Sunday, July 29, 2007

House of Dolls pt 1

She watched the life in the manor go on around her from the shadows, not understanding why she was treated as if she did not exist and always longing for just one kind soul to ease her loneliness and see her.
Divided into two parts due to size.

Read House of Dolls pt 1

Disclaimer: My story, so nothing much to disclaim. Perhaps I should do a “claimer” instead? I claim to have a big lack of imagination when it came to naming this story. There, I said it. ;P

House of Dolls pt 1 of 2
By Carola “Ryûchan” Eriksson

When I was a child it did not seem strange to me that I had no mother or father, nor that I in fact had no-one that tended especially to me the way other children had. It did not seem strange to me that I lived alone in an otherwise abandoned old earth cellar on the master’s estate, that I was always alone, shunned and hungry, or that the clothes I wore were tatters. It did not seem strange to me because it was all I knew, and I was not the only one on my master’s estate that was so besieged by poverty. For a while children and the elderly died everywhere one looked, and in all the faces I saw a look of the quiet resignation that mirrored my own. It was simply the way things were.

The glory days of the family that owned this land were long gone, but the mistress of the house clung to the old ways for far to long, leaving the servants to starve and suffer as we were far too many for what the household could support at that time. Illness swept the world as well as poverty, and fate cleaned out our numbers in our master’s place. I have some faint recollections of a pale woman reaching out for me and I have always assumed that she must have been my mother, leaving me with the conclusion that my mother passed away in the same illness that took so many lives back then.

I was a solitary child and unclaimed by anyone on the grounds, but I survived anyway on the kindness of others. Although there was not much to go around, the women would every so often leave a bit of food and some outgrown piece of worn clothing at a special rock for me to take, and it was enough. This little ritual worked only as long as I kept out of sight while the gifts were delivered; I discovered quickly that if I showed myself while any of the women were still there they would scream and run away, often forgetting to leave their offering in their haste to escape the sight of me. I never understood why, but with a child’s view of the world I accepted this without much question soon enough.

I also kept mostly out of sight during the day, not disturbing the work of those around me as I walked around watching them, occasionally playing quietly on my own as I was wont to do. I had no friends as the other children were told not to come near me or acknowledge my existence, much like the adults did. I was not chased away nor spoken to in a harsh manner; I was merely treated as if I was not there. This too did not seem terribly strange to me as I had observed in my endless watching that this was the way children were treated by adults other than their parents, unless of course they caused trouble. I had no desire to cause problems for these people that worked so hard just because I longed for someone to look at me, to speak to me, so I kept silent and merely watched. Watching their lives go on around me made me feel as if I had just a tiny part in it, and I tried to satisfy this nameless longing in my heart with that during long and lonely nights in the dank chill of my cellar.

Time passed, and the situation for my master’s family grew better. No-one told me, of course, but I could tell by the change in the servant families, how they grew stronger and healthier, how the clothing they wore grew finer and less worn, and how things that had been left broken for very long were finally repaired or replaced. It made me happy to see, yet of course my smiles were left unanswered as no-one would meet my gaze much less acknowledge that I was there among them.

To my great joy the new prosperity of our home did eventually reflect upon me as well, when the gifts laid at my stone became richer, the clothes I received no longer tatters but whole, almost new in appearance, and the food enough to keep me from being so hungry all the time. The women that left the gifts took to speaking softly something that sounded like a prayer or maybe a benediction and bowed their heads before leaving, and so awed and grateful was I that I began remembering their faces so that I could sneak in before the break of dawn to complete some small tasks that would make their work a little easier that day. It made me feel happy when I saw the surprise on their faces as they discovered the tasks already done, and also I felt useful for probably the first time in my life.

Things continued like this for a while, and in the general change ever so subtly going on at our home something happened that had previously simply been unthinkable... I saw my master.

What he was doing there I do not know, it was not the habit of the masters to personally inspect the grounds yet I could think of no other reason our master was out in the field, appearing to watch the land around him as he leaned on his cane. I myself had been running in the fields, playing among the flowers and tried without success to find early berries to pick when I turned around and almost stumbled upon him. He looked dignified and kind although his eyes held sorrow in their depths, and it was not until this thought crossed my mind that I realised that he was watching me. He said nothing, made no movement of any kind, he merely gazed at me while the corners of his mouth twitched slightly as if he was considering a smile – but he looked at me!

I could not remember when anyone had looked at me before without screaming, and tears of such immense gratitude stung my eyes when he did not scream, run or even look away. After a moment of my heart beating so hard in my tiny chest that I thought he could surely hear it, I couldn’t help myself; I smiled at him so widely my cheeks ached with the unfamiliarity of it.

To my amazement, the master smiled back at me.

That is how it began, with a pair of grey eyes that did not look away and a smile returned. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given me, but it did not end there. I would see him from time to time, and he would always spare a look and a smile for me... eventually I grew daring enough to run up to him if I saw him alone anywhere on the estate, just to receive that kind and gentle smile. Then one day I found him sitting on an old upended tree on the edge of one of the fields far from the house, all alone, and with a peculiar expression on his face. This worried me so much that I forgot myself, ran up to him and, for the first time in so long I could barely remember when it had happened last, I spoke to someone other than the animals of the farm or fields of my home.

In my worry for him I forgot my place completely and addressed him as I had heard so many children address men of his distinguished age as I watched from the shadows “Grandfather, what is wrong?”

I realised the audacity of my actions as soon as the words had left my lips, and I went cold with shame and fear. Yes, fear, but not fear that I would be scolded or punished, my fear was that I would no longer be gifted with those kind smiles that he alone would grant me. Instead he surprised me further by reaching out to take my hand in his and urge me to sit down next to him. He said nothing for a while, merely smiled at me a little while holding my hand.

The feel of his large yet frail-looking hand holding my tiny dirty one was like the spring sun rising over the fields after a long winter; it warmed me and filled me with so much joy I could barely be still, I who had known no human touch for as long as my memory could reach.

He spoke to me then, telling me that this fine day had seen the birth of his only grandchild, a little girl called Arisu. He told me that although he was filled with happiness at the thought of his grandchild he was also sad that his son had not lived to see the birth of his child, and that the feelings had been so overwhelming that he had taken a walk to be alone with his thoughts. When I asked somewhat awkwardly if I should leave him alone, he replied that he was glad to have this opportunity to talk to me instead, and so, quite happily, I stayed by his side as he spoke.

The warmth in his voice as he spoke of his grandchild made me love her as well, even though I had not and did not expect to ever see her myself. A treasure so wonderful as what he described simply had to be cherished and loved, and I felt grateful that he would share those words with me. Little did I know then the importance Arisu would come to have in my life.

We spoke for a long time that day, grandfather – for indeed he gave me permission to address him as such – and I, and from that day onward whenever he and I were alone he would speak to me. We spoke of a great many things, but my favourite subject was when he would speak of Arisu, simply for the warmth and affection that coloured his voice then. I would tell him of the land or the animals, or sometimes of things I had observed while watching the servants, and sometimes he would thank me as if I had given some great advice or brought a problem to his attention. I did not quite understand, but I was pleased with myself nonetheless.

One day I found him waiting for me by the stone where I would receive my occasional gift, and I was too surprised to see him there to realize that he was frowning at the piece of bread and woollen shirt that lay there waiting for me. I offered him some of my bread but he declined, telling me he had just eaten but that I could go right ahead. He also asked if I would mind showing him where I lived, as I had mentioned my tiny home to him before, and I ate as we walked the overgrown path that lead to the old earth cellar I considered mine.

I had never felt ashamed of my little home before he stood there, having walked down the few stone steps only far enough to be able to stick his grey head in through the narrow doorway to look at the interior. But as he stood there, looking at my bed of moss and the shredded remains of clothes that were long since worn asunder as if he did not quite understand what it was, I was overcome by a deep sense of shame that I had let this my only friend see just how dirty and useless I really was. How I really lived in a hole in the ground like just another animal in the forest around me. He was, after all, the master of the house.

Perhaps he sensed my sadness, because he began speaking to me of other things as we made our way back where we had come from, and with a child’s fickle attention I soon forgot my shame and just enjoyed our time together as I always did.

The next day when I saw him again he took me by the hand and brought me inside the manor. I had never in all my life set foot inside the house itself, although I knew every nook and cranny of the sheds and stables where grain or animals were kept, and indeed I would never have had the audacity to enter on my own. But he urged me to come with him, and with a mounting sense of awe at all that I saw inside, I followed him as he led me to a part of the basement where it appeared no-one had been for a long time. In one of the small storage rooms there he had placed a rolled-up bedding in one corner, along with a cup, a bowl and a brush, and he showed me where I could find a watertap in the next room and how to turn on the light just outside the door.

He told me he wanted me to stay there instead, that he had forbidden the servants to enter that part of the basement, and that there was even a window hidden behind a small path in the bushes outside that I could use as a secret entryway if I wanted. I was overwhelmed and quite unsure of whether it was truly alright for me to accept, but he soon had me convinced and I moved in.

Oh how I loved my new home. It was neither as dank nor as cold as the earth cellar, and I suddenly had such luxuries as light and water whenever I wanted. My new bedding was so soft that I imagined it was made from spinning clouds like wool, and in the storage rooms next to the room I now considered mine there was some old furniture that he allowed me to use if I wanted. I had not much use for furniture in truth and I never touched most of the things that collected dust down there, but there was one old rocking chair that I would sit in whenever I had the chance. All in all, my new home was heaven to me, and as he had promised, no-one came to chase me out of there. No-one seemed to notice my coming and goings through my hidden window near the ground, in fact nothing seemed to have changed with my move.

He came to visit me often, bringing me food or other little things he thought I might need, and I felt like I imagined the princesses in the stories he told me would. After a while he told me that Arisu’s birthday was coming up, and to celebrate that and the fact that she would visit the manor for the very first time, he wanted to make something special for her. He wanted to build a dollhouse for her himself, and as he spoke of his ideas I became eager to help him out.

It became our new favourite thing, building that dollhouse together. I spent far more time than I should have in the evenings or early mornings searching the forest for interesting-looking roots or branches that he could carve into beautiful tiny chairs and beds, and I ran along the brook any number of times until I had collected enough of the rare but beautiful multi-coloured pebbles we then polished together and used to cover the roof of the dollhouse with. It took a long time but eventually the dollhouse was finished, just in time for Arisu’s birthday, and I was awed with how beautiful it was. It did not even hit me until many years later that he had made the dollhouse in the image of the manor itself, as I had a rather unique but limited view of this new home of mine.

The day that Arisu would come for a visit came, and I was as nervous as he, even though I knew I probably would not get to see her and that she most certainly would not get to see me. With his blessing I had located a few well-hidden spots where I could watch Arisu arrive and leave, as I was truly terribly eager to have a face to put to the name I heard so often. I never thought it strange that he did not offer me to meet her, instead I thought it kind of him to help me find good hiding places where I could watch them. If his eyes seemed sad when we spoke of these things I never thought it was because of me, nor did I have any thought as to my own complete lack of toys even though I had spent so much time helping make the dollhouse for Arisu. I’m sure he knew this, too.

Still, the morning he took the dollhouse with him upstairs to prepare for Arisu’s arrival, he gave me something truly rare in return... he handed me a cloth bundle and explained that it was his gift for me. He left before I had unwrapped my present, but that did not matter, I would thank him when next we met instead, for in that bundle was a wooden doll carved by him just for me. My joy at this gift could not be described, and on the spot I named my doll the prettiest name I knew: Arisu.

With doll-Arisu in my arms I sat at my hiding place as the mistress of the house entered, ushering in the small group of people that were Arisu’s family. I spotted her immediately as she was the only child in the group, and I could not stare at her enough, so in awe was I. Her dress was long and layered with frills and bows, her hair neatly curled and framed around her face underneath the bonnet that had been fastened atop the mass of ringlets, and she curtsied elegantly to her grandmother with a grace that suggested a lot of practice. Her hair was what most fascinated me in that first view I had of her tiny self, I had never before seen hair that colour and I found it amazing. It seemed to me like the shade of red-gold the horizon got just before the sky turned red at sunset, and I wished I could get to see it from somewhere closer than my hidden spot.

At that moment I suddenly knew what the princesses in the stories I had been told looked like. I had never been able to imagine them before, but now I knew. Now I had seen one.

When the hall was emptied I made a dash for my second hiding place, risking discovery in my eagerness to get there in time to hide before Arisu and her family would be shown into the room. It was the place where the dollhouse had been hidden, and after a time spent in the dining room this was where the group would go. I could not wait to see Arisu’s reaction to the gift we made for her, but I tried to be patient as I waited until my feet tingled uncomfortably in my tiny space.

Finally they did enter, but to my surprise and disappointment as Arisu was led towards her promised present, it was not to the dollhouse hidden beneath a green sheet next to the bookshelves on my side of the room she was led. No, Arisu was guided to a table on the other side, where I could just barely make out large wrapped gift with a red bow before the people surrounding Arisu blocked my view of her completely.

I could not understand what was going on, but I saw grandfather look towards the gift, and me, with such sadness and resignation in his eyes that it hurt to watch. A little later as everyone but Arisu were seated, waiting to be served tea by one of the servants of the manor, I heard the mistress deflect a question regarding what was hidden under the green sheet with a loftily comment about it being “just some old garbage fit to be burned”. The commanding look she bestowed upon her husband had grandfather meekly responding with a “yes dear” despite the disappointment he, too, had to feel.

I learned how to dislike someone that day.

Although tears of disappointment stung my eyes and a lingering sense of anger towards the mistress burned an uncomfortable pit in my stomach, I soon forgot all of that for the moment. Arisu had taken her new toy, a pretty porcelain doll with dark curls and as elaborate attire as Arisu’s own, over to play quietly with it on the floor where she would be out of the way of the adults, right next to my hiding place. I spent the rest of Arisu’s visit admiring the little princess from my hidden vantage point; truly, she was too adorable for words.

Right at the end of her visit when her mother had called to Arisu that it was time to leave, Arisu for some reason looked right in my direction as she stood up. Our eyes met and the tiny face scrunched up in confusion. Her voice rang clear in the room.

“Mother, there is someone sitting in the cupboard.”

I did not need to see the mistress’ face to know that she must have been dreadfully angry as she realised who the someone must be, and I felt a terrible fear. Thankfully grandfather came to my rescue, scooping little Arisu up in his arms and opening the door enough that the two of them could see me but no-one else in the room could.

“See princess, there is no-one here.” He boomed merrily, giving Arisu and myself a hidden wink and squeezing Arisu’s hand lightly when it appeared as if she would say something. “It is just grandfather’s stuffed old peacock that you saw through the keyhole. I hope it didn’t scare you, princess.” As he kissed Arisu on the cheek I heard him whisper to her. “Let’s keep it our secret that she was hiding in there, Arisu. Don’t tell your grandmother.”

Arisu looked at me with some confusion for a second before her tiny face cleared and she beamed a smile at me. “Yes grandfather.”

“Honestly dear!” The mistress huffed as if displeased, but it was clear to me that she was in fact relieved. “I have told you to throw that bedraggled old thing away I don’t know how many times.”

“Yes dear.” Grandfather agreed mildly, closed the door and walked away with Arisu on his arm. I released the breath I had been holding, and as soon as the room was empty I fled to one of my hiding places in the rose-bushes outside. I promised myself that I would not hide in that cupboard again if I could help it, because I honestly feared what the mistress might do to me if she found me.

Once again I had a bit of waiting to do before Arisu and her family, no longer accompanied by the mistress and grandfather, walked out of the house and past the bushes where I hid. Arisu was once again wearing her overcoat and bonnet, clutching her new doll to her with a still curious expression on her young face. It must have been her tiny size that caused it, because as she passed the bushes in which I hid we came face to face for a brief moment. She saw me and smiled, giving me a small wave in secret before she quickened her step to catch up to her mother.

Stunned beyond thought I waved back, even though she could no longer see me.

Sleep did not come easily to me that night as I had too many things competing for attention in my mind, but once it did it brought with it fragmented dreams of a smiling child waving at me.

The following day grandfather carried the dollhouse back downstairs to me, saying that it was better I had it to play with than having the mistress throw it away. It saddened me as it undoubtedly saddened him that Arisu would not get to play with this dollhouse we had worked so much on for her, but I decided I would love this beautiful toy enough for both of us, and I told grandfather so. He smiled and patted my head, telling me that he thought I was very considerate and that it made him happy to hear.

It had begun to worry me that grandfather would not come to visit me as much now that the dollhouse was finished and Arisu’s visit was over, but so was not the case. Instead he brought a book, a writing slate and a small box of writing chalks with him one day and asked me if I wanted to learn how to read and write. As the concept was foreign to me grandfather read out loud a chapter of the book he had brought, and it seemed like magic. Thus he began the slow process of teaching me the alphabet and the sounds certain letters made when put together. In time I learned to read simple sections of text by sounding the letters out like he had taught me, and even how to write simple words on my own. I was quite proud of my achievement, and grandfather seemed pleased, praising me for every bit of progress I made.

So far in my life I had never had any way of measuring the passage of time, in fact that it not only could be done but also that people put value on such things came as a surprise to me, yet I began to notice that my precious grandfather’s strength was waning. He would quickly grow tired and his visits were shorter than they had been, not because he did not want to see me, but because he needed more rest than he previously had. Suddenly there was the odd day when he could not come to see me at all because he was too weary to get out of bed, although those days were few and far between. He told me not to worry, that this was just the way things were for men as old as he, yet I could not help to be concerned for him.

Then one day Arisu came for another visit, and excitedly I tried to catch a glimpse of her. I had learned my lesson on the previous visit though, and made sure I did not hide in any place where I might be trapped if found. As Arisu’s mother had brought with her a group of people and the man she intended to marry, the adults withdrew to the sitting room for serious, from what I was told, grownup, talk, and Arisu was given permission to explore the mansion on her own.

The truth of it was that Arisu wanted to try and find me, and so I stumbled upon the sight of her sneaking around looking for places where I might be hiding, calling out in a quiet voice for “bird girl” to come out and play.

After some hesitation, I did.

She was happy to see me, and terribly curious. There were so many things she wanted to know about me, things I did not know myself, but after a while she accepted, the way only a child can, that I just did not have the answers and we found ourselves an out-of-the-way place to play. We found a spot where I hoped no adult would stumble upon us, and played as I am sure any small girl anywhere would when given a friend and a couple of dolls.

I found myself strangely embarrassed when I had to tell her that my wooden doll was named after her, but Arisu was delighted. She asked that we would switch dolls while we played, and thus I ended up holding the very porcelain doll she had been given on her previous visit. Arisu was curious why I did not have a name of my own, and she must have seen how it saddened me to admit that I believed that my parents died so long ago that I had forgotten what they called me, and no-one else besides grandfather ever spoke to me. He on the other hand never used a name for me, calling me instead “little one”, so I truly had no name to give her. She solved the problem with a child’s logic.

“I call her Ukiyo.” Arisu pointed to the doll in my arms. “I think that is a very pretty name, don’t you? Would you like to be Ukiyo, too? That way you have a doll with my name and I have a doll with yours.” Judging by her wide smile it was something she would like very much, and I was so awed just by the concept of having a name that I readily agreed. It felt very nice to have a name, even more that it had been this new and special friend that gave it to me. I matched her smile with one of my own and we giggled as we tried out my new name a few times.

After we had played a while she told me that she had thought I would be bigger. She did not elaborate and seemed to forget whatever succession of thought had made her mention this, but in that moment it hit me that she was indeed taller than I. It confused me, last I saw her she had been much smaller than I, and now she had not only caught up to me but actually outgrown me by a small bit. I did not feel much different than I ever had, and it began to worry me that I did not know how much I had grown, if at all. I wanted to be like her, to grow like her, to match her... to be normal, so badly that I could almost taste my tears of confused desperation. No-one told me about these things, how was I to know them? I clutched doll-Ukiyo closer to my chest and tried not to cry.

Arisu must have seen my sadness because her eyes grew wide and then she put doll-Arisu down to pull me into a hug.

I had never been hugged before. In fact, the only human touch I knew was grandfather’s hand holding or patting mine, or on rare occasion when he patted my head affectionately. I was completely unprepared for how warm and nice and safe it felt to be held, even if the body holding me was not much bigger than my own, or how comforting it was when Arisu’s small hand rubbed my back as she murmured some awkward sounds of comfort. I hugged her back before realising I did it, and it was wonderful. We parted with friendly smiles, my sadness lifted by her amazing kindness. We talked and played some more for a while, Arisu working up to asking me something about my eyes when voices interrupted us, calling for Arisu.

Absentmindedly I believe Arisu called back “Mother, I am here.”

She realized her error and covered her mouth with both hands at the same moment I grew absolutely paralysed with fear. The sound of fast approaching footsteps made Arisu recover more quickly than I, and she made a dash for the door hoping to intercept whoever was searching for her before they found me.

She stopped suddenly, a few steps from the opening, and looked at my wooden doll still clutched in her arms. A glance in my direction showed her that I still held her doll in mine, but there was no time. “Keep her for me! I promise I’ll come back someday and trade them back... I promise!” Even if I had been the kind of child to distrust what I was told I would not have doubted the desperate sincerity in her eyes and voice as she said that and turned to run.

She did not get far.

It was the mistress that reached Arisu first, and one glance over Arisu’s head revealed me where Arisu had come running from. The mistress’ face grew pale with horror, and she pushed Arisu rather roughly into the waiting arms of her mother and step-father who had just reached her as well. They, too, took one look at me and all but whimpered in fear. Arisu’s mother picked her up to clutch her protectively as they turned to run away from me.

The mistress was screaming in a high-pitched voice while throwing random things she could reach at me. What had I done that frightened them so?

“Demon!” The mistress shrieked and threw another object that hit me. “Demon! Fox-child! Demon!”

Over her mother’s shoulder I could see Arisu reaching for me with tears streaming down her cheeks. I could not hear what she was saying but by some instinct I raised my own small arm as if I could reach her hand that way. Demon?

Suddenly my own trembling arm became the focus of my sight as I noticed something I had never considered before.

Arisu’s arm was a rosy glowing pink, the way healthy children are. Mine... was the smooth, featureless pale grey of the clay one could find where the brook met the pond in the forest when a period of rain had soaked the ground.

Grey like soft, wet clay.

With a sob I clutched the doll to my chest and ran blindly for my escape, tears burning tracks down my cheeks, helpless to shut out the sounds that were cutting my ears and my soul as harshly and deeply as knives.

“Demon!” The mistress’ shrieks echoed through the halls and paths of the manor until her voice, like my heart, shattered on the final one. “DEMON!”


I ran through the fields and the forest, as far away from the manor as my legs would take me, until at last I could run no more. The sun went down and eventually I found my feet taking me, ever so slowly, on a path back there. Although I feared not the woods or those that moved in it in any way, I found myself longing for the light outside my doorway and the meagre comfort of my soft bedding. I wondered if it would still be there when I returned. I wondered if the mistress would have someone waiting there when I returned, to catch me and hurt me in some way I could not imagine.

But I had nowhere to go. I had gone to my earth cellar while there was still some light left in the sky only to find to my surprise that the door was gone and that creatures of the forest had made it theirs.

I looked at my arms, grateful for the dark that made all colours the same to my eyes so that I did not have to look at the hateful and incomprehensible grey that they were, and at the doll I still held to my chest. I could not run away, no matter how much the mistress frightened me... I had grandfather there, and Arisu would come back for her doll someday. She had promised this.

After all this time I had friends, I could not just run away from them now, even if I was... my mind shied away from the name that the mistress had labelled me. I knew not really what it meant, but I did understand that it was something other than human, and worse, something really bad.

Bad enough to frighten. Bad enough so that it should not be looked at. Bad enough that it should not be spoken to.

Suddenly a part of a conversation I once overheard came back to me, although I did not remember the person that said the words, “Speak to the demon and you invite it in.”

My heart felt colder than the night wind around me.

Whatever that meant, if I was a demon then that was what grandfather had done. He had spoken to me and eventually invited me inside the house. Was this a bad thing? If so, why?

The questions were too many and it felt like my head would explode from them. Finally, as I was just too tired to take another step, I reached my secret window and, with my heart pounding in fear, climbed inside as silently as I could.

There was no-one there, no-one waiting to hurt me, no-one at all. All there was that I had not left there that morning was a message on my writing slate, and after a long moment of hesitation I turned on my lamp so that I could try to decipher it.

It took me quite some time as I was still not particularly good at my newly acquired skill, but eventually I figured out that grandfather had written that I was not to worry, no-one would come to there to find me, and if I just tried to stay out of sight for a couple of days he was sure everything would return to normal.

His reassurance only calmed my fears a little, and it made me feel even more sad somehow. I always kept out of sight near the mansion, he had told me to do so himself when I moved in. I never roamed the mansion beyond my section of the basement unless it was something important, like Arisu’s visits, or when he took me out into the rest of the manor with him.

I cleaned his message off my slate and pulled out my bedding to spend the rest of the night and following morning staring at the doorway with wide, anxious eyes while clutching Arisu’s doll, filled with worry that someone might find me despite grandfather’s reassurances. At some point in my sleeplessness I recalled the other name the mistress had given me; fox child.

I was familiar with what a fox was, I had seen many out in the fields and woods, and several of them had been my friends and playmates at times. Their slender red bodies were beautiful, but I could imagine no similarity between them and myself. Unconsciously one of my hands went to my back, even though I already knew for certain I had no tail hidden there, fox-red or otherwise.

Why then such a name? I knew of no fox with the colour of my revoltingly grey skin, and the hair atop my head I knew to be a smooth and shiny inky black that had been kept well groomed ever since grandfather had given me a brush. What else, then?

My hands went to my face, feeling the shapes I had never seen myself. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps that was what, besides the colour of my skin, was so frightening about me.

Something made me pull my hand up higher, beyond my face and into my hair.

Oh. My ears.

It had never before occurred to me that they were so different, that the people I saw did not have these long, pointed ears that stuck out from my hair and moved on their own. Perhaps those did look somewhat fox-like to others, although I knew no more why I had them than I knew why my skin was the colour it was. For a brief moment my hand tightened around the sensitive outer edge of my ear’s point, an impulse to pull with all my might to tear it off burning through me. But I came to my senses and let my hand return to its hold around Arisu’s doll.

Even if I removed my ears it would not make people fear me or hate me less, I was still to different to be allowed to exist like one of them, and injuring my ears would only mean that I would not hear if someone came for me. I settled down again into my bedding to stare at the doorway until, in the late morning, exhaustion finally caught up with me and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When I awoke again it was to a growing sense of unease.

Grandfather appeared shortly after I had awoken, bringing with him a large bundle of food for me and the urgent news that his wife had called in an exorcist. Grandfather wanted me to remain in my room the rest of the day, to hide there while the exorcist did whatever he was supposed to do, while grandfather would try his best to get the man to leave as soon as possible.

I did not know what an exorcist was, but my instinct was that if grandfather thought he was dangerous then I should really run for the forest, not stay in the basement. Grandfather looked so tired and weak though that I could not go against his will, instead I took my food, my writing things and a book, intending to spend my time practicing.

Shortly after grandfather left, the pain began. I do not know what the exorcist was doing, but suddenly there was this sound in my ears, rapidly growing so loud that it started cutting through me. The pain was so immense I crashed to the ground, convulsing and clutching my head, trying to scream through a throat that had closed itself. It felt like I thrashed on the floor for forever until finally, mercifully, darkness took me away.

When next I opened my eyes grandfather was there, washing my face with a wet cloth and peering at me with concern and regret. I felt weak and aching, and I could scent blood on the air, suspecting even before grandfather told me that it was my own.

The exorcist had finally left, telling the mistress at last that the spirits that dwelled in her house were not evil, but would also not be driven out by the likes of him. The mistress had nearly fainted at the news and, as soon as the exorcist had left, ordered the maids to start packing her things. She would not stay in the manor while a demon was on the loose there, she said, and it was only grandfather’s pleas that had managed to convince her to stay a while longer. Grandfather had not been able to go check on me until the mistress had taken her calming drops and fallen asleep.

I healed quickly, as I always had done when injuring myself before, but grandfather was not so fortunate. For the duration of the time that the mistress agreed to stay at the manor before finally being so revolted by the place that she took her things and left, forcing grandfather to go with her, grandfather grew steadily more frail, more tired and more weak. His snowy-white hair began receding alarmingly fast, and the already muddled grey eyes took on a whitish sheen as his eyesight began failing him. I got to see him less and less, and for the last short while before the mistress moved them out, I never saw him at all. He just did not have the strength to brave the steps down to my room anymore, and he had made me promise that I would not try to cross the manor to visit him even if he was ill.

My heart was broken once again when I barely made it out to the rose bushes in time to see the servants carry his body outside to be transported away where I would never again lay eyes on him. That last sight of him was a horrible thing, I only caught the smallest glimpse but in that I saw more than I had wanted; hollow cheeks, laboured breath, a body that had sunken in on itself. Fighting against my tears I returned to my room to lie down and rock myself to sleep feeling lonelier than I ever had.

A short while after grandfather’s departure from the manor the servants began to leave also, and the animals were taken away as well. Only a small number of servants remained to care for the manor and the immediate grounds, while the fields were largely left to grow fallow and the barns were cleaned out and shut, emptier than I could recall them being during even the worst of the impoverished years.

As much as it saddened me to see the people leave the estate, I quickly realized that less people meant more freedom to move around for me. I would gladly have traded that new-found freedom and more in exchange for grandfather’s return, but he never did come back. Instead I tried to do my best to help the people that remained, to care for this place that both he and I loved. I tried to avoid being seen, but it was less a chore now that the servants only entered and stayed inside the mansion for as long as it took to clean and polish and to prepare the food they left for me by grandfather’s instructions. I soon learned their routines and walked as freely through the halls of the manor as had I been born there.

Outside I still took care so that I would not be seen by those that worked the grounds, but my help was noticed, and, to my surprise, appreciated. I came to overhear many a quietly murmured thanks to “Miss Fox” for whatever help I rendered, and it made me feel glad that at least I was no longer so feared that the mere acknowledgement of my existence was thought to be a person’s undoing.

I discovered one day that my body was changing shape subtly, that there was beginning to be shapes where none had been before. It was not until that point that I realized that I was now quite a bit taller than I had been, and with a quiet amazement I came to the conclusion that I was growing at long last.

Clothes became a problem as no longer did the things I used to wear fit my form, and I did not know what to do. One of the maids came to my rescue unexpectedly, having caught a glimpse of me from the corner of her eye one day and undoubtedly noticed how scarcely I was covered by the children’s garb I wore. She pulled out a coffer filled with clothes the next day and placed it in the hallway, speaking in a loud voice as she did so that the master – grandfather – had wanted Miss Fox to use whatever she needed in the manor, and that it was sad to see so many clothes go unworn like this. She then disappeared, leaving me with the open coffer and her words to draw my own conclusions.

I needed the clothes after all, and indeed there were no-one at the manor anymore that would claim them, so I took the entire coffer and pulled it with some difficulty down into the basement and my rooms. I kept an eye on the maid afterwards, but she never mentioned the coffer again, and something about her expression when she came back to find it gone seemed pleased enough to assure me I had not taken anything that was not intended for me.

Then finally one rainy day I looked out to find that all the servants still remaining at the manor had lined up by the road leading up to the house looking sombre. I was left with little time to ponder the meaning of this as a black vehicle stopped right in front of them and the doors opened to emit a group of people, among them the mistress and Arisu, all clad in black. I made sure I was hidden from view as I watched the mistress approach the maid in charge and speak to her at length.

Arisu had grown so much, and if it were not for that she turned her black lace veil away from her face and turned to face the house, and me, I might not have realized it was her. The adorable little princess had grown into a pretty young angel, although it was a sad angel whose paled face turned towards the dark windows of the manor, searching perhaps for me in one of them.

As the servants bowed and curtsied as one to then walk away from the estate in a solemn file I moved carefully from my window to one of the balconies, standing just inside the door but cracking it open so that I might hear something of what was going on. I saw Arisu begin to walk towards the house, but she was pulled back by the mistress’ hand on her arm. Arisu gestured towards the house then, but the mistress’ reply was clearly not in favour. It appeared that they argued about something, but the light rain blanketed out the sound long before it could reach even my ears.

A man I hesitantly identified as Arisu’s stepfather moved up next to her then, grabbing her other arm. He and the mistress struggled to pull Arisu back from the house despite her attempts to shrug them off, and then she called out in a voice so loud and raw that it cut through the rain like it was not even there.

“UKIYO! Ukiyo, show yourself! Let me see you. Ukiyo!” She violently brushed off another attempt to pull her back by her arms. “Grandfather is dead, Ukiyo!”

The despair in her voice had me stepping out on the balcony even before the meaning of her words reached my mind. Dead. Grandfather was dead. I knew what death meant. A dreadful cold seized my heart and I no longer cared if the mistress saw me.

I stepped out to the edge of the balcony where I was in full view of them all, the white dressing gown whipping around me defying the rain, and my hair quickly getting slicked down from the water until my inhuman ears undoubtedly seemed at least twice as protruding as normal. I must have been a frightening sight indeed.

Down on the ground the activity stopped, everyone but Arisu too shocked or perhaps frightened to move. Arisu gave me a teary smile before she continued in a slightly softer voice than before, yet still loud enough to carry to me clearly.

“We attended his funeral. I’m sorry Ukiyo, grandfather is gone.” She took a step towards me. “He left the manor to me, and made me promise that you would always be taken care of. So don’t worry Ukiyo, although they will not permit me to move here until I am an adult, I will make sure you have everything you need until I can come here myself.”

Another step towards me, and this one galvanized Arisu’s stepfather into action. He waved one of the other men over to help him as he grabbed Arisu around her waist and lifted her over his shoulder. She tried to kick herself free in obvious outrage, but with the other man’s help she just could not escape as they pulled her away.

Arisu reached for me with one arm over her stepfather’s shoulder, a gesture painfully reminiscent of our parting last time. Despite myself I found my own hand rising to mirror her, as if this time our hands could somehow meet over the distance.

“I haven’t forgotten our promise!” They tried to force Arisu into the vehicle but she resisted long enough to renew her promise to me. “I will come back, I swear! Just wait for me Ukiyo!”

With that she was gone, the door closed behind her and within moments the vehicle left the same way it had come, and I was alone.

Alone in the rain with my grief, and I wept as I never had before. Grandfather was gone, and I was completely alone.


Anonymous said...

demon fox..? a kitsune...? but only the ears, and no tail...but why did some of them called her bird girl...? hmm...still it was a...well, i cant say cheerful..but it is a beautiful tales of love, and woe, but im sure it means brighter days to come..for them..i hope anyway :)

Ryûchan said...

Ahh, Arisu calls Ukiyo “bird girl” on her second visit to the manor simply because she doesn’t know her name (well, at that point Ukiyo doesn’t have one, but anyway) and because grandfather made her pretend Ukiyo was a stuffed bird the first time she saw her.
And you’re right, Ukiyo is partially inspired by the “kitsune” thing, though mostly by a particular creature from Swedish folklore, and in the end I made her my own kind of creature rather than made her fit either entirely.