A Chicago woman’s first ski trip to Japan doesn’t go precisely as expected.
– Slight swearing, a bit of tasteful naughties, a lot of geography and mild horror. No age verification.
Valerie stumbled on through blinding, roaring snow that nipped and bit at her face. Ice crystals in the air made it feel like tiny teeth were harassing her cheeks and the wind stung her eyes so that it was nearly impossible to see. She didn’t know how long the snowstorm had been going on and had no clue of where she was going.
All she knew for certain was that if she didn’t find shelter soon she would die.
Daniel Wright was a forthright fellow, a man with clear eyes and a handsome jawline decorated liberally with stubble that he seemed disinclined to shave off completely. His mop of brown hair was at once both manly and boyish, giving him the appearance of someone both younger and more wise than, in fact, he was. He was a good-looking man and he knew it though, to his credit, he seemed disinclined to make too big a deal out of it. He enjoyed fish and chips, meat pies and the game of soccer – which he insisted on calling ‘football’ because Mister Daniel Wright was eminently, entirely British.
The exact degree of his Englishness was, of course, also inversely proportional to his presence in the United Kingdom; he lived in America and worked as a book-keeper because it kept him out of the rain and he had a very good head for numbers. He also rather liked it, in an English kind of way, when people gave him that look when they discovered his profession.
“He doesn’t look like a book-keeper,” people would comment quietly as he strolled away. He felt that directly commented on their preconceptions of book-keepers more than it reflected anything about himself.
He was, in any case, not as immensely wealthy as his bright smile and unconcerned swagger would have you believe – but he was comfortable. He was a very good book-keeper and worked for a powerful law firm so he was well-paid for his trouble. And Daniel Wright, that forthright fellow with his wide smile and snappy suits, had a love of skiing.
He paced when he talked on the telephone and he now had one tucked up to his ear – despite having lived in Chicago for over ten years he still insisted upon calling it a ‘mobile phone’ rather than a ‘cell phone’. He stared at things about his apartment idly as he talked in an animated tone to his best friend and occasional lover.
“Val, I understand,” he said in that soothing tone that meant clearly that while the speaker didn’t want an argument they either didn’t understand or, alternatively, understood very well but didn’t at all care. “But it’s just one week, right? You can take one week. It’s going to be a pretty shit skiing trip if you don’t come along.” He paused as the woman he spoke to answered. “No, I get that, but you said your boss had approved the leave. I mean sure, it’s a plane trip and I get that you don’t like planes,” he laughed without concern, “but it’s not like you need sedation. My dad was like that, couldn’t stand to be more than ten feet off the ground without a gut-full of Valium. And it’s a short trip, Japan’s not that far away.”
Another pause. He ran a finger critically across the slightly dusty bookshelf; it had been a hectic month and he hadn’t had time to clean. “Yes! Exactly. And anyway, don’t you want to see your motherland?” He was teasing, of course. Valerie felt no more connection to Japan than he, Daniel, did to Kuwait. He laughed quietly as his friend went on a short-lived but passionate tirade about how Chicago was her ‘motherland’. “Well, technically I guess it’s your fatherland – okay!” He pulled his phone away from his ear somewhat theatrically as Valerie shouted something at him. He knew she wasn’t angry. It was just their way. “Just think about it, okay? That’s all I ask.”
Valerie Marie Kinsberg was a Chicago girl through and through, from her thick snow-proof winter boots to her Cubs cap pulled down onto the glossy black hair she habitually kept tied in a ponytail. She worked in a jeweller’s store on Michigan Avenue, specialising in the valuation and setting of medium- and high-grade precious stones, with an eye for detail that left even her boss breathless at times. She loved hot dogs, had a season baseball ticket and preferred sloppy tees to the slinky dresses she wore at work and, she had to admit, looked very good in.
So okay, sure, she also looked Japanese but that was hardly her fault.
Her mother’s blood ran strong in her veins but that didn’t have the result everyone usually expected. Ai, formally Tanaka Ai, came to Chicago with her family when she was three; she had no interest in her roots as a Japanese person and instead pursued her dream as a jazz musician. She married Valerie’s father, Burt Kinsberg, and settled across the city from her parents.
Valerie, therefore, had no interest in Japanese culture and hated seafood. She didn’t speak a lick of Japanese, either.
“Fine,” she said eventually, through gritted teeth, “I’ll think about it.” She hung up the phone without a goodbye and tossed her cell onto the coffee table nearby.
She was beautiful. She knew it because she’d had it pointed out many times. It wasn’t something she particularly relished but she felt a pang of guilt whenever she complained to herself about it. People had a different set of expectations for the attractive that, at times, were no less constrictive than those placed upon the plain or the downright ugly.
Her face was a pleasant heart-shape, creamy jade green eyes an exotic almond shape with a compelling tilt to them. Her neck was slender and the smooth line of her body flowed down to a sleek form that curved enough to be enticing but was petite enough that it didn’t hurt her to run. She was very fond of jogging; she had a special pair of black gym shoes for just that purpose.
Valerie took a swig of her beer and sighed heavily before getting up and heading into her bedroom, taking the bottle with her. She put the bottle down on her bedside table, pulled her baggy white t-shirt back into position on her body and reached up to pull her suitcase off the top of her wardrobe. She already knew he’d won. She was going with him.
Truth be told she’d wanted the chance to go skiing. She’d never done so before and had always wanted to try; putting up as much of a struggle as she did was only really to keep Daniel on his toes. The guy was just too confident. Someone had to stick it to him now and then; as his best friend she felt it was certainly her solemn duty to try.
Daniel had secured them good seats on the flight over. Not first class – neither of them had that kind of money to throw around – but they both agreed that whatever they didn’t spend on the trip itself they could splash out with when they got to Japan. Valerie spent the trip watching a movie on her iPad. Daniel spent it flirting with one of the stewardesses. They touched down in Tokyo, spent an agonisingly long time going through customs and finally came out into one of the most populated cities on Earth.
Valerie was staggered. The sheer number of people was overwhelming.
It didn’t take long for them to get thoroughly lost. While Daniel had a very comfortable grasp on Japanese language his sense of direction was somewhat lacking. What was originally intended to be a three-hour trip through Tokyo ended up taking six and a half; Valerie found herself often tapping her foot impatiently under the wash of neon from the countless signs and stores along the city’s intensely busy streets while Daniel stopped first to ask for directions and then to chat up this girl or that.
Daniel, for his part, was both relaxed and patient. If they spent the whole week in Tokyo he wouldn’t have minded but he was very aware of his friend’s presence. She’d never been in a place like this before. Chicago wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere but Tokyo, with its glittering lights and ever-present mob of humanity, was an entirely different scale. Luckily while he was very good at getting the two of them lost he was equally skilled at getting them unlost. He’d gained the skill in his younger years through sheer constant practice. It was a skill, he figured, that a lot of people with bad direction sense eventually developed.
They stayed the night in a capsule hotel in Tokyo, both because it was a cheap place to stay and because they’d both heard about the style of accommodation and had always wanted to try. They were given yukata gowns and slippers upon arrival, locked their cases in a locker provided and were shown to their rooms. It felt a little like sleeping in a fish-tank, they decided – the capsules were barely two metres by one by one and a half and contained fresh linen, a television and wifi access. Daniel quite enjoyed the experience; Valerie couldn’t decide.
The next morning they left bright and early, having breakfast at a nearby store and heading south-west through Setagaya, Asao and Machida. They broke off south, then, and stayed for a day in Yamato. Valerie picked up some thick winter gear, as she’d decided not to bring too much along; she fell in love with a pair of ski pants – which she promptly nicknamed her ‘Japants’ – and together they picked out a matching set for Daniel. Then they headed south-west again, going through Atsugi and Isehara to Hadano and then west toward the towering Fujiyama. Minamiashigara, Sunto and Gotenba seemed to fly by.
Mount Fujiyama, the tallest peak in Japan, was like a beacon to them. When they got there they weren’t disappointed; the peak jutted up to pierce the canopy of cloud above with its mighty crown as if an earth-God yearned to reach up and grab the sky. The air was chill and faint flakes drifted to the ground; Valerie felt like she was in a dream or a fairy tale.
The trek up the mountain was less glamorous but no less breathtaking. She strode up the paths with the crisp air in her nostrils and her Cubs cap holding her hair in place. Her ponytail swung with a jaunty beat as she paced up the tracks toward the mountain’s summit; they were far from the only tourists there and a small group of them followed a fit-looking young woman named Hikari who served as their guide. She tried greeting Valerie in Japanese, of course, and looked confused when Daniel, who was less fit than Valerie and looked in need of more breaks, just sniggered; before long, though, the two got talking (in English) and Hikari spent much of the time pointing out this cleft or that tree.
“We are arrogant,” Hikari said as they near the peak, “to say we conquer Fujiyama. Instead it tolerates us here, climbing it time and again, letting us roam about in its sleep.” With a curious smile she added, “But one day sleeping Fujiyama will wake up and see… this.”
The group rounded a corner and not a single heart was left unmoved by the majestic view presented to them. Out and out stretched the landscape as they stood above rock and tree, insects clinging to a giant’s back, as the early afternoon light threw shadows over the ground far below that made the whole scene seem as if it had stepped out of a story book.
Valerie wondered how many times Hikari had taken that route and said that line.
That evening, at the base of the mountain, Hikari found Daniel and Valerie in the press of tourists. She was going to head to her grandfather’s home in the Nagano Prefecture and wondered if the two would like to come along; she didn’t like to travel alone and, Valerie could tell, she wanted to show more of her country off to the two. Hikari was fiercely proud of Japan and for the most part Valerie couldn’t blame her.
Daniel seemed uncertain but Valerie accepted for both of them; she liked the young Japanese woman and, besides, she could tell Hikari had eyes on Daniel. There was no way she was going to leave that be. They headed out that very night across the country in a train, talking deep into the evening about the places about that they were passing through and the home the two had left behind, Chicago. Hikari seemed as fascinated by America as she was proud of her home nation. Daniel fell asleep first and the two women spoke in soft voices so as not to wake him.
“You are not his wife? Or… girlfriend?” Hikari had asked, and Valerie had shaken her head with a grin.
“Just friends. Well,” she admitted, “sort of more than friends but only sometimes. Um… no strings attached, I guess. You know?”
Hikari had giggled and Valerie found it difficult to believe how adorable she was. “Yes. We know about casual sex in Japan too. It is not just an American thing. But it is different here.”
“Different how?” Valerie asked, watching with fascination as Hikari looked both ways to see if they were being listened to and lowered her voice even further.
“Here, people are… polite, you would say. Very… formal.” The young woman looked like she was embarrassed just explaining it.
This girl’s used to tourists, Valerie thought. Imagine what it’d be like getting this explanation out of someone who wasn’t!
“Polite, right,” she nodded. “Like the way nobody looks at anyone else when they’re walking about because it might be embarrassing?”
Hikari nodded. “That, and more. It is not easy to explain to a foreigner. Here there are places, special and discreet hotels, for people to have affairs in. Here, if you break something like a chair, you apologise to it. Here, if you fall down and hurt yourself nobody helps unless you ask, in case drawing attention to you caused you shame.”
Valerie couldn’t help but think that when people said that Japan was a different world that they didn’t even come close.
“So this thing we talk about,” Hikari added, looking shy, “it is not talked about. If I did not have much experience with foreigners I would likely be too shocked to talk about it!”
They’d both laughed and nearly woken Daniel but hushed themselves. Hikari was quite welcome, Valerie made it clear, to find out if Daniel liked her. Hikari had looked very shy, then, as if talking about sex with Valerie was certainly not something she’d set out to do. Some friendships blossom quickly, though, and before long Hikari tilted her head sleepily and dozed on Valerie’s shoulder.
There was no train directly to their destination, though. After the train ride came a bus trip and then two more trains until finally, exhausted from their travel, they arrived in Matsumoto. Too tired to go any further they found a hotel and Hikari booked them all in. It was enough and more than enough for one day.
Daniel, it turned out, did like Hikari. In fact he liked her twice over the course of the night and again – rather vigorously – the next morning. Valerie, in the next room, couldn’t help but grin. From the sound of it he was liking the hell out of her.
When the morning came and they got a better look at the place it became clear that Hikari had made for this place intentionally. It was one of the hotels she’s mentioned, the ‘special and discreet’ sort, the sort that people in Japan could visit discreetly and not have to worry about breaking the rules of polite behaviour that seemed endemic in the nation.
After a hearty breakfast they set out for Kitaazumi.
Valerie had assumed Kitaazumi was a town or village. It wasn’t until the small group arrived by train in at the station in the heart of Hakuba – or Hokujo, she wasn’t really sure – that she realised Kitaazumi was a prefecture. She was wide awake as the train passed the city limits and came to a smooth stop in the station. Hikari helped them find their way out and, making their way up the street, they stopped at a small coffee house for refreshments.
This place was popular with the tourists and Valerie, prompted to check her iPad by Daniel, could see why. Hakuba was one of the most popular skiing destinations both for visitors and natives boasting ski slopes that even Valerie had to admit looked like fun. Hikari, by contrast, had no interest in skiing. Her love was of hiking.
They hired a share car and drove it out of the city. The Japan Alps – a part of them – towered above like something out of a silk painting. The landscape around Hakuba was breathtaking and more than once Daniel commented how he felt like they were driving into the scenery on a sake bottle. After a point, though, they left the car and set out to take the rest of the journey on foot.
Out through the snowfields they trekked, up along footpaths and walking trails that led up the spines of the huge, jutting peaks. Hikari led the way with Valerie close behind; the girls had to stop now and then for Daniel but the three made good time. Tourists and locals alike rode up ski lifts and jetted down while children played here and there in the snow. The frigid air seemed to clear their senses and even though they hadn’t so much as touched a ski – Daniel was going to wait until they got to the higher lodges before he introduced her to the sport – Valerie felt she could understand why he liked it so much.
As Daniel rested at the peak of a ridge and Hikari chatted amiably in her native tongue to a few hikers Valerie looked out over the startling landscape. The sky above was clear and blue while the valley below – tree-lined and striped with ski lifts – bore wisps of fog even this late in the day. She could see skiers zipping down the hill in athletic zigzags, crashing here and there but for the most part getting down safely.
She didn’t realise she was being approached until the old man began talking to her – in Japanese, of course. He looked as if he were made almost entirely from wrinkles. Rugged up against the cold he had on what looked to be several shirts, at least two sweaters, thick pants, huge boots that looked like they could kick walls down and a knitted hat with a rather ridiculous tassel on the top. His eyes were protected by a battered pair of Ray-Bans and his beard was bristly and greying, his long nose red as if from a lifetime of drinking. She blinked in surprise a few times and the man, a little confused, repeated what he’d said, only a little louder and more slowly.
“Uh, sorry,” she said with a smile, “I don’t speak Japanese.”
She may as well have said she had two heads, or was half-cow, or liked One Direction. The man seemed stunned. Then he smiled brightly, visibly shifting mental gears, and tried again.
“Ahh, American. Apologies. You are tourist, yes?” he asked politely. Valerie could see her appearance confused him a little. She’d seen an awful lot of that. “Welcome to Japan. You have family here, maybe?”
She shook her head, black ponytail swishing about behind her. “My Mom came from Japan when she was, like, three. Never came back. If I’ve got family here I wouldn’t know ‘em.” She glanced back out at the view. “It’s pretty,” she added hesitantly. “Well… ‘Pretty’ isn’t the right word. It’s way more than pretty.”
“Yes,” the man agreed, and there was an awkward pause. “You, ah, you head to the top of mountains? Do you know what this one is called?”
“Yes. Uh, no. I mean,” she began again with a small laugh, “we’re heading up to a lodge up there.” Valerie pointed up the mountain a little redundantly; that was the only way up. “The White Tiger. I dunno what the mountain’s called, though.”
The man nodded. “You are here with Hikari?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject.
Valerie blinked again, not missing the switch, but nodded. “Yeah, she’s really cool. We met her at Mount Fuji – you know ‘er?” She began to feel uneasy. She could swear she could see his eyes, beady and intense, just behind the surface of the sunglasses. Warning bells sounded in her head and Valerie had the strangest sense of danger.
“I know her grandparents,” the man nodded. “They are a good family.”
And with that the man seemed to lose interest in her. He simply turned and wandered off, leaving Valerie staring after him with a head full of questions.
Valerie let out a short squeak of surprise and spun around, glaring at Daniel’s wide, mischievous grin. She wordlessly shook her finger at him but he simply shrugged without concern.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you. No my fault if you’re so bloody jumpy. What were you looking at?” He seemed rested, stretching his arms out one at a time and across his chest.
She shook her head and turned back to the crowd. “Some old guy came up to me. Knows Hikari’s grandparents, apparently. Asked me if I knew the mountain’s name and then just kind of wandered off.”
“No kidding,” Valerie agreed with a nod. “You good to go, not too tired t’keep up with the girls?” she grinned, her tone light and teasing. She laughed as he swatted playfully at her and together they headed off to find Hikari, arm in arm.
Hikari, they found out, had been getting weather reports from other hikers.
“A storm is coming,” she told them, “a very fierce snow storm.”
“How close?” Daniel’s voice was deep with worry. A snow storm wouldn’t just make the slopes treacherous. They might be closed down. Suddenly he wasn’t sure if waiting to get to the lodge before hiring skis was such a good idea.
Hikari seemed to guess his concern and smiled gently. “Two days, perhaps three.”
“Oh, well! That’s all right then,” Daniel beamed. “Ideal, in fact!”
Valerie stomped her feet on the walking track to knock off the build-up of snow as the hiked on. “How’s that ideal?” she asked. Having lived in Chicago all her life she knew not to underestimate snow.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “We get a couple of days of skiing in, maybe some hiking, and spend the storm holed up in a snug warm lodge with a roaring fireplace. That doesn’t sound ideal?”
Valerie had to admit it did sound pretty nice.
Twilight was falling and the dramatic scenery was fading into shadows as they finally reached the lodge nestled on top of a ridge amidst a collection of ice-rimed trees. Welcoming yellow light shone from the windows and cast sharp contrast against the ever-deepening blues of approaching night. The snow seemed almost to glow blue-white under the cold light of the moon, already risen, fat and pregnant in its fullness.
It was a little way away from the main path, down a walking track that led to a series of ledges. The lodge overlooked an incredible view. Valerie couldn’t help but feel it must be some painting or sculpture, carved in miniature and set out before her, glittering cold and treacherously beautiful.
A chill wind blew. She tucked her ski jacket’s hood a little more tightly about her face.
Hikari muttered something as she passed by. Valerie heard Daniel laugh and she threw him a sour look. Being the only one around who didn’t speak the native language, she’d discovered, wasn’t altogether fun.
“Sorry,” Daniel said with a grin. “She said, ‘Almost home’.”
The lodge was a blast of warmth as they went through the decorative entrance adorned by a carving of a large white tiger, its namesake. Light wasn’t the half of it – paper lanterns swung overhead, rich smells of mouthwatering cooking wafted through the air and the faint strains of some Japanese opera could be heard. Only a couple of fellow hikers and skiers milled about; most had gone on ahead to one of the bigger lodges along the main route.
Valerie knew that word. She’d had it aimed at her a lot over the last few days, almost invariably followed by a brief period of doubt as the speaker tried to comprehend the idea of a Japanese woman who couldn’t speak Japanese, but even if she hadn’t heard the greeting hundreds of times so far she’d still have understood it. She’d watched Kill Bill.
She smiled brightly at the diminutive woman, an ageing lady in a fetching red kimono who looked like time had made her collapse in on herself. Her silver hair was pulled back in a bun, her teeth were clearly false and a lifetime of smile wrinkles creased her face. She looked like a friendly old apple with a dollop of whipped cream on top.
“Hello! Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese,” Valerie greeted back. She’d learnt fast that it was the quickest way of avoiding extended confusion. “Just here on a holiday.”
“Oh, American!” the woman beamed. She didn’t seem put off in the slightest. “New York? No, Chicago I think, yes?”
That caught Valerie’s attention. She nodded and her smile was all the more genuine. “Yeah, Chicago! Most people can’t pick it.”
“We get many kinds here,” the old woman said, nodding firmly. “Chicago, Florida, Minnesota, German – lots of German. Lots of Australian, too. Come, come, put your bag down. I see you are here with my granddaughter.” There was no mistaking the pride in her voice.
“Hikari, yeah,” Valerie nodded again. The girl was across the room, talking animatedly to an old man in traditional garb – her grandfather, probably. They had an odd dynamic – Hikari looked to Valerie as if she wanted to hug the man but was unwilling to in front of company. Daniel was busy looking over a list of some kind, she had no idea what.
“She is a good girl. She has looked after you,” the old woman said. It wasn’t a question.
She’s sure looked after Daniel, Valerie thought with a grin. She nodded. “She’s a gem. Twenty-four carat, rose-cut red diamond.” Seeing Hikari’s grandmother give her an odd stare she laughed and added, “Sorry. I’m a jeweller. Bit of a trade reference.”
The old woman looked dutifully impressed and ushered Valerie over to the counter where Daniel was reading the list. Hikari vanished into a back room with a wave and the old man stood in grave contemplation of the Englishman. Like his wife he was well-lined but his seemed to be as much from frowning as smiling. He was certainly frowning now.
Hikari’s grandmother spoke quickly to her husband in Japanese. The man gave Valerie a hard stare and nodded to his wife, saying something back. The tone was difficult for Valerie to work out – she found Japanese to be very fast and well beyond her comprehension – but it didn’t sound complimentary. Daniel didn’t seem to think so either; he glanced up briefly at the pair and then back down at the list. Now that she was closer Valerie spotted the words ‘List of the Services’ printed just below the Japanese title.
If there’s one thing the English and Japanese have in common, Valerie decided, it was their ability to use politeness as a weapon. Daniel said a short sentence in Japanese (Valerie was no great judge but suspected his pronunciation had improved dramatically since their visit began) and the elderly couple went slightly pale. They bowed quickly to him and suddenly the old man was more than happy to help, taking their hiking packs off to their room with a slight grunt.
“What was that about?” Valerie asked Daniel quietly.
“Hikari’s granddad called you ‘half’,” he explained in a low tone. “It isn’t a compliment, if you’re wondering. It seems he doesn’t like foreigners, either – odd attitude for someone in the tourism industry.”
“Apologies, apologies.” Hikari’s grandmother appeared next to them, bowing carefully. “My husband is growing more foolish as he ages. He has been listening to politics again. He will recover.”
Hikari returned just in time, then, changed out of her hiking clothes and into a kimono that matched her grandmother’s. “Come, we have rooms for you.”
The White Tiger had a small onsen, a Japanese hot spring bath, which Daniel insisted they try. Valerie wasn’t sure about hanging about naked in front of a bunch of strangers – many onsen had separate sections for men and women but this wasn’t one of them – but eventually she agreed. Apart from the two of them there were two balding overweight businessmen and a tired-looking woman in her thirties though, after a while, Hikari joined them. The water had the sharp tang of metal to it and Hikari explained that like all hot springs this one’s water came to the surface with minerals in it, in this case chiefly iron. A tetsu-sen, she called it.
In time the steamy water eased away their aches and the three were too relaxed even to chat.
Afterwards Hikari brought them kimonos of their own – rich black for Daniel and pure white for Valerie – and giggled as the Englishman actually lost words when she and Valerie walked out of the changing area. Valerie admitted the clothing looked very nice but wondered idly whether her Cubs cap was getting crushed in her pack.
Bedtime was a welcome relief and she fell asleep listening to Hikari, who was sharing her room, singing softly to herself.
Snow broke on Daniel’s ski jacket and he ducked far too late. A whoop of victory went up and Valerie punched the sky, grinning widely, narrowly dodging a retaliatory snowball to the face. She and Hikari took shelter behind a tree, quickly packing snow into their hands and readying themselves for a concentrated assault.
A number of the hikers and skiers had spontaneously organised a snowball fight – girls against boys – in a snowfield not far from the White Tiger lodge. Business was slow so Hikari’s grandparents had been elected as judges over the fight and they stood on a prominent rock calling out points for the two teams. The mens’ team had scored more points but the womens’ team, who had the advantage of numbers, were gaining quickly.
“Hikari,” Valerie asked as they waited for the hail of snowballs that pelted their team’s trees to die down, “what’s the name of this mountain?”
“Tengu,” Hikari replied shortly, squealing as a snowball splattered into powder mere inches from her face. “Mount Tengu. Why?”
“Oh, uh, this creepy old guy came up to me yesterday on the trail.” Valerie swung her body out and hurled a snowball, catching a cute German boy in the leg, before ducking back. “Asked me if I knew what the name was. Said he knows your grandparents.” She shrugged. “Does it mean anything?”
“My grandparents know a lot of people.”
“No,” Valerie laughed, “I mean the name. Tengu.”
“Oh, yes.” Hikari nodded as she used one finger to carve a smiley face into her snowball. “It means -” She broke off and threw her snowball, narrowly missing her target. “It means ‘sky-dog’, I suppose. Or it comes from a word which mean that.”
Valerie shook her head free of the snow which had plastered itself there during the fight. “Really? ‘Sky-dog’?”
“Er, yes. People think it was first used as a term for ‘meteorite’. But it became the name of a mythical race of creatures.”
“Let me guess,” Valerie interjected, “flying dogs.”
Hikari shook her head. “No, actually. The tengu are a race of creatures that can turn into huge birds of prey, a little like eagles, and can also assume human form.”
Valerie looked puzzled and, in that moment, a stray snowball smacked her across the shoulder. “Oh, shit,” she said bluntly, looking down at herself. She could hear Hikari’s grandmother call a point against her; that old woman had eyes like a hawk. “So wait, how did the word go from flying dogs to weird bird-people?”
“No idea,” giggled the other woman, brushing snow off Valerie’s back for her.
The girls won the fight in the end. Piling up snowballs they simply pelted the boys’ hiding places, their crystalline white artillery pounding the enemy into submission. As a reward they got the onsen all to themselves for the mid-morning.
Shortly after lunch Daniel and Valerie set off for the ski slopes. They hired a set of skis each and Daniel spent a full hour teaching Valerie how to stay upright on the thin planks and helping her up when she inevitably fell over. A thin blanket of snowflakes began to fall as they waddled toward the beginner slopes. Daniel showed her how to push off and before she knew it Valerie was sliding down the smooth, powdery incline.
She made it almost fifteen feet before she collapsed face-first into the whiteness. Daniel helped her up again and she felt her cheeks burning with a mixture of embarrassment and cold until he pointed out that all of the other beginners were faring no better.
Valerie’s competitive streak reared its head and she grinned.
Before long she was balancing well and learning to turn, feeling her skis respond as she shifted her weight from side to side. Up and down the slope she went, up and down, going farther and more skilfully each time. Eventually Daniel stopped skiing down the slope with her an just watched, letting her help herself up when she fell and yelling encouragement.
“We’ll have to go in soon,” he mentioned as she reached the top of the slope once more. “Snow’s getting heavier.”
He was right. She could see the white flakes drifting down more regularly. If it got too much heavier it’d make visibility difficult.
“We’ve got a bit of time,” she grinned back, pulling her goggles into a more comfortable position.
“Yeah, but…” He shrugged. “I’ll check the weather report. Back in a jiffy!”
Valerie watched him go. She wondered idly if Hikari would mind if she stole him back for the night. Then she turned and shifted her weight, adjusted her ski poles and pushed off.
Wind whistled past her as she sped, crouched for extra speed and confident in her abilities now, down the slope. It almost sounded like someone yelling her name in the distance, she pondered, and cut a few turns as she went. She was looking forward to getting into the intermediate slopes, though she knew she wasn’t ready for them yet. Still her skis responded well as she spotted a clump of harder, packed snow and dodged around it, agile and quick. The falling snow was more dense now but she could still see fine –
One of her skis struck something hard in the snow and she toppled off, rolling over and over as her momentum carried her onward. Pain seared in her left calf and she tried to stop herself tumbling but she was out of control, knocking down another skier who’d just come to a stop and barrelling onward.
She wasn’t sure where the tree came from but she certainly felt it as she hit it with her side. Fresh pain blossomed across her ribs and the wind was knocked out of her; she’d lost her poles despite the straps and could only gasp and hope she’d stop rolling soon.
Eventually she did. Everything was quiet except for her loud, painful breathing and the sound of crunching snow beneath her as she shifted. Her goggles were caked white but she felt too winded even to clean them off so instead she simply lay there.
The breeze had picked up. She could feel that very keenly. When finally she managed to sit up it whipped past her stinging, cold ears as her ribs grated against one another. She’d broken ribs before so she knew the feeling; this was bad. Not life-threatening but still, she wasn’t going to be skiing or hiking any time soon.
Finally she pulled her goggles off. The snow was much heavier, swirling about in a frenzied dance, as she wiped the eye-wear down. Then she turned and looked up the slope just in time to see boiling clouds pour over the peak of the mountain like an onrushing sea.
Visibility dropped from ‘not much’ to ‘nothing’ in seconds. Wind roared past her as if she’d managed to offend it somehow and in that moment she understood why her mother’s forebears believed in dragons. The snowstorm was ferocious. It wasn’t like a rainstorm, either – it didn’t beat down on her. It filled the world with white, blinding and searing white, so cold it felt unnatural on her skin. This snow was alive, hostile, angry. She wondered about Hikari’s words at Fujiyama and wondered if Mount Tengu had woken up, enraged to find such tiny beasts crawling its surface.
She flung her arm up to shield her face and felt a moment of horror as the goggle strap slipped from her fingers. She’d already been buried to the knee in snow, there was no way she’d find them again. Valerie felt like she was being attacked by a giant made of quicksand and she struggled to keep on top of it. Putting her other hand out she began feeling for a tree, a rock, anything to shelter behind but there was nothing. She’d already been knocked off course. Now she couldn’t even tell which way was up the mountain or down.
The snowstorm raged on.
Valerie had no idea how long she’d been wandering. Still the snow tore at her cheeks; still the wind, which seemed to change directions like an angry serpent, contrived to gush under her hood to freeze her ears and send a chill down her neck that she wondered if she’d ever be free of. She knew if she couldn’t find shelter that she’d die.
She was a Chicago girl. She was no stranger to snow. But this wasn’t the normal snow they got at home, it was a baleful white demon that pulled her this way and that like a rag doll, turned her about and foiled her sense of direction. Fear rose in her belly for Daniel; if he’d come out looking for her there was no way he’d find his way back.
She began calling for him but the wind snatched the words from her lips and then the breath from her lungs. The best she could do was cover her nose and mouth to protect them and struggle on.
The storm had to move on soon, she reasoned. It had to stop. It’d pass over another ridge and be off to torment someone else. Then she’d just head up the mountain until she found the track running along its spine and, from there, she’d stumble into one of any number of ski lodges they’d passed along the way to the White Tiger.
It felt like hours. Valerie was exhausted and disoriented, lost in an endless swirl of white, her torn calf muscles burning and her ribs a constant stabbing pain in her side. She couldn’t feel her lips or nose any more. She called Daniel’s name from time to time but it was getting harder to form the words, as numb as her face had become. It didn’t feel cold any more. In fact she felt like she’d stumbled into an onsen.
She was boiling up from the inside, steaming herself in her clothes, unbearably warm. A panic took her and she began ripping her gloves off, then using numbed fingers to clumsily undo her jacket. Some part of her mind screamed at her to stop but she was beyond sense. She had to cool down or she’d collapse, expire, melt into a puddle of stinking, rotten flesh.
With her jacket off she felt a bit better. She’d just keep it off for a while and then put it back on when she cooled down. Until then she’d better keep moving, she figured drunkenly, find a rock or something to shelter behind.
Behind her the outline of her gloves rapidly disappeared under the falling snow. After ten paces her jacket joined it, slipping from nerveless fingers, as the half-frozen woman stumbled blindly on.
She couldn’t see where she was going. She didn’t bother covering her face; she couldn’t feel the snow any more. Had it stopped? She could hear the wind but it was distant, faded. The pain in her calf had subsided, thank God, but her ribs still ached a little.
At one point she thought she spotted a little girl in the swirling miasma. She had a dark dress on and black, black hair. Valerie couldn’t tell if she was Japanese or not but by the time the woman struggled to where she thought she’d seen the girl there was no trace of her left.
Hallucination, she thought. Do people get snow hallucinations? She didn’t know. Her eyes stared out uselessly across the landscape, snow-blinded and unseeing, but she couldn’t tell. It was all she could do to keep herself moving. She hoped she wasn’t going in circles.
Eventually she fell over. She didn’t remember doing it but she felt the difference between upright and horizontal. It felt like the world was sucking at her, pulling her downward, and as she attempted to push herself upward her arms gave out.
She rested for a little before trying again.
Valerie jerked awake, mind filled with white, terrible fear. She’d fallen asleep! She’d taken her jacket off, lost her gloves and she’d fallen asleep! Her fingers barely curled when she moved but she willed herself up, made herself keep moving, pushed herself off the ground and wobbled in the still-churning storm as she regained her balance. She couldn’t feel the pain in her leg or her ribs any more. It didn’t seem like a good thing to her.
Cursing her stupidity she trudged onward. Her right foot got caught in something – perhaps a couple of rocks hidden beneath the snow – but she pulled it free with an angry heave and stomped on her way – wherever that was.
Cold invaded every scrap of her being. Her entire world was white, blind cold. The faintest hint of swirling flakes were all she could see; even looking down at herself yielded nothing. Her mind was working again, though, and she knew her snow-blindness now for what it was.
The ever-present wind boiled in her ears. Still no shelter but she had to keep moving. She’d be amazed if she got out of this with all her fingers and toes. Her world was an oppressive pit of white, a frozen Hell that invaded her every pore, and nothing she could do would get her away from it.
Finally she came across a rock – some kind of rock in the snow, low and dark – that she could sit down on. She was careful to keep herself alert this time, mindful of freezing to her seat, her emotions spilling out as she cried in the relentless, pitiless storm. It didn’t care that she was wracked with sobs. It didn’t heed her pleas to stop or her desperation for a blanket and a hot bath. It just snowed, covering the trees and freezing them, smothering the landscape, destroying the outline of the low rock she sat on. Soon it would be covered and if Valerie didn’t keep moving she would be as well.
She forced herself to a stand and took a step forward. She struggled even to move against the wind but her will hardened into ice and she made herself take another step. A sick feeling welled up in her stomach but she fought it down. Another step and the sickness became a pain.
Valerie focused on that pain. Apart from her own misery and desperation it was the only thing she felt. She was so cold and numb she didn’t feel her arms or legs. The pain gave her something to work with and she forced herself to take another step.
There was no other way she could describe it. Something snapped like an elastic band stretched too far, something deep inside her, and after a moment of searing pain and an overwhelming sensation of loss she stumbled forward, pitching face-first into the snow.
When she got to her feet she squared her jaw and marched on. The storm screamed around her still, ice crystals biting at her senseless face, and she marched in a dead straight line.
Valerie didn’t know exactly why but no force in Heaven or on Earth would make her turn around at that moment and look at the rock on which she’d been sitting.
She didn’t recall going upward but she must have because she recognised the feeling of the path under her. It was the walking track along the ridge that formed the spine of Mount Tengu. She stomped her feet but still felt nothing. She had to hold her hands right up in front of her eyes to even see the outline of them, and they seemed terribly blue to her. She could flex them, though, so her fear of losing them subsided a little.
Valerie felt a brief moment of hope swell up in her. She’d made it to the ridge! Then that feeling was snatched away like a snowflake on the stormy breeze and she could only walk on in despair. She felt like she’d been walking for days. Now, when she should be feeling hope of an end in sight, she only felt as if she were going to be walking for days to come.
She turned off the hiking path when she felt a track under her feet. She wasn’t sure how she felt it – she couldn’t feel her actual feet – but the sense of familiarity was so strong she simply couldn’t resist. So she walked off down the little trail into a nest of ridges. Far ahead – she couldn’t tell how far – she barely made out the warm glow of a paper lantern.
As she stepped toward the White Tiger lodge the snow storm eased. She let out a soft, tinkling laugh of irony – of course the weather would drop just as she found her way back – and the shape of the building became more clear. Squinting as she moved she went toward it, legs moving in an economy of movement which was at once both methodical and graceful.
She stared at the carving above the doorway for a moment as the swirling snow about her abated and fell. The storm seemed to have spent its fury. She still felt too numb and far too cold – she wasn’t sure how she felt both at once but she did – and the bare path she stood on seemed wrong to her, somehow, as she eased through the lodge’s doorway.
If her mind had been in its full health Valerie would probably have wondered how, with the storm raging on so, that path had remained free of snow. But instead she simply walked into the empty lodge, too cold even to shiver.
Daniel walked into the main room of the White Tiger with his pack over his shoulder and a handkerchief in his hand. His eyes were red as if he’d been crying but his jaw was set in a determined scowl. He was dressed in his full cold-weather gear.
Valerie tried to call out to him but her voice failed. She felt no hope, no relief, but only a keen desperation. She took a halting step toward him and he caught sight of her, stopping dead in his tracks.
“V-Val?” He said her name like it was a plea. “Val, are…”
She made a soft, wordless sound. He took a step toward her and then, abruptly, a step back.
“But you…” His voice held wonder and hope mixed with a desperation that seemed to match hers and he ran to her, dropping his bag and hugging her fiercely to him. His arms swept around her tightly and Valerie closed her eyes as she clung to him.
He felt good. And warm.
Hunger erupted in her. She was starving. Starving and freezing. She kissed him full on the lips, hard and insistent; after a pause he kissed back.
“Daniel, I’m so cold,” she said in his ear, voice a mere whisper, “I’m so cold. I can’t feel anything and I’m so cold…”
“You’re naked,” he said in wonder and, looking down, she saw that he was right. Her feet and fingers were tinged a dangerous blue and she wondered if her lips were chilly as they pressed against his. “I’ll get you some clothes -”
“No,” she said suddenly, wanting more than that. “I need to get warm. Please… warm me up.” She slid a hand down to the front of his pants, leaving no doubt as to what she meant, and she kissed him once more.
The hunger in her eyes was reflected in his. Without hesitation he swept an arm under her legs and carried her out of the main room to his own, pressing himself against her pallid breasts and letting her devour his kisses with hers. He pushed open the door with his back and laid her on his bed, watching in wonder as she spread her chilly white skin – so beautiful, so perfect – out for him. Daniel pulled his jacket off as joy sang in his heart and the more naked he got the hungrier the look in her eyes grew.
Out in the main room the fire dimmed, sputtered and went out, while skeletal fingers of frost began to creep along the windows.
Their lovemaking was passionate, eager, intense. What they lacked in variation or imagination they made up for in pure connection, touching one another as if for the first time, both hesitant and knowing. Her fingers, her lips, her sex were like magic on his body; he lost himself in their coupling and if something in the back of his mind wailed a warning then he didn’t hear it. He seemed lost in a storm of flesh and ice.
They fell into a sleep, spent and exhausted, tangled in one another’s limbs.
Valerie awoke, dazed, trying to focus on her surroundings. She felt different, refreshed, but still painfully cold. She rubbed her eyes, scratched at the pale scalp beneath her long black hair and froze as horror gripped her throat in a clutch of iron.
All about her the room lay carpeted in ice crystals, casting a beautiful but dreadful blue sheen over everything. The floor, the door, windows, blankets, the very bed itself, all lay in state under this gleaming shroud of rime. Icicles had formed from the ceiling, the rumpled clothes in the corner were covered in feathery flakes, light glittered from every frost-laden surface.
Daniel, laying still beside her, was a dessicated corpse. One hand stretched out as if in supplication, the flesh shrivelled to show the outline of bone, his noble English face now wrinkled and fixed in a sepulchral grin. He looked as if he’d been drained and then snap-frozen. Hoar frost caked his hair, which was streaked liberally with silver and white. His eyes, sunken and collapsed, were mercifully closed.
Valerie scrambled backward on the bed and fell to the floor, letting out a wordless howl of terror. She shook her head over and over but the vision didn’t go away. That she felt strong and revitalised only made the scene all the worse. She scrambled about for something to wear, anything, and her hand closed on the pure white kimono Hikari had given her – how long ago? Valerie didn’t know. She slid into it and tied it up with hands that seemed to know instinctively how to do it and then she opened the door, turned and ran.
The hallway was covered in the same rime. Frost coated every wall and every door. When she ran into the main room it looked as if it had been abandoned for a week – snow spilt in through a broken window pane and filled the dead hearth. Even as she stepped across the icy floor she could hear more snow falling down the chimney; the sheer weight must have broken the flue.
Valerie had no idea what was happening but the deep-seated knowledge that she’d killed Daniel – the truth of it – was unbearable. For a moment she had no idea what to do and cast about the dead lodge room, stepping this way and that, a low keening wail of woe slipping from her blue lips.
Footsteps. She looked around to the front entrance and saw Hikari’s grandfather rush in, Hikari herself close behind.
He looked about, let out a moan of disbelief, focused on her. Looking her up and down he yelled at her in Japanese. She didn’t understand the words but she could somehow grasp the meaning behind them. What have you done? What are you?
She didn’t know what to do. Pain welled up in her – loss, misery, confusion and fear – and she pulled back as the man stormed toward her and tried to grab her arm. A deep scream of despair, or grief, burst out of her and in an instant the old man stood frozen solid, still in the act of trying to lay his hand on her.
Valerie’s mouth opened and closed. The man was an icicle. As she watched the angle he stood on caused him to topple, snapping off at the ankles and breaking into four pieces when he hit the floor. His frozen head bounced along the wood like a bowling ball.
Hikari let out a scream and then, abruptly, vanished as someone pulled her out of the doorway. Valerie glimpsed strong talon-like fingers, a long red nose and a battered pair of Ray-Bans, and then her friend was gone.
Valerie ran for the door and out into the snow. She dashed down the path, black hair and white kimono billowing in a sudden strong wind, and she disappeared into the snowstorm that roiled about her like a cloak.
Officially the White Tiger owner and his unfortunate guest had died when the lodge had snap-frozen in the very unusual weather. The second storm had come five days after the first, when that Japanese-American hiker girl had gone missing, and that second storm had proved far more severe and intense than the first. Locals were saying the storm had grief in it but people say strange things when there are deaths about.
Strange things like yuki-onna and yokai, things that the modern, sensible folk wouldn’t pay much attention to if they knew what was good for them. Besides, what were they expected to do? Go out and arrest a spirit? So they didn’t listen and, in time, the locals forgot about the pretty Japanese-American woman with the Cubs cap.
But Hikari didn’t forget.
She visited the next year, when the ski season was in full swing and her grandmother had joined her grandfather in whatever afterlife they’d gone to. She brought flowers and sake, laid them out where the police had found Valerie Kinsberg’s body face-down in the snow after a partial thaw, sat by herself and sang gently.
Snow began to fall. Hikari kept on singing. After a while a chill wind blew through the valley and a woman in a white kimono sat next to Hikari.
“Hello, Valerie,” she said gently.
“Konnichiwa,” the spirit replied, without humour.
Valerie looked flawless and beautiful but very, very sad. Her hair lay down her back, no longer tied in a pony tail, her skin porcelain white but with a blue tinge to her lips, her fingers, her toes. Hikari looked into eyes that were as blue as the purest ice and held grief that the woman could barely stand to witness.
“I’ve brought flowers and sake,” Hikari said hesitantly, “as a sort of offering. I am sorry for what happened.”
Valerie nodded. She didn’t say anything. Her hands were very still, sitting in her lap, and she looked for all the world to be the perfect Japanese lady. Hikari wondered how much the American despised that. Maybe she didn’t care any more. Maybe it burned in her gut – or whatever it was that spirits had instead of guts.
“They took your body back. I went to meet your parents. It was a nice funeral.”
“Your first trip to America?” the icy woman asked. She hadn’t lost her accent.
“You couldn’t have picked less shitty circumstances. From my perspective, anyway.” Valerie shook her head very softly. “Hope you got in to see a Cubs game, at least.”
Hikari nodded. “The men have pants that are very tight around their backsides,” she observed. “I have your cap still.” She reached for her hiking pack but stopped as Valerie lay a hand on hers. It was terribly cold and she wished she couldn’t feel it. The woman beside her was most definitely solid.
“Keep it. You have to go.”
Hikari’s eyes widened and she sat a little more straight. “Why? Have I offended you?”
Valerie shook her head and when she looked at her friend she made full eye contact for the first time. Her gaze transfixed Hikari, froze her more than the spirit’s hand ever could, a stare that was both icy and warm, both hollow and needy.
“I’m getting hungry.”
It wasn’t a threat but it may as well have been. Hikari stood, bowed respectfully to the woman and hefted her pack onto her shoulder. Then she left the little hollow, left the lonely spirit in her snow-filled world and never saw her again.
© Scott Thornby, 2013