Captured by the Beltsville Electron Microscopy Unit, part of the USDA.
Marianne huddles in the corner. Only her hands and nose are visible beneath the heap of moth-eaten blankets in which she swathes herself. The December chill seeps through the old fabric, sinking into her bones. A stub remains of her last candle, and she holds her hands either side of the flickering flame, anxious for warmth.
Marianne thinks of the empty wood basket beside the cold fireplace. The money from her last commission ran out several days ago. No one will hire a seamstress whose fingers are too stiff and frozen to do the work. She ate the last of her food earlier, a hard heel of bread with cheese so mouldy even the mice will not eat it.
Marianne sings under her breath. She keeps forgetting the words to songs she has known since childhood. She tries to keep the worry from nibbling at her clouded mind. Marianne knows she must fight to keep herself awake. If she falls asleep, she does not think she will wake again.
A tap at the window shakes her from her thoughts. Marianne peers across the room, but the film of frost on the glass obscures her view outside. She hauls herself to her feet and hobbles across the room. The cold has numbed her feet too much for her to hurry. She opens the window, and a blast of icy air slashes at her face.
“I say, you don’t think you could let me in, do you?”
A young man stands on the ledge outside her window. She gazes at him in disbelief. How could he have reached her small turret so high above the town? Mute, she stumbles backwards. The man pushes open the window and climbs inside. He wears a fine frock coat and waistcoat. Silver thread traces snowflakes across the white silk. Snow clings to his white top hat.
“Who are you?” asks Marianne.
“Who I am is far less important than the reason I am here, Marianne. Poor, sweet Marianne. This has been such a hard winter for you, has it not?” asks the young man.
“Aye, it has,” says Marianne. She casts a suspicious look at the young man.
“Well then! You have borne the weight of this winter so well, my dearest. You resisted where others would perish. It is for this reason that I have chosen you for my bride,” says the young man.
“I’m too cold for such nonsense. I am too poor for you to rob me, so I suggest you try your luck elsewhere,” says Marianne.
“I do not wish to rob you! I wish to marry you!” exclaims the young man.
“Don’t be silly, I’m in no mood. You must be all of five-and-twenty – I am twice your age, and I won’t survive this winter. Go now, you tire me so,” says Marianne.
Marianne looks up into his handsome face. If only she were twenty years younger. If only she weren’t so poor. If only he weren’t a stranger. If only…
The stranger peels off his white gloves and brushes his hand against Marianne’s cheek. Icy fingers crawl across her skin, and the cold sinks into her. She tries to scream but there is no breath left in her frozen lungs. The blood in her veins turns to ice. Marianne stands in her small room, a statue paralysed by winter.
The young man leans forward, and plants his lips on hers. The thaw spreads, the ice and the years falling away from Marianne. She coughs as air melts her lungs, and she stumbles forward into the young man’s arms. Her heart flutters, pumping ice water through her veins. Marianne looks into his eyes, and sees the reflection of her youthful self. She looks down to find her tattered tags replaced by a gown of white silk. A fur mantle drapes around her shoulders.
“What did you do to me?” she asks, her voice husky from coughing.
“I made you my bride, as I said I would. I have returned to you what time has stolen,” replied the young man.
“Am I dead?” she asks.
“You are dead in the sense that you are not a human, but you are alive with the power of winter,” replies the young man. “Come, Lady Frost. Let us explore the town together.”
“Lady Frost? Oh my…you’re Jack Frost, aren’t you?” asks Marianne.
The young man smiles in reply. He leads her to the window. They climb out onto the ledge, and she yelps as he leaps into the night air. He grasps her hand, and together they ride the air currents above the town. Marianne gazes down over the town square. People cluster around the tree, singing carols to ward off the cold.
Jack leads her to a row of small cottages at the edge of town. He touches a finger to the window of the first house. Beautiful patterns reform the crust of frost on the glass. He invites her to do the same. She holds out a trembling hand, amazed that she no longer feels the cold. She touches the glass, and the frost beneath her finger forms a delicate filigree of icy lace. Marianne squeals with glee; she remembers staring at these same patterns for hours as a child.
They spend the rest of the evening turning the cruelty of winter into a paradise of art. Marianne learns to turn the compacted ice back into fluffy snow to prevent the townsfolk slipping on their way home from the service in the square. Jack teaches her to sculpt secret faces in the icicles to keep watch over the children. Later, he takes her hand and they walk back to the square. They stand in the shadows, listening to the carols. Marianne has never heard anything so heartfelt in her life.
The clock chimes midnight. Jack pulls Marianne into an embrace. He feels warm in her arms, and she buries her face in his collar. She thinks she ought to feel sad about her death, but how can she? Life took her livelihood and her pride, but death has given her youth, and romance.
“Merry Christmas, my dear,” whispers Jack.
“Merry Christmas to you,” she replies.
Jack leads her away from the square. There are more houses to visit, and more children to be delighted by the frosty drawings on the windows in the morning.