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The Hemulen's Refrain

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The seagulls, as usual, had the news first. Too-ticky heard them gossiping as they wheeled to and fro outside the boat-house. The Lady of the Cold had lingered in the north, they chattered, lingered to dance, and that had blasted the sleepers and the winter-waking out of their resting places. The owls had already found refuge deep in the woods, and the land creatures were trickling south, following the scent of rumor: jam-cellars and peat-fires and warm blankets, all in a valley by the frozen sea, out of the reach of the winds.

Too-ticky hummed to herself, a few stray notes conjuring the picture: the Lady’s full skirts whirling on the violet snows under the blue moonlight, stirring gales in every direction she turned. The ice-crust, seizing on the rocks and trees, felling the last cones so that even the pine-nuts scattered and were lost. The dead branches, lashing across the fields and into burrows and windows. The spin-drift of powder that would resettle and harden like flour-paste.

Well, it had been beautiful in its way, no doubt, if deeply inconvenient.

She fetched her fishing tackle and headed to her ice-hole. It wouldn’t hurt to catch a few extra today, just in case.

She kept one eye on her bobbing fishline and one on the green of the icy ceiling. Soon, now, the sun would rise high enough to turn the ice yellow and fleck the small lapping waves, and the fish would rise, curious, to see whether the light meant brine shrimp near the surface. And that would be a day to mark, maybe with a snatch of verse, maybe with fried fish instead of soup.

She had five plump ones in her pail already.

She heard a faint skritch-skritch over the ice above, and a top-knotted, saucer-eyed head popped upside-down through the ice-hole.

“We’re being invaded!” Little My shouted happily. “Except the seagulls have got it wrong. There’s nothing but a sorry little dog in a nightcap and bed-sheet, and he’s already fallen twice in the drifts. That’s his name, by the way. Sorry-oo.”

“I expect the others aren’t far behind,” Too-ticky said. “Where’s this Sorry-oo?”

“Over at the Moominhouse. Everyone’s heard about the jam-cellar, he says. Moomintroll tried to wriggle out of it, but I gave him away. Time that boy learned to share.”

“He’s a Moomin. They like to nest, and have lots of treats stored up. He’s learning; give him time.”

“Well, you know what he’s like. You’d better join the welcoming party, or he’ll dither over every afghan and jam-jar he hands out. It’s not as though his precious family needs them in their sleep.”

Too-ticky nodded. Moomintroll had been a bit upset about the borrowing, especially My’s brazen theft of the silver-tray-turned-toboggan, but he was catching on: rules changed when the sun hid away. Winter-sleepers forgot, sometimes, that there was a whole world that went on spinning while they dreamed of sunlight and rushing water; and sometimes they woke with cotton-wool between their ears, and fussed about trifles.

She herself could never see the point. It had taken her some time, after all, to find the pleasure in marking every turn of the year, in the smells and sounds that whispered along the drifts, the shared food and silences.

“I’ll be right along,” she said. “Let me get this lot cleaned and in the kettle. I’d better warn the shrews, too.”

Little My laughed and skated off. “Hurry up, or the jam will be gone!” she called over her shoulder. Too-ticky smiled. Hard to believe that one had ever slept the winter through; something to be said, as well, for taking the season by storm and by speed.

Inside the bath-house, the pot bubbled on the stove, stirred by unseen paws; on the table, two more invisible shrews sawed at a carrot, each taking one end of the butcher-knife, and a fourth methodically stripped leaves from the dried-herb bouquet. The flute-player sounded a few tentative notes from under the table, as if trying on the seagulls’ news for musical size.

Too-ticky plumped the fish down, and addressed the room at large. “You heard the birds, I expect; we’ve guests coming, so best make a little extra soup. I’ll warn them to watch where they put their feet. But feel free to slip into my hammock if they don’t pay attention.” She sighed, picturing the bath-house stuffed with agitated Whompers and Toffles, all waving their paws and muttering about the deep unfairness of things. “Probably a lot of sleepers in this lot, so forgive them if their manners aren’t the best.”

A little kindness generally goes a long way, she thought as she trudged up to the Moominhouse. No reason they shouldn’t all get on reasonably well. It wouldn’t be peaceful, of course, and she privately hoped that they wouldn’t have too many talkative Fillyjonks; but if you make people welcome, they usually respond in kind. And it took all sorts, anyway.

She would remember those thoughts the next day, when the Hemulen came.
It wasn’t the loud yellow-and-black zigzags on his sweater, although they looked terrible against the snow.

It wasn’t his equally loud voice or the piercing notes of his bugle.

It wasn’t his enthusiasm for morning swims and calisthenics, his swooshing about the slopes on his skis, or the awkward way his igloo blocked traffic through the Moomin garden. (The igloo he’d made the others build for him.)

No, Too-ticky thought viciously, it was that the Hemulen was blind and deaf, and cheerfully believed they were all glad of his company, because why wouldn’t they be?

He had no concept, this one, of being woken confused and adrift, displaced far from home, barely able to see or hear the quiet rhythms of winter even without the extra noise. No knowledge, either, of the shy and invisible who took refuge from the sunlit world in snow and stillness. Too-ticky would almost have preferred a return visit from the Groke, even if she froze every fire in the valley. You could at least understand someone who just wanted a little light and warmth.

Every day, a few more of their guests trickled down from the Moominhouse, unable to bear the torchlight and rousting at eight a.m., wanting only to huddle here under the ice, out of sight, and then huddle around the bath-house stove while their soup simmered. (With every bit of tackle in daily use, at least the food supply was holding up.)

But as the bath-house grew more crowded, the shrews took to hiding in the hammock, and their flautist refused to pipe a single note. Not that anyone could have heard it over the bugle-call, anyway, or the Fillyjonk’s snoring. And Sorry-oo slunk in each morning after calling for his wolf-brethren through the night, to spend all day in the cupboard, hiding from the Hemulen.

Too-ticky herself could feel, crossly, that the days were slipping away from her unmarked; she hadn't had a tune stir inside her for weeks.

The last straw came one morning when she walked up to to borrow more salt from the Moomin kitchen, just in time to see the Hemulen hurtle down the slopes and arrive in a spray of slush and packed snow. He didn’t even notice that he’d half-buried the little Creep who seemed to watch for him everywhere.

“Wonderful morning!” the Hemulen shouted. “Air’s never been more bracing! Sure you don’t want to take a turn on the skis? Happy to give you some pointers!”

“No, thank you,” Too-ticky muttered, pulling the Creep out of the ski-drift (Salome, mustn’t forget she has a name). “I’ve fish to cook for fifteen.” The Creep shook herself and gave Too-ticky a watery smile, but her eyes stayed on the brass curve of the bugle strapped to the Hemulen’s back. When he pushed off to the igloo, she tripped after him, teetering a little in the ski-tracks.

This can’t go on, Too-ticky thought. I’ll have to speak to Moomintroll. We’ve got to convince him to leave, somehow.

Too-ticky stood on the landing-stage and watched the ragged clouds accumulating out to sea. The gentle snowfall had stopped some time ago, and the guests were straggling down from the Moomin garden for supper. She counted heads as they arrived; if she was right about that dirty-blue billow out there, none of them would be able to make the return journey tonight.

No Hemulen (good riddance; had he taken the hint and left?), no Moomintroll, and…”Has anyone seen Salome?” she asked the party at large.

“She was still napping in the meerschaum tram when we left,” one of the other Creeps piped up.

“She’d best stay indoors,” Too-ticky muttered, giving one last look out to sea and shutting the door.

The wind slammed into the landing-stage not twenty minutes later, followed by a soft thudding and whooshing as it nosed the heavy curtain of wet flakes all around the bath-house walls. Soon they could see nothing more outside than the whirl of white, until even that vanished as condensation crept up the window-panes. Little My laughed delightedly with each new gale-buffet, and the other guests laughed more uneasily, and tried to keep their hands steady as they drank their soup.

Then the landing-stage shook, and the door burst open. “Here you all are!” the Hemulen shouted cheerily. “The Lonely Mountains were awful! I’m so glad to be back when the slopes are good and I’ve friends to cheer me on. Couldn’t think where you’d got to, when I found the house empty!”

“Come in and shut the door,” Too-ticky said, grudgingly. “What do you mean, there was nobody at the house? Hadn’t Moomintroll and Salome got back?”

“No, and I wanted to thank Moomintroll again for being such a pal. He did try to warn me that the skiing would be no good. And I needed a safety-pin; my bootstrap’s coming loose. There’s a fiddly little tram caddy on the mantel with pins and buttons and such.”

“That’s where Salome sleeps,” Too-ticky said. “Wait. She wasn’t there?”

“Who’s Salome? Oh, one of the Creeps? No, I told you, nobody was there. Isn’t this snow something, though! I’m almost sorry I didn’t wait it out on the mountain-top, but I thought you might be missing me, so I came back.”

From her perch atop the cupboard, Little My snorted. “The Creep’s got scraps and buttons where her brains should be,” she said. “Likely enough she’s gone looking for you. She’s got a thing for your bugle, can’t imagine why.”

The Hemulen beamed. “Ah, it’s so good to be appreciated!”

One of the older Whompers exchanged a look with Too-ticky. “If she’s lost in the snow, it could be quite serious,” he said in a low voice. “And it’s no good going to look right now.”

“I’m not so worried for Moomintroll, as long as it doesn’t last too long,” Too-ticky said. “But a Creep couldn’t stay upright for five minutes in this.”

“What, this little blizzard? It’ll blow itself out by morning,” the Hemulen scoffed. He jumped up. “Still, not everyone’s able to keep up, I suppose. That’s what comes of spending all your time indoors! I’ll go have a sniff about,” and he pulled his sweater on again and headed out. The door banged behind him, and they could hear the thunk of new snow siding from the eaves and hitting the landing-stage.

Too-ticky gazed at the door, her lips pursed. It was quite true, what everyone said about Hemulens and their sense of smell. Maybe it made up a little for all they didn’t notice in other ways.


An hour later – after Moomintroll had finally turned up, soaked and exhilarated, and was into his second hot drink – the door flew open once more. The Hemulen unceremoniously shrugged out of his sweater, flinging fresh snow everywhere, and dropped it on the mat. He shook himself, and then shoved Moomintroll away from the stove as he reached inside his shirt. When he extended his paws to the warmth, they held one half-conscious and thoroughly sodden Creep.

Where everyone had jumped and frozen when the door opened, they now burst into movement: a fresh beaker of hot water and syrup sailed down from the stove-top in invisible paws; the Whomper draped his blanket over the Hemulen’s shoulders; the Fillyjonk even leaned over and unlaced his boots. Too-ticky pulled off her cap and tucked it around Salome, whose teeth began to chatter; her eyes, dilated, slowly tracked around the room, ending with the Hemulen’s face.

Too-ticky glanced about her as well, and her eyes met and held Moomintroll’s.

The first storm of spring; how quickly things could change. New snow, new assumptions. And maybe a new refrain.

Too-ticky climbed the bath-house steps, still thinking about the Hemulen’s parting words – she’d never seen anyone so greedy for fresh snow-covered slopes, and found herself hoping he’d take care – and very nearly trod on Salome. She’d last seen her happily swinging her legs on the bridge-rail while the Hemulen played bugle at her side, but now she hunched forward on the weathered boards, hot tears splashing into the wet snow. Too-ticky squatted down. “Salome,” she said.

“He’s gone,” the Creep whispered. “I did hope he would stay. He played for me, and it was lovely. I made a nuisance of myself. I didn’t deserve it.”

Too-ticky thought for a moment. “Hemulens are like that,” she said gently. “They always mean well, but they have a hard time seeing people, except in relation to, well, whatever they’re on about at the time. Don’t take it personally.”

Salome hiccupped. “I know you didn’t like him. I know you wanted him to leave.”

“He wasn’t a restful sort, true, but I liked him better for rescuing you.”

Salome wrapped her tiny arms about herself, and shivered. “Come on inside and have some soup,” Too-ticky said, and tugged her up, insistently.

Inside, with a tea-towel wrapped about her and a thimble of soup in her paws, Salome quieted. The other guests chattered noisily (and none too kindly, all things considered) about the Hemulen’s departure and the peace and quiet to come until, yawning, they began rolling themselves in canvas and carpets for the night. Too-ticky rummaged in the cupboard and came up with an old slipper of Moominpappa’s. She handed it to Salome.

“That meerschaum tram can’t be too comfortable,” she said. “Sleep here for awhile, ‘til you’re feeling better sorted.” She paused. “If it’s the music you miss, well, one of my invisible friends here plays a pretty flute. And he could use some encouragement.” Salome nodded once, and carefully tripped over to the stove to warm the slipper.

Too-ticky looked around before blowing out the lamp. The guests were sighing into sleep, the Fillyjonk already snoring. Outside, the wind murmured and then rose to a thready whine. From under the table, a few reedy flute-notes chimed in.

Too-ticky rolled up in her own blanket and waited, listening, as the notes became a tune, a soft song like water moving slowly under ice, promising a thaw to come.