Norman Thomas di Giovanni

    The Snowfall by Marcial Souto

    All morning an icy draft blew in under the door. Outside, the wind howled, and from his second-floor flat Baltasar González watched passersby, their faces blue, holding their scarves tight around their necks.

    His train left at one, and at twelve thirty Baltasar was on the street, suitcase in one hand and umbrella in the other. The station was only six blocks away. He had allowed himself time for coffee before boarding.

    The sky was overcast, an iron-grey. As he leaned head down into the wind, the cold immediately stung his forehead, and his hands grew stiff. He managed two awkward blocks, looking only a few yards ahead of him. The wind stung his eyes too, and they filled with tears.

    His gaze on his shoes, Baltasar at first failed to notice something brushing his ears. He looked up. Snow. Pausing, he put the suitcase down and opened his umbrella. Then he set off again, noticing that the flakes came down lazily now, dancing, and they stuck to the pavement. The wind had dropped. Around him, others were looking up. He was nearly halfway to the station. Amused by the falling snow, Baltasar no longer felt the cold so intensely.

    The flakes grew bigger as they dropped more slowly. At Baltasar's feet fell two as big as his hand. He had never seen anything like it before. He tilted his umbrella to one side and looked straight up into the sky.

    At first he thought he made out a flock of birds - thousands and thousands of them, getting larger and larger as they came swaying down like dry leaves. Outsized flakes began to accumulate in the street.

    Baltasar stopped in his tracks. The gigantic flakes were falling everywhere. In front of him, not two steps away, one came down like a bit of rag or paper and it spread open. As he was about to tread on it, he saw something strange. The flake was yellowish. Taken aback, Baltasar bent over it for a closer look. On the snowflake was an engraving.

    He crouched to examine it. More or less rectangular, the flake began to melt at its edges. In the right half was a face he dimly recognized. The rest had already vanished. As he crouched, four or five snowflakes landed on his shoe. He touched them. On one, which was grey, he made out the number 100,000 and to the right of it an unmistakable face.

    Baltasar turned the flakes over. Two of them, coloured sepia and drier than the others, felt like pieces of paper. Each had a portrait on the right-hand side, and a clear inscription that read, 1,000. Central Bank. One Thousand Pesos. 1,000.

    He stood erect, lowered his umbrella, and looked straight up. Was this some sort of joke? Who could possibly be scattering money amongst the snowflakes? Around him, the few passersby were bent over studying the flakes with astonished faces.

    The sky was raining banknotes. Baltasar snatched a few out of the air and scrutinized them. Five hundred thousand pesos. One hundred thousand pesos. One thousand pesos. One million pesos. Green, grey, sepia, pink.

    Had he gone mad? Was he dreaming? His train left at one. What was he doing here in the midst of banknotes that were falling from the sky? He shut his umbrella. A few yards farther on, a door burst open and a young couple rushed out into the street.

    'Money! Money's falling from the sky!' they shouted.

    People stared out of their windows in disbelief. Baltasar knelt and gathered up more flakes. They seemed to be genuine banknotes. He took out of his billfold several large-denomination notes and compared them with those he had just picked up. They were identical - except that those still falling were newer. In fact, they seemed never to have circulated. Had they fallen from an aeroplane? Baltasar wondered. Highly improbable. It would have required a flotilla of planes to drop so much money over the city. Besides, there was no sound overhead.

    Baltasar stuffed his own banknotes back into a pocket and clutched in his hand those that had come down with the snow, staring at them in dismay, unsure what to do. He looked round him, a bit ashamed. Even though the city was being blanketed in money, it seemed somehow immoral to keep what did not belong to him. But to whom did the money belong? Wouldn't others pick it up too? Should he not gather as much as he could and then buy something with it before everyone else found out?

    From their windows people were snatching at banknotes and crying out in astonishment. The streets were filling with people now, all of them heaping money into piles and stuffing it into their pockets. Newcomers looked around for an instant and then hastened to do what everyone else was doing.

    The snow fell thick and fast. Banknotes covered the street, despite the efforts of people to squirrel them away. Instinctively, Baltasar too began stuffing his pockets. At first, any denomination, then only the larger ones. Soon he realized that his pockets would not hold very many notes. What about his suitcase? His train! It was five to one. Should he take another or perhaps even cancel his trip? Maybe he should collect as many banknotes as possible and leave town at once. The money, even if was falling freely and was anyone's for the taking, was somehow not his and one day someone might reclaim it. What if he got on the next train and alighted at the first city where it was not snowing and spent the money before it became worthless? Or was the storm falling over the whole country, or for that matter over the whole world - pesos, dollars, euros, cruceiros, pounds, roubles, yen?

    Baltasar began to hasten his step, scooping up along the way as many large banknotes as he could and bumping into other people who were doing the same. He rushed into the station, pockets bulging uncomfortably, and went straight to the ticket counter. There was no one behind the window. Had his train departed? The station was nearly deserted. A handful of people were scurrying to the main entrance, their faces on fire, their eyes staring wildly.

    Baltasar went out onto the platform. There was his train. Several guards fluttered about in pursuit of money. All the passengers had descended and they too were chasing about, laughing their heads off and crashing and tumbling into one another. Baltasar went back inside. Not a soul was in the bar. A man hurtled into him, a guard holding out his hat with fistfuls of banknotes in it.

    'Isn't the train leaving?'

    'Don't bother me with questions - not while this is going on,' said the guard curtly.

    Baltasar patted his pockets. What was he doing here in the railway station? Only an idiot would worry about catching a train when outside it was raining money. Should he dump his clothes and fill the suitcase with notes? No, there were plenty of them about. He'd go home first. He began to run. Five minutes later, he was taking the stairs two at a time to his flat, where he anxiously opened the door, tipped his clothes onto his bed, and dashed out into the street again with the now empty case.

    Elbowing others aside, Baltasar began raking banknotes together with both hands. In no time, the case was filled. He snapped it shut and scurried back to his flat. There he dumped the money onto the floor and rushed out again.

    What if I try to buy something somewhere? he thought, scooping up more money. But what? Where? From whom? There was no time to think. By now everyone must have found out about the blanket of banknotes. Baltasar went on heaping them up, working mainly along the kerb, where the money had drifted, beating others to it who were not as quick off the mark.

    Two hours later, when it stopped snowing, a cold, pale sun appeared in the sky. People thronged the streets, and there was a babble of laughter, insults, and plans for spending money. As the afternoon wore on scuffles broke out over the possession of millon-peso banknotes, which by then had grown scarce.

    A very rich old woman, who lived in an ancient building across the street, made the biggest fuss. With a frayed black umbrella, she struck out left and right, fending off others from a huge heap of notes that she claimed for herself. Caught unawares by the snowstorm, she had remained outdoors from the very outset, pushing and sweeping bills into a pile without taking time to haul her cache to her third-floor flat.

    At half past six, by the time the sun set, the streets were bare of banknotes. Only the old woman stood there, protecting her carefully arranged heap and brandishing her umbrella like a weapon. Everyone else had gone home to count their money or to rest from their labours.

    The old woman looked all around. Quite sure now that the streets were deserted, she lifted the hem of her skirt, wary, and began deftly stuffing it with banknotes, packing them tight. Baltasar watched from his window as he toyed with his own money. The woman had filled her skirt to the point that it could not hold another note. Clearly the weight and bulk of the load was taxing her strength. She glanced round again, quickly, seeming to be in a dilemma about whether she should secure what she had - with the risk of someone lying in wait for her as she struggled up to her flat - or not budge from the spot and guard her treasure unto the death. After pondering for a moment or two, she chose the former course and rushed to her door, where she cast a deadly last look about and vanished in a flash. A minute later, frail, still dressed from head to toe in black, she was out on the street once more, shuffling round her pile. Not a single note had been stolen. Everyone was indoors happily playing with his or her own booty.

    Now that the excitement had ebbed, Baltasar felt cold again. The sun had set, and the street lights had come on. He left the window and turned on a lamp. The room had grown dark without his noticing.

    He warmed himself by the electric fire and at the same time, with one hand, stirred his little mountain of banknotes. A while later he remembered the old woman and went back to the window. He saw her, a black shadow on nimble shanks, crossing the pavement and disappearing indoors with the last of her heap of banknotes.

    At nine thirty that night, the Home Affairs Minister spoke. 'The city has been sealed off,' he said. 'All approach routes have been blocked, and no one can enter or leave. We are asking the public to remain calm. The police and the army will uphold law and order.' Etc.

    At ten, the Minister of the Exchequer spoke. 'We are asking for calm,' he said. 'A phenomenon has taken place for which as yet we have no satisfactory explanation. But the government is carrying out a full investigation. The public is advised not to mix those banknotes fallen from the sky with any money previously in their possession. We are analyzing the new bills and ask that they be kept separate. The authorities are taking steps to collect them, house by house.' Etc.

    At ten thirty, the archbishop spoke. 'My children,' he said, 'temptation comes in so many guises that none of us can foresee or prevent them all. This is why I call on you, from the bottom of my heart, to reflect on the current situation with maturity and responsibility.' Etc.

    At eleven, the president spoke. 'My fellow countrymen,' he said. 'A new and strange phenomenon has taken place in the capital of one of the nation's provinces. We are asking the public to remain calm. Measures have been taken, and a full investigation is being carried out. This is the government's firm policy. Clarifications are being sought and experts are already at work. In a day or two - at most - a full report will be made public.' Etc.

    That night no one slept. Baltasar telephoned four or five friends, who were as bewildered and intrigued as he was. One particular reason for his insomnia was that he feared dozing off only to wake the next morning and find that all his wealth had vanished.

    He woke to a clear, pale-blue sky. The sun rose and slowly warmed the city. The radio announced that, like it or not, the police had begun a house-to-house search and were removing the new money in armoured vehicles. At once Baltasar decided to stash some of his away, and for the next two hours he hid banknote after banknote - in cracks in the floorboards, crannies in the furniture, inside his mattress, between the pages of books, in the back of the radio itself. If the police were going to relieve him of his money, at least he'd make them work for it. As he could hide only a limited number of notes, he chose bills of a million pesos. It occurred to him that all over the city others would be doing the same thing.

    At midday a local station reported that the recovery of money by the police was not going quite as planned. The public were reluctant to give up or see themselves stripped of the fortunes they had accumulated the day before. Some households had gone so far as to deploy firearms, and whole city blocks had banded together to defy the police siege. There were reports of both civilian and police casualties. One news item spoke of the suicide of some made suddenly poor after having become multimillionaires.

    In later bulletins these extreme cases were omitted. A different news reader described only the progress made by the police in various parts of the city and the warm welcome given them by members of the public, who were coming forth voluntarily and cooperating with the authorities.

    Baltasar's flat was located on the city's northern edge, and the police operation had begun in the south. That gave him a bit of time to consider how to safeguard his fortune. Phoning friends who lived on the south side, he asked what was really happening.

    'You can hear gunfire and shouts,' an old university classmate told Baltasar. 'The police are three blocks away and slowly advancing. We're ready for them.'

    Half an hour later, Baltasar phoned back to find out how events were progressing, but his friend's telephone had been cut. Only radio stations operated, and they were issuing a series of reassuring bulletins. When Baltasar had run out of nooks to stuff his money, he went to the window and looked out.

    The sun was trying hard to warm things up but without much success. Few people were about. Baltasar saw others huddled at their windows. Like him, they had no doubt pieced together scraps of information before the telephones were cut. An unusual sense of solidarity - a unanimous opposition to the confiscation of their money - seemed to have sprung up among the whole population.

    By nightfall numbers of men and women thronged the streets to discuss details of mutual assistance. Their amiability was such that it was hard to believe these same people, only the day before, had nearly come to blows over a snowfall of paper. Each person was now offering what he or she had extra and others might require - food, fuel, medicine. As if what everyone was defending was their honour, no one mentioned money.

    At midnight, by a show of hands, it was decided that everybody would turn in until the early hours of the morning, while a handful of volunteers stood watch to wake the others the moment the police arrived. Before going to bed, Baltasar sank his hands into what remained of his pile of banknotes. He noticed that they were softer to the touch and had lost the starchy stiffness of brand-new notes. It's from handling them so much, he thought to himself with a smile. He slipped between the sheets. Exhaustion weighed down his eyelids. He woke up at six in the morning.

    Lying there, eyes wide open, Baltasar made out voices down in the street. Surely something was afoot. As he stirred to get up, he felt a damp patch on the sheets that took his mind off the hubbub outside. Groping around under the covers, he slid his hand back and forth. The whole mattress was soggy.

    He sprang to his feet and found that he too was wet. Shivering, he lit the fire and went to look out of the window. The pile of money on the floor had taken on a strange shape. The notes, faded and running, were lumped together in a sodden mass. The heap was a lot smaller than it had been the night before. Baltasar's first thought was that someone had come in, taken half, and thrown a pail of water over the rest. The floor round the pile was sopping.

    He shoved a hand into the mound and plucked out a few bills, which began to disintegrate in his fingers, melting with the warmth of his touch. Each note, as on the day it had fallen, felt cold as snow. The puddle on the floor was spreading as the room grew warmer.

    His body heat had melted the money hidden in his mattress. At the window, Baltasar saw people streaming into the street, their hands clutching dark, dripping wads. Money, he reckoned. The money was thawing.

    He wanted to turn on the radio for the latest news, but the radio did not work. Then he felt the wet there too. He had stuffed it full of banknotes.

    Slowly, sadly, Baltasar dressed, but as he progressed he found himself filling with almost euphoric joy. The world was changing back into what it had always been.

    An enthusiasm that he had not felt for a long, long time infused his whole body. Soon everything would be as before, familiar things awakening familiar reactions. The moment he could, he would take the train to the capital - as though nothing had happened - and carry on with his old plans.

    He went down into the street with a bucket of the faded remains of what had been a small mountain of money and tipped the contents into the gutter. Others, just as naturally, were doing the same thing. The game was over, and they all wanted to get on with their lives.

    Back in his flat, Baltasar warmed the radio by the stove until it was dry enough to work again. He tuned in to the news, which struck a note of hope. All over the city the money fallen out of the sky had melted. The police, considering it no longer necessary, had stopped their house-to-house search.

    At midday, one after the other, the Home Affairs Minister, the Minister of the Exchequer, the archbishop, and the president spoke.

    'As I assured the public from the very outset ...' 'It is with great joy ...' 'This proof that He has sent us ...' 'My fellow countrymen ...'

    By four o'clock that afternoon not one whole or unmelted bill remained of the blizzard of banknotes. A few people, on noticing that their money was disintegrating, had tried to refreeze it in their refrigerator compartments. It worked for a while, but in the end the measure proved pointless. Brittle as glass, the notes either broke into pieces or melted in a puddle.

    That night the whole city made its way about the streets as though everything were back to normal. The shops had reopened, and no one mentioned the snowfall.

    Two days later, not a single house any longer smelled damp.

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