Daisuke knew he had to find shelter soon or Yuki-onna would find him. She had already found Hanzo, taking his warmth and leaving him a mere heap of brittle meat. But then, when the boat had struck, Hanzo had been thrown into the water, been soaked through and through; by the time he floundered ashore, he was already drunk on the cold, an obvious target for the snow-woman’s seduction.
It was memory of the look on Hanzo’s face that kept him going. The man had not slipped into the tranquil death which legends of Yuki-onna promised. It was plain he had been in agony at the end.
They should have listened to the old man. He had told them the weather was going wrong. Daisuke swore at his feet, burning with cold, then he swore an oath to beg old Hayato to forgive him for the foolish words they’d shouted at him, he and Hanzo both. Surely, though, not even Hayato had foreseen a storm like this. A blizzard, this early, with the leaves still almost all green? A typhoon so late, out of the north? Both seemed ridiculous. Both had combined to come for him.
Out of the whirling snow, a regular shape began to form. Daisuke shuffled a little faster, not knowing exactly what he saw ahead, but knowing only that it was a structure of some kind. Shelter. The promise of people. A place to hide from Yuki-onna.
It was a wall, the kind that enclosed a rich man’s compound. Daisuke knew of no place like that anywhere near the village, but he had no idea where they had been driven ashore. It could be Hokkaido, for all he knew. Even China wasn’t impossible.
Weeping, the tears sticking his eyes shut now and then, he patted along the wall, seeking a gate. He found a gap, where part of the wall had fallen inward. He made a noise, possibly of joy, possibly of dismay, and picked his way across the rubble. He was at least now in the lee of the wall.
Finally, he found the buildings the wall enclosed. The larger buildings of the compound were roofless ruins, gutted by a fire the warmth of which was long gone. Staggering across the snowy gravel of an abandoned garden, Daisuke found an out-building almost completely intact, only a few small holes in the paper of the door. It jammed once as he tried to slide it open and he nearly let the frustration drive him into a frenzy, but he took hold of himself and was soon inside, the door intact and closed behind him.
The little shed was a single room without a window, square, hardly as wide or deep as he was tall. The floor was flagstones, just like the yard between it and the garden. Some kind of storage space, but Daisuke did not know enough about the economy of grand houses to guess what it had been meant for. Until the storm ended, he decided, it would be where they kept desperate fishermen. He huddled into a corner, arms around knees and tried to shiver himself back to warmth.
When Daisuke woke, it was darker. Sleep had come on him unbidden. He knew instantly that it had been a mistake to stop there, on the bare cold stone floor. He could hardly move. There was no feeling in his hands or feet; he looked to make sure they were still there and cried out at the sight of his feet. He tipped onto his side, beginning a slow creep on elbows and knees for the door, hoping to find some other shelter with a raised floor.
When he found he could not open the door this time, he battered his way through it, pushing aside the thin bits of wood with his face. For a moment, a shred of paper clung to his face, blinding him, and when the wind took it away from him, he saw her, standing on the far side of the neglected garden.
Yuki-onna. The woman who killed men in the snow, the legend somehow become present. It was hard to make her out in the dim snowfall, but he knew it must be her. What other woman would be there, in that dead place, a serene figure in the jūnihitoe of court? What other woman would wear jūnihitoe that was all the non-colours of winter, all whites and greys, never a tone of life to be seen?
She opened her arms, slowly, ready to welcome him into her embrace.
Daisuke tried to rise and flee. He barely even broke into a shamble, doing little more than propelling himself to land face-first on the icy flagstones. He began to grovel away, using his forearms to drag himself. When he heard the crunch of a light footstep on gravel, he looked back.
Her arms were up and the many jackets were open like wings, revealing a deep blackness inside. He could not see her legs, although she took immense strides, covering the distance between them in no time.
And now that she was close, he could see that the upraised hands were not hands, just black twigs at the ends of slender birch branches. The face which regarded him was a blank white mask, no lips, no nostrils, just tiny black shark eyes .
From out of the darkness within her robes came a thousand long, sharp knives, but not knives, because knives were not clear. Not icicles, because icicles could not bend as they wrapped around his legs, some plunging into the hard cold flesh to wake it with a worse burning, some clutching to pull him back, pull him into the darkness and then in their turn thrust into his groin and chest and fill him with the agonizing venom of winter.
“Inktober 2019 – Freeze” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.