The story of the Snow Queen begins with a demon. An imp, we're corrected, because this is a story for, or at least about, children. Imps are for impulse, as A is for apple, as I is for ice. They're too young to try out the demon's repertoire of fiery touches, black silk stockings, suicide songs. The imp's craving is merely for mischief. He's a little boy who says No.
A demon, or an imp if you will, is a good reason to start a story. Something demands explanation, cause is sought and blame is found. The mirror on the wall, intact as an unwed princess, need not be discussed. The mirror on the floor, shattered into grit that sticks in the eye, arrowheads lodged in the arch of the foot, a splinter in the palm — this, now, demands someone else tell of a who and a why that the smashed reflector cannot disclose.
So the imp threw the looking-glass out of heaven, we're told, and a grain of the sand of its disintegration worked its way into the yard of a cottage where a boy and a girl were playing at being in love like two daffodils on the same stalk. Perhaps the unseen scratch made a bead of blood spring up on his fingertip and, without understanding, he felt their play spoiled and another old story begun in its place, the one about disobedience, sleep, and thorns. Perhaps he rubbed his eye with a dirty boy-fist and the garden looked darker, the leaves' desiccated future in embryo in their green, the chocolate soil seeded with mouse bones. And he became angry at the girl's cow eyes and her prattle like raindrops in a churchyard, even more when she wept at the new scowl on her dear playmate's face, as if a boy could do anything but bare his puppy teeth at a world where broken glass fell from the sky.
But when the shard reached his heart, all this changed again. He breathed it in, we're corrected; there was no wound. Around the bit of mirror, the bit his body hadn't made but was fast disappearing into his tissues, the white blood cells rushed in, clumping like snowflakes, turning to ice. Plates of ice like a white knight's armor, floors and rooms of ice spreading a ballroom over black water, so thick even the worst little boy could stamp his feet hard and not plunge through to the pants-wetting chill. He was a giant who could cast winter on the world.
It was then that the Snow Queen first arrived at the edge of the pine forest where the yard ended.
It was then that the boy was first able to see the Snow Queen distinct from the crystal-swagged boughs and pillowed drifts encircling the children's shared play, her cold finer than their cold, the gleaming facets of her jeweled fingers more alluring than the sharpest icicle he'd ever stuck to his foolish tongue.
It was then that the boy first stopped being able to see the Snow Queen, like a front door he had faced all his life that was now behind him.
Whatever way this turn of the story is told, with the next breath the boy was swept up into the carriage of the Snow Queen and disappeared from the girl's sight as completely as a gaggle of popular girls closing around their new pet. Some versions say the boy himself chose to take that ermine seat, but how could he have lifted his body up to that porcelain chassis steep as a claw-foot tub, with the ice stiffening his veins? Some versions say he'd always belonged to the Snow Queen, but these leave out the mirror and the imp, and are less reliable.
Color floods the story like mulled cider as the boy evaporates into the blue realms of motive and the girl pours herself into her quest. There are the steaming turf-brown pelts of reindeer and the cindery laughter of crows, and the broad-shouldered robber girl with eyes like crackling coals, who comforts her in a bed canopied by the linty fluttering of pigeons, and stashes a knife under the pillow. But let's backtrack a moment. Does no one at home care to keep this girl in sight, in the yard from which another child has presumably been stolen? Why is she free to journey toward the fortress of winter, paying back the guiding river with her red shoes?
We're told her innocence is what makes the northern landscape bend to help her, such that the very roses return from underground to reassure her about the dead. But how she could have grown to walking age with such a heart, in a house with no more than a sleeping grandmother, that placeholder of old tales, to teach her about love — well, this may seem improbable even in a story where many things remain unexplained.
If we give the girl the real sort of family that produces trusting children, with predictable mealtimes and parents paired like the lame crow and his sweetheart, we might believe the version that says she never strayed far from the yard, that there was no mystery and no need for a journey, only a snow-softened memory of an afternoon when her playmate fell ill and his mother came out to carry him upstairs in her white fur coat that smelled like a grown-up party, tobacco and perfume and hair. The girl's parents, or the boy's mother, wouldn't let her visit him for some time, in case he was contagious. Does it make sense that they never played so closely together, after that day? That's how she remembers it.
In this version, which doesn't seem like a story at all, the girl winds her way through the usual course of prom-night gropes and cold hands meeting around a coffee-shop paper cup, to a shared mattress in a loft where smoke and misquoted philosophers thicken the dawn air, stars fading through the open casement like lopsided snowflakes melting on a sleeve. She lives close to her parents, who are good people and generous about inviting her friends to dinner, not asking too many questions. When did the boy and his mother move away? She used to think about him more often, when she had a babysitting job that took her past the yard where they'd played, though oddly she has no memory of him living in that bluish-white house where his mother had arrived so quickly on the scene to put him to bed. The mother, too, she can picture only in splintered pieces, a pouf of frosted blonde, a ring forced over a knuckle, its square diamond-like stone.
The girl takes classes to become a veterinary technician. The frogs arrive in bags at each lab bench. The biology freshmen slide out their knives from their cushioned cases, preparing to sort the diagrammed organs into piles, to confirm what's already known. Poised over the splayed amphibian, its flung-back head and soft belly pinked by formaldehyde, the girl is suddenly certain she ran upstairs into the house, behind the boy and his mother, the day he fell ill in the yard. Though she hadn't been invited, she was sure, in fact she didn't think she'd ever been allowed inside before, odd as that sounds, or else why would she have become so lost among corridors lined with spine-cracked books and rooms with overstuffed couches that seemed too white, too huge, too still, like slumbering polar bears?
Surely it was only minutes before she reached the bathroom, if indeed she had been there at all, and saw the boy's hand flopped over the edge of the tub, his mother still in her fur coat for some reason, sponging him with cold water. To bring down his fever, the woman said, drawing an ice cube over his forehead, down between his closed eyes, his purpled lips, his throat, as the girl is watching her lab partner unzip her frog like a change purse. As the boy lay in the greening water that rippled and blurred his skin, as the mother reached into the bag of ice that seemed to be in an inner pocket of her fur coat, to plaster a soothing handful over the sick child's heaving breastbone, the girl's gaze followed the motion of that ringed hand to his small penis nested between his pale legs, so curious, his secret strange and familiar, wrong and right. The mother, with eyes that might have been sled-dog blue or December black with the knowledge of everything, saw the girl and the girl knew she knew, was found out in her filth, and now there was no one to ask if any of this had been true, because of course she hadn't told her parents, who were good people and would not like her imagining such things at her age.
In the story that the children had acted out together, playing in that long-ago yard, the Snow Queen was not at home when the journeying girl, the shoeless girl, the motherless girl walked into the icicle palace to wash the broken mirror out of the boy's heart with her tears, which were hot as broth fed to a bedridden child. The boy, we're told, didn't see her right away, or he saw her and it meant nothing, which comes to the same thing, as one puzzle piece is indifferently like its fellow until one finds the right edge where no other will fit.
He was laboring over alphabet blocks of ice, repeating his failure to spell the word the Snow Queen had promised they made, which was Eternity, for if he succeeded he should sit on her ermine throne forever and have a new bicycle, though in truth it would only be new for a small part of that long reign. Possibly the Snow Queen was even dead, because she was certainly older than the boy, and he thought sometimes he had been at the blocks for years. But it seemed unlikely, in this blue north where fruit neither smelled nor softened, that anyone could die who had been alive to begin with. Without the ice around the glass from the imp in his heart, the boy could have been angry that the Snow Queen had not cared to stay and see him complete the task she had begun.
Perhaps, then, the girl's first act was not to weep. For who can do another's weeping for him? She could, instead, have picked up some of that frozen alphabet, till their four hands, skinned and scarred with cold, had spelled out this story, or another even more clear.
Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and the poetry collections Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010), Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009), and A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003). In 2010 she received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists' Grant for Poetry. Awards include the 2016 New Letters Prize for Fiction, the 2015 Wag's Revue Poetry Prize, the 2013 Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize, the 2012 Betsy Colquitt Award for Poetry from Descant magazine, the 2011 James Knudsen Editor's Prize in Fiction from Bayou Magazine, the 2011 OSA Enizagam Award for Fiction, the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize, and second prize in the 2010 Iowa Review Awards for Fiction. She is the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site for creative writers. Visit her blog at www.jendireiter.com and follow her on Twitter @JendiReiter