Growing up on a small acreage in Minnesota certainly had its perks: There was a vast grove behind the house to mess around in, tractors to climb and explore, barns to build forts in, grain bins to scale when our mom wasn’t looking…there was no end to the trouble that we three kids could find if we really set our minds to it.
Of course, there were a few downfalls.
For example, it could, at times, feel pretty isolated. We were three miles outside of the nearest town, and even that town only had about a thousand people to its name. Sometimes, it felt like living at the edge of the world, where the wind was never just a breeze but always carried a bitter chill of indifference.
This isolation was made all the worse by my dad’s job. Being a state trooper, I’d always looked up to him as a kid. I liked to admire his squad car and would often sit outside the house as he drove off to work, waiting for those few occasions where he would flash those red and blue lights for me. Playing with his state issued hat and messing with the intercom in the squad was all great fun…until, that is, he had to go to work, and I’d be left wondering if he was ever coming back.
Due to the nature of my father’s job, my family was sometimes the target of threats, usually from local alcoholics he’d dumped in jail overnight for drunk driving. And, as far as I can recall, none of the threats ever really amounted to anything. For the most part, the worst it got were a few phone calls, leading to a period of time where us kids weren’t allowed to answer the phone. Every few months we’d have to buy a new mailbox, too, but that wasn’t really so bad. It just meant that we had to be extra careful.
Usually, we were very, very careful. But sometimes, things just slip through the cracks.
When I was about seven we had a particularly harsh winter. The temperature dropped into the -50ºF range, leading to a statewide shut down. Soon the winds came, carrying heavy snow with them. Minnesota became white and glittering and deadly. As the snow piled up, my father went out to work, sentenced to about three days of pulling idiots from the ditch non-stop.
We knew when he barely managed to pull out of our snow-cushioned driveway, he wouldn’t be home until the blizzard was over. As such, we were all a bit depressed. I was particularly worried because from a young age my father had pounded into my brain just how dangerous these winter roads can be. In the back of my mind, I kept on wondering what he might see out on the roads that night.
Mom set out sleeping bags downstairs, as the upstairs of our house was neither heated nor properly insulated, and popped in a Disney movie as she threw in a pizza for supper. That, at least, was something to look forward to. I was also looking forward to snuggling between my older brother and sister when a loud pounding came at the door.
My mom almost never let unexpected visitors in the house. If a car showed up in the middle of the night unannounced, she would grab the shotgun immediately and sit at the foot of the stairs, guarding us kids with her life. Many nights in the earlier years of my parents’ marriage she’d sit like that until dad came home, even if the car left without notice or trouble.
But in the winter, all the rules changed.
Sometimes, when people get stranded on those snowy Minnesota roads, they end up leaving their cars to search for help. That is always a terrible decision. Each year, a few people end up frozen to death, an icy grave in a barren ditch the last memory they ever leave behind. Few people who abandon one shelter ever make it to another.
So you must understand, when someone knocks on your door in the middle of a blizzard, you answer. Their life could depend on it.
But I know my mom hesitated. Us kids crept into the kitchen to watch as mom stood before the door, her hand hovering above the doorknob.
I wanted to call out to her, ask her what she was going to do, but my sister silenced me with a pert finger pressed against her lips. We waited in silence as mom turned the lock with deft fingers and pulled open the door.
Although my mother’s small frame was blocking the door, I could see his towering frame filling the doorway. He was tall and sturdy, dressed in a heavy winter jacket, a fur hat pulled down around his ears. Long, black hair hung around his face, dusted with a quiet frost. As my mother stepped aside and let him into the house, I managed to catch a glimpse of his eyes through that curtain of hair. They were deep and dark, and I instantly mentally assigned him the title, “Ice King.”
He removed his heavy thunking boots and thick farmer’s gloves, following my mom down to the living room and sitting himself down next to the fireplace. I couldn’t help thinking how strange it looked, the imposing Ice King seated in front of our tiny little fireplace, rubbing his hands and watching me.
He hadn’t noticed my brother or sister, but he was staring right at me. And I was staring back.
I could tell he was making my mom nervous, as she tried to usher us kids out of the room. But then, all of a sudden, his grim stone face broke into a smile and those tar black eyes danced into life like the tip of a flame.
“Oh, don’t mind me, I love kids! I have a few little ones of my own at home. In fact, one is a little girl, just about your age!” He jabbed a rough, dirt-encrusted finger in my direction and gave me a goofy smile. Something about him was just infectious, and soon I was in a fit of giggles.
Gradually, mom relaxed as the guy chattered on with us kids. He was very charismatic, his smile seeming to invade everything around him. Pretty soon, even my mom was joking and laughing along with him. He sat with us kids and told us stories about his adventures all over the world. Now that I think back on it, he definitely made it all up, but his stories were so amazingly good that I couldn’t get enough. One minute he was a grizzled old pirate, sailing the seven seas with a death wish and a lust for gold. The next, he was a gentlemen studying in England, courting a stuffy English woman whose father didn’t approve of his gruff voice and coarse skin. Whatever tale he spun fell like gold around my ears.
Although he played with my brother and sister as well, he seemed most interested in me. He pulled me onto his lap as the Little Mermaid played in the background, tickling me and playing with my hair. I loved the attention. I loved being special. He kept calling me “Little Princess”…I was the princess of the Ice King.
After a while us kids got tired and mom put us into our sleeping bags. She had a hell of a time separating me from the Ice King. Although my mom held her arms out to me, my arms clung around his thick neck and refused to let go. She had to wait until I was tired enough to loosen my grip before she could free him.
The Ice King slept on the couch and my mom opted to stay on the floor next to us kids. Thinking back, I’m sure she intended to stay up all night with us, just in case. No matter how sweet the man seemed, it was still better to remain cautious.
Only she didn’t stay awake. She must have passed out after a few hours of struggling against the weight of her eyes.
When I woke up it was around three in the morning. The wind howled around the house and it was pitch black outside, no moonlight to illuminate the ghostly snow. I looked around sleepily and noticed a light glowing from the kitchen.
I toddled towards the kitchen, hoping for a glass of water when I saw the Ice King sitting on the floor.
That first stone cold expression was engrained into his eyes again, but this time I noticed his face was wet with tears, the outer edges of his eyes singed red. He was sitting with his back against the door, staring into his hands. My eyes followed his gaze naturally and fell upon a small pistol that he was turning over and over…
I was frozen in place. This was definitely wrong.
The Ice King raised his head and looked at me, the black jewels of his eyes resting against the light blue of my own. The gun rested on the palm of his hand, pointed carelessly towards me. I shuddered.
“Should I take you with me? Would that be better?” he asked.
I couldn’t answer. My own fear had settled into my throat and turned me mute, even though the rest of my body wanted to scream for my mom. Instead, I simply watched as he lifted the gun towards his mouth.
He smiled at me one last time, but that sparkling flame had already been snuffed out. “Bye, bye, Little Princess.”
His blood was all over the door and my mom was at my side in a minute. I think she managed to keep my siblings from seeing the gore, but it was too late for me. I spent some hours in a therapist’s office after that, trying to get over what I’d seen. For months, I had nightmares about the gaping hole where the back of his head should have been.
My dad ended up being one of the officers that worked the case. Usually, cops don’t work cases when their own family is involved, but this time they made an exception. Because of this, he knew everything about what happened. It wasn’t until tonight, 14 years later and two years after his retirement, that a glass of scotch had loosened his lips enough to tell me.
The Ice King – that had been my name for him. In actuality, he was a man named Frederick Mansfield, 37 at the time of his death, with a wife and two children…already deceased.
A few winters before, his wife had made a bad decision. Their car had gone off the road during a blizzard and although they’d waited for a few hours, help had yet to come. She bundled up the two-year-old and took the seven-year-old by her tiny, gloved hand out into the Minnesota snow.
They were found less than half a mile from their car and they were less than a quarter of a mile from the nearest house.
They almost made it.
His wife had tried to shield her children the best she could, but despite her efforts they had all succumbed to the cold eventually, frozen in position and painted with frost like little porcelain dolls.
After the death of his wife and children, the Ice King moved further south towards our neck of the woods. The pain of his loss must have followed him, though, because only a few years later he took his own car out in one of Minnesota’s worst blizzards in recent memory and drove it straight into the ditch, as if he had meant to do it. My father’s guess is that he never intended to make it home that night.
He left his car for the freezing night, hoping to join his children and his wife, either through the cold or the gritty metal of his pistol. Instead, he happened to stumble upon our house and was unable to resist the urge to sample its warmth just once for himself.
In the end, I think we did him one last favor. I can still remember those twinkling eyes as they stared at me, as though they were trying to imprint something into his memory. Now I think it wasn’t me he was looking at. I think, for that one night, we became his family, taking their place in those last few hours before he went to meet them.
I’ll never have any proof of my theory, other than this: after my father told me this story, I looked online for more information on his wife and children. Along with the obituaries and news stories, I found a picture of his seven-year-old daughter’s gravestone. I saw my proof etched on the front.
In Memory of My Little Princess.