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.
– Second significant edit.
Daniel Wright was a forthright fellow, a very British man with clear eyes, a handsome stubbled jawline and a mop of brown hair which was at once both manly and boyish. He worked as a book-keeper for a well-known law firm because it kept him out of the rain and he had a very good head for numbers. And Daniel Wright, that forthright fellow with his wide smile and snappy suits, had a deep love of skiing.
With a tendency to pace about while on his mobile phone – despite having lived in Chicago for over ten years he still insisted upon calling it a ‘mobile phone’ rather than a ‘cell phone’ – he roamed about his apartment as he talked in an animated voice to his best friend.
“Val, I understand,” he reassured her in a soothing and very British tone. “But it’s just one week, right? You can take one week. It’s going to be a pretty poor skiing trip if you don’t come along.” He paused to listen. “No, I get that, but you said your boss had approved the leave. And it’s a short trip, Japan’s not that far away. And anyway, don’t you want to see your motherland?” He chuckled quietly as his friend went on a short-lived but passionate tirade about how Chicago was her ‘motherland’. He knew she wasn’t angry. It was simply their way.
Valerie Marie Kinsberg was a Chicago girl through and through, from her thick snow-proof winter boots to her Cubs cap pulled down onto her glossy black hair.
She worked in a jeweller’s store on Michigan Avenue, loved hot dogs, had a season baseball ticket and preferred sloppy tees to slinky dresses. Little of her father showed its evidence, while her mother’s blood ran strong in her veins, from her pleasant heart-shaped face to her rare jade-green eyes.
“Hey, you’re the one that’s got such a hard-on for Japan,” she scoffed, her phone to her ear, “I don’t even speak the language.”
The conversation had been going on for just under an hour. Valerie could feel her temper fraying.
“Fine,” she growled eventually, “I’ll think about it.” She ended the call without a goodbye and tossed her cell phone onto the coffee table nearby.
Valerie took a swig of her beer and sighed heavily before getting up and heading into her bedroom to pull her suitcase off the top of her wardrobe.
Truth be told she’d wanted the chance to go skiing; arguing the point was purely to keep Daniel on his toes. The guy was just too sure of himself. 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 cheap seats for the flight over. The less they spent on the trip itself, they reasoned, the more 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 the most populated metropolis on Earth.
It didn’t take long for them to get thoroughly lost, largely thanks to Daniel’s near-complete lack of a sense of direction. Luckily while he was very good at getting the two of them lost he was equally skilled at getting them unlost.
They stayed the night in a capsule hotel in Tokyo. They were given yukata gowns and slippers, secured their cases in a locker provided and were shown to their ‘rooms.’ It felt a little like sleeping in a fish-tank with WiFi access. Daniel quite enjoyed the experience; Valerie wasn’t so sure.
The next morning after breakfast they left bright and early, stopping at the Squirrel Garden in Machida. They marvelled at the Gorogataki Waterfall in Yamato, rode the Oyama Cable in Isehara, explored the Komakado Cave in Gotemba. When they got to Mount Fujiyama 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 at the frigid sky.
The trek up the mountain was no less breathtaking. Valerie 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 and together with a small group of other tourists they followed a fit-looking young woman named Hikari who served as their guide.
“We are arrogant,” Hikari called to the group as they neared 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. 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 used that line.
That evening, back at the base of the mountain, Hikari found Daniel and Valerie in the press of tourists. Having fulfilled her duty as guide for this leg of the tour group’s journey she was going to head to her grandfather’s home in the Nagano Prefecture and wondered if the two would like to come along.
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 by train, talking deep into the evening. 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 giggled. “Yes. We know about casual sex in Japan.”
They’d both laughed and nearly woken Daniel. Hikari was quite welcome, Valerie made it clear, to find out if Daniel liked her. Hikari had looked very shy, then; 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.
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.
Daniel, it turned out, did like Hikari. In fact he liked her twice over the course of the night and again the next morning.
When they got a better look at the place in daylight 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.
They hired a share car in Hakuba and drove it out of the city. The Japan Alps – a part of them – towered above like something out of a silk painting or 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, stopping now and then to allow Daniel to catch up.
As they 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 didn’t see the old man until he 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 down walls 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.
“Uh, sorry,” she said with a smile, “I don’t speak Japanese.”
The stranger paused, confused. Then he smiled brightly, visibly shifting mental gears, and tried again.
“Ahh, American. You are tourist, yes?” he asked politely. “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.”
“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. 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, we met her at Mount Fuji – you know her?” She began to feel uneasy, as If she were in danger – or very close to it.
“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 dumbfounded.
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, jumpy. What were you looking at?” He peered past her in the direction she had been staring.
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 to 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 had been getting weather reports from other hikers.
“A storm is coming,” she told them, “a very fierce snow storm. Two days away, perhaps three.”
“Oh, well! That’s all right then,” Daniel beamed. “Ideal, in fact! 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 amid 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 to glow under the cold moon, fat and pregnant in its fullness.
The lodge overlooked an incredible view, glittering and treacherously beautiful.
The lodge was a blast of warmth as they went through the decorative entrance adorned by a carving of its namesake, a white tiger. Paper lanterns swung overhead, rich smells of mouthwatering cooking wafted through the air and the faint strains of Japanese opera could be heard.
Valerie knew that word. She smiled brightly at the speaker, a diminutive older woman in a fetching red kimono. Her silver hair was pulled back in a bun, her teeth were clearly false and a lifetime of smile wrinkles creased her face.
“Hi! Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese,” Valerie greeted back.
“Oh, American!” the woman beamed. She didn’t seem put off in the slightest. “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 – her grandfather, probably.
“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’s a gem. Twenty-four carat, rose-cut red diamond.”
The old woman looked dutifully impressed and ushered Valerie over to the counter where Daniel was reading a list of the lodge’s services. 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. The man gave Valerie a hard stare before replying. Daniel glanced up briefly at the pair with narrowed eyes.
He spoke to them, a short sentence in Japanese, though he took his time with the pronunciation. 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, and he wasn’t expecting to have his… impoliteness witnessed by a foreigner.”
Hikari returned 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. 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 the friends giggled as the Englishman actually lost words when they walked out of the changing area.
Bedtime was a welcome relief and Valerie fell asleep listening to Hikari, who was sharing her room, singing softly.
Snow broke on Daniel’s ski jacket and he ducked far too late. A whoop of victory went up and Valerie punched the sky, narrowly dodging a retaliatory snowball. She and Hikari took shelter behind a tree, quickly packing snow into their hands and readying themselves for a concentrated assault.
One of the tourists had organised a snowball fight – girls against boys – in a snowfield not far from the White Tiger lodge. 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.
“Hikari,” Valerie asked during a lull in the hostilities, “what’s the name of this mountain?”
“Tengu,” Hikari replied shortly. “Mount Tengu. Why?”
“Oh, uh, this creepy old guy came up to me yesterday on the trail.” Valerie leaned out and hurled a snowball before ducking back. “Asked me if I knew what the name was.” She shrugged. “Does it mean anything?”
“Tengu, yes.” Hikari nodded as she used one finger to carve a smiley face into her snowball. “It translates to ‘sky-dog’, I suppose. People think it was first used as a term for ‘meteorite’. But it became the name of a mythical race of creatures. 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.”
A snowball smacked Valerie across the shoulder blade. “Oh, shit,” she said bluntly. 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 women’s team won the fight in the end. 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. Already athletic thanks to her love of jogging, and proving to be a quick learner, Valerie was soon judged proficient enough to try the beginner courses. Snowflakes swirled gently as the two began testing her skills.
“We’ll have to go in soon,” he mentioned as she reached the top, almost three hours later. “Snow’s getting heavier.”
“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. Then she turned and shifted her weight, adjusted her ski poles and pushed off.
Wind whistled past her as she sped, more confident in her abilities, down the slope. Her skis responded well, agile and quick. The falling snow was more dense but she could still see fine –
One of her skis struck something hard in the snow and she tumbled, rolling over and over as her momentum carried her onward. Pain seared in her left calf and she tried to stop herself but she was out of control. Fresh pain blossomed across her ribs as she struck a tree and barrelled on, the wind was knocked out of her.
Eventually she came to a stop. Everything was quiet except for her loud, painful breathing and the sound of crunching snow beneath her as she shifted. She had lost her poles and one ski, the other splintered. Her goggles were caked white.
When finally she managed to sit up Valerie felt the wind whip past her stinging, cold ears as her ribs grated against one another. She’d broken ribs before so she knew the feeling.
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 storm clouds pour over the peak of the mountain like an onrushing sea.
Visibility dropped from ‘not much’ to ‘nothing’ in seconds. Wind roared as if offended and in that moment Valerie understood why the ancient Japanese tales contained dragons. The snowstorm was ferocious. It filled the world with white, blinding and searing. That snow was alive, hostile, angry. Perhaps Mount Tengu had woken up, enraged to find such tiny beasts crawling its surface.
Without thinking she flung her arm up to shield her face and felt a moment of horror as the goggle strap slipped from her fingers. Putting her other hand out she began feeling for a tree, a rock, anything to shelter behind but there was nothing. She’d been knocked far off course. Now she couldn’t even tell which way was up the mountain or down.
The snowstorm raged.
Valerie had no idea how long she’d been wandering. Still the snow tore at her cheeks; still the wind, twisting like an angry serpent, contrived to gush under her hood to freeze her ears and neck.
She was a Chicago girl, 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, turned her about and foiled her sense of direction. Fear rose in her belly for Daniel; if he’d come out looking for her…
She began calling for him but the wind snatched the words from her lips and then the breath from her lungs as she struggled onward for what 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 grinding pain. 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 fallen 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.
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.
Her eyes stared out uselessly across the landscape, snow-blinded and unseeing. She didn’t remember toppling 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. Cold invaded every scrap of her being.
The ever-present wind boiled in her ears. 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. Soon the rock 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 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. The pain gave her something to work with and she forced herself to take yet 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 pale jaw and moved on. The storm screamed around her still, ice crystals biting at her senseless face as 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. Her hands, when she held them in front of her eyes, seemed white-blue. She could flex them quite well, though.
Valerie stared at them, finding nothing where hope should be. She felt like she’d been walking for days. Far ahead – she couldn’t tell how far – she barely made out the warm glow of a paper lantern.
As she stepped toward that glow the snow storm seemed to ease. 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 lodge became more clear.
She stared at the carving above the entry for a moment as the swirling snow about her abated and fell still. She still felt too numb and far too cold as she eased through the lodge’s doorway, 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, just across the verge, watched him silently. She felt no hope, no relief, only a keen desperation. She took a halting step 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 half-raised a hand, fearful that he was dreaming.
“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. Valerie closed her eyes as he clung to her.
He felt good. And warm.
Hunger erupted within her. She was starving. Starving and freezing.
“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 speaking the truth. “I’ll get you some clothes -”
“No,” she stopped him, 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 full on the lips.
The hunger in her eyes was reflected in his. 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 her own. 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.
Touching one another as if for the first time, their lovemaking was passionate, eager, intense. Her fingers, her lips, her sex were like magic on his body; he lost himself in her and if something in the back of his mind wailed a warning then he didn’t heed it.
Out in the main room the fire dimmed, sputtered and went out. Skeletal fingers of frost began to creep along the windows.
Valerie awoke, dazed, trying to focus on her surroundings. She still felt cold, but different now, refreshed. She rubbed her eyes, scratched at the pale scalp beneath her long black hair and looked about.
All around her the room lay carpeted in ice crystals. The floor, the door, windows, blankets, the very bed itself, all lay in state under that gleaming shroud of rime. Icicles had formed from the ceiling and light glittered from every frost-laden surface.
Daniel lay still beside her, the flesh shrivelled to show the outline of bone, his noble English face now wrinkled and fixed in a sepulchral grin. Hoar frost caked his hair, which was streaked liberally with silver and white. His eyes, sunken and collapsed, were mercifully closed.
Valerie scrambled backward and fell to the floor, letting out a shriek of terror that sounded too much like the wind of that storm. She shook her head over and over but the vision didn’t go away. Scrambling about for something to wear, anything, her hand closed on the pure white kimono Hikari had given her – how long ago?
The hallway, when she left the room, was covered in the same rime. Frost coated every wall and every door. The main room it looked as if it had been abandoned for a week. Snow spilt in through a broken window pane, filled the dead hearth.
Valerie had no idea what was happening but the deep-seated knowledge that she’d killed Daniel – the truth of it – was unbearable. She cast aimlessly about the dead lodge room, stepping this way and that, a low keening wail of woe slipping from her blue lips.
Footsteps by the front entrance. Hikari’s grandfather rushed in, Hikari herself close behind.
He looked about, let out a moan of fear, focused on her. She didn’t understand his words but she could somehow grasp the meaning behind them.
What have you done? What are you?
Pain welled up in her 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 Hikari’s grandfather stood frozen solid, still in the act of trying to lay his hand on her.
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.
Valerie turned her face toward Hikari, tears gleaming like gemstones as they slid impossibly down frozen cheeks. Fingers of ice crept with terrifying speed along the floor and Valerie felt that gnawing, awful hunger begin to grow.
Hikari let out a scream as the thing that was once Valerie stepped toward her but the sound cut off. Strong talon-like fingers grasped the human’s arms and Valerie briefly glimpsed dark feathers, a long red nose and a battered pair of Ray-Bans before, yanked out of the doorway, her friend was gone.
Valerie ran 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 unusual weather. 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. 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. She brought flowers and sake, laid them out where the police had found Valerie Kinsberg’s body face-down on a rock 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. 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 the colour of 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 whether the American despised that. Maybe she didn’t care any more. Maybe it burned in her gut – or whatever it was that a yuki-onna, a snow-maiden, 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.
“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 wear very tight pants. I have your cap still.” She reached for her hiking pack but stopped as Valerie lay a hand on hers. It was terribly cold. 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 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, 2013-2018