I only know my own part, but that’s all any of us can say. But before I begin, I need you to understand one thing above all: I was rescued twice, not once, but I was never kidnapped.
But I should start at the beginning, which I guess is the garret.
For most people, if you live in a garret you get two views. One is the view through your window, where you can see the whole city, up high like a bird. The other is the way people view you, which is the complete opposite. Us poor people lived in the garrets, where even as young as I was when all this began, I had to duck down on one side of our room so I wouldn’t hit my head on the slope of the roof.
And in my case, I had a third view but it had barely started. A glance in water, a moment in front of the small mirror my mother kept, or catching a glance at the side of a teapot.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
I did have a grandmother, but I lived with my parents and brothers, too, all of us in our two rooms with one window, but if people talk about my family they only talk about my grandmother. I had friends—we garret kids had the top set of stairs to ourselves, after all—but mostly there was Gerda.
Gerda didn’t live in my building. Her family was in the one next door, but if I scarpered out my window I could climb into hers, and between the windows her papa built a box where my grandmother grew vegetables, some herbs, and sometimes even a flower or two.
They weren’t roses. You don’t grow roses in garret flower boxes.
I guess that’s the first thing you’ve been told that’s wrong. They were pansies. And it’s more important than you’d think. Pansies are tough.
It took me quite a while to figure that part out for myself.
It was my grandmother that told me about the Queen of the Snow. When winter came, and the last of the things that grew in the box were gone, she’d tell me stories by the light of the window, or read to me from the only book we had in our rooms. My parents worked most of the day—my father chipping away deep in the stone of the earth, my mother keeping one of the great houses fed without being seen. Two of my brothers were already working with my father—I imagined that would have been me, too, if not for everything that would come—and my third brother was out selling, carrying his tray-box around his neck and stomping his feet in the cold.
My brothers always looked at me like I’d done something wrong being born last. Like somehow, staying home with my grandmother and holding the yarn while she knitted, or cleaning the floors while she cooked up a stew from bits and pieces was a great life they’d missed out on for having been born before me.
Me? I watched them climb down all the stairs every day and go out into the city and walk through the streets and thought they had freedom.
We were both wrong. They were no more free than I was, they just got a different view and had more people to talk to.
I should say my Grandmother never meant to be cruel. When they say she loved me, I suppose in her way, in a fashion, she did. Same with Gerda, really. But there’s love and there’s love. So when my grandmother warned me about the Snow Queen, she thought she was doing me a good deed.
I heard the same stories year after year—my grandmother only had so many—but when frost started to draw patterns on the glass of our window, that was usually when I’d hear about the Snow Queen. The frost reminded her, I think.
“She’s a queen like bees in their boxes have queens, my boy. You have to watch the snow. Sometimes what seems white and pure and delicate isn’t—that’s her.”
My grandmother would trace her finger on the glass, pressing it against the surface until the frost melted.
“Watch for the snow. Sometimes it’s not snow. When you see the snowflakes gathering in the light make sure they’re not hers. They’re more like bees, my boy. Like bees made of ice so sharp and fit to cut you like glass.”
After that, she’d knit for a while in silence, and I’d watch the ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller until the candles grew dim and it was time to start the evening tea, and I would go down all the stairs to fetch water or sweep the room and after I’d look at the frost on the window and wonder about bees made of glass.
“Beware her kisses, my boy. One kiss and you’ll be as cold as she is, two and you’ll be as heartless, and if you allow a third…” Here she would pause, and look over her glasses at me. “A third is death.”
That winter, the winter they talk about, I barely slept. I lay by the fire in my blankets, shivering with a cold that had little to do with the drafts of an attic room. My grandmother had started to ask about my friendship with Gerda.
My eldest brother would soon be married, and he would leave us in spring.
I knew what she was asking, and I knew I couldn’t answer.
I gave up trying to sleep and paced the small room, wishing the movement and stoking the fire would warm me inside where the cold of fear was settling. To the window. Back again. In the other room, the rest of my family slept. I tried whispering rhymes to myself—Gerda had a silly rhyme about pansies she liked to sing to me—and sometimes that would help.
But that night it didn’t.
The cold inside me only grew worse the more I thought about the days ahead.
So I went to the window.
It was just a glimpse. A woman, tall and beautiful, in a cloak as white as freshly fallen snow. She was walking through the street, and the angle between the two buildings from our garret window meant my glimpse was brief.
But she turned, and she met my gaze.
Her smile seemed kind.
I pulled away from the window, went back to my bed by the fire, and pulled the cloth over my eyes. I should have been terrified.
Instead, for the first time in months, I finally felt warm.
That night I realized I liked the stories of the Snow Queen better than the ones from the book, which so often made my insides twist, desperate and terrified, even as my grandmother swore we’d all be welcomed in paradise. She said she knew our hearts, and we were all worthy.
I knew better. I only had to see a mirror to be reminded.
And I knew better than to say so.
For all the warnings my grandmother made in winter, it was in summer it began. I had brought a bucket to the plant box between our garret windows and Gerda had a picture book. I don’t know where she got it, but it seemed like a very beautiful thing to me. There were dancing ladies and men in great coats and so many birds.
I was using a ladle to water the plants. If that seems silly, understand: if I could, I didn’t want to have to go get a second bucket of water and carry it all the way up all the stairs to the garret. With a ladle, I could be careful, and water each vegetable enough with just one bucket.
“Look at these two,” Gerda said. She pointed to a group of pipers, each man playing music. Her voice was hushed, as though she was telling me a secret.
I looked at the picture. Two of the pipers were holding hands.
Heat and cold warred inside me, despite the summer day. I opened my mouth to say something, glancing down at the bucket, and I saw Gerda’s reflection.
She was recoiling from me, pulling away and shaking her head. Disgusted, or afraid, or just pitying. It was hard to tell on the surface of the water, but I was sure of one thing: like every reflection I happened to look into, it was telling me a truth.
It was a warning.
“It’s a terrible thing,” I said, meaning one thing, but knowing Gerda would hear another. She gave me a little nod and closed the book, and helped me water the rest of the vegetables.
I watched as every ladle lowered the water in the bucket. Gerda seemed to get further and further away.
“Gerda,” I said, before there wasn’t enough water left to show her face. “Are we friends?”
She smiled at me. It was a sunny smile, as warm as the day. “Of course we are.”
Her reflection shook her head.
I poured the last of the water into the garden. The pansies were bright and pretty, even though the wind had been strong for days many were a little beaten down. I wished I had half the courage they had.
It was easy to catch my grandmother’s reflection, too. Between the basin where we washed the dishes, and the small mirror in the garret, it just took a little forethought. When I allowed myself to think of myself as I was, and whisper a word out loud, her reflection would turn from me. Or raise both hands to the heavens, pleading and afraid. Or weep.
That was the worst.
After, I kept my own counsel, and I tried to avoid anything that reflected, but it wasn’t always possible. My grandmother noticed. So did Gerda. And my grandmother even noticed how little Gerda and I spoke, and that gave her more concern.
“Have you argued?” she asked me, one autumn afternoon.
“No, grandmother,” I said. I was always respectful. I did nothing to give her any reason to worry about me. But I knew it couldn’t last forever. Her face was full of concern.
“Good,” she said, but I knew she felt it was anything but. Her stories turned to tales of those who didn’t allow love in their hearts, and the various cataclysms befalling them. Every story seemed to begin with someone who lost love from their heart and become cruel, and ended with someone who loved them bringing them back from some dark place.
I learned to close my eyes when I passed the garret mirror, and keep my gaze above the water when I washed plates or watered the plant box.
By winter, the tales my grandmother told were once again of the Snow Queen, and I was barely sleeping. I could not find enough blankets, and I singed myself by sleeping too close to the fire. Nothing thawed the fear every mirror, window, or pool of water revealed to me: if they knew, they would turn away.
And worse, I knew if would eventually be when.
After a particularly heavy snow, and a productive morning, my grandmother suggested I go outside with my sled. I knew she wanted me to go with the others my age, and especially Gerda, but I took her to her word and no further and carried my sled outside by myself. Between the fear in my chest and the snow that was still falling, I was soon chilled through, though I did ride down the slope of the lane a few times.
It was there, at the end of our lane, I saw the carriage sleigh. It was beautiful: its wood painted white, trimmed with fur and bells and somehow stately in a way I couldn’t explain. And on it, as though she were waiting for me all this time, was the beautiful woman herself, in her white furs and smiling her kind smile for me.
Children would hitch their sleds to carriage sleighs like this, to have a ride. But this was her carriage sleigh, and I looked around and saw no other children and the snow in the air seemed to swirl in and on itself in little circles, less like snow and more like bees.
My grandmother’s warnings conjured nothing. I should have been afraid. I shivered, but it was not born of fear of this woman.
I tied my sled to the carriage sleigh, and her smile stole any shred of worry I might have had.
The ride out of the city was incredible. There were no crowds of people in our way. Everyone seemed to step aside just in time, and I found myself laughing as the snow itself blew into people’s faces and made them turn, or twist, or pause. We flew through the streets, and when we came to rest outside the gates, I was panting from laughter.
I untied my sled, and went to thank her.
The woman on the carriage sleigh was no longer just a beautiful woman in white fur. She had cast aside her fur coat, and beneath she wore snow and ice gathered like a fine gown. Her eyes were the palest blue I’d ever seen, and I could see my own reflection in them.
And just for a second, I saw myself smiling, and happy.
“You are the Snow Queen,” I said.
She nodded once. “I am.”
“Are you here to hurt me?”
Those pale blue eyes filled with a sadness so familiar I ached for her. “Do you think I am?”
I shook my head.
“Most people can’t see me,” she said.
“I see things,” I said. “In mirrors. In glass. In water. In…”
“Ice?” she said.
I nodded. “Reflections.”
“You see a person’s heart, then?”
“I think so.” I swallowed. “Yes. Truths, I think. Words in my head make truths in reflections.”
The Snow Queen waved her hand, and snow whirled in a circle beside us, a swarm of flakes that wove the air itself into ice so perfect and smooth I could see both of us on its surface.
“And what do you see of me?” she asked.
I looked at the reflection, and I allowed myself to imagine telling her more of myself. Not just of the things I could see in mirrors.
In the ice, the Snow Queen opened her arms in welcome, and I stepped into her embrace.
“I do not love,” I said. “Not as they want me to.”
When the Snow Queen embraced me, she kissed my forehead. And finally, the cold fear that had lived inside my heart was gone. My grandmother was right: I was as cold as she was.
It was just that she wasn’t cold at all.
“They’ll never understand,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
And so the Snow Queen kissed me again.
I was not made heartless, either. The second kiss drew a distance in my thoughts and memories, though, and a clarity to know I could not be what they expected. It wasn’t heartlessness. It was understanding that some hearts could not be pleased.
Enough understanding to know it was time to leave.
There was indeed a magic in reflection, and I could touch it. The Snow Queen took me to her palace, tucked away in the northern woods where snow and pines reigned around us in a peaceful and beautiful rest. She had friends, people like us, who would visit a while from time to time, but mostly she lived alone, content and happy with her own company.
She took me to a lake frozen mirror perfect, and began to teach me.
“I work with snow and ice and memory,” she said. “You work with words, reflection, and potential. I’m not sure how much of what I know might guide you, but for me, it always comes to a thought—a word as a truth—and the magic takes the rest.”
It was like that for me, too. I had only to imagine words of truth on my lips, and I could see the reactions that those words would bring in the reflections of those around me, but to do so with a purpose beyond discovering how others would react?
We started with simple things.
The Snow Queen would speak of winter, and for her, the snow would shift and twist and fly around in squalls about us, covering the world in a layer of white that no longer left me cold.
And so I spoke those words, and beneath us, the surface of the lake showed me winters around the world, where people woke and shared greetings, or where those who were alone would gaze out upon the snow-covered beauty of the season, and perhaps see something in it worth knowing. And, a few times, I even saw others like us—a valiant antlered deer who seemed to be fighting off wolves with a blazing light, and a woman who could pull time taught and hold it steady, and a young slight man who drew patterns of frost on every surface he touched with his bare hand—and I knew that even in the simplest words and truths there was much to learn.
I would often spend the whole of the night outside, for it seemed to me that the reflections I saw in moonlight were different from those in sunlight, and besides which, I had no fear of the cold thanks to the Snow Queen’s first kiss.
If I was not happy, it was not that I was unhappy. If I was alone, it was worth saying that I was not lonely. The Snow Queen would visit, and she would see what words I had uncovered, and often join in for a while to speak them herself and see what, if anything, they would do when she used them.
When I said “home” under the sunlight I saw my family, who believed I had drowned in a river. When I said “home” under the moonlight, nothing would appear beyond swirls of light and colour.
When I said “escape” under the sunlight I could watch myself hitch my sled to the Snow Queen’s carriage sleigh, and ride off to the freedom I now enjoyed. Under moonlight? The same word showed me myself, sitting on the lake, speaking word after word, trying to find the right one.
One morning, the Snow Queen came to me, and draped a beautiful white cape across my shoulders. I tied it closed. “Thank you,” I said, though I was confused. “It’s lovely.”
“It’s a day for giving gifts,” she said, and I realized just how long I’d been working my magic on the lake.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I keep thinking there is a word I’m missing. Something I could say that would show me where in the world there is a place for those like me.” I smiled at the Snow Queen. “And yet here I sit, in a place you’ve brought me to that is place enough.”
“This is mine, and it is perfect for me,” the Snow Queen said. “But for you? I’m not sure. I think you’re right. There’s a word you still seek.”
“I’ll keep trying. But, for you?” I gestured to the lake beneath us. “Gift,” I said.
I kept my eyes away from the ice, for it felt private, but seeing the joy that crossed her face at whatever it was she watched play out beneath us a gift in and of itself. Her laughter made beautiful snow zephyrs dance around us.
“You’re talented,” she said, once the vision had ended. “Perhaps tonight you will join me for a dinner?”
I said that I would, and I did. But come the morning, I returned to the lake and the hunt for my words.
And just before sunset game Gerda.
“The pansies wouldn’t die,” Gerda said.
She stood facing me. I had no idea how long she had been there, watching me conjure magic from the reflection in the lake, but when I finally saw her, the expression on her face was exactly as I’d seen it in the bucket. Disgusted. Afraid.
Now she knew, and I knew I’d been right not to tell her.
As victories went, it was hollow.
“How?” I said.
“The pansies… and then I went… I went to see a woman. She… She was like you, but I thought, to save you, it was worth the risk… She tried to stop me, but the pansies, again…” Gerda was shaking her head. “They broke through and I knew it meant you were okay.”
A coach stood by the edge of the lake. I hadn’t even heard it approach. It must have been how she’d come here. I never did find out if the thing about the Prince and Princess was even a little true, but this much was: her adventure had served her well, even if my “rescue” was not at all to be at her hand.
And she did look so fine, dressed in beautiful winter clothes. She couldn’t feel the cold in those layers of beautiful cloths and furs.
“Aren’t you cold?” she said. It was like she was reading my mind.
“No,” I said. “It’s part of…” I bit back the words. “It’s part of all of this.”
“Will you come home?”
“Home.” I repeated the word, and the magic of it escaped me. Beneath us, the lake showed us my family in their garret, gathered for a meal. Gerda gasped, stepping away from me, her eyes on the magic.
And then the sun set, and the lake changed to the swirls of light instead.
“Why are you doing this?” Gerda said. Then, angrily, “Why are you like this?”
Snowflakes began to swirl around the edge of the lake. The Snow Queen, protecting me.
“Gerda,” I said, not sure what else to say.
“Come home with me,” Gerda said. “Come back to us. We’re your family. We love you.”
“Say that again,” I said.
Gerda frowned, but repeated herself. And when she said “We love you,” I caught her words and let the magic free.
Beneath us, she saw the truth of her words reflected in the ice. She saw my grandmother weep and pull away, my brothers full of scorn and spit, my mother turn her back, my father’s anger… And her own disgust.
“It’s not true,” she said, shaking her head. “We do love you. If you just free yourself from her. From what she’s done to you.”
Around the lake, the snow swirled faster.
“She rescued me,” I said.
“No!” Gerda stomped her foot, as if wishing her fancy new boot would break the ice and drop us into the frigid water deep beneath. “No, you are not… This isn’t you. You’re not…”
“A pansy?” I said.
She turned away. “You don’t have to be.”
“But I am,” I said. “And I always will be.”
The ice beneath us filled with the swirling light again, so bright that the snow swirling around the lake seemed like lace curtains in motion. Gerda took my hand, frightened.
“It’s okay,” I said. I tried repeating the word that had set the magic in motion. “Always?” The light flared. It wasn’t quite the right word, but it was of a family with the one I’d been seeking all along.
Gerda was crying now.
“It’s okay,” I said. She buried her face in my shoulder. I tried another word. “Forever?”
“Please don’t,” Gerda said. “Kai. It’s like her. It’s the snow. It’s the Snow Queen!”
“It’s not,” I said. It was so close. Almost the right word. I could rescue myself, I could find the way to a home, if I just got it right. “It’s not her. It’s me. It’ll always be me. Forever. It’s…”
Light again, a moment between breaths, and then we saw all the places where I belonged.
In the story you were told, we came back together changed, adults in the space of the fallout of a single magical word. And I suppose, if you look at what happened a certain way, that might be true for me at least. But it took me time to go to all the places I saw, and it took me a bit longer to figure out what it was I was looking at.
And Gerda went home without me.
The lake showed me a pretty house in the woods, planter boxes on the windows, but also a row of stone houses in a city much bigger than the one where I’d grown, each colourful door with a basket hanging above. And a farm. And some docks lined with barrels. And so many gardens, one even by a palace.
I thought one of those places might be where I belonged, and so I went to them. It took days, then weeks, then months. I grew stronger, and taller, and in each of those places my magic was welcomed by one or two people, and I used it to help them speak truths and see things they didn’t yet know.
And I would say the word “Eternity” and I would see all the places I had been already before the rest. Sometimes the order was different. Sometimes some of them were gone, replaced by others. It was a different kind of riddle, but as I traveled, I met others like myself.
It’s possible you’re wiser than I, and have spotted what it took me years to notice myself.
Pansies in flower boxes or baskets. Pansies on the hillside of the farm. Pansies on the docks. Hardy things, those flowers. And they’re everywhere. They make it even when the wind breaks them down. They bloom, and grow, and thrive wherever they can.
It’s possible all the various mirrors who’d shown me where I needed to go to find a home where I could belong could have been a bit more clear, but, well.
They reflect. It’s what they do.
People come to my home from all of those places: the city where I was born, the farms, the row of stone homes, villages, and ships. Over water or glass I help them find the words they need, and outside, I hang a mirror. Each morning I stop, face it, and say the word.
The mirror is there for people who need it. People who need to look and see a truth they might not know themselves.
There have always be those like us.
There always will be.
And where we belong?
You’re tougher than you think.
Just like pansies, children who live in garrets, and the Queen of the Snow.