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Wonder watching

Few things are more glorious, especially if you're quite small, than to make a real giant of a snowman. And this was what I did one winter day, when the sun was shining too feebly to melt the littlest icicle hanging from the eaves of my house, and the bare branches of the trees were tinkling like crystals in the wind.

First I rolled two boulders of snow that were so big I couldn't see over the top of them even standing on my tiptoes. These were the snowman's stalwart legs. Then, fetching and carrying red mittenfuls of snow up a ladder propped against the legs, I slowly fashioned the snowman's mighty belly and chest and shoulders and arms and towering head.

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Then came his distinctive features. He got a beard of blond, silky mopstrings. A smile of marbles won in fierce games. A pine-cone nose. Blue jawbreakers for eyes. And for eyebrows, fallen leaves.

He was even given his own special uniform. Two red bricks for boots. Shiny red apples for coat buttons. And a coal bucket, upside down, for a helmet.

I was especially proud of the snowman's arms, which had taken the longest to make, for they were bent, lifelike, so they could cradle the toy that I brought and put in them, my favorite holiday gift, a fuzzy koala bear doll.

I wanted so much for the world to see what a snowman I had built. A snowman strong enough to lift other snowmen over his head, yet gentle enough to hold a tiny, peaceable bear.

But the people who drove by the wonder, churning snow from the back wheels of their cars, hardly spared a glance. Nor did the pedestrians picking their way down the icy sidewalk. And as for other children in the neighborhood, they were too busy building and admiring their own wonders to make a pilgrimage to mine. Day after disappointing day passed.

Then one morning, as I was polishing the snowman's buttons, and sighing that I might as well have built him at the North Pole for all the attention he was getting, I happened to look over at the orphanage on the hill across the street from my house. I'd always known it was there, a bleak brick building with lusterless windows, from which the children hardly ever ventured out to play, even in the snow, but this was the first time I had really looked at it. To my amazement there was a face, or two, or three, at every window, and they were all turned toward my snowman. Goodness, I thought, maybe they have been looking every day! I spat on the buttons and polished them to their proudest shine ever.

But as chance, or fate, would have it, this was the day that the sun got stronger and began to melt snow everywhere. In the afternoon the snowman's arms collapsed, and the little bear tumbled to the ground.

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''It's not your fault, snowman,'' I said. ''Everyone doesn't live forever.''

Then, taking the toy in my arms, I trudged up the hill to the orphanage. Down a long, quiet corridor I went, peering into rooms right and left, all of them strangely subdued, as if the spirit of childhood there had suffered a blow from which it was still recovering. When I came to the rooms with the windows overlooking my snowman, the faces were all turned toward me now; the children, many of them smaller even than I, had seen me climbing the hill. All watched me, wide-eyed. Some waved.

I approached a girl about my age, sitting on a rocking horse by the window. She seemed to be hugging herself, as if to make up for an emptiness in her arms.

I offered her the toy.

''For me?'' she asked.

''For you. For everybody. He can be your mascot. You guys up here were the only ones who took a real look at my snowman. I wanted to say thanks.''

The girl accepted the toy, embracing it and rocking it with her on her horse and smiling down upon it, as if to make it feel so welcome it would never want to leave. Then, looking up, she gave me the most wonderful smile, tender, shy, playful.

We were just children, but we gave each other everything that moment, all joy and all innocence.

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