Monday, February 9, 2015

"The Last of the Frost Fairs"

They bundled up in heavy coats and boots stuffed with socks. It was February and the air was cold and biting, but they were going outside anyway. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, the boy had said. You had to be there. The River Thames had frozen over; the Frost Fair had returned.

The last Frost Fair had been in 1789, twenty five years ago. They hadn’t been born back then; they hadn’t seen it. Everyone was telling them: come and see. The entire river, frozen over, boats stuck in the ice. There are tents for drinking and tents for selling meat and processions of entertainers, clowns and jugglers, and even an elephant, the boy had said.

A real elephant? George (the youngest) asked.

Yes, a real elephant, the boy said. It was big and gray and it didn’t even crack the ice as it walked across the river.

They wanted to see the elephant. They wanted to see the jugglers and, even though they had very little money, they brought it with them so they could buy meat and candy and they told each other they would take turns riding the elephant, hugging its back, because that’s what this was really about, that’s what brought them out of their cold house.

They didn't ask what the boy's name was. They didn't ask who his parents were. He just told them about the glories of the frozen river and the Frost Fair and they listened in rapt attention.

You have to see it, the boy had said. It's the last of the Frost Fairs.

The last? Eddie (the middle child) asked. Why is it the last?

Because it doesn't get as cold anymore, the boy said. Long ago, there was a great volcanic eruption and dirt was thrown into the air and it stopped the sun from warming everything. It got really cold and the river used to freeze all the time back then.

The children knew about the cold. It had been their father’s job to get wood for the furnace, but since he died, the furnace had stayed empty. They didn't know where their mother was -- she had walked away from the house one day and never come back.

Long ago, there were lots of Frost Fairs, the boy said with a smile. Long ago, it got really cold, but nobody cared, because there was always a Frost Fair to cheer you up. But the weather’s changing and things are getting warmer again. So this is the last time the river Thames will freeze. This is the last Frost Fair there will ever be. That’s why you must see it now. Before it all goes away.

Wesley (the eldest) was the most suspicious of the boy. He didn't know why he didn't trust him, just something in the way he spoke. The way the edges of his smile seemed to crack in the sunlight.

I’m not sure, Wesley said. It's dangerous out there. What if something happens to one of us?

There is always the possibility of danger, the boy said. That's what makes the Frost Fair so intriguing. Look. He handed Wesley a piece of paper with words printed on it, but Wesley couldn't read. I’ll read it for you:

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o're,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see things upon the ice were done.

Wesley's mouth fell open at the words. When he listened to the boy say them, he could see the Frost Fair in his mind, the open tents filled with beef roasting, the fat glistening, the smell wafting for all. It wasn't the elephant that captured his fancy; it was the meat and how it made his mouth water.

So they bundled up in their warmest clothes and they let the boy lead them to Blackfriars Bridge, to the river frozen o're.

And they looked out upon the river and they saw an even greater spectacle then what they had imagined. George and Eddie didn't see one elephant, but rather a dozen of them walking in a circle, riders in magnificent coats upon their backs. And Wesley saw tents filled with every type of meat imaginable: pigs and chickens and lambs, their skins being roasted over pits of fire. The sight of it made his mouth water and all three children stepped out onto the river at the same time.

None noticed that the boy wasn't with them anymore.

None had a chance to see the water beneath their feet. Not ice, not anymore.

The last of the Frost Fairs had come and gone. It had lasted four days and then was over. There had been one elephant. That much was true.

But that was weeks ago. The river had gone back to being a river. The water churned. They stepped and fell and all three children found themselves in a place of coldness, a place where the water seeped into their clothes and their skin. It wasn't frozen, but it was cold enough.

It was cold enough.

When the children woke up, they found the river had frozen again. They didn't know how or why and they didn't ask. They saw the Frost Fair around them -- the white glittering tents, the marble elephants, the children running about with their wide smiles and dark eyes -- and they laughed and ran into the Frost Fair to do what they pleased. They would have such fun that they would never leave, they said.

The boy grinned as he stepped across Blackfriars Bridge. This was the last of the Frost Fairs, true enough, and the weather had changed. But the boy would never change. He would find another way to reach into their hearts. He would always find another way.

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