Late in the autumn of my thirty-second year, I wrote Yamagata-sama that I'd be back soon. My travels would take me north west through Kyoto before staying at Lake Biwa for a few days to rest and then returning south. I'd be available to play for his court while I was there, if he wished. He should have first dibs on my performances in the area, since he'd allowed me to travel and study music. While I'd not fully perfected my skills according to Okuni-sensei, they were greatly improved since the daimyou had last heard me play.
A messenger arrived when I reached Lake Biwa that Yamagata-sama was delighted and spoke of me when he visited Kyoto, where he arranged for me to play at the Imperial Court. I should meet him there and be his special guest in the capital.
My heart pounded. I had to re-read the letter several times. Me, the son of a farmer? I would play for the Emperor and his court?
When I could breathe again, I sprinted back to my room at the ryokan inn, packed my few possessions, and asked for a boxed lunch. The owner mentioned he'd heard of travelers heading in the same direction disappearing.
I thanked the innkeeper for his advice, but couldn't let mere rumors keep me from playing for the Emperor.
The air was cool and moist. Around the lake, the autumn leaves were at the peak of color. My pace was brisk and my heart light as I anticipated giving the performance of a lifetime. Okuni-sensei's words about lacking heart in my music niggled at the back of my mind. Would I be good enough to play for the Emperor? To stave off the doubts, I visited a nearby shrine to pray for a way to remedy the missing piece in my music.
Tonight, I'd stop at a hut in the pass I’d stayed at on the way here. It wasn't far, just a few hours' walk.
Out of nowhere, a frigid wind howled. Clouds clung to the surrounding mountains as if needing comfort. Snow flew into my face and stung my skin.
How would I find the hut in this weather? Biting cold blew directly on my neck and I quickened my pace through the driving snow. The shiver that ran down my spine wasn’t just from the cold. Was someone or something out there causing this storm? Deadly yokai spirits could change the weather.
Maybe if I could lull or appease it, it'd let me pass. My fingers were so stiff. Were they freezing solid already? I pulled out my shakuhachi flute and breathed on my hands for a few moments before forcing them to move. The song I chose was soft and lilting like a lullaby.
Usami playing his Shakuhachi
A deathly pale, barefoot woman appeared before me. How could she stand the cold?
My heart stopped. Yuki onna. A snow maiden that fed on a mortal's ki, their living energy.
Snowflakes swirled around the yuki onna, the snow maiden—beautiful, out of a fairy tale. Baka. I walked straight into her territory.
Could I propitiate her before she killed me? My voice shook as I spoke. "Greetings. M-my name is Usami no Genmaru. I am honored to make your acquaintance, Y-yuki Onna-sama."
Her head jerked back. Had her previous victims been unable to speak? Or had they only treated her as the monster from the legends?
"All I h-have to bargain with is my life and my music. W-would you allow me to live if I play for you?"
Her lips trembled at my offer. "I accept. They call me Shimoko."
Spared. My knees gave out.
"You will live to play for me alone."
Instantly, my heart sank. She'd misinterpreted. I'd never be able to complete my goals if I didn't speak up. I pitched forward, hands plunged into the icy snow, and lowered my head. "Shimoko-sama, that is not what I meant! Forgive me."
"Then I feast." Her breath drew in and frost formed on my skin. Energy drained from my limbs, weakening me to the point I was dizzy. If I didn't act quick, my life was over.
"Sh-shimoko-sama, the Emperor is expecting me to play for him and I need to discover what still lacks in my music. You seemed to enjoy the song. Let me p-play for you for a while, please."
No answer. But the drain halted.
"I beg of you."
"Lies," she spat.
I avoided her gaze as I fumbled in my bag to retrieve Yamagata-sama's letter. The thick paper rumpled loudly in the wind. Could she even read? Time to find out. I unfolded the letter and held it out for her, wincing as each snowflake smudged my lord's beautiful, flowing handwriting.
The snow stopped. When she touched the paper, frost streaked over the surface, freezing the smudging ink in place.
My heart threatened to pound its way out of my chest as I waited. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer. If I was going to die, I'd at least face it like a man and staggered to stand before dusting off my shakuhachi. Though, I still shook.
Her answer? A touch, trailing down the flute, leaving frosted fingerprints.
Now that the wind had died down, I could tell where we were. The cabin lay just beyond us and she gestured for me to enter it. "Usami-san can't play if he's cold."
For a week, I plotted an escape. She'd magically bound me to the hut. Each night she returned from the hunt, she brought me food. I didn't ask where it came from. Didn't want to know. But I performed soporific melodies to soothe her blood-soaked nightmares.
When I screwed up my nerve and brought up the need to go to Kyoto, she hissed. Icy wind filled the room. She sipped from my ki, leaving me crumpled and panting on the floor.
But a tear rolled down her cheek, only to freeze in place. She said, "You have been the only one ever to treat me with any kindness. If you leave, there will be no warmth left in my life."
How could that be? I'd only played to save myself. "While I enjoy having you as my audience, I can't stay your prisoner. It'll only make me resentful."
She turned her back on me, trembling. I was in for it.
Instead, she left the hut.
I packed my belongings, determined to play for the Emperor, and waited in my prison.
That night when she returned, I played from my heart, adding kotodama to emphasize my desire to leave and for her to have peace, instead of using the magic to enhance the music itself. A warm breeze swirled around us. My flute glowed and tiny dancing lights joined the air currents to fill the room. The notes thrummed in my chest, enhancing every aspect of my playing.
Curious, I stopped to get a better look and they faded.
"Keep playing," she pleaded breathlessly. "I've never experienced anything so beautiful."
Neither had I. And her complexion wasn't snow white any more, but a healthy golden sheen. So, I returned the flute to my lips.
When the song was done, it hit me. That was how Okuni-sensei was trying to tell me to play those years ago.
I fell to my knees and wept. Why had it taken so long? I'd almost traipsed off to the Emperor with inferior skills. If it hadn't been for Shimoko, I'd never have discovered what my music could be.
She knelt beside me. "What was different this time?"
"I put the magic into my emotion as I played. All this time, I'd been doing it wrong. This discovery, this gift, is thanks to you, Shimoko-sama."
How could I refuse?
What could I do to repay her? She was a monster, but not of her own choice. Women who transformed into yokai were usually victims in situations they couldn't control. She needed a choice. It wouldn't free her. But each night I played from my heart, my music made her feel human again. She even cooked food and ate alongside me. The fire should have melted her. Instead of hunting, she remained in the hut. The music made her warm, alive, intoxicating. Temptation overcame me. When she returned the kiss with the same need, we drank deeply.
Three days later, I woke before dawn, packed my things again, and paced. There were expectations of me, of her, of our families. How could I balance it all?
When the sun peeked through the shutters, I made my choice by placing a kiss on her still warm cheek. She stirred, and I covered her shoulder to keep the heat from escaping.
Clasping her hand in mine, I said, "You spared my life and gave me more to advance my music than anyone ever has. Not even Okuni-sensei taught me what you helped me discover. But I need to go."
Her face fell. "I never could keep you, could I?"
She leaned into my hand when I caressed her cheek. I whispered, "You gave me what was missing in my music. Something precious. Something no one else could do. I promise to return and play for you again."
"The promises of men mean nothing." Her hand withdrew as she threw the cover over herself to hide. Through her sobs, she commanded, "Leave!"
Most men would probably do anything to get away from a yuki onna and wouldn't pass up this chance to go. But I owed her. Not only for sparing my life, but for helping me to push my music farther than anyone ever had before. Everything had changed. I couldn't abandon her now, not when my heart was saying 'stay'.
Pulling the cover back revealed her face. How could I put magic into my words to show my feelings? The only way to find out was to try. "I know you won't believe my promise to return, especially from a wandering musician. So I'll ask one thing. You haven't needed to hunt these last three nights, have you?"
She remained curled up and sniffling, but shook her head as I pulled a lock of hair from her face and put it behind her ear. After a moment she wailed, "I don't want to go back to hunting men!"
"You were human enough to withstand the cooking fire. Then, am I correct in assuming you have no family?"
Her voice was small. "Yes."
"By tradition, your family would have 'discovered us' sleeping together this morning. They'd be convincing me of my duty to take you as my wife." My hand rubbed the back of my neck. "I need no convincing."
Oh, the hope that lit up her face. Priceless. "So, you have a clan now—me and my family. Get up. Get dressed. When it's warm enough, we'll walk to the village to buy you travel clothes. Come with me to Kyoto."
"But..." Her lip quivered. "...I'm a monster."
"Right now, you're not. If you come with me, I can keep playing for you. We'll make this work." I held out my hand, and she slipped her trembling fingers into mine.