The first fresh snowfalls usually came around the end of November. You could tell they were coming using the large willows in our quiet neighborhood. The trick was when you saw the vibrancy start to fade from the canopy of leaves. People usually mistake it for when the leaves start to fall, but that isn’t a great sign since they start falling early. Once you got used to it, it was easy to notice the difference. The leaves surged with vivid oranges and yellows and reds at the start of fall, and over the weeks, it was as if the crispy cool air slowly coaxed out the youthful energy those colors contained, fading to a muted autumn and eventually a dull brown. That was always the point I knew we were in winter, the season of snow and tranquility and of moonless nights and quiet.
Even though winter meant the season when nights stole time from the days and I had to triple-layer my socks given mom’s rule to not raise the heater above a steady 62, I always looked forward to it because the snow gave me comfort. My regular routine during the winter when I came home from school was to claim the best seat in the house as my studying nook: the seat at our kitchen table with a perfect angle to the window to admire the willows and survey the street. I’d usually have a few textbooks with me, my favorite .5 mechanical pencil, and a black and white composition journal I used to write random thoughts in. I loved peering outside when a passage of literature gave me pause or I needed to figure out a complex geometry problem. Something about looking out the frosted over window gave me solace from the stress associated with classes and getting honors and fitting in and all of that. Especially so when there was a light blanket of snow being laid down by the sky, and you could see the willows getting dressed up in all-white with their fancy top hats and thick coats as if they were getting ready for a ball. I could almost see the marble-tiled dance hall, the street lights dazzling chandeliers, the winding branches swinging round and round to the music of the winter breeze.
Maybe the reason I really found snow comforting was that it was something that I could see, feel, and understand. It was my outlet to escape the messiness I found at school in the constantly updated social standing for who was deemed cool enough. I’ve worked my whole life by this standard, but I never understood it. Why did I work so hard for something that I didn’t really want? I didn’t like the way I constantly monitored my behavior, how it shaped me to my core. Seeing the snow always helped me break out of this mindset, to remember carefree days of carefully constructing a snowball bigger than myself, designing my body’s signature in the stretch of lawn out front, and collecting mental pictures of icicle formations. In that world, neither the faceless angels nor the many-faced trees would judge me for who I was. Snow gave me a path to freedom, a secret exit to escape the trials of my reality.
I remember the first time I learned the Japanese word for snow, yuki, from my mom. I suppose my fascination with snow started very early on when I was four or five, and I had successfully convinced my parents to take me out into the freshly constructed powdery playground in front of our house. My energetic jumping and contagious delight over this soft, cool-to-the-touch, yet ephemeral substance infected my parents too, and they broke with their traditional formality to join in the fun, even tossing the occasional snowball at each other. I galloped and tumbled and scoured my newfound land, staking my claim. After a surprise snow attack, my mom had pulled me into her lap and asked if I knew what this stuff was called.
“It’s called snow, Riki, yuki” my mom said.
“Can I be yuki instead of Riki then?” I asked.
“No, silly, imagine what your obachan would say!” my mom laughed.
One autumn day, when the leaves were still bursting with color, I was in Mr. Kubus’ study hall, rewriting my highlights from biology when I was interrupted by some commotion a couple rows to the left. Glancing over, I recognized Amir sitting at his desk looking downwards to the side and Michael and Morgan caging him in on the sides.
“… don’t score any points for the team, so why are you even on it?” Michael finished.
“yeah, remember last week against Bakerfield when you tried to shoot from the three and it went straight to their point?” Morgan snorted.
“He’s just trying his best” I found myself blurting quickly. I also found myself suddenly tentatively perched against the desk that had separated us at the beginning, teetering on the edge of the barrier that had given me safety from the messiness.
“Oh, look. Riki has something to say.” Morgan piped.
By now they had straightened their backs and fully turned their attention to me, their new challenger, while Amir was still looking down, saying nothing, now trying his best to fade into the background.
“Trying his best, huh? That’s funny coming from someone who doesn’t do any sports or play any instruments or… Do anything at all really.” Michael inquired.
“Just someone completely useless,” Morgan said with a wide grin, obviously pleased with his sinker.
I stood there unmoving, staring past their grinning mouths and gleaming eyes, twin masks of delight as predators act when they find new prey to play with. I had fortunately found a nice spot to rest my eyes on in the distance, a tiny square in our classroom window, reflections of the afternoon light dancing in the corners and past that, a light smattering of snow over the main walkway. I wondered why I had put myself in this position, why my body had moved to undermine itself. My thoughts raced past each other and tangled together, mixing everything into big confused jumbles, while my body stayed perfectly still, frozen like the snow outside. That’s when I remembered another thing my mom taught me when I first learned about snow.
“You know, you don’t need to be yuki because you are already yūki in a lot of ways,” my mom remarked while we were taking a break watching tiny droplets fall from the sky.
“I’m already snow?”
“Yuki means snow, but yūki means courage. Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head, flinging stray snow in every direction.
“Courage is when you know something is hard, but you push yourself to do it anyway.”
“But, what if I’m scared?”
“That’s okay. Being scared means you can be courageous. Being scared but doing it anyway is yūki.”
As if on cue, that’s when my dad barged in with a surprise flurry of snowballs from behind. Splat. Floosh. Thump. A cacophony of sounds as the snowballs collided with everything from the blanket of snow around us to the oak trunks we sat by to our supple backs.
Michael and Morgan’s meddling fingers slammed into my shoulder blades, my side, my cheeks as they savored my body recoiling from their flicks and slowly surrounded me, closing in on the kill. They got up in my face, taunting me to make a move. This was an evolved form of bullying: not a show of brute force, but a cold-hearted, calculated threat—an indication that I was not a person so much as a symbol representing the powerless.
I certainly felt powerless. I was scared of how this would change my coolness standing. I was scared of what they would do to me in the future. I was scared of them taking me away from my comfortable routine. But I was also scared of what it meant to let them continue, to sit there and let the nastiness of the world grow and fester. The shifting of light outside, cascading across the snow caught my attention. I remembered what snow meant, and what being scared enabled me to do. The powerlessness and the fear forgotten in the rush of adrenaline, I blurted with a surprising hardness to my voice,
“Stop flicking me, and stop making fun of Amir all the time. It’s not making you guys any cooler.”
They didn’t expect me to say anything, let alone something so forceful, so they paused their attack in a moment of shock. As if waking up from a dream, they broke their shock by attempting to laugh it off.
“Riki here thinks he’s so cool, huh? Well you’re starting to bore us anyway,” Michael huffed as they prowled off.
Looking back now, it seems clearer that something in the way I presented myself for that statement had shaken them a bit—they didn’t pick on me out of the blue anymore, as if wary of setting off that part of my inner self. I learned how to wield my yūki.
Seeing snow now still sometimes brings up a lot of memories of carefree days where my only job was to have fun and learn about the world, where you go through the world amazed at every little thing you see. It’s everything summed up in that first feeling of wonder I felt when I saw the yard covered in something new and unexplored. However, more and more, as I’ve grown up and watched the world harden in front of me along with encountering the Michaels and Morgans of the world, I found myself identifying less and less with that feeling. It wasn’t easy to relate to carefree days and the innocent wonder my kid self felt as I learned how cruel children could be and how many adults were just slightly larger children. Sometimes I would reminisce and wonder what it would be like if everyone could embrace this sort of child-like wonder at everything and we wouldn’t have any more problems. Then of course, I would be pulled back into the hardness of reality.
My association with snow had solidified from something innocent and whimsical to something mature and real. It wasn’t like I buried my initial memories of wonder and excitement, but the primary memory I found myself thinking about now was yūki not yuki, the courage to stand up for that innocent playfulness, to do the hard, scary thing in my own way and stand up for what I feel. Every time I start doubting myself and fearing the world, like that chilly autumn day in Mr. Kubus’ classroom, where I’m caught between my beliefs and the concrete barriers of reality, I think back to that carefree day when I found my snow.
This was a creative short story written to play on the concept of snow and courage. It was sent out as the 13th installment of my 100 posts experiment.