The wife’s eyes are closed, but there is no flutter of dream under her lids, and when her name escapes like a shy moth from the husband’s tongue, she says, “Go on, I’m listening.”
The husband begins his story.
The young man set out early one winter morning in search of the fabled Cold Lady. After hours of searching, he found her gliding through the silvered lindens and fell utterly in love. Her limbs were branches painted in winter’s first frost. Her long throat an egret considering the sun. Her skin was not what shimmered; it was the falling snow around her, crystalline flakes a swarm of prisms that made up her pearlescent aura. He was not the first to fall in love.
When she stopped to regard him, he gave her a white rose, which she breathed on, turning it silver with frost. This was custom—a man must present her with a white rose. She would breathe a hoarfrost upon the rose that would never thaw. If the man were to leave right there and then with the rose, and hang the rose over his bed, he would live a long life and never suffer nightmares. But few had ever left her. Instead they’d follow the lady again, until she stopped in her tracks once more to invite them to lead her to their homes. This is what the young man did: he followed her through the oaks and spruces and over a frozen river. Followed her even though he knew the innocent disaster she was. Followed her because love and disaster are voice and echo, echo and voice.
He had researched her assiduously. This Cold Lady wandered the Alps, had been sighted as far east as the Julian range in Yugoslavia, as far north as the German border, and as far west as the slopes Mont Blanc. In Austria she was called Das Schneemädchen, while the French called her La Dame Froide. Here she was the Daughter of the Snow, La Figlia della Neve.
Despite what some claimed, her aura did not cause madness. The derangement already existed in the men who thought they could have her—who thought her life something that could belong to them. She was not alive. She was to life what light is to matter; what a metaphor is to reality.
“If she isn’t alive, how does she exist?” the wife asks.
“As the stars do, burning lifelessly, tirelessly.”
The young man had heard many versions of her origin. One story had it the lady of the snow was a priestess of a fertility Goddess’s cult, punished for some forgotten transgression to forever wander the snow. Another claimed she was a victim of the Inquisition, which supposedly accounted for her fear of fire. But her legend was older than the Inquisition. The old Celts who dwelled in the Alps before the Romans came shaped figures of her from clay, her tragic features crudely formed by hands that revered or pitied but never loved her, and love was what she needed, and, like any creature, deserved. It was as much compassion as mania that moved the young man to find her—to be the first warm, caring hand to ever hold hers.
Where she trod, even virgin snow hardened to ice. Many a man had broken a limb or worse following the slick of her path. The young man was careful with his steps as he followed. Birds compulsively built nests on the ground where she walked. The eggs never hatched, and foxes, cats, and martens that foraged them died as if poisoned. When winter ended and the spring thaw began, she’d retreat with the vestiges of winter into hollows carved into the mountains by ancient hands. In these lungs of the earth she’d slumber until the next snowfall.
The wife’s voice is gossamer threading from her lips. “That sounds cozy.”
The husband clears his throat and continues.
As was her custom, the lady invited her young suitor to show her to his home. They followed the old alpine trail down the slope, toward the village in the vale where smoke rose in gray whiskers from the chimneys. When they came to the village, to the sight of his cottage, she hesitated.
It was ever thus. Despite having followed a man willingly, the lady would always become anxious at seeing his home. Now was no different.
“It’s too warm,” she told the young man.
She had said this a thousand times.
This was what the young man knew: in all the stories, men were always too proud, too eager, too self-interested to heed her, and she was too desperate for a companion to refuse their urgings. Always the same. She would follow them inside, leaving a trail of frost over their threshold and up their staircase and into their bedrooms. They would make love, and then the men would hold her in their arms and fall asleep in the warmth of their beds. The men would wake feeling soaked, seeing the lady of the snow become translucent, then turning to water and seeping away into the sheets of the bed. Thereafter the men’s hearts became hollow and frail. What is not living cannot die, but the men would not know this. Some would slit their throats on that very bed, desiring to mix their blood with her water. Others would walk outside, lie down, and wait for the falling snow to bury them. Some of these men were found and rescued with only minor frostbite. Others were discovered only after the snow melted. Meanwhile, the daughter of the snow had not died. She was reconstituted with the next snowfall, and the cycle continued. Her tears became a frosty rime around her eyes.
Knowing what he knew, the young man attempted something no one had before. He took her by the hand, led her into the house, and opened a window to let the cold air in.
“I want you to be comfortable,” he told her.
She replied that it was still too warm for her. So he opened another window. But it was still too warm. So he opened the door and left it open, and poured ashes over the smoldering fire in the grate. Finally, she told him she felt comfortable.
They went to the bed, and lay down together. The young man shivered, and the lady’s body could offer him no warmth. She asked him if something was wrong.
He said nothing. He held her close, shivering, fighting to stay awake as the snow accumulated on the window sill and on the floor and invaded his bed. He fell asleep in her arms.
In the morning the young man awoke. He was not dead, and the girl had not melted. The window was closed. There was no sign of snow in the cottage. Beside him in the bed was a woman who looked like the lady. Just as beautiful and just as long-limbed, but ordinary in every way. Warm. Human.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” she said back.
“Would you like some breakfast?” he asked her.
“I’d love some,” she said, “it feels like forever since I’ve eaten.”
And they lived a long, full, ordinary lifetime together.
When the husband finishes telling his story, he sees that his wife is beginning to stir, having fallen asleep briefly. The tiny flakes of snow slipping in through the half-opened bedroom window melt and radiate as vapor as they settle on her face. Last he checked a half hour ago, her temperature was the same as it has been these last few months: 102 degrees.
When she opens her eyes she looks at the white roses in the vase on her nightstand, and then smiles at her husband. “New ones?” she asks.
The husband nods. The flowers are from Chile, delivered on an airplane. The walls of their bedroom are plastered with crude crayon drawings from the children the wife used to teach when she was well. Happy scenes; sunny scenes, scribbled well-wishings.
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear your whole story,” she says.
“That’s all right.”
“I had a dream,” she says. “I dreamed the fever had gone away.”
He says nothing.
“Put your hand on my head. I want to feel a cold hand.”
He takes one hand from its mitten and places it on her forehead. It is like touching an oven’s window.
The doctors don’t know what to call the wife’s condition, which began in autumn as a seemingly ordinary fever that refused to diminish. All they know is that it is unlikely to be contagious, but likely to be fatal. One doctor termed it “hysterical cephalic hyperthermia.” There is no cure. They’ve exhausted several experimental treatments with no results, while the fever boils her brain like an egg.
Cold air eases the wife’s discomfort and helps her sleep, but this is a mere palliative. The husband has learned to live with the windows open, dressed in sweaters. It is late January now, and he fears the coming spring. There are air conditioners that can keep a room cold as winter, but they would have to be ordered from America and installed with great difficulty. The doctors keep trying to take her to a hospital, but neither the husband nor the wife want that. Last week, one of the doctors talked to the husband outside the house, and asked him if he was “making arrangements” yet.
“Did your story have a happy ending?” the wife asks.
“Yes,” he lies. Fairy tales are happy only because they end before the end. Love is a stay of execution.
“That’s good. When I’m better, and I go back to work, maybe you could visit my classroom and read your story for the children. I’m sure they’d like that.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s good for children. Too sad.”
“I thought you said it had a happy ending.”
He says nothing.
“You should shave that beard. You don’t look handsome with a big beard.”
“It keeps me warm.”
“Men don’t look handsome with beards.”
“I’ll shave tomorrow.”
“Fine,” she said. “But will you bring me one of the cold apricots from the icebox?”
He doesn’t want to leave her. For the moment, she’s awake, but when he returns, who could know? He has a feeling as deep-set as the marrow of his bones that when his wife drifts off for good, he’ll be taking a piss, whipping up some custard for her, on the telephone with one of the doctors, shaving, or bringing her apricots from the icebox.
But he stands up anyway.
“One more thing,” the wife says, gesturing to the window.
The husband opens the window all the way. More snow blows in. When the husband returns with the apricot—hard and orange like a tiny frigid sun—the wife is asleep again. He wishes he could lie down beside her and crawl into her dreams. He wishes he could wake with her in a cold place where pools of frozen water have never known the touch of sunlight. But where she’s gone, and where she’s going, he cannot follow. And so the husband returns to his chair to watch the snow accreting on the window sill, wondering if his wife will remember him when she awakens again in the lightless lungs of the earth.