The Snow Queen


  This book is for Billy Hough

  Empty, vast, and cold were the halls of the Snow Queen. The flickering flame of the northern lights could be plainly seen, whether they rose high or low in the heavens, from every part of the castle. In the midst of its empty, endless hall of snow was a frozen lake, broken on its surface into a thousand forms; each piece resembled another, from being in itself perfect as a work of art, and in the centre of this lake sat the Snow Queen, when she was at home. She called the lake “The Mirror of Reason,” and said that it was the best, and indeed the only one in the world.

  —Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen

  Table of Contents


  Title Page



  A Night

  November 2004

  New Year’s Eve, 2006

  A Night

  November 2008


  Also by Michael Cunningham


  About the Publisher


  A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of a five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx’s.

  During the past four days, Barrett had been doing his best to remain undiscouraged by what seemed, lately, to be a series of progressively terse and tepid breakups. In his twenties, love had usually ended in fits of weeping, in shouts loud enough to set off the neighbors’ dogs. On one occasion, he and his soon-to-be-ex had fought with their fists (Barrett can still hear the table tipping over, the sound the pepper mill made as it rolled lopsidedly across the floorboards). On another: a shouting match on Barrow Street, a bottle shattered (the words “falling in love” still suggest, to Barrett, green glass shards on a sidewalk under a streetlamp), and the voice of an old woman, neither shrill nor scolding, emanating from some low dark window, saying, simply, “Don’t you boys understand that people live here, people are trying to sleep,” like the voice of an exhausted mother.

  As Barrett moved into his mid-, and then late, thirties, though, the partings increasingly tended to resemble business negotiations. They were not devoid of sorrow and accusation, but they had without question become less hysterical. They’d come to resemble deals and investments that had, unfortunately, gone wrong, despite early promises of solid returns.

  This last parting, however, was his first to be conveyed by text, the farewell appearing, uninvited, unanticipated, on a screen no bigger than a bar of hotel soap. Hi Barrett I guess u know what this is about. Hey we gave it our best shot right?

  Barrett did not, in fact, know what this was about. He got the message, of course—love, and whatever future love implied, had been canceled. But, I guess u know what this is about? That had been something like a dermatologist saying, offhandedly, after your annual checkup, I guess you know that that beauty mark on your cheek, that little chocolate-colored speck that has been referred to, more than once, as an aspect of your general loveliness (who was it who said Marie Antoinette’s penciled-on version had been in precisely that spot?), is actually skin cancer.

  Barrett responded initially in kind, by text. An e-mail seemed elderly, a phone call desperate. So he tapped out, on tiny keys, Wow this is sudden how bout we talk a little, I’m where I always am. xxx.

  By the end of the second day, Barrett had left two more texts, followed by two voice mails, and had spent most of the second night not leaving a third. By the end of day number three, he had not only received no reply of any kind, but also had begun to realize there would be no reply at all; that the sturdily built, earnest Canadian Ph.D. candidate (psychology, Columbia) with whom he’d shared five months of sex and food and private jokes, the man who’d said “I might actually love you” after Barrett recited Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” while they were taking a bath together, the one who’d known the names of the trees when they spent that weekend in the Adirondacks, was simply moving on; that Barrett had been left standing on the platform, wondering how exactly he seemed to have missed his train.

  I wish you happiness and luck in the future. xxx.

  On the fourth night, Barrett was walking across Central Park, headed home after a dental exam, which struck him on one hand as depressingly commonplace but, on the other, as a demonstration of his fortitude. Go ahead, rid yourself of me in five uninformative and woundingly anonymous lines. (I’m sorry it just hasn’t worked out the way we’d hoped it would, but I know we both tried our best.) I’m not going to neglect my teeth for you. I’m going to be pleased, pleased and thankful, to know that I don’t need a root canal, after all.

  Still, the idea that, without having been offered any time to prepare for it, he’d never witness the pure careless loveliness of this young man, who was so much like those lithe, innocent young athletes adoringly painted by Thomas Eakins; the idea that Barrett would never again watch the boy peel his briefs off before bed, never witness his lavish, innocent delight in small satisfactions (a Leonard Cohen mix tape Barrett made for him, called Why Don’t You Just Kill Yourself; a victory for the Rangers), seemed literally impossible, a violation of love-physics. As did the fact that Barrett would, apparently, never know what it was that had gone so wrong. There had been, during the last month or so, the occasional fight, the awkward lapse in conversation. But Barrett had assumed that the two of them were merely entering the next phase; that their disagreements (Do you think you could try not to be late some of the time? Why would you put me down like that in front of my friends?) were signposts of their growing intimacy. He hadn’t remotely imagined that one morning he’d check his text messages and find love to have been lost, with approximately the degree of remorse one would feel over the loss of a pair of sunglasses.

  On the night of the apparition, Barrett, having been relieved of the threatened root canal, having promised to floss more faithfully, had crossed the Great Lawn and was nearing the floodlit, glacial mass of the Metropolitan Museum. He was crunching over ice-coated silver-gray snow, taking a shortcut to the number 6 train, dripped on by tree branches, glad at least to be going home to Tyler and Beth, glad to have someone waiting for him. He felt numb, as if his whole being had been injected with novocaine. He wondered if he was becoming, at the age of thirty-eight, less a figure of tragic ardency, love’s holy fool, and more a middle manager who wrote off one deal (yes, there’ve been some losses to the company portfolio, but nothing catastrophic) and went on to the next, with renewed if slightly more reasonable aspirations. He no longer felt inclined to stage a counterattack, to leave hourly voice mails or stand sentry outside his ex’s building, although, ten years ago, that’s exactly what he’d have done: Barrett Meeks, a soldier of love. Now he could only picture himself as aging and destitute. If he summoned up a show of anger and ardency it would merely be meant to disguise the fact that he was broke, he was broken, please, brother, have you got anything you can spare?

  Barrett hung his head as he walked through the park, not from shame but weariness, as if his head had become too heavy to hold upright. He looked down at the modest blue-gray puddle of his own shadow, cast by the lampposts onto the snow. He watched his shadow glide over a pinecone, a vaguely runic scattering of pine needles, and the wrapper of an Oh Henry! bar (they still made Oh Henry! bars?) that rattled by, raggedly silver, windblown.

  The miniature groundscape at his feet struck him, rather suddenly, as too wintery and prosaic to bear. He lifted his heavy head and looked up.

  There it was. A pale aqua light, translucen
t, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high, higher than a spaceship hovering above the treetops. It may or may not have been slowly unfurling, densest at its center, trailing off at its edges into lacy spurs and spirals.

  Barrett thought that it must be a freakish southerly appearance of the aurora borealis, not exactly a common sight over Central Park, but as he stood—a pedestrian in coat and scarf, saddened and disappointed but still regular as regular, standing on a stretch of lamp-lit ice—as he looked up at the light, as he thought it was probably all over the news—as he wondered whether to stand where he was, privately surprised, or go running after someone else for corroboration—there were other people, the dark cutouts of them, right there, arrayed across the Great Lawn …

  In his uncertainty, his immobility, standing stolid in Timberlands, it came to him. He believed—he knew—that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him.

  No. Not looking. Apprehending. As he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.

  He felt the light’s attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him, so that he was brighter than he’d been, just a shade or two; phosphorescent, but pinkly so, humanly so, nothing of swamp gas about it, just a gathering of faint blood-light that rose to the surface of his skin.

  And then, neither slowly nor quickly, the light dissipated. It waned into a scattering of pale blue sparks that seemed somehow animated, like the playful offspring of a placid and titanic parent. Then they, too, winked out, and the sky was as it had been, as it has always been.

  He remained standing for a while, watching the sky as if it were a television screen that had suddenly gone blank and might, just as mysteriously, turn itself on again. The sky, however, continued to offer only its compromised darkness (the lights of New York City gray the nocturnal blackness), and the sparse pinpoints of stars powerful enough to be seen at all. Finally, he continued on his way home, to Beth and Tyler, to the modest comforts of the apartment in Bushwick.

  What else, after all, was he supposed to do?


  It’s snowing in Tyler and Beth’s bedroom. Flecks of snow—tough little ice balls, more BB than flake, more gray than white in the early morning dimness—swirl onto the floorboards and the foot of the bed.

  Tyler awakens from a dream, which dissolves almost entirely, leaving only a sensation of queasy and peevish joy. When he opens his eyes it seems, for a moment, that the skeins of snow blowing around the room are part of his dream, a manifestation of icy and divine mercy. But it is in fact real snow, blowing in through the window he and Beth left open last night.

  Beth sleeps curled into the circle of Tyler’s arm. He gently disengages himself, gets up to close the window. He walks barefoot across the snow-sparkled floor, doing what needs to be done. This is satisfying. He’s the sensible one. In Beth, he has finally found someone more romantically impractical than he. Beth, if she woke, would, in all likelihood, ask him to leave the window open. She’d like the idea of their cramped, crowded little bedroom (the books pile up, and Beth won’t shed her habit of bringing home treasures she finds on the streets—the hula-girl lamp that could, in theory, be rewired; the battered leather suitcase; the two spindly, maidenly chairs) as a life-size snow globe.

  Tyler shuts the window, with effort. Everything in this apartment is warped. A marble dropped in the middle of the living room would roll right out the front door. As he forces the sash down, a final fury of snow blows in, as if seeking its last chance at … what? … the annihilating warmth of Tyler and Beth’s bedroom, this brief offer of heat and dissolution? … As the miniature flurry blasts over him, a cinder blows into his eye; or maybe some obdurate microscopic ice crystal, like the tiniest imaginable sliver of glass. Tyler rubs his eye, can’t seem to get at the speck that’s embedded itself there. It’s as if he’s been subjected to a minor mutation; as if the clear speck had attached itself to his cornea, and so he stands with one eye clear and one bleary and watering, watching the snowflakes hurl themselves against the glass. It’s barely six o’clock. It’s white outside, everywhere. The elderly snow-piles that have been, day after day, plowed to the edges of the next-door parking—that have solidified into miniature gray mountains, touched toxically, here and there, with spangles of soot—are now, for now, alpine, like something out of a Christmas card; or, rather, something out of a Christmas card if you focus tightly, edit out the cocoa-colored, concrete facade of the empty warehouse (upon which the ghost of the word “concrete” is still emblazoned, although grown so faint it’s as if the building itself, so long neglected, still insists on announcing its own name) and the still-slumbering street where the neon q in the liquor sign winks and buzzes like a distress flare. Even in this tawdry cityscape, though—this haunted, half-empty neighborhood, where the burned carcass of an old Buick has remained (strangely pious in its rusted-out, gutted and graffitied, absolute uselessness) for the last year, on the street beneath Tyler’s window—there’s a gaunt beauty summoned by the pre-dawn light; a sense of compromised but still-living hope. Even in Bushwick. Here’s a fall of new snow, serious snow, immaculate, with its hint of benediction, as if some company that delivers hush and accord to the better neighborhoods had gotten the wrong address.

  If you live in certain places, in a certain way, you’d better learn to praise the small felicities.

  And, living as Tyler does in this place, in this placidly impoverished neighborhood of elderly aluminum siding, of warehouses and parking lots, all utilitarian, all built on the cheap, with its just-barely-managing little businesses and its daunted denizens (Dominicans, mostly, people who went to considerable effort to get here—who had, must have had, higher hopes than those that Bushwick has granted them) trudging dutifully along to or from minimum-wage jobs—as if defeat could no longer be defeated, as if one were lucky to have anything at all. It isn’t even particularly dangerous anymore; there is of course the occasional robbery but it seems, for the most part, that even the criminals have lost their ambition. In a place like this, praise is elusive. It’s difficult to stand at a window, watching snow feather onto the overflowing garbage cans (the garbage trucks seem to remember, sporadically, unpredictably, that there’s garbage to collect here, too) and the cracked cobblestones, without thinking ahead to its devolution into dun-colored sludge, the brown tarns of ankle-deep street-corner puddles upon which cigarette butts and balls of foil gum wrappers (fool’s silver) will float.

  Tyler should go back to bed. Another interlude of sleep and who knows, he might wake into a world of more advanced, resolute cleanliness, a world wearing a still-heavier white blanket over its bedrock of drudgery and ash.

  He’s reluctant, however, to leave the window in this condition of sludgy wistfulness. Going back to bed now would be too much like seeing a delicately emotional stage play that comes to neither a tragic nor happy ending, that begins to sputter out until there are no more actors onstage, until the audience realizes that the play must be over, that it’s time to get up and leave the theater.

  Tyler has promised he’ll cut down. He’s been good about it, for the past couple of days. But now, right now, it’s a minor metaphysical emergency. Beth isn’t worse, but she isn’t better, either. Knickerbocker Avenue is waiting patiently through its brief interlude of accidental beauty until it can return to the slush and puddle that is its natural state.

  All right. This morning, he’ll give himself a break. He can re-summon his rigor easily enough. This is only a boost, at a time when a boost is needed.

  He goes to the nightstand, takes his vial from the drawer, and sucks up a couple of quick ones.

  And here it is. Here’s the sting of livingness. He’s back after his nightly voyage of sleep, all clarity and purpose; he’s renewed his citizenship in the world of people who stri
ve and connect, people who mean business, people who burn and want, who remember everything, who walk lucid and unafraid.

  He returns to the window. If that windblown ice crystal meant to weld itself to his eye, the transformation is already complete; he can see more clearly now with the aid of this minuscule magnifying mirror …

  Here’s Knickerbocker Avenue again, and, yes, it will soon return to its ongoing condition of anywhereness, it’s not as if Tyler has forgotten that, but the grimy impending future doesn’t matter, in very much the way Beth says that morphine doesn’t eradicate the pain but puts it aside, renders it unimportant, a sideshow curiosity, mortifying (See the Snake Boy! See the Bearded Lady!) but remote and, of course, a hoax, just spirit gum and latex.

  Tyler’s own, lesser pain, the dampness of his inner workings, all those wires that hiss and spark in his brain, has been snapped dry by the coke. A moment ago, he was fuzzed out and mordant, but now—quick suck of harsh magic—he’s all acuity and verve. He’s shed his own costume, and the true suit of himself fits him perfectly. Tyler is a one-man audience, standing naked at a window at the start of the twenty-first century, with hope clattering in his rib cage. It seems possible that all the surprises (he didn’t exactly plan on being an unknown musician at forty-three, living in eroticized chastity with his dying girlfriend and his younger brother, who has turned, by slow degrees, from a young wizard into a tired middle-aged magician, summoning doves out of a hat for the ten thousandth time) have been part of an inscrutable effort, too immense to see; some accumulation of lost chances and canceled plans and girls who were almost but not quite, all of which seemed random at the time but have brought him here, to this window, to his difficult but interesting life, his bulldoggish loves, his still-taut belly (the drugs help) and jut of dick (his own) as the Republicans are about to go down and a new world, cold and clean, is set to begin.