The winter air was a kiss of bitter frost on his lips. Locking the tarnished brass doorknob behind him, Haru pulled the gray knit beanie over his ears as he trotted down the steps of the brick row home. The surrounding houses were colorful examples of the personalities that resided within; most of which were students attending the Art Institute. The window frames and porch posts of his own home were a brilliant shade of cobalt blue and seemed to protest the dreary white world that had overtaken Baltimore.
He slung his camera bag into the passenger seat of his old white Intrepid and tapped in a set of GPS coordinates on his phone while he waited for the car to warm up. A friend suggested the Patuxent Research Refuge for his outdoor photography assignment, and with a fresh layer of thick snow, he anticipated plenty of shooting material. A little more than thirty minutes later, Haru found himself outside the city on the North Tract hiking trail of the refuge, following signs towards the lakeshore in hopes of finding active wildlife. As he trudged through several inches of powdered snow blanketing the worn trail, a flash of red flitted across his path and up into a majestic oak. Training his lens on the bird, he expected a cardinal but instead met the bright plumage of a scarlet tanager. He smiled at the flashes of color against the snowy landscape and documented the little bird hopping from branch to branch, chirping and singing to him. As he listened to the tanager’s song, he remembered the tiny, bright aquamarine kingfisher that woke him every morning outside his boyhood home of Rausu, in eastern Hokkaido, Japan. An overwhelming sensation of homesickness overtook him with a sharp inhale. Haru closed his eyes and steadied himself against the onslaught of memories of his mother. They had always been close, but things weren’t so good between them at the moment. It had been three years, and she still wasn’t happy with his decision to attend school in the States. Despite his absence, she persisted in her lectures on the benefits of Hokkaido University in Sapporo. But Haru wanted to travel, and he had cousins here anyways. Somehow, that didn’t mean much to his mother — all she saw was abandonment. The last time they spoke was awkward and uncomfortable, and the conversation ended with harsh words.
Haru sighed, lifted the camera to his face and peered through the viewfinder. The bird was gone, but a movement below the branches indicated something larger. Assuming it to be deer, what met his eye confused him. He lowered the camera and squinted, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Two piercing eyes with deep blue rings and white irises stared back at him. Almost one with her surroundings, the inky falls of hair were the only thing about her being that indicated she didn’t belong there. Haru stepped forward and realized that he was staring into the face of a child, perhaps seven or eight. In silence, she lifted a finger to her pale lips, turned, and darted into the woods, her thin white dress billowing around her.
“Wait!” Haru called. He gave a hasty scan to the surrounding area for any other people, particularly parents who might be searching for their little girl. Seeing none, he took off after her.
Hoping he wasn’t scaring her, he yelled, “Come back, I won’t hurt you!”
A dark streak caught the corner of his eye, and he whirled around to find her standing two feet away, one hand outstretched towards him and the other again lifted to her lips. She was a beautiful child, otherworldly. Pale skin flowed like silk over her delicate features, radiating an innocence that Haru longed to protect. Her lips twitched upward, and before he could touch her long, outstretched fingers, she was gone.
Haru spun in each direction trying to pinpoint her new location. Then he saw her again; standing up on the ridge of the small valley she had led him towards. But she was different somehow. Older maybe. Haru stared stupidly. The child had been pure in her beauty, but this was something else entirely. The teen now standing before him exuded a beckoning sensuality that sent both desire and disgust coursing through Haru’s veins. Her jet-black hair fell in long cascades around a tiny waist that flared upward to cup high, rounded breasts. She twisted just enough that he might see the forbidden hollow separating them; her puckered nipples rising and falling in a hypnotic beat beneath the low cut of her dress. As she developed before him, a smooth sway of her hips drew his eyes to the enticing valley between her legs, just hinted at beneath her skirt. She began a slow gyration, fingertips grazing the peaks of her breasts as she raised her arms above her head. Haru innately knew this lust was unnatural, yet it overtook him, driving him forward in a haze of need. Nostrils flaring, Haru took firm, determined steps towards the girl. Her eyes entranced him, a silent call to follow her. One moment she was there, and gone again in the next; only to reappear elsewhere, lifting up her skirts to show a creamy thigh, or bare a sleek, rounded shoulder that hinted at more. Deeper into the woods they went, her flitting and darting about like a bird, and Haru blindly following, stumbling over thick roots and jutting rocks; so transfixed that he hardly noticed the pain amidst the silvery echoing laugh that lingered wherever she stopped. Her sudden disappearance yet again forced a primal yell from his throat, a guttural call of loss and desperation.
Her final appearance forced Haru to his knees, his face uplifted in fervor to the woman now standing before him. No longer wearing a dress, she wore what appeared to be a translucent kimono. The gossamer material molded to her form, exposing the snowy whiteness of her skin beneath; every curve and mound defined with crystal clarity.
“Who are you?” Haru breathed.
Leaning down, she brushed cold fingers along his jaw, her frosted eyes taking in the almost pained adoration on his face.
A smile played about her frozen lips. “Oyuki,” she said.
Haru’s eyes widened as he recalled the myth of the Yuki-onna, the hauntingly beautiful snow maiden who lured men to an icy grave. Haru never cared much for the folk legend and brushed it off as an eerie fairytale that occasionally surfaced in his nightmares; A story that old men tell by the light of a fire. Now, he struggled to raise himself from the ground, only to find that he was unable to move. Cemented to the freezing earth by some invisible force, Haru pushed against the bonds that held him down; a futile attempt at escape.
With a bone-chilling laugh, Oyuki circled her prey while a watery ice slowing crept up from the ground, rising to envelop Haru with misty tendrils that caressed his body in a path of consumption. As the ice reached his chin, Oyuki leaned in and pressed a biting kiss into Haru’s lips. In the seconds that followed, the face of his mother flashed before his eyes. The childlike desire for the shelter of her arms became his last thought as the Yuki-onna of his earliest dreams consumed his soul.
The following week, a young couple hiking through the refuge stumbled across Haru’s ice-bound corpse; a kneeling form forever frozen in the horror of his last moments. In the evidence review, the camera pried from his hands held the images of his day, mostly wildlife and landscape scenery. But the final photo was unusual and jump-started an investigation that would never find closure. The image was taken from below, the upshot of a kiss; the delicate ivory neck of a ghostly young woman with flowing ebony hair, pressing her open mouth against the lips of a face twisted in agony.
©2015 Taryn King All Rights Reserved.