by David Vonderheide
I remember to the minute the last time I saw snow. My family and I were on a snowspotting trip to New Hampshire, crowded out on the balcony of our Airbnb in the wee hours of the night. A spattering of flakes, embattled with a wispy updraft, hung just beneath the powerlines, catching the edge of the orange streetlight. They managed a downward gyre, drawn to the wooden bannisters, our jackets, outstretched tongues. They would land, one moment a delicate crystal, the next a dark splotch.
It was a weak showing, especially for my parents, but even for me – I remember just a few years ago, when my brother Simon was a baby, small storms would still come through and leave a white misting on stone walkways, car windshields, in the runnels of shingled rooves. There it would cling, until grey morning light came along through fading clouds and huffed it away. These flakes didn’t last enough to build to a whisper of a coating – you wouldn’t have known it was snowing unless you were staring up into the powerlines and watching them fall.
I remember looking to Simon, five years younger, his – lips pulled apart, eye sparkling, honest to god. Even flakes in their barest form still carried a dose of their signature wonder. That was Simon’s first – and last – experience with snow. I remember that night walking in on him playing back the memory, meager flakes simmering over damp pavement. He was crying, but just a little.
When he was going into sixth grade, he asked me if I’ve ever had a snowday. I’d had three, but two of them I had been too young to remember. There were pictures of me hung on the walls of the house, bound in a puffy snow suit, flopped in Dad’s lap and loaded on an innertube. The sledding hill behind us was streaked with mud where the grass had been uncovered and scrubbed away. The snowday I did remember was from before we had gotten our implants, so when I tried to explain it to him I was drawing from natural memory – something else he didn’t understand. He sat as baffled as he had been seeing snow the first time, hunched over the kitchen counter, listening carefully as I snaked back through the memories. I dug up the pictures mom had taken from my logs and sent them over as I talked.
I remembered leaping up and down with Blaise, who lived just a couple blocks away, trying to pull down the biggest possible icicles sloughing off the gutters in his backyard and using them to fence. We just kind of smashed them together and saw who walked away with the larger hunk of ice – which we then tried to force down the other’s jacket.
I remembered the hot cocoa my mom had made at the end of the day, our cheeks toasted and socks dripping. She listened closely to our stories, quietly, grinning into her cup of tea.
I remembered building the snowforts, with Blaise of course, but also the Bullard Twins – who we hardly said hi to in school – and Aiden whose snowed-in playdate with them had led to an impromptu sleepover.
Between the snowforts, we hammered the ground into a packed-ice-honest-to-god-shit-you-not-skull-cracker, which is exactly what happened when Blaise’s sister came over and was pushed over and out of the crossfire. That caused a bit of drama –what perfect day doesn’t have a good dose of that? – but we managed to make up and go sledding at the middle-school hill.
“So you just remember it all at once?” Simon had asked.
I hadn’t thought of it like that, but compared to scanning through memory logs, I understood what he meant. I knew how it all fit together, but the memories themselves were just unsorted chunks suspended in rosy amber. “Yeah I don’t have to search for anything, I just kinda get these clumps of memories when I think about it.”
“But they could be altered right? They warn you about that with natural memories, that every time you access them, you change them. You can’t even trace it to what it used to be.”
“That’s for little details.”
“But maybe because it’s been so long –”
“Sure, so maybe the snowforts were a little smaller. But even with a thousand accesses I couldn’t have invented it. I’ve never had another day like that.” Peeking through my curtains to finally lay eyes on the gift I was up all night thinking about. Going out to shovel the walk with Dad and watching a car with gummed up tires limp down the street. Neighbors tromping along on walks, admiring the transformed and muffled streets.
The world had to slow down, if only for a day.
“Maybe it’s just because the way that natural memories get stored, they have stronger emotion—”
“Not according to the current research.” Though some people found the current research inconclusive.
He couldn’t have swallowed the extent of how I felt about that day – maybe just a fraction of that fire, a coal just hot enough to remain a constant burn in his gut. His jaw slackened, and in a voice seasoned with fallen hope, “I guess I was just thinking it might be that the snowday wasn’t as good as you think it was.”
And that should be the catch. Ever since we crawled up on the beach, older generations have looked down on the new trends and phrases and favorite music. They have pitied some ambiguous “lost magic.” And since then, that lost magic has been intangible. But now, when I look back to the pictures from that last snowday, just before the implants, I see what I see in my memories. Snow pushed aside in lumpy piles along our walk, icicles sprouting under cars, white dashed across tree branches. When Simon looks back in his logs, he sees those flakes in an unflinching light of realism, hollow and haunting compared to the pictures and stories I shared. The loss materialized, a lead weight divided amongst white specks, just in time to land on Simon’s shoulders.
He never asked me about snow again, and I’m pretty sure he’s deleted the footage of those last flakes. I would wager he didn’t want to have that pathetic experience to compare to my sprawling tale, to taste a feast he’d never have. I wonder if he deleted the log of our conversation, but either way I know it wasn’t one he wished to have again.
We can measure the snowfall and we can see, empirically, that this generation has lost snow. They’ve lost the possibilities lurking in untrampled fluff, a canvas waiting to be painted in forts and wild scuffle marks, hammered into a packed-ice-honest-to-god-shit-you-not-skull-cracker. They’ve lost the days where responsibilities melted away like ice on salted driveways. They’ve lost quiet streets, the squeaky crunch of boots on powdered sidewalk, delightful numbness on noses and fingers.
They’ve truly lost magic. And for the first time, we can count the loss, flake by flake.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story