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The Woman in the Woods

Miriam slid down the wall, her hammer dripping, and wailed. Everyone she loved was dead.    They lay on the wet floor, locked in each other’s arms, even closer together in death than they had been in life. Then the demon disappeared, melting into nothing.

Martin and Don went snowshoeing in the waiting woods. Stars were shining crisply in a navy blue sky, and the moon was so large and bright that it was light as day. The Laurentian woods were silent except for the quiet groaning of massive evergreens under their heavy burden of snow. The trees, a cathedral of arching branches, reached up to touch the moon’s serene face. Don smiled, immersed in the beauty of the woods. Martin laughed and ran ahead, calling, “Can you keep up, youngster?” Don ran to catch him, laughing too.

After they strapped on their snowshoes and left the house, Miriam watched Don and her husband bound across the snow from her attic window.

 “Should I do this?” Miriam thought, remembering Tanya. Since his wife’s death, Don had been so bereft. Maybe he could find love again if he would let himself, she thought. “I just want to help him and make him happy!”

Deciding, Miriam prepared the ritual. Closing her eyes, she whispered the incantation. She used a pure silver knife to carve a heart into the wax of a red candle. Miriam anointed the candle with scented oils and inserted a rose quartz and the High Priestess Tarot card into the candle base. Concentrating, she focused her energies on her wish for Don and lit the candle. A sudden bang broke her trance as the window in the eaves opened. Snow flew into the tiny room, obliterating the candle flame. She struggled to shut the window, but wind and snow had already blown in, and the table was covered. The high priestess card had fallen to the floor, and the deadly and ill-omened Nine of Swords was embedded in the soft wax.

“Oh no,” Miriam was appalled. “What have I done? What have I been playing at?”

Walking through the woods, the snow squeaked under their feet. Glistening diamonds in the drifts echoed the stars in the sky. Don sighed as they walked on in companionable silent contentment. Martin, hale and ruddy, broke the path. He was not very tall but powerfully built, with an ursine grace to his movements that belied his age. The younger man stretched his gait to match him.

A chill wind started blowing. Don shivered as clouds scudded across the sky. The smiling moon was now obscured by glowering clouds as it began to snow. “We should turn back!” Don said. Martin nodded. Don put on a headlamp that spread a fitful pool of light as they retraced their steps. The trees pressed in, the wind screamed, and the snow swirled like ghosts. “Do you hear that?” Don asked Martin. Someone was crying. Martin nodded and sprinted ahead up the hill, towards the voice. In a clearing was a woman holding a baby.

She was barefoot in the snow, wearing only a translucent gown. Don could see the darkness of her nipples against the delicate fabric. Her waist-length hair whipped around in the wind, long, straight and black, startling against the snow and the whiteness of her face. The baby in her arms was wrapped in a thin blanket. A tiny arm poked out of the coverlet, looking almost blue in the moonlight. “She must be freezing,” Don thought, horrified, yet at the same time strangely attracted. With its high cheekbones and arched brows, her face was like an ivory carving and her eyes, deep pools of shining darkness, looked straight into his. She had fallen in the drifts as if the snow itself had conjured her up. There was a moment of connection as they stared at each other. She gave him a complicit smile. Then the woman turned towards Martin, holding her baby out beseeching him. She spoke to him. It was not in English, yet somehow Don understood.

“Help me,” she wept. “Please, please, save my baby.” She held the baby out to Martin, who ran to help. Dreamlike, Don was unable to move. “What is happening here?” he thought.

Martin’s hand reached out, helped the woman up. He took the icy blue-tinged baby in his arms as it reached out tiny fingers and touched his face. In the eerie silence, the baby’s mouth opened, a thin silver thread emerged from Martin’s mouth, and the baby drank it in. Don stumbled towards them. Time slowed down. Don knew that something dreadful was happening, yet he was powerless to stop it.

Martin groaned and fell to the ground. The beautiful woman snatched up the baby and kissed it. Suddenly they both turned pink and healthy-looking.

Again, her eyes locked onto Don’s. “Look at me!” she said, in a voice that was not speaking English. “Never, never tell anyone! I will spare you, beautiful man, as long as you keep my secret.”

Don was confused as her eyes stared into his. Yet strangely, with the logic of dreams, he knew he would do anything that she told him to.

When he looked up again, both the woman and the baby were gone. Don ran to him, but Martin lay prone in the snow, cold as ice. Turning him over, Don felt for a pulse, breathed into his mouth, but he seemed icy, frozen and stiff.

Don ran towards the road as fast as possible, weeping, panting and sweating with fear. The wind was screaming. Suddenly an owl plunged into the snowbank just in front of him. It rose, showering Don with the snow from its wings, grasping a shrieking furry animal in its talons. The owl glared at him as it flew off. He fell in the snow as branches whipped around him. He checked his cell phone, and there was one flickering bar, but when he called 911, there was no connection. He started running again, his breath jagged. He finally reached the chalet. Almost before he rang the bell, Miriam was out in the yard. “Where is Martin?” she demanded. “Miriam,” Don said, “he’s dead, Martin’s dead!” She began to wail. “I knew it, I knew it!” she cried. Don clung to her, dripping with ice and tears. He could not tell her about the woman in the wood, it would sound crazy, and the woman had warned him. Would she come? Would she kill them? He thought disjointedly, feeling wet, cold, emptied and without will.

When the police and ambulance arrived at the chalet, Don led them to the clearing. The snow had ended, the air was leaden and still. The officers looked around. The only footprints were from Don and Martin’s snowshoes. Martin’s body was lying, fallen in a drift. There was no sign of a struggle, no evidence that anyone else had ever been there. Don began to doubt himself. Had he really seen that beautiful, deadly woman and her ice baby? Could it be a hallucination? Loading the body on a toboggan, the police brought it to the cabin. In the snow-covered garden, Miriam took her cold dead husband in her arms. She held him as if trying to warm him back to life. Don’s eyeballs and lashes were crusted with frozen tears. When Tanya died,  holding her emaciated, gasping body in his arms, he knew death was coming. When it happened, he was prepared, wanting her suffering to end. Tonight, however, one moment, Martin was snowshoeing up the hill to help someone. Now he was gone in this bizarre and inexplicable way. It made no sense.

Don lifted Miriam up and helped her inside. The police took the body away to the morgue. “Don’t leave the area,” the police officer said, “we’ll be in touch about the coroner’s inquest.”

Ten years ago, in Martin’s office, Don showed him an interactive map on the computer. “Look, Professor Freedman, if you follow the DNA changes in the seeds found at these ten different sites, you can see the change from wild to domesticated barley spread from the Jordanian, Israeli and Syrian settlements through the fertile crescent to Turkey and then to Europe. The changes in the DNA are so cool because we can see the domesticated strains change from site to site.”

“Mr. Endymion,” replied Martin, “this is beautiful work! Your computer modelling is just elegant. I wish you were staying in anthropology rather than computer science. I can see all kinds of research that could build on these models. Can I not persuade you to do graduate work with me?”

Don and Tanya walked into the Endymion’s spacious condo overlooking the city. His mother lay on the couch, an ice pack on her eyes, a Martini in her hand, recovering from Botox. His father, also sipping a drink, raised his eyes from the newspaper and said. “Adonis.” His eyes flickered dismissively over the young girl in jeans and sneakers who accompanied his son. “Tanya.” He acknowledged her existence.

“Papa,” said Don, “Dr. Freedman has asked me to consider applying to do graduate work in Anthropology rather than continue in computer science, and I think I will do it. With a few extra courses, I can get it done.”

Mr. Endymion was enraged. “With your talents,” he said, “you could get a job at Google or Facebook or some tech startup. Or, at the very least, do logistics in our business. Only a dweeb would go into Anthropology and poke around old bones. You will never make any money that way.”

The humanities building of Hokkaido University is white and elegant, shaded by trees and graced with wisteria. Mariko Saito, the Chair of Anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, had attended a fascinating talk on nature spirits by a young woman named O-Yuki Achikita. O-Yuki was just finishing her Post-Doctoral program and was newly hired as a lecturer at Hokkaido. Mariko was walking under the arching shade trees, thinking about how brilliant O-Yuki had been in the seminar. She saw O-Yuki ahead of her and wanted to congratulate her on a job well done. She saw two of the other graduate students come up to O-Yuki. “Deku,” said one of the students, as he deliberately bumped into her.

“You Inakapu, you bumpkin!” said the other student, using the rudest possible form of address. When they saw Mariko staring at them, they both reddened and bowed to her, saying, “excuse us, please, Dr. Saito,” before running off.

“ Why are they so rude to her?” Mariko wondered. Could it be because of O-Yuki’s obvious rural background? Their treatment of her reeked of privilege. She caught up with O-Yuki a bit later trying not to let on what she had witnessed. “You are a very good researcher.” She told the younger woman. “I wonder if we could have you collaborate with us.”

She seemed shy and isolated, and deeply sad. Mariko had a sudden thought about her sweet colleague, Don Endymion. He was kind, open and supportive, without the arrogance of so many handsome men. Would he connect with O-Yuki, she wondered? Could he erase the sadness from her eyes? Could she erase the grief from his?

“Come to Canada!” Mariko said impulsively.” We’ll show you a good time.”

Before they went out skiing, Martin, Miriam and Don sat after dinner, enjoying their scotches and indulging in a little “shop talk” about demons and exorcisms. Toying with his glass, Don asked Miriam, “what do you think? Are demons real? Like really real? Or are they just symbolic of people who have given up all decency?”

 “That is not a bad definition of demons, Don,” said Miriam, taking on a professorial tone. ”Demons can be seen as manifestations of evil intentions or, more neutrally, as manifestations of nature’s powers. As to whether they really exist, well, Edith Turner, at the University of Virginia, says that to deny their existence is to diminish the reality of indigenous peoples’ life experiences. Still, most anthropologists would find that a bit specious. Look, Martin’s eyebrows are up already!”

“I understand your argument, but I cannot believe in the supernatural,” Martin said.

Don suddenly remembered when Tanya had been a part of these gatherings. He could almost see her sweet freckled laughing face out of the corner of his eye, her ghost present as it had been for the past two years. “Oh God, I wish Tanya were here,” he said.

Martin looked at Don with sympathy. “You are a good man,” Martin said, his voice deep and calm and reassuring. “Buck up, my friend. You will become connected to life again. Give it time. You will find your strength soon,” said Martin. “I have every confidence in you.”

“I wish you could find love again, someone you could be fully and deeply in love with; someone perfect,” said Miriam.

“Hey,” said Martin. “Hey, let’s go for a little snowshoe run and clear the cobwebs. You will feel better after.”

After the police took the body away, Don and Miriam went back into the cabin, and they wept together the rest of the night. They huddled on the couch, covered in blankets, dozing and crying.

Don spent the next week holed up in his chalet next door to Martin and Miriam’s. In terrifying and erotic dreams, the woman called to him, “Be mine, be mine.” Miriam was wrapped in her own cloud of misery.

At the inquest, the coroner attributed Martin’s death to a sudden arrhythmia. He concluded that there was no foul play. They all went home. There was finally a funeral and a Shiva, where all their friends tried to comfort them. Don and Miriam were uncomforted.

Winter became spring, and spring became summer, and summer gave way to fall. Don worked automatically. He felt blocked and distracted by his recurrent dreams.

Miriam, Amanda Deer and Mariko Saito were the senior women in the Anthropology department. They worked hard to make McGill Anthropology less overwhelmingly male-dominated and colonialist. Amanda was dedicated to bringing her indigenous perspective to her research and writing. They called themselves “the three wise women”  as did the students when they were not calling them “those tough bitches.” Mariko was missing Martin a great deal, profoundly feminist and kind, she had relied on him to help the more conservative members of the department agree with her vision. Now that he was gone she needed Don to step up to that role. Don was one of the good guys and not attached to patriarchal privileges. In his almost deliberately unbecoming uniform of khakis and flannel shirt, she knew he was lovely to work with.

At the reception, Dr. Saito grabbed Don by the elbow to introduce him to a young woman standing next to her.

“This is O-Yuki Achikita,” Dr. Saito introduced her. “She is a visiting professor of cultural anthropology, a lecturer from Hokkaido University. She is here to collaborate with Amanda Deer and me, but she specifically asked to meet you.”

From the back, Don saw that she was small, slim and elegant. Her hair was braided and held at the nape of her neck with a silver chignon pin. She turned, Don gasped. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and she was somehow familiar. “Oh, Dr. Adonis Endymion, I have come across the world to meet you.” She looked straight into his eyes. Her voice was musical. Her slim hand was cool and soft as she shook his. He found himself holding her hand for much longer than politeness demanded. Her nails were short without polish, with beautiful white moons. Her eyes, deep pools of starlit darkness, looked straight into his. There was a moment of connection as they stared at each other. She gave him a complicit smile, and he was utterly smitten. He stood straighter, up to his full height. He thought that strangely he felt slightly removed from himself, foggy, and a little confused. Yet, from that moment on, he was hers. “Have we met before,” he asked, “at a conference, perhaps?”

 “You don’t remember me,” she said. It was a statement, not a question, almost an order. When Don recovered the power of speech, he asked her, “Oh Doctor umh ah?…. what is your area of research?

“I am writing about Yokai, you know, Japanese spirits,” she said. “I am exploring their relationship to nature, cultural context, and similarities with North American aboriginal demons.”

“Oh,” he replied, still staring deep into her dark eyes. “I can see why you would be interested in Dr. Deer’s work, but why me? My research has nothing to do with yours.”

O-Yuki leaned in close to him; she was almost whispering. Her scent was intoxicating, like fresh snow on pines. “I do know about your research. You look at the spread of food crops with computer modelling.”

They continued to chat for a while as O-Yuki looked intently at him over her glass. Ultimately Don no longer wanted to stay eating party sandwiches and making small talk in the Faculty Club’s stodgy elegance. He leaned over and whispered in O-Yuki’s ear, “Let’s go,” and taking her hand, they grabbed their coats and left. As they left, they saw Mariko and Amanda, their arms linked, smiling.

As Don and O-Yuki ran down McTavish Street from the Faculty Club, the street lights glittered on the slowly drifting giant snowflakes like Christmas lights. They stopped in the street to kiss. He felt giddy, happy, and confident. He held her close and felt his erection rise up. O-Yuki felt it, too, as she pressed up against him and bit him gently on the lip. Don ached with longing for O-Yuki. His relationship with Tanya had felt warm and comfortable. They invented sex for each other, learning to love and lust in tandem. He was always safe, knowing how much she loved him. Now, in contrast, he was wild with desire; it was “un coup de foudre.” He felt dizzy with lust and out of control. Yet he wanted to savour this anticipation and maybe regain some control. He suggested that they stop at the hotel at the foot of McTavish and have a drink.

“Adonis Endymion, that’s an unusual name,” O-Yuki said as she held his hand across the table. “Are you the moon’s lover and the man desired by the goddesses of love and death all in one?”

“Oh, that’s my father’s idea,” he replied. “He wanted his son to be named for the lover of Aphrodite. ‘Only the best for my boy,’ he used to say.”

 O-Yuki and Don sat at the bar discussing flowers and their place in early agriculture. She argued that the pursuit of beautiful ornamental plants was an important harbinger of civilization. At one point, she took Don’s hand in hers, looked into his eyes and said, “Your hands are so beautiful, and so are your eyes.”

Don blushed uneasily,  “Thanks for saying I’m good looking, but compliments like this make me uncomfortable,” he told the woman he desired.

“You are not good-looking,” smiled O-Yuki as she sipped her drink, looking over the rim of her glass again. “You are beautiful. This is a gift from the gods and true power. Don’t deny this in yourself. In some ways, being beautiful is how I have survived to be here.”

Don was confused but smiled shyly at O-Yuki. “I hope you are not just using me for my body,” he said jokingly, but not really joking.

“Oh no,” she replied, moistening her lips. “I do really want your body, but I need your beautiful soul even more! Shall we get a room upstairs?”

Don blushed, a little shocked at her directness. “I live just around the corner. Let’s go to my place.” He wanted her so badly, and he wanted to stay with her for a long time, not just have a quickie in a hotel room. O-Yuki raised her eyebrows, hesitated then nodded. They walked back into the night, went up Drummond Street to Don’s apartment.

. They reached his door and practically fell into the flat, removing scarves, coats and hats, all the impedimenta of late fall in Montreal. As she pulled off her boots, he lifted her up in his arms and carried her to the bed. There he started to remove her clothes. He kissed each body part avidly as it was revealed. O-Yuki responded with passion, mouth open, and he felt her nipples, hard through his flannel shirt, like winter buds. She rolled up to her knees and helped him remove his sweater and shirt, kissing and licking his nipples as he groaned. She unbuckled his jeans and pulled them down around his knees, putting his throbbing penis in her mouth and licking it gently. Not wanting to look like a fool, he pulled away and, tripping over his hobbled feet, he fell on the bed. “Wait,” he moaned, “let me take my socks off.” He undressed and pinned her hands to the bed and proceeded to explore her body with his tongue. The taste of her was delicious. He felt her orgasm. When he finally entered her, the warmth and wetness of her vagina was almost too much for him. He held out as long as he could, thrusting vigorously as she moaned with pleasure and clasped his back. Too soon, he felt the inevitability of his own orgasm. When he opened his eyes, she was smiling at him with great tenderness. “Again?” he whispered in her ear. She nodded and guided his hand down. He found her vulva, and with fingers and tongue, caressed her until he felt her next shuddering release. Then they collapsed in each other’s arms and slept.

In the morning, he awoke to her watching him. “You are a lovely man,” she said. “So many men are happy to take their pleasure without assuring the pleasure of their partner.” She smiled at him gravely. This meant everything to him.

O-Yuki moved in the next day, bringing her things from Mariko’s house. For the first month, they barely left the apartment, making love sometimes four or five times a day, stopping only to sleep and order take-out food. They both worked the minimum possible, resenting any minute that they were separated.

What began in passion soon became love. The two of them would get up on weekends and eat croissants and do the crossword. They would explore the city or go hiking or skiing in the Laurentians. They would talk for hours about their work. At conferences, with her smiling from the front row, he discovered that his presentations were livelier, fluid, and way more interesting than they had ever been. Lying on the couch, rubbing her feet as they watched old TV shows and movies, filled him with contentment. He loved her.

     Sometimes, when he talked to her about his very techie field of expertise, she would listen with interest and understanding. She said she thought he was still at least half a computer geek rather than an anthropologist. “It was Martin who sparked my interest in people and in culture, I miss him so much” Don explained. “Without him, I might have stayed in computer science which I know would not really make me happy. He understood me and was like the supportive father I had never known.”

“You are an adult,” said O-Yuki, genuinely puzzled. “Why do you miss having a father now?”

Don stared at her, aghast. How could she not understand the importance of Martin in his life? O-Yuki suddenly looked quite stricken. “Oh, dear, I am so, so sorry,” she said.

 One summer day at the chalet, they were having one of their disputes about flowers. “I don’t see the point of them,” Don said. “I mean, I certainly understand their biological role for bees and insects and the plants themselves, but why should we, as humans, cultivate them, just to be ornamental? They have no practical purposes for humans. I just don’t see the necessity for cultivating them. It makes no sense.”

     “Oh, Don,” O-Yuki smiled at him, “don’t! While you are an expert on cereals, you don’t understand flowers! Think how close we actually are genetically to these flowers. We recognize their sexuality, and so this sexual invitation calls to us across the species.”

Later, as O-Yuki napped on the porch, Don walked out to the mountain meadow near the chalet. It was alive with bluebells, daisies, black-eyed-Susans and cornflowers. He felt fully alive and at peace sitting in that field, watching the bees and butterflies in the flowers. When O-Yuki awoke, he was there, dressed in an old black and yellow striped rugby jersey. He placed a daisy crown on her head and presented her with a bouquet of wildflowers. With silliness that he had never known, he knelt before her.

“Oh my Queen of the forest, I am your devoted bee, I see the flower in you and you in the flower!”

“Oh my Adonis,” she said, giggling, and then suddenly, the two of them were in each other’s arms laughing helplessly. “Oh,” she gasped. “You made me laugh. It is a long time since I have laughed.” Don realized that this was true, that he had never heard her laugh before. Then he looked around, puzzled because he thought he heard a baby crying.

One day O-Yuki came to visit Mariko. After chatting about this and that, she asked her about Martin. “I don’t understand; why does Don miss him so? He is not his son. He is a grown man.”

“Sweetheart,” Mariko said. “Martin was more than a colleague. Martin dying so suddenly was a terrible blow to him, particularly so soon after Tanya’s death.

O-Yuki looked stricken. “Oh my, oh my, what can I do to help?”

 One morning, Don and O-Yuki visited Miriam. Amanda and Mariko joined them for brunch. Amanda and O-Yuki told the story of the Wendigo, a hunger spirit in Algonquin culture. Wendigos can be created when people resort to cannibalism because of starvation. They then develop an insatiable craving for human flesh. As they eat, they grow so that they are always at the edge of death, caught in a vicious cycle of murder, cannibalism and starvation. “There are similar spirits in northern Japan,” O-Yuki said. “Starvation and cannibalism are a common theme in many Northern cultures,”

“With the rise of agriculture, people gave up power, freedom and even good nutrition for the promise of guaranteed food,” Don added.

O-Yuki became very serious, “Starvation is the worst fear of any being.” O-Yuki said. “When people are driven by horrible circumstances to do horrible things, they are cursed to become demons. All things live through destruction,” she said as she spooned yogurt into a bowl and added some raspberries. ”You all realize that we eat, we kill, even plants absorb nitrogen from other beings dissolved in the earth. Don, you know better than most people about how the need to eat shapes the world. Everything on earth is destructive by nature; you have to have some sympathy.” Miriam gave her a searching look and frowned at her vehemence. O-Yuki looked at the group and suddenly said. “Excuse me, I need to go for a walk.” She grabbed her backpack, slung it over her shoulders and stalked out into the forest. A cold wind blew up as the three women and Don stared at her, open-mouthed.

One night Don and O-Yuki were in bed, snuggling and chatting in the intimate calmness that happens after true lovemaking. O-Yuki was spooned with Don. Her soft bum cradled his now spent penis in a way that he found comfortable and gently erotic.

In a hesitant voice, she asked, “Adonis, have you been in love before? She kept her eyes averted as Don cradled her breasts and considered how best to answer her. He found it endearing that O-Yuki, usually so self-possessed, could ask about Tanya in such a vulnerable way.

So, he thought about Tanya as he held O-Yuki in his arms. He remembered how they grew up together. How they rode their bikes around the neighbourhood together, climbed trees and collected comic-books.  By tenth grade, they were lovers. The memory of  how they learned about sex together made him smiile. He remembered making love in her bedroom, in the park’s playhouses and under the coats at parties, they had been each other’s first in every way. “O-Yuki, I did love Tanya truly and deeply. She helped me to become myself and to like who I was.”      

O-Yuki turned over in Don’s arms and kissed him. “You loved her so much.” There was much unsaid in that statement.

“Yes, I did,” Don said as he kissed her. “She loved me as a person, a full human being. I was always Don to her, not some made-up fantasy of a handsome prince. But now, it is you that I love.”

“Oh my Adonis, I love you so!” O-Yuki held his hands to her mouth and kissed them.

 “O-Yuki,” Don said, “our love is more passionate. There is something special about what we share. Tanya and I were kids when we started our relationship. Ours is more love between adults.”

“What was it like for you when Tanya was sick?” O-Yuki asked. Don told her about finding the swollen lumps in Tanya’s armpits and about the fruitless, painful and horrible course of her lymphoma. He told her about the chemo, the vomiting, and the pain she suffered. “Being really sick does not look the same in real life as it does on TV,” he said, “and it smells a lot worse. Tanya died in my arms, and I wanted to die along with her. I felt dead inside for a very long time until I met you.” When he looked up, tears were streaming from O-Yuki’s eyes. “I am crying,” she said in surprise as she wiped her eyes. “I have not wept in such a long time! My poor darling, you have lost so many people you love!”

 “O-Yuki, my sweetheart,” Don said, wanting to lighten the mood. “Now I have you, and you have brought light and joy and passion into my life.” He gave her another hug.

 “Tell me, O-Yuki, have you ever been in love before?” He was curious.

“Yes,” she said coldly. “It was a very long time ago, and it didn’t work out.” O-Yuki abruptly got up and went into her office and shut the door. A few minutes later, she emerged with her backpack and said, “I’m going out for a run.”

“Wait, I’ll come with you!” Don said, reaching for her as she abruptly left the room.

“No, no, thank you,” she said as she left the apartment. “I want to be alone!” She slammed the door. As she left, Don thought he heard someone shrieking, “You fool, how could you!” Don looked out the window, but all he saw was O-Yuki, racing up the hill.

He wondered how he had offended her and where she went on these solo runs.    

Soon after, Miriam and Don were washing dishes after dinner at the chalet. O-Yuki donned her backpack and went out for a solo ski. “Isn’t she perfect?” Don looked out the kitchen window as she disappeared into the woods. He was still upset about the other night.

Miriam stared out the window as well, watching as O-Yuki skimmed over the snow. She was so lithe and free on the snow as if her feet were not even touching the ground. “Yes, O-Yuki is absolutely flawless! She’s almost too perfect to be real.”  Miriam felt it was as if O-Yuki had Don completely under some kind of spell. He seemed glazed over whenever she was with him. It was weird. She could see that O-Yuki was in love with Don. Yet, there was something about her that made Miriam very uneasy. She did not seem to have any roots or connections, and her understanding of the world was sometimes so strange that it was positively alien.

“Are you planning to meet her family in Japan?” Miriam asked him. Don shrugged his shoulders. Meeting O-Yuki’s parents held little interest for him, as he never wanted her to meet his. Why was Miriam so curious about O-Yuki’s past, he wondered?

One night Don was brushing O-Yuki’s beautiful long hair. He noticed that it was getting dull and limp. He suddenly remembered Tanya’s hair, brittle and breaking. O-Yuki could not be sick! “I could not bear to lose her. I would die!” he thought. One night he dreamed that a baby was crying, “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” Then he thought he heard O-Yuki crying too. “No, no, no, I won’t.”

The next evening she went snowshoeing alone. A snowstorm had been blowing all day. He fell asleep by the fire, then the door opened with a blast of wintery air, and she blew in, red-cheeked and invigorated despite the storm. She threw her heavy backpack into the closet and kissed Don passionately. They made love with such energy and lust. She rode him almost mercilessly, compelling an orgasm so intense that he almost fainted. In the afterglow of passion, he knew his love for her was deep and eternal. “O-Yuki,” Don said while kissing her again and again. “Please, will you marry me?” 

She looked at him, tears in the corners of her eyes. “I love you so much!” she whispered. Her face, usually so pale, was flushed. “I shouldn’t, but I do!” Her voice was a bit hoarse as if the words of love had been involuntarily ripped from her. “It is a long time since I have allowed myself to be in love!”

“Everyone will be so happy for us! Let’s get married,” Don said. She nodded her assent and then looked away. “Why was she so hesitant?” He worried but then let joy overtake him. Somewhere close by, he heard that baby screaming again. Was someone being abused, he wondered.

Mariko was thrilled that her matchmaking had born such fruit. She went to visit O-Yuki to congratulate her on her engagement. They were in the little study that she had created in Adonis’ apartment. The room was distinctively hers: clean and white, with a scroll of dragons and clouds, white orchids, and a crystal bowl holding a golden key and a few other things. Her window looked up to the mountain. She was sitting in her work chair, and when Mariko went to hug her and congratulate her, she found that she was crying.

 “Mariko, I have never been this happy,” said O-Yuki. “I never want to hurt him, but I know I will. What can I do? Am I selfish?”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Mariko said, “just love him, and do your best. Your best must be good enough!”

Miriam ruminated on the love ritual she did the horrible night Martin died. It was so powerful, and it had gone so wrong! Was it possible, she wondered, that O-Yuki was not human? Was it crazy to think that she had called O-Yuki from the spirit world with that spell? Miriam dismissed the thought. She wrapped herself in Martin’s old sweater, missing him and desperately wishing that she could have his counsel. Finally, she rejected the idea that Don was possessed by a spirit being; it could not be real.

O-Yuki took a plane for a quick trip to Japan, needing to renew her visa at the airport and talk to her department’s chair about her upcoming wedding. Don went to visit Miriam. They had coffee in her comfortable living room. Martin’s presence was palpable there, although his favourite chair was now occupied by their elderly cat. In this room, Don felt Martin’s absence acutely.

“Are you sure you want to marry O-Yuki?” Miriam was grim. “What do you really know about her?”

“I know that she loves me and that she makes me so happy!” Don insisted, “I thought you wanted me to get married.” He tried to tease Miriam, but he was upset by her implications.

“I do,” she replied gravely, hugging him, “but I want it to be with someone who makes you safe and happy.”

After Don left, Miriam was angry with herself. “This is foolish,” she thought. “What evidence do I have that O-Yuki is not a perfectly normal but reserved human being?  Do I have some less than altruistic motive for not wanting Don to marry again?”

Don left Miriam’s house, confused. All the niggling anxieties he had about his relationship surfaced. “What is Miriam implying? Who did she think O-Yuki was? Not being close to your family is not that important or unusual. She is so intelligent and loving and good for me. But where does she go when she disappears? Why does she have no friends except Mariko, and me? Why does she seem to have no friends in Japan that she keeps in touch with?”

He arrived home, exhausted. Wanting to feel her presence, he went into O-Yuki’s tiny study. He could smell her clean, fresh scent as he sat in her computer chair. Her closet door was open, and there was the backpack that she usually took when she went skiing or running. The backpack! He knelt on the floor and unbuckled the bag without knowing why.

Inside there was something wrapped in a heavy piece of silk brocade. He took it to the desk and unwrapped it, revealing a casket of exquisite Japanese lacquerware about laptop size but deeper. The box was beautiful, with a snowy mountain scene enamelled, silver and gold, on a black lacquer background. It looked precious, ancient and extremely valuable. “Why is O-Yuki keeping this in her backpack?” thought Don. On the shelf next to her white orchid, there was a little cut glass bowl. In it was a tiny golden key. He picked up the key and held it in his hand for a long time. He knew, somehow, that opening the box would irrevocably change his life. He hesitated. Finally, he unlocked the casket.

It was a sculpture of a sleeping baby, carved in crystal, pale icy blue, nestled in white padded silk. It looked strangely familiar, and Don felt a rising foreboding. He touched it gingerly with one finger. It was cold: not crystal, but ice! Then the eyelids fluttered, and a slow breath moved in the thing’s chest. Don froze, terrified. It was alive! In a box! Where did this ice baby come from? Trembling with fear, he gently closed the lid, afraid to wake the strange thing inside. He locked it in with the tiny golden key. Don stared at the lacquered chest. He had an image of Martin in the woods, the ice baby and the woman, him falling. It was like the memory of a dream, hazy and fleeting, almost gone. His heart was pounding, and his mouth was dry in panic and fear.

In the reflex of any academic, he logged onto the computer. First, he Googled “Ice baby”, but that only led to links of a late 80’s Rapper. Then he thought to look up some of O-Yuki’s research papers. Why, he wondered, had he never read any of her work? She had read his. She had written several articles about Yokai, Japanese spirits. One type of Yokai stood out: Yukionno and the ice baby, Yukinko. It was her!  A Yukionno was a beautiful woman who used her ice baby to freeze and suck the Ki, the life force, from humans. He couldn’t breathe as the revelation struck him. “The love of my life is a soul-sucking demon!” he thought. What should he do?  What could he do now?

The phone rang. Automatically Don picked it up. “Hey, you,” Miriam said. “I wanted to apologize. I know you love O-Yuki, and I hope that you are very happy together.”

Don started to cry, and the whole story spilled from his mouth. “O-Yuki’s a Yukionno! She killed Martin or her ice baby Yukinko did. I love her! I don’t know what to do.” At that moment, there was a tremendous cracking pain in his head as if a crystal was shattering. Then his brain was suddenly clear, perhaps for the first time since that night in the woods. He remembered that night with sickening clarity. Then he realized he had broken his promise. “She’s going to kill me,” he said, into the phone.

“I’m coming.” Miriam said, “I’ll be there soon. Oh shit, shit, shit. I was worried about this! I should have warned you! Oh, God! I think this is my fault.”

“No, don’t come,” Don was crying into the phone. “She’ll kill you too!”

He tried to prepare to decide what to do. He was deeply, deeply torn. “Yukionno can be killed,” he thought, “but does O-Yuki love me enough to have become vulnerable? Do I want to kill her? I almost died when Tanya died. I cannot imagine my life without O-Yuki. Yet she murdered Martin, and who knew how many other people. Does she even want to keep on? What a horrible life for her. O-Yuki is a loving creature, only forced by evil fate to kill.”

An icy wind blew open the door. There was O-Yuki, hair loose and whipping around her in the wind, wearing a sheer kimono. Tears were flowing from her eyes like silver streams.

“Why?” she was wailing. “How could you betray me?”

She grabbed the box and opened it. The ice baby, now awake, sat up. “I’ll eat him right now.” He heard the ice baby’s voice in his head, “you know we are going to have to sooner or later.”

“Not yet, not yet. I wanted years with him. I wanted babies with him!” She placed the baby on the table and stood between it and Don. “I was so happy!” The apparition seemed to flicker, sometimes appearing as the ice demon and sometimes as his own O-Yuki.

“You don’t need a meat baby,” shrilled the Yukinko. “You have me! You are a Yukionno. You are not fated for happiness. You are so stupid, laughing, crying and loving! You put us in such danger! I have an idea: you should be the one to drink his Ki instead of me!” The ice baby said in a seductive wheedling voice, “you know it will feel so good!”

Don backed away from them, edging towards the kitchen. Then he heard boots pounding up the stairs. Miriam ran in, a hammer in one hand and a large thermos in the other. She was not her usual self. She looked, wild and vengeful, like Judith about to decapitate Holofernes.

When Miriam heard Don explain that O-Yuki was actually a Yukionno, she knew it was true. Her suspicions had been justified; O-Yuki actually was a demon. Miriam remembered the love ritual that had gone so disastrously wrong. She had called a Yukionno to Don! She had to fix this.

Holding her tools, Miriam burst into the flat. As the Yukionno saw her, the room filled with snow and sleet. The spirit enlarged, filling the space as the storm battered Don and Miriam. The ice baby was sitting in a beautiful box on the counter. Staring at the baby with horror, Don repeatedly screamed O-Yuki’s name. Miriam grabbed the lacquerware casket, slammed it shut and held it away from the demon. The Yukionno towered over them, tearing at Miriam with icy fingers, trying to snatch the chest out of her hands. The snow blew around them, stinging her eyes and hands, trying to force Miriam to release the casket. Don put his arms around the apparition’s legs, hobbling it, staying between the Yukionno and Miriam, screaming, “Stop please, O-Yuki, Stop!” For a moment, she flickered back to a human form, and then she howled at him to let her go. Grabbing the box with desperate strength, Miriam raised the hammer and smashed it again and again, managing to keep the Yukionno at bay. “You killed Martin!” Miriam shouted, possessed. There were broken pieces and scattered shards of ice all over the counter and the floor. Miriam looked down. A tiny blue hand opened and closed spasmodically, still alive. She uncorked the thermos and poured steaming hot water over the smashed box and the shattered pieces of ice. There was a scream and then silence.

The baby destroyed, the Yukionno spirit shrank. She looked human again, weeping as Don took her in his arms with great tenderness. Miriam raised her hammer. The Yukionno was next.

“No! Stop! It’s OK.” Don said to Miriam. ”O-Yuki won’t hurt me.”

“Are you human now?” he asked her with hope in his voice as he held her in his arms.

 “No,” she said, now frail and vulnerable. “That can’t happen.”

“OK,” he said. “O-Yuki, I love you so much. Please, I want you to take me. Do what the Yukinko asked you to do. It’s OK, Miriam. This is what I want.”

“No!” Miriam said weeping. “I am losing everyone I love. All my choices are wrong!”

Don reached for O-Yuki and kissed her passionately. Miriam wept as she saw a thin stream of ghostly silver ebb from his lips. Don was visibly weakening. “She killed Martin,” he gasped at Miriam. Miriam grabbed for her thermos, Don nodded his agreement as she poured the boiling hot water over the Yukionno’s head. The Yukionno melted in his arms as the soul left his body. Miriam looked down at Don’s smiling corpse as she slid down the wall weeping uncontrollably, but there was a small practical voice in her head, maybe Martin’s voice, wondering how the hell she was going to explain all this.

The walk leading up from the Roddick gate to the Arts building at McGill is lined with trees. Mariko, Amanda and Miriam planted two trees on either side of the path. Japanese maples, a male and a female, grew there to honour their dead colleagues and friends, scattering their seeds in the springtime and their scarlet leaves in the fall.