Winter was well on its way.
Each day felt a little more gray, just a tad gloomier. The clouds drooped over the roofs, heavy-bottomed and dark. Though the sunset came earlier and earlier, it made little qualitative difference in the damp chill.
Yotsuba, however, did not seem to notice. Though everyone around her dragged a little more slowly, she ran and trampled and hopped and crashed with as much verve as ever.
Mrs. Ayase taught her a song for when she hung teru teru bōzu. "Remember this one," Mom said, "for good weather, it's essential."
"Ah, I see." Yotsuba leaned in and listened with all her might.
Make tomorrow a sunny day
But if it's cloudy and you are crying,
Then I shall cut off your head.
Yotsuba practiced it wherever she went. She tossed Duralumin to its rhythm, pedalled her bike with the lyrics on her lips, swept the floors with half a mind on the song.
If rain meant the sky cried, then the sun shone a smile.
Koiwai was in the midst of unpacking the kotatsu one dark afternoon when Yotsuba skidded into the room.
Backing away, she pointed at the heater with a trembling finger. "What is THAT?"
He patted the table's surface. "It won't hurt you."
"Yes, it will!" Her eyes glimmered with sudden tears. "I don't like it!"
"It's new," he explained. "This one won't hurt you."
During her first winter in Japan, Yotsuba crawled under Koiwai's mother's old kotatsu. She was hiding from the mean cat with one ear who picked on her, but then she fell asleep in the warm cave. When she was called for lunch, she jerked awake, knocking her head on the table while her flailing arm caught the underside of the heater.
Ever since then, she refused to put so much as a toe under the quilt.
Now, she crossed her arms and squinted at the kotatsu.
"Hm." She seemed to have picked up the expressions and grunts of a cranky, distrustful old man. "Hrmmmm."
Koiwai knelt in front of her and took her hand. "It won't burn you. I won't let it."
Her chin lifted. "Daddy won't let it?"
Yotsuba exhaled gustily and narrowed her eyes.
"I promise," Koiwai added.
She peeked over his shoulder. "I'll give it one chance, then. One."
"Good, good." Koiwai straightened up and returned to the kotatsu. "I'll let it know it's on probation."
"Thank you!" Calling over her shoulder, Yotsuba clattered away down the hall. "Your cooperation is appreciated!"
Fuuka invited Yotsuba to Sports Day celebrations at her school. The events had been rescheduled from October 2nd, though it was already far too cold, according to Mrs. Ayase, for anyone to be running around in shorts.
Yotsuba turned up on time, just after lunch on a raw November day. Duralumin was strapped to her back with what appeared to be a bungee cord. (It was a bungee cord; Yotsuba had found it by the park and squirrelled it away in her box until the day came when Yanda tried to steal Duralumin.)
She wore her customary jersey and shorts. Her only concession to the weather was a pair of red ribbed knee socks that reached well past her knees and sagged around her ankles. Her cheeks, from just the short walk over from next door, were red as the socks. Even her hands were mottled white and pink.
Mrs. Ayase insisted on bundling Yotsuba up. She found an old sweater that Ena had outgrown, some corduroy overalls, and last year's spring coat.
"Osagari," Yotsuba repeated, tasting the word, as Mrs. Ayase buttoned up the coat and tucked a fluffy scarf into the collar. "Hand-me-down clothes."
"That's right," Mrs. Ayase said. She smoothed down Yotsuba's hair, her hand lingering on the silky curve. "Because it's cold."
"Because it's cold!"
Yotsuba held out Duralumin. "Now her turn."
The small field-lots were shorn now. Stubbly stalks poked up out of the ground and hurt her palm when Yotsuba patted them. No longer green, they were yellow-brown and withered. In the mornings, frost clung to them like old man's stubble.
The stream running along the street wasn't to be played in any longer. The water was covered with thin sheets and cakes of ice, whorled with bubbles, the pieces broken and jagged. Where the sun hit the ice, it shone wetly and gradually bobbed down into the dark water and disappeared.
Mr. Toad no longer came out to play. Yotsuba waited for hours -- it felt like forever and ever -- squatting beside the stream. She held a long stick in one hand and prodded the muddy ice with it.
Miura claimed that Mr. Toad and his family were asleep in the mud under the ice. Yotsuba figured that even if that were true -- and such a thing was highly unlikely -- she could wake him up with a well-place poke of the stick.
First, though, she had to find him.
The forecast for the weekend said there was a good chance of snow.
"Ha! I don't think so, mister," Yotsuba told the TV meteorologist. "Just you try."
Koiwai handed her a glass of juice. "You don't have any idea what you're saying."
Yotsuba was vehement. "Of course I do! With the...snow. And the precipi-ma-ta-mation!" She snorted. "As if."
"Snow," Koiwai said. "You remember snow. At Grandma's."
Yotsuba frowned, scrunching up her eyes. She tilted her head to the side, perhaps in the hope that clearer hearing would mean quicker comprehension.
"You've seen snow before..."
"Ah!" She jumped straight up and landed heavily, her knees bent. "Penguins!"
Her arms locked to her sides, only her hands flapping out parallel with the floor, she proceeded to waddle in circles, clucking and chattering to herself. Though she sounded more like a barnyard chicken than any penguin, Koiwai nodded. "Yes. Penguins live in snow. But so have you."
Yotsuba stopped short and wobbled for balance. "I think I would remember that, Daddy!"
"Because your memory is so sharp, huh?"
"SHARP!" She nodded so vigorously that her pigtails bobbed and slapped against her skull. "Like a knife, that's right! Swick-swick."
That was supposed to be the sound of a knife, but Yotsuba had already returned to playing penguin. Arms straight down and legs locked together, she waddled out of the room and down the hall.
When the snow did come, Yotsuba's world changed. She stepped out of her house into a white, whirling landscape. Everything -- houses, cars, fences, even her bike -- had grown in size, swollen up with snow. The weak sun played over icicles, dazzling her vision, setting her off-balance.
She sank into the snow, fell forward, and scrambled up again. Everything was hiding in the snow. Things were no longer themselves, but transformed. Each spoke in her bike's wheels, for example, was precisely mounded. The street, though it had been plowed earlier that morning, did not look straight and hard any longer. Instead, it looked soft, rounded everywhere it was once sharp, like cake icing and mounds of mochi.
Grown-ups stumbled and slid. Some just stared upward, dazed, their cheeks reddening.
They would never admit it, but the world had become unfamiliar to them. They were at its mercy, just like kids always were.
Anything could happen.
"The world," she told Daddy in the bath later, "is dreaming."
When he laughed at her, she insisted. "Rain, tears. Sun, smile. Snow, dream."
"Then let's hope it doesn't wake up," Koiwai said.
Yotsuba agreed wholeheartedly.
In the park, Yotsuba started to build a snowman. She chose a secluded spot for him, behind a larger maple, in a slight hollow and away from the trail.
Rolling up snow, however, was harder work than she had expected. She sat down on misshapen ball, dug her toes into the snow, and decided that she needed a plan. Daddy made agendas when he didn't know what to do, so she would do the same.
First off, she would not be building an ordinary lumpy snowman. Two balls of snow, plus a face: she would do much better than that.
No, she would make a robot. Robots were smarter and stronger than any man. All the other snowmen across the park would die when summer came, melt away in torrents of tears and grief, but not hers.
With her own robot, she could run any errand, embark on any adventure, do whatever she pleased. She wouldn't need to wait for a grown-up, or even Fuuka, to take her somewhere. She'd be a lot safer when accompanied by a robot.
Next on the agenda, she had to build the robot. Robots were like people, but squared-off. Boxy. That's where their strength came from.
She marched all the way back to her street, let herself into the Ayase residence, and gathered up the pans she recalled seeing in the kitchen cabinets. They were for loaves of bread (and pound cake, Fuuka insisted). Perfect for making bricks of snow.
She helped herself to a banana from the fridge and went on her way.
Back in the park, she packed snow into the pans, then tipped out the bricks. Soon enough her mittens were soaked, her fingers numb, and she had two big legs well underway.
In Canada, they build houses from snow. She couldn't remember where she had learned that, but she liked the idea. Maybe, if Sno-Bot grew big enough, she could live inside.
When she needed to, for travelling during adventures and suchlike.
A parcel arrived from Yotsuba's grandmother. Koiwai was not expecting anything, so he let Yotsuba open it. After quite the tussle with the wrapping paper, she confronted the intractable packing tape. Koiwai silently handed her the blunt child's scissors and she set to work shredding it open.
He turned in his chair and saw Yotsuba tugging out clothes -- very old-fashioned clothes, like plaid polyester pants he had worn as a child, mustard yellow and spring green -- and flinging them about.
"They came!" Yotsuba clambered to her feet and brought an armful of clothes to him. "Because it's cold. I told Grandma I needed old clothes. Os-a-, osa-, osanagari!"
"Osagari," he said automatically. He plucked out a red and white scarf from the middle of the pile. "Looks like Grandma made you something, too."
"Whoa..." She stroked the scarf as gently as if it were a kitten. "How generous!"
Koiwai had learned the hard way that it was best to spring surprises on Yotsuba. She did not handle waiting, or patience, or anything related to patient waiting, very well at all.
Besides, she reacted so delightedly when he did surprise her that he could not resist.
"SKATING?" she echoed when he surprised her after lunch. "WHAT IS THIS?"
He mimed an ice skater's glide across the kitchen floor. "Ice skating."
Yotsuba flushed and clapped her hands. "I think this is a capital idea and I will be there with spirit!"
"...where do you hear these things?" No one spoke like that outside of old Hollywood movies and second-rate fiction.
She did not reply, too busy already thundering up the stairs to get changed.
When she emerged, she was wearing Koiwai's boyhood pants, a crimson turtleneck sweater and the wool coat that the Ayases had given her. Duralumin made an unsightly lump on her back, beneath the coat. Her new scarf was knotted around her neck like a business man's tie.
Somehow, without Koiwai knowing quite how, Ena and Jumbo joined them at the bus stop. And Miura was waiting for them outside the gates to the rink.
Yotsuba's methods of communication were mysterious, but very effective.
Koiwai had not skated since university. He did not expect to get much skating done, of course, not with Yotsuba to look after.
She clung to the aluminum trainer, the contraption like those that the elderly use to help them walk, her legs sliding and splaying out behind her. Every time he tried to help her, she turned fierce and stubborn. Her cheeks flared red, her brow furrowed deeply. "I am not an amateur, you know! I CAN DO THIS."
She was always crankiest when most frustrated. He had to let her slip and slide, wobble and wreck her way once around the rink. With the lump on her back, the walker in front, and her face screwed up in concentration, she resembled no one so much as a centenarian, huffing and puffing with great effort for very little distance.
As she rounded the far side of the rink, she was briefly obscured by a pack of teenagers giggling and clutching at each other. When he could see her again, Yotsuba waved both hands over her head as if guiding a jetliner down to its landing.
Her walker slipped away from her. Koiwai's breath caught in his throat.
Yotsuba windmilled her arms, and then, it appeared, kicked out both her legs like a Cossack dancing.
Somehow, astonishingly, she remained upright.
"Triumph!" Yotsuba yelled and punched the air. "One more win for Team Koiwai!"
Ena and Miura skated hand-in-hand, swooping past Yotsuba as they gathered speed. Jumbo clapped Koiwai on the back and shouted his congratulations to Yotsuba.
Koiwai pushed off from the wall to meet Yotsuba.
Almost immediately, he knew that he was going too fast. The faces of other skaters blurred past, and Jumbo was shouldering him aside, and then Yotsuba's walker was coming up on him very quickly. Now the scored surface of ice tilted to meet him.
The next thing he knew, Koiwai bounced off the ice, his arm and face shrieking with pain from the impact. His nose bled, going jelly-thick in the cold, and his hand dangled as awkwardly as a stray mitten from his wrist. He could not seem to sit up.
Yotsuba stared down at him.
She was so small, yet she filled his vision. Her face was paler than snow, her eyes dark and wet, scared.
Jumbo took Koiwai to the emergency room. He called the Ayases later and asked them if they would mind very much watching Yotsuba. Fearing concussion, the doctors wanted to hold Koiwai overnight. He had broken his arm and his nose in the fall.
"Daddies can't break," Yotsuba argued, but her heart did not seem to be in it. She spoke softly and did not meet anyone's eyes. "They're invincible."
Mrs. Ayase had never seen a child -- one who was not very ill, that is -- so sluggish. Yotsuba did not respond to her attempts to cheer her up with a banana cream puff, nor to Fuuka's offer of unlimited piggyback rides, nor even Ena's attempt to dress up Duralumin in a frilly dress.
Asagi tried to distract her by bringing out a crochet hook and ball of yarn. "Here, watch me."
Asagi's right hand twisted and pulled, flashing side to side, and, soon enough, she had produced a small, lopsided square of crochet.
Yotsuba blinked. "Why are you doing that?"
Asagi snipped the yarn and handed it to Yotsuba. "For you."
"Thank you," Yotsuba said dully. She turned the square over, then turned it 90° around before tucking it into her pocket. "I'm sure this will prove useful."
"You try --" Asagi pushed the hook and yarn across the table. Any other time, Yotsuba would already have clambered into her lap and grabbed the supplies for herself. "Here, I'll help."
She wrapped the yarn over Yotsuba's index finger and thumb, then handed her the hook. Yotsuba looked from left to right, then back again. Her shoulders sloped; the nape of her neck looked soft where her hair parted. Asagi held Yotsuba's right hand loosely and showed her how to grab the yarn with her hook, then draw it through the loop on her left hand.
"Like fishing," Yotsuba said as she struggled to yank the loop through.
"What's that?" Asagi asked.
"You have to hook it through the fish's face." A metal hook, tearing flesh, being swallowed by a bug-eyed trout; red yarn tangled in small hands. "Then you dig it out with the stick."
Asagi said nothing. Yotsuba pushed the hook in and out, the chain of stitches growing downward.
Yotsuba did not sleep. She couldn't.
The room was altogether too big. She lay at the bottom of an enormous refrigerator, bigger and colder even than the ones at Jumbo's shop. The ceiling rose away from her, receding into the dark. The walls grew taller and taller and the ceiling rose higher than a hot-air balloon.
Yotsuba lay at the very bottom.
She thought of Mr. Toad, snuggled in the cold mud, asleep. She thought of Sno-Bot, standing guard beneath the tree, powered down for the night. She started to think of Daddy, but something under her breast bone clenched and jerked.
She refused to cry. She would not cry.
She thought of Mr. Toad, and Sno-Bot, and Duralumin next to her, tucked under her arm.
At night, the world closed its eyes and slept. Why couldn't she?
The light in the room shifted slowly, going silver to blue and back to silver.
Daddy knelt on the floor next to the futon, rubbing her shoulder until Yotsuba sat up with a start.
"Daddy!" She bit her bottom lip and squinted. "Am I dreaming?"
He shushed her and kissed her head. His arm was in a sling; the cast sounded hollow when she knocked on it. His nose was swollen like a squash, while one eye was bruised purple-black and puffed-up shut.
He looked like a panda. Exactly like a handsome, tired panda. One who needed to brush his hair and shave.
Yotsuba told him so. She even remembered to whisper.
"Thank you." He rose stiffly to his feet, good hand out to help Yotsuba up. "I hope you were good for Mrs. Ayase."
Yotsuba was tangled up in her red sweater and did not reply. When she worked out the trouble with the arm, she hopped up and down for Daddy to pick her up.
"You need a better arm," she told him as they tiptoed to the front door. "A strong one so you don't break again."
"I do," he agreed.
"I'll make you one." Yotsuba held the door open for him while he pulled on his boots, one handed and clumsily. "A better arm, strong and invincible."
"You will, huh?" He took her hand as they let themselves out the Ayases' gate and turned for home.
"An osagari arm out of snow and yarn," Yotsuba said. Her words puffed white and round in the pre-dawn cold. "You can count on me."
"Roger that," he said and squeezed her hand.
The street was deserted, fresh snow hugging every surface. The world was theirs alone, hushed and twinkling.
Yotsuba grinned up at him. Her smile beamed bright and wide.
"It's going to be all right, Daddy. I'm here."