Winter's Last Breath

Summary: On the ferry to Jeju, I saw the avatars of changing seasons.

A crisp wind caused me to shudder as I walked alongside the railing. I was returning from a conference in Fukuoka to Jeju on the car ferry, after boarding in Busan. It was longer, but I wanted a scenic route as my last few weeks researching in Korea wound down in March. I beheld the rocky coast against a gray sky, thinking they resembled the teeth of some great, terrible beast. Indeed, the sea always was. It was here before the first human, and it would be here after the last.

It would be a few hours before I saw the familiar pine-encrusted slopes of Mount Halla over the horizon, so I walked out on the observation deck. The Korean couple behind me retreated into the cabin, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I wondered how transient the borders in the nations in the surrounding waters were, and what they would be in the centuries from now. Feeling another chill, I reflected that the seasons were at least one certainty.

For a moment, the air grew still. The sounds of the engine ceased, leaving a mechanical staccato I could not quite describe. During the cacophony, I felt an unearthly chill, as if the winters of distant steppes descended upon the deck. I heard ominous tuval throat singing, as though the Mongol horde was approaching. Then she approached from starboard.

She had smoothed skin of pure white, like an animated doll made of ice. She dressed in a facsimile of hide armor, like that worn by the steppe peoples in antiquity. Her hair was long, strait, and blue, like a frigid river. In each of her hands was a curved saber, a weapon favored by the Eurasian nomads of prior eras. In place eyes were orbs of ice, which settled upon me like an eagle spotting prey.

Her gaze turned as I felt a warmer breeze from port. I smelt the earthen smells of fresh cut flowers, of herbs and leaves. The petals of cherry blossoms blew over the railing from the sea, and they swirled in a wind I could not feel. They formed an outline that suggested a humanoid form, which bloomed into being before me. Like the icy interloper, this one saw me.

The floral figure was not comprised of solid matter. It was a gathering of creeping vines, blooming branches, and vivid flowers. The thing formed the vague outline of an armored samurai, a face concealed by a wooden mask. I wondered if it was some sort of echo or remnant of those that perished in the ill-fated Imjin War, but this was altogether a different entity. I sensed a different vibe, as it drew a katana to unleash a wave of cherry blossoms through the air. It stepped towards the other like a force of nature, an incarnate inevitability of change.

The icy woman bowed as the newcomer did. She drew her swords as the katana arced towards her. She caught the descending blade in her own like a pair of scissors, twisting her head as the springtime samurai thrust forward. A line of cold water wept from the cut on her chin, freezing solid before it struck the deck beneath them. She sliced him along his exposed arm, causing a spray of cherry blossoms like blood.

The duel continued, but I was the only one to behold such a spectacle. The duelists' maneuvers were fast, circular, and beautiful, halfway between dance and combat. They drew blood, but never fatally. They pranced and pirouetted like spinning tops, while ice melted and flowers bloomed. By the end, the icy woman with the double sabers was felled by a thrust through her midsection. She melted into a pool of water that seemed to flow off the deck, but she reappeared whole and unharmed a moment later. They bowed to each other, they bowed to me, and they vanished as soon as I blinked.

There was no record of such an event on the ship's security cameras, despite my consternation. None of the other passengers or crew seemed aware of such a thing. Not wanting to make a further fool of myself, I remained silent as the vessel returned to Jeju City. I saw the pine trees looming on Halla's foothills like waiting sentries. I noticed something on the bus ride home, though.

Jeju is home to its own cherry trees, cousins of the Japanese variety. Their arrival typically heralds the arrival of spring. They'd come out in my absence, covering the roads with brilliant petals. It was relatively warm, so I removed my sweater. I was not quite sure what I saw, but I knew winter was fading into memory. I wondered if the next seasonal transition would be similarly memorable.