Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you. You enter the walls of the city early in the evening, when the cobblestones are a mottled pink with reflected light, and cold beneath the slap of your bare, bloody feet. You ask the man who is guarding the gate to recommend a place to stay the night, and even as you are falling into the bed at the inn, the bed, which is piled high with quilts and scented with lavender, perhaps alone, perhaps with another traveler, perhaps with the guardsman who had such brown eyes, and a mustache that curled up on either side of his nose like two waxed black laces, even as this guardsman, whose name you didn’t ask calls out a name in his sleep that is not your name, you are dreaming about the road again. When you sleep, you dream about the long white distances that still lie before you. When you wake up, the guardsman is back at his post, and the place between your legs aches pleasantly, your legs sore as if you had continued walking all night in your sleep. While you were sleeping, your feet have healed again. You were careful not to kiss the guardsman on the lips, so it doesn’t really count, does it.
Your destination is North. The map that you are using is a mirror. You are always pulling the bits out of your bare feet, the pieces of the map that broke off and fell on the ground as the Snow Queen flew overhead in her sleigh. Where you are, where you are coming from, it is impossible to read a map made of paper. If it were that easy then everyone would be a traveler. You have heard of other travelers whose maps are breadcrumbs, whose maps are stones, whose maps are the four winds, whose maps are yellow bricks laid one after the other. You read your map with your foot, and behind you somewhere there must be another traveler whose map is the bloody footprints that you are leaving behind you.
There is a map of fine white scars on the soles of your feet that tells you where you have been. When you are pulling the shards of the Snow Queen’s looking–glass out of your feet, you remind yourself, you tell yourself to imagine how it felt when Kay’s eyes, Kay’s heart were pierced by shards of the same mirror. Sometimes it is safer to read maps with your feet.
Ladies. Has it ever occurred to you that fairy tales aren’t easy on the feet?
So this is the story so far. You grew up, you fell in love with the boy next door, Kay, the one with blue eyes who brought you bird feathers and roses, the one who was so good at puzzles. You thought he loved you—maybe he thought he did, too. His mouth tasted so sweet, it tasted like love, and his fingers were so kind, they pricked like love on your skin, but three years and exactly two days after you moved in with him, you were having drinks out on the patio. You weren’t exactly fighting, and you can’t remember what he had done that had made you so angry, but you threw your glass at him. There was a noise like the sky shattering.
The cuff of his trousers got splashed. There were little fragments of glass everywhere. “Don’t move,” you said. You weren’t wearing shoes.
He raised his hand up to his face. “I think there’s something in my eye,” he said.
His eye was fine, of course, there wasn’t a thing in it, but later that night when he was undressing for bed, there were little bits of glass like grains of sugar, dusting his clothes. When you brushed your hand against his chest, something pricked your finger and left a smear of blood against his heart.
The next day it was snowing and he went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. You sat on the patio drinking something warm and alcoholic, with nutmeg in it, and the snow fell on your shoulders. You were wearing a short–sleeved T–shirt; you were pretending that you weren’t cold, and that your lover would be back soon. You put your finger on the ground and then stuck it in your mouth. The snow looked like sugar, but it tasted like nothing at all.
The man at the corner store said that he saw your lover get into a long white sleigh. There was a beautiful woman in it, and it was pulled by thirty white geese. “Oh, her,” you said, as if you weren’t surprised. You went home and looked in the wardrobe for that cloak that belonged to your great–grandmother. You were thinking about going after him. You remembered that the cloak was woolen and warm, and a beautiful red—a traveler’s cloak. But when you pulled it out, it smelled like wet dog and the lining was ragged, as if something had chewed on it. It smelled like bad luck: it made you sneeze, and so you put it back. You waited for a while longer.
Two months went by, and Kay didn’t come back, and finally you left and locked the door of your house behind you. You were going to travel for love, without shoes, or cloak, or common sense. This is one of the things a woman can do when her lover leaves her. It’s hard on the feet perhaps, but staying at home is hard on the heart, and you weren’t quite ready to give him up yet. You told yourself that the woman in the sleigh must have put a spell on him, and he was probably already missing you. Besides, there are some questions you want to ask him, some true things you want to tell him. This is what you told yourself.
The snow was soft and cool on your feet, and then you found the trail of glass, the map.
After three weeks of hard traveling, you came to the city.
No, really, think about it. Think about the little mermaid, who traded in her tail for love, got two legs and two feet, and every step was like walking on knives. And where did it get her? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Then there’s the girl who put on the beautiful red dancing shoes. The woodsman had to chop her feet off with an axe.
There are Cinderella’s two stepsisters, who cut off their own toes, and Snow White’s stepmother, who danced to death in red–hot iron slippers. The Goose Girl’s maid got rolled down a hill in a barrel studded with nails. Travel is hard on the single woman. There was this one woman who walked east of the sun and then west of the moon, looking for her lover, who had left her because she spilled tallow on his nightshirt. She wore out at least one pair of perfectly good iron shoes before she found him. Take our word for it, he wasn’t worth it. What do you think happened when she forgot to put the fabric softener in the dryer? Laundry is hard, travel is harder. You deserve a vacation, but of course you’re a little wary. You’ve read the fairy tales. We’ve been there, we know.
That’s why we here at Snow Queen Tours have put together a luxurious but affordable package for you, guaranteed to be easy on the feet and on the budget. See the world by goosedrawn sleigh, experience the archetypal forest, the winter wonderland; chat with real live talking animals (please don’t feed them). Our accommodations are three–star: sleep on comfortable, guaranteed pea–free box–spring mattresses; eat meals prepared by world–class chefs. Our tour guides are friendly, knowledgeable, well–traveled, trained by the Snow Queen herself. They know first aid, how to live off the land; they speak three languages fluently.
Special discount for older sisters, stepsisters, stepmothers, wicked witches, crones, hags, princesses who have kissed frogs without realizing what they were getting into, etc.
You leave the city and you walk all day beside a stream that is as soft and silky as blue fur. You wish that your map was water, and not broken glass. At midday you stop and bathe your feet in a shallow place and the ribbons of red blood curl into the blue water.
Eventually you come to a wall of briars, so wide and high that you can’t see any way around it. You reach out to touch a rose, and prick your finger. You suppose that you could walk around, but your feet tell you that the map leads directly through the briar wall, and you can’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you. Remember what happened to the little girl, your great–grandmother, in her red woolen cape. Maps protect their travelers, but only if the travelers obey the dictates of their maps. This is what you have been told.
Perched in the briars above your head is a raven, black and sleek as the curlicued moustache of the guardsman. The raven looks at you and you look back at it. “I’m looking for someone,” you say. “A boy named Kay.”
The raven opens its big beak and says, “He doesn’t love you, you know.”
You shrug. You’ve never liked talking animals. Once your lover gave you a talking cat, but it ran away and secretly you were glad. “I have a few things I want to say to him, that’s all.” You have, in fact, been keeping a list of all the things you are going to say to him. “Besides, I wanted to see the world, be a tourist for a while.”
“That’s fine for some,” the raven says. Then he relents. “If you’d like to come in, then come in. The princess just married the boy with the boots that squeaked on the marble floor.”
“That’s fine for some,” you say. Kay’s boots squeak; you wonder how he met the princess, if he is the one that she just married, how the raven knows that he doesn’t love you, what this princess has that you don’t have, besides a white sleigh pulled by thirty geese, an impenetrable wall of briars, and maybe a castle. She’s probably just some bimbo.
“The Princess Briar Rose is a very wise princess,” the raven says, “but she’s the laziest girl in the world. Once she went to sleep for a hundred days and no one could wake her up, although they put one hundred peas under her mattress, one each morning.”
This, of course, is the proper and respectful way of waking up princesses. Sometimes Kay used to wake you up by dribbling cold water on your feet. Sometimes he woke you up by whistling.
“On the one hundredth day,” the raven says, “she woke up all by herself and told her council of twelve fairy godmothers that she supposed it was time she got married. So they stuck up posters, and princes and youngest sons came from all over the kingdom.”
When the cat ran away, Kay put up flyers around the neighborhood. You wonder if you should have put up flyers for Kay. “Briar Rose wanted a clever husband, but it tired her dreadfully to sit and listen to the young men give speeches and talk about how rich and sexy and smart they were. She fell asleep and stayed asleep until the young man with the squeaky boots came in. It was his boots that woke her up.
“It was love at first sight. Instead of trying to impress her with everything he knew and everything he had seen, he declared that he had come all this way to hear Briar Rose talk about her dreams. He’d been studying in Vienna with a famous Doctor, and was deeply interested in dreams.”
Kay used to tell you his dreams every morning. They were long and complicated and if he thought you weren’t listening to him, he’d sulk. You never remember your dreams. “Other peoples’ dreams are never very interesting,” you tell the raven.
The raven cocks its head. It flies down and lands on the grass at your feet. “Wanna bet?” it says. Behind the raven you notice a little green door recessed in the briar wall. You could have sworn that it wasn’t there a minute ago.
The raven leads you through the green door, and across a long green lawn towards a two–story castle that is the same pink as the briar roses. You think this is kind of tacky, but exactly what you would expect from someone named after a flower. “I had this dream once,” the raven says, “that my teeth were falling out. They just crumbled into pieces in my mouth. And then I woke up, and realized that ravens don’t have teeth.”
You follow the raven inside the palace, and up a long, twisty stair–case. The stairs are stone, worn and smoothed away, like old thick silk. Slivers of glass glister on the pink stone, catching the light of the candles on the wall. As you go up, you see that you are part of a great gray rushing crowd. Fantastic creatures, flat and thin as smoke, race up the stairs, men and women and snakey things with bright eyes. They nod to you as they slip past. “Who are they?” you ask the raven.
“Dreams,” the raven says, hopping awkwardly from step to step. “The Princess’s dreams, come to pay their respects to her new husband. Of course they’re too fine to speak to the likes of us.”
But you think that some of them look familiar. They have a familiar smell, like a pillow that your lover’s head has rested upon.
At the top of the staircase is a wooden door with a silver keyhole. The dreams pour steadily through the keyhole, and under the bottom of the door, and when you open it, the sweet stink and cloud of dreams are so thick in the Princess’s bedroom that you can barely breathe. Some people might mistake the scent of the Princess’s dreams for the scent of sex; then again, some people mistake sex for love.
You see a bed big enough for a giant, with four tall oak trees for bedposts. You climb up the ladder that rests against the side of the bed to see the Princess’s sleeping husband. As you lean over, a goose feather flies up and tickles your nose. You brush it away, and dislodge several seedy–looking dreams. Briar Rose rolls over and laughs in her sleep, but the man beside her wakes up. “Who is it?” he says. “What do you want?”
He isn’t Kay. He doesn’t look a thing like Kay. “You’re not Kay,” you tell the man in the Princess’s bed.
“Who the fuck is Kay?” he says, so you explain it all to him, feeling horribly embarrassed. The raven is looking pleased with itself, the way your talking cat used to look, before it ran away. You glare at the raven. You glare at the man who is not Kay.
After you’ve finished, you say that something is wrong, because your map clearly indicates that Kay has been here, in this bed. Your feet are leaving bloody marks on the sheets, and you pick a sliver of glass off the foot of the bed, so everyone can see that you’re not lying. Princess Briar Rose sits up in bed, her long pinkish–brown hair tumbled down over her shoulders. “He’s not in love with you,” she says, yawning.
“So he was here, in this bed, you’re the icy slut in the sleigh at the corner store, you’re not even bothering to deny it,” you say.
She shrugs her pink–white shoulders. “Four, five months ago, he came through, I woke up,” she says. “He was a nice guy, okay in bed. She was a real bitch, though.”
“Who was?” you ask.
Briar Rose finally notices that her new husband is glaring at her. “What can I say?” she says, and shrugs. “I have a thing for guys in squeaky boots.”
“Who was a bitch?” you ask again.
“The Snow Queen,” she says, “the slut in the sleigh.”
This is the list you carry in your pocket, of the things you plan to say to Kay, when you find him, if you find him:
1. I’m sorry that I forgot to water your ferns while you were away that time.
2. When you said that I reminded you of your mother, was that a good thing?
3. I never really liked your friends all that much.
4. None of my friends ever really liked you.
5. Do you remember when the cat ran away, and I cried and cried and made you put up posters, and she never came back? I wasn’t crying because she didn’t come back. I was crying because I’d taken her to the woods, and I was scared she’d come back and tell you what I’d done, but I guess a wolf got her, or something. She never liked me anyway.
6. I never liked your mother.
7. After you left, I didn’t water your plants on purpose. They’re all dead.
9. Were you ever really in love with me?
10. Was I good in bed, or just average?
11. What exactly did you mean, when you said that it was fine that I had put on a little weight, that you thought I was even more beautiful, that I should go ahead and eat as much as I wanted, but when I weighed myself on the bathroom scale, I was exactly the same weight as before, I hadn’t gained a single pound?
12. So all those times, I’m being honest here, every single time, and anyway I don’t care if you don’t believe me, I faked every orgasm you ever thought I had. Women can do that, you know. You never made me come, not even once.
13. So maybe I’m an idiot, but I used to be in love with you.
14. I slept with some guy, I didn’t mean to, it just kind of happened. Is that how it was with you? Not that I’m making any apologies, or that I’d accept yours, I just want to know.
15. My feet hurt, and it’s all your fault.
16. I mean it this time, goodbye.
The Princess Briar Rose isn’t a bimbo after all, even if she does have a silly name and a pink castle. You admire her dedication to the art and practice of sleep. By now you are growing sick and tired of traveling, and would like nothing better than to curl up in a big featherbed for one hundred days, or maybe even one hundred years, but she offers to loan you her carriage, and when you explain that you have to walk, she sends you off with a troop of armed guards. They will escort you through the forest, which is full of thieves and wolves and princes on quests, lurking about. The guards politely pretend that they don’t notice the trail of blood that you are leaving behind. They probably think it’s some sort of female thing.
It is after sunset, and you aren’t even half a mile into the forest, which is dark and scary and full of noises, when bandits ambush your escort, and slaughter them all. The bandit queen, who is grizzled and gray, with a nose like an old pickle, yells delightedly at the sight of you. “You’re a nice plump one for my supper!” she says, and draws her long knife out of the stomach of one of the dead guards. She is just about to slit your throat, as you stand there, politely pretending not to notice the blood that is pooling around the bodies of the dead guards, that is now obliterating the bloody tracks of your feet, the knife that is at your throat, when a girl about your own age jumps onto the robber queen’s back, pulling at the robber queen’s braided hair as if it were reins.
There is a certain family resemblance between the robber queen and the girl who right now has her knees locked around the robber queen’s throat. “I don’t want you to kill her,” the girl says, and you realize that she means you, that you were about to die a minute ago, that travel is much more dangerous than you had ever imagined. You add an item of complaint to the list of things that you plan to tell Kay, if you find him.
The girl has half–throttled the robber queen, who has fallen to her knees, gasping for breath. “She can be my sister,” the girl says insistently. “You promised I could have a sister and I want her. Besides, her feet are bleeding.”
The robber queen drops her knife, and the girl drops back onto the ground, kissing her mother’s hairy gray cheek. “Very well, very well,” the robber queen grumbles, and the girl grabs your hand, pulling you farther and faster into the woods, until you are running and stumbling, her hand hot around yours.
You have lost all sense of direction; your feet are no longer set upon your map. You should be afraid, but instead you are strangely exhilarated. Your feet don’t hurt anymore, and although you don’t know where you are going, for the very first time you are moving fast enough, you are almost flying, your feet are skimming over the night–black forest floor as if it were the smooth, flat surface of a lake, and your feet were two white birds. “Where are we going?” you ask the robber girl.
“We’re here,” she says, and stops so suddenly that you almost fall over. You are in a clearing, and the full moon is hanging overhead. You can see the robber girl better now, under the light of the moon. She looks like one of the bad girls who loiter under the street lamp by the corner shop, the ones who used to whistle at Kay. She wears black leatherette boots laced up to her thighs, and a black, ribbed T–shirt and grape–colored plastic shorts with matching suspenders. Her nails are painted black, and bitten down to the quick. She leads you to a tumbledown stone keep, which is as black inside as her fingernail polish, and smells strongly of dirty straw and animals.
“Are you a princess?” she asks you. “What are you doing in my mother’s forest? Don’t be afraid. I won’t let my mother eat you.”
You explain to her that you are not a princess, what you are doing, about the map, who you are looking for, what he did to you, or maybe it was what he didn’t do. When you finish, the robber girl puts her arms around you and squeezes you roughly. “You poor thing! But what a silly way to travel!” she says. She shakes her head and makes you sit down on the stone floor of the keep and show her your feet. You explain that they always heal, that really your feet are quite tough, but she takes off her leatherette boots and gives them to you.
The floor of the keep is dotted with indistinct, motionless forms. One snarls in its sleep, and you realize that they are dogs. The robber girl is sitting between four slender columns, and when the dog snarls, the thing shifts restlessly, lowering its branchy head. It is a hobbled reindeer. “Well go on, see if they fit,” the robber girl says, pulling out her knife. She drags it along the stone floor to make sparks. “What are you going to do when you find him?”
“Sometimes I’d like to cut off his head,” you say. The robber girl grins, and thumps the hilt of her knife against the reindeer’s chest.
The robber girl’s feet are just a little bigger, but the boots are still warm from her feet. You explain that you can’t wear the boots, or else you won’t know where you are going. “Nonsense!” the robber girl says rudely.
You ask if she knows a better way to find Kay, and she says that if you are still determined to go looking for him, even though he obviously doesn’t love you, and he isn’t worth a bit of trouble, then the thing to do is to find the Snow Queen. “This is Bae. Bae, you mangy old, useless old thing,” she says. “Do you know where the Snow Queen lives?”
The reindeer replies in a low, hopeless voice that he doesn’t know, but he is sure that his old mother does. The robber girl slaps his flank. “Then you’ll take her to your mother,” she says. “And mind that you don’t dawdle on the way.”
She turns to you and gives you a smacking wet kiss on the lips and says, “Keep the shoes, they look much nicer on you than they did on me. And don’t let me hear that you’ve been walking on glass again.” She gives the reindeer a speculative look. “You know, Bae, I almost think I’m going to miss you.”
You step into the cradle of her hands, and she swings you over the reindeer’s bony back. Then she saws through the hobble with her knife, and yells “Ho!” waking up the dogs.
You knot your fingers into Bae’s mane, and bounce up as he stumbles into a fast trot. The dogs follow for a distance, snapping at his hooves, but soon you have outdistanced them, moving so fast that the wind peels your lips back in an involuntary grimace. You almost miss the feel of glass beneath your feet. By morning, you are out of the forest again, and Bae’s hooves are churning up white clouds of snow.
Sometimes you think there must be an easier way to do this. Sometimes it seems to be getting easier all on its own. Now you have boots and a reindeer, but you still aren’t happy. Sometimes you wish that you’d stayed at home. You’re sick and tired of traveling towards the happily ever after, whenever the fuck that is—you’d like the happily right now. Thank you very much.
When you breathe out, you can see the fine mist of your breath and the breath of the reindeer floating before you, until the wind tears it away. Bae runs on.
The snow flies up, and the air seems to grow thicker and thicker. As Bae runs, you feel that the white air is being rent by your passage, like heavy cloth. When you turn around and look behind you, you can see the path shaped to your joined form, woman and reindeer, like a hall stretching back to infinity. You see that there is more than one sort of map, that some forms of travel are indeed easier. “Give me a kiss,” Bae says. The wind whips his words back to you. You can almost see the shape of them hanging in the heavy air.
“I’m not really a reindeer,” he says. “I’m an enchanted prince.”
You politely decline, pointing out that you haven’t known him that long, and besides, for traveling purposes, a reindeer is better than a prince.
“He doesn’t love you,” Bae says. “And you could stand to lose a few pounds. My back is killing me.”
You are sick and tired of talking animals, as well as travel. They never say anything that you didn’t already know. You think of the talking cat that Kay gave you, the one that would always come to you, secretly, and looking very pleased with itself, to inform you when Kay’s fingers smelled of some other woman. You couldn’t stand to see him pet it, his fingers stroking its white fur, the cat lying on its side and purring wildly, “There, darling, that’s perfect, don’t stop,” his fingers on its belly, its tail wreathing and lashing, its pointy little tongue sticking out at you. “Shut up,” you say to Bae.
He subsides into an offended silence. His long brown fur is rimmed with frost, and you can feel the tears that the wind pulls from your eyes turning to ice on your cheeks. The only part of you that is warm are your feet, snug in the robber girl’s boots. “It’s just a little farther,” Bae says, when you have been traveling for what feels like hours. “And then we’re home.”
You cross another corridor in the white air, and he swerves to follow it, crying out gladly, “We are near the old woman of Lapmark’s house, my mother’s house.”
“How do you know?” you ask.
“I recognize the shape that she leaves behind her,” Bae says. “Look!”
You look and see that the corridor of air you are following is formed like a short, stout, petticoated woman. It swings out at the waist like a bell.
“How long does it last?”
“As long as the air is heavy and dense,” he says, “we burrow tunnels through the air like worms, but then the wind will come along and erase where we have been.”
The woman–tunnel ends at a low red door. Bae lowers his head and knocks his antlers against it, scraping off the paint. The old woman of Lapmark opens the door, and you clamber stiffly off Bae’s back. There is much rejoicing as mother recognizes son, although he is much changed from how he had been.
The old woman of Lapmark is stooped and fat as a grub. She fixes you a cup of tea, while Bae explains that you are looking for the Snow Queen’s palace.
“You’ve not far to go now,” his mother tells you. “Only a few hundred miles and past the house of the woman of Finmany. She’ll tell you how to go—let me write a letter explaining everything to her. And don’t forget to mention to her that I’ll be coming for tea tomorrow; she’ll change you back then, Bae, if you ask her nicely.”
The woman of Lapmark has no paper, so she writes the letter on a piece of dried cod, flat as a dinner plate. Then you are off again. Sometimes you sleep as Bae runs on, and sometimes you aren’t sure if you are asleep or waking. Great balls of greenish light roll cracking across the sky above you. At times it seems as if Bae is flying alongside the lights, chatting to them like old friends. At last you come to the house of the woman of Finmany, and you knock on her chimney, because she has no door.
Why, you may wonder, are there so many old women living out here? Is this a retirement community? One might not be remarkable, two is certainly more than enough, but as you look around, you can see little heaps of snow, lines of smoke rising from them. You have to be careful where you put your foot, or you might come through someone’s roof. Maybe they came here for the quiet, or because they like ice fishing, or maybe they just like snow.
It is steamy and damp in the house, and you have to climb down the chimney, past the roaring fire, to get inside. Bae leaps down the chimney, hooves first, scattering coals everywhere. The Finmany woman is smaller and rounder than the woman of Lapmark. She looks to you like a lump of pudding with black currant eyes. She wears only a greasy old slip, and an apron that has written on it, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of my kitchen.”
She recognizes Bae even faster than his mother had, because, as it turns out, she was the one who turned him into a reindeer for teasing her about her weight. Bae apologizes, insincerely, you think, but the Finmany woman says she will see what she can do about turning him back again. She isn’t entirely hopeful. It seems that a kiss is the preferred method of transformation. You don’t offer to kiss him, because you know what that kind of thing leads to.
The Finmany woman reads the piece of dried cod by the light of her cooking fire, and then she throws the fish into her cooking pot. Bae tells her about Kay and the Snow Queen, and about your feet, because your lips have frozen together on the last leg of the journey, and you can’t speak a word.
“You’re so clever and strong,” the reindeer says to the Finmany woman. You can almost hear him add and fat under his breath. “You can tie up all the winds in the world with a bit of thread. I’ve seen you hurling the lightning bolts down from the hills as if they were feathers. Can’t you give her the strength of ten men, so that she can fight the Snow Queen and win Kay back?”
“The strength of ten men?” the Finmany woman says. “A lot of good that would do! And besides, he doesn’t love her.”
Bae smirks at you, as if to say, I told you so. If your lips weren’t frozen, you’d tell him that she isn’t saying anything that you don’t already know. “Now!” the Finmany woman says, “take her up on your back one last time, and put her down again by the bush with the red berries. That marks the edge of the Snow Queen’s garden; don’t stay there gossiping, but come straight back. You were a handsome boy—I’ll make you twice as good–looking as you were before. We’ll put up flyers, see if we can get someone to come and kiss you.”
“As for you, missy,” she says. “Tell the Snow Queen now that we have Bae back, that we’ll be over at the Palace next Tuesday for bridge. Just as soon as he has hands to hold the cards.”
She puts you on Bae’s back again, giving you such a warm kiss that your lips unfreeze, and you can speak again. “The woman of Lapmark is coming for tea tomorrow,” you tell her. The Finmany woman lifts Bae, and you upon his back, in her strong, fat arms, giving you a gentle push up the chimney.
Good morning, ladies, it’s nice to have you on the premiere Snow Queen Tour. I hope that you all had a good night’s sleep, because today we’re going to be traveling quite some distance. I hope that everyone brought a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Let’s have a head count, make sure that everyone on the list is here, and then we’ll have introductions. My name is Gerda, and I’m looking forward to getting to know all of you.
Here you are at last, standing before the Snow Queen’s palace, the palace of the woman who enchanted your lover and then stole him away in her long white sleigh. You aren’t quite sure what you are going to say to her, or to him. When you check your pocket, you discover that your list has disappeared. You have most of it memorized, but you think maybe you will wait and see, before you say anything. Part of you would like to turn around and leave before the Snow Queen finds you, before Kay sees you. You are afraid that you will burst out crying or even worse, that he will know that you walked barefoot on broken glass across half the continent, just to find out why he left you.
The front door is open, so you don’t bother knocking, you just walk right in. It isn’t that large a palace, really. It is about the size of your own house and even reminds you of your own house, except that the furniture, Danish modern, is carved out of blue–green ice—as are the walls and everything else. It’s a slippery place and you’re glad that you are wearing the robber girl’s boots. You have to admit that the Snow Queen is a meticulous housekeeper, much tidier than you ever were. You can’t find the Snow Queen and you can’t find Kay, but in every room there are white geese who, you are in equal parts relieved and surprised to discover, don’t utter a single word.
“Gerda!” Kay is sitting at a table, fitting the pieces of a puzzle together. When he stands up, he knocks several pieces of the puzzle off the table, and they fall to the floor and shatter into even smaller fragments. You both kneel down, picking them up. The table is blue, the puzzle pieces are blue, Kay is blue, which is why you didn’t see him when you first came into the room. The geese brush up against you, soft and white as cats.
“What took you so long?” Kay says. “Where in the world did you get those ridiculous boots?” You stare at him in disbelief.
“I walked barefoot on broken glass across half a continent to get here,” you say. But at least you don’t burst into tears. “A robber girl gave them to me.”
Kay snorts. His blue nostrils flare. “Sweetie, they’re hideous.”
“Why are you blue?” you ask.
“I’m under an enchantment,” he says. “The Snow Queen kissed me. Besides, I thought blue was your favorite color.”
Your favorite color has always been yellow. You wonder if the Snow Queen kissed him all over, if he is blue all over. All the visible portions of his body are blue. “If you kiss me,” he says, “you break the spell and I can come home with you. If you break the spell, I’ll be in love with you again.”
You refrain from asking if he was in love with you when he kissed the Snow Queen. Pardon me, you think, when she kissed him. “What is that puzzle you’re working on?” you ask.
“Oh, that,” he says. “That’s the other way to break the spell. If I can put it together, but the other way is easier. Not to mention more fun. Don’t you want to kiss me?”
You look at his blue lips, at his blue face. You try to remember if you liked his kisses. “Do you remember the white cat?” you say. “It didn’t exactly run away. I took it to the woods and left it there.”
“We can get another one,” he says.
“I took it to the woods because it was telling me things.”
“We don’t have to get a talking cat,” Kay says. “Besides, why did you walk barefoot across half a continent of broken glass if you aren’t going to kiss me and break the spell?” His blue face is sulky.
“Maybe I just wanted to see the world,” you tell him. “Meet interesting people.”
The geese are brushing up against your ankles. You stroke their white feathers and the geese snap, but gently, at your fingers. “You had better hurry up and decide if you want to kiss me or not,” Kay says. “Because she’s home.”
When you turn around, there she is, smiling at you like you are exactly the person that she was hoping to see.
The Snow Queen isn’t how or what you’d expected. She’s not as tall as you—you thought she would be taller. Sure, she’s beautiful, you can see why Kay kissed her (although you are beginning to wonder why she kissed him), but her eyes are black and kind, which you didn’t expect at all. She stands next to you, not looking at Kay at all, but looking at you. “I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” she says.
“Oh come on,” Kay says. “Give me a break, lady. Sure it was nice, but you don’t want me hanging around this icebox forever, any more than I want to be here. Let Gerda kiss me, we’ll go home and live happily ever after. There’s supposed to be a happy ending.”
“I like your boots,” the Snow Queen says.
“You’re beautiful,” you tell her.
“I don’t believe this,” Kay says. He thumps his blue fist on the blue table, sending blue puzzle pieces flying through the air. Pieces lie like nuggets of sky–colored glass on the white backs of the geese. A piece of the table has splintered off, and you wonder if he is going to have to put the table back together as well.
“Do you love him?”
You look at the Snow Queen when she says this and then you look at Kay. “Sorry,” you tell him. You hold out your hand in case he’s willing to shake it.
“Sorry!” he says. “You’re sorry! What good does that do me?”
“So what happens now?” you ask the Snow Queen.
“Up to you,” she says. “Maybe you’re sick of traveling. Are you?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “I think I’m finally beginning to get the hang of it.”
“In that case,” says the Snow Queen, “I may have a business proposal for you.”
“Hey!” Kay says. “What about me? Isn’t someone going to kiss me?”
You help him collect a few puzzle pieces. “Will you at least do this much for me?” he asks. “For old time’s sake. Will you spread the word, tell a few single princesses that I’m stuck up here? I’d like to get out of here sometime in the next century. Thanks. I’d really appreciate it. You know, we had a really nice time, I think I remember that.”
The robber girl’s boots cover the scars on your feet. When you look at these scars, you can see the outline of the journey you made. Sometimes mirrors are maps, and sometimes maps are mirrors. Sometimes scars tell a story, and maybe someday you will tell this story to a lover. The soles of your feet are stories—hidden in the black boots, they shine like mirrors. If you were to take your boots off, you would see reflected in one foot–mirror the Princess Briar Rose as she sets off on her honeymoon, in her enormous four–poster bed, which now has wheels and is pulled by twenty white horses.
It’s nice to see women exploring alternative means of travel.
In the other foot–mirror, almost close enough to touch, you could see the robber girl whose boots you are wearing. She is setting off to find Bae, to give him a kiss and bring him home again. You wouldn’t presume to give her any advice, but you do hope that she has found another pair of good sturdy boots.
Someday, someone will probably make their way to the Snow Queen’s palace, and kiss Kay’s cold blue lips. She might even manage a happily ever after for a while.
You are standing in your black laced boots, and the Snow Queen’s white geese mutter and stream and sidle up against you. You are beginning to understand some of what they are saying. They grumble about the weight of the sleigh, the weather, your hesitant jerks at their reins. But they are good–natured grumbles. You tell the geese that your feet are maps and your feet are mirrors. But you tell them that you have to keep in mind that they are also useful for walking around on. They are perfectly good feet.
© 1996 by Kelly Link. Originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, vol 1, #1, Winter 1996–97. Reprinted in Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen (Small Beer Press)