The Ice Princess
By Jae Brim
15 December 2003
"Ice burns," Elisa's Winter Wonderland Barbie said, without moving its perfect plastic smile. Elisa ignored it. She picked up her tiara and set it on top of her long blonde hair, the carved Austrian crystals sparkling blue and white in the makeup light. She tried to remember the thrill when she had first put it on, but found only an empty sense of dread.
"You're beautiful," the Barbie said. Elisa picked it up and it squirmed in her grip. "Beauty never needs to worry about dreams." Elisa's throat constricted and she clutched the Barbie so tight it cried out. She set it down carefully and looked at her face in the mirror, at the perfect lines of mascara and pale powdered skin and petal pink lipstick. Another face, slick with water and blurred from her dream the night before, rose up in the back of her memory. She refused to think about it, about the way the blonde hair hung like hers, the way the blue eyes opened like a Barbie's or the name she knew went with it.
"Jean Mae." The Barbie said it and Elisa shivered.
"Elisa!" her mother called from downstairs. "Time to go or you'll miss your appointment."
Elisa put the Barbie down, carefully arranging its baby blue sweat suit. She put the tiara back on her dressing table and fixed her own powder blue yoga pants and matching fleece. She put the Barbie in the pocket of her coat and went downstairs.
The late December air smelled like snow. Elisa's mother maneuvered her freshly waxed Explorer out of the driveway and started towards town. The street ran downhill, towards the valley and downtown Lakewatch and the flat frozen expanse of Yepa Lake beyond, glimmering between the buildings. The wind chased the car down the street, flattening the scrub bushes and ponderosa pines. It rattled the mailboxes of the old frame houses along Main Street and tangled in the white Christmas decorations strung above the entrance to the courthouse square. It picked up old dry leaves and bits of dust and a grocery circular and sent them dancing past the windshield, as if trying to get Elisa's attention.
For two days more, everything in Lakewatch would want her attention. Tomorrow would be the Ice Princess pageant and a new princess would be chosen for the year to come. On the day after, she would give up her crown and walk out onto the frozen lake, like every princess before her, back to the start of the pageant almost one hundred years before.
The Barbie shifted in her pocket, trying to look out. The Barbie had been a Christmas present the year before, three days after she had been crowned. It had mysteriously appeared under the tree, the long skinny box done up in blue and silver snowflake wrapping paper. Colors her mother would never choose, that went against the carefully ordered profusion of red, green, and gold spilling out from under the red and gold decorations on the green tree. Elisa had unwrapped it early in the morning, her one present before her parents awoke. The doll had looked up when she slit the plastic wrapping, as if truly opening its wide eyes for the first time, and spoke.
Beautiful, it had named her, and it became her constant companion. Where she went, the doll went, and they were happy. Or had been. Elisa looked at the ice on the lake. All she had ever wanted was to be the Ice Princess. Now she wondered what happened after.
The inside of Eternity Salon and Day Spa was warm and inviting, the windows steamed over from the below zero weather outside. A picture of Elisa sat on the reception desk. It was from the night she competed in the pageant, her hair swept up on her head, her face flushed and excited. Nancy, the owner, and Loren, the manicurist, ushered Elisa to a lavender vinyl chair. Elisa's mother sat in a low easy chair nearby, watching for mistakes. Her mother always demanded perfection, was always straight and sober and humorless. Once she had been the Ice Princess, and she was still beautiful, even though hers was a carefully maintained, hard beauty, of concealed lines and bottled color. One of the assistants took Elisa's coat and hung it on the rack. Elisa looked at it wistfully, wishing for the Barbie's reassurance.
Loren rubbed cream into Elisa's palms, roughly pulling it down across her knuckles. "You're so pretty," she said. "No one would ever guess you're just sixteen. You have a real future with this face."
Nancy mixed bleach with developer, the fumes burning Elisa's nose and eyes. She blinked away tears and sat still as Nancy sectioned off a piece of her sandy blonde hair. A real woman had to suffer for beauty, her mother always said.
"How are the parade plans?" Nancy asked Elisa's mother.
"It will be extraordinary," her mother said. "Though it does take too much time. But beauty should be ageless."
"It's important to give something back to the community," Loren said. Loren picked up the bottle of ice blue polish and shook it.
"Yes. It takes great sacrifice to keep the community going in times like these," Nancy said. She picked up a foil, yanked a piece of Elisa's hair into it and began to paint on the bleach.
"It's been a bad winter," her mother said, flipping through the pages of Vanity Fair.
"Ice and snow and the lake frozen over since October," Nancy said. "Times like this, something has to be given up to break the winter. I haven't seen one this bad since Jean Mae died. I've heard that you can see her ghost sometimes, out on the lake." Elisa flinched, bumping Loren's hand, and Loren dropped the polish bottle. It hit the floor and shattered, spraying across the linoleum like splatters of blue blood. Nancy and Elisa's mother looked up sharply, the other stylist stopped talking about her vacation, and for a moment, the entire salon was deathly still, like a pine grove buried in snow.
"Oh!" Elisa said, in just the right tone, "I'm so sorry. Let me clean it up." Her voice stuck in her throat, the sugar in it too sweet for her today.
Loren patted her hand. "I've got another bottle. I'll be right back."
"Don't talk like that around my daughter," Elisa's mother said. "She has a right to her innocence."
Nancy put down the bleach bowl and ran her hands along Elisa's shoulders, smoothing her tense muscles. "Don't worry, darling. What happened to Jean Mae was an accident. It could never happen to you." She picked up another foil and went back to work, putting pale gold sunshine into Elisa's winter drab hair. Elisa looked at her coat and saw a slight movement, something twisting in the pocket. She shivered, as if the deep chill of the lake ice had suddenly entered her chest and taken up residence in her heart.
"Beauty makes you live forever," the Barbie said, but no one else in the salon heard her. Only Elisa ever heard her speak.
"Mom," she said, "I want to go see Kylie after this."
"Of course," her mother said, and smiled sweetly. "Anything for my little princess."
The Barbie didn't scare Elisa. Strange things like it could be found all over Lakewatch, Colorado. The deep mountains surrounded it, still and vigilant, and magic things grew within that circle. Rings of white stones lay in Mrs. Rafael's gardens on Hill Street, where time sometimes slowed and quickened, so evenings could pass in a heartbeat and kisses sometimes lasted for hours. Wolves changed form in the woods, and birdlike creatures were sometimes seen silhouetted against the moon. There was a clock in the general store that kept time to the waxing and waning of the moon, and that chimed only when someone died.
Elisa told no one about the Barbie. She kept it to herself and carried it with her everywhere throughout her reign. When the doll was with her, she was never afraid. She could preside over restaurant openings and corn plantings, school dances and pep rallies and SAT tests. Nothing was beyond her with the doll in her pocket, whispering to her in its soft voice. She could be everything the Barbie was: beautiful and charming, childlike and perfect.
Kylie had turned her parents' luxurious living room into a mass of blankets, tissues and empty Doritos bags. Elisa pushed a crumpled copy of Seventeen magazine out of the way and sat down on the plump white couch. Kylie was watching the E! Network. Her blonde hair was in ponytails, her makeup flawless over her waxy skin. On the screen, tall thin models with dark tans paraded back and forth in shimmering orange and magenta gowns. Their cheeks looked sunken and hungry.
"Excuse me," Kylie said, her voice hoarse. She went into the bathroom and shut the door, but Elisa could hear her coughing and spitting on the other side. A different kind of hunger lurked in Kylie's eyes these days, and a different kind of sickness lurked in her chest, had sat there ever since she had given up her crown as the Ice Princess the year before. Elisa remembered how she had placed the tiara on Elisa's head and walked out across the ice, her shimmering dress disappearing into the night.
The Ice Princess pageant was held every year in Lakewatch, on the first day of winter. Before the current princess would give up her title, she would ride at the head of the Midwinter parade and crown the Ice Princess for the year to come. Then she would walk by herself out onto the ice of Yepa Lake. No one had ever told Elisa what she would do on the ice, but everyone who did it came back changed. Something was different about them -- their smile, their walk, their health. She had never noticed it before this year, but now she saw the shadows in pictures of former Ice Princesses, the hollow something in their eyes.
Elisa pulled the Barbie out of her pocket and looked at it, noticing how the new highlights in its hair shone in the yellow lamplight. In the bathroom, Kylie coughed again, a hacking liquid noise that made Elisa's chest ache in sympathy.
"Barbie," she said. "What will happen to me? What happened to Jean Mae?"
"Ice burns," the Barbie said in its sad hollow voice. "And sometimes cold waters are too deep. Better to not ask and remain innocent."
"Barbie," she said. "What do they do out there on the ice?" But the Barbie was silent, staring at the endless row of look-alike beauties on TV. Kylie came back out of the bathroom, her face tinged blue and her mouth puffy. She sat back down on the couch and sucked hard on an asthma inhaler.
"What did they do to you out there, Kylie?" Elisa asked.
"Every one of us has to give something back to our community, to our town and the land around us." Kylie shrugged with practiced nonchalance. "Some of us give more than others."
"What really happened to Jean Mae?" Elisa asked.
"What happens out on the ice isn't like kissing Sean Edmundson behind the gym," Kylie said. "There are things you don't talk about. Jean Mae was a terrible tragedy."
"And what about what happened to you?" Elisa asked. "Will that happen to me?"
"No," Kylie said, seventeen and wise. "Hopefully you won't be so foolish." She took a breath, as if considering, and doubled over coughing.
To be the Ice Princess was to be the belle of the town and the surrounding countryside. You were the life of every party, and treated to every possible luxury a small town could provide. Your reign lasted a year -- a year of nonstop adoration -- and then you spent one night out on the lake, leading the town through the dark. The entire town would stand at the water's edge while each Ice Princess spent her time on the ice, waiting to be told the longest night of the year had passed, and that they would be brought safe into the next. It was an old tradition, that might have happened before the current residents had found their way up the long pass and between the mountains. It was something not necessary in the outside world, where water didn't occasionally flow upwards into the tap and the parrot at the pet store didn't tell fortunes. In Lakewatch, a guide was needed to see things through.
Elisa didn't know how she could be that guide. She didn't know if she could even sit through the Ice Princess pageant. She gritted her teeth as she sat in her place of honor at the edge of the Snowflake Theatre stage, and watched girls a year younger than her smile through their paces. They spun slowly, evening gowns clinging to them.
"Don't worry," the Barbie said from her purse, "you're beautiful." Up on the stage, the Ice Princess finalists were slowly parading by. They stood like mannequins, their gowns shimmering pastel shades of lavender, buff, and frost. The backdrop behind them was as blue as the Barbie's eyes and glistened like tinsel on a Christmas tree.
Elisa watched her mother, slowly making notes on her judge's tablet. She watched as the winner was announced, squealing with delight as she clutched her bouquet of a dozen white roses and looked up at the crowd, every eyelash in place, skin smooth and pale. Her platinum blonde hair shone white under the brilliant spotlights. Elisa smiled prettily and clapped and looked misty, because she still was the Ice Princess and that was what a princess did. Inside, her chest felt like it was being squeezed by a metal band. The tiara felt like it was made of lead. She remembered when she had been selected as the princess-to-be, remembered the glorious butterflies in her stomach.
The Barbie looked at her, every bit of its plastic smile beaming its approval.
"My favorite," it said.
When Elisa got home, she put on her gray silk pajamas and the Barbie put on her gray silk nightgown. She got into bed, and tried to ignore the way the wind sighed around the eaves. The down comforter was thick and warm, but the cold outside seeped in anyway, and slowly locked around Elisa's body. She lay motionless, feeling her breath slow into sleep.
In Elisa's dreams, Jean Mae's perfect ghost hung above the frozen waves on the lake. Her hair hung in sculptured curls, her hands manicured, her face painted so she seemed to be a china doll, suspended in time. She opened her mouth, but only her breath came out, hanging in the air in a cloud of tiny crystals.
Elisa woke to the sound of hail on the roof and lay in the dark, shivering under the pile of blankets. She stared into the night. Seven years ago, Jean Mae had walked out onto the ice and had never come back. Jean Mae had drowned out there in the dark, while the entire town stood on the shore waiting for her return. She had never cried for help, or struggled with the water. When they found her, she was frozen solid inside the ice. Her eyes were closed, her evening dress and hair arranged around her as if she were Snow White encased in crystal. Even in her death, she had remained in the climax of her reign, forever the perfect princess.
It always snowed the day before the Winter Solstice, wrapping the town in thick drifts that sparkled like spun sugar. The hail formed a thick crust on top of them, transforming everything into an icy wonderland, glittering in all the shades of blue and white and pale gold. The parade assembled at the beginning of Main Street, Elisa's mother controlling everything in her careful way. The white convertible that would carry Elisa waited outside the house, adorned with white roses and pine branches. Inside, Elisa dressed, preparing herself for her long night.
Elisa's dress had been ordered months before, custom made and carefully shipped before the snow came. Now it hung from her closet door, shimmering silver and barely blue. Elisa rubbed body glitter over her arms and chest. She drew on flawless lines of black eyeliner and painted on silver shadow. Her lips were a pink pout, her hair pale ringlets arranged in a mass under her tiara. The Barbie sat on Elisa's dresser, wearing her Winter Wonderland gown. It looked like Elisa's dress in miniature, shimmering with iridescent acetate. Elisa put on lace underthings, garter belt and merry widow, lingerie for a grown up woman to wear under a grown up dress. She pulled on the dress and zipped it up, admiring her reflection in the mirror. Each dangling piece of lace looked like a sequined icicle. The entire mass, from fitted beaded bodice to the small train, looked as if it were a waterfall, suspended in time.
Her cell phone rang, pale blue plastic playing The Nutcracker.
"Hello?" she said. The Barbie cocked its head to the side, listening.
"Elisa?" Kylie said. She coughed and it sounded as if her chest were slowly being torn apart from the inside. "I need to talk to you. Do you have a moment?"
"Yes," Elisa said, but the Barbie shook her head no.
"Out there, on the ice, you're asked things. A gift must be made, to move this year into the new, to bring the seasons back."
"Gift?" Elisa asked. She tried to figure out how her dress, how the long parade and the tiara shimmering on her head would provide a gift and could not.
"Beauty comes at a price. Life comes at a price. We each have to pay it, to fulfill the promise of our reign." The Barbie had its hands over its ears, its immobile face full of horror.
"Be careful what you sacrifice. Jean Mae -- Jean Mae made a horrible mistake, but mine wasn't any better. Whatever you give, you will never get it back."
"Kylie," Elisa started. I don't understand, I don't know what to do, she wanted to say. But Kylie was already gone, leaving only dead air at the end of the line.
The parade was a grand affair. Sparkling white Christmas lights lit all of Main Street, woven back and forth from the dark lampposts. The entire town seemed to be crammed on the other side of the barrier, bundled up against the winter cold. The floats were breathtaking, towering over the crowds like giant spun sugar confections. The school band and baton twirlers wore white and silver, and little children tossed clear confetti out over the crowd. Elisa sat on the back of her car, wrapped in her faux fur coat. The crowd cheered as she slowly moved past them and she smiled, blew kisses to the wind.
Once upon a time, all she had wanted was to be the Ice Princess. She remembered watching the parade as a small girl, practicing her talents, joining the cheerleading team. All so she could be here, riding down the slick street. In her lap, the Barbie sat, small and perfect, waving to the crowd as they slid by. Elisa waved and smiled until her teeth ached from clenching them together. She thought she might burst, that she might jump out of the car and run away, take her doll and hide under her bed. Anything to not have it end, to not face tomorrow when she would be only a girl again. Not to face whatever had killed Jean Mae, and was tearing Kylie apart.
At the end of the street lay Yepa Lake. Hanging paper lanterns lit the main pier, like miniature moons. Beyond the pier, the ice lay slick and dark, a paler shade of black than the water beneath it.
As the parade passed, the crowd fell in behind it, until they all reached the lakeshore. There, the new Ice Princess waited, wrapped in a white wool coat. She looked excited, her blonde hair piled on top of her head, her cheeks flushed from the cold wind. Elisa's mother stood beside her, along with the other four pageant judges. Elisa stepped out of the car, and the crowd parted for her as she walked towards the end of the pier. The new girl knelt before her, and Elisa's mother repeated the old words that marked when the old princess gave up her crown.
"As the old year gives way to the new, so the Ice Princess relinquishes her crown. She will see us through the night and watch for us, to keep us safe in the year to come." Elisa felt as if she were hearing the words for the first time, even though she had listened to them year after year, and heard them when the tiara was finally placed on her head. Now they filled her with dread. Her mother looked at her and nodded, and she took the tiara off her head and held it above the head of the girl kneeling before her. She looked so young. Elisa wondered if she had looked like that, full of life and wonder. She set the crown down on her head and the girl stood up, threw her arms around her and kissed her. Elisa stepped away as the girl turned to the crowd, blonde and smiling and young. She turned without a word and stepped out onto the lake.
The ice was slick under her heels. She slipped, kept her balance, and carefully walked away. The ice was thick underneath, waves and bubbles captured in it as if sealed in glass. The moon hung overhead, three-quarters full and ringed with a rainbow. She could feel the eyes of the crowd behind her. She walked, and slowly her legs adjusted to the ice. The shore faded away in the background, leaving only her and the moon. The wind came down out of the mountains, tearing across the glistening plain before her. It tangled in her skirt and cut through her coat, making her skin feel like frozen plastic. Go back, it howled, its voice empty and chill, go back. She kept going, and it felt like she was walking through the same moment, stepping in place over an endless plain of glass.
There was a loud snap, like breaking bone, and the ice split open, leaving a narrow rift of black water a few feet in front of her. It glittered like coal in the moonlight, just long enough for a person to lie down in. She stepped towards it, and Jean Mae's ghost was there, hovering in the air above the water. She looked pale and fragile and breathtaking. Exactly as she had in Elisa's dreams, as she had in the newspaper photos of her death.
"Why did you die?" Elisa asked her.
"Because I would not give up my beauty," Jean Mae said, and her voice was the soft whisper of snow on snow. "I gave up my life, and now I am beautiful forever. No one ever told me that being a princess came with a price."
"Why did you have to give something up? Why do I have to give something up? I've already given up my crown. Isn't that enough?"
"Nothing is ever enough. It is the duty of the Ice Princess to sacrifice to the lake, to usher the world from the longest night to the next year. Something of ourselves must be given to the land, to fight winter off. It is the duty of a princess to take care of her people. But every year there is another solstice, another year to be bought."
"What did your beauty bring you?" Elisa asked. The Barbie lay cold and still in her hand.
"Nothing," Jean Mae said, and frayed away, fading like smoke.
Elisa looked down at the hole in the ice, and back at the far lights of the shore. She wondered what her mother had given up when she had stood out here. Was that why she never smiled? Why hadn't she warned Elisa, given her some chance to prepare herself for what was to come? She looked down at the Barbie, its plastic face as perfect as Jean Mae's dead beauty. At its miniature version of her dress, the way the miniature tiara sat on its head. Caught in that place where Elisa had been only a few moments before. A time that Barbies were built for, where a girl was young and beautiful and the center of everything. A moment she would never have again, but the Barbie and Jean Mae would have forever. A fierce anger, at her mother's plastic beauty and the Barbie's timeless smile, shot through her, burning clear in her mind.
"I'm too old for toys," she said and tossed the Barbie into the hole. It hit with a small splash. The Barbie looked up at her, blue eyes full of fear and betrayal, like a small, lost child and Elisa felt a sudden sharp panic, as if something precious had been ripped away from her. It hung for a moment, suspended in the black water, and she lunged for it, falling to her knees. But there was only a swirl of blonde hair passing through her fingers and it was gone. A terrible pain welled up in her stomach and she doubled over, crying silently in the dark.
"I'm sorry," she said. The ice felt like fire against her bare legs. The touch of it crept up into her chest, burning away her last bit of warmth and leaving her hollow inside. The edges of the ice were slowly growing together, covering the black water like frost on a windowpane. Giving the Barbie a grave like Jean Mae's. The moonlight caught on it, and for a moment, she thought she saw her own reflection staring back at her, brittle and beautiful. Ageless like Jean Mae and Kylie, like her mother.
Ice burns, she thought, and remembered the Barbie's immovable eyes, looking into hers, believing she was beautiful. Back on the shore, the new Ice Princess would be beginning her reign, becoming the most beautiful, young and perfect. Elisa's vision blurred over. Her tears froze and she raised her hands to her cheek, feeling the invisible wrinkles on her heart.
Copyright © 2003 Jae Brim
Jae Brim is an artist, actor, and writer, among other things, who is currently working on her first novel. She lives in New York City with her husband and a growing menagerie of pets. To contact her, send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.