighed heavily and spoke very slowly, as though he were deathly tired:
“Hmm … I wonder … Why have you come here? … and … so early! Who are you? Why do you want your present now?”
“Please,” I begged, “I just want some water! It is unusually hot today and I have walked miles and miles already, and your house is on a hill and…”
“Unusually hot? In the middle of the winter?”
I am in a mad house, I thought to myself, and this old man is insane.
I finally forgot all about my thirst and began to worry about my safety. I looked frantically around me for avenues of escape, when by chance I glanced at one of the windows: the curtain on it was slightly ajar and something was definitely not quite right outside. I rushed to the window, pulled the curtains apart and, to my utter horror, saw a windowpane totally covered by the intricate lace of the winter frost! Standing so close to it, I could even feel the cold emanating from the glass, as a winter blizzard raged on the other side.I did not know what to think any more.I turned back towards the old man: he was still standing there, by the door, seemingly puzzled, obviously quite lost in deep thought. He looked more alert now, no longer tired.
Then he let out a deep sigh, almost a grown:
“You see, little girl,” and for some unknown reason I did not think him calling me “little girl” odd in any way at all, “I only wake up in the winter. In that way, I’m sort of the opposite of a bear who chooses to snooze through all the snowy magnificence. But, it has been a long while since anybody bothered to come all the way to my hut.” He paused and then mumbled broodingly to himself: “Lack of belief, I suppose.
“To tell you the truth, I had been considering the possibility of stopping all this boo-ha-ha and wrapping it all up for good. I’ve been doing this now for so long that I’ve lost all count of the years long ago. Besides which, the children of today are sadly nowhere near as innocent as they are supposed to be. They are too often overly greedy, mostly insincere and frequently rather obnoxious. Nobody wants just a sign of a kindness, a gift of care or affection: it has got to be the most expensive available gadget, which has been pushed down everyone’s throat by the advertising companies that year, the one and only point of absolute desire that everyone is induced to have.”
He fell silent. As for myself, I was quite at a loss for words. Clearly, the old man was not quite sane, but what he was talking about seemed important somehow: there was something compelling, something truly appealing in his mad ramblings, some sincere and simple veracity.
I was no longer afraid. My mouth moved of its own accord, and I found myself asking, as gently as I could:
“Could I just have a glass of tap water and fill my flask up? Please? I’m very thirsty.”
He looked at me with those sharp blue eyes of his and I felt gusts of icy cold wind, blowing from the North Pole through the empty plains of a frozen world without compassion.
Then, as if on cue, he smiled:
“Have you been good, little girl?”
I must have dosed off and slept through the hottest part of the day. When I woke up, the sun was already sinking behind the trees. I was very thirsty. I reached up for my flask, unscrewed the top and took a big sip from it.
The water was icy cold.