D. L. Ashliman
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One cold winter's day, when the snow lay thick upon the uneven country roads, and the little village boys were running about throwing snowballs to keep themselves warm, and making snowmen and women, old Akem and Masha sat by their window looking at them in silence. Suddenly Akem looked up at his wife, and said, laughing, "Masha, what do you say to coming out into the road and making ourselves a snowman or woman, like those little boys yonder?"
Masha laughed, too, it seemed such a queer thing to do at their time of life! "Yes, if you like," she replied; "let us go, it may cheer us up a bit; but I don't see why we should make a snowman or woman, let us rather make a child out of snow, as Providence does not seem to wish us to have a real one!"
"I do believe you are getting quite clever in your old age, Masha! Come along, then, and let us set to work."
Off went the old couple, laughing at themselves all the while, and sure enough they commenced making a snow child! They made the legs, arms, hands, feet, and a snowball for the head.
"What, in the name of wonder, are you up to?" exclaimed a passerby, stopping suddenly in front of the two old people.
"A snow child!" laughed Masha, as she began to explain everything to the stranger.
"May the saints help you!" said he, as he went his way.
When they had got the legs, arms, hands, feet, and head fixed up together, Akem began making the nose, two holes for the eyes, and was just drawing a small line for the mouth, when he suddenly, much to his surprise, felt warm breath come out of it. He took his hand away quickly, and on looking up at the two holes made for the eyes, beheld two real, beautiful blue eyes; the lips became full and rosy, and as for the nose, it was the dearest little nose ever seen.
"Good heavens! what does this mean? Is it a temptation of the Evil One?" cried Akem, crossing himself several times, while the snow child threw her arms round his neck, and kissed him as though she were alive.
"O Akem! Akem!" cried Masha, trembling with joy, "Providence has at last taken pity on us, and sent us this child to cheer us in our old age."
She was about to throw her arms around the snow child and embrace it, when, to the astonishment of both the old man and woman, the snow fell off, and left in Masha's arms a beautiful little girl.
"Oh, my little Snow Maiden! my little darling!" cried the happy Masha, as she led the lovely child into their hut. Meanwhile, Akem could not get over his wonder. He rubbed his head, and felt sorely puzzled; he did not know whether he was asleep or awake, but felt almost sure that something had gone wrong with him somewhere.
But to return to the Snow Maiden (as Masha was pleased to call her). She grew very rapidly -- not only daily but hourly -- into a tall, beautiful, and graceful girl; the peasants were delighted with her -- Akem had come to the conclusion that it was all right -- their hut was now always in constant mirth. The village girls and boys were frequent visitors to it; they played, read, and sang with the Snow Maiden, who understood it all thoroughly, and did her best to amuse all around her. She talked, laughed, and was altogether so cheerful and good natured, that everybody loved her dearly, and tried to please her in every possible way, -- at the same time a better and more obedient daughter never was. She had the most lovely white skin, just like snow; her eyes were like forget-me-nots, her lips and cheeks like roses; in fact, she was the very picture of health and beauty; with her lovely golden hair hanging down her back, she looked just like a girl of seventeen, though she was only a few days old.
"Akem," said Masha, one day to her husband, "how good Providence has been to us; how Snow Maiden has brightened us, in these few days, and how wicked we were to grumble as we did."
"Yes, Masha," returned Akem, "we ought to thank Providence for all that He has done for us, and thank Him that we have mirth instead of gloom, in our little home."
Winter passed, the heavens rejoiced, the spring sun came out, the swallows began to fly about, and the grass and trees became green once more.
The lovely Russian peasant girls gathered themselves together, and met their young cavaliers under the trees in the forest, where they danced and sang their pretty Russian songs. But the Snow Maiden was dull.
"What is the matter with you, my darling?" asked Masha; "are you ill? You are always so bright and cheerful as a rule, and now you are so dull all at once. Has any bad man thrown a spell over you?"
"No, mother mine; nothing is the matter with me, darling," the Snow Maiden replied, but still she continued to be dull, and by degrees she lost her beautiful colour, and began to droop sadly, greatly to the alarm of those around her.
The last snow had now vanished, the gardens began to bloom, the rivers and lakes rippled, the birds sang merrily; in fact all the wide world seemed happy; yet our little Snow Maiden drooped and looked sad.
She sat with her hands folded in the coolest part of the hut. She loved the cold winter, it was her best friend, but this horrid heat she hated. She was glad when it rained a little, there was no broiling sun then. She did not mind the winter sun, but the summer sun was her enemy; and quite natural, too, poor thing, when she was born in the winter in the snow! At last the great summer feast arrived, the village youths and maidens came to the Snow Maiden and asked her to join them in a romp through the woods, and begged Masha to let her go with them. At first Masha refused, but the girls begged so hard that at last, on thinking it over, she consented, for she thought it might cheer Snow Maiden up.
"But," said she, "take care of her, for she is the apple of my eye, and if anything happens to her, I don't know what I shall do!"
"All right! all right! we shall take care of her, she is just as dear to us! "cried the young people, as they took Snow Maiden and ran off with her into the forest, where the girls wove themselves wreaths, while the young men gathered sticks, which they piled up high; and at sunset they set fire to them, and then they arranged themselves all in a row one after another, boys and girls, and prepared to jump over the burning heap. Our Snow Maiden was the last in the row.
" Mind," said the girls to her, " don't stay behind but jump after us."
One! two! three ! and away they went, jumping over the flames in great delight. Suddenly they heard a piercing scream, and on looking round discovered that Snow Maiden was missing.
" Ah," cried they, laughing, "she is up to one of her tricks again, and has most likely gone and hidden herself somewhere. Come, let us go and search for her."
They all ran off in pairs in different directions, but nowhere could they find their missing companion. Their happy young faces soon turned very grave, and their joy gave place to sorrow and alarm. They met at last in the road outside the forest, and began asking each other what they had best do.
"Perhaps she has run home," said one.
This seemed a happy thought; so they ran to the hut, but no Snow Maiden was there. They looked for her all through the next day and night, and on the third, and fourth. They sought her in the village, hut after hut, and in the forest, tree after tree, bush after bush; but all in vain, nowhere could they find her. As for poor Akem and Masha, it is needless to say, that their grief was too great for words, no one could comfort them. Day after day, night after night, did poor Masha wander into the forest, calling like the cuckoo, "Oh, my little Snow Maiden! Oh, my little darling."
But there was no answer to her call, not one word from that sweet voice did Masha get in reply. Snow Maiden was not to be found, that was certain, but how had she vanished, and whither had she gone? Had the wild beasts of the forest eaten her up? or had the robber-bird carried her off to the blue sea? No, it was not the wild beasts, nor was it the robber-bird, but -- as our little friend was jumping over the flames after her companions she evaporated into a thin cloud, and flew to the heights of the heavens.
She sighed, and turning to her husband said, "I wish I had as many children as there are icicles hanging there."
"Nothing would please me more either," replied her husband.
Then a tiny icicle detached itself from the roof, and dropped into the woman's mouth, who swallowed it with a smile, and said, "Perhaps I shall give birth to a snow child now!"
Her husband laughed at his wife's strange idea, and they went back into the house.
But after a short time the woman gave birth to a little girl, who was as white as snow and as cold as ice. If they brought the child anywhere near the fire, it screamed loudly till they put it back into some cool place. The little maid throve wonderfully, and in a few months she could run about and speak. But she was not altogether easy to bring up, and gave her parents much trouble and anxiety, for all summer she insisted on spending in the cellar, and in the winter she would sleep outside in the snow, and the colder it was the happier she seemed to be. Her father and mother called her simply "Our Snow Daughter," and this name stuck to her all her life.
One day her parents sat by the fire, talking over the extraordinary behaviour of their daughter, who was disporting herself in the snowstorm that raged outside.
The woman sighed deeply and said, "I wish I had given birth to a Fire Son!" As she said these words, a spark from the big wood fire flew into the woman's lap, and she said with a laugh, "Now perhaps I shall give birth to a Fire Son!"
The man laughed at his wife's words, and thought it was a good joke. But he ceased to think it a joke when his wife shortly afterwards gave birth to a boy, who screamed lustily till he was put quite close to the fire, and who nearly yelled himself into a fit if the Snow Daughter came anywhere near him. The Snow Daughter herself avoided him as much as she could, and always crept into a corner as far away from him as possible.
The parents called the boy simply "Our Fire Son," a name which stuck to him all his life.
They had a great deal of trouble and worry with him too; but he throve and grew very quickly, and before he was a year old he could run about and talk. He was as red as fire, and as hot to touch, and he always sat on the hearth quite close to the fire, and complained of the cold; if his sister were in the room he almost crept into the flames, while the girl on her part always complained of the great heat if her brother were anywhere near. In summer the boy always lay out in the sun, while the girl hid herself in the cellar: so it happened that the brother and sister came very little into contact with each other -- in fact, they carefully avoided it.
Just as the girl grew up into a beautiful woman, her father and mother both died one after the other.
Then the Fire Son, who had grown up in the meantime into a fine, strong young man, said to his sister, "I am going out into the world, for what is the use of remaining on here?"
"I shall go with you," she answered, "for, except you, I have no one in the world, and I have a feeling that if we set out together we shall be lucky."
The Fire Son said, "I love you with all my heart, but at the same time I always freeze if you are near me, and you nearly die of heat if I approach you! How shall we travel about together without being odious the one to the other?"
"Don't worry about that," replied the girl, "for I've thought it all over, and have settled on a plan which will make us each able to bear with the other! See, I have had a fur cloak made for each of us, and if we put them on I shall not feel the heat so much nor you the cold."
So they put on the fur cloaks, and set out cheerfully on their way, and for the first time in their lives quite happy in each other's company.
For a long time the Fire Son and the Snow Daughter wandered through the world, and when at the beginning of winter they came to a big wood they determined to stay there till spring. The Fire Son built himself a hut where he always kept up a huge fire, while his sister with very few clothes on stayed outside night and day.
Now it happened one day that the king of the land held a hunt in this wood, and saw the Snow Daughter wandering about in the open air. He wondered very much who the beautiful girl clad in such garments could be, and he stopped and spoke to her. He soon learnt that she could not stand heat, and that her brother could not endure cold. The king was so charmed by the Snow Daughter, that he asked her to be his wife. The girl consented, and the wedding was held with much state.
The king had a huge house of ice made for his wife underground, so that even in summer it did not melt. But for his brother-in-law he had a house built with huge ovens all round it, that were kept heated all day and night. The Fire Son was delighted, but the perpetual heat in which he lived made his body so hot, that it was dangerous to go too close to him.
One day the king gave a great feast, and asked his brother-in-law among the other guests. The Fire Son did not appear till everyone had assembled, and when he did, everyone fled outside to the open air, so intense was the heat he gave forth.
Then the king was very angry and said, "If I had known what a lot of trouble you would have been, I would never have taken you into my house."
Then the Fire Son replied with a laugh, "Don't be angry, dear brother! I love heat and my sister loves cold. Come here and let me embrace you, and then I'll go home at once."
And before the king had time to reply, the Fire Son seized him in a tight embrace. The king screamed aloud in agony, and when his wife, the Snow Daughter, who had taken refuge from her brother in the next room, hurried to him, the king lay dead on the ground burnt to a cinder.
When the Snow Daughter saw this she turned on her brother and flew at him. Then a fight began, the like of which had never been seen on earth. When the people, attracted by the noise, hurried to the spot, they saw the Snow Daughter melting into water and the Fire Son burn to a cinder.
And so ended the unhappy brother and sister.
Every day they went together to a forest situated about five miles from their village. On the way to that forest there is a wide river to cross; and there is a ferry-boat. Several times a bridge was built where the ferry is; but the bridge was each time carried away by a flood. No common bridge can resist the current there when the river rises.
Mosaku and Minokichi were on their way home, one very cold evening, when a great snowstorm overtook them. They reached the ferry; and they found that the boatman had gone away, leaving his boat on the other side of the river. It was no day for swimming; and the woodcutters took shelter in the ferryman's hut, thinking themselves lucky to find any shelter at all.
There was no brazier in the hut, nor any place in which to make a fire: it was only a two-mat hut, with a single door, but no window. Mosaku and Minokichi fastened the door, and lay down to rest, with their straw raincoats over them. At first they did not feel very cold; and they thought that the storm would soon be over.
The old man almost immediately fell asleep; but the boy, Minokichi, lay awake a long time, listening to the awful wind, and the continual slashing of the snow against the door. The river was roaring; and the hut swayed and creaked like a junk at sea. It was a terrible storm; and the air was every moment becoming colder; and Minokichi shivered under his rain-coat. But at last, in spite of the cold, he too fell asleep.
He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akan), he saw a woman in the room, a woman all in white. She was bending above Mosaku, and blowing her breath upon him; and her breath was like a bright white smoke. Almost in the same moment she turned to Minokichi, and stooped over him. He tried to cry out, but found that he could not utter any sound. The white woman bent down over him, lower and lower, until her face almost touched him; and he saw that she was very beautiful, though her eyes made him afraid.
For a little time she continued to look at him; then she smiled, and she whispered, "I intended to treat you like the other man. But I cannot help feelng some pity for you, because you are so young. . . . You are a pretty boy, Minokichi; and I will not hurt you now. But, if you ever tell anybody -- even your own mother -- about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you. . . . Remember what I say!"
With these words, she turned from him, and passed through the doorway. Then he found himself able to move; and he sprang up, and looked out. But the woman was nowhere to be seen; and the snow was driving furiously into the hut. Minokichi closed the door, and secured it by fixing several billets of wood against it. He wondered if the wind had blown it open; he thought that he might have been only dreaming, and might have mistaken the gleam of the snow-light in the doorway for the figure of a white woman: but he could not be sure.
He called to Mosaku, and was frightened because the old man did not answer. He put out his hand in the dark, and touched Mosaku's face, and found that it was ice! Mosaku was stark and dead. . . .
By dawn the storm was over; and when the ferry-man returned to his station, a little after sunrise, he found Minokichi lying senseless beside the frozen body of Mosaku. Minokichi was promptly cared for, and soon came to himself; but he remained a long time ill from the effects of the cold of that terrible night. He had been greatly frightened also by the old man's death; but he said nothing about the vision of the woman in white.
As soon as he got well again, he returned to his calling, going alone every morning to the forest, and coming back at nightfall with his bundles of wood, which his mother helped him to sell.
One evening, in the winter of the following year, as he was on his way home, he overtook a girl who happened to be travelling by the same road. She was a tall, slim girl, very good-looking; and she answered Minokichi's greeting in a voice as pleasant to the ear as the voice of a song-bird. Then he walked beside her; and they began to talk. The girl said that her name was 0-Yuki [this name, signifying Snow, is not uncommon]; that she had lately lost both of her parents; and that she was going to Yedo, where she happened to have some poor relations, who might help her to find a situation as servant.
Minokichi soon felt charmed by this strange girl; and the more that he looked at her, the handsomer she appeared to be. He asked her whether she was yet betrothed; and she answered, laughingly, that she was free. Then, in her turn, she asked Minokichi whether he was married, or pledged to marry; and he told her that, although he had only a widowed mother to support, the question of an "honourable daughter-in-law" had not yet been considered, as he was very young. . . .
After these confidences, they walked on for a long while without speaking; but, as the proverb declares, Ki ga aréba, mé mo kuchi hodo ni mono wo iu: "When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth."
By the time they reached the village, they had become very much pleased with each other; and then Minokichi asked 0-Yuki to rest awhile at his house. After some shy hesitation, she went there with him; and his mother made her welcome, and prepared a warm meal for her.
0-Yuki behaved so nicely that Minokichi's mother took a sudden fancy to her, and persuaded her to delay her journey to Yedo. And the natural end of the matter was that 0-Yuki never went to Yedo at all. She re- mained in the house, as an "honourable daughter-in-law."
0-Yuki proved a very good daughter-in-law. When Minokichi's mother came to die, some five years later, her last words were words of affection and praise for the wife of her son. And 0-Yuki bore Minokichi ten children, boys and girls, handsome children all of them, and very fair of skin.
The country-folk thought 0-Yuki a wonderful person, by nature different from themselves. Most of the peasant women age early; but 0-Yuki, even after having become the mother of ten children, looked as young and fresh as on the day when she had first come to the village.
One night, after the children had gone to sleep, 0-Yuki was sewing by the light of a paper lamp; and Minokichi, watching her, said, "To see you sewing there, with the light on your face, makes me think of a strange thing that happened when I was a lad of eighteen. I then saw somebody as beautiful and white as you are now; indeed, she was very like you." . . .
Without lifting her eyes from her work, 0-Yuki responded, "Tell me about her. . . . Where did you see her?"
Then Minokichi told her about the terrible night in the ferryman's hut, and about the White Woman that had stooped above him, smiling and whispering, and about the silent death of old Mosaku.
And he said, "Asleep or awake, that was the only time that I saw a being as beautiful as you. Of course, she was not a human being; and I was afraid of her, very much afraid; but she was so white! . . . Indeed, I have never been sure whether it was a dream that I saw, or the Woman of the Snow." . . .
0-Yuki flung down her sewing, and arose, and bowed above Minokichi where he sat, and shrieked into his face, "It was I -- I -- I! 0-Yuki it was! And I told you then that I would kill you if you ever said one word about it! . . . But for those children asleep there, I would kill you this moment! And now you had better take very, very good care of them; for if ever they have reason to complain of you, I will treat you as you deserve!" . . .
Even as she screamed, her voice became thin, like a crying of wind; then she melted into a bright white mist that spired to the roof-beams, and shuddered away through the smoke-hole. . . . Never again was she seen.
"Yuki-Onna," was told me by a farmer of Chofu, Nishitamagori, in Musashi province, as a legend of his native village. Whether it has ever been written in Japanese I do not know; but the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms. (p. 9)
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Revised July 14, 2010.