The witch, Liza Hempstock, rose in the gloaming of a cold winter's night. A storm was brewing. Snow swirling, the wind so fierce it might have sent a chill down to her bones if she were still indeed among the living. But the witch was dead and could no more feel the cold than taste sticky sweet honey on her tongue. To the dead, the weather Was What It Was. No more consequential than the snow drifting under Liza's feet.
Still, her mouth turned downward, for she hadn't seen this much snow fall upon the old graveyard in nigh a century. While that meant most of its residents would choose to stay tucked into their tombs and caskets (good riddance, she thought), it meant the Living Boy, Nobody Owens, was unlikely to come visiting.
Not that Liza cared a whit about the boy. She had been getting along quite all right on her own, thank you very much. But even she could admit the prospect of not seeing him was disappointing.
She Faded near where the apple tree grew. She was used to disappointment.
Mistress Owens fussed. "You'll catch your death," she said. She rued they had no food stored in their crypt Just In Case.
"But I've got to eat," said the boy, quite reasonably. He looked up at his father.
"You'll listen to your mother," Mr. Owens said, for he came from a time before Gore-tex and Thinsulate, when merely a cold draft could confine someone to their sickbed.
But he was determined to go outside. Nobody Owens, or Bod as his friends called him, pointed to his hooded jacket. "It's waterproof," he said, as he laced up his boots. "I won't freeze." Bod may have been granted Freedom of the Graveyard, and with it some ghostly resistance to the elements, his caretaker, Silas, had brought him the heavy coat and insulated boots all the same. Perhaps, he had anticipated the Owens' reservations.
Mistress Owens looked skeptical as she eyed Bod's shiny new navy blue parka. She shook her head and said, "no."
"But, it's snowing!" Bod exclaimed, his normally grave expression breaking into a boyish grin.
Mistress Owens may be a ghost, but she had a heart. She began to waver. The Owens crypt was cozy and warm, as cozy and warm as a crypt could be, but she knew in a matter of minutes Bod would drive them all to distraction. He was a boy after all. A boy who needed to eat and breathe fresh air. A boy who needed to run and climb and live. "Owens?" she said, gazing sideways at her husband.
"You'll wear a hat. And you won't be long," said Mr. Owens.
The entire graveyard was carpeted in white. Here and there, a tall headstone broke through the snow, frost-covered tree branches drooped and all was quiet.
By now the worst of the storm had past, and what Bod saw as he slowly navigated his way through the snow was less of a flurry than a soft shower of snowflakes fluttering aimlessly to the ground. For a moment, he stood pondering them as he watched them fall, and with a shiver he caught one on his tongue. His stomach growled in protest, and Bod knew he should be getting along. He had promised not to linger, so he journeyed onward, still marveling at the view, when he suddenly took a tumble.
He had tripped over a headstone, hidden in a snow drift, and landed on his hands and knees. Bod pulled off one his mittens and shook it loose of snow. His breath gusted white as he blew on his fingers.
"My dear boy. You are on my foot."
"Mr. Trot," said Bod, scrambling to his feet. "Sorry, I didn't see you there."
Nehemiah Trot, the graveyard's resident poet (1741-1774, Swans Sing Before They Die), regarded him, his ghostly visage hardly visible against the swirling white. "You're the Living Boy. How are thee doing, this wintery night?"
"Very well, thank you," replied Bod.
"'Tis a beautiful sight," Trot mused. "I know! I shall write a sonnet. 'To a Winter's Night.'"
Bod thought it was a marvelous idea and told him so.
But the poet was too busy ruminating to hear him. "Oh, glorious sight, this winter's night. The snow…" He wandered away.
Bod continued on to the old chapel. Once inside, Bod stomped his feet, trying to shake the snow from his boots. He found Silas waiting for him in the shadows.
"Nasty weather," Silas said.
"If you say so," said Bod.
Silas was silent for a moment, which often was his way. "Of course," he said at last. "I have brought you something to eat." He handed Bod a paper sack.
Bod peered inside. He pushed aside the ham sandwich and pulled out a Styrofoam cup filled with something warm and pried off its lid. The steaming scent of something sweet and decadent filled the air. Bod hardly spared a glance at the cup's contents, a murky brown liquid with bits of smudgy white floating on top, and took a deep swallow, scalding his tongue
"Careful," said Silas, watching Bod sputter and wipe his mouth.
Bod nodded and took another tentative sip. He sighed. It tasted like nothing Bod had ever tried before. It even tasted better than the candy floss Silas brought him last summer, when a fair had happened nearby.
"It's called hot chocolate," offered Silas. "I never had occasion to try it myself but the woman who works at the cafe assured me it would be perfect on a night such as this."
"It is. It's wonderful," Bod agreed. "Silas?" Bod's expression turned serious.
Bod wasn't sure how to express what he wanted to say. "I'm… ah…"
"It's my pleasure," said Silas.
Bod reddened. He had a moustache of chocolate on his upper lip. "Do you sometimes wish--"
"I was still human?"
The snow had finally stopped, leaving such a stillness that it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration for Bod to think he were the very last person left alive. But he knew he was not truly alone, and ever the obedient child, Bod started making his way back toward the Owens tomb.
He made it as far as the Egyptian Walk when something cold and hard and wet smacked him on the back of his head.
Bod spun around. "Hey," he cried, ducking in the nick of time as another snowball sailed over his head.
Thackeray Porringer, young graveyard malcontent (1720-1734, son of the above), hooted with laughter. "Easy mark," he hollered.
Bod grabbed a fistful of snow.
The branches of the apple tree at Potters Field sagged under the weight of the snow. Bod paused only briefly before springing into action. He had managed to roll a good-sized ball of snow when he heard a voice in his ear.
"What pray tell is this?"
Bod saw Liza watching him. She somehow managed an expression that was both curious and bored. Bod thought it was a look well suited to her.
"A snowman," said Bod, pleased.
"Why not?" said Bod. Liza walked behind him as he rolled a second ball of snow.
"It seems silly."
"Then why are you following me around for?"
Liza huffed at him. "I'm not." But she helped Bod push the final ball of snow for the snowman's head into place.
They paused then to stare at their creation. Above their heads, the clouds dispersed to reveal the white circle of the moon.
"It doesn’t look like a man at all," Liza said at long last breaking the silence. "Where's his arms? Where's his face?"
Bod didn't have a carrot stick or coal but he walked over to the apple tree and tore off two branches. He stuck them into each side of the snowman. "Better?" he asked.
Liza was silent. "Hat," she said after a moment's time. "He should wear a hat."
Bod pulled off his hat and placed it on top of the snowman's head. He glanced at Liza.
The corner of Liza's mouth tilted upward. "Better," she declared.
It was very late when Bod had at last slipped back into the Owens' cozy tomb. He ignored his parent's admonishments as he peeled off his coat and heavy boots and slid into bed. He was bone tired, but satisfied.
It had been a good night.
Dawn came to the village that surrounded the old graveyard on the hill. Plows scraped the snow from the streets as shovels attacked the walkways. A car started up, and then another as the Living World awoke and went about their business. Shopkeepers threw open their front doors, but the council would not come to unlock the cemetery gates today. No one in their right mind would want to wander the old graveyard after such a storm.
'Tis a pity, for they would find a snowman, dressed in a jaunty knit hat, standing guard over Potters Field. It would stay there until thaw.