Snufkin always knew when it was time to take his leave. It wasn’t something he could easily explain, but it was easily felt. Wherever he found himself and however long he stayed there, he would wake up one morning with that light but certain feeling in his chest and he would know . He would break camp and pack his things before the birds were finished warming up their voices and be on his way without any thought of loneliness, only the anticipation of what he would find on the road before him. He never lingered, never felt the need for lengthy goodbyes.
So, as winter crept into the valley, Snufkin knew it was his time. But he was unable to leave.
Mymble, his sister, seemed far more reasonable to Snufkin. She had been the first to leave the Moominhouse, along with the Fillyjonk. He’d watched her brush out her lovely long hair and hum a song to herself that Snufkin thought perhaps sounded familiar to him, or perhaps he only liked to think so. She left her guest room without putting away the eiderdown or making her bed properly, as if she knew she would be back soon enough and pick up right where she left off.
“You will come back soon,” Snufkin said aloud. It wasn’t a question.
Mymble — no longer the Mymble’s daughter, just Mymble — replied with a shrug. “Oh, whenever I feel like it. That’s just how families are.”
Snufkin had realized then that he wouldn’t know what families were like at all. He just thought that he did.
When Mymble left, he wondered for the briefest moment if maybe he wanted to go with her. Maybe it would be nice to see all his little siblings. But maybe it wouldn’t be nice at all, he thought, feeling empty and cold. Maybe he would overstay his welcome there, too. Maybe he’d never quite find his way.
The moment passed and the Mymble said her goodbyes, planting a kiss on everyone’s nose as she passed by. When it was Snufkin’s turn, that cold and empty feeling seemed to dissolve into nothing as Mymble kissed him and adjusted his hat. “You can have my guest room now if it gets too cold in your tent, Snufkin.”
And something about the idea of needing her permission made Snufkin smile. “I’ll be all right,” he said. And then, awkwardly, “Thank you.”
Mymble smiled back at him and something about it all was terribly funny to them both, and so they laughed, quiet as if it was a joke meant for just the two of them.
The Fillyjonk smiled, too, and it made her look so different than she ever had before. Or maybe she wasn’t any different at all, Snufkin thought, and he had just never really bothered to look at her properly before.
When Mymble made her way over the bridge, the Fillyjonk followed close behind her, humming a song that Snufkin had never heard before, but thought was very lovely.
Grandpa Grumble was the next to go— though, he didn’t really leave at all. He curled up in the clothes cupboard and went to hibernate for the winter. The shards of the shattered mirror were still scattered across the floor when Snufkin found him, nestled cozily in the eiderdown, sleeping quite peacefully without a thought for the mess he left behind. But, Snufkin supposed, a person as old as Grandpa Grumble has probably cleaned up so many of other people’s messes over all the years that he is allowed to leave some for others to take care of from time to time.
One by one, as quietly as he could, Snufkin picked up the larger shards and dropped them into a sturdy paper bag, the way he’d once seen Moominpappa do. He caught glimpses of his own face every now and then, in bits and pieces — a pale cheek, the downturned corner of his mouth, a tuft of unkempt brown hair. He realized that he wasn’t sure when the last time he’d looked in a mirror was. He didn’t usually think much about it.
Just as Snufkin thought he was ready to go grab the broom to sweep up the remains, he caught something glinting in the corner of his eye, beneath the window. It seemed blindingly bright, reflecting the sunlight so strongly that the glass turned pure white. The last shard looked more jagged than the others, and he had to think carefully about the best way to pick it up. As he stood considering it, he realized that the mirror was not reflecting the sunlight at all. It was reflecting the barren white of winter that had blanketed the whole of the valley without Snufkin ever noticing it. Snufkin froze and was suddenly afraid of looking out the window.
Quite abruptly and without knowing why, Snufkin reached out and grabbed the mirror shard in his bare hand. It scratched his palm, but he was otherwise unscathed and relieved to see something other than that unbearable emptiness reflected back at him. But what looked back at him instead were his own eyes, wide and shocked at the sight of themselves. Dark circles hung heavily beneath them, and deeply etched lines that Snufkin had never noticed before spidered from the corners. For a moment, he thought wildly that they were cracks, that he would shatter next.
He threw the shard violently into the bag and heard it and several other pieces of glass break with the impact. Blood was smeared across his palm but it was not the pain that made his hand tremble.
He thought that, perhaps, he understood why Grandpa Grumble had broken the mirror.
The Hemulen fretted terribly over the cut, despite Snufkin’s assurances that it was very minor, after all, and he’d had much worse injuries. He helped himself to Moominmamma’s first aid kit — she always kept it in a cupboard by the front door, he remembered, so that anyone coming home from a misadventure would hardly need to take a single step into the house before being treated — and sat down at the kitchen table to attend to himself while the Hemulen wrung his hands and tutted to himself and was generally a bit irritating. In the end, Snufkin let the Hemulen bandage up the wound, if only to make the Hemulen feel better.
“You must be more careful!” the Hemulen chided him. He cleaned the wound so earnestly that it was a little endearing, despite the fact that he clearly wasn’t very practiced. Still, while Snufkin would have done a much quicker job, he would not have been as thorough. “The Fillyjonk was right, you know, about germs and bugs and such things. Living outdoors with a wound like that seems awfully dangerous.”
“Hasn’t killed me yet,” Snufkin shrugged, eyes glittering with a bit of humor for the first time in a long while. “But thank you, all the same.”
“Hmph, well.” The Hemulen looked a bit embarrassed as he pulled out the bandages from the kit, not knowing quite what to do with them. “Yes. Quite, I’m sure.”
And though the Hemulen didn’t know exactly what he was doing, though he bandaged Snufkin’s paw up much more than necessary, he saw it through to the end. He did the same later, in Moominpappa’s boat, out on the rough winter sea. He was afraid, he did not know what he was doing, but he still held tight to the rudder. He steered himself and Snufkin through choppy waters and then back to the safety of the shore. And Snufkin didn’t have words to explain what he felt in that moment, with the angry sea before him and the Hemulen behind him, bravely holding on. So he said nothing at all.
Even when the Hemulen said his goodbyes, Snufkin said nothing at all. He wasn’t good with words, not like the Hemulen and his poems. As Snufkin watched the Hemulen cross the bridge and disappear into the forest, he could only hope that he understood.
And then Toft asked bluntly, “When are you off?”
A part of Snufkin wanted to snap, then. To remind this boy that the Moomins weren’t just something that he imagined. To Snufkin, they were real . He loved them. He missed them. He had a right to be here and to stay as long as he pleased.
But he didn’t have it in him to be angry. So instead he replied softly, “It all depends.”
The sky and air were peaceful, but Snufkin could feel the storm coming. The air was thick with it. He knew that it wouldn’t be long until the snow came and buried everything and everyone in the valley. If he stayed much longer, something told him that he would not be able to leave.
And yet, leaving was no easier now with clear skies above him. There was something else that had buried him, and he couldn’t go until he’d dug himself out of it.
Snufkin had been in Moomintroll’s room only once before, when he went searching for answers. He had scoured every inch of the place, but he hadn’t truly looked at it. Truly been there.
He couldn’t say why he felt the need to go back there, nor why he had avoided doing so until now. But though he had done it so many times before, when he opened the door, it was with paws that felt numb and cold.
The Fillyjonk had tidied the room and almost made it feel as though someone really had lived there. The heavy layer of dust and Snufkin’s frantic, muddled boot prints were gone from the floor. The bed in the corner looked warm and inviting with its fresh clean blankets. The little writing desk by the window had been wiped down, and one of the vases from the living room had been set on top of it to make it look a little less lonely.
But even so, the room was missing something. There was only one bed, where there had once been two.
Snufkin sat at the foot of it, staring up at the name carved lovingly into the headboard.
They had taken Moomin’s bed with them, but not Snufkin’s. It made sense enough— after all, they had left all the other guest beds as well. Perhaps that was even more evidence that they planned on coming back and using the house again in the spring. That it wouldn’t be long until the Moominhouse was a place of respite again.
Still, Snufkin wished that they hadn’t left his bed. Not here.
Moomin had insisted that Snufkin’s bed be in his room. They had hibernated together that first winter in the valley, within arm’s length of each other. And though that was the last and only time Snufkin ever slept in that bed, Moomin refused to let anyone move it. All those years, it had always been there, waiting for him just in case he needed it. The ladder always hung in Moomin’s window, and though Moomin was the only one who ever used it, he never pulled it up. It stayed there as an unspoken invitation.
And now the window and the bed and the room were all empty, and Snufkin was alone as he’d spent his whole life wishing so desperately to be, but it meant nothing to him.
He started to feel something that he’d never felt before. Like something squirming under his skin, or like chewing on ice until his teeth hurt. He stood and moved to the writing desk, opening the drawer where he knew that Moomin had kept all his spring letters. Snufkin never understood why Moomin kept them, since they all said the same thing. Sleep well, keep your chin up, first warm Spring day you’ll have me back again. Snufkin wasn’t even sure what compelled him to write them in the first place. It had just become a routine, and the meaning had gotten lost somewhere along the way until the letters were nothing but scraps of paper to him. But never to Moomin.
There was nothing in the drawer. Moomin had taken the letters with him, wherever he’d gone.
“Empty,” Snufkin muttered, and that ugly feeling started to overwhelm him. He thought he might crawl out of his own skin.
“The bed, the drawer, the letters— empty, all empty!” He slammed the drawer shut, and the cut on his palm stung. “There’s nothing of me here, or anywhere. Nothing at all. Even the grass will grow back once I leave and it will be as though I was never here.”
He suddenly felt ill, stumbling back to the bed and burying his face in his hands.
Maybe I am nothing at all, Snufkin thought, and it was too dreadful to say aloud. Maybe I’m just as empty as this house.
And Moomin would have told him that wasn’t true, but that was because Moomin was kind. He knew nothing of emptiness, for he was full to bursting and it had been his nature to give and give without asking for anything in return. Which had served Snufkin well, he thought bitterly, as he had never had anything to give. He’d had the gall to act wise. What did Snufkin know about anything, in the end?
Moominmamma was wise. If she were here, what would she say? When the Hobgoblin’s hat had transfigured Moomintroll, she had still known him. She had known him so perfectly that he remembered himself again, too. What would she see if she looked at Snufkin? Had he ever given her or anyone else a chance to truly know him? Was there anything there to know?
She had loved him, Snufkin suddenly thought, clutching his head as he laid down on the bed and curled up, shivering. She had loved him, and so had Moomintroll, and Moominpappa. And Snufkin had repaid that love by feeling trapped and smothered and afraid because if you adore someone too much, you’ll never be free. Those were his own words, and they made him terribly angry now. The Moomins had given him freedom, accepting his willfulness, forgiving his sudden disappearances and reappearances, letting him pick up exactly where he left off every time he came around as if he had never gone away. Moomintroll left his ladder in the window and a warm bed in his room and Snufkin had been too embarrassed to admit what that meant to him.
The happy family had been this indestructible monument that Snufkin could always find his way back to. They had ceased to be their own people in his mind. He did not afford them the same freedom that they gave him. But they had it. They had always been free, and it was their right to disappear and go on their own adventures without him and even start a new life on the other side of the world if they wished to. And yet, instead of accepting that part of them as they had accepted him, now that they were gone, Snufkin desperately wanted them to come back.
It was mortifying, and it was painful, but he could not deny it as he lay there on the bed, curled in upon himself like Toft’s monstrous nummulite. He wanted them. And as sure as he was that they would come back, there was still the possibility that they wouldn’t. Was this what Moomintroll had gone through every winter? Even knowing that he would sleep through their time apart and only miss him for those few wakeful days, had he felt this crushing loneliness? He had endured it every year without complaint and Snufkin hadn’t realized.
Or perhaps Snufkin had known all along and just chose not to think about it because it made it easier to leave.
I am so selfish, Snufkin thought, and he hated himself so much that it hurt just to be him. They loved me. Me, who is empty and cold and has never truly loved anything.
And for the first time since the sea itself dried up, Snufkin wept. He buried his face in the Fillyjonk’s nice clean blankets and let himself mourn the happy family that had lived only in his imagination. He was no better than Toft. He knew nothing about anything at all, and so he cried.
And as he cried, the strangest thing happened. That ugly, hateful feeling started to drain from him along with his tears.
He cried and cried until all the things that were wrapped so tightly around his heart went slack and fell away, and he realized he could see a part of himself underneath it all. He was not empty at all. There was something buried deep, something that was his to keep or to give. Something that he had been giving all the other people in this house all this time.
He cried until he had no more tears to cry, and his body felt heavy and tired. For the first time that Snufkin could remember, he was grateful for a warm, soft bed. Grateful to the Moomins who had built it for him, and to the Fillyjonk who had washed the blankets even though he kept sleeping in his tent. He curled up beneath them, feeling safe, and went to sleep. And he only slept for a few minutes, but it felt as though he could sleep the winter away.
When he woke, it was still November, and he was still alone. But Snufkin knew what to do. He knew how to dig himself out of the snow.
Toft didn’t say anything right away when Snufkin came down the stairs. His face must have looked awful, all puffy and red from crying and from sleeping. But Toft was quiet. Perhaps even guilty.
“I’ll be going today,” Snufkin said softly, “I think.”
Toft nodded, still unable to meet Snufkin’s eye.
Snufkin considered asking what Toft would do, maybe even asking if he’d like to go with Snufkin, at least for a little while. But he already knew, somehow, that Toft would stay right here. All through the winter and however long it took. And his heart ached for the little boy with no mother, but he could not stay with him. He couldn’t be what Toft wanted.
“Well,” Snufkin coughed, turning on his heel. He wasn’t very good at goodbyes. If this whole experience had taught him anything, it was certainly that. “Be well, Toft. I’ll be back again soon.”
“It will be soon.”
Snufkin paused. He turned back around to face the boy, and saw that he was crying, big dewdrop tears rolling down his cheeks.
Snufkin looked as if he was going to say something, but then thought better of it. He approached Toft hesitantly, and then knelt down in front of him. Even so, Toft wouldn’t look at him.
“Soon, you’ll all be back here,” Toft sniffled. “It’ll be okay again. Not like it was before, but still all right.”
“...Is that what you imagine?” Snufkin asked gently.
Toft had no answer. He hiccupped and sniffled and tried not to sob. For once, Snufkin could see no trace of that anger that had dogged the boy. Like any angry child, Toft was simply frightened. He wanted answers. But Snufkin had none to give.
“...You’re right,” he said, even so. “It’s going to be all right.”
He didn’t know how long it would take, or what shape, but he knew that much. Perhaps, like Toft, he could imagine it until it became real.
Snufkin sat on the log by the mailbox with a pencil and paper, just as he did every fall. He sat and he thought and he let all those ugly, painful, wonderful feelings wash over him. They came and went as they pleased, until they had all run their courses and he felt as still inside as the cold, winter air.
He wrote, then. A simple letter, not unlike all the others he had written before, but also completely different. He read it over one more time before sealing it up and slipping it into the mailbox. And then he glanced back at the house one last time, with its dark, empty windows. No ladder hung from Moomintroll’s room, no hurricane lamp on the veranda. But he knew, now, the lie that was emptiness. He had seen what the house truly was, and it was not the happy family who had shown it to him. It was a different kind of family that filled that empty house, and filled Snufkin. When the Moomins came home, they would be another kind of family, too. And someday, Snufkin would find his place among them again, no matter how much things changed.
When Snufkin left the valley that day, it was not because he knew it was his time. It was because he was ready.
I didn’t leave you a spring letter this year, so I’ve come back to make things right. There are many things that I want to tell you when we both return. I don’t think a letter is the right place for them, but perhaps I will understand my own words better after some time to myself. I want to know what sort of things you’ve been thinking about, too, if you would share them. First warm spring day I’ll be here again, and I will stay and wait here for as long as you need me to, just as you’ve always done.