NOW writer’s short story wins silver for National Magazine Award: The Museum of Winter

Love it or curse it, winter is a defining feature of life in Canada, but we are seeing it change and recede as the climate crisis takes its toll. This story imagines a future where the season has disappeared entirely. What remains when the snow is gone for good?

— The author, our winter ambassador and Creative Specialist, Willy Blomme.

First published in the Winter 2021-2022 edition (Vol 42, No. 4) of Prairie Fire. The Museum of Winter won silver in 2023 National Magazine Award for Fiction. You can see the full list of 2023 winners here.

THE MUSEUM HAD JUST CLOSED ITS DOORS . This was Clara’s favourite time of the day. Now the museum belonged to her. Well, not really, but it felt like it. She was the only staff person who regularly, almost religiously, took this time to visit the museum herself.

She varied her route every day. Tonight, she started in the sports and recreation exhibit. She loved the variety of shapes and sizes of the equipment. Skates with long blades, short blades, and blades with a little serrated pick at the front. There were even blades that strapped on to your shoes, although those always looked precarious to her. There were fat skis for going down hills and thin, elegant skis for going cross-country. There were various snowshoes and toboggans, and even a model snowman and a snow fort, with a pile of snowballs displayed next to it. Clara paused to watch the video beside the display. An old movie was playing; two groups of kids faced off in an epic snowball battle. She smiled as a snowball smacked one of the mean kids in the back of the head, but hurried on before getting drawn into the scene with the dog.

Clara meandered through the home exhibit, pausing in front of the pink foam insulation. One of the other conservators had told her that it was prickly to the touch, but that never computed for her when she looked at the soft, pink, cloudlike substance on display. She had dawdled too long, so tonight she skipped the other exhibits. She wanted to have enough time in the weather exhibit before security turned the lights out.

The weather exhibit is where she ended every nightly tour. It was her favourite room in the museum. On the walls were an assortment of old thermostats, diagrams about precipitation, and photographs of blizzards and ice storms. But it was the item in the middle of the room that drew her. On top of a pedestal, in a hermetically sealed and temperature-controlled glass box, a single snowflake was displayed. It hung there—or floated there, Clara was never sure which was more accurate—tiny, delicate and fragile, yet it dominated the room. It commanded attention, drawing you in as you approached it and tugging at you as you walked away.

As she did most nights, Clara lifted the magnifying glass that hung on one side of the pedestal to study the snowflake more closely. From the central node, six points spread out, adorned with smaller lines and diamond shapes. The effect reminded her of the Victorian chandeliers she had seen in one of her history textbooks. Putting the magnifying glass back, she rubbed her inner forearm where a replica of the snowflake was tattooed.

The hermetically sealed box contained the only snowflake Clara had ever seen.

In the final years of winter everyone knew that the writing was on the wall. They had waited too long and there was now nothing they could do. Some mourned and a few held ceremonies to mark the end and pay their respects. But most were too busy dealing with other upheavals to pay any particular attention to the death of the season. As winter neared its end, a small group of scientists considered it to be their duty to preserve what they could of the season. They were based mostly in northern countries, places once defined by the cold that they endured for months at a time. The preservation effort was spearheaded by a retired director of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. She reached out to former colleagues and assembled teams in various countries. During the last snowfalls these teams went out with their equipment and captured as much snow as they could. Most of the collected snow was now stored in underground vaults in the Yukon and Siberia and managed by the Climate Trust, but a few specimens had been donated to museums and universities for educational purposes. Only six snowflakes were on public display in the world, at museums in Moscow, Lillehammer, Asahikawa, Buffalo, Harbin and Clara’s own Museum of Winter in Winnipeg. For several years there had also been a museum in Anchorage, but sea level rise had forced it to close, along with most of the city.

“How is your snowflake today?” Clara asked Nakata.

Nakata was a curator at the museum in Asahikawa. He had reached out to the other museums for help with a project he was working on. Since the staff couldn’t travel, the museums tried to share information and ideas as best they could through other means. Clara had been tasked by her museum to help with Nakata’s project.

“I’m focusing on stem number three today,” Nakata replied. “It’s shorter than the others. I know that the science tells us snowflakes weren’t always perfectly symmetrical, but the other five stems are so meticulously balanced that I can’t help wondering if stem number three was damaged when it was being transported to the museum.”

“Mine isn’t perfect either. One of the lines on stem six is broken.”

“Are you sure that’s not just your tattoo? Maybe the tattoo artist screwed up.”

Clara usually kept her tattoo tucked up under her sleeve. She wasn’t embarrassed about it, it was just that it felt personal. But she had shown it to Nakata.

“No! It’s an exact replica!” Clara insisted. “Well, a little bigger than the original, but otherwise exactly the same.”

She had taken a high-resolution image of her snowflake to the tattoo artist. The details were much like what she saw when she studied the snowflake through the magnifying glass. After he traced the design on her forearm, Clara asked the tattoo artist if he could chill the needle.

“So, how does the imperfect symmetry of stem three help with your simulator?” Clara asked Nakata.

“It means that I need to program the machine to produce both perfect and imperfect snowflakes. I’m trying to work out the ratio.”

They spoke like this a lot. At the end of her work day and the beginning of his. Or the other way around. They both spent long hours at their museums, so it wasn’t hard to overcome the fifteen-hour time difference.

“I don’t think I’d like mine as much if it were perfect, but then, I’ve never spent any time with a snowflake that is perfect. Doesn’t Moscow have a perfect one?”

“Yes, it does. Alexey sent me all the scientific data, but he doesn’t spend as much time with his snowflake, so I don’t really have a feel for it.”

Nakata’s museum was working on an exhibit that would allow visitors to step into winter. To make this experience complete, Nakata was building a snowfall simulator. There would be three settings: light snowfall, heavy snowfall and blizzard. For an extra fee, visitors could borrow the museum’s clothing and bundle up against the cold.

Nakata was determined to get every detail right—the weight of the snow in the different settings, the speed with which it fell, the feel of it underfoot. And the sound. Especially the sound. He had read about how a fresh snowfall muffled the sound of a city, transforming the constant cacophony into a cocooning calm. He wanted to devise a way to recreate that. He was fairly sure that understanding the structure of snowflakes was the key. That was why he had reached out to his colleagues. He needed their data, but he also wanted their insights. He had been disappointed by most of their responses. Except Clara’s.

Clara had trained as a mechanic. She was meticulous about details, but also saw the big picture, which made her a good one. She liked solving puzzles and working with her hands. That is what had drawn her to the profession in the first place. But after eight years of fixing machines she had become restless. The problems were getting repetitive and she was getting bored. One day, an older man came into her shop asking for her help. The snowplow at his museum was no longer working. Could she come by and take a look?
“The what?” Clara asked him, confused.
“The snowplow,” the man repeated. “It’s a vehicle that was used to clear snow from the streets, back when we had winter.”

“Why would you want me to repair that?”

“It’s in my museum’s mandate to preserve the relics of winter. We try to keep all of our artifacts in working order.”

Clara thought that it sounded silly—both the museum and the idea of fixing an obsolete machine—but she agreed to come take a look later that week anyway.

Marshall met her in the front lobby and insisted on taking her on a tour before she got down to work. He claimed that it would help her understand the purpose of the machine and the importance of repairing it.

They started in the clothing exhibit. Marshall showed her parkas, mittens, scarves, toques and balaclavas. He showed her winter boots—from the daintier variety for warmer days to the huge spacesuit-like variety for the really frigid days. He showed her wool socks and thermal socks, and the plastic bags some people would wear over their socks if their boots leaked. He showed her snow pants, snowsuits and snow goggles.

“Look at this. A full suit that they wore under their clothes, like a second skin, for insulation. They called them long johns. What a funny name, eh? And check this out.”

Marshall pointed to a flap at the crotch.

“It must have been a huge hassle getting undressed to go to the bathroom. Not to mention chilly. So they created a shortcut. For the men, anyway.”

Before going in to the transportation exhibit, where Marshall would show Clara the snowplow, he took her to the weather exhibit.

“What is that?” Clara asked him, pointing to the box on the pedestal.

“Ah, that is the museum’s prized possession,” Marshall said with a flourish. “That is a snowflake.”

Clara stepped closer and examined it intently. She circled the pedestal, observing the delicate designs shifting as she moved.

“If you look carefully,” Marshall told her, “you will see that the snowflake is in fact blue.”

“Blue?” Clara turned to look at Marshall to see if he was teasing her.

“But I thought snow was white. That’s what all the stories we had to read in school said. They were always talking about blankets of white snow. I never got that—how could something cold be a blanket?”

“Ah yes, the snow was white, but snowflakes were blue.” Marshall grinned, pleased with this turn of phrase. Clara turned back to the snowflake. It looked white to her. She leaned in closer. Still white.

Clara visited the snowflake every evening of the two weeks she came to work on the snowplow. It shouldn’t have taken her that long; they had found an old manual in the cab and the problem was pretty straightforward, but she needed to replace a part and of course there weren’t any replacement parts lying around. She was used to that and was actually pretty good at “MacGyvering” a solution, an old technique that mechanics were taught in their third year of classes. This time though, it took her longer than usual. Perhaps because Marshall came by for a chat nearly every night. Or because he brought round various other broken objects for her to examine. Or maybe because of her nightly visits to the snowflake.

“I see the blue now.” Clara was in Marshall’s office, settling up her payment.

“You what?”

“I see the blue in the snowflake. I didn’t at first, but if you look at it long enough, you see it. The colour starts to creep in from the edges, then you realize that the whole thing is blue. A subtle, very light blue. But definitely blue.”

Marshall swivelled his seat away from the screen to face her.

“How would you like to come work here?”

Clara paused, considering her answer.

“What would I do? I’ve already fixed your snowplow. Do you have a lot of other machines that need to be repaired?”

“Some. And we have a whole museum full of objects that need to be cared for. You could apprentice to be a conservator here with me. There is no conservation course at the University of Manitoba. And you don’t want to waste your travel quotas to go to the University of Toronto. But you learn just as much through an apprenticeship. That’s how I did it. Besides, you seem like a hands-on learner.”

“Have you seen the blue yet?” Clara asked Nakata.

“No,” he replied, frustrated. “Maybe only Canadian snowflakes are blue.”

Clara laughed.

“Right. A way to tell them apart in case they get mixed up with the others.”

Nakata glared at her through the screen.

“You just have to keep looking. It takes time. The snowflake has to let you in,” Clara said, teasing him.

“I think you guys just have weird lighting in Winnipeg. You’re trying to convince the rest of us that snowflakes are blue so you don’t think something is wrong with your museum. Or with you.”

Clara liked the way Nakata said “Winnipeg.” Carefully, pausing on the “n”s, like he wasn’t sure if he should go on. She had noticed it on the first video meeting they all had together, when Nakata had introduced them, one by one, along with their institutions. At his request, they had each set up their cameras so that both they and their snowflake were in the shot. It was a bit ridiculous. The snowflakes were far too small to be discernible on the screen and the occasional visitor wandered through the shots in Lillehammer and Moscow. But Clara understood the symbolism of the gesture, so she didn’t object.

“I am happy to send you all the data we have on our snowflake,” Alexey had offered. “I can also send you the report that one of my colleagues wrote a couple years ago after visiting the vault in Siberia. The university got permission to do a study there—to do research into a new technique to cool the city. The researchers invited our senior conservator to join them. She wrote a comprehensive report when she returned.”

Alexey had waited for a boy and his grandmother to leave his exhibit room before making this offer. He was uncomfortable with the setup, but since nobody else had objected he let his curiosity trump his reticence. He didn’t get to speak to the staff at the other museums very often. Frankly, he didn’t get to speak to anyone outside of Moscow very often. Natalia, the head conservator, generally represented the museum when the conservation department’s expertise was required at external meetings. That’s how she had been invited on the trip to Siberia. Alexey understood, but he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t jealous. He was desperate to see the world outside of Moscow. Five years ago, he had collected enough travel quotas to make the trip to Kiev. He had spent a month there, drinking in every little detail. He walked around the city almost every day, covering as much ground as possible. He was saving up the novelty to sustain him when he returned home. He would gladly have stayed there much longer (for good, even), but he couldn’t leave his mother to care for his father on her own.

“Natalia told me that the snow smelled clean.” Alexey surprised himself by sharing this detail. “It isn’t in her report, but she told me that when she was in the room with the snow it smelled cleaner even than our labs here at the museum. There was less to smell, she said. Like odour itself was missing.”

Alexey wasn’t sure where he was going with this and suddenly felt self-conscious.

“So, ah, maybe that’s something you can try recreating with your simulator.”

Nakata had thanked Alexey warmly for that detail and told the group this was exactly the kind of observation he was looking for. He explained that he was trying to create a fully immersive experience. It needed to be as authentic as possible.

“But why?” Clara had asked. Mostly to hear Nakata explain what she guessed herself to be agreeing with already.

Nakata hadn’t intended to explain the real reason to the others, but decided that it was what was called for in this moment.

“Our museum’s mission is to advance knowledge and foster an appreciation of winter. Winter was an important part of our climate and culture before the Change. Now that Asahikawa is stabilized we can turn our attention to honouring that past, much like you do at your museums. We aim to be as thorough and as authentic as possible in everything we do, but we are also trying to innovate and the director thinks that an immersive exhibit will draw more visitors. He convinced the government to fund the project and include it as a module in the history curriculum for school children. But I also have a personal interest in this project. My great-grandmother collected stories and artifacts about winter. They were passed on to my grandmother and then to my father. When this museum opened we decided to donate them because we felt that they could serve their purpose better here. I chose to come work here when we donated her collection. Making this simulator as accurate as possible is my way of carrying on her act of remembrance.”

When Clara was a teenager the waters from the great floods had started to recede. She liked to go down to the old abandoned neighbourhoods that had emerged. She would spend hours exploring the remnants of houses and stores in Osborne Village and the Exchange District. When she suggested to one of her friends from school that he join her he looked at her with such bewilderment, verging on disdain, that she never broached the subject again with him, or with any of her other classmates.

Winnipeg hadn’t suffered as badly as some cities during the Change. For one thing, it survived. Its location saw to that. It was smack dab in the middle of the continent, far from the oceans. Its rivers burst their banks, but they didn’t sweep the city away. And it was pretty far north, so things got hot, but the roads didn’t melt. In the summer, which lasted half the year, they had to be careful what time they went outside, but they could go out. At least in the early morning or evening. By the time Clara was born, extreme weather events were declining. They were able to start stabilizing the city. Next step: reclaim. This was the mission that she and her peers had been given. But she had never taken to it. At least not the way she was expected to. She wasn’t interested in just reclaiming devastated land so that they could extend their city on it. She wanted to know what had been there before. Who—and what—had lived there. And what they had felt.

“Do you think we can mourn something we have never known?” Clara asked Nakata.

“I don’t know.”

“Sometimes I think that’s what we’re doing. Not just preserving or studying the past, but really mourning. Like maybe losing winter was so huge that it will take many generations to mourn it properly. Look at your family. You are carrying on the act of mourning that your great-grandmother began.”

“For me it has always been about honouring the past. There are things that happened in the past, things done by our ancestors or things they went through, that shaped them, and continue to shape us, in ways we can’t understand, not unless we look for the traces. Winter, and the cold, they left their mark. We may not know what they feel like, but these experiences still shape us.”

“Is that why you’re building the simulator?”

“No. But I suppose it is why I am trying so hard to get the details right.”

And what if you get them wrong?”

“I guess we just won’t know,” Nakata replied softly.
Clara considered this.

“I would like to test out your simulator.”

“That would cost you a lifetime of travel quotas!”

It would. Clara had checked. If she cashed in her quotas for the next thirty-five years she could make the trip from Winnipeg to Asahikawa. She just couldn’t come back.

“I would try the heavy snowfall setting first, with the big, fat snowflakes. I’d let the snow pile up on my shoulders, on my head, get into my hair and on my eyelashes. Then I would stick out my tongue, catch a snowflake, and taste it.”

That night Clara skipped the other exhibits and went straight to the weather exhibit. She brought a chair with her this time and carefully placed it facing the box on the pedestal, where she sat until well after security turned off the lights.