(a Japanese tale)
Once upon a time in a village in Japan, an old woodcutter known as Mosaku hired a young man to help him with his work. The young man was named Minokichi, and every day the two men walked together into the forest to cut down trees and carry the wood back to the village.
The forest was on the other side of a wide river, and the only way across the river was by ferryboat. One cold evening in the heart of winter, the woodcutters were coming out of the forest when a snowstorm struck. By the time they reached the river, they could barely see through the blowing snow. They saw that the ferryman had stayed on the far side of the river, so there was no way home.
“It’s too cold to swim across,” Mosaku said, “so tonight we will take shelter in the ferryman’s hut.”
The hut was flimsy, and wind shrieked through the slats. There was no stove for warmth. They closed the door tightly behind them, bundled up in their coats, lay down and covered themselves with a layer of straw to try to stay warm.
As the old man’s eyes closed, he said softly, “The storm will pass.”
With those words, he fell asleep.
Minokichi shivered at the sound of the howling wind, and his imagination took flight. As the hut creaked and the air grew colder with each passing moment, he imagined all kinds of terrors. He’d fallen into a fitful sleep when the door suddenly blew open, and he was awoken with a start.
There in the doorway stood a tall, beautiful woman with long black hair and lips of blue. She was dressed in a white kimono, but her skin was so pale that Minokichi wasn’t sure if she was real or only a mirage made of snow and his terror.
He watched as she walked to Mosaku, bent down and blew cold air, thick and swirling like smoke, into the old man’s face.
Minokichi tried to cry out, but the words caught in his throat. The woman then turned toward him. She bent down over him, and his heart nearly stopped from fright. She was about to blow cold air over him.
But, instead, she stopped and smiled. “I was going to destroy you, but you are so handsome that I shall let you live. Promise you will never say a word about having seen me. If you do, I shall end your life.”
“I promise,” Minokichi whispered, his words returning.
The woman then turned and disappeared.
Minokichi ran to the door and looked out, but he just saw swirling snow. He closed the door and thought it was a dream.
He called out, “Wake up, Mosaku!” and reached to touch the old woodcutter’s face. He screamed when he discovered the man’s face had turned into ice.
At dawn, the ferryman returned to the other side of the river and found the two men lying in his hut. The old man was dead, but Minokichi was still breathing. The ferryman sent for a doctor.
Minokichi survived, but he remained frightened by his terrible dream. Still, he said nothing about his vision, and when he was well again, he returned to the forest to work.
The next winter, Minokichi was walking home one night when he happened to pass a young woman.
“Good evening,” he said.
When he heard her voice, he felt his heart skip a beat. Her voice was like a melody, and when he looked at her, he swooned — she was so beautiful.
As they walked along together, she said, “I am O-Yuki,” and she told him her story. Her parents had died, and she was on her way to Yedo, where she had relatives she hoped might help her.
When they were not far from Minokichi’s village, he looked at her and said softly, “I wonder if you would ever consider marrying a boy like me?”
O-Yuki laughed. “I would like that,” she said shyly.
As they reached Minokichi’s hut, he welcomed her inside and introduced her to his mother.
O-Yuki was so lovely, so polite and so kind that Minokichi’s mother instantly loved her, too.
Within weeks, the two married, and they were happy together. O-Yuki was a fine wife and good daughter-in-law, and as the years passed, the couple had 10 children.
Even after she had had so many babies, O-Yuki remained youthful, with long dark hair and pale skin and beautiful, blazing eyes.
One night, as she and Minokichi sat by the fire, he looked at her and suddenly remembered an evening from long ago.
“Dear wife,” he said, “seeing you there in the firelight, I’ve just remembered a woman I once saw who was as beautiful and pale as you.”
O-Yuki, who was sewing and did not look up, said, “Where did you see her?”
For the first time ever, Minokichi spoke of his vision on the stormy winter night in the ferryman’s hut. He told O-Yuki of the snow woman who had leaned over him, the woman whose breath had killed his teacher, Mosaku.
O-Yuki suddenly threw her sewing to the floor and stood up. She looked down at her husband. Her eyes seemed to be on fire.
“It was me!” she said. “And as you surely remember, I told you I would destroy you if you ever spoke a word of that night. If it were not for our children, I would kill you right now.
“Be sure you take good care of them, for if they ever complain about you, I will keep my promise.”
With those words, her voice turned as thin as the crying wind, and she disappeared into a white mist that drifted up through the smoke hole in their hut.
No one ever saw O-Yuki, the snow woman, again.