‘Now now,’ I called out, arms spread. Closest to us right across the cloth we’d laid out were two very young persons, small and plump, standing hand in hand and staring expectantly at us. Too small, perhaps. Grown-up ones crowded a little distance away – some of them held even smaller persons in their arms. It wasn’t the best possible situation, probably, but I had to try. ‘You!’ I said to the closest two. ‘Are you ready to witness the horror with your own little black eyes?’
The two giggled. Not so bad, perhaps? I smiled, curving my lips just a fraction too slowly to be friendly.
One hand hovering near my jawline, fingers slightly waving. The other hand held out in front, palm up—no, wait, not that far forward…good. I wanted to swallow, but instead, ran my tongue along my lips. ‘Behold—’ Fighting to keep smiling, I hopped off, and landed on the palm, with a thump. ‘A flying head! For real!’
I opened my eyes wider for good measure, bouncing a little there. Waiting for applause to come, for the clinking sound of coins flying in. But for a moment, nothing happened.
Then there were screams – first from the two closest small ones, and then the very small ones in the bigger ones’ arms, who weren’t even looking our way; and then the grown-ups started staggering away.
In a matter of seconds there was no person around us. No coin on our cloth. My body put me back on its neck, stomach rumbling. ‘Sorry,’ I said. I couldn’t help it. Scaring the audience too much never got us too many coins.
I vaguely remembered having been thrown onto the back of a truck by a horrified housekeeper at the end of the night, in those in-between hours; and later, being thrown out of the truck by its terrified owner.
Not much of my memory was left of the night, like most of the time. Every night, it was like I became something I wasn’t, almost no me left inside this skull.
We’d agreed long ago that my body should rest during the night, while I freaked out unconscious, leaping and flying around as if I never ever needed a body at all. It had to rest while it could. Sometimes it broke this promise and kept trying to run after me, making us both groggy and weak for the rest of the day. Sometimes, it stood by the promise and slept, while I unexpectedly travelled far away like this morning, and it would have to search for me for a long time, all day, even. Making us both groggy and weak for the rest of the day.
As we walked away from the clearing, my body put our choker back on around the line our stumps touched. The accessory was a beautiful piece, something woven with silvery thread, with black and blue twinkling things here and there, though we weren’t sure where we’d got it from. Perhaps a gift, from either of us, to either of us.
We stopped at the end of the town, under a small tree at the edge of a copse. Night would fall again in a matter of couple hours. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, again, and it crouched down and took me off it, and placed me on its lap, stroking my cheeks and brushing my hair.
Why would I want to hop away from this?
But then, we both started. Something moved behind the bush some paces away. Did you hear that, I asked the body silently. An affirmative wave came through.
Cautiously it lifted itself off the sodden ground, and started to sneak away with me cradled in its arms. We hoped it was a rogue cat or something, but also knew it’d sounded too heavy to be one. We had nothing to be robbed of, but we didn’t know what’d happen to us, like, if we were severed permanently.
A few moments later, we heard a yelp, and a loud thud. ‘What was that?’ My mouth slipped, and my body turned a little, allowing me a peep behind.
It was nearing dusk, and under the shadowy trees it was hard to see anything properly. We could just see a large lump beside the bush. It took me a while to make out that the thing sticking upwards was a leg, and a sandaled foot at the end of it.
I frowned, matching the body’s confusion. ‘What is that?’
The lump wriggled, straightened, coughing and muttering something obscene. A grown-up person? My body and I exchanged a silent agreement and turned away to go.
Then the thing cried out: ‘Please! Wait! Hear me out!’
We turned back to it again, and it flinched and yelped again. But after taking a long moment of hesitation, the thing stepped into a circle of light where the foliage was scarce above, with an obvious effort. Yes, it was a grown-up person, thin and shaky. I frowned even harder to see it better.
‘Oh please! Please don’t bite!’ The person flailed.
‘You said wait. We’re waiting.’
‘What?’ The person looked around a little. ‘We? Um. So.’ It swallowed very loudly. ‘Um. I…’ It coughed. ‘I wish you be our… tutor.’
I thought I heard it wrong, and we stepped a little closer to it; it backed away double the distance we’d closed, emitting a feeble shriek. ‘What tutor?’ I asked.
‘I…’ Its eyes were brimming with tears, I could see now. ‘I want to know how you do it.’
I finally realized what this thing was talking about. ‘Oh!’ I said, and my body held me out with two hands in front of it, letting me ever closer to the person. ‘But there’s no secret to it that we can teach you.’
For a long moment the person did nothing but let out a whining sound, but then finally said, ‘I-I-I understand, you cannot let go of such precious knowledge and skill so easily. That is how you make living, right? Don’t worry, we will not be your competitor. We only need to perform it once, or maybe twice, if needs be. And we plan to go away when it’s all over.’ It said all this very fast.
I widened my eyes, and the person made a choking sound. I said, ‘That is not what we meant. We—’
But then a voice came from elsewhere: ‘Who’s there? What are you doing there?’
The person in front of us gasped, and stepped out of the light. ‘It’s right in the middle of festival period for our shrine on the hill, and the highlight is coming near and people are becoming kind of prickly these days,’ it whispered, as if it just fully remembered itself. ‘Come to my house. I can at least offer shelter tonight, and can feed you, too, of course.’
I heard my body’s stomach growl again.
The person smiled, chuckled a little. ‘Yes, you’re human, of course. Silly me.’
‘But what makes you think monsters don’t get hungry?’
‘Please, we have no time, hurry!’
So we trotted after the person, away from the lights of searching persons. It felt strange to be this cautious, even in the time of a ritual. My body was slow as usual, still cradling me like a precious thing made of some fragile material, and the person kept looking out for us over its shoulder, thus stumbling a lot. After some time we cleared out of the woods, and then were led up along a winding path. Finally we found a hut at the edge of another copse.
Sensing another entity in the house, my body’s hands placed me gently onto its stump as a precaution. The person went in as it called, ‘Hana. Hana, we have help!’
We hadn’t said we’d help, I thought, I was sure we thought, as we took in the interior of the house. There wasn’t much – a stove at the end of the earthen floor, just a small low table and a few sitting rags on the raised floor. A small person knelt beside the table, and it straightened and then bowed when it saw us. ‘Thank goodness,’ this new person said when it sat back up. As it did tiny bells around its ankle jingled. ‘Thank you.’
And when this new person looked up – it was like watching a flower bloom right in front of our eye. This thing was beautiful, but not the kind of pretty we got to see from time to time. Perhaps divine might be the word, and how blasphemous of me to use this one? But I knew nothing that could describe the way it seemed to glow from within, the way the stars in its eyes shifted meaningfully. I swallowed, and felt my body react, a little bit like when we were slightly drunk.
I did my best with what resembled a few kicks to our touching stumps. My body faltered and sent an apologetic shiver, and I bounced a little there. The two persons in front of us intoned in harmony, helplessly.
‘Oh, we—I—’ I pursed my lips once. The priority here was feeding my body. ‘Sorry. Well. Nice house?’
Eating was a strange habit, but we managed it. The two persons stared at us, intrigued by the way I swallowed the food, bouncing there on its stump from time to time in the effort; maybe the smaller one was trying to make out how the food went down between us – it didn’t, the food I took somehow appeared in the body’s stomach, and we ourselves had no idea how that happened. I knew the body wanted to gobble, but I took enough time to not upset the empty stomach and also not appear too bad in front of these two persons.
When my body was sensibly sated, the new person gave us tea. ‘So,’ I said, in between careful sips. ‘Why would you want to do—what we do?’
The first person straightened. ‘My daughter Hana here,’ oh, so this new person was female, ‘was chosen as the Bride, for the ritual performed in accordance with the festival.’
I frowned as the body’s bewilderment filled my skull. ‘Huh? What’s that to do with us?’
‘Mother, this honorable guest is not from around here, obviously.’ Okay, so they were both female. ‘Every seven years, a girl is chosen as the Bride. That’s another word for sacrifice.’
Oh. ‘So that’s why persons were all so careful out there? So as not to let in any intruder during this ritual?’
The first person, Mother, nodded. ‘Also not to let Hana here escape. People are watching this house as we speak, though not too closely for the moment. See the bells attached to Hana?’ We did – bound around her ankle, some of them were made of porcelain and others metal, letting the sound carry farther. ‘If they don’t ring for too long someone comes to check in. And the rope is woven with holy material the shrine provided, so if we try to cut it the priest would send a terrible curse through it.’
I looked at the rope. It seemed ordinary enough. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Some of the men said they saw the priest make a flower from the cemetery wither in the water with a piece of the rope in it. Because the flower was haunted and the rope made the water sacred. And we don’t want to risk drawing them closer, anyway.’
My body’s sadness crept up. I downed a hot, large gulp of the tea, making the body jump the jump it deserved. Though it was always me who ended up coughing. ‘What exactly do they do to the Bride?’ I said hoarsely.
‘They’ll dress the child in white and then prick a finger with a needle, and stain the robe with the blood. To indicate this child is offered to a god as a gift. I’ve seen a few Brides before Hana, of course, and from what I heard those girls only had to spend one night in the shrine building after the blood. But this time…something seems off.’ She shook her head. ‘Once in several rounds, the Bride never returns. They’re taking extra care this year not to let Hana go, and the way they talk about this god somehow implies…I cannot…she…’ Mother swallowed. ‘Hana is way too young.’
‘You mean—’ I felt heat rise up in both of us. ‘Really, as a bride? That’s ridiculous!’
Hana didn’t seem to understand much about it. ‘Everyone congratulated me, on being chosen,’ she said at length. ‘But I don’t want to be separated from Mother. Not yet.’
My head hurt, and my body’s hand shook. I wanted its fists to smash those tiny bells around Hana’s ankle. ‘So you want to scare these persons away from Hana.’
‘They might reconsider, I thought, if they find out she is…misbegotten, in some way.’
Misbegotten. Of course. But then, before any of us could say another word, we heard the large bell of a temple toll somewhere. Declaring night.
‘Oh dear,’ I said, and then everything fell silent, pitch black.
I came to slowly, my eyes still closed.
It was warm, for a change. I could hear the fire. We didn’t get fire in the morning too often. And I could feel the hands. Two hands holding me, and another hand wiping me gently.
I opened my eyes with a start. Hana shrieked, making the bells jingle and jingle. But then with an obvious effort she said ‘Sorry,’ and resumed wiping at me. I was in my body’s lap, Mother was stirring something over the stove, chuckling a little. ‘You seem to have a very strange habit,’ Mother said and Hana giggled, too.
Outside I could hear teeny birds tweeting. So it really was morning. ‘You saw it all?’
‘Yes,’ Mother said, and came carrying bowls of soup. ‘There was a lot of screaming, of course.’ I felt somehow disappointed that I missed it all. ‘And we’re still a bit – a lot – shaken. But it was also, so funny! The way you got upset! I could tell from your gestures that we needn’t worry, but you yourself flailing around so hard!’
‘You were there, and saw it all? I do not remember a thing.’
‘Oh, I kind of supposed that,’ Hana said, tending to my lip that I’d apparently cut. ‘You didn’t seem to hear us. Were you drunk or something?’
My body was now doing my hair. ‘I don’t know.’ I was irrationally scared to say this aloud. ‘We aren’t one person, if you aren’t aware of it yet. When night falls I lose consciousness and try to run away. My body is slow and never manages to catch me. In the morning, when I’m me again, it has to come look for me. Where did you find me this morning?’
Hana stood, and started laying the food on the table with Mother. ‘We were here to catch you, you know?’ she said, apparently shivering once at the memory. ‘It was very hard, of course. The three of us were barely enough to hold you back. But when you almost tore through the door, we had to catch you. We cannot afford a new door.’
‘We got you in a wrapping cloth and held you all night.’ Mother shook herself, too, but more for a theatrical effect. ‘You – your body got settled down then.’
So for the first time in our relationship it didn’t have to come after me. It was still stroking my hair, and I could feel more energy within us. I was tired, probably from trying to get away all night, but that was just half our energy wasted. ‘Thank you, Mother, Hana. But now you really know we cannot teach you how to do this.’
Mother sighed. ‘We have to think of another way. The ritual will be held tonight. I’ll do whatever it takes to get her out of this.’ Then she knelt straight, formally. ‘Also, I’m sorry about calling you ‘misbegotten’ last night. I didn’t mean it that way, but still.’
I smiled, felt my body amused. ‘It’s okay. We are so. Look, maybe there’s still something my body and I can do, to help you two. At least we want to repay for the food and shelter you are giving us.’
Mother frowned as she considered this. ‘We cannot drag you that deep in, there might be danger,’ she said after a while. ‘In my original plan, you’d have been long gone at the time we’d actually be doing the performance. We’d never be able to pay back if something goes terribly wrong.’
‘I don’t think they would be able to hurt us bad enough, me and my body. Let us help. We are much too deep in already, Mother.’
She looked at us. Then she nodded. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘If everything goes well, we’ll meet two towns away along the highway,’ I told them. ‘Wishing you luck. Wish us luck.’
Hana squeezed my body’s arm, and touched my cheek with the other hand. She must have wanted to say something, but her lips were trembling.
I let my body take our accessory off our stumps. ‘Here,’ I said and my body handed the thing to Hana. ‘Keep it for us.’
The small person beamed as she took it. The smile was enough to freshen our resolution all over. ‘Ooh, I like fancy,’ she said and wrapped it around her own neck. It was a bit loose for her, and dangled there like a short necklace.
Mother stroked her daughter’s head. ‘Good luck to us all.’
I could feel the night creeping towards us, pulling darkness over us slowly. We had only one chance. Right before the dark took me, in that final sliver of my consciousness, I saw my body cut the rope of Hana’s bells, and took the rope between my teeth.
And let darkness engulf. After that, there was no catching me.
Pains woke me, and I groaned. Felt the chill of the mist. Morning.
‘You’re awake,’ something said. I felt for my teeth with my tongue; no rope, no bells. Oh no. ‘I didn’t think I’d meet you again like this.’ What felt like a sandaled foot prodded me. I opened my eyes.
I was on a hard floor. When I sniffed, there was something in the air that smelled kind of familiar. I’d been here before? I didn’t care much about places – it was long since places became ‘somewhere my body was’ and ‘somewhere not.’ I squinted, found a person staring down at me. Okay, perhaps this person did look familiar a little, too. Though I didn’t care much about persons, either.
Where were the bells? I tried to shake myself around best as I could but didn’t see or hear them. Maybe dropped it somewhere, drawing the watches only just a little way away from the house, making them realize it was all fake too soon, only to send them back to the house before Hana could get away. What a failure.
That remotely-familiar person grabbed my hair, lifted me up to its eye-level. That hurt, but I sensed more pains than I could possibly count in my own skull. Perhaps my body was injured, too, and the thought made me sick. I let it down again. I let them all down.
Mid-air, I could finally size my surroundings: we were on a stone stage on the hilltop; off the stage, on my right, I could barely see a winding path leading to this place below the small cliff, and far off below that, a small building that looked like a shrine. On the other side there was an altar at the end of this stone stage. Persons wouldn’t come all the way up here, probably, as they all usually stopped at the shrine and never climbed any farther. So this must be some kind of hidden sacred area, for secret rituals. Five or six watch persons stood blocking the steps that led off this stage downhill – the only possible escape.
Before I could properly assess those faces, that remotely-familiar person threw me off, making me land with a loud thud and a disgraceful yelp. ‘You were saying?’ I heard it hiss at the watch persons.
‘We—we heard the bells and thought the girl ran away,’ one of them replied. ‘Then after sometime, the bells suddenly stopped sounding, and then they started ringing again, far away, from an entirely different direction. We searched and searched for them, all night.’ Then this person narrowed its eyes a little and cast a glance my way. ‘That filthy monster tricked us all, Priest Great. All is its fault.’
That remotely-familiar person, Priest Great, nodded gravely. ‘We’ll find her, sooner or later. It is the fate. Do not fret, my power protects this region. Monsters have no place here.’
‘Monsters have no place here?’ I furrowed my brows. ‘But didn’t you just say we’ve met before? You do seem familiar to me. Why didn’t you slay me immediately last time?’
All the persons looked at me. Priest Great said nothing for a moment, its lips trembling a little. Then one of the watches started casting its glances around, nervously.
‘You haven’t found Hana, did you just say? What about those bells with that rope which should have been enchanted by Priest Great? I held it in my mouth, but I’m still alive.’ Well, as alive as I could be. ‘How’s that?’
The nervous watch person pursed its lips, looking ill. ‘Priest Great, you said…you need her blood to bring peace and prosperity to our region. The monster sneaking in is bad enough as it is, and…’
Now, the persons around all stared at Priest Great. ‘What,’ Priest spat. ‘I’ve worked with this region for ages. Are you taking more seriously the words from such a filthy mouth as this monster’s?’
‘But the rope—’
As more morning light came through the trees, I was returning more properly to my self – my body’s head. I felt a tug somewhere, in my throat. I thought I was going to cough, but then – vomited, over Priest Great’s sandals, my body’s fluid and the bells still attached to the ‘holy’ rope.
‘Uh-oh,’ I said and coughed and spat.
Priest Great screamed, and the watch persons backed away, one of them almost falling off the stone stage.
‘It’s been inside my body but never killed us, the rope.’ I rolled around a little, messing my hair and dirtying my skin. ‘The rope didn’t protect your beloved village from a monster.’ I gave out a laugh as hysterical as I could manage. ‘Now, Priest Great can protect you all just with Hana’s blood? Are you sure?’
Priest Great cried something incomprehensible, and kicked me against the rock behind me. It hurt like hell, but I found myself enjoying the situation immensely. While jumping around during the night, I must have swallowed the bells, sending them to my body. It’d worked after all. Hana was safe.
‘Priest Great,’ said one of the village persons, ‘what exactly does your – our – god do to the Bride? What,’ it swallowed loudly, ‘what exactly happened, to my mother’s cousin, who disappeared after the ritual thirty-five years ago?’
‘What would you do if your own daughter is chosen as the Bride?’ I raised my voice as much as I could, ignoring every muscle in me – and in my body – complaining. I turned my glare at the person who got nervous first, probably the youngest of them all. ‘Seven years from now next, right? Imagine your little girl sliced open by a god, or Priest Great on this hard cold stone, still too small in your arms!’
Realization diluted the person’s pupils. ‘My daughter,’ it muttered. ‘No!’
And then this person was gone, running down the winding path, through the trees.
Others looked horrified or at least disconcerted as understanding dawned equally on them, and eventually they all stepped off the stone stage, climbed down the hill. ‘Come back now!’ Priest Great yelled. ‘Come back, or I’ll curse you to the last drop of the blood of your descendants!’
But no one even looked back.
I laughed. ‘How lovely, your loyal villagers!’ I exclaimed. ‘So we’ve really met before? I do have some very obscure slivers of memories of that ugly face of yours. Not that I wanted to keep them.’
Priest’s muscles twitched right below its eye. ‘I didn’t know you’d lose your memory, but maybe you two discarded it intentionally.’
‘What do you—’
But then, we heard voices. Priest craned its neck and I turned as much as I could, and we saw three figures climbing uphill. A small person leading, another one some distance behind the first who kept tripping on nothing but gravels, and another without a head trying to catch up and of course, failing. Now that I could see it, I realized pains could be sensed mostly on its front, especially around the lower parts like shin and calf, as if a small person had inflicted the damage; I could even feel a bite on its lower arm. ‘Hana!’ Mother cried, stumbling a few more times in that one breath. ‘Don’t go!’
In no time at all Hana hopped onto the stone stage. I sent irritation to my body. What was it doing, letting Hana run into the arms of her very enemy? My body shuddered as it helped Mother to her feet. Hana glared at Priest Great, not even panting. ‘I cannot leave you behind so that I can reach my own safety,’ she said, glancing at me. ‘I don’t want to be that kind of person.’
Oh, Hana. Sweet Hana. She had every right to see to her safety. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Priest cast its dirty eye towards the small person. ‘Someone here has sense, at least. Come here, girl. Let me lay my hands on your—’
‘Oh, if you are so sure.’ Hana took a step closer. My body and Mother finally made it to the edge of the stage, but…it and Mother seemed uncertain about something. What were they waiting for? My body should drag the small person away from here, whatever it cost it…
The small person in question lifted her head high, as if showing her chin clearly to Priest. Oh no, not chin. ‘Hana!’ I exclaimed, I couldn’t help it. ‘Your neck!’
She craned her neck farther, balancing her head with one hand. Almost one-third of her neck was severed, just like between me and my body. Priest’s eyes snapped to the choker we’d given her. It screamed.
‘Where did you find that thing around your neck?’ Priest almost sounded like it was wailing.
Hana snorted. ‘I got it from Flying Head and Body. So you made this thing, right? Made them Head and Body with this thing, too.’ I could see Priest shaking, but Hana continued, pointing at the altar. ‘Just as I thought! This is a pattern from here. I like fancy, and I once tried to copy it, even.’
We grown-ups all looked, though Priest should have already known it was there. As the morning mist crept away, as more columns of sunlight slid uphill, it became clearer and clearer. The same curves and lines as our choker were drawn across the upper part of the altar’s front. Also, there were vines that looked a lot like the same pattern, twining themselves around the holy structure, dews shimmering like those twinkling things on our accessory.
‘Of course Mother wanted me to run, but when I remembered about this altar and realized that Head must be here, and something nasty, like this,’ she pointed at her own neck, ‘is going to be done to Head, I came running here. Body sensed that and tried to stop me, it just wasn’t deft enough or fast enough. Head, don’t be mad at Body, please.’
I wanted to shake my head, but to do that I’d need that stupid useless lump of limbs.
Priest slumped down. My body finally made itself useful and removed the choker from Hana’s neck.
‘Oh, but I like it,’ she protested.
‘Hana,’ Mother had just regained steady enough breathing. ‘We can craft something similar later. Just not this one.’ She carefully held her daughter’s face between her hands, as though she couldn’t decide if it was safe to touch it.
‘Girl,’ Priest’s voice was still shaking – how weak could this person be? ‘Girl, I’m working on the antidote. That neck isn’t just the way I want…’
‘An antidote?’ Mother and I said in unison. ‘Priest,’ I said, ‘tell us exactly what this is all about.’
Priest hadn’t started out as a priest. It was first a very religious chemist. After some experiments it learned that this particular vine, with the pure water from the hilltop and an appropriate amount of prayer, could produce a potion that would sever parts of a person’s body without killing or hurting it – at least, not too much. With enough practice and more experiments, Priest realized, it might even find a way to sever its own mind from body, move that severed mind to another body that it liked. Once upon a time when it first started the experiments, Priest caught me and tried to use me, but I had a lover who did everything to prevent that. Though the lover was a bit too slow, and we ended up…like this.
‘I never, ever liked my face and body,’ Priest sobbed. It sobbed. It had no right! ‘Look at her, she’s perfect! Is it so bad, really, wanting something and doing one’s best to obtain it?’
‘It’s not wanting something or striving towards it that’s wrong,’ I said, through my gritted teeth, ‘it’s stealing it from someone else that’s totally, madly wrong.’
Priest wailed. I almost pouted. I’d wanted to wail for a long time, preferably in my body’s arms. Hana was still pouting, eyeing our choker. Mother nudged her, but then embraced her with those clumsy yet warm arms.
‘So this choker has been keeping us…separate? It’s been immersed in your poison, right? Did you do the same with the rope for Hana’s bells?’
Priest sniffed. ‘The rope, no, I just bluffed to keep folks under control. Your choker, yes. I lied and told you it was a gift, and you accepted it happily at that time. Then your lover got jealous and things went wrong.’ It threw its hands up in resignation. ‘You cannot merge into one without my antidote – when it’s complete. But I think, if you keep being incomplete body parts for too long, then your minds start to be fogged, the borders blur until the two mingle into one eventually. So the poison—oh how I hate to call it that—’
‘So, so, wearing it must have kept your minds separate, so you’re still two lovers in one set, instead of one completely memory-less person. But the p-p-poison is poison, after all. You need to wear it out sometimes. That’s why you have to bounce away every night, as far as I can tell.’
I sighed. ‘So we were the first. How many bodies have you wasted since?’
‘It takes seven years to prepare a portion enough for one body, and I had to wait for a nice looking girl to come by, so I haven’t been able to do a lot. Three, including you. Or four if we count your lover.’
Of course we’d count it. ‘Are they both dead, those other two?’
‘They refused me, both body and mind. So I made them into monsters and kicked them out, they were useless to me. One with a skull gaping open, the other with her mouth split from ear to ear.’
I saw Hana dig deeper into Mother’s arms. ‘You need to cure them,’ her voice came muffled.
‘I’m working on it, I need the antidote before I can use the potion on myself—’
‘Not so that you can have those faces and bodies back ready for you to use,’ I said, ‘but to give their life back to them.’
Priest – or Chemist – sobbed some more. It had no right, really.
‘Do you want yourself cured?’ At one point, Mother asked us.
I looked at her. The answer came easily: ‘No.’
She nodded, but her expression stiffened as we all heard voices from downhill. Persons were climbing, making their way to the stone stage. Those watch persons in the lead, but there were more. Very small things, too, in the arms of some larger ones. If they were here to kill us all, we were completely outnumbered. But…planning an assault with those small persons among them seemed absurd, even to my monster’s eyes.
All those persons hesitated just before the steps leading onto the stage. Then the young one, whose daughter I had mutilated in imagination, climbed the final slope and stood before us.
This young person bowed its head to Mother. ‘I’m sorry,’ it said. ‘So very sorry. We shouldn’t have forgotten she is our fellow villager. Forgive me. Forgive us.’
‘Not to me, really.’ Her eyes were cold, but I could hear some tears behind her voice.
The young one nodded and crouched to fully face Hana. But before it could speak she said, ‘You’re the dye farmer’s first son! I’ll forgive you if you give me some pretty threads with which I can—’
‘Hana,’ Mother and I said at the same time.
She giggled and hid behind Mother.
All the persons climbed onto the stage one by one, or in twos and threes for those with the very small ones, and bowed to Mother and Hana in turns. The larger ones tied Chemist’s hands behind its back and took it down the hill. My body took me gently off the hard floor and cradled me in its arms. Finally.
I sighed. From relief and fatigue both. ‘You need to wait for the antidote, Hana. Until then maybe you really should ask for some fancy scarf off the dye farmer, to cover your neck.’
‘It’s not that bad, really. And it will keep evil men at bay, don’t you think?’ She grinned, playing with her own head that lolled unnaturally.
‘I’m not sure about that – it might keep away very good persons, too.’
‘I only need people who would like me for my mind, not just my outer shape.’
I laughed. ‘Mind also lives in your face and body. Never underestimate it.’
We said goodbye to Mother and Hana, but promised to come back. Now we had a place to go – a place we could find Cracked Skull and Split Mouth, wherever it might be. The antidote should be ready by the time we got back with them.
‘You’ll still have to search for me every morning,’ I said. ‘Go through all those troubles, even before breakfast. And wipe mud off me. Every. Single. Morning.’
It stroked my hair with its fingers. Warm, gentle fingers.
‘I know,’ I said in reply. ∎
Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo, where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. Her fiction can be found in such places as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. ‘The Flying Head at the Edge of Night’ is her Interzone debut
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