Be careful what you wish for . . .

by Adrienne Clarke ©2020

Snow swirled around her body in a delicate dance that would become more frenzied as the storm gathered strength. Her feet slid on the icy path, but the wind pushed her body forward, urging her on. Sometimes, she heard the wind's glacial voice in her ear, whispering unwanted secrets, but tonight she was mercifully silent. Yuki had endured many storms, and always they would pass, leaving her more tired and alone than before. Despite years spent in the cold, she didn't long for warmth so much as she longed for company. Someone to whom she could tell her story before the endless snow squalls blew it away altogether. Her human life, once as bright and vivid as a scarlet silk obi, had begun to wear and fade. She still had flashes of illumination; a stray memory to light up the darkness. A smile from someone she loved; a gentle hand on her shoulder; the smell of cherry blossoms after the rain. When she recalled these things, she felt some of the chill that lived inside her subside. There was still warmth beneath her breast; a few embers of her former life remained to remind her of who she used to be. The wind blew fiercer now, tearing at her long hair and placing a cold finger on the hollow of her exposed throat. If only someone would come!

During the cruelest winter months, few people crossed her path. Sometimes, she would go for days, weeks even, without seeing a single traveler. Visitors, especially young visitors, preferred the bright lights, noise and excitement of Tokyo over the mountains' quiet isolation. Still, a few brave souls chose to come here because quiet and solitude were the things they sought. Yuki watched them, trying to understand their love for the landscape that had brought her so much misery. Why would anyone choose to come to this place of ice and snow? If she could, she would run far, far away to a place of endless warmth and sunlight; a place where the ground was brown and green, and winter was only a dream. Once, she had tried to leave, but the snow underneath her slippered feet held her fast. She had only ever made it as far as the road. Travellers would see her, and the unlucky ones would offer her a ride. Sometimes, she would get into their car, but there was no escape, for her or for them.

Tonight, the wind howled with such ferocity the whole mountain seemed to be in agony. Perhaps it was. Maybe everything unlucky enough to live in this cruel place was as cursed as she. She wandered aimlessly through the snow. She'd already been to the road, but no one was out tonight. The sight of the deserted pass filled her with relief. The desire remained but she didn't have the heart to satisfy it. Tonight, she wanted a friend.

The snow fell more quickly now, obscuring her vision, but she never lost her footing. Freezing rain pelted her skin and caught in her long hair leaving glistening trails of ice. She moved on, indifferent to the storm's furious embrace. Her feet would carry her through the longest, blackest night, but she was tired of walking. Where to go? What to do? And then she saw the light.

A lamp burned in the window of a tiny wooden hut, lighting up the darkness. She could feel the warmth of its soft glow from where she stood. Instinctively, she moved towards it, her graceful limbs gliding over the snow. Light meant life and life was her summoning spell. It called out to her, drawing her near.

She had been to this hut before. Most of the time it stood empty, but occasionally a visitor would come, usually a solitary man, who would stay a few days before moving on. She drew closer to the hut, her hunger growing with each step. She must cross its threshold. She had felt this kind of longing before, but not for many years or with the same intensity. When she reached the door, she traced its outline with her fingertips. "The Yuki - onna has come to see you" she whispered against the wind. "Will you let her in?"

She knocked gently at the door and released a long frosty sigh that was quickly snatched away by the wind. Once, the breath in her body was as warm and soft as plum blossoms in spring, but now it came sharp and jagged. A dagger in the form of an icicle.

Finally, the door opened, and she found herself looking into eyes so deep and dark they startled against pale skin. She'd expected a man, but not one so young and beautiful. "Good evening," she said in a soft, delicate voice that many a stranger had told her reminded them of the tinkling of sleigh bells. "May I come in? I was out for a walk when the storm came up and I seem to have lost my way."

The man swung the door open wide. "Oh yes, please, please come in. You must be freezing!" Yuki stepped across the threshold and gave an involuntary shiver of triumph that the young man mistook for cold. "Come and sit by the fire; it'll warm you up."

"You are a very kind man. Thank you," Yuki murmured, admiring the delicate white skin of the man's neck visible above his collar. She imagined her fingers tracing an icy line down its length.

A crease marred the smooth line of his forehead. "What made you go out on a night like this? And wearing only a kimono?" Although it is a very beautiful one," he said, the color rising in his cheeks.

How sweet he was! So unlike the many rude visitors who'd crossed her path. It was hard to feel sorry for them. But this young boy with his curling, fine blond hair and unblemished skin that spoke of days spent indoors. He was almost as pale as she except for the full red lips that seemed to beg for her kiss. But no, it was too soon for kisses. She meant to enjoy herself a little first. Yuki gently inclined her head and gave him a shy smile. "Thank you. I only wear it on special occasions."

The young man nodded vigorously. "You hardly ever see women wearing traditional dress in the big cities, which is a shame, I think, because kimonos are so very . . . beautiful," he said, staring at her face. She waited, enjoying his look of dazed wonder as he took in her long silky dark hair that the cruelest wind could never dishevel, her skin as white and pure as new snow, and the striking violet of her eyes framed by onyx lashes. His reverence for her beauty gave him the gift of her smile; rosebud lips parting delicately to reveal small white teeth, except for the incisors, pointed and sharp. Her one imperfection, but no man who'd ever looked at her seemed to find fault. She gave a small bow. "I agree with you. Some traditions are meant to be cherished."

The young man swallowed. "Yes! That's how I feel exactly. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable Miss...I can't believe I haven't introduced myself." He held out his hand. "My name's Jayden." She gave him another winsome smile but declined to shake his hand. Her skin was deathly cold, and she didn't want to spoil the moment by feeling him recoil at her touch. "I am called Yuki."

Afraid that he'd offended her, Jayden gently withdrew his hand and stuffed it into the pocket of his hoodie. Can I get you a coffee? Or some tea? I'm having the latter, with a generous helping of Irish Whiskey," he added, with his guileless smile. "I've decided it's medicinal - keeps away the chill."

"I will have whatever you're having," she replied, as she always did.

Once she had a steaming mug of fragrant tea in her hand, Jayden settled himself in the chair across from her. He waited for her to take a sip of her drink before leaning forward, his hands pressed against his knees. "You must tell me how you came to be out alone in this weather."

She considered his words for a moment before answering. "I guess you could say that I lost my way, but it would be more correct to say that someone lost it for me."

A shadow crossed Jayden's open, smiling face. "What do you mean, Yuki?"

The sound of her name on his lips startled her. It had been so long since she'd heard her true name she'd almost forgotten the sound. She'd ventured out tonight, hoping to find someone to whom she could tell her story, but she'd not known until this moment that the story she'd tell would be the truth. "It's a long tale, I'm afraid."

"Even better. I want to hear it all. It's nice to have...." He looked away from her. "I've been very much alone you see."

His words stirred the embers beneath her breast; she felt them flicker and glow. She willed him to return his gaze to her face before nodding slowly.

"It began with the invitation to a party. A grand occasion to celebrate a friend's wedding. I looked forward to the party very much. I even bought a new kimono," she said, pointing to the graceful white folds of the dress that Jayden had so admired. "When the night of the party finally arrived, I was quite nervous. Unused to large social gatherings, I worried I wouldn't know what to say to the people there. But once I got to the party and drank a glass of sake, I began to relax. I walked around the room admiring the feast Akiko had prepared for her guests. Fresh sashimi laid out on bamboo leaves; bowls of fragrant miso soup that made my mouth water; rainbow displays of pickled vegetables, and my favorite, dorayaki: sweet pancakes filled with red bean paste. And the people! Everyone was so beautifully dressed. The throats of the women sparkled with droplets of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Some of them even wore jewels in their hair. Next them I felt quite plain and provincial." Jayden shook his head at this last and Yuki felt her lips curve into a smile.

After a short time exploring on my own, I met my friend who introduced me to her fiancée and her fiancé's oldest friend, Yoshiro, who was to be the best man at the wedding. They were both handsome, educated men. Akiko's fiancé was going to be a doctor and Yoshiro was already a successful lawyer. We all talked together, and danced, and later we ate the most wonderful rice cakes and drank glasses of fizzy champagne that made me feel like I was floating. Yoshiro was very attentive towards me, and at first I was honored to be admired by someone so successful." She paused to sip her cooling tea. This was harder than she thought. Even now, after years of the wind whispering in her ear and blankets of snow falling across her memories, she could still taste the champagne's sweetness on her tongue.

"At first. You said you enjoyed Yoshiro's attentions at first. Did something change?"

She inhaled deeply, savoring his interest. The best stories deserved a listener. "After all the toasts to the happy couple had been made, and the engagement gifts had been opened, I felt it was time to go home. At the beginning of the evening, Yoshiro had been kind and respectful, but once Akiko and her fiancée returned to their guests, he became possessive and demanding. He grew angry if I tried to speak to anyone else and kept bringing me glasses of champagne I didn't want. I longed to tell him to go away, but I feared making a scene at Akiko's party. Yoshiro was her fiancé's best friend and I dreaded the thought of offending her."

"Yoshiro. He hurt you, didn't he?"

She'd been so caught up in her tale, she hadn't noticed Jayden's growing agitation. His hands had balled into fists at his sides and a darkness had come over his face. She too, felt strange. The past was suddenly so close she felt as though she could reach out and touch the silk knot of Yoshiro's tie. Everything came rushing back. The cruel twist of Yoshiro's mouth; the overpowering scent of his cologne; the grip of his hand on her slender wrist. "Yes," she said finally. "He did."

"Tell me."

"I made my farewells to Akiko and made to leave the party, but Yoshiro insisted on walking me home. I told him I was fine on my own - that he should stay and enjoy the party, but he insisted." She raised her eyes to meet Jayden's. "There are some men who do not believe women have the right to choose. I hope that you are not such a man."

Jayden didn't reply, but she could tell from the look in his eyes that he was an entirely different sort of man from Yoshiro. But goodness wasn't enough to protect him from the storm raging inside of her. The storm he'd foolishly invited inside his home.

"When we left the party, it had begun to snow. It fell softly at first, like sakura blossoms, but soon it came down hard and fast, turning the world white. I didn't want to be alone with Yoshiro, but neither did I want to become lost in the storm, so I allowed him to lead me to shelter. When he tried to kiss me, I pushed him away and he became enraged. All the careful manners and respectability melted away to reveal the animal underneath. At first, I tried to reason with him, but this only made him angrier. Who was I to refuse him? A woman from a lower class, whose family hadn't even arranged an escort to bring her home. When he grabbed the sash of my kimono, I yanked myself out of his grasp and ran out into the snow. If it were not for the blizzard, I might have found my way back to the party. I ran and ran, looking for help, but snow blinded me in every direction. Finally, I grew so tired I collapsed on the ground. Even then it might not have been too late because Yoshiro found me. I remember opening my eyes and seeing his body hovering over mine. I held out my hand to him and whispered. 'Please, Yoshiro, help me.' But Yoshiro did not take my hand. He only smiled. For the rest of my days I shall never forget that smile or the words that followed. 'No woman says no to Yoshiro.'"

"He left you there?"

Yuki nodded. "He went back to the party as if nothing had happened. When Akiko asked about me, he told her I went home alone."

Jayden's gentle expression had gradually turned into one of horror as she came to the end of her story, but now she saw confusion there as well. "I don't understand. What happened next? Yoshiro left you alone to die, but somehow you survived the storm."

She looked at him for a long moment - let him feel, finally, the deep chill of her gaze. "No Jayden, I did not."

The uncertainty in Jayden's eyes remained, but she saw a new emotion there as well. The one she'd been waiting for: fear. "Of course, you did," he said slowly. "You're here with me now."

Yuki had lived this moment of revelation many times before. How many times had she looked into a stranger's eyes and saw the terror reflected there? The point in the story when they see her as she truly is. Not a beautiful woman caught in a snowstorm, but a monster come to steal the breath from their body. Yuki-onna, the dreaded snow maiden, whose freezing hands had led many an innocent stranger to his death. But something unexpected had found its way into the hut and into the dying embers of her not-quite-frozen heart. She stood up. "I must go. I've already stayed too long."

Jayden reached for her hand, but she snatched it away. "Goodbye, Jayden. Thank you for the tea."

Jayden stood up so fast he spilled his tea on the floor. "Wait! Yuki, please. You can't leave now. The storm.... you'll freeze to death."

Ignoring his pleas to stay she moved to the door and yanked it open. A blast of cold air blew the hair back from her face and she felt the burn of tears behind her violet eyes. She might escape for a little while, but the storm always came back to claim her. Still, for those stolen moments inside the hut she'd been Yuki again. The ice around her heart had receded long enough to let Jayden go. She was a woman still. She ran into the wind, letting it carry her forward, not caring what direction it took her. And still, the snow fell, hard and fast, just as it had the night Yoshiro abandoned her. The sound of the storm raging in her ears, she didn't hear it at first, but then the sound of her name, low and desperate filled her ears. "Yuki! Yuki, Please! Don't go!

She turned around slowly, her dark hair whipping around her face. Jayden stood before her, shivering and out of breath. For the first time, she wanted to wrap her arms around a man and hold him close, but that would make him colder still. So cold, he would die of it. "Go back inside," she told him. "You'll freeze to death."

"I'm not afraid of the storm."

"You should be afraid of me."

He shook his head back and forth. "I'm not."

She took a step towards him, still not trusting herself to get too close. "You would if you knew what I've done. Why do you think I came here tonight?"

"Because you were lonely."

She stomped her foot in the snow like a frustrated child. "My loneliness wouldn't have stopped me from laying my hands on your throat until your blood turned to ice."

"You could have, but you didn't. You saved me."

She stared at him, this man who had so foolishly left the warmth and safety of his hut to follow her, the Yuki-onna into a snowstorm. Why wasn't he afraid? One fierce embrace; one frost-tinged whisper in his ear and she could end the spring that lived inside him forever. She took a step towards him and stopped. "What do you mean, I saved you?"

Jayden closed his eyes and tiny particles of snow clung to his lashes. When he opened them, his face was wet with a mixture of snow and tears. His face was still beautiful, but Yuki realized he wasn't as young as she thought. His skin, she saw suddenly, not merely pale, but ashen, like someone who'd suffered a long illness. "I came here to die. I wanted to do it far from home - where no one would try to stop me - or find me when it was over. When you knocked at my door, I was making tea." He held up a small vial of yellow liquid. "The last cup of tea I would ever drink. Afterwards, I would go to sleep and never wake up. A coward's ending," he said with unexpected bitterness. "You see, Yuki, I have a story too."

"Tell me," she whispered in his ear, but he did not flinch or cry out and she felt the embers beneath her breast glow brighter.

"Stay with me and I'll tell you."

She looked back at the hut, glowing with light and warmth. She was so tired of being cold and alone. "You don't know what you're saying."

Jayden wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "The first night the snow fell I dreamed of you. When I woke up I longed to sleep again to I might see your face. And then you came to my door and it was like my dream come to life."

"I'm not a dream, Jayden, I'm a nightmare. The things I've done...."

"I don't care where you've been. You're here with me now, tonight, and that's enough." He reached for her hand and this time she let him take it. She watched his pale face whiten further in pain and his body tremble in a kind of violent dance, but he didn't let go. "Please stay with me," he whispered through clenched teeth.

Gently, she withdrew her hand. Jayden was not the first man to invite the Yuki-onna in, but he was the first to beg her to stay. Pale as the winter sky, his eyes betrayed no fear or dread when he looked at her, only a kind of hopeful yearning. Could she be really be his savior? Or was that merely a fantasy, fashioned of ice and snow that would melt away at the first sign of spring? Perhaps one could never be sure of another's heart, but she knew her own. "I will stay with you, Jayden."

The snow still fell, but the wind had died down and Yuki no longer felt it pushing her forward or whispering wintry threats in her ear. She and Jayden walked home, their bodies close together but not yet touching. Later, while Jayden warmed himself by the fire, she emptied the vial of its evil smelling liquid into the snow. Afterwards, she went back inside the hut where Jayden was waiting with tea and the dream of friendship whose light had found her in a blizzard and brought her to his door.

x x x

This represents a slight departure from anotherealm's usual fare. A magical romance set against the chill of winter. Well-drawn characters, strong narrative, engaging dialogue--all part of an enaging story. I liked it a lot. How about you? Tell us on our BBS.- GM

Back to the front page? - Click here...