The tall pines were the last to let go of their white load of snow. The children knew that and they admired the pine trees for being clever enough to have those thin hard spikes pointing upwards all along the spine of its leaves and branches. That’s what allowed them to be the first to trap and hold the snow, and also the last to let it go. And that’s why, when the last snow of the winters fell, something the children by now knew from a few seasons of watching with disappointment the thinning flakes coming down alongside rain, the hill face that had the greatest number of these trees also saw the greatest number of children darting about in their colourful mittens and unmatched socks and hand-knitted sweaters and caps in all sizes and shapes. Every garment gave further proof that each was picked in haste and without adult supervision, and with utter disregard for any logical voice trying to set things right. The hills that would light up with bright red rhododendrons in summers and would attract the same set for the tangy taste that the petals of each offered, were now their chosen destination for making it snow long after clouds had done their best. The act involved hurtling stones, pine cones, snowballs and anything that would go as far as the highest branches, and hit them so that they shed the powdery white remains of the snow under which the children would dance and dart about, trying to catch the most of it before it fell on the ground below.
It was on a day like this when T, the little girl who owed her knowledge of such important things to her slightly older brother, managed to get her shoe stuck on one of the branches. Between sobs and between hopping on the foot that was still warm and dry in the one shoe left on her person, she explained to the other children how after looking around for a suitable stone and finding that they had all been commissioned by the older children she had settled on her shoe for a projectile. Seeing that her explanation was met with expressions and looks that were more admonishing that sympathetic, she added a footnote to it, saying that it wasn’t in her first attempt that she had lost the shoe, but only after repeated attempts. T’s brother was among the oldest children in the group, and when he sided up with his crying sister, the rest followed suit. So that soon the popular game was abandoned in favour of trying to get the shoe down, which in itself was no less adventurous. You could make it snow by just about hitting anywhere with anything. But a single shoe perched on a particular branch offered a bigger challenge. And it was decided that they all form teams to walk in all directions and collect stones and twigs and pinecones to stock up their arsenal before commencing attack. But before that, something for T to put her foot down on had to be found. Someone found a little flat rock that was too big to be thrown at the tree, and a few children gathered leaves and dry pine twigs from under little openings in the hill where the snow hadn’t penetrated. Soon T was standing with one foot in a shoe and the other on a stone layered with dry flora. Seeing all the children darting about in all directions in pursuit of their plan to help her had put a stop to her crying, But she was still unsure about their success as her eyes kept going up to where the shoe was, and to her tiny frame it looked really far above.
Soon, the children had gathered quite a few things to throw at the tree, and the next stage of the operation was now put in action. Having ensured that they had all taken positions such that the stones and twigs and cones would all go to the other side of the trees and not end up on their heads, they started doing what they were all good at. Initially, they all picked things and threw them at random, but as some of these deflected each other out of the way of the target, and a few managed to make it snow, and most went harmlessly to the other side, they realised they would have to be thrifty with their ammunition. T’s older brother called a halt to the activity, stole a worried glance at his sister who was on the verge of beginning to sob again, and directed only the proven chuckers to take aims, this time with deliberate care. The four eldest boys and two girls picked the last few remaining stones and weighed them in their hands. The best had already been lost on the other side of the hill, and trying to find them again was impossible, as the sky was already beginning to take on shades of a darker grey. The days were short at this time of the year, and the clouds were still around. The six children started to take aim and fire. The first missed and the second missed too. And with each miss the pressure on the remaining children grew, making them tense and taking the joy of their game away. They had never had to do this in such conditions, watched by their friends, their actions in danger of being classified as failure. They were taking extra care, and having shouted at those who had failed before them, worried about having to face them too. All this finally led to the last boy — T’s brother — left holding a misshapen rock in hand. The little red shoe shone teasingly from between the white of the snow and green of the branch. The boy turned to see the children looking at him, and then turned to his sister who was back to sobbing, and suddenly the brotherly love left the young boy and was replaced with the pressure of expectations and he buckled. Shouting at his sister for being such a fool, he tried to rally the children behind him, building his defences for a possible — and probable — failure. But the children had all done their bit, and had already been called out for not having a good arm or sense, and they weren’t going to let him off now. One of the girls and one of the boys went and comforted T. One of the boys tauntingly offered to take the shot instead. One of the girls offered to carry T on her back all the way home. So that the brother was left with no choice but to take his shot and face his friends. A small part in him knew that he could still hit the shoe and not just redeem the shoe and himself, he could also earn the right to lead them in their other activities. But he wasn’t counting on it. Not with the sister looking at the shoe, and the others looking at him. It was cold under the gathering cloud cover and the snow around and the wind that swept down the hill but he could feel his ears grow warm under his cap. He looked up at the shoe, then at the rock in his hand. And he threw it with all his might and closed his eyes. T also had shut her eyes, and so had all the other children. The sight of the stone closing the gap between itself and the shoe was too much for them to watch.
A soft sound of something falling on the ground over the thin layer of the last snow of the season and the sprinkle of snow on his face made him open his eyes. It seemed like everybody had heard that sound, or felt the drizzle on their faces and had all opened their eyes together. The shoe lay in front of him, and in disbelief they looked at where it had been. On the branch where the shoe had been a few moments back there sat a big black form of a bird. Few birds stuck around in these areas during winters. They preferred warmer climes and would return when the cold winds left. But there were always a few big black birds that the children thought were eagles and the elders would deny there were such majestic birds around and would call them crows that were too lazy to fly away. One of these now sat on the branch, looking down at the commotion. It watched for a moment, shook its wings and took flight. The children all watched it swoop over the hill and disappear in the valley below, where their stones had disappeared a few minutes back. And then a child shouted out in glee. It was T, and without regard for the sock that had been protected so far from the snow and its lingering wetness, darted to where her shoe lay and slipped it on. She now hopped around on both her feet, and was the first to start running towards the little cemented path that led to the clock tower from where they would run through the bazaar and back to their homes. Everyone else followed. It was getting late. And they were left with nothing to say or do. Neither could claim victory. Neither could demand an apology from the other. Neither knew if it was the stone that did it, or the bird. But one thing they all knew in their hearts — that their little game had lost a little of the joy they had always felt. And they were all glad, for the first time in their lives, that it was the last snow of the season.