Folk tales are full of concrete nouns: girl, forest, blood, snow. Yet we also experience them as febrile enigmas—narratives that shift and change according to need, and desire.
I first became interested in the tale of Snegurochka, the snow maiden, in the Ukraine in the 1990s. Snegurochka was the beautiful young woman dressed in blue and silver with blonde hair and a basketful of gifts. This snow maiden was the helper of Ded Moroz—Grandfather Frost—a character from a different folk tale entirely. The two were thrust into the cultural limelight of the Soviet Union as a replacement for the west’s ideologically unpalatable Father Christmas.
As capitalism took hold, Snegurochka became coyly sexualised, promoting cars and selling cola and perfume. Later, during the 2013/14 protests in Kiev, some nationalists condemned her supposedly Slavic roots and hung her effigy from bridges or tossed her from balconies. Nevertheless, Snegurochka’s origins appear to lie in the German Schneekind—a snow child created out of an old couple’s longing, the pagan daughter of winter who melts in the spring.
In most versions of the story she is pure, guileless and, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden, incapable of love until she is granted her wish and dissolves in ecstasy. Snegurochka serves capitalism, communism, Russian, Ukrainian. Her heart is ice cold yet she brings gifts and talks to the birds. She never grows old, it seems, but when I turn her inside out I find a mass of contradictions.
Fertile ground for any writer.
Snegurochka or The Snow Maiden
The Consultant came in from the cold, stamped his felted boots, took off his hat with the ear laps and shook the frost from his beard.
‘What have we here?’ he said, shrugging on his white coat.
His young assistant passed him his notes.
‘Ah’, said the Consultant, ‘an interesting condition.’
‘Rare?’ asked his assistant, handing him his espresso.
‘Hardly’, said the Consultant. ‘I see quite a few at this time of year.’
After discussing the epidemiology of the case, the young assistant asked if he could examine the patient.
‘Well’, said the Consultant, folding his hands over his belly and wondering—not for the first time—if this boy had the bollocks to be his protégé. ‘You may look, but you’d better not touch.’
The young assistant sat in front of the monitor and observed the figure in the isolation suite. She stood very still, her back to the camera, her forehead pressed against the hermetically sealed window. The glow from the wall light was muted, and beyond the glass the forest that surrounded the building was hidden, enfolded in the dark.
He wondered if her eyes were open. He wondered if she was warm, or cold. He wondered too if her heart was beating, though he knew that this thought was fanciful and unedifying.
Snegurochka Syndrome, his boss called it: a compulsion to disappear into the snow.
Only women were afflicted. The average age for first presentation of symptoms was forty-eight.
Those that were captured and didn’t die of exposure invariably melted in the spring.
He hoped the Consultant had turned off the central heating.
The snow maiden stared into and beyond her reflection. Already she could feel herself dripping from her fingers. Her feet pooled about her ankles, her breasts ran to her knees. Soon she would be a woman-shaped puddle. This was not the end she had planned for herself.
Outside, snow fell, silent in the dark. Tiny crystals floated down through the trees, dusted the hills, gathered in drifts across the open fields.
When the young assistant finished mopping the floor he tossed out the slops and stood at the doorway with the empty bucket in his hand. The Consultant’s hat sat on his head and his feet were snug in the Consultant’s felt boots. He would find a cure, he decided. Who knew how many thousands might be similarly afflicted? This would be his life’s work.
Behind him, the old man dozed.
The snow maiden didn’t care either way. She was already skimming through the forest, surging over the plains, stirring up footprints as she crossed the frozen sea. She would burrow into winter’s blank canvas. She would wear the whiteness, invisible yet whole. She was Snegurochka, and her sisters were waiting.