Once upon a winter, there lived a woodcutter and his family, deep in the forest, far from the nearest neighbor, and farther still from the nearest village.

The woodcutter’s child was raised alone with nature as his only friend. He showed great affection and small mercies to animals and plants alike.

The winter of his ninth year descended fierce and unrelenting. So unrelenting that his father had to work twice as hard to keep a fire in the hearth. So unrelenting that his mother could scarcely be coaxed into allowing him outside to build a snowman.

But relent she did and build he did, the cold seeping through gloves and boots but not stopping him until the snowman was ready for the finishing touches.

Two lumps of coal from his father’s fireplace bucket for the eyes.

A string of cranberries from his mother’s pennywise pantry for the mouth.

A pair of branches from a nearby eucalyptus tree for the arms.

When he was finished, he went into the house, climbed into his chair beside the living room window, and in spite of the windowpane between them, he read to the snowman until it was time for supper.

Later that night, he woke with a cough and by the next morning, a cold had set in.

His parents worried over him at the breakfast table. His father promised to bring coal for the fire from the traders. His mother promised to bring medicine for his cold from the neighbors.

His father tucked his blankets before taking the sled and heading for the outpost. His mother kissed his forehead before lacing the snowshoes and setting out for the neighbors.

All fell silent, inside the house and out, and remained silent until the midday sun pierced the storm clouds and a plump cardinal landed on the snowman and sang. Animals gathered around the snowman and when the song was done, they began to work.

A blue jay pecked at the latch on the kitchen window until it opened.

A pair of squirrels took the lumps of coal from the snowman’s eyes, carried them through the window, and popped them into the stove, to fuel the fire.

A raccoon dug snow from the snowman’s chest and put it in the stovetop kettle so it would melt into water.

A flock of sparrows took the berries from the snowman’s mouth and the leaves from his arms to put into the kettle to steep into tea.

Once the healing tea was brewing, the animals scurried to finish their work.

A pair of hares dragged two small pinecones up the snowy body to replace the coal eyes.

A family of mice hauled sunflower shells up the snowy body to replace the berry mouth.

By the time the kettle whistled, the snowman had been rebuilt and the animals had returned to the forest.

The boy woke, wrapped a blanket about his shoulders, went to the kitchen and took the kettle off the burner. He poured a cup of tea and warmed his hands at the stove while the tea cooled enough that he could drink it.

When his cup was empty, he got into his living room chair and peered out at the snowman. He smiled in wonder at the newly arranged face and the heart-shaped hole. Then he opened his book and read to the snowman until he fell into a restful sleep.

When his mother arrived home with the medicine, she found the boy’s fever had broken.

When his father arrived home with the coal, he found his family warm and well.

When his parents tucked him into bed after supper, he hugged them close.

And long after they’d turned out the lights, he whispered his thanks to the forest, whose secrets he knew, as all best friends do.

Once upon a winter, there lived a woodcutter and his family, deep in the forest … and they live there still, for such good friends are so very hard to find.