The smoke from Snufkin’s pipe curled into the clear night sky and as Moomin watched, he almost thought it could brush the stars. The river beside them seemed quiet tonight, but maybe that was just because Moomin only had ears for the tune Snufkin was humming between puffs of his pipe. It was rare for his friend to sing or hum or anything of the sort, and Moomin knew it was because he was lost in thought. For all his talk of silence, Snufkin liked to have some background noise to his wonderings. The song was gentle and a little sharp, much like his friend.
For some reason, he felt reluctant to break the tension of this moment. There was some strange sense of anticipation – or maybe foreboding – as he listened to Snufkin falter more and more over his tune until he finally sighed through his nose and took his longest drag of the pipe yet.
“It’s getting late,” Snufkin said.
Snufkin let out another sigh and laid back down in the grass, his hat perched over his eyes. Not to shut Moomin out, Moomin knew. Just to relax a little. The tension still hadn’t quite broken.
Moomin wished the river was a little louder.
“Your mama won’t be worried?”
“She knows I’m with you. Why should she be?”
He didn’t answer that, just fiddled a bit with the brim of his hat like he always did when he was troubled. And so Moomin plucked at the grass beside him, as he also did when he was troubled, and they were troubled together but it didn’t make them feel any better.
Moomin wasn’t sure why he was holding his breath. It felt like they were teetering on the verge of something that neither of them really understood. And so they kept teetering, even though it made them feel dizzy and sick.
He was glad when Snufkin broke the silence at last – reliable Snufkin who always knew just how to make him feel better – until he really understood what he’d said.
“Moomin… are you mad at me?”
“That’s–” Moomin stopped, realizing he didn’t really know what he meant to say. Was he angry? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that a lead weight had settled into the pit of his stomach on the first day of spring and had stayed there.
“...You were very late this year.”
Snufkin let out another breath, this time from between his teeth. He sat up and set his hat down between himself and Moomin, drawing his knees up to his chest. He glanced Moomin’s way for a moment, but quickly looked back at the river. “I know.”
“Was there any reason?”
“None in particular.”
It was Moomin’s turn to let out a sigh, and he caught Snufkin flinch just slightly out of the corner of his eye. When he really looked at Snufkin’s face without his hat, even in the flickering firelight, he could see that his eyes were tired and dull. When did that happen? When Moomin first met him, Snufkin had been so full of joy even when the comet turned the skies red and dried up the seas. He’d taught songs to grasshoppers and crossed the sea on stilts and his eyes glittered with garnets and stars and all the things he’d found in his travels. Now he was quiet and gruff and Moomin rarely knew what he was thinking. When did he start looking so sad?
The answer was, of course, that it was after he started staying in Moominvalley, but Moomin didn’t like to think about that.
“We were worried,” he said quietly, and Snufkin closed his eyes and set his jaw.
“You don’t have to worry about me. You know that you don’t.”
“But we do anyway.”
Snufkin’s shoulders stiffened at that, and Moomin felt a little guilty. There was a part of him that said it just because he knew it was what Snufkin least wanted to hear. And he also knew it was exactly why Snufkin dragged his feet coming back this year, and why his new Spring song had fluttered and faltered like distant birdsong carried on the wind.
“Well, I’m sorry.” Snufkin said it curtly, probably more than he intended. He was uncharacteristically fidgety, his fingers lacing and unlacing around his shins and his brow furrowed by frustration – with what, Moomin doubted even Snufkin knew.
It was the same face he’d seen the last time the Joxter came to visit, just before Snufkin ran off to the river after less than ten minutes talking to his father. When the Joxter promptly curled up on the front porch for a nap in the sun, Moomin had felt some vague worry that prompted him to sit beside him while he watched Snufkin’s hat in the distance, bobbing down the hill.
It’s quite all right, boy, the Joxter had murmured, startling Moomin out of his thoughts. It doesn’t wound me like you think.
Why not? Moomin had asked, not thinking.
And the Joxter had smiled at him a little wryly. It would do you well to remember that you can love many things at once, little Moomintroll. You just… can’t always have them all at once.
His words rang in Moomin’s ears as he watched Snufkin follow the river with dark eyes, down the hill into the forest and between the mountains, which were barely visible in the hazy summer night. He loved his travels. He loved the valley. He loved his father and mother and thirty four siblings, whose names he knew all by heart.
He could not have all at once, try as he might.
And in that sense, he could not have any of them. It was easy enough for Snufkin to carry the memory of a pretty stone and remember that it would still be there the next time he passed by the ravine where he found it. It was not so easy to do this with people. Moomin knew this, because he had tried plenty of times in those long days between winter and spring to think on his memories of Snufkin and remember that soon things would go right back to how they were for the other 275 days of the year. And every year, Snufkin came back with some new and unfamiliar facet and Moomin’s heart felt heavy.
“Do you not want to come back?”
Snufkin’s eyes went wide, but he still couldn’t bring himself to look at Moomin. He looked pale in the light of his little campfire – the site of which Moomin had had to help him clear because in his absence, the grass had begun to grow again as if Snufkin had never been there.
“Why would you even ask such a thing?”
Moomin smoothed the hair at the end of his tail, as his mother used to do when he was small and frightened. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to– ah, forget it,” Snufkin mumbled, lying back down on his side with his back to Moomin. It didn’t seem like an end to the conversation, though. Like his hat, Moomin knew it was just Snufkin’s way of collecting himself. He didn’t like to feel people’s eyes on him when he was trying to think.
Moomin picked up the hat from between them and fiddled with the hem in the same manner as Snufkin, wondering if maybe it would make him feel better, but he only felt sad to see how tattered it was and know that Snufkin would not let him or Mama or anyone else mend it.
“...It’s not that I don’t want to come back,” he finally said, his voice as soft as feathers. “I just… I don’t know what I want, Moomin.”
Moomin didn’t reply, just laid down where he sat beside Snufkin, facing the stars above.
“I never used to miss things,” Snufkin continued, his voice growing softer with every word. “Or worry about anybody missing me. But now… no matter where I am, I’m always worrying about someplace else. I feel so restless, but it doesn’t help to wander. It feels like… like I’ve left my heart behind somewhere and I don’t know where.” He curled in on himself a little, as if the muggy summer air had somehow given him a chill. “I don’t know if I’ll ever really find it again.”
Which is why I can’t give it to you , remained unspoken, but understood.
Moomin hugged Snufkin’s stupid old hat close. His throat felt tight.
“I don’t belong here, Moomin.” His voice was so quiet it could have been cricketsong. “I’m not supposed to belong to any place.”
“...But you still come back.”
“If I didn’t, you would be sad.” He tucked an arm under his head, and Moomin could have reached out and touched his hand. He didn’t. “So would your Mama and Papa and Sniff and Little My. And my Mama and Papa might never be able to find me again.”
“So you’re stuck.”
Snufkin finally glanced over at him at that, rolling over to face his friend. His face looked pained. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then how did you mean it?”
“I just–” He didn’t seem to have an answer. He just laid in the grass and watched Moomin’s paws turn the hat over and over and over again. He didn’t move to take it back.
“If you don’t want me to wait up for you, then I won’t.”
“You will, too. I know you.”
“Not if you say you won’t come back.”
Snufkin swallowed, and Moomin’s stomach turned with guilt. Why did he always say such stupid things that troubled them both? Snufkin was always so careful to avoid these sorts of talks. As long as he came back every year, they could pretend that he always would. And now here was Moomin, mucking it all up. For what? To get back at Snufkin for making him wait a little while? Why did he always feel like such a child around him? He already knew what Snufkin would say next before he’d even opened his mouth, and he knew it was his own fault.
“...Do you not want me to?”
No. That was all he had to say. No, I don’t think I like you very much anymore and I wish you would go away. And then Snufkin would pack up his tent and his pole and his songs and Moomin would give him his hat back and that would be the end of it. He would follow the river back through the mountains to wherever the birds called him, and maybe he would have just one little piece of his heart back to himself and himself alone. He would be a little freer.
But the words stuck in the back of his mouth like too much peanut butter and his throat felt too tight and something hot pricked his eyes and started trailing down his fuzzy cheeks before he could stop it. His breaths were harsh and halting and he found it hard to choke back the sob building in his chest. He had come undone and there was no pulling himself back together. He really was a child.
Snufkin reached out and wiped his friend’s eye, and for the first time since the sea itself had dried up, Moomin saw his lip tremble.
Moomin grabbed his hand and just… held it. He sat up with Snufkin’s help, and Snufkin lent him his shoulder to cry on, as he always did.
“I’m sorry ,” Moomin sniffled, burying his snout in the crook of Snufkin’s neck. “I– I know I shouldn’t– I want to let go. I can’t but I want to.”
“Don’t,” Snufkin said quietly. “I don’t want you to. I don’t know what I do want, but I don’t want that.”
“Then– hic – then what should I do?”
Snufkin picked up his hat from where Moomin had dropped it and plopped it on the little troll’s head. “Just… forgive me if you can. And don’t be sad. Even when I drag my feet, I– I’ll get here eventually, you know.”
He reached out slowly, hesitantly, and gave Moomin a hug. “I’m sorry I made you cry.”
Moomin wrapped his paws around Snufkin and shook his head. “I’m sorry I made you cry.”
Snufkin clicked his tongue in annoyance, as if that would somehow make the night sky stop going blurry and his chest stop feeling tight.
“S’ok. It’s a good kind of cry, probably.”
When Moominmamma went to bring breakfast to Snufkin’s tent the next morning, she found the two of them curled up together like cats in the grass. She fetched the blanket from the tent and tucked it around their shoulders, but decided not to wake them. They seemed too content.