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This Fresh-Fallen Snow

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Love is as love does - Editor

This Fresh-Fallen Snow

by Patricia Correll

The women doing their washing in the stream paused when the little family came up the road. They grinned and waved. The older children, a boy and a girl, waved back. The mother’s arms were occupied with holding the baby, but she stopped to talk.

“We wondered where you were, Yuki.” The oldest of the women called. “But since you’re coming from the graveyard, I see you were visiting your mother-in-law.”

“Her seven-year ceremony is in a few days, so we’ve been taking offerings all week.” Yuki shifted the baby, her long black hair swinging like a curtain.

“I laid flowers on Grandmother’s grave!” announced the little boy.

“Me too!” The girl squeaked. Her pale face turned red and she hid behind her brother as the women laughed.

Yuki smiled at the children. “I’ll be back to do laundry when the ceremony is over.”

The group moved off toward the village. As soon as they disappeared around the bend, the women began to talk.

“What a devoted daughter. Old Emiko was lucky to have her.”

“I celebrated my mother-in-law’s seven-year ceremony, but only because I had to. I was glad to see the end of that demon.”

“That little girl will be lucky if she grows up to be as lovely as her mother.”

“She’s been here…eight years? And she doesn’t look a day older than when Noboru brought her home. Yet we just keep getting more wrinkled.”
The women laughed, but threaded into their mirth was a strand of bitterness. For a while there was no sound but the slap of wet clothing on rocks. Suddenly one of the women said, “You remember, Noboru broke off his engagement to that girl from Shurikawa, because of her. The girl’s family won’t have anything to do with folk from this village, now.”

“She probably killed herself. What else could the poor thing do after being rejected like that?”

The village midwife, wringing out a sash, raised her head to speak. The other women grew quiet. “I attended the births of all three of her children. When the little girl was born, Yuki cried as if her heart were broken.”

The women were silent, absorbing this news. Many of them had cried when their daughters were born; they were less help than boys on the farms, and cost the family dearly when it came time to marry them off. But none of the women would admit this, so someone quickly began to talk of an upcoming festival. Yuki was soon forgotten.

#

In the dream it was cold, the sort of cold that crept into his marrow so that he shivered for hours after he woke. The scene was Shikoku Forest, eight years before. He’d been nineteen then, and old Masuo past fifty, the same age Noboru’s father would have been if he’d lived. Masuo had burned the last of his firewood, not expecting the weather to turn as it had. It was Noboru’s duty to his father’s friend to venture into the snow to cut more.

The snow reached Noboru’s knees, soaking his trousers and falling into the tops of his boots. He’d tied a cloth around his nose and mouth, but the wind blew flakes into his eyes until they watered. The tree branches were shrouded in ice and broke off easily, but they’d have to dry for days before they would burn.

Halfway back to the village Masuo suddenly gripped Noboru’s arm. He shouted to be heard over the wind.

“There’s a charcoal burner’s hut nearby! We should stop there and ask for shelter for a few hours!”
Noboru thought he could make it back to the village, but he looked at Masuo’s bent back and nodded assent.

They found the hut, sagging under a burden of snow. Masuo knocked. When no one answered he cleared the drifted snow from the door and pushed it open.

The charcoal burner was gone. The fire-pit was full of ash; his few possessions hung on the wall. Masuo dropped his sticks to the dirt floor. “Poor fool must have gone out for more wood. What sort of charcoal burner runs out of wood?”

The hut was cold, but at least they were out of the wind. They sat on the floor, shaking snow from their boots. It was so cold the ice on the wood refused to melt. After a while Masuo lay down. Noboru leaned against the wall to wait. The single window was tightly shuttered, and the hut was very dark. He dozed.

#

When he opened his eyes the hut was filled with a chill blue light. The wind had ceased roaring. Noboru blinked. The storm was over; the sun had come out. He tried to rise, but something was wrong. He couldn’t move, yet nothing bound him.

He didn’t notice the woman until she moved. She stepped out of a corner of the hut where she must have been standing all along. She ignored Noboru and went to Masuo. Noboru tried to speak, but his tongue was frozen in his mouth; ice crystals choked his throat.

She was pale as a crane’s breast, her eyes black, her lips thin and pink. Her long smooth hair fell to her waist. Her robe was tinged icy blue. She wore no boots, and her bare feet made no sound on the floor. She bent toward Masuo. He didn’t wake, even when she took his chin in her hand and turned his face toward hers. For a moment Noboru thought she was going to kiss him. A hot rush of jealousy melted the ice clogging his throat, but all he managed was a formless croak.

The woman paused, her face inches from Masuo’s, and parted her lips. Masuo’s mouth fell open. Red mist spilled from Masuo’s lips and rose toward the woman’s as if drawn by a draft. Noboru thought of a cat, sucking out a baby’s breath. When she’d drunk the last wisps of the mist, she let go of Masuo. He slumped motionless to the ground.

She straightened up and turned to Noboru. Terror had replaced his envy, terror colder even than drifting snow. But even more frigid was the woman’s touch on his cheek as she regarded him with her black eyes. Noboru tried to sink into the hut’s wall, but he remained paralyzed. Fear scrabbled frantically inside his chest. Tears for poor Masuo rose in his eyes. Suddenly, the woman’s lips parted in a smile.

“You’re not like the others.” Her voice was soft and cool. “You’re young and handsome. I think I’ll let you live. But if you ever tell anyone what happened here, I will kill you and all you love.”

She stepped out into the storm. The door swung shut behind her, and the blue light vanished, leaving Noboru in darkness. He found he could move again. He leaped up and ran to the door, but the woman had disappeared into the ice-laden forest. The wind began to howl again. Noboru retreated into the hut. He went to Masuo, but the old man was stiff. No warmth remained in his limbs.

#

In the morning the searchers found him crouched by Masuo’s body, tears frozen glittering to his cheeks. The charcoal burner they found a little way off, and a great pile of wood behind the hut, hidden under the snow.

He always woke trembling from this dream. Beside him Yuki stirred and lay her hand on his arm. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, a nightmare.” He replied. In the dark her eyes were black as those of the snow-witch.

Noboru and the boys had their bath first, then Yuki and the girl climbed into the cooling water for their turn. Yuki leaned against the edge of the wooden tub, wringing out her hair as her daughter splashed and sang to herself. A particularly vicious tangle at the back of her neck drew her attention away for a moment. She nearly had it worked out when her daughter exclaimed, “Mama, look!”

The little girl thrust her chubby finger into the water. Crystals formed on her skin. They crept down her finger and spread over the water in a fine latticework of ice. Yuki stared. Abruptly she surged out of the water, slopping it over the sides of the tub. The lacy ice shattered and was submerged. She fetched the girl a slap that drove red into her cheek. The girl lurched and yelped, swallowing a mouthful of cloudy water. Yuki moaned and gathered the sputtering, coughing child into her arms.

“Don’t do that!” Yuki rocked her crying daughter back and forth. “Not in front of anyone. You understand? Don’t do it. Never, never, never.”

#

Noboru told no one what had happened in the charcoal-burner’s hut. But the villagers could guess; they suspected he was spirit-touched and treated him with a cringing courtesy. Even worse was the reception he received from his betrothed’s family in Shurikawa. They jumped every time he spoke, even the quiet girl who’d been destined to marry him since she could walk. It was on the road to Shurikawa for a dreaded visit that he met the woman.

Spring had painted the world with gaiety, erasing all traces of the deadly winter. The road was bordered by greenery. It was between two yam fields that he came upon her.

She wore a pink robe and a wide straw hat hung with a veil that reached her knees. Noboru was worrying over his visit, and so barely noticed her until she said, “Good day, young master.”

Her voice was warm as the spring air. Startled into shame at his rudeness, Noboru stopped and bowed. “Good day, mistress.”

“Tell me, young master, is this the road to Genmaden?”

“Yes mistress, I just came from there.”

“I see. Thank you.” A small white hand reached out from under the veil, lifting the skirt of her tightly-wound robe just enough to allow her to walk. Her feet and ankles were white and bare.

“Wait!” Noboru raised his arm. His fingers were nearly on her shoulder before he remembered himself and drew back his hand. “I’ll see you safely to Genmaden.”

“But did you not come from there?”

Noboru glanced at the road ahead and shrugged cheerfully. “I suppose I did, but I can’t recall why now. It mustn’t be important.”

“No.” The woman’s voice brimmed with amusement. “I suppose it can’t have been.”

#

“Yuki, that’s lovely.” Noboru fingered the soft flowered cloth. “Is it for Mother’s ceremony?”

“Stop, you’ll break the stitches.” Yuki lifted his hand, kissed the knuckles, and pushed it away. “I finished your robe and the children’s. Only mine remains, and it’s almost done.”

Noboru yawned and collapsed backward onto the mat of woven reeds. “You know, Mother really loved you. It’s a shame she died so soon after we married. I’m happy she died in the spring, though. She got to see the trees bud, at least. So many people die in the winter, ever since…” His eyebrows drooped low. His mouth sank into a troubled frown.

“People are weakened in the winter.” Yuki said briskly, tugging hard at her needle. “They get lost in the snow, or they fall ill, that’s all. Oh, look- I broke my thread. Husband, will you fetch me another roll from my basket?”

#

All the rest of that winter she perched in the bare trees, stood ankle-deep in the ice-crusted streams, sat on the hills beneath which foxes and badgers slumbered. She directed her storms with dancing hands. But this year the sparkle of ice crystals and the spiral whirls of snow failed to bring her the delight they had in other times. In the lowering gray clouds she saw the frightened face of the young man in the charcoal-burner’s hut. He was handsome, yes, but she had seen handsome men before. What had stayed her hand was the grief she read in his eyes, grief for the dead man.  Those who witnessed her feeding before had worn only terror on their faces. But even in his fear, that man had mourned his friend.

She thought of him always. When others ventured into the woods she didn’t attack, but waited, watching, curious. She had never paid them much attention before, except as prey, but now they fascinated her. They were such small creatures, and yet…sometimes they laughed, even in the frozen, sleeping forest. She waited and watched, but the young man did not return. She neglected to feed, and grew weak. Despite the fierce winter, spring came early.

By the time the foxes and badgers emerged from their dens, she’d made up her mind. The others were so small, it was easy to assume their form. She walked the roads around the village, hoping to meet the man. Hope was strange to her. She discovered she liked it.

On the seventh day of her wanderings, she found the man she sought.

#

“Hana!” Noboru called to his daughter. “What are you doing?”

The little girl, crouched over something in the yard, didn’t answer. She huddled near the corner of the wooden well frame. Noboru saw the well’s cover was pushed back, and an upended bucket spilled water into the dirt.  “Hana!”

No answer. Angry now, he strode across the yard. “Get away from the well! You know it’s dangerous!”
He was almost upon her before the girl jumped up, thrusting her hands behind her back. Her gaze clung guiltily to the ground.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, Father.”

He ruffled her silky hair. “Go inside and help your mother. And don’t play by the well anymore!”

“Yes, Father.”

When she had gone, he straightened the bucket and hauled the well cover back into place. Just before he turned away, something caught his eye: a glitter in the dust. What had Hana been playing with? He crouched down to look. Immediately a chill hand closed around his heart.

It was a snowflake, writ large in ice. The delicate tracery of its structure sparkled in the sun. It bled water into the dirt as the spring heat melted it away.

#

“Mother.” Noboru bowed to the bent form that lay propped against the pillows by the fire. “This is Yuki. I met her on the road to Shurikawa. She's going to stay to Fuhara to visit some relatives, and she thought there was an inn here where she could stay the night.”

The old woman chuckled. “Genmaden is much too small for an inn, but you're welcome to rest here. Take off your veil...my, but aren't you pretty! Who are your relatives? I know some people in Fuhara.”

Yuki bowed deeply and dropped to her knees across from Noboru's mother. “You are very kind. But are you quite comfortable, Mistress? Perhaps I could adjust your cushions for you...”

“Thank you. That's nice.” As Yuki leaned over her, her graceful hands plumping the pillows, the old woman transferred her gaze to her son. His eyes were fixed on Yuki, his lips parted. Well, she thought, after all he'd endured that winter, this might be a good thing. It was too bad for the Shurikawa girl. But she'd always been a bit whiny for Noboru's mother's taste anyway.

#

For two days he fought with himself. Hana was Yuki’s daughter as well; she should know what had happened the winter before they met. She should know their children were spirit-cursed.

Every moment he watched them, the boys too. The baby did little but sleep and coo, and the older boy seemed unaware of Noboru’s scrutiny. But he noticed Hana sneaking him stealthy glances.

It had been many years since his encounter with the snow witch. Perhaps she had forgotten him. Perhaps she had gone far away. Even if she was still near, he would fight her. Even if she came to kill him, he and Yuki would face her together.

The night before his mother’s seven-year ceremony, they put the children to bed and sat down by the fire. Yuki bent over her needle, finishing a detail on her robe. Noboru held a sandal in his hands, pretending to mend the strap, but his palms sweated so badly he couldn’t keep a grip on the tightly woven grass.

“Yuki,” He said finally. “We lived a long time before we knew each other.”

Her hands did not pause. “You’ve never asked me about my past, husband.”

“And I don’t ask now. I must tell you something about my past, something that happened before I met you.”

“What can it matter, Noboru?”

Her calm, sure tone made him pause. But the memory of Hana’s crystal snowflake drove him forward. “It is important. Because…because…it’s about our children.”

“Noboru-“

“When I was young, the winter before I found you-“

“I don’t want to know!” The open plea in her face plucked at his heart, but he forged on. She had a right to know, no matter if she feared the past, or him.

“I went into the forest with my father’s friend…“

Yuki lay down her sewing and bent her head. Her long hair fell forward, hiding her face.

An iron hand squeezed his heart. But in a trembling voice he told her everything: Masuo, the snow witch, the charcoal-burner. When he was finished he closed his eyes and bowed his head, mingled fear and relief flowing through his veins, making his limbs light. But what would she think of him now?

Something cold and feathery touched the back of his hand. Startled, he opened his eyes.

The fire had gone out, but the room was suffused with a blue glow. It was cold, so cold his lips went numb. Snow was falling from the ceiling, melting into the ridges of his skin, covering the floorboards with fine white powder.

Yuki’s skin had gone white. Her lips were very red in the pale light. Noboru recognized the face of the snow witch, and an ugly sickness filled his stomach.

“I warned you!” But the witch’s voice brimmed with sorrow, not rage. A faint, unearthly echo doubled her anguish. “You were to tell no one. And yet…”

“Yuki?” He choked.

“I swore to kill all you loved. But your children are my children. How can I kill them?” She tore at her sleek hair. Noboru longed to go to her, but an old, familiar terror rooted him to the floor. With a sudden shriek she turned and rushed from the room. Noboru cried out wordlessly and staggered to his feet. The children!

She was inside their room when he reached her. It was snowing in here too, but the children slept as if a spell had been laid on them. White flakes landed on their round cheeks and vanished. The witch crossed the room and swept Hana into her arms. Nobotu clutched the door frame. It took all his strength merely to stand.

The witch turned on him, her eyes narrowed. “You broke your promise. Now I’ll break mine. I’ll leave you the boys, but I must take the girl. She’s like me. Someday she’ll cause you grief.”

She moved past him. Noboru reached out, but the chill flowing off her robes singed his fingers. He recoiled. “Yuki…stay!”

“Stay? I am a demon! I killed countless humans! I killed your friend…I have continued to kill since I came here, every winter! Yet you’d have me stay?”

When he didn’t answer, she turned away. He let her go.

Dimly he heard the front door of the house slide open. The noise cracked his horror. With an effort he heaved his body off the wall and stumbled after them. Noboru yanked open the door and plunged into the moonlit yard.  His wife and daughter had disappeared.

“Yuki?” Noboru’s voice wavered uncertainly in the night. “Hana?”

There was no answer.

The villagers arrived at Noboru’s house early the next morning, for the procession to the cemetery. They were shocked to find the boys still asleep, and the floor and furniture stained with water. Noboru sat between his sons’ sleeping mats, clutching a damp robe with some stitches only half-complete. When they asked about Yuki and his daughter, he muttered only one word, “Gone.”

©2010

 

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