Written in collaboration with Sheerin Shahab
Sounds of boisterous frolicking from the street accompanied Takeshi inside the apartment. The worn flat seemed as welcoming as a day-old ramen. Though the room was neat, it had an unlived air about it. Sturdy minimal furniture. A sparkling kitchenette. Walls bare of any pictures. An incense pot stood in front of a wooden kamidana in a corner. He padded with stockinged feet to the small wooden altar.
Once there, he ignited a fresh incense stick, then picked something up from inside. It was an origami crane, the paper worn and tattered. His offerings: pine and bamboo decorations, straw festoons, and rice cakes lay scattered inside the kamidana.
A familiar pain constricted his heart, his companion since he was fourteen. An image of a girl, skin pink and delicate, flashed in his mind’s eye. The ghost of her laughter refused to die even after repeated shakes of his head.
He returned the crane and stood with his head bowed. He had promised he wouldn’t ever forget Yuzuki, his childhood playmate. Now Yuzuki was his kami, his personal deity, deserving his reverence and remembrance.
The winter that snatched Yuzuki from him had been his last in Zao Onsen, where he had spent his childhood with his uncle and aunt after the demise of his parents. The ryokan had always been plagued by bad luck. They managed somehow with the few guests who lost their way to the inn.
Once Yuzuki had gone, there was nothing to hold him back in Zao, one of the coldest places in Japan. He landed in Kyoto and worked his way up to detective in the Metropolitan Police. He had a good track record, which had slipped this past year. At thirty-five, he was too old to think of settling down. His job left no time for recreation. A wave of regret, tempered with nostalgia, washed over him.
Still, winter held a special place in his heart. With the advent of the little New Year, Koshogatsu, he would be transported back to the snowy landscape of his childhood and Yuzuki. Endless hours of fun sledging down snow-filled slopes, snowball fights, warm miso soups, and hot rice gruel. The past could be charming, but it was only a mirage.
The phone rang, snapping him out of his foray into the past.
“Takeshi,” the voice sobbed. It was his aunt. “Come home! Your uncle is dead.”
He stood rooted to the spot.
He had not been in touch. A New Year card and infrequent calls were his only obeisance to the relationship. Life was difficult at the ryokan, but he had felt anchored. Unlike now.
The next morning, on the bus to Zao, Takeshi shivered even in multiple layers. As the bus threaded the winding path toward his destination, multitudes of misshapen trees covered in frozen snow whizzed past—the snow monsters!
Soon, Takeshi stood in front of the house he had spent his childhood in. The panelled doors slid at his tentative knock. His aunt stood there, older and frailer than he remembered, her red eyes and pale face a testament to her grief. He bowed, and she hugged him.
Later, over dinner, she told him that there had been a few more disappearances since he left. His uncle had stepped out to investigate something suspicious one night, but his body turned up later.
“Aunty san, I’ll find out what is happening here,” he assured her. She wiped her tears and snapped,
“This place is cursed. I implored your uncle to leave, but he didn’t listen. He was going to renovate this place. The workers will start arriving tomorrow. I didn’t know what to do. So, I called you. After all, the ryokan is now yours per your uncle’s will. You do what you want with it. Run it, renovate it, sell it, or burn it to the ground. I don’t care.”
What am I going to do with a ryokan? What about my job?
What job? One which ceased being fulfilling long ago?
Was this a chance at a new life?
Takeshi tossed and turned in his bed the whole night.
The cool air of the hills may help me decide.
He set out early in the morning. The pristine snow was a glaring blanket, blinding in its whiteness. The chilly breeze hit his skin like daggers, but he kept climbing. He roamed all day, his heart unsettled and in turmoil. Dusk started gathering. The temperature dropped further. More clouds arrived on the horizon, and he realised he had to return. Under a snow-covered overhang, he swallowed some shrimp chips. As he chugged some coffee, he realised he wasn’t alone.
Was the girl mad? Braving the weather in just a kimono, her white skin competing with the snow! Lustrous dark hair hung low over her waist, almost pulling down her thin frame peeping from the gossamer folds of her dress. With her back to him, she reminded him of some lost spirit from children’s tales.
“Nante kotta! Isn’t this kimono too thin for winter?” he exclaimed. “You’ll catch your death in this.”
She lowered her head. He deserved to ramble. After all, he was her knight in shining armour—the first living soul she had met in a long time. She had been wandering the snow-carpeted wilderness for hours, adrift like a lone snowflake. Until she stumbled upon him. Or vice versa, as he presumed.
Magenta reflections of the setting sun sieved through the wispy clouds to light her willowy frame. For a moment, she seemed wrapped in nothing but a pearly mist that revealed more of her luscious body than it hid.
“Hontou ni gomen nasai.” he tilted in a deep bow. “Forgive my flowing tongue. I am usually much reser-v-ved.”
She smiled. Men are so predictable! By now, the letch would be drooling over her milky shoulders, mentally peeling away the flimsy kimono. His lust-laden eyes would be caressing her curves! She inwardly chortled.
“I understand.” she swivelled, hoping to catch him red-handed.
But she was in for a surprise.
He wasn’t even looking at her. This man was engrossed in a pair of red-crowned cranes.
Surrounded by a glistening snow blanket, the majestic birds leapt into the air, fluttering their wings. Their sonorous calls echoed.
“These red-crowned cranes pair for life. This is their mating dance,” she remarked.
“Oh, I forgot to introduce myself.” he bowed, hastily changing the topic. “I am Takeshi Sanada, a police detective. Please, put this on.” He handed his puffer jacket to her.
“I am comfortable, Takeshi san,” she said, smiling suggestively. In a tease, she wove her fingers through her hair, a shimmering curtain of midnight black. Adjusting her neckline, she gave him a generous glimpse of her curves.
“I insist, please!” he mumbled.
The man intrigued her. She did as he asked.
“I am Miyuki, a PhD student,” she said. “Here to research the changing face of winter.”
“Forgive me, Miyuki san,” he bowed again, his face creased. “I thought you were lost.”
“Oh, no, Takeshi san.” It was her turn to bow. “You’re right. I was lost. Despite visiting every year for Koshogatsu, the little New Year celebrations, I still lose my way. Something about fresh snow snuggling the conifer trees, adorning them like white lace, distracts me. The staggering mountains and the crisp pine-tipped air make me go off course.”
“Yeah! The thatched-roof houses decked in their winter coats and orange lights on the snow-laden streets have a similar effect on me!”
His eyes sparkled, reminding her of full moons glittering in the frozen lakes. His face shone like the sun breaking into the grey of the dawn.
Rein in yourself! She chided herself. In one moment, she had compared him with the moons, the sun and everything in between!
Suddenly, he stiffened. “I don’t know what’s wrong… I am more…”
“… Reserved.” She giggled.
A distant rumble tore across as if the Gods had split the sky.
“… An avalanche!”
“My uncle called it—Gods’ day out. They are out in the snow—skiing and sledging,” he chuckled.
“You’re right, Takeshi san.” Her face hardened. “With tumbling snow comes Yuki Jiji—the Old Man of the Snow!”
“The snow monster? Like those…?” He flicked his chin towards the countless menacing figures on the distant slope.
“No!” she scowled. “Mime yori kokoro—Heart over appearance. Those are nothing but frozen trees with unsullied hearts. They are no monsters! But many are! Hiding behind a false face. Yuki Jiji, the ancient mountain god, can see everything! Dressed in an iridescent kimono, bearing a white hei—a staff with streamers—he rides the avalanche. Depending on what your heart holds, Yuki Jiji can be your God or your monster!”
His eyes grew rounder than the snowballs cascading down.
“Japanese mythology is another of my research topics,” she blurted to justify her passionate monologue. “Takeshi San, we better leave…”
He glanced as half of the detached hill hurtled towards them. “Come with me!” his words hovered in the frost-licked mist.
He had extended the coveted invitation.
Takeshi and Miyuki returned to a scene of complete chaos. He had forgotten about the workers who were milling around like ants on a rice cake. No one had been there to instruct them, and a day of idleness had metamorphosed into a night of celebration. A Bonenkai party, a party to forget the year gone by, was in full sway.
The paper walls of the ryokan reverberated with music loud enough to send shivers up the spine. Inside, the low tables where earlier the workmen were guzzling sake had been pulled to the side. Revellers crowded the tatami mats covering the cold floor.
Takeshi was ruing his decision to join and felt like a koi out of its bowl. He nursed a glass of shochu, hiding near an alcove decorated with cheap copies of ancient scrolls, wishing to become one himself.
Mizuki, however, was enjoying the festivities with all her heart. She danced with the labourers with an abandon bordering on titillation. He felt angry. And then a disquiet filled him. She wasn’t Yuzuki, even though she smiled and weaved her fingers through her tresses, just like her. Yuzuki was dead, while Miyuki was alive with feelings, emotions, and boundless energy.
The celebration slowly wound down. Takeshi showed Miyuki to her room. The labourers had pitched up their tents near the onsen. They staggered out, drunk. Takeshi fell on his bed, and dreams overcame him within minutes.
He awoke to pandemonium the next day.
“What happened?” He asked a worker on the verge of pulling his hair out with distress. The workers were hastily packing machines and materials.
“We should never have come here. This place is cursed.”
Takeshi inquired from another labourer who had thrown his bag on the truck, intent on following it. “You cannot leave. The roads are not navigable because of the storm. And you have a contract.”
The man turned pale as the snow covering the eaves.
“Two men were found frozen in the snow like your uncle. It’s Yuki Jiji. He has cursed this ryokan. We’ll all d-d-die here,” he stammered.
Takeshi was flabbergasted. Two more deaths! Why were they out on a stormy night? Did they go for a quick dip in the warm onsen? But these were hardened workers, well able to take care of themselves. What mystery lurked in the walls of this little ryokan?
Miyuki came and stood beside him, and he emerged from his reverie. She looked fresh as a lily in a pond, accentuating everyone’s haggardness. He somehow convinced the men to stay. They could leave once the storm calmed.
He spent the whole day pondering. Dinner was a hushed affair. The labourers refused to come to the ryokan but cooked their meals outside. He sat with Miyuki and his aunt, who toyed with the warm noodle soup.
Midway, his aunt burst into tears. He quickly went to her.
“Don’t worry, Aunty san. Have faith. Everything will turn out alright.”
She wiped the tears. “I don’t know what pull this place had on your uncle. If we’d left, the two innocent workers wouldn’t have lost their lives today.”
Takeshi spied a sneer flit across Miyuki’s face at the mention of innocent workers. She soon composed herself.
“Is something troubling you, Miyuki san?” He asked.
She kept peering into the soup bowl as she replied in a voice as chilly as the wind howling outside.
“Who is to decide who is innocent and who is not? Heart over appearance, Takeshi san!”
“You’re right, Miyuki san. But how will we find what is in someone’s heart if we do not search? I will find out who or what is responsible for these deaths. I have a niggling feeling that my uncle’s death, too, is related to these. I will start investigating tomorrow. You can leave once the storm is over, so you are not in any danger.”
Takeshi replied, as firm as the mountains that overlooked the little town. The ryokan soon settled into the night.
What the hell did he mean by who was responsible for the deaths? Of course he was! He had invited her to his uncle’s ryokan. And why invite if he wanted her to leave? What had he said? Leave once the storms abate, wasn’t it? Ugh!
How could Takeshi resist her charms? She stomped her foot. And what was all that yapping about searching one’s heart?
The uncle was a monster-incarnate! A Skube and a Kuso Yaro, a pervert and a piece of shit! Both in heart and appearance. The penchant for young girls was his besetting sin.
The workers were no less. Their hearts were blacker than the soot coating the irori, the sunken hearth. Her eyes, as purple as the workers’ dead faces, gleamed.
They had to die! All of them. All those who disappeared, too.
It was tenmai, God’s will! Her will!
It was easy enough, she smirked. The villains were drawn to her like bees to Sakura, the cherry blossoms. A glint of her near-naked form in the moonlight awakened their inner beasts. They laid their life beneath her feet. And she crushed or rather kissed them to death. She laughed. A kiss… just a kiss! And they dropped dead. Cold and stiff like a whiff of her breath.
A storm of fury ripped through her. It mirrored outside. The wind whipped the skeleton trees, hell-bent on guzzling whatever little life was left in them. Snow fell hard and fast, like daggers falling from the skies. And why not? She was Yuki-Onna, the elemental spirit that commanded blizzards and dictated snow. Though people called her a monster, a dangerous shapeshifter adept at disguising herself as a lost girl, she was the daughter of Yuki-Jiji, the mountain god. Though he received flak for the deaths, she knew it was okay. They both rid the world of evil men. And she hadn’t lied; she visited every year for Koshogatsu. She was a Kami, a deity in more ways than one.
Yuki-Onna thundered across the dingy hallway towards Takeshi’s room. Her hair, a tangle of venomous snakes, writhed behind her. Lightning struck the ashen skies, jabbing arrows at the ramshackle ryokan. The water in a crystal dish, placed to gather the moonlight, shivered with her reflection as she slid inside.
She narrowed her eyes at him—mere cracks in her deadly pale face.
Takeshi, little Yuzuki’s playmate, was just like the others. Wasn’t that why the girl had brought him to her?
Why did he not follow his beloved Yuzuki when his uncle lured her outside in a frozen expanse? Where was he when that vile uncle abandoned the little child after satiating his lust?
Yuki-Onna knew everything. Not for nothing was she the winter Yōkai. The little Yuzuki had died in her arms. Just like all the other women left to perish in the cold by wicked men. Their spirits were braided into hers. Tight and as one. And she never rested till she avenged them.
It was time to get Yuzuki’s due! She had waited enough. Yuki-Onna clenched her jaws, revealing teeth as sharp as icicles, some even longer than the icy shards hanging on the fir trees.
She glided over Takeshi—a frosty mist, maddened and menacing.
Something prodded at her. Annoyed, she swung her face.
Yuzuki stood there, as gauzy as light filtering through the clouds. “He was just a child… I brought him… because I wanted to see him!” She shivered, and so did the tattered origami cranes she held.
Another wraith materialised beside Yuzuki. It was Miyuki, the form she had taken to lure Takeshi.
“Heart over appearance!” Miyuki whispered, taking a sleeping Takeshi’s hand.
Takeshi rose from his body—a phantom, no denser than Miyuki or Yuzuki. Beaming, he swept Miyuki on the floor. The pale shadows danced, their bodies pressed together, their breath mingling, gliding as one. For a moment, they looked like red-crowned cranes.
Takeshi stirred. “Miyuki-san, I know you are Yuzuki-san! My only partner in this lifelong dance!” He mumbled in his sleep.
The incense sticks spurted smoke into the air. The smoke transformed into kadomatsu (pine and bamboo decorations) and rice cakes. Could she hurt someone who worshipped her, albeit inadvertently?
Yuki Onna flinched.
The wind howled. Snow billowed, biting and frigid, battering against the walls of the ryokan. The ground shook.
Suddenly, the incense smoke merged with the spectres of Yuzuki and Miyuki. The shadows spun around her, swirling, pushing, dragging. In a trice, they tumbled inside her, dissolving into her being.
The storm ceased just as it had begun.
On the distant hills, a pair of red-crowned cranes danced beside the fir trees frosted in monstrous shapes. Their calls swelled the air.
Takeshi smiled in his sleep.
She leaned in… for a kiss.
Picture credit: Satoshi Hirayama from Pexels.com
Ramen: quick cooking noodles
Kamidana: A kind of wooden altar for a deity
Kami: a deity
Origami: Japanese paper folding art
Ryokan: A Japanese inn
Miso soup: A common hearty Japanese dish
Nanne Kotta: Oh My God!
Hontou ni gomen nasai: I’m truly sorry in Japanese
Koshogatsu: Japanese festival called Little New Year
Yuki Jiji: Mountain God, Old Man of the Snow in Japanese mythology
Mime Yori Kokoro: Heart over appearance.
Hei: A staff
Bonekai party: A year-end celebration to see off the past year.
Onsen: warm spring
Sake: Japanese alcoholic drink
Tatami mats: floor mats used in Japan
Shochu: alcoholic drink