By Chitteshwari, Joshua, and Sumana
The legend of Yamagata is an eerie one, of a snow woman(yuki-onna) that wanders the snowy peak… looking for lost travellers to prey on… to consume their souls and leave their writhing bodies to freeze, resembling statues of ice. According to the legend, the yuki-onna was once a divine being, a moon princess who lived in Tendou, under the rule of her father Ichirin. Her life was a gloomy one, monotonous and devoid of freedom, like a bird trapped in a cage, wanting to spread its wings and soar through the skies. She used to look upon the mortal realm and yearned to go there and live a life of her own, a life in which she was free. But she knew that her father would never let her go off her own accord.
On new years night, she finally gathered all the courage she could find and escaped to the mortal realm. But when her father found out about her transgression, he was filled with rage that shook the heavenly realm and in his anger cursed her to a life of solace and suffering, a life she could only live at the expense of mortals.
It is said that every new year’s night, she visits the top of the mountain to reminisce about her past and that when she descends, darkness follows…
Chapter 1 – The Waxing:
Darkness. The screaming wind was doing its best to freeze Hinoko’s nose off that dreary night. Clutching her Yumi for reassurance, she made her way across the valley. She had entered the pass just as the snowstorm had started and promptly lost all sense of direction. With only a dwindling sense of sound to aid her, she desperately searched for a place to hunker down for the night. Hinoko was never one to shy away from danger. But reckless as she was, even she knew that it was the height of folly to lose oneself in these mountains. Various scenarios ran through her mind, each more gruesome than the last. With brutal conviction, perhaps she could face whatever wild predator made the decision to mark her as its prey. She was a huntress after all. But the other horrors, the stuff of nightmares the locals whispered about around campfires..no! she cut off that line of thought with conscious effort, there was nothing good that could come of it. One should rather not think of it at all. If only that were possible, she mused wryly. She turned her thoughts toward what had landed her in the middle of the tempest from hell in the first place. Her tribe, her people. She smiled. Her chapped lips split. Oh, goddess! She drew warmth from those memories, her desire to meet them, the only force preventing her from dropping right where she stood in dejection and hopelessness. Twenty. The number of kills that the goddess had graced them with, that winter hunt. Plenty to feed their tribe twice over, and some. Only their laws stated that no gift of the goddess be wasted. So, the next week had seen her, laden with goods from the hunt, meat, some fur and claws, leave her tribe to sell the spoils in the city. She had insisted on traveling alone, confident in her abilities and the improbability of ever requiring another’s aid. Now, alone, she cursed her need to always prove something or the other, to her sister, her tribe, to the world as a whole.
She returned to the present to deliberate on how unlikely her odds of surviving the night were. She thought of Yuki-Ona, the wraith that was rumoured to roam these parts. A woman of such divine beauty and grace that her allure spelt nothing but tragedy and checked herself again. Murmuring a quick prayer to the mountain gods, she plodded along. Shaking off her gloomy thoughts, she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. It was getting colder; she liked her toes firmly attached to her body and had no desire to lose them to hypothermia.
After what seemed an eternity, she stumbled across an enclosure. She promptly, and thankfully, found some dry wood in the corner of the hut, and lit a fire. It was then, when she sat near the fire, shivering and eyeing the old shelter suspiciously, for fear it would collapse on her any moment, that she began wondering when the storm would abate. Food was the last thing on her mind, even though she felt like she hadn’t eaten in days. It was a miracle, she thought that there was enough firewood salvageable to get a fire going in the first place. The huntress in her knew enough to ration her water and keep an eye out for predators and her knife out for danger. But there was only so much she could do. At the very thought, she started shaking and her teeth chattered worse than ever. Irrational! But her body wouldn’t listen to reason, and her mind wasn’t very inclined to do so either.
The fire she was staring into brought back memories of stories told in hushed voices. She went back to the thought she shook off earlier, a harbinger of death and devastation, the yuki-onna was said to exist only to prey upon the unsuspecting and do so without any morality, rhyme, or reason. It was perhaps pathetic, for a huntress to sit saturated with fear about a lonely woman, but Hinoko was convinced that she was justified in it, and thought anyone who wasn’t scared out of their wits, a fool. For what valour or courage could face a woman who could suck out one’s very soul and leave the corpse to freeze in the mountain winds? With such thoughts to keep her company, it was long before sleep found her.
She woke up to a face looking down upon her, a visage even the gods would envy. “Would you mind sharing your shelter with me? Please, It’s storming out.” Heart hammering, Hinoko tried to make sense of what she was seeing. A snowflake clung to the woman’s throat. No, a pendant, she realized. Taking in the woman before her, her impossibly neat appearance, a face yet unmarred by fatigue or weariness, violet eyes that held a thousand secrets and hair white as the snow, Hinoko couldn’t decide if this was her nightmare personified or her dream come true. Finding her voice, at last, she ventured-“ who are you?”
Chapter 2 – The Full Moon:
It was a snowy evening in Yamagata, the air was cold and heavy making it difficult to breathe. It was the time around new year’s and winter had made its presence known to all around. The trees stood tall, their branches piercing the sky like darkened swords and the snow shining slightly like light reflecting off of the edge of the sword. The moon kept peeking occasionally through the moving clouds like a silent observer. A white shroud could be seen walking through the thick snow, leaving a trail that would soon be filled by the incoming blizzard.
As the moonlight illuminated the shroud, a beautiful face was revealed, as white as the snow falling from heaven. Her eyes… like a violet star piercing through the night. With every step that she took, her kimono would drag the snow along. Her silky white hair fell upon her face, shielding her gently from the incoming wind.
The white shroud was named Tsuki, a moon princess. Every year on the night of the New year she would go up the mountain and spend it there, reminiscing about her past…the Tendou, her father, the banishment. It had been a few years since this transpired, and she inadvertently gave birth to the legend of the yuki-onna. The legend states that there lived a yuki-onna(snow woman) on the mountain, and those caught by her gaze would freeze to death…
As she walked through the snow, the storm had picked up, making it difficult to continue forward. She remembered that there was an enclosure not far away. She held onto her kimono, increased her pace, and made her way towards the enclosure. Upon entering she notices a woman in a red kimono asleep by a small fire. She seemed so gentle and innocent, her feet covered with traces of snow and dirt, her kimono spreading itself wide on the floor, giving off a slight scent of sweat and blood. Her hair, as dark as the night sky and her lips seemed softer than the clouds but slightly chapped with a unique glitter to it. Tsuki moved towards her and had a glance at her face when the woman woke up suddenly, startling her. Tsuki smiled warmly to ask her if she would share her shelter with her since the blizzard was raging outside. The woman still held back and with some reservation asked Tsuki, who she was.
Tsuki introduced herself as a passerby who got lost in the storm, for she could not reveal her actual self to her yet. They sat beside each other to keep warm by the dwindling flame, sharing the comfort of the hut with each other, in companionable silence. Tsuki noticed a slight fear in Hinoko and broke the ice, asking about who she was and how she ended up in the enclosure. Gathering all the courage she could, Hinoko answered, “Watashi wa Hinoko desu, I’m a huntress and was making my way through the mountain pass when the blizzard caught me off guard”. Time slowly passed and Hinoko began to feel hungry. She cut a bit of meat from her spoils and began to grill it over the fire. Noticing that Tsuki seemed a bit tired, she offered her some but Tsuki refused to eat it knowing that it would do her no good. But Hinoko’s constant pleading and charm got to her and she reluctantly took it. As they began to talk and share their stories, Tsuki found herself telling her about how she ran away from her father’s house and got lost with no way back, knowing that the legend doesn’t include the tragedy of her existence, having to spend her life in solace. Hearing this Hinoko felt a slight pain in her chest, feeling nothing but compassion for Tsuki.
The wind outside began to wail loudly, echoing from the mountain, scaring Hinoko a bit and her fear pushing her closer to Tsuki, who held her close. Slowly they began to find familiar comfort in each other and realised that there was something between them. Tsuki held Hinoko’s face gently, her warmth running through Tsuki’s hand and sparking her heart ablaze. Their eyes staring deep into each other, almost drowning in them. They slowly moved closer to each other to share a passionate kiss. Just as they kissed, Tsuki’s pendant twinkled but neither of them noticed this and got lost in each other’s souls. They disrobed each other with a fiery passion to bond together, their bodies and souls now a part of the other, as one being… holding each other in the great embrace of the cosmos. Their fingers locked with the other, their bodies pressed up against each other gently yet firmly and their kimonos laid bare on the floor with their hearts beating together.
Chapter 3 – The Waning:
In the midst of their romance, Tsuki’s body had been tiring. Her slender arms weighed her down and she felt a dull ache spread from her temple to her toes. Initially, she blamed it on the emptiness of her stomach; being so intimate with a mortal made her empathize with the struggles of being one – the sheer powerlessness and fragility of human existence. A couple of days ago, she had spotted a middle-aged man lost after a foolishly adventurous trek in the snow-clad peaks. She had crept behind a tree and watched him, silent as the snow that fell on her but she couldn’t bring herself to clasp his throat and suck his soul. Something about the way he shivered with fright reminded her of the fear in Hinoko’s eyes the first time they had seen each other. As she inched closer in unison with her indecisiveness, she could sense the same hurrying heartbeat in that man as she did in Hinoko, the uneven waxing and waning of pulse that unites us as a species.
However, she felt the sickness heighten every time Hinoko touched her. It was impossible to ignore, deep pangs stretching across the length of her bones and growing weakness in the center of her soul every time they kissed. Hinoko worried relentlessly but she was quick to dismiss her lover’s concerns. She remembered wistfully, the meaning of her lover’s name: child of fire – the one who melts snow, and she felt it too, handfuls of her soul slipping away from her, dripping around their love like wax from a scented candle. It was strange how the very thing that seemed to sustain her heart seemed to char the rest of her. Her body was at war with its own desires and neither knew how to lie to the other. How could she leave when this is all she had ever come here for? Wasn’t love the crux of every search for purpose, wasn’t everyone just looking for a way to be a little less lonely? To love or live, that was the question and every tinkling fibre of her wept with a conflicting answer.
She knew this was her father’s doing. His curse was at work, bringing about the very thing she had forced herself not to think about all those years and especially since she met the girl in the red kimono. Ichirin’s curse, which destined her to leave the Earth when she truly began to love staying there.
One night, almost an entire moon since their first meeting, as she pulled away from Hinoko, Tsuki collapsed to the floor, her silky white kimono draping the floor in folds; her body like a candle that had lost all its wax and whose flame danced around in twisting motions as if trying to wrap its arms around itself while simultaneously escaping its clutches. Hinoko gasped in shock, her brain barely processing anything as her arms leapt out to catch and hold her lover instinctively. Panic filled the spaces in her lungs as her throat yelled out Tsuki’s name in despair. She felt Tsuki’s body go limp over her skin. Tsuki had spent all her life on Earth sucking souls to stay alive but Hinoko’s love had consumed hers.
In those moments that she could barely recall as real, Hinoko’s heartbeats rose and dropped like waves on a rough night. She did not remember saying a word but her throat was rasp as though she’d been crying out all along. Her eyes resembled the embers that she derived her name from. When she opened them again, the woman she loved was gone. The space that her body had occupied was vacant, the woman with the striking white hair nowhere to be found. As if the loss wasn’t enough, now there was absence – two voids that Hinoko never realized were different. Every trace of her love disappeared, a secret born of the cold, swallowed by the snow itself.
Hinoko felt another pang – the realization that it had been her love that killed her. She didn’t understand why or how but she understood it was her heat that had thawed her soul. She was the snowlady, after all, she could not withstand the scorching touch of the fire child. Guilt filled her body cavity up to the brim; she could not open her eyes without it spilling over. She glanced around the room, the space that had held Tsuki’s body on its best days. And as she clutched her own body in desperation, she felt something soft and sharp against her chest. She ran her fingers over it in surprise and gazed at her reflection in the clear water at the centre of the room.
Around her neck, the necklace which Tsuki had worn up to her last breath. It ended in a snowflake with a brilliant sparkle at three of its corners, resting on Hinoko’s chest; the real place that had held Tsuki on her best days, the proof of happiness.