The farmer, his hands muffled in warm mittens, sat in his sleigh with his whip on his knees and beat his arms across his chest to keep himself warm. The lean horses ran until steamy smoke seemed to rise from them. The snow creaked with the cold, and the sparrows hopped around in the ruts and shivered. "Peep! When will spring come? It's taking a very long time about it!"
"Very long," sounded a deep voice from the highest snowcoverd hill, far across the field. Perhaps it was an echo, or perhaps the words had been spoken by a strange old man who was sitting, in spite of wind and weather, on the top of a high drift of snow. He was all white, with long hair, a pale face, and big clear eyes, dressed like a peasant in a coarse white coat of frieze.
"Who is that old fellow over there?" demanded the sparrows.
"I know who he is," said an old raven sitting on a fence rail. Now, this raven was wise enough to know that we are all like little birds in the sight of the Lord, so he wasn't above speaking to the sparrows and answering their question.
"Yes, I know who the old man is. He's Winter, the old man of last year. He isn't dead, as the calendar says; no, he is guardian to little Prince Spring, who is coming. Yes, Winter rules here now. Ugh! The cold makes you shiver, doesn't it, you small creatures?"
"Yes," replied the smallest sparrow. "Didn't I tell you? The calendar is only a stupid invention of men, and isn't arranged according to nature. They ought to leave that sort of thing to us; we're born much more sensitive than they are."
So one week passed away; yes, almost two weeks went by. The forest was black, and the frozen lake still lay hard and stiff, looking like a sheet of lead. The clouds, like damp cold mists, lay brooding over the land, while the great black crows flew in long silent lines. It was as if nature were sleeping.
Then a sunbeam glided over the surface of the lake, and it shone like melted tin. The snowy blanket over field and hill did not glitter quite so coldly. But still the white form of King Winter sat, his gaze fixed unswervingly toward the south. He did not notice that the snowy carpet seemed to sink very slowly into the earth itself and that here and there little grass-green patches were appearing. But the sparrows crowded into these patches, chirping, "Peep! Peep! Is spring coming now?"
"Spring!" It resounded over the field and meadow and through the dark-brown woods, where the green moss was shining on the tree trunks. And through the air, from far away in the south, the first two storks came flying swiftly, carrying on their backs two lovely children, a little boy and a little girl. They greeted the earth with a kiss, and wherever they set their little feet, tiny white flowers pushed up from beneath the snow. Then the children ran hand in hand to the old man of ice, Winter, greeted and embraced him. At that moment they and he and all the field around them were hidden in a thick, damp mist that closed down like a dark, heavy veil. Then the wind rose gradually until it was roaring and drove away the mist with its heavy blast, so that the sun shone warmly, and Winter had vanished, while the beautiful children of spring on the throne of the year.
Wherever the two children turned, bushes and trees put forth new green buds, the grass shot upward, and the cornfields turned green and became more and more lovely. And the little maiden strewed flowers all around. She carried them in her apron up before her, and it was always full of them; indeed, they seemed to grow there, for her lap was always full, however wantonly she tossed the flowers about. In her eagerness she scattered a drifting snow of blossoms over the apple trees and peach trees, so that they burst forth in full beauty before their green leaves had fully shown themselves.
The forest still wore its dress of brown-green buds, but the fresh and fragrant bokar was already there. There were violets in abundance; anemones and primroses sprang up; and sap and strength were in each blade of grass. That grass was a marvelous carpet, on which no one could resist sitting, so the young spring couple sat hand in hand, and sang and smiled, and grew taller.
A mild rain fell down on them from heaven, but they scarcely noticed it, for the raindrops were mingled with their own tears of happiness. The bride and bridegroom kissed each other, and at that moment all the verdure of the woods was unfolded, and when the sun rose all the forest was green.
So the days and weeks went by, and the heat seemed to whirl down. The corn became more and more yellow as hot waves of air swirled through it. The great white water lily of the north spread its huge green leaves on the mirror surface of the lakes, and the fishes lingered in the shady spots beneath them. At the sheltered edge of the wood, where the sun beat down on the walls of the farmhouse, warming the blooming roses and the cherry trees laden with juicy black berries, which were almost hot from the fierce beams, there sat the lovely woman of summer. She it is whom we have seen as a child and as a bride.
And just as suddenly the rain died away to a few gentle drops, and the sun shone again. The droplets hung from the leaves like glittering pearls, and the birds sang; the fishes leaped from the surface of the lakes, and the gnats danced. And there on the rock in the warm sunshine, strengthened by the refreshing rain, sat Summer himself – a strong man with sturdy limbs and long, dripping hair. All nature seemed renewed; everything was luxuriant and beautiful. It was summer, warm, lovely summer.
The story of the year is told as the lives of the personified seasons. The Winter, an old man, awaits spring, which shall set him free. The spring comes from the South embodied by two children, a boy and a girl, carried by storks. The children embraces the Winter, as a father, and in a transformation he dies. The story is about the life of nature, anthropomorphized in Summer and his wife. By personifying nature in this manner, the soul is placed in nature, and nature in the soul. The life of men parallels the story of the year, and nature and the soul has an implicit longing for autumn/age and winter/death.
A thin layer of snow covered the green field, and then the church bells rang for the glad Christmas season.
"The birthday bells are ringing," said the Ruler of the year slowly. "Soon the new King and Queen will be born, and I shall go to my rest as my wife has done; my rest in the gleaming star."
And in the green fir wood, where the white snow lay, there stood the Angel of Christmas, and consecrated the young trees that would adorn the feast.
In a few weeks the Ruler of the year had become a very old man, white as snow. "May there be joy in the room and under the green branches," he said. "My time for rest draws nigh, and the young pair of the new year shall receive my crown and scepter."
"But you are still in power," said the Angel of Christmas, "and not yet shall you be granted rest. Let the snow lie close and warm upon the young seed. Learn to endure that another receive homage while you are still the Ruler. Learn to be forgotten and yet to live. The hour of your release shall come when spring appears!"
"And when will spring come?" said Winter.
"It will come when the stork returns!"
With white locks and snowy beard, cold, bent, and old, but still strong as the winter storm and firm as the glittering ice, old Winter sat high up on the snowdrift on the hill, his gaze fixed toward the south, just as the Winter before him had. The ice and snow creaked with the cold; the skaters skimmed over the smooth lakes; the black ravens and crows looked fine against the white ground; no breath of wind stirred. In that quiet air old Winter clenched his fists, and the ice was fathoms thick between land and land.