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A mountain of ice from the northern ocean – all blue-glittering towers and turrets, high valleys and plunging chasms – followed a steam ship to the city. It floated in the harbour for a night, a restless Arctic monster harnessed with spikes and ropes and chains. In the morning a team of twenty horses dragged it to the city park for the winter festival. The horses sweated and struggled, hooves slipping on the churned snow. Drivers tugged at bridles, clung to leather collars, urged and coaxed and cursed, cracking long whips. Inch by inch, the iceberg climbed the slipway, lurched onto wooden rollers and along the harbour road. People stood and stared.
After midnight, officials, sightseers and horses long gone, the ice stood monumentally still. It was blue-striped, like a sweet-shop lozenge. The shape of the ice had captured the motion of the sea – the surge of deep currents, the ramps and troughs of waves. The polished surface glittered.
The city’s church bells, in succession, chimed the single hour. Frost sealed the surface of the ice and in its salt heart, like a knot of moonlight, something moved. A curling, like a white tadpole sewed up tight in its ghostly jelly. A twist and wriggle. The ice flexed, softened, creating a smooth aperture.
A girl stepped out.
Her skin was translucent – a freakish sapphire blue. Her hair, black as the deep ocean, flowed over her as smooth and glossy as sealskin. She brushed a lingering powder of ice from her narrow, newly-formed body. Then she placed her tiny feet one in front of the other, leaving footprints in the snow. First steps.
At the park gates a chestnut seller slept in his booth, back against the brazier, head muffled against the winter weather. The girl was drawn to him – to the heat of the dying embers and the salt-heat of his blood. His eyes opened as her hand stole through the canvas opening. He made an odd sound, query or protest perhaps. Moonlight passed through the girl’s ice face. The old man crossed himself, trying to speak, but the face moved towards him. Her kiss burned his forehead. When she walked into the street her transparent blue had become a soft white.
The city lay all around. Snowy roofs rose and fell like billows on the sea. Here and there, a church spire stabbed and in the west, the cathedral dome curved like a whale’s belly.
The tidal river, black and serpentine, held the scent of the sea in its breath, along with rot and sewage and the chemical tang of effluent from city factories. A hotchpotch of tethered vessels jostled along the banks, some beached and tilting: coal-dusted barges, battered rowing boats, residences from which beads of yellow light gleamed. She followed the river upstream. Docks and warehouses gave way to teetering residences, tenements that leaned over soiled lanes. The sound of voices strayed from shuttered windows. Yellowed posters, like the wings of dead moths, peeled from wooden walls.
A door opened beneath a painted mermaid on a shabby sign. A young man stumbled out. Angry words followed him but the man shrugged them off and pulled together his long, tattered coat against the cold. When he passed beneath the streetlamp, she saw the copper hair curling over his collar. He looked back once as the pub door slammed shut, sniffed loudly, and set off with an uneven stride along an alleyway away from the river.
The girl followed. He left a trail of warmth and scent behind him like a ribbon fading on the winter air. His heat drew her, perfumed with gin, tobacco and the complex olfactory signature of his body: blood, perspiration, red wine and the partially digested meat he’d eaten two hours before, now passing through the organic machinery of his guts. Beneath a second, lonely streetlamp the young man halted and looked back, perhaps sensing his follower. The girl retreated into the shadows. She was close enough to see the scattering of freckles on his face and paint stains on his tapering fingers. The man shook his head, wiped his nose on the back of his hand and crossed to a door. It wasn’t locked because he opened it without a key and stepped inside.
David Newton pushed the door to and climbed three flights of bare wooden stairs to his attic room. He fumbled with matches to light the oil lamp waiting inside the door. A daubed canvas stood in front of him. He was so drunk the colours swam in an ugly, angry cloud. A cold wind rattled the window and he swore out loud when the door banged against his back. He’d been uneasy all day: the frustration of painting, the row in the pub and then the paranoid suspicion Albert had followed him into the street. It persisted still, this sense of a pursuer.
Too late to set a fire. He sat heavily on his bed behind the screen in the corner of the room. The water in the jug had frozen. Ornate coils of ice furnished the window panes. He should remove his coat at least, but drink and fatigue had the better of him so he pushed off his boots, curled up under the blankets and plunged into a drink- sodden sleep.
David woke suddenly. White light filled the room, morning sun filtering through the frosted windows. It was late, wasn’t it? Midwinter, the sun didn’t rise till eight. His mouth was sour and dry; his body ached. He heaved himself out of bed.
He’d forgotten to lock the door and it gaped, revealing the tiny landing and the stairs descending into shadow. A thin, needling draft whistled through the room. He pushed the door to and turned to look at the painting again.
Curled like an ammonite, white as a pearl, a woman lay on the floor beneath the canvas with its swirls of cobalt and turquoise and aquamarine. At first he thought she was dead – stiff and chilly, like a piece of marble. She had her back to him, the spine visible like a string of beads. Pale skin skimmed narrow hips and small, boyish buttocks. A flood of glossy black hair streamed over the bare boards.
David blinked. He was holding his breath. He stepped towards the woman – a girl, she was young, surely? – and reached out his hand. Remarkably, a delicate veil of snow lay on the skin. But as soon as his fingers brushed the apex of her bony shoulder the girl twisted towards him, opened her eyes and stared into his face.
Such eyes! Crystalline prisms of jade and moss and bottle green – the colour altered as the light moved on her face. David drew back his hand and they stared at each other. Her arm lay across her chest and though her gaze did not invite, it held no embarrassment either. His heart thrummed against his ribs. Something about this face filled him with a visceral unease – her eyes – the sense that the presence behind them was a blank nothing, or else vast beyond imagining. Limitless in either case. Inhuman, certainly.
“What are you?” he said. What, not who. “Why are you here?” He heard the edge of anxiety to his voice, a show of bravado. Inhuman? What was he thinking? Some slattern from the streets who’d broken into his room.
The girl sat up. The sleek wash of hair hung over her shoulders. David shook his head and strode over to the screen where he scooped up his second shirt and best jacket for the girl to put on. He lit the fire and ushered her into the single chair by its side. Perversely she started to shiver, soaking up the fire’s heat, this swan with her black hair and jewelled eyes.
“I’ll make us some tea. Then you’ll have to go.” He was brusque, putting aside his earlier misapprehension. He didn’t want to get saddled. She seemed more ordinary, covered in his clothes. How to be rid of her? He couldn’t let her leave dressed as she was. He’d have to find her something more suitable even to get her out of his room. That would take money, and bother.
“What’s your name? Where are your people?”
The girl didn’t speak. She stared at him like an imbecile. Was that the reason for the vacancy he’d noticed before? Perhaps she’d escaped from somewhere. He should just throw her out.
But… but what? Something inside him resisted. The image of her coiled beneath the painting burned in his imagination like a white-hot coal. He could use her couldn’t he? Place her in the picture, the figure his painting so sorely missed.
“What’s your name?” he repeated. Still no answer. Perhaps she was mute.
“Well I’ll call you Blanche. I’ll get us something to eat. Would you like that?”
David hurried to the bakers and bought hot rolls. The idea had caught hold of him. He would use her as a model. She was a gift, wasn’t she? Once in the street anxiety overcame him. What if she slipped away while he was gone? He should have locked the door behind him.
But she hadn’t gone. She was as he had left her, sitting on the chair by the fire.
“Here, have something to eat. You must be hungry.” He buttered the roll and passed it to her on a plate. The girl picked up the bread but she didn’t bite it. Instead she cradled it in her hands. David ate hungrily and drank a cup of tea though he hardly tasted it, his mind fired up with idea of what he would paint. As soon as he’d finished he jumped to his feet.
“I’d like to paint you,” he said. “I’d like you to be my model. Do you understand?” He moved from foot to foot, energy brimming over. “You can stay here as long as I need you. And I shall pay you of course. Some shillings, you’d like that wouldn’t you?”
Blanche was immune to his enthusiasm but she seemed to understand. She placed the bread roll on the hearth and rose to her feet.
“Take off the jacket,” David commanded. “Here – put it here. And stand so. Can you turn? Yes, like that.” He took out his paper and charcoal and began to draw.
He worked all day in a pleasurable fever. Blanche was patient and compliant, seemingly impervious to the cold. When darkness fell he relit the lamp and a host of candles so the work could continue.
Later, exhausted, he locked her into the room and went out into the city. He stopped at the Mermaid to see his friends Albert and Claude, fellow artists. He fell on a meal of beef pie and boiled potatoes. They drank beer in the pleasurable fug of the pub and David, tongue loosened by drink and the euphoria of his day’s work, confided he’d found a new model. The picture he’d been struggling with for half a year was going to be a triumph.
When he returned, half drunk, Blanche was asleep in the chair by the fire, lying under his best jacket. The bread roll he’d given her that morning still waited, uneaten, on the hearth but evidently she had boiled a kettle and made herself a hot drink. Should he give up his bed? Ah, why disturb her? She was asleep already. He undressed quickly and slid under the blankets.
He dreamed of the sea, of drifting in black, arctic waters under mountainous waves and above immeasurable, abysmal depths. The weight of the sea pressed against him and the endless cold sucked heat from his body. He seemed to be dissolving, losing himself, as flesh and bones melted and blood seeped into the circulating currents of the sea. David woke a little, slowly, slowly surfacing from sleep. He became aware, distantly, that he was no longer alone in the bed. Blanche had climbed in and lay curled against him with her arms around his neck, seeming to hang from him, dragging him down. The room was black, except for the hanging square of the frost encrusted window. David shivered, hands and feet like blocks of stone, but Blanche was fever-hot, her skin burning. He put his fingertips on her face, feeling the closed eyes, the curves of nose and brows, the soft mouth. She stirred sleepily and moved against him, shallow breasts brushing against his chest, narrow legs slipping between his own icy thighs. Her face reached up and she pressed her mouth against his, a curiously cool, salty tongue pushing between his lips. Her hands tightened around his neck and his pulse thundered, desire like a furnace blazing to life in the pit of his belly, sending out ropes of renewed heat through his shivering limbs. She didn’t make a sound but she clung to him, half choked him, stopping his breath. He tried to release himself, to unwrap her arms from his neck but she was tenacious, stronger than he would have credited. He rolled over onto his back, gripped her bony behind and slid inside her while she thrashed and struggled on top of him like a huge, white bird, making odd guttural noises that didn’t stop till he’d spent inside her. Then, in a moment, her body relaxed and she folded over, pressing her face into his chest.
When David woke, the room was light and he was cold again. Blanche lay next to him, spread-eagled over the bed. Her skin had lost its unnatural pallor and her lips, partly open, were a dark, fleshy red. He leaned over, smelled the stale salt and iron perfume of her breath. An intricate lacing of veins was visible through the translucent skin on her neck and shoulders. His appetite stirred a little, but not enough. He clambered out of bed and tugged on his clothes, shaking and desperate to be warm. He set a fire and heated water for tea, glancing at the numerous sketches from the previous day. He sucked his lip, tasting blood. The lust to paint burned up and he forgot tea and cold, snatching up his brushes and stirring sluggish paints to embroider the figure of his new model in the vortex of blue on the canvas.
It was midwinter’s eve – the night of the Winter Festival. The shops and banks closed early.
A night of perfect black and white. The day’s new snow lay over the city, the sky a black lake swimming with stars. A narrow moon swung above the cathedral dome.
Blanche walked beside David. She was dressed in a long, velvet coat with a spiral of ivy pinned to the lapel, a black fur hat on her head. David had procured these items from a second hand clothes shop in one of the many unpromising alleys near the river several days before but their shabbiness faded when Blanche put them on, and under the cover of glamorous night.
In the Regent’s Park, not far from the harbour, the darkness of the longest night was broken by a hundred burning torches.
Thousands of feet had churned the snow into a muddy slush, here and there covered by pathways of hemp carpet where the ladies walked to save their hems. So many people. It seemed the entire city had arrived for the festival – the rich, dressed in furs, sitting around braziers in armchairs in canvas pavilions, the traders with barrows of chestnuts, sausages, mulled wine, spiced potatoes, the working men and women released from the factories.
Blanche’s eyes widened as they made their way among the crowd to the arena. They moved through a stew of sound – laughing and talking, the shouts of children, stray notes from the barrel organ and the deeper tones of the city band playing Christmas carols. David took her arm and kept her close beside him but he’d nothing to worry about. She seemed fearless – exultant almost – soaking up the atmosphere of the event, watching everything.
Then – at the heart of the festival – a glittering winter palace.
The city’s sculptors had carved the monstrous iceberg into an elaborate fairy castle, phantasmagoric in the blaze of torch light, fit for the Snow Queen herself. How many men, how much work, to carve this fantasy of ice? The mountain had been hollowed out and embellished. Towers and turrets, arched doorways, glistening gargoyles – ice dragons – throwing themselves from embellished parapets, spires leaping from spires, and a huge silver dome held up by fluted columns.
Festival goers wandered like children through arched corridors, in blue-icy cloisters and shining hallways, the most marvellous thing they’d ever seen.
Blanche stared and gripped David’s arm.
“So you want to go inside?” he said. Blanche didn’t answer but her eyes widened. They stepped through a gateway beneath battlements.
The stars blazed, bright and distorted, through transparent ice-windows. The warm breath of so many wondering visitors filled the rooms like a mist. At the heart of the palace they stepped into a courtyard where ice tumbled silently from a fountain beneath the central dome.
“Do you like it?” David said. Blanche raised her face, reached for him, pressed her lips against his. There they stood, surrounded by revellers, in the heart of the palace of ice.
“David! David!” A commotion broke out on the other side of the hall, young men’s voices, a woman’s shrill complaint.
“It’s Claude and Albert,” David said. He hadn’t seen them for days. Time had blurred, becoming a sequence of light and dark during which he either he painted and lay in bed with the girl.
Two young men ran over to him, faces bright with drink and excitement.
“David, where have you been? You’ve been working haven’t you? The picture, it’s taken you away from us.” Albert glanced at Blanche, and glanced again.
“Well, won’t you introduce us?” A sly smile crept across his face.
“Yes, of course. This is Blanche, my new model. Blanche, this is Albert, and Claude.”
Lanky Claude frowned. He was less drunk than Albert; he reached out to pat David’s arm and said: “My god, what’s happened to you? You look dreadful.”
“Oh, working like a demon. You know how it is.”
Claude shook his head. His eyes searched David’s face. “It’s more than that,” he said. “Have you seen yourself? You look sick to death. Have you been eating?”
David brushed it off. “Another few days, the picture will be finished. Then I can rest.”
“Come with us, come and have a drink,” Albert urged, clutching David’s sleeve and jumping up and down. “I’ll buy you one! I’ll buy us all drinks.”
“He sold a picture, the money’s burning holes in his pockets,” Claude said, over his friend’s head. “I can’t stop him. He’s been drinking for three days straight.” He rested a friendly arm on David shoulder. “But you, what have you been doing with yourself? And the girl, where did you find her? She’s quite something.”
“She came to my studio, looking for work,” he said. “Just what I needed. Come and see it, Claude. The picture is nearly finished. It’s the best I’ve ever done.”
A brace of fireworks exploded in the sky, releasing plumes of blue and silver. David gripped Blanche’s gloved hand as he followed Albert through the crowd to the Albatross, a sunken pub off a narrow walkway near the park. Inside a fire burned in a huge hearth. They sat together at a table crammed in the corner of the room. Swags of holly and ivy hung from the rafters. Albert called for drinks. Blanche took off her hat and her hair, never bound nor pinned, poured over her shoulders in two long, black stripes. Albert stared, mesmerised.
“You look like a fairy,” he said. “Doesn’t she Claude? La Belle Dame Sans Mercy. I should like to paint you too. May I borrow her, David, when you’ve finished?”
David, overwhelmed by the heat of the fire, had slumped into his seat as though Claude’s concern about his health had made the symptoms manifest. He barely shook his head at Albert’s suggestion.
“Well, girl, Blanche – La Belle Dame. What do you think? She doesn’t say much, does she?” Albert wriggled in his seat. A girl deposited cups of hot spiced wine on the table.
“She doesn’t speak at all,” David said. Albert was beginning to annoy him. He wished he wouldn’t stare at Blanche.
“Doesn’t speak? Why, the perfect model. No moaning, eh? In fact, the perfect woman.” His eyes continued to feed on Blanche and David felt a rising desire to smash his fist into his friend’s face. Why had he taken her to the festival?
“I need to go out,” he said, rising abruptly from the chair. He pushed his way through the bar and out of the door into the tart winter air. It was better here, in the cold: at least he could breathe. David took a cigarette from the case in his pocket and began to smoke. A further banner of fireworks hung in the sky. Distantly he heard the noise of the crowds in the park, stray notes of music from the brass band. He shouldn’t be too long. God only knew what Albert was saying to Blanche. They’d shared models before, of course. They were a loose bunch, the girls who hung around the artists’ studios, always on the make, looking for the best chance. Blanche was not like them. He had no intention of letting her go, not even when the picture was complete. He would paint her again. Besides, he had grown accustomed to having her in his bed at night.
He dropped his cigarette into the churned snow and took a deep breath. He was never cold now. On the contrary, the bitter night air sustained him and the prospect of the pub’s close, overheated interior was not a pleasant one. Perhaps he should simply retrieve Blanche and they could walk home together. Three men barrelled out of the door as he made his way back inside. His eye caught the reflection in the fly-blown, gilt-framed mirror hanging over the fireplace – and he stopped short. He saw a man standing among the oblivious carousing crowd, so gaunt his clothes hung from him like a scarecrow, face hollow and dead-white, mauve and grey shadows under red-rimmed eyes and around his mouth, like three-day-old bruises. David stared. Did he look so bad? No wonder Claude was worried. He took a long, slow breath, and then he put his hands on his chest, and his belly, and his thighs, feeling the tenderness of his flesh. Were there other bruises? How could he have paid such little attention to himself that he hadn’t noticed the wreckage of his body? It was the picture of course, the work consuming him. Well it was nearly finished. What did it matter if he pushed himself to the edge?
He sat down again, beside Blanche, and took a mouthful of hot wine.
“Your hands are shaking,” Claude observed. “You’re sick, David. You should go to the hospital.”
David lowered the cup to the table. He shook his head. “I’m fine. Tired, that’s all. You know how it is, you forget to eat. I’m nearly done now.”
The ice palace took weeks to melt in the long, hard winter. It decayed in slow increments, sliding bit by bit into ruin, melting in the sunny days, freezing again in each cold snap. As time went by, respect and wonder dissolved too. Soot and graffiti spoiled the walls. Youths loitered in the marvellous halls, lit bonfires and kicked at the walls. Silver-blue ice became grey and soiled. Melt water lay in a lake in the park.
The days lengthened. The first frail blossoms of jasmine appeared on the trees. Snowdrops broke the icy soil, then waves of gold and mauve crocuses. These impressions of spring David saw vaguely. He strayed from the apartment only briefly, consumed by his work, painting, scraping the canvas, painting again. The white figure emerged from the coil of water, arms uplifted, the cloud of black hair swirling from her head into the sea, while above, just a line above the mass of water, loured a stormy grey-blue sky.
Blanche stood before him as he painted. She hadn’t tired of her role, never fussed or sulked as any other model would. She had altered over the weeks, the boyish slenderness becoming sleek and womanly though she ate little. She didn’t ask to go out, but sometimes, as the spring drew on, she would stand at the dusty window staring out at the city, watching the pigeons and sparrows on the rooftops, listening to the voices on the pavements below. She was waiting for something. What was it? Perhaps he delayed the completion of the painting because he was afraid that once the picture was done, she would be gone. Somehow, alchemically, he was binding her in cords of paint and colour, making her his own, creating a trap. What would he do when she left him? When the picture was finished? The prospect was unbearable. His life had contracted to the twin obsessions, the girl and the mass of paint spreading over the canvas. Nothing else mattered.
The moon rose, slight and pink over a skyline of roofs and spires. The evening sky glowed with the day’s last light. David put down his brush. Blanche lay on the bed, her eyes focussed on some indeterminable distance, making an odd, tuneful humming noise.
“I’m done,” he said. “No more work today. You’re getting bored I think. D’you want to go out?”
She shook her head. David sat on the bed beside, stretched out a paint and oil-stained hand to touch her face.
“Good, I’m glad. I don’t want to go out either.” He stared into her eyes, the witch’s brew of greens he’d seen that first night now flat and solid. A wave of desolation passed through him, an aching premonition of loss. Shaking it away he slid his hand down into the front of her dress, reaching for her breast, wanting the heat of her. For the first time Blanche didn’t respond. He pressed a kiss on her face and pushed her back on the pillow. He laid his head on her chest, beneath her throat but the pulse he felt was slow and level. He kissed her again.
“You don’t want me now?”
She turned her face away from him, green eyes still open. Wordless, entirely still, she was casting him off. Her body had closed itself against him, like a locked door. David stood up and pulled on his coat, sick to death. He hurried out of the studio, strode into the city and didn’t return till the small hours. Drunk and stumbling, he crashed through the room and collapsed on the bed, wine-sodden, head reeling. He woke in the hour before sunrise. A narrow white shape moved through the swimming light. David squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. Was it Blanche? He was dreaming. The figure before the window turned and raised its arms, a milky, opalescent shape with long, inhuman limbs. He blinked again, wanting to clear the mist from his mind.
The sun rose above the roof tops and its first rays pierced her, the translucent woman. He couldn’t see well, blinded by the sun’s dazzle and the curious fog in the room but like a piece of moonstone she stood before him. Within her belly, at the root of her, hung a blood-red purse. Inside it, a foetus curved like a fossil.
Blanche – except that she was no longer Blanche, shedding the limitations of a name – placed a protective hand over her womb. She turned her face to David on the bed but her features had smoothed away. Then, fluid as molten glass, she moved to the open door and disappeared into the shadows of the stairway.
Claude walked through Regent’s Park, past the lake of salt water and the last, sad stumps of the ice palace. Spring sunshine has released the suppressed perfume of the city, garbage and horse manure, the river’s stink, the breath of cherry blossom. He headed through the maze of narrow streets to his friend’s studio. He hadn’t seen David for weeks, and he’d looked so ill during winter. The girl he’d picked up hadn’t been taking care of him. Clearly David had been working too hard, not eating or keeping himself warm. No doubt the girl had been taking all his money, sucking him dry. Well, Claude had some money now. He’d take David out for dinner and buy him a few drinks, check out the painting David had been raving about.
The sun was warm on his face and he hummed as he walked along the pavement. He turned into the tenement and climbed the stairs to the top floor.
“David?” he called. When he knocked, the door swung open. “David?” he said again. The place was quiet. A draught from the room carried a peculiar odour. Stricken with unease, Claude stepped inside.
A huge painted canvas dominated the room. A mass of swirling blue and green in which a pale female figure twisted, arms outstretched, face tipped back exposing the line of a long, pearly throat. A spray of foam leapt from the sea’s surface into a narrow strip of stormy sky. Energy burned in the picture, in the sea and sky, and in the strained, exultant torso of the woman whose motion seemed to generate the stirring of the elements, like nothing Claude had seen before. No wonder David had been consumed by it.
Claude stepped closer. David had scrawled his name in uneven letters in the bottom right corner of the picture. On the other side, he’d written: Undine.
But where was David? Claude poked around the room. It didn’t look as though anyone had lived in the room for days. The fire was cold and dead. A stone-hard loaf rested on the tabletop. He peered behind the screen.
A figure lay on the bed. Famished, face blackened, already caving in on itself. Claude’s breath choked in his throat. He let out a shocked, inadvertent moan. It was David, wasn’t it? The clothes were David’s but impossible to recognise his face. Claude rallied, calming himself then stepping closer. What had happened? The body resembled the mummy he’d seen at the museum, except for the horrible frostbitten blackness on the face and hands. Had he died of cold and starvation?
And the girl – the girl was long gone.
Sarah Singleton is the author of The Crow Maiden (Wildside Press) and eight novels for young adults, including Century (2005), Heretic (2006) and The Amethyst Child (2008), all published by Simon & Schuster UK. Century won the Booktrust Teen Award and was short-listed for the Branford Boase Award. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, including Interzone and The Third Alternative. Sarah has worked as a journalist and, currently, as an English teacher at a comprehensive school in Wiltshire, where she lives. A Winter’s Tale was originally published in a Newcon Press anthology called The Bitten Word (2010).
According to Paracelsus, an undine is a water spirit that can gain a soul only if it bears a child to a human husband.