“A Natural History of Autumn”

Jeffrey Ford

October 31, 2016 
The following is from Jeffrey Ford’s collection, A Natural History of Hell. Ford has been a college English teacher of writing and literature for thirty years. He is the author of eight novels including The Girl in the Glass and four short story collections. He has received multiple World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards as well as the Nebula and Edgar awards among others.

On a blue afternoon in autumn, Riku and Michi drove south from Numazu in his silver convertible along the coast of the Izu Peninsula. The temperature was mild for the end of October, and the air was clear, the sun glinting off Suruga Bay. She wore sunglasses and, to protect her hair, a yellow scarf with a design of orange butterflies. He wore driving gloves, a black dress shirt, a loosened white tie. The car, the open road, the rush of the wind made it impossible to converse, and so for miles she watched the bay to their right and he the rising slopes of maple and pine to their left. Just outside the town of Dogashima, a song came on the radio, “Just You, Just Me,” and they turned to look at each other. She waited for him to smile. He did. She smiled back, and then he headed inland to search for the hidden onsen, Inugami.

They’d met the previous night at the Limit, an upscale hostess bar. Riku’s employer had a tab there and he was free to use it when in Numazu. He’d been once before, drunk, and spent time with a hostess. Her conversation had sounded rote, like a script; her flattery grotesquely opulent and therefore flat. The instant he saw Michi, though, in her short black dress with a look of uncertainty in her eyes, he knew it would be a different experience. He ordered a bottle of Nikka Yoichi and two glasses. She introduced herself. He stood and bowed. They were in a private room at a polished table of blond wood. The chairs were high-backed and upholstered like thrones. To their right was an open-air view of pines and the coast. She waited for him to smile and eventually he did. She smiled back and told him, “I’m writing a book.”

Riku said, “Aren’t you supposed to tell me how handsome I am?”

“Your hair is perfect,” she said.

He laughed. “I see.”

“I’m writing a book,” she said again. “I decided to make a study of something.”

“You’re a scientist?” he said.

“We’re all scientists,” she said. “We watch and listen, take in information, process it. We spin theories by which we live.”

“What if they’re false?”

“What if they’re not?” she said.

He shook his head and took a drink.

They sat in silence for a time. She stared out past the pines, sipping her whisky. He stared at her.

“Tell me about your family,” said Riku.

She told him about her dead father, her ill mother, her younger sister and brother, but when she inquired about his parents, he said, “Okay, tell me about your book.”

“I decided to study a season, and since autumn is the season I’m in, it would be autumn. It’s a natural history of autumn.”

“You’ve obviously been to the university,” he said.

She shook her head. “No, I read a lot to pass the time between clients.”

“How much have you written?”

“Nothing yet. I’m researching now, taking notes.”

“Do you go out to Thousand Tree Beach and stare at Fuji in the morning?”

“Your sarcasm is intoxicating,” she said.

He filled her glass.

“No, I do my research here. I ask each client what autumn means to him.”

“And they tell you?”

She nodded. “Some just want me to say how big their biceps are but most sit back and really think about it. The thought of it makes all the white-haired ojiisans smile, the businessmen cry, the young men a little scared. A lot of it is the same. Just images—the colorful leaves, the clear cold mornings by the bay, a certain pet dog, a childhood friend, a drunken night. But sometimes they tell me whole stories.”

“What kind of stories?”

“A very powerful businessman—one of the other hostesses swore he was a master of the five elements—once told me his own love story, about a young woman he had an affair with. It began on the final day of summer, lasted only as long as the following season, and ended in the snow.”

“What did you learn from that story? What did you put in your notes?”

“I recorded his story as he’d told it, and afterward wrote, ‘The Story of a Ghost.’

“Why a ghost?” he asked.

“I forget,” she said. “And I lied—I attended Waseda University for two years before my father died.”

“You didn’t have to tell me,” he said. “I knew when you told me you called the businessman’s story ‘The Story of a Ghost.’

“Pretentious?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“Maybe,” she said and smiled.

“Forget about that,” said Riku. “I will top that make-inu businessman’s exquisite melancholy by proposing a field trip.” He sat forward in his chair and touched the tabletop with his index finger. “My employer recently rewarded me for a job well done and suggested I use, whenever I like, a private onsen he has an arrangement with down in Izu. I need only call a few hours in advance.”

“A field trip?” she said. “What will we be researching?”

“Autumn. The red and yellow leaves. The place is out in the woods on a mountainside, hidden and very old-fashioned, no frills. I propose a dohan, an overnight journey to the onsen, Inugami.”

“A date,” she said. “And our attentions will only be on autumn, nothing else?”

“You can trust me when I say, that is entirely up to you.”

“Your hair inspires confidence,” she said. “You can arrange things with the house on the way out.”

“I intend to be in your book,” he said and prevented himself from smiling.

After hours of winding along the rims of steep cliffs and bumping down tight dirt paths through the woods, the silver car pulled to a stop in a clearing, in front of a large, slightly sagging farmhouse—minka style, built of logs with a thatched roof. Twenty yards to the left of the place there was a sizeable garden filled with dying sunflowers, ten-foot stalks, their heads bowed. To the right of the house there was a slate path that led away into the pines. The golden late-afternoon light slanted down on the clearing, shadows beginning to form at the tree line.

“We’re losing the day,” said Riku. “We’ll have to hurry.”

Michi got out of the car and stretched. She removed her sunglasses and stood still for a moment, taking in the cool air.

“I have your bag,” said Riku and shut the trunk.

As they headed for the house, two figures appeared on the porch. One was a small old woman with white hair, wearing monpe pants and an indigo Katazome jacket with a design of white flames. Next to her stood what Michi at first mistook for a pony. The sight of the animal surprised her and she stopped walking. Riku went on ahead. “Grandmother Chinatsu,” he said and bowed.

“Your employer has arranged everything with me. Welcome,” she said. A small, wrinkled hand with dirty nails appeared from within the sleeve of the jacket. She beckoned to Michi. “Come, my dear, don’t be afraid of my pet, Ono. He doesn’t bite.” She smiled and waved her arm.

As Michi approached, she bowed to Grandmother Chinatsu, who only offered a nod. The instant the young woman’s foot touched the first step of the porch, the dog gave a low growl. The old lady wagged a finger at the creature and snapped, “Yemeti!” Then she laughed, low and gruff, the sound at odds with her diminutive size. She extended her hand and helped Michi up onto the porch. “Come in,” she said and led them into the farmhouse.

Michi was last in line. She turned to look at the dog. Its coat was more like curly human hair than fur. She winced in disgust. A large flattened pug face, no snout to speak of, black eyes, sharp ears, and a thick bottom lip bubbling with drool. “Ono,” she said and bowed slightly in passing. As she stepped into the shadow beyond the doorway, she felt the dog’s nose press momentarily against the back of her dress.

In the main room there was a rock fireplace within which a low flame licked two maple logs. Above hung a large paper lantern, orange with white blossoms, shedding a soft light in the center of the room. The place was rustic, wonderfully simple. All was wood: the walls, the ceiling, the floor. There were three ancient carved wooden chairs gathered around a low table off in an alcove at one side of the room. Grandmother led them down a hallway to the back of the place. They passed a room on the left, its screen shut. At the next room, the old lady slid open the panel and said, “The toilet.” Farther on, they came to two rooms, one on either side of the hallway. She let them know who was to occupy which by mere nods of her head. “The bath is at the end of the hall,” she said.

Their rooms were tatami style, straw mats and a platform bed with a futon mattress in the far corner. They undressed, put on robes and sandals, and met in the hallway. As they passed through the main room of the house, Ono stirred from his spot by the fireplace, looked up at them, and snorted.

“Easy, easy,” said Riku to the creature. He stepped aside and let Michi get in front of him. Once out on the porch, she said, “Ono is a little scary.”

“Only a little?” he asked.

Grandmother appeared from within the plot of dying sunflowers and called that there were towels in the shed out by the spring. Riku waved to her as he and Michi took the slate path into the pines. Shadows were rising beneath the trees and the sky was losing its last blue to an orange glow. Leaves littered the path and the temperature had dropped. The scent of pine was everywhere. Curlews whistled from the branches above.

“Are you taking notes?” he called ahead to her.

She stopped and waited for him. “Which do you think is more autumnal—the leaves, the dying sunflowers, or Grandmother Chinatsu?”

“Too early to tell,” he said. “I’m withholding judgment.”

Another hundred yards down the winding path they came upon the spring, nearly surrounded by pines except for one spot with a view of a small meadow beyond. Steam rose from the natural pool, curling up in the air, reminding Michi of the white flames on the old lady’s jacket. At the edge of the water, closest to the slate path, there was ancient stonework, a crude bench, a stacked rock wall covered with moss, six foot by four, from which a thin waterfall splashed down into the rising heat of the onsen.

“Lovely,” said Michi.

Riku nodded.

She left him and moved down along the side of the spring. He looked away as she stepped out of her sandals and removed her robe, which she hung on a nearby branch. He heard her sigh as she entered the water. When he removed his robe, her face was turned away, as if she were taking in the last light on the meadow. Meanwhile, Riku was taking Michi in, her slender neck, her long black hair and how it lay on the curve of her shoulder, her breasts.

“Are you getting in?” she asked.

He silently eased down into the warmth.

When Michi turned to look at him, she immediately noticed the tattoo on his right shoulder, a vicious swamp eel with rippling fins and needle fangs and a long body that wrapped around Riku’s back. It was the color of the moss on the rocks of the waterfall.

Riku noticed her glancing at it. He also noticed the smoothness of her skin and that her nipples were erect.

“Who is your employer?” she asked.

“He’s a good man,” he said and lowered himself into a crouch, so that only his head was above water. “Now, pay attention,” he said and looked out at the meadow, which was already in twilight.

“To what?” she asked, also sinking down into the water.

He didn’t respond, and they remained immersed for a long time, just two heads floating on the surface, staring silently and listening, steam rising around them. At last light, when the air grew cold, the curlews lifted from their branches and headed for Australia. Riku stood, moved to a different spot in the spring, and crouched down again. Michi moved closer to him. A breeze blew through the pines, a cricket sang in the dark.

“Was there any inspiration?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s time for you to tell me your story of autumn.” She drew closer to him, and he backed up a step.

“I don’t tell stories,” he said.

“As brief as you want, but something,” she said and smiled.

He closed his eyes and said, “Okay. The autumn I was seventeen, I worked on one of the fishing boats out of Numazu. We were out for horse mackerel. On one journey we were struck by a rogue wave, a giant that popped up out of nowhere. I was on deck when it hit, and we were swamped. I managed to grab a rope, and it took all my strength not to be drawn overboard, the water was so cold and powerful. I was sure I would die. Two men did get swept away and were never found. That’s my natural history of autumn.”

She moved forward and put her arms around him. They kissed. He drew his head back and whispered in her ear, “When I returned to shore that autumn, I quit fishing.” She laughed and rested her head on his shoulder.

They dined by candlelight, in their robes, in the alcove off the main room of the farmhouse. Grandmother Chinatsu served, and Ono followed a step behind, so that every time she leaned forward to put a platter on the table, there was the dog’s leering face, tongue drooping. The main course was thin slices of raw mackerel with grated ginger and chopped scallions. They drank sake. Michi remarked on the appearance of the mackerel after Riku’s story.

“Most definitely a sign,” he said.

They discussed the things they each saw and heard at the spring as the sake bottle emptied. It was well past midnight when the candle burned out and they went down the hall to his room.

Three hours later, Michi woke in the dark, still a little woozy from the sake. Riku woke when she sat up on the edge of the bed.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I have to use the toilet.” She got off the bed and lifted her robe from the mat. Slipping into it, she crossed the room. When she slid back the panel, a dim light entered. A lantern hanging in the center of the hallway ceiling bathed the corridor in a dull glow. Michi left the panel open and headed up the hallway. Riku lay back and immediately dozed off. It seemed only a minute to him before Michi was back, shaking him by the shoulder to wake up. She’d left the panel open and he could see her face. Her eyes were wide, the muscles of her jaw tense, a vein visibly throbbing behind the pale skin of her forehead. She was breathing rapidly, and he could feel the vibration of her heartbeat.

“Get me out of here,” she said in a harsh whisper.

“What’s wrong?” he said and moved quickly to the edge of the bed. She kneeled on the mattress next to him and grabbed his arm tightly with both hands.

“We’ve got to leave,” she said.

He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. It wasn’t perfect anymore. He carefully removed his arm from her grip and checked his watch. “It’s three a.m.,” he said. “You want to leave?”

“I demand you take me out of this place, now.”

“What happened?” he asked.

“Either you take me now or I’ll leave on foot.”

He gave a long sigh and stood up. “I’ll be ready in a minute,” he said. She went across the corridor to her room and gathered her things together.

When they met in the hallway, bags in hand, he asked her, “Do you think I should let Grandmother Chinatsu know we’re leaving?”

“Definitely not,” she said, on the verge of tears. She grabbed him with her free hand and dragged him by the shirtsleeve down the hallway. As they reached the main room of the house, she stopped and looked warily around. “Was it the dog?” he whispered. The coast was apparently clear, for she then dragged him outside, down the porch steps, to the silver car.

“Get in,” he said. “I have to put the top up. It’s too cold to drive with it down.”

“Just hurry,” she said, stowing her overnight bag. She slid into the passenger seat just as the car top was closing . He got in behind the wheel and reached over to latch the top on her side before doing his.

Michi’s window was down and she heard the creaking of planks from the porch. She leaned her head toward her shoulder and looked into the car’s side mirror. There, in the full moonlight, she could see Grandmother Chinatsu and Ono. The old lady was waving and laughing.

“Drive,” she shrieked.

Riku hit the start button, put the car in gear, and they were off into the night, racing down a rutted dirt road at fifty. Once the farmhouse was out of sight, he let up on the gas. “You’ve got to tell me what happened,” he said.

She was shivering. “Get us out of the woods first,” she said. “To a highway.”

“I can’t see a thing, and I don’t remember all the roads,” he said. “We might end up lost.” He drove for more than an hour before he found a road made of asphalt. His car had been brutalized by the crude paths and branches jutting into the roadway. There would be a hundred scratches on his doors. During that entire time, Michi stared ahead through the windshield, breathing rapidly.

“We’re on a main road. Tell me what happened,” he said.

“I got up to use the toilet,” she said. “And I did. But when I stepped back out into the hallway to return, I heard a horrible grunting noise. I swear it sounded like someone was choking Grandmother Chinatsu to death in her room. I moved along the wall to the entrance. The panel was partially open, and there was a light inside. The noise had stopped so I peered in, and there was the shriveled old lady on her hands and knees on the floor, naked. Her forearms were trembling, her face was bright red, and she began croaking. At first I thought she was ill, but then I looked up and realized she was engaged in sexual relations.”

“Grandmother Chinatsu?” he said and laughed. “Who was the unlucky gentleman?”

“That disgusting dog.”

“She was doing it with Ono?”

“I almost vomited,” said Michi. “But I could have dealt with it. The worst thing was Ono saw me peering in and he smiled at me and nodded.”

“Dogs don’t smile,” he said.

“Exactly,” she said. “That place is haunted.”

“Well, I’ll figure out where we are eventually, and we’ll make it back to Numazu by morning. I’m sorry you were so frightened. The field trip seemed a great success until then.”

She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. “Perhaps that was the true spirit of autumn,” she said.

“‘The Story of a Ghost,’” he said.

The silver car sped along in the moonlight. Michi was leaning against the window, her eyes closed. Riku thought he was heading for the coast. He took a tight turn on a narrow mountain road and something suddenly lunged out of the woods at the car. He felt an impact as he swerved, turning back just in time to avoid the drop beyond the lane he’d strayed into.

Michi woke at the impact and said, “What’s happening?”

“I think I grazed a deer back there. I’ve got to pull over and check to see if the car is okay.”

Michi leaned forward and adjusted the rearview mirror so she could look out the back window.

“Too late to see,” he said. “It was a half-mile back.” He eased down on the brake, slowing, and began to edge over toward the shoulder.

“There’s something chasing us,” she said. “I can see it in the moonlight. Keep going. Go faster.”

He downshifted and took his foot off the brake. As he hit the gas, he reached up and moved the mirror out of her grasp so he could see what was following them.

“It’s a dog,” he said. “But it’s the fastest dog I ever saw. I’m doing forty-five and it’s gaining on us.”

They passed through an area where overhanging trees blocked the moon.

“Watch the road,” she said.

When the car moved again into the moonlight, he checked behind them and saw nothing. Then they heard a loud growling. Each searched frantically to see where the noise was coming from. Swerving out of his lane, Riku looked out his side window and down and saw the creature running alongside, the movement of its four legs a blur, its face perfectly human.

“Kuso! Open the glove compartment. There’s a gun in there. Give it to me.”

“A gun?”

“Hurry,” he yelled. She did as he instructed, handing him the sleek nine millimeter. “You were right,” he said. “The place was haunted.” He lowered his side window, switched hands between gun and wheel. Then, steadying himself, he hit the brake. The dog looked up as it sped past the car—a middle-aged woman’s face, bitter, with a terrible underbite and a beauty mark beneath the left eye, riding atop the neck of a mangy gray mutt with a naked tail. As soon as it moved a foot ahead of the car, Riku thrust the gun out the window and fired. The creature suddenly exploded, turning instantly to a shower of salt.

“It had a face,” he said, maneuvering the car out of its skid. “A woman’s face.”

“Don’t stop,” she said. “Please.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Now,” she said, “who is your employer? Why would he send you to such a place?”

“Maybe if I tell you the truth it’ll lift whatever curse we’re under.”

“What is the truth?”

“My employer is a very powerful businessman, and I have heard it said that he is also an onmyoji. You know him. In a moment of weakness he told you a story about an affair he had. Afterward, he worried that you might be inclined to blackmail him. If the story got out, it would be a grave embarrassment for him both at home and at the office. He told me, spend time with her. He wanted me to judge what type of person you are.”

“And if I’m the wrong kind of person?”

“I’m to kill you and make it look like an accident,” he said.

“Are you trying to scare me to death, you and the old woman?”

“No, I swear. I’m as frightened as you are. And I couldn’t harm you. Believe me. I know you would never blackmail him.”

She rested back against the car seat and closed her eyes. She could feel his hand grasp hers. “Do you believe me?” he said. In the instant she opened her eyes, she saw ahead through the windshield two enormous dogs step onto the highway thirty yards in front of the car.

“Watch out,” she screamed. He’d been looking over at her. He hit the brake before even glancing to the windshield. The car locked up and skidded, the headlights illuminating two faces—a man with a thin black mustache and wire-frame glasses, whose mouth was gaping open, and a little girl, chubby, with black bangs, tongue sticking out. On impact, the front of the car crumpled, the air bags deployed, and the horrid dogs burst into salt. The car left the road and came to a stop on the right-hand side, just before the tree line.

Riku remained conscious through the accident. He undid his seatbelt and slid out of the car, brushing glass off his shirt. His forehead had struck the rearview mirror, and there was a gash on his right temple. He heard growling, and, pushing himself away from the car, he headed around to Michi’s side. A small pot-bellied dog with the face of an idiot, sunken eyes, and swollen lower lip was drooling and scratching at Michi’s window. Riku aimed, pulled the trigger, and turned the monstrosity to salt.

He opened the passenger door. Michi was just coming around. He helped her out and leaned her against the car. Bending over, he reached into the glove compartment and found an extra clip for the gun. As he backed out of the car, he heard them coming up the road, a pack of them, speeding through the moonlight, howling and grunting. He grabbed her hand and they made for the tree line.

“Not the woods,” she said and tried to free herself from his grasp.

“No, there’s no place to hide on the road. Come on.”

They fled into the darkness beneath the trees, Riku literally dragging her forward. Low branches whipped their faces and tangled Michi’s hair. Although ruts tripped them, they miraculously never fell. The baying of the beasts sounded only steps behind them, but when he turned and lifted the gun, he saw nothing but night.

Eventually they broke from beneath the trees onto a dirt road. Both were heaving for breath, and neither could run another step. She’d twisted an ankle and was limping. He put one arm around her, to help her along. She was trembling; so was he.

“What are they?” she whispered.

“Jinmenken,” he said.


They walked slowly down the road, and, stepping out from beneath the canopy of leaves, the moonlight showed them, a hundred yards off, a dilapidated building with boarded windows.

“I can’t run anymore,” he said. “We’ll go in there and find a place to hide.”

She said nothing.

They stood for a moment on the steps of the place, a concrete structure, some abandoned factory or warehouse, and he tried his cell phone. “No reception,” he said after dialing three times and listening. He flipped to a new screen with his thumb and pressed an app icon. The screen became a flashlight. He turned it forward, held it at arm’s length, and motioned with his head for Michi to get close behind him. With the gun at the ready, they moved slowly through the doorless entrance.

The place was freezing cold and pitch black. As far as he could tell there were hallways laid out in a square, with small rooms off it to either side.

“An office building in the middle of the woods,” she said.

Each room had the remains of a western-style door at its entrance, pieces of shattered wood hanging on by the hinges. When he shone the phone’s light into the rooms, he saw a window opening boarded from within by a sheet of plywood, and an otherwise empty concrete expanse. They went down one hall and turned left into another. Michi remembered she had the same app on her phone and lit it. Halfway down that corridor, they found a room whose door was mostly intact but for a corner at the bottom where it appeared to have been kicked in. Riku inspected the knob and whispered, “There’s a lock on this one.”

They went in, and he locked the door behind them and tested its strength. “Get in the corner under the window,” he said. “If they find us, and the door won’t hold, I can rip off the board above us and we might be able to escape outside.” She joined him in the corner and they sat, shoulders touching, their backs against the cold concrete. “We’re sure to be safe when the sun rises.”

He put his arm around her, and she leaned into him. Then neither said a word or made a sound. They turned off their phones and listened to the dark. Time passed, yet when Riku checked his watch, it read only 3:30. “All that in a half-hour?” he wondered. Then there came a sound, a light tapping, as if rain was falling outside. The noise slowly grew louder, and seconds later it became clear that it was the sound of claws on the concrete floor. That light tapping eventually became a clatter, as if a hundred of the creatures were circling impatiently in the hallway.

A strange guttural voice came from the hole at the bottom corner of the door. “Tomodachi,” it said. “Let us in.”

Riku flipped to the flashlight app and held the gun up. Across the room, the hole in the bottom of the door was filled with a fat, pale, bearded face. One eye was swollen shut and something oozed from the corner of it. The forehead was too high to see a hairline. The thing snuffled and smiled.

“Shoot,” said Michi.

Riku fired, but the face flinched away in an instant, and once the bullet went wide and drilled a neat hole in the door, the creature returned and said, “Tomodachi.”

“What do you want?” said Riku, his voice cracking.

“We are hunting a spirit of the living,” said the creature, the movement of its lips out of sync with the words it spoke.

“What have we done?” said Michi.

“Our hunger is great, but we only require one spirit. We only take what we need—the other person will be untouched. One spirit will feed us for a week.”

Michi stood up and stepped away from Riku. He also got to his feet. “What are you doing?” she said. “Shoot them.” She quickly lit her phone and shone it on him.

Instead of aiming the gun at the door, he aimed it at her. “I’m not having my spirit devoured,” he said to her.

“You said you couldn’t hurt me.”

“It won’t be me hurting you,” he said. She saw there were tears in his eyes. The hand that held the gun was wobbling. “I’m giving you the girl,” he called to the Jinmenken.

“A true benefactor,” said the face at the hole.

“No,” she said. “What have I done?”

“I’m going to shoot her in the leg so she can’t run, then I’m going to let you all in. You will keep your distance from me or I’ll shoot. I have an extra clip, and I’ll turn as many of you to salt as I can before you get to me.”

Turning to Michi, he said, “I’m so sorry. I did love you.”

“But you’re a coward. You don’t have to shoot me in the leg,” she said. “I’ll go to them on my own. My spirit’s tired of this world.” She moved forward and gave him a kiss. Her actions disarmed him, and he appeared confused. At the door, she slowly undid the lock on the knob. Then, with a graceful, fluid motion, she pulled the door open and stepped behind it against the wall. “Take him,” he heard her call. The Jinmenkin bounded in, dozens of them, small and large, stinking of rain, slobbering, snapping, clawing. He pulled the trigger till the gun clicked empty, and the room was filled with smoke and flying salt. His hands shook too much to change the clip. One of the creatures tore a bloody chunk from his left calf, and he screamed. Another went for his groin. The face of Grandmother Chinatsu appeared before him and devoured his.

The following week, in a private room at the Limit, Michi sat at a blond-wood table, staring out the open panel across the room at the pines and the coast. Riku’s employer sat across from her. “Ingenious, the natural history of autumn,” he said. “And you knew this would draw him in?”

She turned to face the older man. “He was a unique person,” she said. “He’d faced death.”

“Too bad about Riku,” he said. “I wanted to trust him.”

“Really, the lengths to which you’ll go to test the spirit of those you need to trust. He’s gone because he was a coward?”

“A coward I can tolerate. But he said he loved you, and it proved he didn’t understand love at all. A dangerous flaw.” He took an envelope from within his suit jacket and laid it on the table. “A job well done,” he said. She lifted the envelope and looked inside.

A cold breeze blew into the room. “You know,” he said, “this season always reminds me of our time together.”

As she spoke she never stopped counting the bills. “All I remember of that,” she said, “is the snow.”



From A NATURAL HISTORY OF HELL. Used with permission of Small Beer Press. Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Ford.

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