It seemed like every winter we went to Algonquin Park for Christmas. There’s something comforting in the frigid temperatures, the beautiful scenic winter landscape and the occasional Blue Jay screeching its protest across the miles of frozen park. But the real allure was always getting together with my art buddies for some photography and a sketch or two, and a new set of memories to last us until the next year.
But this year, we got the chance to go to Asia for our Christmas trek. We wanted something really different and one of the guys got a contract to do a photo shoot in Japan, so naturally we all invited ourselves and hoped aboard. All we had to pay for were the flights; the meals and accommodations were covered, so it was a no-brainer.
It was the first time I was to do any photography on foreign soil -- or should I say, foreign snow. I've never been to Japan, so I was excited.
At least two of our regular crew was Japanese-Canadian, so the language would be no barrier when we eventually landed.
We arrived in Tokyo on December 10th, after a long, tiring 20-hour trip from Toronto. After picking up our baggage we headed for the exit where a beautiful Japanese girl greeted us carrying a sign that bore Dave’s last name, Doyama. She guided us to a black airport limousine and we began the first leg of our trip to our mountain cabin.
It took us a good seven hours. I had no idea where our supposed base was located, but from what Dave told us, it was deep in the country in the middle of a forest, and a few thousand meters above sea level in the mountains. The province, apparently, was something like Musahi or Musashi. Anyway, it sounded exotic.
It was dark when we drove up to the road leading to the cabin. It was under a meter of fresh snow and completely impassable by the limo. Whose bright idea was it to supply a limo instead of an ATV. My bet was on Peter Ngo, he’s ostentatious enough to take a Hummer to the laundromat. So naturally we had to travel the last leg to the cabin on foot, carrying all of our photographic equipment and luggage.
At least the night was crisp and clear and the stars blanketed the sky in amazing density. It actually did remind me of a winter night in Algonquin.
I asked David about this area and the log cabin, how long he'd known the owner and why they decided to use this locale for the shoot.
"It's my first time in this part of the province," he said. "All I know is that it's secluded and that’s what the client wants. Almost nobody comes up here. No electronics, but what we bring ourselves - nothing. Just nature’s tranquility and us." Dave talks in headlines.
"No history about the place?" I asked as we slogged up the path through the snow drifts. Chris and Peter were lugging our duffle bags from the limo and staying a few lengths behind, fooling around in the snow.
"Not too sure. I know that woodcutters used to come here to collect timber to sell. But, not too often."
"What do you mean not too often?" I asked.
With his head bent a little lower, he smiled at me, "There are tons of stories about people coming here at the wrong time of year. Mostly winter. Some of them make it, some end up in hospital, some end up dead. Anyway, it should be good this time of the year. The big snowstorms happen in January, not December."
We finally made it to the cabin. Big, rustic, strongly built, it also looked as if nobody had used it for years. Inside it was spacious and well furnished; the three bedrooms each had two double beds. We were going to be comfortable – at lease until the rest of the client’s crew arrived for the principal shoot. Dave was right about the electricity, though. There was none. Oil lamps, candles and a fireplace would be our illumination, and we’d have to hope our cell phones would get signals through the mountain range.
December 15th. The client’s shooting crew and the models have been delayed, so we’ve been goofing off for the past two days. We've taken gigabytes of beautiful photos of the Japanese winterscape. We found a backup generator under the crawlspace in the front room of the cabin and have been able to keep our batteries charged and ready for when they do show.
I got away on my own a couple of times and made a few charcoal sketches of the distant mountains. It was cold. My fingers couldn’t take it for too long, so I shot a few pix and brought them back to the cabin to my laptop and worked a 13 by 19 inch pastel from the images.
Something Chris and Pete said in passing about the last pictures bothered me. They asked who the chick was. I thought they were just being their natural jackass selves until I zoomed in on the 10 mega pixel images and there she was. The outline was definitely there in the pix. A woman’s shape showed in three of the last pictures on the card. Each one successively larger, as if she were moving closer to the camera. I didn’t remember seeing a woman – I didn’t see anyone – as I shot the images. Strange, but I figured it was just lens flare.
That night as the fire started to die down it became painfully evident we’d been using up our firewood like drunken sailors using up their rum rations. Since David and I were cooking, Chris and Pete were elected to go out behind the cabin and split some logs. They got dressed, took their flash lights and off they went.
Half an hour later, I mentioned to Dave that Chris and Pete either got lost finding the woodpile or took turns killing each other with the ax. He flashed a quick smile and said, “Better make sure. I’ll check.”
When he left I looked in on super, covered the various pots and dishes and went into the great room to stoke the fire back to life. The cabin was getting cold and it was too early to light the stoves in the bedrooms. (Each bedroom had its own miniature pot-bellied wood stove for heat.)
To keep the fire going in the living room, I dug deep into the wood box, picking up even splinters and pieces of bark. At the bottom of the box I found an old, dog-eared book among the newspapers used as fire starters. It was a diary actually. Curious, I began to read the yellowed pages. The first entry was on December 13th, the same day we arrived. The year though, was blurred, I couldn’t make it out. It was written in both English and Japanese, so I could at lease make sense of some of it.
The last entry was dated December 15th and it spoke of "Yuki-" someone. Whoever made the entry wrote in purple prose about a creature of unearthly beauty and unholy evil; a soul sucking ghost who walked on top of the snow, leaving no marks, and hunted humans foolish enough to wander into its domain. The creature supposedly stole its victim’s life force through a kiss.
I could understand why this particular journal ended up at the bottom of a wood pile; the only purpose for overwritten, juvenile fiction is kindling anyway. I shook my head and tossed it onto the dying fire.
Nearly in the same moment I heard a thudding at the cabin’s front door and thinking it was Chris and Pete with a load of firewood, I went to let them in. As I reached to open the door, a presentiment washed over me, a feeling of alien evil that raised the hair on the back of my neck. I hesitated before turning the doorknob, my heart pounding in my chest and my breath catching in my throat. I have never been susceptible to omens or warnings or heebie jeebies; this was just ridiculous.
I turned the knob and drew open the door. There was no one there.
Night had fallen fully and the moon was a pastel patch of fog behind a bank of rolling clouds that appeared to be washing in a monstrous wave directly over the cabin, obliterating the black of the night and replacing it with an opalescent dispersion of white. I'd never seen a night sky with those properties - not even in the high north of Canada; it was stunningly eerie. And wholly alien.
In my next breath, the sky seemed to rip open and huge, clinging snowflakes cascaded in a seeming blanket across my view. Suddenly I couldn't see beyond the corners of the cabin on either side of the door. The wind whipped into a deafening roar and a full-fledged snow storm crashed to the earth. I pushed the door against the raging wind in an attempt to shut out the icy blast, and as I did, I saw a woman materialize in the near distance, seemingly out of the very snowflakes whipping in parabolas before me. Nothing about her was distinct or defined except her eyes. Even from the dimness and distance, her eyes glowed with piercing yellow clarity that sliced into my brain in a scream of warning and terror.
I finally heaved the front door closed against the gale outside and drove the bolt home, locking what was outside, outside in the night.
Over the rasping of my breath and the pounding of my heart, I detected a faint muffled voice and a soft thumping at the kitchen door at the far end of the cabin. I didn't trust my senses and that hesitation haunts me to this day, because when I eventually crept to the kitchen, not even noticing the burning supper and over flowing pots, the faint thumping had stopped. I wrapped my fingers around a butcher's knife from the cutting board near the sink and opened the back door.
David lay at the doorstep, under a thickening blanket of heavy wet snow. His staring eyes pinned imploringly on the door. Behind David, crumpled over the stacks of cordwood and heaped with fresh snow, were Chris and Peter, eyes staring and skin white in the icy air. I stood there in the open doorway, staring at the bodies of my friends as they grew colder and stiffer in the grip of the winter's night, trying to bring a sense of reality back into the horror of the situation,but out of step with my own perception; no longer balanced in the world.
A splash of bright red caught my attention and I dropped my gaze to the snow at my feet. Blood. A steady stream of blood was splashing from somewhere and into the gathering snowbank pushing up to the cabin. Startlingly red against the pristine blue-white of the innocent seeming snow, the blood somehow completed the tableau. But where had it come from? I tracked my gaze from the snow and the streaking trail of crimson to the knife scraping rhythmically across my bare forearm, carving deep, straight gashes through the skin and into the meat and muscle.
A sickening heave of acidic revulsion doubled me and I vomited a stream of bile into the night and a scream from some primal part of my soul shattered the howl of the competing wind. I reeled into the cookstove and knocked pots and pans to the floor, burning my legs and hands as I pushed away from the red rimmed edges and stumbled into the main room and the last light from the dying fireplace.
Standing in the open doorway, backed by the opalescent night and caressed by the buffeting wind, was the woman with yellow eyes. She smiled and her teeth flashed tiny points and she laughed a soft, musical, happy laugh. And I didn't see her come into my arms and nestle her lips under my chin. I was unconscious as she nipped a tiny opening and lapped the warm stream. I didn't notice my breath being stolen. I don't remember her closing the wounds on my arm. I do think I remember her dripping something into my mouth - the taste of winter and the touch of hunger that will never leave me.