The first four words of “The Ice Queen” are: “Begin with the heat.” It may appear jarring to open a story with that title by drawing our attention to its opposite – the heat of the sun, the heat of summer – but this is actually of a piece with Victoria writer Madeline Sonik’s method. “The Ice Queen” is a curious and uncomfortable tale that goes out of its way to undermine its reader’s expectations.
The opening paragraph sets the scene: “a cottage standing in the middle of a meadow in Essex only a stone’s throw from the lake.” Immediately, we are immersed in a fairy tale world with echoes of Hansel and Gretel, an impression that is solidified moments later by the introduction of “a girl and a boy playing in the field.” The girl and boy are unnamed and will in fact turn out to be secondary characters; the main figures in the story are another boy, named Rudy, and Suzy, his stepmother.
Here, we encounter another trope from fairy tales. The wicked stepmother character is embodied in Suzy, with her “long dark hair,” who steals Rudy’s father, seducing him away from Rudy’s devoted and adoring birth mother, and sets herself up in the cottage with her new family and the one heirloom she has clung to from her childhood: a mirror that once belonged to her grandmother. “ ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall,’ a voice inside her chants, ‘never let it crack or fall.’ ” The allusion to Snow White could not be any clearer, nor could the foreboding in the object itself. Suzy’s mirror is, in fact, broken, and has been for “more than six years” – just shy of the seven years’ bad luck a broken mirror is rumoured to produce. Accordingly, Suzy feels herself the victim of a curse – perhaps the same curse that gave her mother the cancer that killed her.
The mirror shattered when Suzy dropped it, and the retrospective description of the shards is particularly resonant: “She recalls the small silver spikes and daggers sparkling over her cottage floor when it happened and how she thought the design it created looked like a picture of snow.” Recalling the day he went through the ice on the frozen lake, Rudy remembers “[h]ow he skated over swirls of snow” before he broke through, before the Ice Queen caught hold of his feet and began to pull him under. The Ice Queen is Rudy’s personification of the malevolent force beneath the lake’s surface that tried to take him on that winter day, before he was saved by a farmer who happened by just as the boy went under.
But the Ice Queen is also metaphorically connected to Rudy’s stepmother, the “new Mrs. Windish.” The surname is not incidental, as the description of Rudy falling through the ice makes clear: “Her [the Ice Queen’s] tail has twined around his ankles. ‘I’ve been waiting for you, Rudy,’ she whispers on the wind’s breath.” In case there were any doubt as to the Ice Queen’s symbolic connection to Rudy’s stepmother, the frozen lake is compared to “a polished mirror of ice.”
There is a further connection on the hot summer day that serves as the narrative present for the story – that between the ice on the lake and the ice in Suzy’s glass of rye. A paragraph describing Rudy’s accident and referring to “ice, as thin as a wafer and the dark speck dropping through” gives way immediately to a paragraph in the present, in which Suzy “fishes the frail clear scales of ice from her whisky glass and sets them on her breasts.”
Suzy is alone in the sweltering house, having sent Rudy off to play with the boy and girl. “ ‘Go outside!’ she’d told him, ‘You’re always under my feet!’ ” (At another, earlier time, she had scolded the girl, who was playing in the Windishes apple orchard, threatening, “You eat my apples, and I’ll kill you!” Another Snow White allusion, for those who are keeping track.) Alone in the cottage, Suzy strips naked and drinks the afternoon away, trying to stay cool and keep her demons at bay. Her nightmares arise from her grief at the death of her mother and her disgust at the sexual exploitation she experiences at the hands of Starr, a shadowy figure who has agreed to fence the Indigenous “treasures” Suzy has unearthed on her property in exchange for certain “favours.” “Alcohol helped her through those nightmares, deadening thought and sensation.”
Her neglect of Rudy also places her in opposition to Rudy’s biological mother, whose “life revolved around the boy. The boy was her beacon. Everything else in her world was insignificant.” Suzy, by contrast, sends Rudy off to play with the boy and girl, who take him to the lake where he once again falls prey to the Ice Queen: “She is clutching him, and her breasts, full of milky lake water, have filled his mouth and lungs.” This image chimes with an earlier moment in the story, when Suzy, drunk on her cottage floor, considers the relationship between Rudy and his now deceased birth mother: “How she loved to nurse him, even after the Public Health nurse told her she needed to stop. Would she ever have stopped on her own? Would she ever have stopped baring her breasts to him and feeling the pleasure of his lips and tongue on her nipples?”
Aside from the creepily incestuous undertones here, there is also a confluence of three female figures – Suzy, Rudy’s mother, and the Ice Queen – all of whom find their nexus in the person of the young boy. Their desire for him – or, in the case of Suzy, her desire to be shut of him – have repercussions that threaten his very life and convince him that his only salvation is to “cast himself free,” to “crawl from under the shadows of his stepmother’s past,” whether this involves drowning or skipping town, leaving behind “this profane land’s mermaids and miscreants.”
This creepy, doom-laden story closes with Rudy, but it is the three female figures and their carefully woven interrelationships who provide the backbone for Sonik’s fractured fairy tale.