When Anna’s grandmother was seventeen years old, Russia faced its most bitter winter yet. The snow fell day and night, covering homes in a thick layer of white. The wind blew so fiercely that even the Moscow residents got wind rash when they stepped outside, and as the temperature lowered, the rumour once again entered homes.
“I’m just saying that if it gets any colder, we may see her,” says Anna.
Alex leans so far back in his chair that he almost falls over.
“And I’m saying that if we start believing in the Snow Queen, we may as well believe in Baba Yaga, and the numerous children she ate. Why stop there? Why don’t we just say that every fairy-tale is true, and base our lives off that?” The windows rattle as a particularly strong wind blows. “It’s just a cold winter.”
“No, Alex, it’s our coldest winter since 1947.”
The breeze blows perfectly formed snowflakes into the miniscule wooden kitchen. “I don’t care. Can you close that window? You’re letting all the warm air out.”
NICK (as heard by Anna)
“Scarf and gloves?”
“Okay, great. Put your arms through here, button up, yep, nice job, let’s put that scarf on…”
“Your sister’s waiting by the elevator. Have a good day.”
[door opens and shuts]
“This is insane. I have to go to work, and instead of sleeping in or reading the Bible, I have to dress the girls and send them off to school. And you’re sitting here, drinking at eight in the morning.”
“That’s it. I’m going to work, and when I come back, either you’re sober, or you’re gone.”
The walls are thin and her rocking chair is right against them. She reclines, listening to her neighbours bicker about fairy-tales. When she was a child, the Snow Queen was an undisputed woman, equivalent to General Winter and Koschei. Now the belief has faded from the people. They don’t worry about mushroom picking in the forest, they don’t cast spells for fortune, and they definitely don’t pickle fish with vodka like they used to.
Her entertainment ends early when one neighbour leaves for work, and the argument dissipates. She turns on the TV, moves her rocking chair a significant distance away from it, so as not to catch any radiation, and she sits, listening to news reporters discuss the bitter cold and the frostbite that always comes when the snow falls.
“This will be the year to see her,” says Galina, brushing perfectly formed curls away from her face.
“Kids, keep an eye out!” The two news reporters laugh and Masha lets her eyelids slowly close, listening to the laughter and whistling winds, and thinking of the way her mother’s hands trembled when they talked about the winter curse.
For a moment, Anna sees the Snow Queen. Then, as the coffee begins to set in, she realises that it is just her neighbour’s wife, Vera, dressed to the nines. A white fur coat that almost reaches the ground, white gloves with tiny grey pearls on them, and a cream scarf wrapped thrice around her neck.
“Hi Vera, is something the matter? Are the kids alright?”
Perfume oozes from her pores, but it doesn’t cover the scent of whiskey that pours from Vera’s mouth. “I just can’t do this anymore. I never wanted to be a mother, you know? But then I got pregnant, and he proposed, and my grandmother was so happy…” She takes a long breath. “Here,” holding out a letter. “Could you give this to him?”
“Vera, I really don’t want to get involved,” but the letter is put in Anna’s pocket anyway, and before Anna can give it back, Vera has a suitcase in each hand.
“Bye, Anna,” says Vera, and Anna is left standing with her apartment door open, watching Vera leave in a flurry of white.
“I’m sorry to disturb you; it’s just that I’m not sure who else to talk to.”
Masha steps back from her door and motions to the kitchen. “Come in, Anna, let’s talk over some tea.”
As the kettle boils, Masha is filled in.
“The winter curse,” she replies. Anna frowns.
“That’s what my mother called it. People spend too much time indoors; they start to go a bit crazy. Then, the temperature drops, they get sick, the electricity bills tower, they worry about how they’re going to pay for the heat and the new boots and then the kids start coughing…” Masha sighs. “The winter curse.”
“I don’t think Nick cares about the winter curse.”
“Well, that’s his folly,” Masha pours the tea, “I’m picking the girls up from school in a few hours. He gets home late, give him the letter then. The girls can sleep in my room.” There’s a pause. “Ever since Kostya died, I can’t handle sleeping in there. I like the lounge now, with the television. Radiation is better than a lonely bed.” Masha smiles at Anna and reaches over to pat her hand.
“People leave all the time. They’ll adjust,” says Masha, and she cranks open the kitchen window to a sliver; just enough to see neighbourhood children on their slow walk home from school.
“I should get going,” she adds. “The girls will be finished soon. Don’t worry too much. It’s all in God’s hands now.”
The apartment is cold and empty. No children, no wife, no life at all. Coats hang loosely from the rack, no longer stuffed together like sardines. Snow flutters in through the open kitchen window, but before he has time to close it, there’s a persistent knocking on his door.
“Oh, evening, Anna, this really isn’t a good time for me.”
“It’s cold in here. Open that window any further, and the Snow Kingdom will march on in.”
“Really, this isn’t –” The letter is held out. “Oh, wrong address again?”
“I’m sorry Nick, Vera gave it to me.”
To Nick, the room feels a lot colder. The reality begins to sink in. He grabs the letter and rips it open. Words upon words, excuses, apologies, nothing of substance.
“She can’t do this to me. Surely not.” Nick grabs his car keys. “I have to go. I need to find her.” Faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Nick leaves, marching past Anna, through the hallway and down the stairs. Twelve flights, but he has no patience to wait for the elevator.
“My lord, Nick, you’re going to freeze!” Anna yells, but he’s gone, so it’s up to her to grab a coat and a scarf and race after him.
When Anna catches up, he’s sitting in his car, head in his hands, turning the key over and over.
“The engine’s frozen. It’s too cold to start.”
They sit in silence, until he lifts his head. “There’s no point. What on Earth am I going to do?”
“Well, first, come back inside and drink some tea.”
It goes quiet for a long while, until Nick says, “the girls…”
“Are with Masha.”
“I need to think over this.” He accepts the scarf and coat, and they step out of the car.
There, in the late night, they both see her, standing regal as can be. Crown of ice, powder blue hair, a coat so white it seems to have fallen straight from heaven. Then, just as she looks straight at them, the wind changes direction, and she is gone.
The coldest winters have the warmest summers, his mother always said, and the Snow Queen only came out when the lakes froze solid and the children caught colds.
“I think I’ll be just fine,” says Nick, and for the first time since Vera’s pregnancy, he begins to see a good future for himself and his girls.