On a long ago Christmas Eve a bird, late in flying south, saw an impossible thing. Flustered, he landed in a wood near a city and went to a cottage with a warm hearth and a mad old woman and a beautiful young girl.
The woman was a witch.
The girl was something else.
The bird looked through the cottage window and saw the girl locked away alone in her room, away from the warmth of the fire, away from the company of the witch, away even from herself.
Shivering, she stared out the frosted window and saw a most remarkable, impossible thing: a snow sparrow, which does not exist, looking in. She opened the window. The bird gave her his coat of feathers to warm her. There seemed to be so few on so small a bird, but they were expanded to be enough for the girl. She said, “I’ve seen an impossible thing.”
“So have I,” said the bird.
When the witch heard this, she grew angry. She cast the girl out into the cold of midnight on that long ago Christmas Eve, and she magicked the bird so that his featherless wings became like arms and his head sprouted hair. Then she gave him a name to ground him to the earth and cast him, too, into the night, with money enough for a train ticket and nothing more.
He traveled south. The money didn’t take him far, so he wasn’t always able to travel by train and was often stranded in a single place for months at a time. On Christmas Eve, he would search the sky for an impossible thing, and he stayed alive by trading his tales for hot chocolate.
One Christmas Eve, he came to a bar in a southern town, shivering from the cold. Even in the south the cold can penetrate your hollow bones. The patrons, the night before Christmas, were also lost, but they had for this night found each other and that was enough. They traded stories and warm drinks until the stroke of midnight, when a great many of them bowed their heads. He, however, looked up — though he saw only a stone ceiling and wood rafters.
The door burst open, and a woman stood there: tall and stately and severe, with raven hair and ruby lips and a coat of gorgeous white feathers. She extended her hand to him — he’d been spinning his stories and drinking cocoa through the night. She said, “Long ago, I saw an impossible thing.”
“So did I.”
“You,” she said, “are my impossible thing.”
Only then did he recognize her, so many years since his last flight. “You are my shivering girl.” She smiled, but the smile wasn’t meant for the bartenders or the lost souls in the room; it wasn’t meant for anyone else but him. She shrugged out of the coat and offered it to him. Even as he touched it, the feathers seemed to glow, and there were somehow enough for his wings and the coat as well. The curse was broken, and the witch, far away and older, was glad of it.
“Let me show you my impossible thing,” the snow sparrow said. “Let me take you north, to where the stars are brightest and the reindeer fly.”