The February full moon is also called the Snow Moon, the moon that shines on the coldest month of the year. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, February often means snow. Imagine, Valentine’s Day celebrated in a blizzard!
How can anybody find true love in the freezing cold…?
The snow was falling again.
Thick, white flakes fell like rose petals onto the forest floor and the bare trees seemed to stretch out their branches like little children to catch them. Snow was a gift from the fairies for them to enjoy – wasn’t that how the old saying went?
The sun set behind the distant mountains. A young man named Keito was travelling home to Osaka after visiting a recently married friend. He had looked so happy beside his beautiful wife, a pale, shy woman with ruby red lips. Keito had to admit that he had been a little jealous, but wished them both well. The young man was a dreamer, an aspiring poet, and he had taken the journey home slowly to admire the scenery. In his head, he composed lyrics to the towering mountains, the steel grey clouds of the sky, the rice fields left empty and laced with frost.
But he went too slowly; by the time he reached the woods, it was already sunset and now he was in the heart of the forest in the dark and the snow. A silvery half moon lit his path, but it was beginning to dim. The cold began to seep into his bones, his thick coat was covered in a layer of snow and his face felt numb.
Then from the shadows of the trees, he saw her for the first time.
Through the haze of cold and fatigue she stepped towards him, wearing an old-fashioned kimono of silver and blue. Her face was pure white, like the snow dancing all around her, but her eyes shimmered in the moonlight as she gazed at him and her long hair fell about her shoulders like black silk. Her small mouth curved into a smile.
It’s you, he heard her whisper, as clearly as though she was right next to him, sighing in his ear.
She reached out her pale arms to him, her blue sleeves sparkling with frost.
Keito awoke slowly to the delicious feeling of waking after a good night’s sleep in a warm bed. He heard a fire crackling somewhere nearby and opened his eyes to find himself in a large room. A black pot sat above the fire pit in the centre of the room and through the thin paper doors he could see the shadows of thick snowflakes falling outside.
‘Ah, he wakes at last!’
He looked around to see an older man sitting squat on the mats beside the fire, a beaming smile on his face.
‘What were you doing out in the woods on such a cold night?’ the man asked.
Keito groaned as he sat up, still trying to shake off the last of the sleep. ‘I was travelling and lost track of the time… I thought I…’ The cold memory trickled into his veins. ‘The lady in the woods! Was she the one who brought me here? I would like to thank her for saving me.’
The man was still smiling, but he tilted his head looking puzzled. ‘It was me who found you in the woods. You were unconscious.’
‘Then… where is the lady?’
The man continued to stare at him for a moment before shaking his head. ‘The cold must have made you sick. You were having a dream.’ He reached up and lifted the pot from the fire. ‘Have some tea. It’s my wife’s favourite, I’m sure you’ll like it.’
The tea was black, but Keito could taste a hint of ginger and something else he couldn’t put his finger on. It warmed him instantly and he guzzled down the whole cup.
‘Where am I?’
‘Just our humble little village. We sometimes get travellers like yourself.’ He laughed. ‘More often in this bleak weather than we care to think about! What were you thinking?’
Keito shrugged. ‘I was enjoying the trek. Lost track of the time.’
The old man nodded. ‘You remind me of myself in my youth. Fortunately I found a good woman to anchor me down and knock a bit of sense into me.’ He sighed. ‘I am lucky. Very lucky indeed… You can rest here until the storm passes. It would be too dangerous to travel in these conditions.’ He got to his feet. ‘Drink more tea… It’s her favourite…’
Keito nodded, trying to cover up a yawn as sleep overcame him again.
As he slept, he dreamed of the snowy woods, the moonlight and the lady. She was smiling at him, reaching out her arms. Keito was mesmerised by her beauty, the darkness of her eyes, how her white skin seemed to glow in the moonlight.
Before he could reach out his hand to her, he woke up.
The bright morning light shone into the room. Keito sat up and noticed another pot of tea boiling over the fire and there was also a big wooden tub of fresh steaming rice and a small porcelain bowl on the mat beside his bed. He hadn’t heard anyone come in to set them and he poured himself a cup of tea and set out another, expecting the old man to join him again. But the man did not reappear, nor did his wife come to introduce herself. Keito helped himself to tea as the day wore on and sat before the open doors, wrapped up in his coat, and watched the snow.
The day passed peacefully; he took out his notebook and penned a few lines of a poem to the beautiful weather and then found he was writing about the lady. Was she really a dream, a creation of his mind as he lay dying of the cold out in the woods? In a way this thought comforted him, as it meant that she belonged only to him.
Night fell and the waxing moon emerged from behind the clouds, as white and fair as her skin. That night, he laid his head back down to sleep and as soon as he closed his eyes, he was back in the woods with the lady smiling brightly at him.
This time he was close enough to see the tinge of ruby red on her lips, her thick lashes caressing her face when she blinked. Close enough that, when she reached out to him, he could touch the tips of her cold fingers. Her face was full of longing, as if she wanted him as desperately as he wanted her.
Keito didn’t know how many days had passed since he came to the village, but he noticed that something was strange. Though the fire remained lit and a steady supply of tea and rice was ready by his side when he woke up, he never saw the old man again, or his wife whom he assumed was keeping him fed and watered. He had never seen the woman and wondered what she was like. In his mind, he was picturing a kindly old lady with greying hair and a leathery smile, like his own mother. But she never appeared.
One morning, he decided to venture outside and explored more of the little village beyond his doors. He strolled down the path between the houses, his collar turned up against the snowy winds, and looked up at the doors and windows, hoping to see someone and maybe have a chat; after so long indoors seemingly alone, he felt quite isolated. But there were very few people about. He assumed they were inside, sheltering from the cold. Then he saw another man sitting on the veranda of his house. He looked about Keito’s age, with his arms tucked into his sleeves as he gazed peacefully out at the snow. Keito waved to him, but the man didn’t even look his way. Keito returned miserably to the house and another day passed in which he didn’t say a single word to another human being.
Meanwhile, he continued to dream of the woman. Every night she was clearer, more beautiful and Keito began to dread falling asleep, knowing he would see her and have to wake up and leave her again. His waking hours were torture. The tea became bitter and he didn’t even touch the rice. He felt colder and colder and only in his dreams could he find comfort.
Please stay, she would whisper to him. I’m so alone…
‘I am too,’ he said. ‘I want to stay with you. I don’t want to feel this lonely anymore…’
But he always woke up.
He awoke to another pot of tea, another tub of rice and another empty room. His gracious host was once again absent. Unable to stand the silence, Keito got to his feet, threw on his coat and stomped out of the house. The snow was still falling, but it never seemed to build on the road – there was exactly the same amount as when the first day he had arrived. How long ago? A week? He had no idea.
As he walked along the path, he looked up and saw the young man again sitting outside. This time, Keito approached the house.
‘Good morning!’ he called, his voice sounding strange after so many days of isolation.
Still the man didn’t look at him.
‘I’m a visitor, staying at…’ Damn, he had never asked the old man’s name. ‘At the house at the far end of the village.’
Silence. The man continued to stare past him and Keito noticed dark, tired rings underneath his eyes. He rubbed his hands together, more for effect that because he actually needed to warm himself.
‘It’s very cold today. I wonder that you can stand to sit out here.’
‘I don’t mind the cold,’ the man finally muttered, still not looking at him. There was a long pause, then the man got to his feet and turned his back to Keito. ‘I have to go, my wife is calling.’
Keito frowned in annoyance, but then the man paused with his hand on the door. ‘Did she call you too?’
But before he could answer, the man had disappeared, sliding the door shut behind him.
The last night was a full moon.
The storm had covered the village in thick snow and the roof creaked under the weight of it. A white blanket stretched across the path between the house and dark woods, sparkling as though it was embedded with a thousand diamonds.
Keito sat by the open door, his coat lying next to him as he felt the biting wind cutting into his face, his bare hands clenched on his knees. He didn’t feel the cold, the hunger or thirst. He barely felt alive anymore. All he felt was the deep, desperate longing as he clung to the fading memory of his dreams, of her.
Please stay with me… I’m so alone and it’s never enough… Stay with me forever…
He breathed in the cold air and it stung his lungs. The desperation was rising around him like water, pressing in from all sides, filling his mouth, suffocating him.
Leaving his coat, he leapt to his feet and ran to the woods.
The thick snow made him stumble as he rushed down the path. He could see clearly in the moonlight, but he barely knew where he was going. All he knew was that he needed to reach her. The path didn’t become any easier as he dove into the thick knot of tree and pushed past the spiky, bare branches clawing at his face.
There she was and his breath caught in his throat as he saw her. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, than any dream he had of her. To Keito she was like a queen in her rich blue and silver robes, a crown of frost and starlight on her brow, diamonds in her midnight hair. Her smile was wide, tears glistened on her cheeks. She reached out her arms to him.
And Keito stepped forward and fell into her embrace at last.
Stay with me forever… and maybe, finally, it will be enough.
In the year 2022, archaeologists discovered the ruins of an unnamed village in the Kansai region of Japan. This village was not marked on any historical maps, nor does it appear in any testimonials. As well as the remnants of houses, the remains of around a dozen humans were uncovered in the woods surrounding the village. Surprisingly, these remains were all adult males and seemed to have died many years, even decades apart from each other. The most recent seemed to have died some time in the 1920s. The village itself was empty. In addition to these surprising details, all of the bodies were found in a very specific pose, as though they were embracing a loved one.
Scientists theorised that one of the reasons the village went undiscovered for so long was because of the frequent snow storms that happen in the area.
Thank you for reading!
The inspiration for this month’s story was the legend of Yuki Onna and the wonderful song Winter Moon by Erutan.
Take a look at my other short stories.