The Mountain Guardian

Submitted into Contest #191 in response to: Make Japan (or Japanese culture) an element of your story.... view prompt


Fantasy East Asian

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

When Sota asked Hisa to venture into the forest with him, she didn’t dare refuse.

Snow crunched under her shuffling steps. The cold stiffened her joints through the thin cotton of her kimono. Still, she trudged up the slope after Sota, for if she slowed down, who knew what he’d do. The person she feared most, more than the yokai rumoured to live in these mountains, was her own son.

At least this meant, for the time being, he wouldn’t hurt Megumi. She pictured her granddaughter in the hut, alone, taking care of household chores, or venturing out to tend the meagre few cabbages and onions the satoyama would yield at this time of year. Her stomach knotted as she wondered if they’d return to find Megumi had run away again. If that woman hadn’t found her last time… It didn’t bear thinking about.

When Sota stopped ahead of her, glancing around for the mushrooms they’d set out to gather, she hobbled to join him. Her lungs heaved icy air. Her head was light with hunger and exhaustion. She braced herself for another verbal lashing about how old and useless she’d grown.

What he did was something she hadn’t expected.

“I’m sorry, Mother.” Despite his words, his tone was unapologetic, devoid of warmth. He shoved at her back. Before Hisa could process what was happening, the snowscape whirled around her, crags rising as she tumbled down the ravine. Each impact brought with it a burst of agony, jarring and shattering her aged bones. One last slam, and she found herself sprawled on the valley floor like a discarded doll, staring up with pain-blurred vision at her son.

“Sota…” she whimpered, and gasped at the grinding sensation in her chest. She coughed, tasting salt. “Sota, why…?” She tried to prop herself up, but her left arm seared in protest, as did her right leg.

Unconcealed contempt etched Sota’s face. Hisa desperately searched for a hint of remorse in those features, but none showed. “What else was I supposed to do?” he spat. “Let you grow too old to work, and waste precious resources on you? Let you turn my Megumi soft? You only left me one choice.” He turned and headed away, disappearing into the mist.

As she watched him leave, the full weight of her situation struck. She should have known he meant to do this. She’d heard the urban legend of this happening to elderly women at the hands of their offspring – ubatsute - but had convinced herself Sota wouldn’t go that far. Pushing through the stabbing in her ribs, she managed faint cries for help, but the only response was the howl of the wind.

Tears ran down her face as she thought of Megumi. She wouldn’t get to return home to her. She wouldn’t sing to her after a hard day’s work anymore. She wouldn’t be able to protect her from Sota’s wrath. She gritted her teeth, her good hand clenched as she mentally reprimanded herself for letting Sota turn out the way he did.

Sights and sounds grew distant. Her mind filled with fog – which a voice cut through.

“What happened?”

Hisa’s heart leapt. She stared over at the approaching figure, and gasped, bringing on another jolt of pain. The woman looked undeniably familiar, with her long dark hair and white kimono, yet also inhuman. Instead of walking, she appeared to float over the snow, leaving no footprints. Frost glittered in her hair and on her deathly pale skin.

Even in her disoriented state, Hisa knew what this meant.

“Yuki-onna,” she choked out. That sudden hope soured to fear. She knew the stories of these beings, sometimes portrayed as benevolent spirits who helped the lost find their way, other times as monsters who drained the life force of mortals or froze them to death. In some tales, they could be both, depending on how they were treated.

Hisa swallowed her panic. Even in the worst-case scenario, she had nothing to lose. “I-I fell… wasn’t looking… Please, help me.” She couldn’t meet the stranger’s eyes, or bring herself to say what had actually happened. That would make it real.

The woman crouched, her lack of conviction evident on her face. “I’m afraid I can’t save the life you’re used to,” she explained, “but I can give you a new one. You recognised what I am.” She paused, letting her words sink in. “If you accept, you’ll be like me.”

At first, Hisa remained silent. Could she trust this woman? Even if the yuki-onna had no ulterior motives, could she abandon her old life, her old self, so easily? The stranger’s face fuzzed in front of her, and her chest burned as her breathing grew more and more laboured, reminding her that the only alternative was death.

It took all her effort to force the words out. “Please do.”

The woman placed her hand on Hisa’s shoulder. Cold spread outwards from her touch, numbing the wounds, yet somehow bringing no discomfort of its own. The oddest sensation followed, that of dissolving. Whether into vapour, or a flurry of flakes, Hisa couldn’t say. All she knew was that her body became weightless, less substantial by the second, until it gradually reformed.

Once she could move, she stretched out her arm. Her fingers, once knobbly and bent, were straight, smooth… and pale. As pale as the skin of the yuki-onna. The other yuki-onna. She sat up, half expecting pain, but none came. The crimson patches on the ground were the only signs that the fall had ever happened. Not only this, but her movements were more fluid than ever.

“Thank you…” She stood and bowed. Strands of hair hung loose from her bun, black instead of grey, tiny ice crystals shimmering along them. “Thank you so much. I-I must ask though… Who are you?”

The stranger gave the slightest of smiles. “My name is Shiroko.” Hisa hadn’t expected first name basis so quickly, but depending on the yuki-onna’s origins, it was possible she didn’t have a last name. “I’m the guardian spirit of this mountain,” she continued, “who tends to nature in the coldest months, and helps guide lost travellers.” She studied Hisa, recognition dawning. “I do believe, during one such incident, that we met.”

Hisa’s mouth fell open. She really did know that face, minus the pallor and frost. “That was you. You found my granddaughter. Saved her.” She dipped her head again. “I-I don’t know how to thank you enough for everything. There’s just… There’s just one thing I’m wondering, though.” The thought lingered, clouding her relief. “She lives alone now, with my son. If she saw me like this, it would scare her, confuse her. It’s likely she wouldn’t even recognise me. But if there’s a way I can still see her… and, well, protect her…” She trailed off, gaze drifting to the white of the ground.

Shiroko’s face turned solemn. “Protect her?”

Fists balling, Hisa sighed. “As grateful as I am… There’s a reason why she ran away.”

She watched Shiroko’s eyebrows furrow. “She told me there’d been an argument, that she’d overreacted. If I’d known for sure, I’d have done more to help.” Those eyes seemed to pierce right through Hisa. “And your case… It wasn’t just a fall, was it?”

For a second, Hisa remained still, silent. Then she shook her head. “How did you know?”

“When you’ve lived so long in the forest…” It was Shiroko’s turn to sigh. “You see betrayals like this all too often. Older women, usually, abandoned to the elements, or pressured into taking their own lives. I was always a yuki-onna, but there are others here, many others, who weren’t.” There was a hardness to her gaze, at odds with her former gentle demeanour. “Some use their new form to take revenge. And it’s within your power, if you wish, to do so.”

Hisa’s stomach lurched. “No… No I can’t.” She took a step back, and when no crunch sounded, realised she was floating slightly above the ground. This was all too bizarre to take in. “He’s my son. I can’t hurt him.” She couldn’t even bring herself to think of inflicting a yuki-onna’s typical punishments on Sota, no matter how much he lashed out physically and verbally at Megumi.

“Besides, I’m the one who raised him. We didn’t have much, but I doted on him to the point that he now treats others as if they only exist to serve him. And for him to vent his frustrations at, especially since his wife passed.” Her voice dropped to a murmur. “Sometimes he does so violently. I’m the one who’s damaged and dishonoured the family, and for that I have to take responsibility.”

Shiroko’s expression didn’t change. “It’s a common thing,” she explained, “for women to blame themselves for others’ actions. You can’t have been the only influence on him. And sometimes there’s no telling how somebody will turn out. As for revenge, not everybody wants to go to extremes – in fact, those who do are rarely satisfied, continuing to lash out at the world as hate and bitterness consume them.” Hisa shuddered as she listened, recalling tales of onryo, vengeful spirits whose grudges twisted them into monsters.

“But,” Shiroko continued, “you can save your granddaughter.”

Hisa’s eyes widened. She dared let hope swell through her once more. “I-I can? How?”

The corners of Shiroko’s blue-grey lips twitched up. “First,” she said, “I must teach you how to use your new abilities.”


Until now, Hisa had thought herself patient. As she practiced turning herself into mist, though, only to grow dizzy, reform and stumble, worries about Megumi nagged at her. What was Sota telling her right now, about her disappearance? How was he treating her? Spurred on by these fears, she pushed herself, and staggered once more.

“If you need to rest, I won’t blame you,” Shiroko reassured her.

Jaw clenching, Hisa stood. “I can’t. I have to keep going for Megumi.”

With that, she tried again, willing her body to evaporate. It was the most disorienting experience she’d known. Somehow she could still see and hear, but couldn’t shake the dread that if she lost focus, she’d disperse into nothing on the breeze.

Once she’d gotten a decent grip on her brumous form, it was time to practice altering her appearance, to pass for human as Shiroko had done that day. She bent over a frozen lake, visualising her former appearance. Taking on mortal guise proved much easier than evaporating, like slipping into worn yet comfortable clothing; her features shifted into familiar ones, hair fading to grey, deep lines etching her skin. Colour flushed her cheeks, and there wasn’t a frost crystal on her body in sight.

After she’d changed from her youthful self to her elderly one and back several times, she saw Shiroko’s reflection nearing.

“Would you say,” her new mentor asked, “you’re ready to do this?”

Turning round, Hisa gave a resolute nod.


If the situation hadn’t been so fraught, Hisa would have marvelled at how effortless the walk – or rather, drift – was. She’d almost forgotten was it was like to move without her hips and lower back protesting. Before long, the satoyama came into view, the fields mostly empty of produce and glazed with a thin crystalline layer. At the centre stood the straw-insulated hut. A house that was no longer a home.

Silently, they made their way up the path. Hisa took a deep breath of frigid air, and evaporated into it, seeping under the rickety door and reappearing inside the hut.

Gasps and yelps greeted her, as did two stunned faces. Sota staggered back. “Who are you,” he demanded, “and what are you doing in my home?”

Hisa let her youthful features shift into aged ones he knew all too well. “Our home, you mean.”

Sota stood rooted to the spot, mouth open. It was Megumi, through her tears, who spoke up.

“Grandmother!” The ten-year-old ran forward. “Father said… He said there was an accident, you fell…”

“Get away from that creature.” Sota grabbed Megumi’s arm, pulling her back so hard she toppled and cried out. “That isn’t your grandmother. That’s an impostor, a trickster spirit.” Visibly trembling, he kept his glare on Hisa. “Whoever you are, why must you mock us at a time like this?”

Ignoring him, Hisa ran to Megumi and helped her up. As she did so, she hummed her usual song, the one that had always brought her granddaughter comfort.

Megumi stared and blinked. Her bewildered expression gave way to a grin of pure joy. “It’s really you! Father, it is her, she’s back!”

Hisa returned the smile. “I’m not going anywhere just yet.”

She turned her attention to Sota, whose face contorted into a scowl, even though he didn’t dare approach. “Don’t fall for her tricks,” he warned, with the waver of someone denying the truth.

Taking on her younger, taller and less human form, Hisa drew closer to her son, making him back against the wall. “I don’t care what happens to me,” she said. “But I do care what happens to Megumi. And you won’t lay another finger on her as long as I’m around to watch over her.” Glancing at the closed door, she raised her voice. “Or as long as others are.”

On cue, white fog billowed from under the door and solidified into Shiroko, earning a cry of recognition from Megumi. “You heard her.” Shiroko’s words cut through the air, which chilled around her. “Try anything, and we’ll know.” They wouldn’t, necessarily. It was already obvious to Hisa that yokai weren’t all-knowing. Still, the threat appeared to convince Sota, who cowered.

She turned to Megumi, her form wrinkling back into the one she’d had throughout her final years as a mortal. “If you want, you can even come with us. There’s a place in the woods where you can live. If you’d rather stay here, I’ll understand, but…” Her gaze slanted towards Sota. “Remember our warning.”

The fear hadn’t entirely left Megumi’s eyes, but her face lit up. “I can leave this place?”

Sota brought himself to inch forward. “I’m not letting you take her!”

“We’re not taking her,” Hisa replied, keeping her tone steady, reminding herself she didn’t have to be afraid of him anymore. “We’re giving her a choice.”

Megumi glanced from Hisa and Shiroko to her father, then back, before speaking up. “I’ll do it. I’ll come with you.”

At her words, Sota slumped against the wall. “Megumi… How can you be so selfish? I thought your grandmother gone. Now you’re going to abandon me too?”

Hisa wanted to ask him how he liked being abandoned, but thought better of revealing the truth to Megumi just yet. Instead, she echoed his words to her. “Don’t fall for his tricks.”

Megumi clenched her fists by her sides. “I’m sorry. But I can’t stay here.”

Tentatively, Hisa slipped her arm around her granddaughter’s shoulders. Her touch would surely be colder now than it used to be, and she felt the child’s muscles tense, but they quickly relaxed. “Then let’s go.”

As the three headed away, Hisa cast one more look behind her. Sato sagged to the floor, head drooping as he held back tears, his anger cooling to resignation. His reaction brought on a pang of guilt, of maternal instinct to somehow lessen the damage, but as she opened the door, she reminded herself of the harm he’d done Megumi. Harm he wouldn’t get to do again.

The plan wasn’t without its risks. Shiroko had hinted earlier at some yokai being as dangerous as the stories said, and the thought terrified Hisa with each step into the woods. Still, she knew deep down that Megumi would be better off here than back in her old home. Some monsters, after all, were human.

With each passing day she and her granddaughter spent in the woodland village, the more at ease she grew. Local kitsune guarded the clearing with illusions created to confuse humans, so they’d find themselves back at the forest’s edge. And one thing was certain. If anyone did try to hurt Megumi, they’d have to answer to Shiroko, one of the oldest and most powerful spirits of these mountains.

Time went by, blossoms growing and falling from the trees spread out at the mountain’s base, followed by leaves. Sometimes Hisa would venture from the dwelling and pass by the satoyama, glimpsing Sota hunched over the crops. By the look of it, he never married again or fathered any more children, wallowing in his self-pity alone.

And Megumi, as she grew, found herself faced with another choice. Shiroko had explained what it would entail, that she’d mature to her prime, then become ageless. As sought after as immortality was, some people ended up resenting it.

It was one winter that she stated her decision. “I’m ready.” In the middle of the clearing, she approached Shiroko, her feet leaving prints for the last time. “I’ve been vulnerable for too long. I want to be strong, like both of you.”

Mixed emotions coursed through Hisa. The fears for her granddaughter never fully ceased, but a smile spread across her face. The elderly, wrinkled face she chose to wear all the time, since it was the one Megumi knew, albeit with a dusting of frost to show that she embraced who she was. “If you’re sure,” she said, “then you have my blessing.”

With a tender gaze, she watched Shiroko settle her hands on Megumi’s shoulders, the girl’s form rippling at her touch as mist swirled around her. Just as Hisa had once done, Megumi was now closing the door on her old life, embracing the new one the mountain guardian had granted.

March 31, 2023 01:40

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03:19 Apr 09, 2023

You so skillfully brought these cold winter scenes to life. Some of your prose is very evocative.. "The woman placed her hand on Hisa’s shoulder. Cold spread outwards from her touch, numbing the wounds, yet somehow bringing no discomfort of its own.." I think the way you call out to all the five senses. Megumi being young but choosing to join the yuki-onna to escape her family is an interesting dark theme. For the critique circle, I think as Japanese names, genders and scenes are a bit unfamiliar to English language readers, and this is a s...


Philippa Hibberd
08:05 Apr 09, 2023

Thanks for the critique! Yeah, I've been told not adding enough description is a weak point of mine, so I'll keep it in mind. I've internalised that common writing advice of keeping adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, as well as always showing and not telling, even though following those "rules" can make stories less immersive.


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Unknown User
05:43 Apr 02, 2023

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Philippa Hibberd
08:10 Apr 02, 2023

Thanks, glad you like the character development!


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