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Fiction

A Country Called Winter

In winter, the snow comes down as softly as feathers. I have always loved to watch it. It’s different, of course, once it’s fallen: thick, heavy, difficult to walk through. In Boston, the snow plows come out almost as soon as the first flakes land on the sidewalk. They make narrow paths, and the snow piles up on either side, so when you walk to class, it’s between two mountain ridges, like a miniature Switzerland.

That’s how Kay described it to me one morning, while we were sitting in my dorm room, drinking Swiss Miss hot chocolate that I had heated up in the microwave I wasn’t supposed to have. He had the most charming accent that sounded, to my ear, sort of German and sort of French, and that look foreign students have. They are generally better groomed, their clothes are better proportioned, and they have the latest electronics. They listen to avant-garde music and talk about art. Of course that’s partly because they are the children of diplomats and businessmen—the ones who can make the choice to come to an expensive American university. Kay was the son of the Danish ambassador, but he had lived in so many countries that when I asked him where he was from, he simply said, “I am European.” Once, he even took me to the art museum on a date. Catch an American student doing that!

He was an undergraduate, and I had just started my MA. I was a little uncomfortable about that. He was only two years younger than me, but at the university, the undergraduate/graduate divide seemed almost unsurmountable. And anyway, I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. I wanted to finish my MA year with a high enough grade point average to go directly into the PhD program. All I was planning to think about that year were my classes in American literature: The Poetry of Emily DickinsonEmerson and the TranscendentalistsThe Novel from World War I to Postmodernism, and The Immigrant Experience, which I was not particularly excited about. I’d lived my own immigrant experience, and didn’t want to read about anyone else’s.

When I was a little girl, I asked my mother why she had come to the United States, with one suitcase and an infant daughter, leaving behind her parents, her language, everything she had ever known.

“We come from a cold country,” she had told me. “Do you know, Vera, in that country the king lives in a palace built of white stone with veins of quartz that resembles ice. The streets are made of ice between snow banks, and there are no automobiles—only sleighs. They used to be pulled by reindeer, but nowadays they are electronic.”

Vera was not my real name, but my English name, which she had given me when we landed at Logan airport. It sounded like part of my name in our native language, which I will transliterate Veriska, although Americans have difficulty pronouncing it properly. In our language, it means Snow Flower.

I would write it here in our alphabet, but the letters aren’t on my computer. My Apple Macintosh does not yet speak the language of snow.

• • • •

I was six years old, just about to start first grade, when we came to America. I was put in an English immersion program. The school administration had no choice, really. There was no one in the school, or even the school district, who spoke our language. We come from a small country, with a difficult language—agglutinative, and not related to any Indo-European tongue. The alphabet resembles a series of curlicues, like frost on a windowpane. If you’re not familiar with it, you won’t know where one letter begins and another ends. Some of the letters are not letters at all, but ideas, or more properly, modes of thinking. There is a letter, for example, that stands for memory. If you put it at the beginning of a word, it means something has been remembered. Or, if you add the letter for negation, that something has been forgotten.

Even the name of our country is difficult to pronounce for English speakers. Instead of spelling it out phonetically, we refer to it by its name in translation: Winter.

There was a small community of my countrymen and women in Boston, all my mother’s age or older. Many of them had fled after the most recent revolution. The history of my country in the twentieth century is a series of revolutions and conquests. I asked my mother who would want to conquer the country she described to me: a series of valleys between high mountains, where in summer the snow might melt for several months in the lower valleys, to be replaced by small white flowers that resembled snow, and winter seemed to last forever. Even in June the blossoming fruit trees might be covered with a layer of ice. The cold made our small, hard apples sweeter, tastier, than they were anywhere else. Cabbages and turnips were staples. Most crops were grown in large greenhouses that protected tender plants from the cold.

Countries in the lower valleys, my mother answered. Before the Second World War, in warmer regions, our primary export had been a valued commodity. In the days before electric refrigeration, everyone wanted ice. Now, of course, there was tourism: skiers and snowboarders valued our steep slopes, and mountain climbers came to conquer the high peaks of our mountains.

Because I could not speak English that first year, I could not make friends. It was a lonely year for me.

Eventually I learned English, but I never quite learned how to be an American child. Perhaps I had come here too late. Or perhaps it was something in me that caused me to turn inward rather than toward other children, and I would have been the same even in my native Winter, never quite fitting in there either. I found my refuge in books, particularly books about this new country I could barely understand. Little House on the Prairie seemed to me the most wonderful fairy tale about the great wide west. Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy March were four princesses growing up in a magical place called Concord, Massachusetts—just close enough to be real and yet far enough away to seem like a land lost in mists. I was in love with Tom Sawyer, and bitterly jealous of Becky Thatcher, for whom he walked on top of a fence. No one had walked on top of a fence for me. I liked those stories better than the stories in the old book from our country that my mother read to me, in which women married white bears and then had to travel to the ends of the earth, climbing mountains of ice in iron shoes, to rescue their bear husbands from frost giants. Why marry a bear in the first place? I wondered. Why not go to a one-room schoolhouse, form settlements, write for magazines as Jo was doing? Tom Sawyer was a trickster, like the fox in our fairy tales, whose pelt was as white as snow. He would sneak into your house and steal your fire, like a ghost. Huck Finn was like one of the ice trolls—uncivilized and uncouth, but somehow fascinating.

Although my mother read me these fairy tales, she did not like to discuss the history of our country. “We have left all that behind,” she said. But the woman she hired to stay with me after school while she worked at Boston University as a research librarian told me about the two princes who had founded our country, climbing high in the mountains to establish their territory above the Roman legions who were harrying them below. They had married the daughters of the king of the ice trolls—tall, beautiful women whose eyes were the color of rocks. Their descendants had battled each other a thousand years for the throne. She had taken the American name Anna, and I called her Nana Anna. It was she who helped me retain my native tongue, for my mother rarely spoke in our language. “Why should I?” she said. “We are never going back, and it makes me sad.”

When I was in high school, Nana Anna finally succumbed to lung cancer from the small brown cigarettes she was incessantly smoking, hand-rolled from a tobacco flavored with vanilla. After school—I had been admitted to Boston Latin Academy, one of the prestigious public schools that require an examination—I would go to her small apartment in Alston, and eventually her hospital room in Massachusetts General Hospital, to sit with her for hours, doing my homework. One day in the hospital, she motioned me to approach her bed. Closer, closer, she motioned, impatiently. With her small, frail, claw-like hand, she pulled me down by the lapel of my school jacket and whispered, in a voice that was almost gone, the ghost of a voice, “Veriska, when it is time, you must go back.”

I did not know what she meant, and did not want to distress her by asking. Anyway, I was American now—the previous year, my mother and I had become citizens. I had no desire to go back to Winter. I did not think of it as my native country anymore—did not even remember what it looked like, except in dreams that were probably based on my mother’s stories of frost giants and streets paved with ice and quince trees grown in glass houses. I spoke my native language adequately but not well, and rarely practiced it anymore now that Nana Anna was so sick. Somewhere along the way, I had decided to become as American as possible. I wore blue jeans and had a tattoo of falling snowflakes on my left wrist that scandalized my mother, because well-behaved girls did not get tattoos. I read Sylvia Plath.

My mother wanted me to study library science, “Because you like books so much, Vera,” she said, “and it’s a practical profession.” But I told her I wanted to study literature.

“Well, perhaps you can become a teacher,” she replied.

• • • •

There were only a few people at Nana Anna’s funeral—three old men and one young woman who said she was a distant relative. One of the old men came up to my mother and bowed, then spoke with her too rapidly for me to understand what he was saying. But among the words, I recognized one that meant “princess”—literally, “king’s daughter.” When I asked my mother about it, she said, “Anna was a member of the royal court, a descendant of one of the two families that have, for time out of mind, fought over Winter’s throne. In our country, she was lady-in-waiting to the queen. It was her hereditary right.”

How strange that this old woman who had taken care of me had been a member of the royal family! Remembering her one-bedroom apartment with its tiny kitchen, I felt sorry for her. She had been meant for palaces made of white stone with veins of quartz.

But I had the SAT to study for. I could not spent too much time thinking about the history of Winter—about which, anyway, I knew only the fragments Nana Anna had told me.

There were boyfriends here and there, in those years—a couple of casual ones in high school and a steady one in college, at Amherst, where I had gotten a full ride—half scholarships, half grants. I even thought we might become engaged, until the day he told me he was in love with a girl I thought was my best friend. Several months later, when he broke up with her and told me that I was the one, had always been the one—that he had just needed to make sure—I had already been admitted to a graduate program. Sorry, I told him. I really don’t have time for a relationship right now.

I was right—the MA program took all the time and energy I had, that and being an RA in an undergraduate dorm. At least it gave me a place to live so I didn’t have to stay at home with my mother. I could never have afforded my own apartment in Boston. I settled down to write my semester papers, determined to do as well as I could. That would be my life, I figured—classes during the day, evenings doing research in Mugar Library.

And then I met Kay.

• • • •

I have always preferred winter, probably because I was born in Winter, in February, when my mother tells me the capital city was encased in ice and the doctor had to come by electric sleigh through a snowstorm. I love to see the first leaves change, love to feel the cold breath of autumn coming. Seasonal allergies have something to do with it. June and July, I live on Claritin. The pollen from all the blossoming trees gives me a terrible headache. But after September comes, it seems as though the air regains a crystalline quality. It feels like clear water, like something hard and soft at the same time—feathers that can cut. Then the leaves turn and fall, like a splendid sunset lying on the sidewalks, and the first snows come, white and fresh, as though the earth is putting on her wedding gown.

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. In my country, gifts are not brought by Santa Claus. The Lady in the Moon herself comes down from the sky in her silver sleigh, drawn by snow geese that have put on their white plumage for winter. Next to her sits the white fox who eats the moon each month before the Lady renews it again. With the help of all the stars, who look like elves in sparkling tights and dresses, she distributes gifts to children throughout the land. Although my mother had given up many of our native customs, each year she decorated the tree with a moon on top, papier-mâché stars hanging from the branches, felt reindeer, and gingerbread men. We would leave out elderberry wine for the Lady in the Moon and a plate of oat cakes with a wedge of cheese for the geese and fox. The next morning, the oat cakes always had small bites taken out of it, and the cheese was eaten into a crescent shape.

I met Kay during the first snowfall. He bumped into me as I was walking to class, thinking about my paper on the rhetoric of mourning in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I slipped and fell on the icy sidewalk. “Undskyld!” he said, then switched to English. “I’m sorry, how stupid of me—I should have watched where I was going. Let me help you.” He took off his right glove and reached down a pale, firm hand. I recognized him from my class on the Transcendentalists, which was a 500-level course for both upper-class undergrads and MA students. He was the one who always did the reading and talked about the Transcendentalists as though their ideas mattered for more than the final exam. I had noticed him—he was, after all, tall and blond and very good-looking. He was hard not to notice. But I had thought of him as simply another undergrad.

What made him so much more exciting than other boys I had dated? Well, he was European—more sophisticated, more intellectual. He could talk about postmodern literary theory, although after several beers his utterances became as convoluted as Lacan’s. His area was modern European literature. He had been taking courses in the American Studies department simply for a distribution requirement. But he could also be moody, go silent for days at a time, sitting on his dorm room window seat and looking out at the snow. I asked him once if all that theory was good for him.

Still, there was something in me that was attracted to him. His family came from a small village in Denmark beside a glacier, where the primary industry was the ski season. Sometimes he seemed like a breath of cold mountain air. We had been dating for several months and our relationship was going well—he was going to stay in Boston for Christmas, and I had already told him that he could come celebrate with me and my mother—when Gerda showed up.

It was after Thanksgiving Break. We were sitting in our Transcendentalism class, waiting for Professor Feldman (Bob to those of us who were graduate students, but only in office hours and at departmental cocktail parties) to show up when in walked a girl—well, a woman, but she was not much older than me. She was wearing a pair of red boots that came up over her knees, and her black hair was cut in a Louise Brooks bob. She stood in front of the class and said, “Hi everyone. I have some bad news—Professor Feldman had a heart attack over the break. We don’t know yet when he’ll be able to come back to class. I was his TA last semester, so I’m going to fill in for him. I’m a grad student, so don’t bother calling me professor. You can just call me Gerda. All right, let’s see who did the reading. Pop quiz!”

She was in my department, but I hadn’t met her—she had passed her oral exam over the summer and was already working on her dissertation. After the class I introduced myself. “Oh, right, Vera,” she said. “You and the other MA students don’t need to take the final exam. Just turn in a twenty-page paper on the last day of class. Have you written a prospectus already? No? Well, how about turning it in next Friday?”

Later, Kay told me that she had “Robber Girl” tattooed across her shoulder blades, right where you could see it if she wore a low-cut dress, or maybe a bathing suit. It was the name of her rock band. Yes, she had a rock band with a couple of students from the Berklee College of Music—she was the lead singer and played guitar. They toured during the summer months, doing covers of  Eurythmics and other ’80s groups. I wondered how he knew—when had he seen her bare back? But it was the sort of information Gerda volunteered freely. Perhaps she had simply told him during office hours.

That was after the semester was over, of course—after we had picked up our final papers from her box in the department mail room. I was relieved to have gotten an A on the paper and for the semester. Gerda was much too smart to mess around with the university’s sexual harassment policy. No, she just stood in front of the class in her high red boots, wearing skinny jeans or a short denim skirt and a black turtleneck, talking about feminism and sexuality in Emily Dickinson’s poems, which was the topic of her doctoral dissertation. “If Dickinson could have fucked death, she would have,” Gerda said once, clearly not caring what anyone said on her course evaluations.

She was a good teacher, I’ll give her that. She found meanings in Dickinson’s poems that I had not seen. I had admired them for their artistic and intellectual engagement. Gerda revealed their incandescence. Kay always paid particular attention in that class, but then he had paid attention to Professor Feldman as well. It was only later that I realized there was more to it than caring about Dickinson’s subtext.

Just before Christmas, he told me that we should take a break, that he had to focus on exams and didn’t have time for a relationship. There was no celebration with my mother after all—he insisted that he had to study. By the time I came back to campus in January, he and Gerda were dating.

When I found out from my friend Stephanie, who was a work-study receptionist in the main office and knew all the departmental gossip, I spent a week crying myself to sleep at night, sobbing into my pillow. But Kay didn’t know that. I didn’t bother asking him for an explanation, and recriminations have never been my style. I have always prided myself on my ability to let things go. After all, I’ve had plenty of practice. When I was a little girl, I let go of an entire country.

One day, we ran into each other at the new café that had opened at the edge of campus, on Commonwealth Avenue. Blue Moon, it was called—organic, fair trade, locally sourced. There were scones with chia seeds in them, scones with açai berries. Smoothies that combined mango and kale.

“Vera,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to text you—”

“I already know,” I said. “About you and Gerda.”

“I really like you,” he said, as though it were an apology. “Like, really like. But Gerda, I don’t know. We’re just on the same wavelength.”

But Gerda. I suppose at some level, I had known from the moment she walked in with her high red boots. I had simply not wanted to see that he was drifting away from me like snow. Even when she was standing at the front of the class and he was the undergrad challenging her phallic interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s “A narrow fellow in the grass”—“Sometimes a snake is just a snake,” he would say—there was something between them, a solidarity. You could tell that despite their differences, they lived in the same intellectual and emotional time zone. They synched.

“I hope you’re happy with her,” I said. “I’m sure she’ll be happy with you.” Why wouldn’t she be? Any disagreements would be smoothed over by his blue Danish eyes, the perfection of his cheekbones.

• • • •

Christmas was strange that year. Men and women I did not know came to the apartment and talked to my mother in the walk-in closet she used as a sewing room. They spoke in the language of Winter, but so low and rapidly that I could not hear them through the keyhole, although I tried. I particularly wondered about one woman dressed in a long white coat with silver embroidery all over it, wearing a white fur hat.

“Who was that?” I asked my mother.

“That was the Matriarch of the Orthodox Church,” she replied. “Her Holiness is the highest religious authority in our country.”

“What is she doing here?” I asked. I had heard of the Holy Mother, but only in Nana Anna’s stories. Somehow, she had not seemed real to me, any more than the palace made of white stone or the glass houses with their orchards of flowering trees. But this priestess of the Lady Moon was real the way dreams are real—improbable, and yet indisputably sitting in our small living room, drinking my mother’s espresso.

“Paying her respects,” said my mother. “Vera, I smell something burning. Did you seal the jam pockets properly?”

Of course not. I never sealed the jam pockets properly. My mother always sealed their edges so the jam did not run out into the pan, but somehow I never managed to. The jam always ran out, overflowed the sides of the pan, and dripped down onto the electric burners. My baking was always accompanied by the smell of burnt sugar.

Winter is a cold country. Most of our desserts incorporate jam, dried fruit, or candied nuts—ingredients that can be stored almost indefinitely during the long, cold months. They are made of hearty grains—barley, oats, rye. Into them we mix cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger.

I rushed into the kitchen to rescue the jam pockets, and by the time I came out again, the Matriarch was gone.

But it was more than a matter of strange visitors coming at all hours. My mother seemed agitated, distracted. When I asked her what was wrong, she said only, “I’m getting old,” which was patently untrue. Her black hair was touched with gray, and she had lines of laughter and worry around her eyes, but she was as beautiful as ever—still the woman in the only photograph I had of her with my father, at their wedding. She was wearing an elaborate wedding gown, he was in his military uniform.

“What was his rank?” I asked her when I was in high school. I was curious about this man with the fierce mustache, who had died when I was only a child.

“I do not remember,” she had answered. It was more likely that she did not want to remember. All I knew was that he had died in one of our innumerable revolutions, defending the king—Nana Anna had told me that.

To be honest, I was glad when Christmas break was over and I could go back to school. At least I could replace worrying about my mother with working on my papers and avoiding Kay. I transferred out of Elegance and Anxiety: The Age of Wharton and James when Stephanie told me he was registered for the course.

• • • •

And then spring failed to come. In April, the snow did not melt. The forecasters shrugged as though to say, sometimes that happens in Massachusetts. But in May it did not melt either. The temperature did not get above thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. When June came and the temperature still hovered around freezing, the Weather Channel started talking about freak cold snaps, global cooling, a new ice age.

By that time, I assumed Kay had gone back to Denmark for the summer break. Of course I was still on campus, studying for my oral exam and RAing for the high school juniors and seniors taking summer courses, trying out college for the first time. Anyway, I lived in Boston—I had nowhere else to go.

But one day, I got a text on my cell phone: V need to talk to you please K.

Why? I texted back.

To talk about us.

Well, that wasn’t exactly an answer, was it?

What about?

Please??? I’ll buy coffee. Blue Moon @ 2?

Fine. What was I going to do, refuse to see him altogether? That would just prove to him that I cared, and I didn’t. Well, I did, but I didn’t want him to know that. Anyway, it was uncivilized. Only high school girls who had watched too much reality TV behaved like that.

He was waiting for me at a table near the front of the café, with a small cappuccino topped with cinnamon, my favorite. He still had perfect cheekbones, but just above his right cheekbone, at the corner of his eye, was a rectangular Band-Aid. Had he cut himself shaving? No, it was too high for a shaving cut. Well, I would not ask him about it. I was no longer his girlfriend, after all. Let Gerda do that.

“All right, what is it?” I asked, sitting down. He slid the cappuccino over to me.

“I know I messed up,” he said. “I should have told you about Gerda. I’m really sorry—really, really sorry. Is there any way we can start over?”

I looked at him, astonished. “Start over like . . . what? Like it never happened? What about Gerda, anyway? Where is she? And what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in Denmark?”

“That’s over,” he said. “I broke it off with her. She was—well, she was kind of nuts, and also kind of cruel. It’s as though she kept sticking this knife into me—metaphorically, I mean. With the things she would say, telling me she loved me, and then that she didn’t want to see me anymore, then calling me the next day and telling me to come over. It’s like she wanted to punish me for caring about her. And she was so negative—she would laugh at me for things like my mom sending me cookies from home—I mean the embassy, not home home. She called me sentimental. I don’t know where she is now—she said she was going on tour with Robber Girl, and then she just left. The last I heard from her, she was in Austin, Texas. She hasn’t texted me since. But honestly, I don’t care where she is. Come on, I know I messed up, but I care about you more than I’ve ever cared about anyone. Please, can we start over?”

I sipped my cappuccino. I didn’t know what to say. On the one hand, he had behaved like a complete asshole. On the other hand, he had very blue eyes, with long lashes. He looked at me pleadingly. That bandaid was incongruous on his perfect face.

“I have to think about it,” I finally said, putting my coffee cup down and pushing back my chair. I tried to be nonchalant, but I almost tipped it over as I stood up.

“Sure,” he said. “I get it, I really do. Take as long as you need to. Like, a week? I’ll text you in a week.”

“Thanks for the coffee,” I said. “I’m going now.”

“You’ll let me know in a week, right?” he said, looking up at me anxiously. “I think I was scared of how I felt about you. I think that’s why I messed up with Gerda.”

“A week,” I said, making no promises. But I could already feel myself weakening. He looked at me so appealingly, after all, like a child who wanted approval. Would it be so hard to care about him again? Had I ever actually stopped?

I texted Stephanie, to catch up on the departmental gossip. What happened between Gerda and Kay?

It only took her a moment to respond. I heard they had a big fight. He broke up with her, she threw her Norton Anthology of American Literature at him, and it hit a mirror in his dorm room. He got some glass close to his eye. Had to go to the emergency room to get it out plus a couple of stitches. That girl is batshit crazy.

Why hadn’t he told me about that? Probably because he was ashamed of it, of having gotten involved with someone who would pull a stunt like that. And also of being hurt by a girl.

• • • •

When I don’t know what to do about a situation, I ask my mother. Kay was a situation I didn’t know what to do about, so I went home.

I sent my mother a text to let her know I was coming, but she didn’t answer. Well, she often had her notifications off—if she turned them off by accident, she never knew how to turn them back on again. She was hopeless at technology. It had taken me a year to convince her to give up her flip-phone for something more practical. It was Thursday, which was her weekday off, so she wouldn’t be at the library.

“Mom!” I called as I pushed open the front door. “Mom, are you home?”

No answer, but I heard the murmur of voices from the living room. Did she have guests?

I walked from the hall into the living room. My mother was standing by the fireplace that had once been functional in our nineteenth-century brownstone, but was now purely decorative. Around her stood a group of men and women in business suits, with sashes arranged diagonally across their chests. I recognized the light blue and white of Winter’s national flag. There was the Matriarch, in her white hat. On either side of her stood a priestess in a white robe with silver collar and cuffs. But most prominent among them was a woman in a red dress, the color of geraniums. In that company, my mother looked plain and small in her black t-shirt and jeans.

“Vera!” she said, as though startled to see me.

The woman in the red dress turned sharply toward me, then looked me up and down.

“Your Royal Highness,” she said. She was tall and striking, with short white hair and a sharp nose. I was startled when she made me a deep curtsey. The men and women in sashes bowed or curtseyed, according to whether they were wearing trousers or skirts. The Matriarch and her priestesses remained upright.

“Excuse me?” I said. “I don’t understand . . .”

“Vera,” said my mother, coming forward. Suddenly, she was the most authoritative person in that room. The transformation took me by surprise—my mother did not often take charge, except in the library. “This is Baroness Hapsenkopf”—at least, that is the closest approximation in English. “She is the prime minister of Winter. When you were a little girl and your father was killed by his younger brother, she helped us escape, or we would surely have been imprisoned by him and his allies. He was not a good ruler—under his management, the country took on a great deal of debt to finance industries that have not made a profit. Now there is inflation, and no money left to repair the roads or educate the children. There is discontent among the people. Three months ago, he was overthrown by the army. The loyaltists who helped your father were released from prison, and they have been attempting to form a new government under the Baroness. Now, they would like you, as the only direct descendant in the royal line, to return as ruler.”

“But my father—” I said.

“Was Luthorion VII, King of Winter,” said Baroness Hapsenkopf. “You will be Veriska II. The first Veriska was a warrior queen who battled against the Ice Trolls. What we need now is not a warrior but an economist, a ruler who can repair roads, fund schools, and create jobs for the people. And the Ice Trolls have long been our allies. I have been approached by the Ice King himself, who has offered his son in marriage to cement an alliance between our nations. You are, of course, under no obligation to accept, but it would be an advantageous match.”

For a moment, I could not think of anything to say. It was as though the entire world had suddenly shifted under me, as though reality was not at all what I had thought, but something else altogether. The Baroness and the semi-circle of dignitaries from Winter were staring at me, as was my mother—waiting. I had to say something. But what?

“I’m neither a warrior nor an economist,” I said, finally. “I’m not qualified to be queen of anything. I mean, I’m just a grad student. The most responsibility I’ve ever had is being an RA.” This was ridiculous—I had an oral exam to study for, and suddenly I was supposed to rule Winter? Marry an Ice Troll? Fix an economy when I could barely keep track of my credit card balance, even with the banking app? And yet suddenly, a great many things in my life that had perplexed me came into focus, as though I had put on a pair of glasses for the first time. All the pieces of a complicated puzzle were fitting together. They showed me a picture: of Winter, and who my father had been, and why my mother claimed to have forgotten his rank. No wonder Nana Anna had taken such care to teach me the history of my country. A moment ago, the future had stretched before me, shapeless, formless. Now, it took a definite shape, as though flakes of snow had fallen and formed a pattern: a woman made of snow.

“Veriska,” said my mother, calling me by my full name for the first time since I was a child. “Your choice has repercussions here as well. You see, the snow has not gone away. It is still cold in Boston. Winter is more than a country—it is also an idea. It exists among the mountains, and also in the imagination. There must be a king or queen of Winter to maintain balance among the seasons.”

Okay, I sort of got that. I had been trained to understand metaphors. I mean, it didn’t really make sense, but then neither did a lot of other things that were nevertheless real and tangible. Somewhere, there was probably a Summer kingdom as well. But I was still not comfortable with the whole concept. “Why does it have to be a king or queen?” I asked. “Can’t you elect a president or something?”

“You may abdicate, if you wish,” said the Matriarch in her sonorous voice. “But doing so will plunge our country once again into chaos. There is no other clear heir to the throne, and several claimants in an indirect line who will fight each other to death if given the opportunity.”

So a constitutional monarchy it was, then. A republic was clearly not in the cards. “Can I have some time to think?” I asked.

“Of course,” replied the Matriarch. She looked at her wristwatch. “We can give you an hour.”

One hour to make the most important decision of my life? These people were crazy, the whole situation was crazy. I was about to say that when I saw the Baroness’s face. It was carefully neutral, but there were dark circles under her eyes and cheekbones.

Nana Anna had told me about the men and women who had been sent to prison—or worse, to labor camps in the mountains—for supporting the last king. She had simply neglected to mention that he was my father. The dignitaries in front of me, with their blue and white sashes, were some of those people.

“All right, one hour,” I said. I walked out of the apartment and down to our street of brownstones, then turned and made my way to Commonwealth Avenue. It was the middle of summer, but the people who passed me were still wearing winter coats. I walked around for a while, randomly, then went down to the Charles River and stared at the ice still floating on the surface. It wasn’t thick enough to walk on—there was black water underneath. Should I agree to become Winter’s queen? I felt completely inadequate to the task.

Suddenly, the ice on the river cracked into large chunks. The chunks had nowhere to go, so they simply lay on top of the water. The cracks made a pattern in the language of Winter: They spelled out Queen Veriska. I rubbed my eyes, absolutely certain that I was hallucinating.

“It’s not an illusion.” Who had said that, in the language of my country?

Next to me stood a woman in a light blue dress, with a white fur collar and cuffs. She was wearing a white fur hat on her gray hair and carrying what I thought was a ruff of the same fur until I realized it was a fox as white as snow. Behind her stood a sleigh carved of white wood with silver runners, to which were harnessed six white geese.

“Lady Moon,” I said. I mean, it was obvious who she was—Nana Ana had told me enough stories. Either I was ready to be committed to a mental hospital, or I was having an encounter with a supernatural being.

“Winter needs you,” she said. “You see, it is calling to you all the way here in Boston.”

“But I don’t know how to be a queen.” I looked back down at the ice. Now it was spelling out Come home, Queen Veriska.

“When have you known how to do anything before you did it?” she asked. “Did you know how to swim before you learned at Walden Pond in summer camp? Did you know how to write a paper before your eleventh grade teacher taught you in Honors English? You will learn this as well. Baroness Hapsenkopf will teach you, as will your mother, the Queen Dowager.”

It was disconcerting how much Lady Moon knew about me. But then, she was Winter’s equivalent to Santa Claus. She probably knew everything.

“This is different,” I said. “No one was going to drown if I didn’t learn to swim but me. No one else was going to get an F on her paper if I failed. But if I fail as queen . . . Anyway, I don’t understand this whole business about balancing the seasons.”

“The Snow King or Queen brings winter,” she said. “Then as the year turns, the King or Queen of Summer—currently Rudolph IV—brings back warmth and sunlight, banishing the cold and darkness until it is time for winter again. But the two monarchs must coordinate carefully. If Rudi comes while snow is still lying on the ground, it will cause terrible floods. So you must work with him, you must hand off responsibilities, as it were—he has been waiting for months now for the coronation of Winter’s queen.” I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was being patient, but I had maybe five or ten more minutes of her putting up with my nonsense. At least, that’s the way Nana Anna would have said it.

It all sounded—well, a little crazy, and like a lot of responsibility. How in the world was I supposed to do all this?

“Hold out your hand,” she said. “Over the ice. Just there—hold it steadily.” I had overestimated: By her tone, I had maybe a minute more of her patience. I didn’t think she would frown at me the way Nana Anna had. She was much more likely to turn me into a rock, as she had the daughter of Ivor the Ice Troll in fairy tales, and then smash me to smithereens.

I held my hand over the icy river. What was this supposed to do?

The cracks in the ice reformed themselves into the words What do you wish, O Queen?

What did I wish? I didn’t even know anymore. “I wish winter would end,” I said. I did, at least, want that. Let the high school students play Ultimate Frisbee on the university’s small patches of green space. Let people eat ice cream while walking down the street in t-shirts.

Your wish is our command, wrote the ice, and then it broke along those cracks. The pieces of ice stood up on end and danced on the choppy black water, then melted. The sun came out from behind the gray clouds. It was not warm, exactly—it was still a winter sun. But it was something.

“I shall tell Rudi that you are on your way,” said Lady Moon with a tight-lipped smile, the same smile her fox seemed to have on his face. I could tell that I had sorely tried her patience. “Run along, Veriska. Give Queen Agata my best wishes, and tell the Matriarch that I will be back in Winter for Christmas, as usual.”

I walked back to the apartment in a daze. When I entered the living room again, I walked up to Baroness Hapsenkopf and said, “All right, I’ll do it. I’ll be Veriska II. I mean, you’ll have to teach me how, but I’ll try.”

“What convinced you?” asked the Matriarch, sounding as though she did not particularly approve of me—but I was the only Veriska II she had, so she would have to make the best of it.

“Lady Moon,” I said. “She . . . well, we had a talk. I mean, she did most of the talking.”

My mother looked at me with astonishment, but the Matriarch nodded as though she were not at all surprised.

“Then it is time to leave,” said the Baroness. “There is a helicopter waiting for us on the roof.”

Somehow, I had been expecting a sleigh drawn by snow geese, or something equally improbable. But a helicopter would work as well. I turned to go pack, but no, I would not need to pack. There was nothing here I needed, not even my tattered and heavily underlined copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, and anyway from now on my packing would be done for me. I had more important things to do—a country to save, a balance to restore, if I could just learn how.

“All right,” I said. “I’m ready.”

• • • •

A week later, I got a text on my cell phone. It was still my old iPhone with an international plan. I was getting 3G even in Winter.

Holy crap it’s all over the Daily Free Press you’re like a queen. Do I call you majesty or what. Summer finally here.

I was standing in the greenhouse attached to the palace, under the quince trees. I had spent the morning in a meeting with the finance minister, and would spend the afternoon in a meeting with the ambassadors of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Should I write back? At least to tell Kay that I was meeting with a representative of his country. Or not—I doubt he was texting me to hear about politics. Why was he texting me? Oh yeah, it was a week after our meeting in the Blue Moon café.

Winter here. In royal palace. Coronation yesterday, so yes, I’m officially queen. Your majesty, ma’am, whatever. ;)

The response came almost as soon as I had written mine.

So no hope of getting back together I guess. Ma’am.

I had to laugh. The gall of him! I still cared about him—I did, didn’t I? Despite the whole Gerda incident. But at a royal reception, I had met the crown prince of Trollheim, whose name was Edrik. Trolls are a lot better looking than you would expect. He had really pretty blue eyes, and excellent taste in British rock bands. We had a long discussion of existentialism once we’d escaped from the reception with a handful of canapés. I didn’t know if I wanted to marry him, but I wasn’t ruling out the possibility. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the arranged marriage either, but we’d already decided to spend a weekend skiing together. I’d learned to ski as a child and wasn’t sure if I remembered how. But if he had to teach me, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it? Anyway, Winter needed an ally against the frost giants. Or maybe I would look into joining NATO?

You can’t date me from Boston, I texted back.

What if I came to Winter.

Do you even know how to get here?

Pretty sure there’s a Lufthansa flight to Finland. From there I don’t know. Reindeer? It could be like a quest. Or like a road trip except with sleighs.

I looked around me at the glass walls of the greenhouse. Inside, it was all trees and leaves and blossoms. Outside, the snow was just starting to melt. At this altitude, summer came late, even in ordinary years. Here I was, the Snow Queen—what I was born to be, at least according to my mother and Baroness Hapsenkopf. I did not feel like much of a queen. However, in the last week, I had met with members of parliament from the three major parties, the heads of various labor unions, the generals who had participated in the recent coup, the Matriarch and her council of priestesses, the director of the Central Bank, and at my insistence, a selection of ordinary citizens chosen by lottery, from university professors to plumbers and seamstresses. I had been interviewed by both major newspapers, all three state television stations, and an online journal called WW for Women of Winter.

I did not know if I would make a good queen, but I was starting to see what needed to be done, how to restore the economy of my country. It would take a while, but these things always did. Slowly, Winter would regain its former reputation and independence from the IMF.

All right, I texted. If you can figure out how to get here, come find me.

Would Kay make it to my palace of white stone veined with quartz, or get lost along the way among the snows? If he made it, would I choose him or Edrik, who was after all a prince? I didn’t know, but today I was the Queen of Winter, and I had more important things to think about.

For a moment, I stood among the quince trees, whose white blossoms looked like snow on the branches and fell like snow to the ground. Outside, a dusting of snow fell from the roof, like blossoms blown by the wind. Then, I turned and walked into my palace, where my future, whatever it was, awaited me.

Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is the author of the novels The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (which was a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards) and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. Her other publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology co-edited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia (2014). Her work has been translated into ten languages, including French, Japanese, and Turkish. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Locus, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, and on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her short story “Singing of Mount Abora” (2007) won the World Fantasy Award. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program.