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The Cold Lady

from Japanese Fairy Tales





Once an old man and a young man left their village in company, in order
to make a journey into a distant province. Now, whether they went for
pleasure or for profit, for matters of money, of love or war, or because
of some small or great vow that they had laid upon their souls, it is no
longer known. All these things were very long since forgotten. It is
enough to say that it is likely they accomplished their desires, for
they turned their faces homewards about the setting-in of the winter
season, which is an evil time for wayfarers, Heaven knows.

Now as they journeyed, it happened that they missed their way, and,
being in a lonely part of the country, they wandered all the day long
and came upon no good soul to guide them. Near nightfall they found
themselves upon the brink of a broad and swift-flowing river. There was
no bridge, no ford, no ferry. Down came the night, with pitch-black
clouds and a little shrewd wind that blew the dry and scanty reeds.
Presently the snow came. The flakes fell upon the dark water of the
river.

"How white, how white they are!" cried the young man.

But the old man shivered. In truth it was bitter cold, and they were in
a bad case. Tired out, the old man sat him down upon the ground; he drew
his cloak round him and clasped his hands about his knees. The young man
blew upon his fingers to warm them. He went up the bank a little, and at

last he found a small poor hut, deserted by a charcoal-burner or
ferryman.

"Bad it is at the best," said the young man, "yet the gods be praised
for any shelter on such a night." So he carried his companion to the
hut. They had no food and no fire, but there was a bundle of dried
leaves in the corner. Here they lay down and covered themselves with
their straw rain-coats; and in spite of the cold, they soon fell asleep.

About midnight the young man was awakened by an icy air upon his cheek.
The door of the hut stood wide open, and he could see the whirling
snow-storm without. It was not very dark. "A pest upon the wind!" said
the young man. "It has blown open the door, and the snow has drifted in
and covered my feet," and he raised himself upon his elbow. Then he saw
that there was a woman in the hut.

She knelt by the side of the old man, his companion, and bent low over
him till their faces almost met. White was her face and beautiful; white
were her trailing garments; her hair was white with the snow that had
fallen upon it. Her hands were stretched forth over the man that slept,
and bright icicles hung from her finger-tips. Her breath was quite
plainly to be seen as it came from her parted lips. It was like a fair
white smoke. Presently she made an end of leaning over the old man, and
rose up very tall and slender. Snow fell from her in a shower as she
moved.

"That was easy," she murmured, and came to the young man, and sinking
down beside him took his hand in hers. If the young man was cold before,
he was colder now. He grew numb from head to heel. It seemed to him as
if his very blood froze, and his heart was a lump of ice that stood
still in his bosom. A deathly sleep stole over him.

"This is my death," he thought. "Can this be all? Thank the gods there
is no pain." But the Cold Lady spoke.

"It is only a boy," she said. "A pretty boy," she said, stroking his
hair; "I cannot kill him."

"Listen," she said. The young man moaned.

"You must never speak of me, nor of this night," she said. "Not to
father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother, nor to betrothed maid, nor
to wedded wife, nor to boy child, nor to girl child, nor to sun, nor
moon, nor water, fire, wind, rain, snow. Now swear it."

He swore it. "Fire--wind--rain--snow ..." he murmured, and fell into a
deep swoon.

When he came to himself it was high noon, the warm sun shone. A kind
countryman held him in his arms and made him drink from a steaming cup.

"Now, boy," said the countryman, "you should do. By the mercy of the
gods I came in time, though what brought me to this hut, a good three
ri out of my way, the August Gods alone know. So you may thank them
and your wondrous youth. As for the good old man, your companion, it is
a different matter. He is past help. Already his feet have come to the
Parting of the Three Ways."

"Alack!" cried the young man. "Alack, for the snow and the storm, and
the bitter, bitter night! My friend is dead."

But he said no more then, nor did he when a day's journey brought him
home to his own village. For he remembered his oath. And the Cold Lady's
words were in his ear.

"You must never speak of me, nor of this night, not to father, nor
mother, nor sister, nor brother, nor to betrothed maid, nor to wedded
wife, nor to boy child, nor to girl child, nor to sun, nor moon, nor
water, fire, wind, rain, snow...."

Some years after this, in the leafy summer time, it chanced that the
young man took his walks abroad alone, and as he was returning
homewards, about sundown, he was aware of a girl walking in the path a
little way before him. It seemed as though she had come some distance,
for her robe was kilted up, she wore sandals tied to her feet, and she
carried a bundle. Moreover, she drooped and went wearily. It was not
strange that the young man should presently come up with her, nor that
he should pass the time of day. He saw at once that the girl was very
young, fair, and slender.

"Young maiden," he said, "whither are you bound?"

She answered, "Sir, I am bound for Yedo, where I intend to take service.
I have a sister there who will find me a place."

"What is your name?" he asked.

"My name is O'Yuki."

"O'Yuki," said the young man, "you look very pale."

"Alas! sir," she murmured, "I faint with the heat of this summer day."
And as she stood in the path her slender body swayed, and she slid to
his feet in a swoon.

The young man lifted her gently, and carried her in his arms to his
mother's house. Her head lay upon his breast, and as he looked upon her
face, he shivered slightly.

"All the same," he said to himself, "these summer days turn chilly about
sundown, or so it seems to me."

When O'Yuki was recovered of her swoon, she thanked the young man and
his mother sweetly for their kindness, and as she had little strength to
continue her journey, she passed the night in their house. In truth she
passed many nights there, and the streets of Yedo never knew her, for
the young man grew to love her, and made her his wife ere many moons
were out. Daily she became more beautiful--fair she was, and white. Her
little hands, for all she used them for work in the house and work in
the fields, were as white as jasmine flowers; the hot sun could not burn
her neck, or her pale and delicate cheek. In the fulness of time she
bore seven children, all as fair as she, and they grew up tall and
strong with straight noble limbs; their equal could not be found upon
that country-side. Their mother loved them, reared them, laboured for
them. In spite of passing years, in spite of the joys and pains of
motherhood, she looked like a slender maiden; there came no line upon
her forehead, no dimness to her eyes, and no grey hairs.

All the women of the place marvelled at these things, and talked of them
till they were tired. But O'Yuki's husband was the happiest man for
miles round, what with his fair wife and his fair children. Morning and
evening he prayed and said, "Let not the gods visit it upon me if I have
too much joy."

On a certain evening in winter, O'Yuki, having put her children to bed
and warmly covered them, was with her husband in the next room. The
charcoal glowed in the hibachi; all the doors of the house were
closely shut, for it was bitter cold, and outside the first big flakes
of a snow-storm had begun to fall. O'Yuki stitched diligently at little
bright-coloured garments. An andon stood on the floor beside her, and
its light fell full upon her face.

Her husband looked at her, musing....

"Dear," he said, "when I look at you to-night I am reminded of an
adventure that came to me many years since."

O'Yuki spoke not at all, but stitched diligently.

"It was an adventure or a dream," said the man her husband, "and which
it was I cannot tell. Strange it was as a dream, yet I think I did not
sleep."

O'Yuki went on sewing.

"Then, only then, I saw a woman, who was as beautiful as you are and as
white ... indeed, she was very like you."

"Tell me about her," said O'Yuki, not lifting her eyes from her work.

"Why," said the man, "I have never spoken of her to anybody." Yet he
spoke then to his undoing. He told of his journey, and how he and his
companion, being benighted in a snow-storm, took shelter in a hut. He
spoke of the white Cold Lady, and of how his friend had died in her
chill embrace.

"Then she came to my side and leaned over me, but she said, 'It is only
a boy ... a pretty boy ... I cannot kill him.' Gods! How cold she was
... how cold.... Afterwards she made me swear, before she left me she
made me swear...."

"You must never speak of me, nor of this night," O'Yuki said, "not to
father, nor mother, nor brother, nor sister, nor to betrothed maid, nor
to wedded wife, nor to boy child, nor to girl child, nor to sun, nor
moon, nor water, fire, wind, rain, snow. All this you swore to me, my
husband, even to me. And after all these years you have broken your
oath. Unkind, unfaithful, and untrue!" She folded her work together and
laid it aside. Then she went to where the children were, and bent her
face over each in turn.

The eldest murmured "Cold ... Cold ..." so she drew the quilt up over
his shoulder.

The youngest cried, "Mother" ... and threw out his little arms.

She said, "I have grown too cold to weep any more."

With that she came back to her husband. "Farewell," she said. "Even now
I cannot kill you for my little children's sakes. Guard them well."

The man lifted up his eyes and saw her. White was her face and
beautiful; white were her trailing garments; her hair was white as it
were with snow that had fallen upon it. Her breath was quite plainly to
be seen as it came from her parted lips. It was like a fair white smoke.

"Farewell! Farewell!" she cried, and her voice grew thin and chill like
a piercing winter wind. Her form grew vague as a snow wreath or a white
vaporous cloud. For an instant it hung upon the air. Then it rose slowly
through the smoke-hole in the ceiling and was no more seen.





Next: The Fire Quest

Previous: The Singing Bird Of Heaven



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