Ice flowers were growing on the window of the attic bedroom.
“We can’t pick those flowers,” Helena explained to Mister Rabbit, “And even if we could, we’re not allowed to do so. The Winter King would come and catch us. He’d lock us up in his cold palace.”
Mister Rabbit only listened with half an ear. He was hungry. He wanted breakfast.
“Do we really have to get out of bed already?” Helena moaned in reply, “It’s so nice and warm under our blanket.”
But Mister Rabbit insisted, and Helena felt an urge to pee coming up.
The splatter of her water was the only sound in the small cabin in the woods. Mother and father had left before the crack of dawn. During the Christmas holidays, Helena stayed at home alone while her parents were off working in the city. Helena didn’t mind. She could take care of herself. She was a big girl now.
She made a sandwich at the kitchen table and cut off the crusts for Mister Rabbit. Crusts were good for his teeth, and he also liked how they tasted. That was convenient, father used to say, because Helena didn’t like crusts at all.
After breakfast, Helena opened her big book of fairy tales. She watched the colorful drawings and Mister Rabbit read out loud. Although she knew every word of the stories he told, she listened to them as if she was hearing the adventures of princesses and princes, witches and wolves, giants and dwarfs for the first time. On that cold winter day, Mister Rabbit chose three tales with a common theme: girls in towers.
The first girl was locked up all alone in her tower; no one could come and play with her. But the girl was smart. She waited until her hair was as long as the tower was high. She then plaited her hair into a long braid that she let down through the window. A nice-looking boy —maybe a prince— climbed up the braid and they played together all day long.
Another girl in another tower was spinning a wheel. She worked so hard that everyone got tired. People fell asleep where they stood until another nice-looking boy—most likely a prince— came to wake the girl up with a kiss. Everyone arose from their hundred-year sleep and there was a big party.
The third girl was married to an angry-looking man with a long, blue beard. She borrowed his key to open a tower that he kept locked. In that tower, the young bride discovered the bodies of girls who hadn’t been as fortunate as those from the previous two stories. The angry husband caught his new wife by surprise when she fled the tower in horror. She was saved just in time by a nice-looking boy —most certainly a prince.
There were many other stories in the book, but Mister Rabbit said his voice was getting tired, so Helena took her crayons. She made a drawing of a tower. When Mister Rabbit asked her which tower she had in mind, she explained that it was the tower where the Winter King locked up the girls he took to his cold palace. In front of the tower, there was a warm prince, ready to save the Winter King’s latest victim.
At noon, Helena put a bowl of soup on the coal stove for herself; she served a carrot as a healthy snack for Mister Rabbit. Through the kitchen window she saw how it started to snow.
“Look, Mister Rabbit!” she cheered, “It’s snowing.”
Mister Rabbit jumped from his chair to take a closer look at the spectacle. Large flakes were landing softly on the ground.
"The garden and the pond are getting covered by a carpet of snow fast,” he said, “Oh, what fun it would be to play outside! We could make snow rabbits!”
Helena sighed: "Unfortunately, we have to remain inside. It's way too dangerous to go out. The Winter King would come to fetch us and lock us up in his cold palace."
Mister Rabbit told her he didn’t believe the tales of caution father and mother liked to tell her.
“There’s no such thing as a Winter King,” he claimed, “That’s a story made up by adults so that children would not leave the house. Why wouldn’t you be allowed to play in the garden? Kids are supposed to play outside!”
Helena hesitated: “But it’s cold and dangerous outside.”
Mister Rabbit insisted: “As long as we put on warm clothes and stay close to the house, nothing can go wrong.”
Helena was tempted. She owned a warm winter coat. Her grandmother had knitted a new bonnet with a matching scarf and mittens for her seventh birthday, but there wasn’t much opportunity to wear them. She peered through the kitchen window once more.
“Look,” she whispered, “Was that a bunny hopping through the snow?”
“You see?” Mister Rabbit affirmed, “If bunnies aren’t afraid of the Winter King, why should we? Come on! Let’s play outside!”
“Eat your carrot first,” Helena said, “I’ll give it another thought after I’ve finished eating my soup.”
“Think about it,” Mister Rabbit persevered, “Even if there is a Winter King and even if he does lock you up in a tower, it may be your chance to meet your prince.”
The door of the cabin was open when father and mother came home from work in the evening.
“Helena,” mother exclaimed in panic, and she hurried to her daughter’s room.
“Where is Helena?” she cried when she couldn’t find her little girl, “She is nowhere to be found inside.”
Father lit the lights outside and scurried around the cabin in panic. After having done the tour of the little house, his eye caught Mister Rabbit. His daughter’s favorite plush toy was sitting alone in the snow by the frozen pond.
“Mother,” he called his wife, “Look what I’ve found near the pond.”
“Tell me it isn’t true!” mother implored her husband.
Father ran to the cabin, looking for a flashlight and a large snow shovel. He hurried back to the pond and began to shovel the snow from the frozen surface while mother pointed the flashlight in his direction. She cried in silence as she watched her husband toil.
“There she is,” father said, crushed by sudden grief. Mother almost dropped the flashlight when she saw her daughter looking at them from behind a window of ice.
The Winter King had come to get her and had locked her up in his cold palace. She was his little princess now, a beautiful flower on a frozen mirror, waiting forever for a prince to find her.