They found her on the playground. It was October, and the ground was cold. There was a yellow leaf stuck in her hair, which spilled like black ink over the mulch. Her dress was white. Her face was white, covered in ice, and it frosted her eyelashes. Her lips were purple until one of them wiped her face with a cloth and then her lips were red, red like falling leaves, red like ripe apples, red like blood.
They picked her up and took her home. For a while there was a sort of wet shape in the mulch, just enough to show that a snow girl had lain there for a while. But then the wet evaporated and the wind blew and you would never know that anyone had braved the cold to go to the playground that day.
* * *
They are tall. They are small. They are seven. She is their in-between girl, and they take care of her until she thaws some. Then she can move, can see, can get up and cook spaghetti. She does not clean, except when she needs dishes to make her dinner.
Sometimes she plays solitaire. Sometimes she plays music. Sometimes she thinks they are not there at all, and she is still frozen, dreaming while she waits for the sun to come and melt her away. Sometimes she goes to the school and the boys and girls there say You are beautiful and You are lovely and I want you for my very own. Sometimes the boys and girls scare her and she runs away, back to her cards and her piano and her dreaming.
She is not to look in mirrors, because mirrors tell secrets and lies. She looks anyway. The mirrors tell her nothing. She already knows she is a snow child. She knows she is a skeleton child. She can feel it for herself, see her own cold, bony hands.
* * *
She knows who the woman is. She does not tell them later, but she knows when she lays her fingers on the doorknob, she knows when she opens the door, she knows when she lets the woman lace the corset onto her, what will happen. She knows when she faints. She knows who, and what, and when, and where, and why, but she does it anyway.
Later, when she is breathing again and they hover over her like hallucinations, she thinks, How silly. Even if I didn’t know, what sort of teenager wouldn’t be freaked out by some woman selling corsets door-to-door? But she thinks perhaps they don’t know these things. After all, they probably aren’t real.
* * *
The woman comes the second time. This time she does not even give the woman time to knock. Yes, I will buy a comb. Yes, please comb my hair for me. For a moment she has a mother, gently combing her hair, and she can pretend that the comb isn’t poisoned, that the woman loves her.
They wake her again. Why didn’t they let her sleep? She was having such a lovely dream.
* * *
The woman comes the third time. Power in threes. She thinks the woman is silly, to poison the red part of the apple. She would rather eat the white, white and pale like her skin, but she knows what is expected. She knows what will make the woman happy. For her stepmother’s smile, she will play along. She will take the bait.
* * *
She sleeps. She is ice.
* * *
Coughing. Coughing and there’s something blocking her mouth, something else lodged in her throat. She gasps, chokes—her mouth is no longer blocked and she rolls over, coughs and coughs until her throat clears and she can sit up, can take deep breaths and try to figure out what the hell is going on.
There is a young man. He is going to bring her home, going to make her his queen. Her stepmother is overthrown, he says. She doesn’t have to be afraid anymore. She couldn’t breathe because there was a piece of apple in her throat, because he tried to breathe for her and woke her up.
She thinks he’s creepy, this stranger out of nowhere. She doesn’t want him. She wants her mother. She wants to be ice. She lets him take her back, though, to the seven. He speaks with them, so perhaps they aren’t hallucinations after all.
He stays for a few weeks. She teaches him how to play kings in the corners (like solitaire but not, and two people can play), heats up leftover spaghetti in the microwave. He teaches her how to fold paper cranes and play the penny whistle. She melts a little. Melts a little more the next day. Her hair stays black, but some of the red in her lips moves to her cheeks, and she smiles more. Her fingers stop looking like sticks covered in snow and start looking like fingers.
She agrees to go back with him.
* * *
He holds her hand at the execution. She cries when they put the red-hot shoes on the woman, when they make her dance and dance until she falls down and doesn’t get up again. She tells him it didn’t hurt when the woman tried to kill her.
He looks at her with sad, sad eyes, and kisses her forehead. He tells her the woman was a cruel queen. He tells her that the woman hurt the people, that they needed this revenge. He tells her he didn’t have a choice; they wouldn’t have stood for anything less.
* * *
Nighttime, and her crying wakes him. He sits up next to her, holds her in his arms until she starts hiccupping, until she can speak. She cries away the last of the melted ice, and then she looks at him and says, I don’t know what to do now.
He leans her against him, whispers into her hair, I don’t know either. But I am here. I love you.
She wraps her arms around him. He is warm. She whispers, I love you, too. And they sit that way for a long time.