BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. I KNOW that for a fact. Wishes are
brutal, unforgiving things. They burn your tongue the moment they're
spoken and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and
come back to haunt you. I've made far too many wishes in my
lifetime, the first when I was eight years old. Not the sort of wish
for ice cream or a party dress or long blond hair; no. The other
sort, the kind that rattles your bones, then sits in the back
of your throat, a greedy red toad that chokes you until you say it
aloud. The kind that could change your life in an instant, before
you have time to wish you could take it back.
I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but don't all stories
begin this way? The stranger who comes to town and wreaks havoc. The
man who stumbles off a cliff on his wedding day. The woman who goes
to look out the window when a bullet, or a piece of glass, or a
blue-white icicle pierces her breast. I was the child who stomped
her feet and made a single wish and in so doing ended the whole
world-my world, at any rate. The only thing that mattered. Of course
I was self-centered, but don't most eight-year-old girls think
they're the queen of the universe? Don't they command the stars and
seas? Don't they control the weather? When I closed my eyes to sleep
at night, I imagined the rest of the world stopped as well. What I
wanted, I thought I should get. What I wished for, I deserved.
I made my wish in January, the season of ice, when our house was
cold and the oil bill went unpaid. It happened on the sixteenth, my
mother's birthday. We had no father, my brother and I. Our father
had run off, leaving Ned and me our dark eyes and nothing more. We
depended on our mother. I especially didn't expect her to have a
life of her own. I pouted when anything took her away: the bills
that needed paying, the jobs that came and went, the dishes that
needed washing, the piles of laundry. Endless, endless. Never ever
done. That night my mother was going out with her two best friends
to celebrate her birthday. I didn't like it one bit. It sounded like
fun. She was off to the Bluebird Diner, a run-down place famous for
its roast beef sandwiches and French fries with gravy. It was only a
few hours on her own. It was just a tiny celebration.
I didn't care.
Maybe my father had been self-centered; maybe I'd inherited that
from him along with the color of my eyes. I wanted my mother to stay
home and braid my hair, which I wore long, to my waist. Loose, my
hair knotted when I slept, and I worried; my brother had told me
that bats lived in our roof. I was afraid they would fly into my
room at night and make a nest in my head. I didn't want to stay home
with my brother, who paid no attention to me and was interested more
in science than in human beings. We argued over everything,
including the last cookie in the jar, which we often grabbed at the
same time. Let go! You first! Whatever we held often broke in our
grasp. Ned had no time for a little sister's whims; he had to be
bribed into reading to me. I'll do your chores. I'll give you my
lunch money. Just read.
My mother didn't listen to my complaints. She was preoccupied. She
was in a rush. She put on her raincoat and a blue scarf. Her hair
was pale. She'd cut it herself, straining to see the back of her
head in the mirror. She couldn't afford a real haircut at a salon;
still she was pretty. We didn't talk about being poor; we never
discussed what we didn't have. We ate macaroni three times a week
and wore heavy sweaters to bed; we made do. Did I realize that night
was my mother's thirtieth birthday, that she was young and beautiful
and happy for once? To me, she was my mother. Nothing less or more.
Nothing that didn't include me.
When she went to leave, I ran after her. I was barefoot on the porch
and my feet stung. The rain had frozen and was hitting against the
corrugated green fiberglass roof. It sounded like a gun. Ice had
slipped onto the floorboards and turned the wood to glass. I begged
my mother not to go. Queen of the universe. The girl who thought of
no one but herself. Now I know the most desperate arguments are
always over foolish things. The moment that changes the path of a
life is the one that's invisible, that dissolves like sugar in
water. But tell that to an eight-year-old girl. Tell it to anyone;
see who believes you.
When my mother said that Betsy and Amanda were waiting for her and
that she was already late, I made my wish. Right away, I could feel
it burning. I could taste the bitterness of it; still I went ahead.
I wished I would never see her again. I told her straight to her
face. I wished she would disappear right there, right then.
My mother laughed and kissed me good-bye. Her kiss was clear and
cold. Her complexion was pale, like snow. She whispered something to
me, but I didn't listen. I wanted what I wanted. I didn't think
beyond my own needs.
My mother had to start the car several times before the engine
caught. There was smoke in the air. The roof of the patio vibrated
along with the sputtering engine of the car. I could feel the
sourness inside me. And here was the odd thing about making that
wish, the one that made her disappear: it hurt.
"Come inside, idiot," my brother called to me. "The only thing
you'll accomplish out there is freezing your ass off."
Ned was logical; he was four years older, an expert on
constellations, red ants, bats, invertebrates. He had often told me
that feelings were a waste of time. I didn't like to listen to Ned,
even when he was right, so on that night I didn't answer. He shouted
out a promise to read to me, even if it had to be fairy tales,
stories he held in contempt. Irrational, impossible, illogical
things. Even that wasn't enough for me to end my vigil. I couldn't
stop looking at the empty street. Soon enough my brother gave up on
me. Didn't everyone? My feet had turned blue and they ached, but I
stood out there on the porch for quite a while. Until my tongue
stopped burning. When I finally went inside, I looked out the
window, and even Ned came to see, but there was nothing out there.
Only the snow.
MY MOTHER HAD HER ACCIDENT ON THE SERVICE ROAD leading to the
Interstate. The police report blamed icy road conditions and bald
tires that should have been replaced. But we were poor, did I tell
you that? We couldn't afford new tires. My mother was half an hour
late for her birthday dinner, then an hour; then her friend Betsy
called the police. The next morning when our grandmother came to
tell us the news, I braided my own hair for the first time, then cut
it off with a pair of gardening shears. I left it behind for the
bats. I didn't care. I'd started to wonder if my brother had been
right all along. Don't feel anything. Don't even try.
After the funeral, Ned and I moved into our grandmother's house. We
had to leave some of our things behind: my brother his colony of
ants, and I left all my toys. I was too old for them now. My
grandmother called what I'd done to my hair a pixie cut, but could
she give a name to what I'd done to my mother? I knew, but I wasn't
saying. My grandmother was too kind a person to know who was living
under her roof. I'd destroyed my mother with words, so words became
my enemy. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut.
At night I told myself a story, wordless, inside my head, one I
liked far better than those in my books. The girl in my story was
treated cruelly, by fate, by her family, even by the weather. Her
feet bled from the stony paths; her hair was plucked from her head
by blackbirds. She went from house to house, looking for refuge. Not
a single neighbor answered his door, and so one day the girl gave up
speaking. She lived on the side of a mountain where every day was
snowy. She stood outside without a roof, without shelter; before
long she was made of ice-her flesh, her bones, her blood. She looked
like a diamond; it was possible to spy her from miles away. She was
so beautiful now that everyone wanted her: people came to talk to
her, but she wouldn't answer. Birds lit on her shoulder; she didn't
bother to chase them away. She didn't have to. If they took a single
peck, their beaks would break in two. Nothing could hurt her
anymore. After a while, she became invisible, queen of the ice.
Silence was her language, and her heart had turned a perfect pale
silver color. It was so hard nothing could shatter it. Not even
"Physiologically impossible," my brother said the one time I dared
to tell him the story. "In such low temperatures, her heart would
actually freeze and then burst. She'd wind up melting herself with
her own blood."
I didn't discuss such things with him again.
I knew what my role was in the world. I was the quiet girl at
school, the best friend, the one who came in second place. I didn't
want to draw attention to myself. I didn't want to win anything.
There were words I couldn't bring myself to say; words like ruin and
love and lost made me sick to my stomach. In the end, I gave them up
altogether. But I was a good grandchild, quick to finish tasks, my
grandmother's favorite. The more tasks, the less time to think. I
swept, I did laundry, I stayed up late finishing my homework. By the
time I was in high school, I was everyone's confidante; I knew how
to listen. I was there for my friends, a tower of strength, ever
helpful, especially when it came to their boyfriends, several of
whom slept with me in senior year, grateful for my advice with their
love lives, happy to go to bed with a girl who asked for nothing in
My brother went to Harvard, then to Cornell for his graduate degree;
he became a meteorologist, a perfect choice for someone who wanted
to impose logic onto an imperfect world. He was offered a position
at Orlon University, in Florida, and before long he was a full
professor, married to a mathematician, Nina, whom he idolized for
her rational thought and beautiful complexion. As for me, I looked
for a career where silence would be an asset. I went to the state
university a few towns over, then to City College for a master's in
library science. My brother found it especially amusing that my work
was considered a science, but I took it quite seriously. I was
assigned to the reference desk, still giving advice, as I had in
high school, still the one to turn to for information. I was well
liked at the library, the reliable employee who collected money for
wedding presents and organized baby showers. When a co-worker moved
to Hawaii I was persuaded to adopt her cat, Giselle, even though I
But there was another, hidden side to me. My realest self. The one
who remembered how the ice fell down, piece by bitter piece. The one
who dreamed of cold, silver hearts. A devotee of death. I had become
something of an expert on the many ways to die, and like any expert
I had my favorites: bee stings, poisoned punch, electric shock.
There were whole categories I couldn't get enough of: death by
misadventure or by design, death pacts, death to avoid the future,
death to circumvent the past. I doubted whether anyone else in the
library was aware that rigor mortis set in within four hours. If
they knew that when heated, arsenic had a garlic-like odor. The
police captain in town, Jack Lyons, who'd been in my brother's class
in high school, often called for information regarding poison,
suicide, infectious diseases. He trusted me, too.
Once I began researching death, I couldn't stop. It was my calling;
I suppose it was a passion. I ordered medical texts, entomology
books, the Merck manual of pharmaceuticals so as to be well versed
in toxic side effects when Jack Lyons called. My favorite reference
book was A Hundred Ways to Die, a guide for the terminally ill,
those who might be in dire need of methods and procedures for their
own demise. Still, I always asked Jack if he hadn't someone more
qualified than I to do his research, but he said, "I know I'll just
get the facts from you. No interpretations."
In that regard, he was wrong. I was quiet, but I had my opinions:
when asked to recommend which fairy tales were best for an
eight-year-old, for instance, Andersen's or Grimm's, I always chose
Grimm's. Bones tied in silken cloth laid to rest under a juniper
tree, boys who were foolish and brave enough to play cards with
Death, wicked sisters whose own wickedness led them to hang
themselves or jump headfirst into wells. On several occasions there
had been complaints to the head librarian when irate mothers or
teachers had inadvertently scared the daylights out of a child on my
recommendation. All the same, I stood my ground. Andersen's world
was filled with virtuous, respectable characters. I preferred tales
in which selfish girls who lost their way needed to hack through
brambles in order to reach home, and thoughtless, heedless brothers
were turned into donkeys and swans, fleas itching like mad under
their skin, blood shining from beneath their feathers. I didn't
believe that people got what they deserved. I didn't believe in a
rational, benevolent world that could be ordered to suit us, an
existence presumed to fit snugly into an invented logic. I had no
faith in pie charts or diagrams of humanity wherein the wicked were
divided from the good and the forever after was in direct opposition
to the here and now.
When I walked home from the library on windy nights, with the leaves
swirling, and all of New Jersey dark and quiet, I wouldn't have been
surprised to find a man with one wing sitting on the front steps of
Town Hall, or to come upon a starving wolf on the corner of Fifth
Street and Main. I knew the power of a single wish, after all.
Invisible and inevitable in its effect, like a butterfly that beats
its wings in one corner of the globe and with that single action
changes the weather halfway across the world. Chaos theory, my
brother had informed me, was based on the mathematical theorem that
suggests that the tiniest change affects everything, no matter how
distant, including the weather. My brother could call it whatever he
wanted to; it was just fate to me.
Before I knew it thirteen years had passed at the library, and then
fifteen. I still wore my hair the same way-the haircut I'd given
myself at the age of eight had become my trademark. People expected
certain things of me: assistance, silence, comfort. They had no idea
who I was. I dated Jack Lyons for some of that time, if you could
call it that. He'd phone me for information, and later that same
evening he'd be waiting for me in the parking lot. We'd do it in his
car. The sex was hurried and panicked and crazy, but we did it
anyway. We took chances. Times when patrons would be arriving, days
when there was so much snow, drifts three feet high built up around
the car. Maybe I wanted to get caught, but we never did. We were
alone in the world.
Excerpted from "The Ice Queen" by Alice Hoffman. Copyright © 2007 by Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.