I was alone when the cold began. Ice fell onto the gar-den like rain, only it was a pale green, so pale you had to look carefully or it would be invisible. Everywhere it fell the world turned to ice. My cat ran into the house. My dog began to howl. It was not yet winter, but the season had changed. There was ice threaded through my hair and the lilacs I had gathered froze into purple stalks. The man I loved was leaving. He said he was going to fight in a war, but somebody in the village told me they had seen him with another woman. Someone beautiful, which I was not. Garden ice was made of sorrow and green leaves and love gone wrong. I didn’t know that in the garden next door, bees were buzzing and the roses were blooming. As I shivered the world went on.
I was walking through the woods when I heard some-thing behind me. I was a woman alone now. I walked through the world in a different way. I quickened my pace. The snow was so deep it made for difficult going. I cursed my skirts and my boots with their fancy laces. I didn’t dare look over my shoulder. There were wolves that lived here, and I might have preferred them, for I recognized the sound of men. I ran to a cave where the wolves made their den. I knew they would be out hunting until nightfall. I made certain to leave before the dark sifted down. I found my way over the stained snow, over the frozen pond colored blood red. I shut my eyes when I passed the fallen men who had been following me but would follow no more. In every story the wolf is killed, but not when the winter is so deep, when the ice makes men with ill intentions stumble, when there is a single star in the sky.
I lived in my small wooden house with the dog and the cat, but in every corner there was also the memory of the man I had loved who had gone to war or run off to another woman, along with the ghosts of the fallen men out on the frozen pond, and the howls of the wolves in the woods, and the image of my garden twisted beneath ice. My dreams were dark, frozen things that made me sleep too deeply. When I woke I often didn’t know where I was or whose life I was living. I went to stand on the porch and breathe in cold air. I happened to break off a piece of ice hanging down. I saw things inside of it, moments that had taken place long ago and yesterday. I took the icicle inside and stirred it into my tea. I drank it all and wept, surprised by how sweet it was. In the empty cup I could see the first time I had spied the man I loved; the first time he kissed me; the first time I kissed him back. I saw the sunflowers he brought me and the lilac seedling I’d planted in the yard that had frozen into purple bunches. I wanted more of this. I stood on the porch shivering and ate one icicle after the other. I was freezing from the inside out. My neighbor came by with a pot of soup and found me eating ice. I was maddened and addicted to the past. I shouted for my neighbor to leave. She was an old woman, but still strong enough to lead me inside. She fed me soup made of onions and leeks. It melted me inside. I couldn’t go back to what used to be. I thanked my neighbor and walked her home so she would not slip and fall. After that I stopped eating ice. But I remembered all the same.
It was snowing great bunches of flakes on the day the dog went missing. I called for him, but heard my own voice echoing back. Nothing more. I put on my beloved’s clothes so I could run if need be. No more skirts and ladylike boots for me. I took the gun from the closet in case I needed protection. It was early in the day when I began to search. But at dusk I was still out in the same fields of ice. I was going in circles in a place where there used to be sunflowers. Now ice covered everything. There were walls made of it. I stumbled inside the maze. The bright sunlight reflected until the ice was a mirror and all I could see was myself. But because I was dressed in my lover’s clothes I grew confused and began to follow the image as if I were following him. When the sky grew dark I was back at the place I had started from. Why would I want someone who had left me? Why did I do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? My blood was so hot I didn’t feel the cold anymore. All at once I was myself again. I heard barking then. I followed the sound as if it was a map. At last I saw my front porch. There was the dog, waiting for me. That night I took off my lover’s clothes and burned them. The smoke rose up into the night. I went outside and saw that the smoke had frozen solid in the air. It shattered like a mirror, every bit as sharp as glass. After that I didn’t get lost again.
I found the toad in a bucket of frozen water beside the house. The toad looked like a shiny black rock that had fallen from the moon. The ice was black as well, mixed with mud. When I touched the toad with a stick, it didn’t move. Ice crackled on its back. I knew this was a bad omen, but I didn’t believe in omens. I knew I could outsmart bad fortune and change my fate. Right now it seemed I would live in this cottage with the dog and the cat until I became an old woman like my neighbor. I brought the bucket inside, sat in front of the fire, and concentrated. After an hour the water in the bucket melted and the toad turned green. I tossed in some bits of onions and potatoes. In the morning when I woke a man was sitting on my porch. He said he was my neighbor’s grandson and had come to ask me to dinner. He said he’d been lost for some time and didn’t know where he’d been. He had green eyes. There was ice on his coat, which was black and shiny as a rock. My dog sat beside him as if he’d known him all his life. I said yes, I would come to dinner. I would be happy to.
Everything was hot to the touch. The ice steamed. Mist rose in the woods. It was a hot day in the middle of the darkness of winter. It was a reminder that I was alive. I came upon the handsome man in the black coat out collecting wood for his grandmother. He didn’t have gloves and his hands were bleeding and blistered. He said something had fallen out of the sky, a bit of a star, which was why it was so hot today and why the ice was a gold dusty color. He had reached for the star and burned his hands. Why did you do that? I asked. Because it was beautiful, he said. Then he reached for my hand. We both laughed then, because I wasn’t beautiful, or at least that’s what I had thought until I looked in his eyes.
No birds sang. I found a deer in the woods. It was trapped in the ice. I knelt down and dug until its hoofs were freed. It trotted off, then looked back at me, wanting me to follow. I realized things were alive beneath the ice: I could hear the sap in the trees, the cry of the wind, my own pulse pounding. The deer brought me to a field. Beneath a shimmering bush of witch hazel there was a little girl. She was so cold she could not cry. There was a note pinned to her coat. She is the last child and we cannot feed her. I carried her because she had no shoes. Without anyone telling me I knew she was four years old. I had been four years old when my parents abandoned me. I’d stood in a cornfield and waited and eventually a farmer came who put me to work. This would be different. I understood that the best cure is kindness. I could hear the girl’s heart beating. I stopped to ask my neighbor if she knew who the little girl belonged to. She said it appeared that she belonged to me. So I called her Winter. When she spoke her first word and called me Mother the silence was broken.
Winter and I went out to set traps for rabbits. We always hoped we didn’t catch them and we never did. We ate soup made of ice and weeds and potatoes. We were starving. We envied the cat the mice she caught. We envied the dog the bone he found in the woods. On the blue day we went to the edge of the lake. The lake ice went on for as far as we could see. Then Winter tugged on my sleeve. Beneath the ice there was a rainbow that glittered. When we walked upon it the ice glowed. I had a knife in my pocket. I knelt down and chipped away at the ice. It flaked off in illuminated color: first pink, then yellow, then red, then orange. When I reached the frozen water I saw a rainbow trout had frozen into the ice and was still alive. I could not bring myself to kill it. But Winter leaned over and held it in her small hands until it stopped breathing. We had it for supper and invited my neighbor and her grandson. After we ate, we began to glow. We were infused with color. When we spoke puffs of cold color rose came out of our mouths and stained our lips. At the door I kissed my neighbor’s grandson, a cold pink kiss that made me shiver and laugh at the same time. In the morning, Winter and I swept up all the puddles of color on the floor.
It was May and the only ice remaining was deep in the woods where shadows were stronger than sunlight. We went there looking for berries, spring cabbage, mushrooms. Winter could find things no one else could, for instance she had found my heart. I wasn’t the same person I had been when I sat in my garden to watch the first ice creep along the green leaves. Winter found a handkerchief filled with gold near the place where she was abandoned. We went to town and bought flour and tea and a feather quilt. We bought apples and dried apricots for my neighbor and a pair of leather gloves for her grandson who had such cold, shivery kisses and who told me I was beautiful every time I saw him. I had begun to think he was right. I wondered if everything good I had discovered would disappear when the last patch of ice vanished. Each day it grew smaller until it was the size of a pea. I took that piece of ice and swallowed it. It tasted of wood fires, snow, orange rinds.
I carried Winter with me into the village. I went to a dance with my neighbor’s grandson. We walked home with Winter asleep on his shoulder and my hand in his. He had never told me his true name, and now he whispered it to me, and in that way he came to belong to me. When we reached my neighbor’s house, we found that the old woman had passed away in her sleep. We had to bury her. We let Winter go on sleeping in a small bed in an extra bedroom. The ground was still cold, but my neighbor’s grandson was strong enough to dig through the ice. I washed my neighbor’s hands and feet and wrapped her in a white sheet. I kissed her forehead and thanked her for the soup she had once brought me and for the man who wept as he dug her grave. After we buried her, my neighbor’s grandson took my hand and placed a gold band on my finger. It had belonged to his grandmother and now it belonged to me.
Every year I return to the tiny house in the woods where I once lived. It is covered with vines. In winter, the vines turn to ice and the house disappears from sight. I am the only one who remembers where it is. I still know how to get there, but now I only stop there for the lilacs, and then only on summer nights, when there’s no ice in sight.