Throwback Thursday: The Ice Child by Tara Williams
She found the cold invigorating; the howling wind and driving snow a tonic to her frigid soul...
Editor's Note: Today's Throwback Thursday story combines traditional fairy tale and folktale motifs to create an original wintry tale that feels both old and new. Enjoy!
Long, long ago, when the green world we know yet slumbered beneath thick glacial sheets and a comforter of snow, the ice child was born. Her mother, belly hot and heaving, had ventured alone deep into the forest, where, under spires of pine and a chipped glass sky, she lost her way. While crossing a frozen stream, she fell to her hands and knees, pushing and groaning, the snowy owls echoing her grunts and cries till the child emerged at last, transparent and perfect, connected to her mother by a silvery rope of ice. With her sharp-edged fishing knife the mother severed the ice cord. She opened the front of her coat, fashioned from the skin of a winter wolf, and cradled the ice child upon her breast. The infant’s blue lips suckled eagerly, her tiny ice hands cold and grasping, and the mother’s love flowed like warm honey from her heart, crystallizing where it touched the child, whom the mother named Gaska-geardi in the ancient language of her people, ancestors of the tribes of the far, far North. Winter was the ice child’s father. Weeks before the birth, the mother had fled his frigid embrace, fearing she too soon would find herself among the frozen maidens piled in stacks outside his palace walls. His attractions to mortal women were intense as they were brief. Yet the mother loved her ice child, as all mortal mothers love the beings their bodies bring forth, though the child, she could already see, more resembled her father, his elemental nature, his austere beauty, his icicle touch. And for a time, all was well with the mother and the ice child. They hid in a cave in the womb of a mountain, where the mother kept a small fire to warm herself while the ice child slept in a snowdrift nearby. But one day a man came upon them, a herder of reindeer of the mother’s tribe, and the mother and the ice child returned with him to the village. The mother was welcomed back with joy, for until that moment the villagers had believed she had perished in a winter storm. The people of the village were wary when they saw the ice child, whose strange appearance, they feared, marked her for calamity and some dire fate. The herder and the mother married. They went to live in a wooden hut with a roof of tin, a hearth and windows. The mother, happy there and warm, bore another child, a mortal boy. And the herder grew angry as the mother continued to suckle her ice child alongside his pink-faced son. “Thief!” he thundered, accusing the ice child of stealing his son’s rightful milk. Enraged, the herder struck Gaska-geardi away from her mother’s breast with a heavy blow that left a crack in the perfect transparency of the ice child’s chest. Then he opened the hut’s front door and tossed the ice child out into the frozen night, telling her never to return, or he would lift his iron axe and shatter her in pieces and toss her shards into the hearth’s hot flames. For a time, the mother continued to feed Gaska-geardi in secret. “When you are hungry,” the mother told the ice child, “write a message on the window and I will come.” And so each night the ice child waited, watching from where she stood in the darkness outside the hut’s window as the herder dandled the fat baby boy on his knee and the little family laughed their laughter of belonging and tenderness while the crack in the ice child’s chest would ache. When the father and baby boy fell asleep, the ice child would write a message to her mother on the window in frost, and the mother would steal out and nurse Gaska-geardi until the ice child grew drowsy in her mother’s arms, though each morning she would awaken to find herself alone in the snow’s cold embrace. Then one night the mother did not come. Gaska-geardi wrote her messages again and again until the window was layered deep in frost, and she could no longer see inside. And after many days and nights, when her mother still did not appear, the ice child set off all on her own, for, she told herself, Winter could be no more cold or cruel than these supposedly warm-blooded mortals who had left her there to die. The ice child discovered she needed little to sustain herself. Away from her mother, her hunger dwindled. The cold she found invigorating; the howling wind and driving snow a tonic to her frigid soul. She grew to young womanhood, sleek and slender, a figure of glass-like grace, and the crystalline crack diminished as she grew till it was no more than a forgotten childhood scar. One day her father found her by cold magic. She was swimming with the narwhals, white unicorns of the northern seas. “My child,” Winter sighed, and wrapped her in his iceberg arms, and Gaska-geardi wept, surprised by the sudden hot mortal tears that welled and melted furrows in her perfect cheeks, which her father’s silvery fingers instantly smoothed and healed. He took the ice child back to his palace and taught her the language of wintertide, a hundred words for snow alone: the soft snow one’s feet sink into while walking; the hard icy crust that melts under a day-sun’s warmth and refreezes in the night; the soft, sticky snow that falls thickly in great flakes; the snow that blows up from the Earth in fine gusts; the old snow; the fresh snow; the empty space between snow and ground. He revealed to her the secrets of the blues of ancient ice and sky. Enchanted, she traced them through the palace’s sculpted corridors, its silvery ballrooms and banquet halls set with lavish tables, sconces alight in cold blue flames. The changing light of day and night, refracted through the frozen architecture, wrought endless variations of image and reflection, every surface a gallery of shifting display, and she was certain, in all her travels, she had never seen anything more lovely. There was only one place in her father’s palace where the ice-child-turned-woman was forbidden to go: the wing that held Winter’s impregnable prison, where three inmates had been sentenced to languish for eternity. A shape-shifting warden guarded this prison day and night. When Gaska-geardi first saw him, he wore the form of an enormous winter wolf, asleep at the foot of a wall of blue ice which bore no door, no lock nor key. As the ice woman bent to stroke the wolf’s white-silver fur, she recalled her mother, whom she hadn’t thought of in quite some time, and what was left of the old crack in her chest creaked and ached. Startled from his slumber, the wolf nipped her wrist. Her ice hand broke off and lay between them on the white marble floor. “You’re a brittle one,” the wolf said, his round golden eyes gazing into hers until she grew drowsy. Then, with a great effort of will, Gaska-geardi looked away, picked up her severed hand and took it to her father. “Disobedient child,” her father chided, “I should leave you to suffer the consequences of your actions,” even as he healed her, “but I am too fond.” The ice hand, reattached, shimmered seamlessly at the end of her arm as before. “Father,” the ice woman said. “What do you keep imprisoned in that far wing of the palace? Your power is great. Your might rules the land. What remains for you to fear?” Winter regarded her gravely. “Are you happy here, my child?” “As happy as an ice being may ever hope to be,” she replied. “Father, you have been most kind.” “Then you must promise never to return to the palace prison wing.” And the ice woman promised, a promise she would not keep. Some days when she visited, the warden was a wolf, other days an Arctic fox or a snowshoe hare. Some days he was a polar bear, or a silvery lynx with silent flat paws, or a velvet-soft harp seal with great, dark eyes. Some days he was a man in a white fur coat, and on these days she loved him least, yet she was enthralled by his endless variety, and he by her transparent adoration. And thus they went on meeting at the juncture of enchantment and prohibition, until the day Gaska-geardi asked the warden to reveal to her what it was he guarded, what lay on the other side of the blue ice prison wall. The warden refused. “You will not survive it. And if I should lose you now, I would surely die of a great loneliness of spirit.” “As would I, should you leave me,” the ice woman assured him. “But I must know what my father fears.” The next time she saw the warden, he had taken the form of a large snow goose with sleek white feathers and black-tipped wings. He bent his pink legs and the ice woman climbed upon his back. “You may look down,” the snow goose said, “but I cannot land.” And in a rush of wind and feathers, her slender ice arms wrapped tightly around the goose’s long white neck, Gaska-geardi was quickly aloft, the snow goose soaring toward the top of the blue ice wall. And as they crossed over the wall and the snow goose circled in flight, “I understand now,” the ice woman whispered. For below them stretched Summer, pulsing lush and hot. The ice woman’s eyes were dazzled by bright fluttering butterflies. Her ears rang with songs of birds of every hue. Her nostrils filled with a thick perfume of blooming flowers and ripening fruit. Summer’s long-enclosed heat, magnified, reached up and enveloped them, and the ice woman felt the surface of her frozen skin grow moist and slick and slippery until, with a small cry, she lost her grip upon the snow goose and plummeted downward through the fecund, heated air. The snow goose watched in horror as his lover fell and was caught by the branches of a lilac tree, where she hung, helpless and stunned. A creature of winter, the snow goose could not land. Instead, he retraced his path, returned to the winter side of the blue ice wall, and alighting, assumed the shape of a man. He retrieved an axe and wielded it desperately, chopping a narrow passage through the doorless ice wall. He squeezed through the opening, disentangled Gaska-geardi from the lilac tree where she hung. He carried her fast-melting form in his arms, back into the palace, then sealed the breach in the prison wall with snow. But it was too late. Summer had escaped, scorching its exit through Winter’s palace. It could no longer be contained. The two remaining prisoners, Spring and Fall, assaulted the breach in the blue ice wall, broke through and freed themselves before Winter could intervene. Furious, Winter banished Gaska-geardi and her lover. He seized the warden’s skins and feathers and burned them so the warden could shapeshift no more. Trapped in the body of a mortal man, the warden grew old. Gaska-geardi, much reduced in size from Summer’s melting, wept yet again her mortal tears as her lover froze in her fatal embrace, and there was no one now to heal the cracks and furrows that marred the perfect surface of her face. Winter, much diminished in power, forfeited his dominion over the land. Summer gained ascendancy, allied itself with Spring and Fall. Winter kept only his most far-flung territories, and some say a time is coming when he will lose them all. The ice child found her way back to her mother’s hut in the far north village, but years had flown and her mother had long since passed away. Yet, on the coldest nights, they say, the ice child searches for her mother still, writes on warm windows her ancient runes in frost as she waits outside, bereft, having lost all she loved, her heart an aching crack. And if you should see her message on your window, do not go outside. She seeks what she will never find, and all that is mortal will die in her embrace
Tara Williams lives in Arizona, where the average winter temperature is in the 60s. Her fiction has previously appeared in Entropy's Black Cackle, Apparition, The Weird Reader Vol. III, and other publications. Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AMANDABERGLOFF