Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Of Snow, and Ice Sculpted

by Rónán MacDubhghaill

The windows of her apartment always seemed to be steamed up. Light broke through the morning, and was lent a silver aspect that seemed to make everything glow fragile.

We woke that morning with less urgency than was her habit. I let my hand linger a while upon her thigh, though we both understood by then that this was no more than the gesture implied. It was my last morning in Scotland, the leaving of which was always hard. All the more as we had already determined that the next time we would meet would be far from there.

“Come on you, get up!” she said, thrusting a cup of coffee in my direction. “There’s still a lot to see!”

“You’re right. There’s always stuff to see. But can’t we stay in bed just a bit longer, it’s good and warm and sweet. Please.”

“Okay. Just the time to finish that muck, mind you.”

As much out of remorse as anything else, I sat nursing it until well after it went cold. Finally, I downed it in one go, bitter and all though it was, and let myself be dragged out into Edinburgh’s streets.

During the summer, we had dreamt deeply, as children and as lovers. I would bargain that she still does not know what good that slumber gave me. I suppose it was out of affection that we allowed inertia to bring us that far, though I still don’t know what I did to deserve hers.

Our flights were long, and of course, they were separate. In Tokyo we met for the last time as lovers, but this time we did not linger. In Edo, the snow fell softly, but turned to ash or water upon touching the ground.

We boarded a bullet headed north, and the snow piled on thicker and faster and thicker still. When we arrived at the northern tip of Honshu all was frozen around us. Without wasting time, we took off and darted under the sea, coming finally to Sapporo. There was a great weariness in me then, and the ice all around felt like it penetrated my heart. Still, she took my hand and put up with my petulance a while longer, to try and show me some beauty.

Sapporo, on the northern isle of Hokkaido, is host to a festival of snow sculptures that must be seen to be believed. Castles, dragons, villages, steam engines, and mountains alongside manga characters, fearful monsters, and more pack the street; teams come from all over the world to labour through the winter to make them. Combined with the darkness, the snow, and the light, they lend a character of complete otherworldliness to the city. One night, we stood together and watched a team put the finishing touches on a replica of Himeji Castle that took up the width of the city’s broadest street. I was enraptured, in awe, but it didn’t prevent the cold from reaching all the way inside me, extinguishing something. Trudging back to bed that night, I absently wondered if it would ever return to me, or if the cold would be there for good.

The next day, we continued deeper into that island that felt like a continent; this sense of enormity was perhaps a consequence of the difficulty with which one moves in the cold. We were in winter’s home. My beard froze at night and in the daytime my heart never melted.

On our second night, my companion plied me with Sapporo brand beer that came in enormous cans meant for sharing, and prevailed upon me to accompany her to the bathhouse. Not for any erotic purposes, you understand. We still shared a bed, but more out of fiscal prudence than anything else, a gesture to her Calvinist side. No, maybe she was afraid, though I can’t imagine what of. The more likely answer is that she sensed the cold that had gotten into me, and was searching more thoroughly than I for a means to knock it out of me.

We were the only ones in the changing room. Naked, we looked out through the glass window at the bath. Snowflakes floated down and the steaming pool looked inviting. I thought it best to seem brave, so I pushed the door open. Padding carefully outside, our fingers and hands stuck stubbornly to whatever we touched, twenty degrees beyond bloody cold.

Sinking into the hot water was less of a shock than I had anticipated. I later learned that water heated by volcanic activity was reputed to be softer, such that one doesn’t feel burned, even at extremely high temperatures. These were some of the elements which described the contradictory magic of this place. But like any decent contradiction, or worthy magic, it seemed that there was something missing, just beyond the scope of my perception — some subtle layer beneath the water.

When I lifted my head from the pool, my scalp clenched involuntarily, a feeling as if it were being tugged at by a tiny child. It had frozen solid; I reached up and was surprised to feel it hard and cold. The night was still and the snow fell thick and soft, but the water was good and hot. I looked across the length of the pool into my companion’s eyes, which were animated by that same contradiction.

I plunged into the pool to defrost my head, and of course within a moment or two of emerging it froze over again in the cold, but this time incompletely. When I smiled sincerely, broadly, it felt like it was the first time it had happened since that winter began. The waters, it seemed, of that spa village actually seemed to do what they promised: there was again a flame kindled within me. And to hell with it, I could feel again!

Ruefully, she smiled at me and said, “It froze again, right?”

“Aye, not straight away, but still. Incredible. I’m so glad we came here. It’s done me good.”

“Yeah, better than sitting inside reading depressing Portuguese writers anyway, you mouldy auld shite!” she said, splashing water at me.

Above us, the snow continued to float through the sky: but it fell no more. Our scalps thawed. Our hands moved more freely than before. The ground outside the bath was still stiff, but we no longer feared its step. We brought some of the water’s warmth back to our room with us. I cupped her breasts in my hands, tenderly, she draped her arms around my shoulders, and pressed her lips onto the nape of my neck, for old times’ sake.

The next morning, it was I who was first to rise from bed, for a change. Walking to the end of the village, we arrived at the ski-lift, which doubled as a gift-shop for all ten skiers that were to be found. With borrowed snowshoes in hand and blind optimism, we made our way toward the mountaintop. I told her that I knew the way back down: someone had scribbled a map for me on the back of a train ticket. The snow was thick and getting thicker, but not for the first time she said she believed me. From the top of the first mountain from which we could see our target, Asahidake herself, some five hundred metres overhead. Taking off uphill, we disturbed the zen of the skiers, who had set themselves up at the top of the slope like some well-trained troupe of kabuki-ka waiting to perform their parts in an elaborate spectacle scripted long ago.

Of course, we had been warned about volcanoes, and knew that Asahidake herself was such a hill. In this endless season, though, in this unmoving place, these great mounds seemed little more than a reminder of the violence which lay reposing beneath the surface. Ultimately, it was a reminder that somewhere else, things were still moving. But at least here, we thought we could contradict Galileo: we thought to keep things still a while. Here, we supposed, the tigers were all asleep, and besides, everyone in those reaches knew that their purple stripes were attributable to their diet of lichen, and of ivy.

We were only halfway up the mountain when the smell of sulphur and of melting ice came, terrifying and exciting us. We sensed that the mountain had come back to life. She gripped my hand tightly and looked at me with something like trust in her eyes. Madly, I said I thought that it would be safe to continue up the mountain all the way to the top. For a time, we trudged on through the snow, but soon the sulphur was too thick for us to keep our eyes properly open. It was only when we saw the rock flow red down the hillside that we started to panic.

Turning, I wanted to take off downhill. “Come on!” I said. But she held me by the shoulder, and shook me.

“No! Just a little further; I saw a hut through the trees there, we’ll find help, or a way out of this yet.”

It was always I that pretended knowledge of mountains, but now I allowed myself to be led up the hill instead. She led us to a small hut, the hide-out of someone gone too far off piste. We didn’t have time to contemplate it though, with the smoke gathering around us and the growling of the mountain growing thick. Inside, we found a sledge.

“Sure I’ve no notion how to ride one of those,” I said, panic in my voice. “Maybe we’re better just to wait it out here in the hut?”

“Are you mad, would you look at it out there? We have to go. Now!” She managed, to her merit, not to blame me for having taken us there, as she might have.

We took off downhill, through the smoke and the snow. It wasn’t long until we passed the kabuki-ka still practicing kata in the snow, nearly ready to depart themselves. With the sulphur and sense of danger itself behind us, we could again see clearly. We were relieved and when the land started to even out, and when we caught sight of the valley we loosened our grip on the sledge. Slowly, it came to a stop amidst a frozen forest. We knew more or less the way we had to go, and fixing our snowshoes once more we took off.

Near the edge of the village, we came to a large pool of water. At first, we were amazed to see that not only was it not frozen, but that it steamed, and that around it for several metres, green grass still grew, gold apples clung to the trees. When I think back to it, it is almost strange how normal it was for us in that moment to strip and step into the water, wading all the way until it came up to our chests. There, well deep into the pool, we turned to face one another. As we did, I saw one of the tigers move at the far end of the pool, purple stripes vivid between the snow and the grass. Whether she had come for heat or to feed, I did not know: but genuinely, I was not afraid.

Some time later, we returned to our ryokan, where we were presented with bowls of steaming soup and saké. Weary from our ordeal, though, we soon retired to our room. The next day we returned to Sapporo, and from there to Tokyo. Gazing out the window, we were warmed watching the retreat of snow.

Back in Tokyo, once more we felt like ants surrounded by the enormity of this city that seems to go on forever. One might say that it is a composite city, a metaphor for the urge to seek comfort in numbers. This time around we revelled in this fact, we celebrated it. She indulged herself in Japanese art, and I gorged on sashimi. On our last night, we drank in piss alley and sang karaoke in Shibuya. Somewhere along the way we picked up midnight friends whose names I don’t remember; together we found a tiny jazz concert in Ebisu, where a Japanese John Coltrane redeemed us.

It was only when we eventually got back to our room, towards daybreak, that I understood what had happened. Looking across from my bed to hers, I knew that something had happened.

Reaching out her hand, she strained to place a finger on my chest. “The distance from my hand to your heart does not differ.”

Clasping her finger in my hand, I grasped the change that had come over us.