It feels strange, writing this story twice. But this is a story worth immortalizing on paper, even after many years have gone by and the memories grow hazier by the day. An older, incomplete draft sits next to my penholder. The writing is premature and childish, the culmination of many hours daydreaming and not much coherence. The actual story is just as tangled and confusing and hazy; as with most things that actually happened, there are too many coincidences and extraneous factors to coalesce neatly. Realize now that the words I write weave my reality into a fiction that never was. But then, my life has a bad habit of bleeding into stories, and vice versa.
I will start as I started thirty years ago: There exists a secret land ruled by a king and queen. Each day, the king will rise and open his eyes and mouth, and from his face light pours into the valley. He travels through his kingdom bringing light, which lingers like honey in a land that yawns and breathes to a much slower rhythm than our own. At night, the queen lets down her long black hair and brushes inky darkness into the sky.
The story always begins this way, with the king whose eyes and mouth replace the sun and the queen who carries the night sky in her hair. I had trouble fixing the secret land in one place, however; sometimes it hid itself beneath the gutters, sometimes in the hearts of mountains or the first level of parking lots. As I grew older I tried to use science to justify its existence. The secret land, which had no fixed name because I kept moving it, became at one time a bubble dimension hidden in a wormhole, at other times a microscopic wonderland. The location became a preoccupation of mine in my teenage years, as I carefully opened every closet door I came across and ditched my supervisors on every school trip, hoping to find a door marked “Do Not Enter,” or a hole at the base of a dead ancient tree, which would, inevitably, open to reveal the land I knew lay hidden just beyond what I could reach.
I still do not know where the land beyond is in relation to my old home, so I will use the simplest explanation, the first I came up with when I was much too young to bother about such issues such as logic and geography. The land beyond simply exists on top of the world we live in, like two pieces of semitransparent paper laid on top of each other. The two worlds are connected by a dense lush forest, through which neither light nor darkness can penetrate, where at every moment the mud and undergrowth threaten to trap travelers forever. The forest exists between two planes much the same way nothingness exists between two atoms. Unless you are very precise, the two worlds, though closer than the width of a pin, will be as inaccessible to each other as two points on the opposite sides of the universe. (This part I added later, when I had a better grasp of space. In the earlier drafts there was no question how the forest existed, only that it was there, always there.) The passageways could be seen sometimes, I believed, if you blinked the right number of times on the right time of day with the right kind of weather. The leaves of the overgrowth would start swimming in your eyes, and a warm pleasant breeze will blow with far off warmth, as breezes feel in early March. The worlds sneak upon each other in damp basements and the length of steps between the bathroom and the bedroom at night, under beds and in clusters of aspen trees. I do not know how big the kingdom is. I can only guess that a part of it is laid directly over Lieffield, where I lived for most of my youth.
There was, and probably is, nothing exciting about Lieffield, according to politicians and economists. It’s not small enough so everyone is everyone else’s neighbor; it’s not large enough to attract many visitors, aside from those occasional people passing through. The town is surrounded by pines, but the romance of an American frontier is offset by the cleared patches of highway and the large wind farm that sits on the hill. I don’t remember the town much, except that it was a place to live; a place for me to grow up as any kid would, running around on playgrounds and concrete, hiking in the woods on the weekends with my parents. Nothing strange or interesting happened during the time I grew up there. Nothing the news reported, anyways. To my two friends and I, the town was one of adventure and intrigue, with dark shadows around every corner and wise moonlight shining on our dreams. As children, we made our own current events, our own history, our own magic.
I would not be the same without Ann and Eddy. We met in elementary school, and though our parents could never keep up conversation for a long time, we could talk for hours. We claimed to be magic, and stole from books and video games and Saturday morning cartoons to weave together infinitely complex stories. And we existed in our chimerical world as lords and revolutionaries and traitors; anything so long as the story continued. Our world was closed to outsiders, as we ourselves lived in exile from the reality everyone else inhabited. At least, that is what I remember of us in the way youth becomes a delusion as one gets farther away from it.
I try to remember them as they once were, before time locked away our childhoods forever. Ann had smooth round face, oddly translucent like mother-of-pearl, never touched by acne but dotted with many freckles. She had dreadlocks since as far back as I could remember being her friend, and she would wear hats and headbands to show them off. Sometimes she complained that all the food she ate went to her hair and her middle, and she could never seem to grow taller. When she complained, it was never her opinion. It was always fact. She had a shrill voice as a child—like the wind whistling across the waves, like the call of gulls. Perhaps I am only using these metaphors because my memory of her cannot be separated from visions of the sea. Perhaps I thought instead of the shrieks of machinery, or the language of sparrows, when I first met her.
She hated Anne of Green Gables with a passion. She even asked her mother to change her name to “Ann without an e” to avoid all association. Even so, Ann was the least affected person I knew; she was an expert in internal logic, and created such fantastic systems of magic like none I’ve ever seen. Her house was our favorite congregation site; she only lived with her mother, who made us homemade candies as we played the same games over and over again. Ann was always the clever sorceress and tamer of oceanic beasts, and almost always was the one to save the day. I miss her—she’s resting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
I never got to meet Eddy’s parents. She lived in a large gloomy house with miniature gargoyles on the roof and a heavy iron gate. The three of us only ever played in the yard—there was something too foreboding about the façade of the house for Ann and I to venture in. Eddy was the least suitable person to live in such a house. One would expect her to be pale and elfin, but she was tan and had frizzy brown hair, the most cheerful one out of the three of us even though she was always sick. She carried a packet of tissues in one pocket and a plastic bag of pain relievers in another.
If I had to guess, she was in a constant state of sniffles because of the cloud that always hovered over her head. Nobody but Ann and I seemed to be able to see it. It hovered four feet above her head at all times, even when she was inside. The air around her was always cooler; in the summer, it gave her coveted shade. The cloud followed her while she ran, which was often, and drizzled softly when she was sad, which was rare. In our games she skimmed along, not quite as invested in magic as Ann or in fables as me. She belonged with us because she there was no way she could blend in with the rest of the world. I can’t say she ascended to the heavens hanging onto her large yellow raincoat as the cloud above her cleared, but I hope she eventually felt our world’s sun on her skin, even though the rays would burn her alive.
I wish I could tell their stories instead of my own. But I don’t know them as well as I know mine, and I can only invent so much before this story turns into nothing more than a familiar fiction. They are the heroes in this story, even if I do not know exactly how their story goes.
As of the beginning of the story, I was Jane Kim of Lieffield, daughter of Peter and Camilla. I never thought I’d amount to much, because I was never as smart as Ann or as kind and mysterious as Eddy. My father taught me to be good to others, to view everyone as my unquestioned equal and to open my heart to everyone’s stories. My mother taught me to be clever and cunning, to never trust one’s senses alone and to listen closely. My father gave me a happy childhood and stood by my rocky adolescence; my mother helped me survive to adulthood, though she herself never lived to see it.
I began writing this story in earnest in summer, when I was eighteen years old. My mother had been dead for six months. The long hot days and cool starry nights seemed to mock my grief, so I sat down at my desk with a clean notebook, the last present my mother gave me, and an army of cheap pens and began to write. Threads of the story already existed in the games I played with Eddy and Ann, and, I began to realize, in the stories my mother left me.
This is a story my mother used to tell me late at night, when I had trouble sleeping and was being difficult about it: Be careful when you’re walking at night and you hear the sound of reveling in the trees, or see the gathering of many brightly-colored moths, or feel the soft beckoning of the breeze on your skin. Should you follow, you will find a great pit with a spiraling staircase leading downwards into a suffocating warm room, where all the mineral treasures of the world lie glistening on a long glass table. To you, they will look as delicious as fresh strawberries or vanilla ice cream, though it is uncommon to place such gems into your mouth. Do not touch anything, for the servants of shadows will try to dress you in darkness and pearls and crown you the queen of death. And you will never return to your family, or your warm bed. For this is the underworld’s revenge for how the world above stole their own queen, carved her from her bed with the sharp light of the waxing gibbous moon to keep her safely in a calm orchard, where she stayed, lured by the promise of an entourage of velvet green and brown, a soft fertile bed, and singing jewels that would light on her head. Without their queen, the underworld was no longer a kingdom, and shriveled and died. In time the farmer who stole the queen of death lost his farm, and with his axe of the gibbous man chopped down her precious entourage to sell their bodies for lumber. Enraged, the queen set her own almond branches on fire and as the flames spread, the soil of her fertile bed awoke with memories of a stranger, wilder time, and a forest began to grow. It grew like an invasion, and did not stop until it completely split the world in half. On the side where the almond tree stood, its fragrant petals slows time’s course until she moves as slow as honey, and it takes up the souls that rise from their bodies as tiny wisps and hardens them into rich almonds, all the better to feed her singing jewels.
Let us return to the king and queen in the world beyond the woods. They who are immortal could not conceive a child. I suppose it is a sort of poetic balance; those who cannot die do not have the right to create life. The king and queen were not happy in their eternal childlessness, so they carved two children from the fragrant almond tree at the edge of the woods between two worlds. The star queen took the gibbous axe and chopped down the tree, while the sun king took a ruby dagger crafted from a witch’s broken heart and carved limbs and faces on the two children.
To destroy the almond tree was a great crime, and the worlds enacted justice by cursing the two children. The underworld, decrepit and poor, longed with all its shriveled heart for another monarch to take the queen’s place. The king and queen were doomed to lose their children; one for their crime, and one for the thief who stole the queen many, many eons ago. Without a single anchor to death, spirits cluttered around the land beyond like a thick fog. In this world Prince Cornelian and Princess Camellia grew up. And from their childhood Princess Camellia fled to our own world, guided by an errant cloud.
I didn’t really care about Princess Camellia the first time I wrote the story. She was always a background character to the stories we played, because it was too easy to be her, it felt like cheating. I was often Prince Cornelian, however, commanding his subjects to enter into our world to search for his lost sister. I tried to make him cruel and sympathetic, tragically understandable and eternally sad. And so I wrote what I knew; about the prince’s three subjects looking for the runaway princess, even though I had no clue where she was myself.
The Prince Cornelian stood on the balcony of the castle, the same balcony from which his father King Aos would open his eyes every morning. Beside him stood a tall figure clothed in rich purple and burgundy satins, with black sable gloves and a peacock-plumed hat. The figure did not have a face.
“Galing,” the prince addressed the figure, “how much time has passed since my sister fled her birthright to the world beyond the woods?”
Galing the Faceless traced their gloved hand over the knots of their cloak. “By tonight it will be a full year, my liege.”
“Such a long time to be away from home,” the prince sighed. “And as I am nearing my eighteenth year, I believe it is time for me to assume the responsibility given to me by my birth. Do you miss my sister, Galing?”
“As I miss the other pair of hands who crafted me from satin, corduroy and velvet,” the doll answered.
“Despite our cursed birth,” Prince Cornelian continued, “we royal children were blessed with dominion over cloth, paper and clay.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out three pieces of thick gold-lined paper. “Go to the sorceress Shiorin and ask her to make a soldier from these pages. And then go to the cliffsides where the ruined castle stands and wake it. Take the two and cleave through the woods between to worlds, and do not return unless you have my errant sister with you.”
The faceless doll left the balcony and returned to their chamber, an abandoned playroom filled with a menagerie of stuffed animals and an old creaky piano. They sat at a small vanity the young princess had played with, and began to paint their face in bold strokes of red and black. On the smooth porcelain surface a sharp red line became a mouth, and two black caterpillars marked the eyebrows. Satisfied with their work, Galing the Faceless turned and set off to the sorceress Shiorin, who lived in a small cottage on top of a hill.
Rows of colorful lanterns pulsating with warm light and kites of long-tailed betta fish and birds of paradise lined path to the witch’s hut. As Galing neared the door, a wind blew through the house so the fish made the sound like one thousand flapping sails, and the birds all flapped their wings like a flock one hundred strong. The wind also flung the door ajar, and from the room a voice said, “Come in, Galing the Faceless. I have just laid out some tea.”
The paper witch Shiorin sat at her dark oak table and poured out strong rose tea into a celadon teacup. She beckoned to Galing, who entered, politely removing their shoes, gloves and head before sitting opposite her at the table. Taking the teacup in their ungloved hands, which were made of coarse corduroy, they poured it into the hole in their neck, where it wetted the cotton and dripped down to where their heart was supposed to be, where the ruby dagger rested and gave the doll animated life. Setting down the teacup, they reached into their tunic and set the three sheets of gold-lined paper in front of Shiorin the sorceress.
“Can you make a soldier from these pages?” they asked. Without a head, their voice emanated from their chest, booming softly like a drum.
Shiorin took the pages into her coarse and steady hands and smelled them. “This was from a present I gave to Cornelian when he had just stopped drooling. These leaves used to be so neatly bound in a red notebook, while his sister—may she return to us—received one bound in blue. How carelessly he rips out these pages and asks me for magic!” Galing the Faceless slumped their shoulders contritely. “But,” the witch continued, “he is the prince, so I will make a fine general for him.” She laid the pages on the table and began to fold the first piece, making deep, confident creases with her callused thumb.
“Before Aos and Doriam were king and queen,” she murmured as she worked, the creasing of paper creating a muffled rhythm behind her words, “Doriam held me in great esteem. I had a different kind of magic then; we two were wild creatures of darkness, hiding in nightmares and stealing the light from stars. That is, until Doriam saw Aos in the burning forest and shielded him from the cruel light of the flames. That was when they began their long courtship, as he gathered wild flowers he tended from the fertile earth, and she brought him birds’ eggs so colorful like round jewels. That was when my poor old heart began to shatter.” The first sheet of paper was done, two long proud legs standing at attention. “The problem with Doriam is she wants too much. The stars in her hair, a pliable husband, immortality and perfect children. She thinks her immortality makes her faultless, enough to try to steal the egg that is all that is left of the underworld. Try as she might, she cannot hold everyone in her hand. So I gave her up, and turned my heart into the ruby dagger I gave Aos as a wedding present. Something beautiful but dangerous, to remind him that I knew Doriam long before he.” Her hands gently lowered the soldier’s torso onto his legs. His paper armor made him look too broad-shouldered. “He was kind enough to grant this old woman some stolen sunlight in return,” she nods to the lanterns, without turning her eyes from the head and helmet she was crafting. The helmet had a three-pronged crest at the front and a long cape draped at the back. She gently attached the head to the body, and breathed three long raspy breaths into the paper to inflate his chest. After the third breath, the paper samurai stood up to his full height of two hands and looked up at Shiorin and Galing.
“Name me and tell me my purpose,” he said.
“You are to accompany Galing the Faceless here on their task to journey to the world beyond the woods and find the missing Princess Camellia. Your name, let’s see, is Shingen.” The paper samurai bowed to Shiorin thrice, and to Galing once. Shiorin searched her pockets and eventually produced a small paper fan the shape of an 8 with a long steel handle. “And this is a present from me. You’ll know how to use it.”
Shingen took the fan in his hand and jumped into Galing’s waiting palm. As Galing and Shingen left, Shiorin the paper witch gently touched the doll’s chest. “You take care of my heart,” she said.
I add this later: The Princess Camellia carefully examined her painting of the vast and unending sea, the likes of which her world beyond the woods had never seen.
My father told me a funny story about how he and my mother met. In college, she painted many commissions for the local cafés, and my father, who was one year younger than her, often frequented them as he wrote articles for the school newspaper. One day he decided to write a feature about the artist behind the paintings, but she refused to be interviewed. Later on he kept noticing her running by, in clothes she made herself, carrying a heavy portfolio, and she kept noticing him too, even though there was nothing extraordinary about him. Eventually she gave a brief interview about her artwork, and how it meant nothing more than the way the world felt to her. It amazed him that she wanted so little; it startled her that he wanted so much. He was the fourth child of six; he dreamed because it was too noisy to do anything else alone.
After they had been dating for a while, he asked her why she kept telling those strange stories of hers, like the one where a poor old farmer became a king by giving a sorceress queen an axe he carved from the night sky, which the sorceress queen used to peel back his skin to reveal a handsome man, and carved down her rival, his first love. Those stories nobody else knew, and sounded so bitter coming from her lips. She said to him, “I tell them to keep them away from reality. I know, Peter, I don’t really like music or good food or anything else you like, but these stories are some of the only things I can use to defend myself. From what? I don’t know. But please, promise me you understand that just because I tell these stories does not mean I wish to exist in a fairytale. I want to stay as far away from them as possible.”
At least, that is how my father remembers it. I feel guilty, looking back on my childhood saturated with fantasy and fairytales, and how I always pestered her to tell me the stories only she knew, to have a secret little world that was ours and ours alone.
She hid her world of pigments from me, though, but shared it with Ann. Together they painted every Saturday, pots and vases coming to life at the guidance of their hands. Everything they drew was as real as possible. For that moment, there was no room for fantasy in their lives, and Ann looked truly happy, in a strange and subtle way she was not when she played our games. My mother hung one of her paintings near a window, so the sunlight would reflect off the oils and add colors and light without the human hand. It was of the sea, dark and placid, without a single wave or ripple disturbing the surface.
The old ruined castle had not been lived in for a very long time, but it still remembered what it felt like to be alive. And the memory was enough to keep its furnaces burning gently, and to keep the once inhabited rooms undisturbed, the floors free from dust and the upholstery free from moths. The clay furnace at the center of the old ruined castle burned happily and dimly when there was no one inside. It was a very old castle, and as long as it stood as proudly as it could it waited, for people would surely return to its doors.
Familiar footsteps sounded in the paved garden filled with topiary beasts, and Galing the Faceless knocked at the warped wooden door that hung half open. Galing was always more polite than practical.
“Wake up, you old beast of stone,” the doll called, and the door creaked open. The castle happily set out tubs of warm water and opened the door to its cellar filled with pickled vegetables and jams, though it knew its young friend had no need of baths and food, so it also laid out vast rooms filled with paints and blushes and filled the laundry with warm soapy vapors. With the doll came the scampering of a pair of small feet, so the castle thought the doll had brought vermin with them, but the pattern of the steps did not resemble the scurry of a rat. The other guest was a small thing, the color of fine white parchment gilded at the edges with gold. Though he looked the part of a samurai, the castle did not unlock its armories, for the little paper man would surely be maimed by the sharp swords and crushed by the large hammers and maces.
The little paper man sat on top of Galing’s shoulder and looked around the castle. “What is this place?” he asked. They were in the main dining hall, seated at a long oak table where a family of one hundred once feasted on dreams and wolfberries.
The castle produced a small dollhouse chair the young Princess Camellia had crafted, which the young Prince Cornelian had stolen to furnish his make-believe war councils. The small paper man jumped from the doll’s shoulder and perched himself imperiously on the chair.
Surely you can answer, the castle rumbled to Galing the Faceless, you who were crafted within its halls amidst the screaming laughter of the young prince and princess. The castle could still remember the weight of their young feet as they raced through the halls, their soft brown hair shining in the sunlight like good brandy and their eyes reflecting the torchlight as vicious as the slit jewels cats carry in their skulls.
“It is a long story,” Galing the Faceless said. “But we will have time to tell it while we are traveling. Are your joints well oiled, castle? We must travel through the woods to find Princess Camellia.”
The castle responded by turning on all its faucets so a thick layer of steam traveled through the halls. The walls of the castle groaned as it lifted its foundation from the fecund earth and began to slowly move towards the woods, where a fog of the dead hung heavy on the ground. The castle moved slowly but deliberately, like the skipping of a videotape. One minute, there was a whole castle with a beautiful garden and crumbling towers; the next, only the towers remained, and nearby the laying of bricks and clay could be seen.
Inside, rooms appeared and disappeared, sometimes rearranging themselves, sometimes recombining to be forgotten by the old castle forever. In the main dining hall, Galing the Faceless and Shingen sat as the tapestries and paintings occasionally rippled and were replaced by coniferous trees and mist. The castle moved through the woods between two worlds, searching. Sometimes, the dining hall shrank as the castle occupied the same exact space as a house in the world beyond.
“This castle was once a house,” Galing said as they traveled. “A small clay affair situated in the shade of an almond tree. At night, the almond tree would feel nostalgic for its old home, and whisper stories of its native land into the shingles of this house.”
“What happened to the tree?”
“It caught on fire. And then someone chopped it down.”
“Who burned it?” Shingen asked. His small paper hands clutched his fan. As a man of paper, he feared fire most of all, and after it blades and water.
Galing shrugged. “I do not know. The old farmer left the house a long time later, and time makes castles out of clay sometimes. There are grander palaces for King Aos to live in, less sentimental than this one.” Galing patted the table fondly, while it was a solid slab of marble carved into a half moon. “It must have been heartbroken when the tree fell, though, because the axe who felled it sat on the house’s mantelpiece for many years before it changed hands to destroy the almond tree.”
Shingen stood up from his dollhouse chair and stared at the faceless mannequin, with their plumed hat resting on their smooth porcelain head and their expertly rouged cheeks. “What are you, Galing the Faceless, that you know such stories and command such force?”
Galing raised their sable-gloved finger and tapped their head. “I know this castle’s story because my head was plucked from a statue here and placed on this body by the royal children, when Princess Camellia was unsatisfied with their work with thread and buttons. And I have no such power, but I speak for Prince Cornelian, who has dominion over clay like the shingles of this castle who carry the almond tree’s whispered secrets, and the cloth of my body that is always loyal to him, and the paper of yours that he himself provided from a gift his sorceress godmother Shiorin gave him.”
“Why do you have such stories in your head, while I know only emptiness and three scattered breaths?” Shingen sat back down on his chair and traced the pattern of his fan with his fingers, following a story of fire and wind. “Her lungs were weak because she is so old.”
“I am bigger and older than you,” the doll said. “You were born with a single purpose; you should be proud of that. Carry your head on high, for it does not war with your body like mine.”
“The Princess Camellia must be cruel, to have made you with such a burden.”
“She was not,” Galing said. “For while there is fealty in cloth, there is magic in my porcelain head. My princess was great and beautiful, and it was her gift to see unity in the disparate, and to find bridges between spaces you would think too far apart.”
Shingen folded his arms and rested them on his knees. “Tell me more of her,” he said.
With better hindsight, I add: Beyond the woods, the Princess Camellia rocked her young daughter on her knee and whispered soft, silly stories of lands far away in her ear.
I had nightmares as a child; vivid, terrible things were I felt like I was as old as earth and watching myself die. When I woke up scared and alone in my room, I would go to my mother’s side of the bed in the middle of the night. Next to her, I felt safe and protected; my logic was that any ghost or bogeyman that would come to harm us would first take my father, who was the loudest sleeper. My mother never slept as she held me, but stroked my hair silently as her dark eyes stared into the distance, shining softly with the reflected light of the moon.
She had nightmares herself, my father told me after she died. She never spoke of her dreams to me. The only dream she talked about was a story she whispered to me once in a while when the moon was full and neither of us felt like sleeping. I thought it was just another story about the almond tree, lucid and undreamed as the first.
“Tell me about the sparrow who ate the almonds,” I would say, as simply as I would ask for the story of the wild dog and the porcupine, or of Heungbu and Nolbu.
My mother would rock me on her knee as she combed my hair, even though there was not much there to comb. “Well, once upon a time there was a little girl who slept and dreamt she was a sparrow,” she began.
“That little girl’s you, right?” I would always ask. We told this story like clockwork.
“No,” she would reply. “It’s any girl who dreams of being a sparrow. Anyways, this sparrow-girl flew through the kingdom, for in dreams sparrows never live in cities. Over fields and pastures the sparrow flew, until it reached the edge of the woods where an almond tree stood.”
“The same almond tree as before?”
“The same as before. The sparrow looked at the tree, which had a rather plain beauty to it because it had already lost its flowers, and then at the ground, which was rich with almonds. Using her little sparrow beak she cracked the almonds and ate until her belly was full.”
“I don’t think sparrows eat almonds. The shells would be too hard for their tiny beaks.”
“Well this is a dream and dream sparrows have sharper, stronger beaks. Anyways the sparrow gorged herself on almonds, and when the girl awoke, it was as if she had lived many, many lives, and was all the wiser for it.”
Eddy also had nightmares, and once I had grown too big to fit on the bed for two, she and I would talk over the phone for hours, keeping time by the constellations we could see outside our respective windows. I told her the sparrow story one day, and she told me about her recurring dream, where she was Marie Antoinette and Robespierre at the same time. Robespierre was also a sorcerer who had plunged France into an ice age, and Marie Antoinette walked under the guillotine and had her head split open.
“Did it hurt?” I whispered.
Her voice crackled through the phone. “It felt like spring.”
Prince Cornelian heart beat thrice, and he knew his servants were completing their task.
Galing the Faceless, Shingen the paper samurai, and the old ruined castle slowly made their way through the forest and into households one by one, through large cities and small rural farms until they found traces of the Princess Camellia in a town neither big nor small, where neighbors could be strangers but visitors never stayed for long. And through the mansions on the hillside and the apartment complexes downtown the three servants searched.
Pleased, the prince went to his desk and rummaged until he found a paper crane made of the same paper as Shingen, the paper given to him by his godmother when he was old enough to stop drooling. Gently he unfolded the crane, and with a pen he wrote a simple message: Tonight, there will be a ball hosted by he, the Prince Cornelian, at the old ruined castle, wherein the lost Princess Camellia shall be found, and the two shall stop being children and assume the duties obligated by their birth. The prince wrote with a flourish and then refolded the crane. Pinching the base of the paper bird, the prince pulled its tail with his other hand. As the crane’s wings flapped, the sound of hundreds of fluttering pieces of paper bellowed above him. From the eastern tower of the palace, hundreds of paper cranes took flight and descended upon the kingdom, inviting every adopted aunt and uncle, every person of import and export to the prince’s ball.
Far away in the wood between two worlds, the old ruined castle became stuck in a swamp. Earth-eating wasps as big as a person’s ear descended upon the castle, and Shingen fended them off with his paper fan. Galing the Faceless sacrificed their beautiful plumed hat to a dragon flying overhead so the great beast, long as a train with a belly full of fire, would pull them from the unyielding mud.
(And the Princess Camellia slept, and knew nothing of their arrival.)
The prince replaced the paper crane so it might peck at a rubber stamp, and walked to the mantel with a brisk step. On the mantelpiece sat the axe made from the gibbous moon, and this he took down with difficulty, for though he was a tree he was still young and not yet imperiously tall. The axe was heavy in his hand, as the moon should be.
“As you felled forests, and carved down the heartwood that bore my sister and me,” he whispered to it, “so you shall cleave her once more and create my kingdom of the dead.”
Galing the Faceless had tied one strand of their velvet cloak onto a young oak branch at the edge of the forest. As the old ruined castle methodically travelled through the woods and squatted within the houses of the world beyond, the cloak slowly unraveled until the string wove up and between the branches of the wood between the worlds. The castle needed only to follow the string back to its own world once the princess was found.
“I will tell you a story,” the prince said to the axe. “You were there, but you are a tool and have no memory. It’s a story about my parents’ wedding day, which happened many millennia ago. For a wedding present, the sky sent a swan to deliver two golden pills to the king and queen, pills that if eaten would preserve their bodies for eternity. But the swan in its haste flew too fast and accidentally swallowed the two pills it had been carrying in its throat. The magic was too powerful for the swan and the poor creature burned up in the sky in a fire so great it consumed the first sun. So the queen, who had by then stolen nearly all the stars in the sky, ripped off her veil and used her long black hair to extinguish the sun before it burned through the sky. And the king used her veil like a sail to fly up to the swan and carved up its belly to retrieve the pills. He also took the swan’s liver, and when he ate that his eyes and mouth began to emit golden sunlight, and he took it as his duty to illuminate the world every day.” He switched the axe to his other hand and gripped it tight, until his knuckles whitened like almond’s flesh. “It is a funny process, how one earns a kingdom.”
But there was a problem with the prince’s plan. Never having traveled to the world beyond the woods nor having met any traveler save the castle, to whom time was a different matter, the prince could not have known that in the world beyond the woods, where time kept pace and light did not flow like honey, the course of a single year would equal half a person’s lifetime. So by the time the three servants of cloth, paper and clay reached the Princess Camellia, she had already married, had a daughter, and died. But how could they have known that the princess’ daughter was near the same age as the princess was when she ran away?
Thirty years ago, as I was writing the first draft of the story, I put down my pen. Tremors shook the ground a few houses away. I knew then that my mother changed her name to Camilla from Camellia, and she died so young because living in our world was like poison to an outsider. I understood why I never met my maternal grandparents, why her life story started when she was already an adult and never went backwards. My heart swelled like a fountain pen with a broken nib, dripping ugly ink everywhere and staining the whole world. I cannot remember any time I was more scared than at that moment. My father was away at work, and I could hear the rumble of an ancient castle outside as it moved between buildings, closer and closer toward me.
Ann called. The first thing she said was, “Don’t go outside.” The second thing was, “Be careful, Jane.” And finally, “At least, that’s what they’re saying I should say to you.”
“Who told you to call me?”
There was silence on the other end. “People at my internship who are very smart and generally good about advice,” she answered.
“Well,” I said, my mouth becoming drier and my hands sweatier, “I think I do need advice right now. What would you do if all those games we played as kids—with Prince Cornelian, and living dolls and sentient castles—turned out to be true?”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “We were just playing games and making up stories we grew out of eventually. And anyways, if strange things were to happen, you’d be fine as long as you remembered those stories and how they end.”
“I do,” I said. “The problem is, it doesn’t end well for me. At all.”
“Endings are generally easier to change than beginnings. Nothing’s written in stone yet, right? Look, I have to go back to work. Don’t go outside, and be careful. That’s what the octopi say.” She hung up, and I was no safer than I was. The doorbell rang, and kept on ringing, so I had to answer it or break something in frustration.
There was no spell that would work in real life. I had no charms or amulets near me. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The perfectly ordinary sight of the street stared back. The black asphalt rippled gently with the force of the afternoon summer heat. I should have shut the door, burned the notebook, taken down all the pictures of my mother and learned how to manage my life as any ordinary person did, with a clear head and a heart soft and strong enough to receive both sadness and joy. It would have been a change from the way I had been living all my life, drowning blissfully in the world of the unreal. But I didn’t seek to change, and I took a step outside. I thought myself clever, to check if there was something invisible on my front porch.
There was nothing there, but as soon as I stepped out the door slammed behind me. I turned around and struggled to reopen the door, cursing my inability to follow simple advice given, apparently, by octopi. The plaster of my house’s façade bulged and stretched like skin, and I saw the faint outline of bricks beneath it.
The door opened, and Galing the Faceless pulled me inside the old ruined castle.
From here on, I can only write from memory. And my memories of stress and screaming are rather faint, because the indignation and fear melt the hours and events together. I remember the ordeal in flashes: the soft sable and satin of Galing’s clothes on my skin; Shingen, smaller than I imagined him, pulling on my hair; the suffocating warmth inside the parlor of the castle. I remember Galing’s voice—how strange it was to hear them all speak and have their voices travel actual distance, instead of occurring instantaneously inside my head—telling me it was an honor to return home. I remember repeatedly saying they have the wrong person, the wrong girl, their princess was in another town. I was lying.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Galing. “Blood carries over unfinished business. I think. I don’t have blood to prove it.”
“There’s a story,” I said quickly. “About how a woman wanders through your world looking to undo the justice done in her name. Her tears burn the ground and rot the grass at her feet, so bitter is she about the cruelties she’s inflicted.”
The paper samurai was sitting on his little dollhouse chair, idly hitting his knees with the paper fan. “It seems everyone knows good stories here but me,” he said glumly. The castle shook its shutters.
“There isn’t a story,” Galing said. “She just made that up. And unless you want to spend the rest of your life in a land of fog, we must right the wrong of her mother’s birth. So long as enough of this girl is made of almond wood, we should have no worries that the prince is satisfied.” Though their face could not change expressions, the porcelain reflected a softer light. “And there is enough of Princess Camellia in her. I can see it in her face, and the way her spine holds her up.”
I think I began to cry then, and somehow they locked me in one of the castle’s bedrooms with instructions to change for the prince’s ball. “It is rightfully your ball,” Galing said. “It’s being held in honor of your return.”
It was too tiring to restate the thesis that I was not returning to their world, so I found myself locked in a room with a wardrobe filled with lush dresses and more shoes than I could imagine. I tried to calm my breathing, and remember what my mother taught me.
“Any object wants to be splendid and useful if you let it,” she used to say to me as we cut milk cartons apart to build houses for fairies and figurines. I repeated those words to myself three times and looked once again at the abundance of dresses and tailcoats offered to me. I took armfuls of dresses and cloaks and breeches, beautiful things made out of silk and satin, and cut them apart with the sharp heel of a glass shoe. I tied them together with the best knot I knew and tested the strength of my makeshift rope by hanging off the bedpost. I was pretty proud of my plan, until I found out that the windows were locked.
I banged my fists on the windows, but the glass was stronger. I hated how weak I was, how a castle was able to trap me with simple locks, and I started to cry because what I had made was a noose to kill myself with.
Three pieces of wrinkled paper slipped under my door. They refolded into Shingen, and he reached underneath the door to grab his fan. “Why do you cry, Princess Camellia?” he asked, scaling the bedpost to hit my head gently with his fan. “Shouldn’t you be glad to wear fine clothes and go to balls?”
“Please,” I said, rubbing my eyes red with the bedsheet, “my name is Jane. And I thought I would enjoy it, I really did. Just like the stories I wrote. But I think I know how this story ends and I don’t like it. I can’t change it.”
“I have just been born,” the paper samurai said, “and I am no expert in stories, but all the ones I have heard all speak about the past and not the future. Do you, child of a different world, have powers of prophesy?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. I just have these horribly vivid nightmares—had them since I was a child—and I feel so old sometimes, like the world cannot surprise me anymore. Like I’ve died a thousand deaths.” I lifted myself from the floor only to collapse on the bed. My weight bounced Shingen up a few centimeters, and he ended up standing near my ear. He was so small; I could turn over and crush him with my head. But then I would still be locked in this room, with only three pieces of paper for my efforts.
Anything can be splendid and useful. Under the right circumstances, a piece of paper could soar. “I only wish I could invite my friends,” I sobbed, trying to sound as heartbroken as possible. Which wasn’t hard. “It would be easier if they were with me.”
“How will you find them?” Shingen asked. No, I thought. How will they find me?
“I can’t even leave this room! I’ll need to retrace my steps through the wood beyond the worlds to get to them. I wish,” I paused, and scooped his light body in my two hands. “Can you find them for me? If I tell you where to go from my house, could you do it?”
Shingen shook his head slowly. “But I am needed here, Princess Jane.”
“Not all of you. What about your head? I can write a message and fold it into a paper airplane, and you can fly overhead. Much less dangerous than traveling through the woods alone in the fog.” Shingen lifted his small paper arms and removed his head, but hesitated. “I’ll pay you in stories,” I said. “So many that they will fill you like a balloon, near to bursting.”
He handed me his head. It seemed a shame to undo such beautiful craftsmanship, but I gingerly undid the folds of his helm until there was a flat, crinkled sheet of paper in from of me. I had no pen to write with, so I bit my finger and wrote a short message with a stiff collar as a nib, and signed my name with my bloody index finger. Sometimes, having a short name comes with advantages. I then folded his head up like a paper airplane.
“I will send it,” Shingen said, and watched me carefully with his neck as he glided on his own head to the window. He knocked on the glass and the window opened. A wind roared; we were going fast. Tendrils of mist seeped into the room and clung onto the curtains. Shingen leaned out and gingerly released his head into the air. “Now,” he said from his chest. “You promised me stories.”
I told him many stories, so many I cannot recall all of them. I told stories about the land beyond, nonsensical stories where talking animals learned faulty moral lessons and, when all others were exhausted, stories of my childhood. His chest expanded with the stories until it neared bursting, and then he left, slipping under the door in two pieces instead of three. His small paper hand reached underneath to grab his paper fan. At an impulse, I took it before he could reach it and tucked it behind my ear. His hand searched for a while, and then a muttered, “Damn,” sounded through the door.
I was alone, little better off than I was before. I was still scared, and lonely, and increasingly bored. And, in writing this, it is the boredom that bites the strongest when I reach backwards into the past. I believe I put on one of those dresses, a black one with long gloved sleeves, because I had nothing better to do. The dress was difficult to put on—the gloved sleeves meant I couldn’t pull it down from my head, but instead I had to slowly yank it up from below. My hips did not comply at all, but the dress was one of the few left undamaged after the construction of my impromptu rope. If I was going to die, I might as well look like Persephone rising from the world of the dead, with black lace at my throat and pearls on my hem. Unfortunately I did not have the complexion or the figure for the dress, and I looked like a plump heckled crow more than anything else. The dress occupied me for about an hour—it was a complicated dress full of straps, laces and strings, and what was time in this castle, if the two worlds it traveled between did not even agree.
I sat back down on the bed with difficulty and sighed. “I’m not going anywhere, castle,” I said. “Please let me walk around the halls or something. I’m so awfully, awfully bored.”
A bronze sewing machine appeared in the corner. Next to it were many spools of thread, the colors of dawn and ocean and spring. I looked at the mess I made of the dresses and suits and sighed. I slowly repaired the clothes—it was merely a matter of reattaching the parts I had ripped. The sewing machine (which I had learned to use from a class I took in school) was surprisingly fast, the needle vibrating at a speed I could not follow. After a while there was a pile of theoretically wearable dresses on the bed.
The door swung open, and I stepped outside. The halls were vast and cool. Large glass windows let in plentiful light; I had expected torches and damp tapestries, the kind of castle that was tragically beautiful and wholly unlivable. But the old ruined castle may be old and ruined, but it longed for life so deeply that the halls were always welcoming and safe, even as it carried me to my death.
I found Galing the Faceless in the main hall, sitting on a plush, moth-eaten chair and reeling in a line of purple thread with a long wheel that reminded me of a giant spool. Galing’s head rested in their lap, their painted face smudged so their eyes were an expanse of black and blue, while their mouth had only a faint hint of red remaining. A scrap of purple cloth was slung over their neck. “Do not think I don’t see you,” their voice boomed from their chest. “How nice of you to dress for the occasion. Though that number is certainly an interesting choice.”
“I will wear whatever I want to my death,” I said. “Seeing as how I cannot escape, it is one of the only things left that I control.” I steeled my gaze at them. “You know about my mother’s childhood,” I said softly. “Was she happy?”
Galing the Faceless did not slow their hands, but kept spinning them round and round, the spool of thread becoming thicker and thicker. “She was a very happy child,” they said. “Her laugh could match bells in their vibrancy. And then, after one dream, she was happy no longer. And then she vanished. Was she happy growing old in your poison land?”
I thought once again of my mother and the whole childhood I spent with her. I tried to collapse all of my memories of her into a single sentence. “I don’t think she cared much for happiness,” I said. “She always talked about other things. But she was hardly ever sad.” After the words left my mouth I thought of her sitting by the window with her palette on her knees, and the small droplets of tears that would fall down her face and hang like dew on the wood. “Are you mad because she left you?” I stepped near Galing and reached out my hand to their shoulder.
They shrugged me away. “Too bad,” I whispered, and used my foot to stop the spinning wheel. I grabbed the thread with both my hands and ran as fast as I could towards the exit. The wheel began to spin in the opposite direction. The old ruined castle could not completely shut the wooden door, and I squeezed through the opening. I took one breath of the air filled with heavy clouds, and leaped.
I hit the ground much sooner than I’d thought I would. The thread sliced the gloves into ribbons, and I let go as soon as I felt solid earth. I ran, even though the dress was heavy and grew heavier still with moisture from the fog. Soon there was nothing left but the mist, and the woods where neither light nor darkness passed.
When I wrote those words, I didn’t know what that would entail exactly. As I ran through the forest, I realized that without lights and shadows the woods looked strangely two-dimensional, as if I was running through a picture book. The trees looked all alike, and soon I was very lost. The forest air was cold, but the black dress absorbed heat like a black box, and the humidity made it hard to breathe. I took the fan from my hair—it seemed to grow in size as I held it in the palm of my hand, larger and larger until it was nearly taller than me. I gripped it with both hands and waved it with all my strength. A great gust of wind spread from my fan, clearing the air of fog so I could see a small pod of iridescent squid swimming through the air.
“Wait,” I called out to them. They swam too high for me to reach, and to fast for me to catch. “Wait, please help me!” The fog began to flow back. In it, I may have heard the cries of the dead, but such sounds are so common to me now, I do not remember. It was hard to breathe, possibly due to the thickness of the fog, or possibly because every breath I took felt like a hundred screams resting in the crevices of my lungs.
I saw a gaunt bird in the distance, large with feathers of a creamy, bony white. Its eyes were holes in its head, its head was a skull, and it picked halfheartedly at the almonds on the ground with its large bony beak. It looked at me with its empty eyes, and then flew away.
I was alone in the fog. I was lost, and my dress was heavy. I sat down at the base of the tree, and I tried to cry. The tears would not come; the fog hung in my lungs, as if I was breathing cotton. So I pressed my forehead against the rough bark of the tree and I started to pray, to anyone who would listen. I spoke to my dead grandfather, whose picture hung in our living room; I prayed to the stories my mother told me and to my father’s God. I prayed for my friends to find me, and for this I prayed the loudest, until all I could hear was the drumming repetition of the words screaming in my mind.
I don’t know how long I prayed. It must have been a short while, but the more I remember it the longer the time stretches to eternity. The air eventually cleared, and became incredibly hot, a dry heat like a drought. I looked up and saw the pod of glowing octopi from before, and my two friends balancing on Eddy’s grey storm cloud as they descended towards me, calling my name.
I cried and ran to them, and we all hugged each other as the cloud faded away; Eddy, no longer a fountain of mucus and her face held towards the sun, and Ann, her dreadlocks cut unevenly from her head, her scalp slightly singed. We said a lot of unimportant, sentimental things. I want to write them down, but there are certain things I want to lock inside myself, to be mine and mine alone until I die and a familiar hand carves all the unspoken words out of my chest. Ann fed her hair to a dragon for directions. Eddy could fly on her storm cloud—the cloud was blown from one world to another, and made her from soap bubbles and concentrated starlight. I won’t say much more; their stories are theirs to tell.
We almost made it. The three of us, running through the foggy wood between two worlds, where neither light nor darkness could lend a trail for us to follow. The moss grew on all sides of the tree like a sock pulled up to an ankle; the canopy was so thick the branches blended into one another, so it was like staring into the leaves produced by one monstrous tree. Still we ran, though we were not very fit, but the castle was fast and clever.
We did not see the castle appear, we just saw three chairs laid out near a warm inviting fire. All of us were tired, and before one of us could think clearly we had settled ourselves comfortably in them.
Once we had sat, the ground rumbled and four walls began to enclose us, as if a giant had laid its hand flat onto the ground and was now closing its fists around us. We were trapped within the castle walls. The grassy undergrowth was paved over with stone, and the floor lurched upwards. The three of us stumbled to balance in the moving castle.
The torches on the ceiling flickered in disappointment. I brought my fists on the floor and wailed. I was so close, but I wasn’t clever enough to run out of the story. I heard footsteps behind me, but I did not turn around. I filled my lungs full with the air inside the castle, which was warm and soft, and said, “Ann, Eddy, meet Galing the Faceless and Shingen the paper samurai. My friends, Galing and Shingen: Ann without an e, and Eddy, short for Edith.” I looked up at Eddy and Ann, their eyes filled with water, which I think was pity and love. “They are to deliver me to my uncle, Prince Cornelian—yes, the same one we playacted—and he will kill me instead of my mother. So my bones may create the realm of the dead, and he may rule it as his parents rule the day and night. I know this sounds like a story I made up, and it may as well be, but as you can see,” I gestured to my dress, which was a damp, tattered mess, “I am trapped until the story ends.”
I felt Ann take my right hand in her own, my tattered glove and bleeding fingers resting in her small smooth hand. Eddy took my other hand in her own two hands, unusually cold. The three of us sat on the floor and didn’t cry together, and I wished we could stay like that forever, in a moment in time where my wish to see the world beyond the woods was granted, between my kidnapping and my scheduled execution. But the wheel kept on gathering the thread from Galing’s cloak, and the castle kept moving through the woods, to take me to Prince Cornelian.
I reached into my hair and handed Shingen back his fan. He took it with a grunt. “What happened to my head,” he demanded.
Eddy helplessly scratched the back of her head and shrugged. “Do you mean the paper airplane? We fed it to the dragon. Along with Ann’s hair.”
“How much does a dragon eat?” I said.
“It’s a dragon,” Ann said, running her hand across her sheared hair. “They’re greedy and give awful directions.”
Eddy gently plucked Shingen from the ground and held him in her palms. “I can make you a new head if you want. Not a good one, but it’ll do.”
Shingen patted the air where his helmeted head was supposed to be. “I miss my head,” he said. Or maybe that was just what I thought he was thinking. Eddy set him down on a small card table, and took a sheet of newsprint from a pile of newspapers that got stuck in the parlor during the house’s travels. The folding of a paper pirate hat was too short to tell any story.
Eddy smiled as she held up a mirror for Shingen to admire his new hat. Her other hand went to her temple. “I feel lightheaded,” she whispered. “Can I have a glass of water?” A pitcher and a glass appeared on the table by her elbow. She poured out some water and took a sip, immediately spitting an ice cube back into the glass.
Ann gathered herself up to study Galing the Faceless. “You’re face is a mess,” she said. “I can repaint it for you if you want.”
Galing drew back. “Why should I accept help from one of the princess’ co-conspirators?”
Ann reached out and smeared away the doll’s face. “Because I can make you a face with stronger magic than you possess.” She turned her head slightly and winked at me. The existence of faceless dolls and the magic of colors and faces were mostly her ideas.
The castle complied and produced a set of paint. With a steady hand, Ann began to draw with browns and greens and soft, creamy yellow. It was more a science than an art, like watching a dissection in reverse as Ann put layer upon layer of paint onto Galing’s face. Slowly, I could see it come to life. It was my mother’s face.
Galing clutched at their chest. “What is this burning pain in my chest? What have you done to me, witch?”
Ann calmly looked at her folded hands. “I’m making you remember. Jane looks a lot like her mother, doesn’t she? You can see it in how their cheeks round so gently, and their lips curve up slightly so they look like they are smiling even when they are not. Jane’s mom was a great lady, you know. She gave me painting lessons, and let me sleep over when my mom went out of town. You must have loved her too. She made you, after all.”
Galing let out a long, deep wail from the inside of their chest and fell to their knees before me. I offered them my hands and helped them to stand. They weighed so little, as a doll of cloth and cotton should.
Ann looked at me and smiled. Galing righted themself and kneeled at my feet. “I remember,” they said.
“It would be a pity to see you die,” Shingen said, as Eddy set him in my hand. “Though I was made with one purpose, the stories inside me fill me so near bursting I am sure I will find a better story to be a part of.” Eddy smiled, though her face was pale. I should have helped her sit down, and laid a warm towel against her forehead, but I was too taken with my victories to be a better friend.
The parlor began to glow with light as the castle replaced torches with windows slightly open, so some fresh foggy air greeted my face. The windows gleamed. The castle was always on the side of life. None of us saw that the wheel had stopped spinning.
Through the windows a darker mist began seeping into the room, and frost flowers bloomed on their glass panes. Eddy gave a cry, “My cloud!” Color flashed in her cheeks, only to be frozen over forever as the cloud descended towards her and engulfed her whole.
The castle crashed to a halt as thunder and lightning simultaneously blinded and deafened us. Once I blinked away the dark spots, I could see a person standing where Eddy had stood, the same height and weight as her, but with skin glazed over with frost and a jagged crown of glacial blue. The air became both heavy and cold—heavy because we had arrived in the world beyond, where time, light and blood flowed like honey, and the earth Ann and I stood on rejected our alien presence; and cold because with every breath not-Eddy took, the windows froze over in ice and the stone floors forgot their memories of fire and warmth. The castle groaned with agony as walls of blue ice pushed away its walls and expanded, until the parlor became an octagonal ballroom. Gone was the broken wooden door, replaced by a great archway with molding depicting the sun and stars.
At the entrance of the archway stood a boy about my age, who looked nearly identical to my mother. There was one rare photograph of her in her college years, her eyes wide in surprise, her face without the traces of age. She was sitting in the sun, her hair just slightly lighter than her skin, her mouth gently open as if caught in the middle of a phrase. She was looking to the left, away from the setting or rising sun. I thought about that photograph as I stared at the Prince Cornelian, who advanced towards us with long, steady steps that cracked the layer of ice on the floor with his boot heel.
“He looks just like you,” Ann whispered to me as she took my hand. “But with different eyes.”
I held onto her as not-Eddy pulled her away. I remember the sound of screams, shrill and biting in the winter wind. Those screams might have been mine.
Everything became quiet as Prince Cornelian neared me and grabbed my throat. His hand was warm, and though he squeezed tighter until his knuckles strained enough to crack, I did not feel pain or feel the need to breath. The black dress I wore gathered all the heat in the room and stored it safe in the center of my stomach.
Once, I stared at my mother’s face for ten minutes straight because I wanted to be able to describe her perfectly, if the need arose. The more I looked at Prince Cornelian, the more I saw my mother in the curve of his cheek and the twist of his lip. I could feel my memory melting like butter and mixing with other oils, contaminated. The way he looked violated a deal I made with the universe to keep my mother’s image singular and unchallenged.
He did not look at me, but instead addressed not-Eddy who stood beside me. “If it isn’t Lord Cirrin, returned from the world beyond. How dare you return from your exile?”
“Forgive me my betrayal, my prince. I was already lost within the woods, how could I have known whom I guided to the world beyond?” From the peripheral of my eye I could see him throwing Ann aside and bowing before Prince Cornelian.
“Eddy?” I whispered.
“A mere phantasm,” Lord Cirrin laughed. “I am the last steward of the sun before he retires for the night, and as such am loyal only to the great King Aos, and by extension the wild star queen and their son. ” They put their hands into their cloak of white ermine and withdrew a small paper crane. “You remember, my prince. You even had the heart to invite me.”
“Rise, Lord Cirrin of Noctilusens. You are welcome to my festival.”
Galing kneeled beside him. “My prince,” they said. “I have done as you asked.”
With his free hand, Prince Cornelian beckoned the doll to rise and come towards them. As they neared, he ran his finger down their painted face, and it shattered, raining pieces of porcelain upon the floor. Galing the Headless collapsed onto the floor, limp as a scarecrow. “No, you have not,” he said, as he wiped his bleeding hand on my hair. “The doll had no intention of returning to me. Do you not know I have dominion over paper, clay and cloth? My heart skipped thrice, and I knew my servants had betrayed me.”
“But with my help,” Lord Cirrin said, “you have still found the blood of your sister, Princess Camellia.”
Prince Cornelian gripped my throat tighter and turned to examine my face. He looked at me with his eyes, so similar to my mother’s, mostly brown with hints of green and amber like an empty field in early spring, and his eyes betrayed the boredom one might feel while looking at stones from a quarry, or great piles of lumber. “True. This one’s uglier, though. The world beyond tarnishes all beauty, even that of my incomparable sister. Flowers offered their hearts to her, and at the sight of her the peacock’s thousand eyes wept in jealousy. Still, if there is one certain thing in this world, it is how blood transmits old grudges and sins through generations.” He drew me close, and I could smell his autumn breath, honey and decay, the pungent spores of mushrooms and damp rotting wood. I still haven’t gotten the smell out of the basement. “Never mind your origins, blood of my sister, our fates are sealed. Your eyes will illuminate the streets of the dead, the breath of your lungs will blow like gales and your twenty-four ribs will become pillars surrounding the great gate of your jaw. I will make a castle of your pelvis and weave fabrics with your sinews so no ghost or devil will ever be unclothed. Your heart will be the dam that pumps power to my city and your limbs will be like walls.
“But first,” he pushed me aside, “we must enjoy this ball I planned for you. A coronation must be celebrated, my niece, and your considerate uncle has decided to make it your wake as well.”
“And what about me?” Ann asked from the side. I forgive her for not doing much at that moment; what could she have done to save me?
“Enjoy the party,” Prince Cornelian laughed. “Any guest of my sister’s blood is a guest of mine.” Lord Cirrin bowed in the background.
I tried to run but a great sheet of ice clung to my dress, and spread until I was encased in ice all the way to my shoulders. “You should not miss your ball, Jane,” my uncle laughed. “You must make an entrance, and dance with all the guests as per tradition!”
“Surely, my child,” called Queen Doriam as she stepped from the balcony, pulling with her a long glittering train of inky black hair, “you know we are already here.”
Lord Cirrin bowed to the queen, and then turned to me. “Well, we mustn’t have you standing in the open all evening. Such an important person as you must make an entrance, and you cannot do so if you are already here.” The ice at my feet expanded, until six walls of blue, impenetrable ice surrounded me. The ballroom turned into a world of shadows beyond the crystalline walls. Ann’s shadow lingered, before fading into the crowd.
Figures like shadows came into being, and the ballroom filled with the sound of guests, all glamored and drunk and dancing. Their laughter reminded me of the story my mother told me, warning me not to follow the sound of revels in trees. For here I was, dressed in darkness and pearls, and soon to be made into the pillars of the underworld. I closed my eyes and rested my head against the ice, and in the undersides of my eyes I saw the shape of a sickly bird, with eyes like holes in its skull. I opened my eyes, and it was still there.
“What are you?” I whispered. The gaunt bird pecked at the ice that encased my feet and flapped its limp wings. It looked so sickly and pathetic, I almost wanted to slit my wrist with a shard of ice and feed it my blood. Before my pity got the better of me, the ice walls shattered and I stood before the ballroom filled with guests of all shapes and titles. The gaunt bird flew away once more.
I was handed from grand dame to great duke like currency. One by one they bowed to me and offered me their hand; there were too many, dressed to the nines with ten voices to a throat, for me to distinguish. I can still remember a woman dressed in a white silk gown so fine it was transparent, with an emerald dragonfly on her breast and a shiny silver beetle adorning her plain black hair. She waltzed with her four thin legs skittering upon the glossy floor. There was a man who smelled like brine and fog when he kissed my cheeks, and a guest who was so drunk they could only spout numbers in a frantic monologue as we danced a quadrille.
Lord Cirrin took me away from a speckled fop, and held me in his icy arms. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself, my lady,” he said. “I have been looking forward to this party for three decades.”
“Where is Eddy,” I said. “I don’t want to dance with you, I want to dance with my perpetually sick, airheaded friend who stayed up with me late at night telling me ghost stories, and played with us in the yard of her lonely house.”
“She has never been whole without me,” the iceman said. “I made her from ice crystals and soap bubbles, and shielded her from your world’s cruel sun. She would be dead without me, and I would not be here without her. But I will continue to be without her. I am the first Lord of Noctilusens, and my only shame is to have chased the wrong wind on the night when your mother escaped.”
“Eddy is more real to me than you.” He raised his eyebrows. I dug my nails into his palms. “I don’t care what role you played, or what kind of sick politics you’re trying to affect, but you’ll never be as real as Eddy was, because you never laughed until you snorted at some half-baked joke we made up in the dead of night. You never felt the sun’s warmth on your face, which she has, and you have never been brave enough to see if you could stand without a lord above you.”
Lord Cirrin smiled with his lips pursed, and brushed my hair with his hand, which grew heavy with icicles. “You look so much like her,” he said. “But your eyes are duller. Hers was so full of fear and dread, that night when she escaped. Remember that I too have a heart, Jane Kim, and it bled with rain when it saw her that night. But I want a title, and honor and land, and for that I must return.”
I danced with Ann, who kissed me on the cheek. I could taste her salty tears, and they melted the icicles that clung to my hair. “I’m sorry to drag you into this mess. Next time, we’ll go to a movie like normal people.”
She laughed and wiped her face. “Don’t be sentimental. Between the complicated murder family plot and Eddy turning into a scary villain, I’m having the time of my life. At least,” she paused, “I won’t ever forget this. It’s not every day you get dragged into stories like this via paper airplane.”
“If only this ends like our stories do.” Her smile morphed away slowly, like a sand after a wave.
“Jane,” she said. “In our stories, the hero dies. Tragically, and excessively.”
And there was Shiorin the paper witch, in a paper kimono decorated with golden jumping carp and a pair of bronze scissors tucked into her harsh bun. She danced like a kite floating on a spring breeze, and her hand brushed my chest and slipped something into the bodice of my dress. I looked down.
“Princess Jane,” whispered three pieces of paper, “Do not fret, I will help you rescue yourself.”
I reached into my bodice and held my hand there, as Shiorin handed me to the king and queen together. The queen smiled at her, and touched her wrinkled face with a hand no longer claimed by time. King Aos said nothing and saw nothing, as Queen Doriam guided him towards me. He stroked my cheek once, and his finger burned my skin; she kissed my other cheek, and her hair brushed my face, as cold as the depths of space and the worlds of ice it held suspended. I was too exhausted to dance any more, and they merely spun me once, twirling me like a parent would twirl their child.
As Lord Cirrin returned to guide me to my executioner, the Prince Cornelian, I pulled the three pieces of paper, two of them creamy white and gilded with gold, and one plain newsprint, out of my bodice. In my hand they transformed into three paper claws, the kind Ann, Eddy and I made as children in our dragon games. “I am sad to harm this man, who was once so kind, but you must,” Shingen said. I hesitated; the paper was already in bad shape, and the water from Lord Cirrin’s cold skin would surely be the death of this brave paper samurai. “Do not fear, Princess Jane. I was not made to live forever, but with your stories it was as if I lived a hundred thousand lives. I would not mind dying one more time.”
I dug the claws into Lord Cirrin, and he howled in pain and let go of my arm. Clutching three damp, dying pages in my hand, I made my third escape. The crowds of partygoers parted like fish as I ran, in a labyrinth of a ballroom that had no exits. The entire world beyond the woods was contained in this ball, I realized, from the sun to the night sky. As I ran I could see Prince Cornelian brandishing an axe with all the colors of the moon, from dark red to milky white. Another second more, and my head rolled onto the ground.
I wonder how Eddy felt like spring in her dream when the guillotine came down on her head. Because to me, the axe felt like a bee sting and then—rest. Someone held my head in their lap as I slept, stroking my hair. I felt safe. A voice rushed forward from my chest, my lungs became an echo chamber for a soft, secret exhale that only let out one word.
I could hear someone chopping wood, I could feel the axe blade move through my neck and take with it a thin slice of me, but I felt no pain. I was an almond tree, and all I knew was to open my arms to the hubris of human hearts. My head faced the earth so I could not see, but I could hear, so it was like listening to something happening in a pitch-black room.
And yet, I also remember standing in a shadowy room, my head back on my shoulders, where a woman reclined a couch and groaned softly, the same way my mother used to when she strained her tendons and her legs refused to support her. What I thought were pompoms were actually birds of rainbow colors, nesting and sleeping and singing in her hair. I walked towards her, but before I could reach her face the gaunt bird flew from the shadows and began pecking at the smaller birds until their corpses littered the ground. Then it watched me with its hollow, territorial eyes.
I heard Prince Cornelian say: “Stand down, Galing. Obey me.”
I heard rustling like thousands of cicadas taking flight at once, cutting through the air like small daggers.
And I heard a voice as old as the wind in winter say, “No, my godchild.” There was a sound like silver, and then the din subsided.
Still I saw the woman move, and pull away her blanket that was darker than shadows. An idle hand stroked the gaunt bird’s neck.
Someone was moving my head towards my body. I could feel my dual parts calling out to each other, the top and bottom of my neck beckoning to each other like lovers, or magnets. I felt something around my neck, soft and ridged like velvet. I began to breath once more, and I could see Galing the Headless pushing my hand, still bearing Shingen’s trisected corpse, through their neck to the center of their heart.
I gripped the hilt of the ruby dagger and gravity pulled my arm out of their chest, and pulled their empty body to the earth’s embrace. As it deflated, it wheezed, “You take care of this heart.”
I ran towards Prince Cornelian, my head leading my body as a wire pulls a puppet, and the dagger burned in my hand. It longed to carve into one of our bodies, to bring us death was well as life. I stopped just short of my uncle, and held the dagger against his throat and felt its desire to live again.
“I will tell you a story,” I whispered. “You were there, but you are a tool and have no memory. Once, there was a lonely king and queen who decided to sacrifice the death of their world in order to give themselves even more life. And what they did was wrong. The children they made lived a happy, but lonely childhood, and grew up too fast. Who wouldn’t, if destiny told them they will kill or be killed by their own sibling? But one of the children was smart enough to run away, and her actions means that this story will have an ending different from that predestined. There are four pieces of this story: the two children, and the two instruments that carved them. You have a long story hidden in your handle,” I said to the dagger. The room was hushed; the fog had seeped in, and everyone was beginning to fade into the mist. “But I will not let your blade finish this tale. Not the way you want it to go.”
I withdrew the blade from Cornelian’s neck. He swung the gibbous moon axe at me, but the ruby dagger heart of Shiorin the paper witch was ready to meet it. When the two blades clashed, the axe’s blade first became flat, like the moon in the daytime sky, and then grew full and rose up into the air like a balloon. As it grew higher bits of it shrank, until it was a thin crescent that popped from the air like a soap bubble. The ruby dagger shattered for the second time. The guests were all outlines now; I could see the old woman with the scissors in her hair and a kimono of golden dragons shriveling up into thin ribbons of paper, a smile on her thin mouth before she was blown away. The background was fading to white, as the whole world held its breath to focus on the sins and punishment of three generations. They were still there, but silent, expectant, waiting. I stood tall, feeling my feet take root of the land that was my mother’s, but not mine.
“Because before I am the blood of Princess Camellia, I am Jane Kim of Lieffield, daughter of Peter and Camilla, and I refuse to die for your parents’ sins. I may have shared my mother’s blood when I was in her womb, but it is my bone that is making it now and my heart that circulates it through a body that is mine.”
My mother’s brother collapsed to his knees. We both let go of the remnants of our weapons, and they fell simultaneously to the floor and clattered a chord in harmony, silver and gold. The king and queen stepped towards us, and Queen Doriam broke away from King Aos to tend to her son.
“How could you,” Queen Doriam barked as she held him in her arms. “Everything could have been perfect. I would have lost only one of you.”
I stared at my grandmother, her long gluttonous hair engulfing everything around it. I realized then I felt no love for her, even though I had longed so much to meet my mother’s family. “No,” I said. “You would have lost both of them. Just because one would be given a mantle of midnight and a scepter of shadows, doesn’t mean they could climb up again. That’s not how the curse is meant to go.”
Prince Cornelian coughed up rubies. “I was meant to be the king of the dead,” he said blankly. “I would have dispelled the fog. I would have been a good king.”
“The land of the dead does not need a king,” I said. “With a king, the souls would still be lost in this world. The land of the dead needs someone to rebuild it. Someone to find a path to it again.” I made a compass from the slice of my neck and a shard of a twice-shattered heart. What better materials could I give to him, to explore the unknown land of the dead? “And you would be a good one. Better to do some good wherever you’re going to go, right? Goodbye, Uncle Cornelian,” I whispered to him as he closed his eyes, and gained that peaceful expression known only to statues, and occasionally the dead.
The gaunt bird flew down from its perch in the rafters, and threaded its beak through his hair. It clawed once at his chest, twice at his skull, and then settled in like a crown of bone upon his head. Queen Doriam wept, and covered his body with her hair of void and stars.
The fog cleared, and I could clearly see the crowd gathered at the ball once more, surrounding this dysfunctional family in a complete circle. I cannot directly recall their faces, even though each and every one of them greeted me personally. I suppose memory has a funny way of erasing major details, and augmenting minor ones. I stood in my torn dress with slivers of red rubies strewn across the floor, my neck bandaged by the remnants of Galing the Headless’ unraveled cloak, and never have I held my head higher.
“Well,” Queen Doriam huffed as she coiled her hair back into a twist, taking the stars and using them as silver pins, “I hope you are proud of what you have done to this family. Did you think for a moment—” She stopped. The king raised his hand and gently patted her shoulder.
“The world will take its course, Doriam. Right now, I wish to see my granddaughter,” the king said, and with every word golden light lazily stretched through the ballroom, gently melting the walls of ice. Cirrin screamed, a long, drawn-out wail that progressively became more high-pitched and sounded like Eddy. King Aos opened his eyes and looked at me with such kindness that I was blinded. Hand in hand, the sun king and star queen returned to their own castle, where childless halls would be their punishment.
Stories have an odd way of playing themselves out. This was not one where I returned home and everything continued, as it should, though I myself am forever changed. Too many worlds had been cleaved and broken for things to remain the same. I could not go back, though many people tried to convince me otherwise.
The first was Ann, her clothes covered in dirt and ash and her head strikingly bare. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to normal fast, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up entirely. This place,” she gestured to the old ruined castle, returned to brick and clay, and outwards through a window where the land beyond shone with the radiant light of morning, “is not for us. I can feel the world weigh down in my bones here. It’s like the air is smoke and the ground is meat.”
“Strange lands are like sirens. Like how humans are not meant to live in water, but many of us dream about the ocean.”
She took a step back. “That’s not fair, Jane.”
“There was a man,” I said, “who smelled like the sea. We could find him.”
“No,” she said. “He was never important. I don’t want to waste my life chasing after what the waves swallowed.” She hugged me, and I smelled the scent of detergent and sweat and the cloying sugary scent of her mother’s baking. She smelled like her home, where she was meant to be.
The second was Eddy, back to her frizzy hair and skin that felt reasonably warm. Her cloud hovered over her head dejectedly. “I can’t leave the life I lead, Jane. Why are you?”
I sighed and breathed deeply, the air clogging my lungs like smoke. “Doesn’t this feel right to you? Don’t you feel stronger here, as if the ground is more solid and the air softer?”
“Just because I feel better here doesn’t mean I don’t want a life back home. I like it there. So what if I wasn’t born on the right side of the wood.”
“Our world is poison to you, Eddy, don’t go back as a form of penance.”
She smiled. “You don’t understand at all, Jane. I already forgive myself; how can I love anything else if I don’t first love myself? I’m going back because I never wanted to leave. I don’t need wild adventures to be me.” We hugged, and she felt like a river with all the blood coursing through her veins, from the delta of her heart to the tributaries deep within her lungs. She exhaled, and her breath warmed my ear.
The third was my father. Eddy and Ann convinced me to return once to say goodbye. We returned to our world feeling as if only a night had passed. In his time, we had been gone for three weeks.
He found me in my room, packing up clothes I would never wear again. I said, “Dad, I’m going away. I can’t explain, but this is the last goodbye I’ll be saying.”
“No,” he said. “You’re going to college. Or joining the army, or getting a job, or moving to the coast to find yourself. I will lose you eventually, but in a way where I’m still a part of your life, and understand what’s going on.”
“I have a story about mom,” I said. And I told it to him, starting with the world beyond and the sun king and star queen, and ending in the future where I was going, to a purpose I only half understood.
I hugged him, and for the first time I realized we were the same height. Throughout my childhood I had always hugged upwards. I remember my parents standing as tall as sturdy oaks. Now my dad had long stopped growing, and I was growing still, my joints and bones growing outwards in rings until they touch the ceiling of the world, or give up and become prone to all of the ailments of growth and death.
“Goodbye,” he said. “I’ve already told you the stories you need to know.”
I sat on the couch as the normal world of Lieffield and Peter Kim that kept me warm and safe folded up, and I was alone in the parlor of the old ruined castle. I sat still for a few minutes, as the world I abandoned hung in the air like an afterimage. I cried, I guess. The story I wanted for myself did not have a happy ending.
The gaunt bird is at the desk. It is waiting for me to finish.
Now, time goes by much too slowly for me. My blood has not yet learned to flow like honey, and so time drags my old body downwards, ticking ever so surely by, until the day I will leave the old ruined castle with nothing but a briefcase of memories, without a compass to guide my way.
I still see Ann sometimes browsing in the library, her freckled arm balancing three heavy volumes of serious thought. Or else, I find traces of Eddy in the corridors, scuffmarks left by her irregular run and a trail of used tissues tossed aside. Down the hall I can hear three pairs of small feet on the almond wood floors, and feel the strong, pure kind of magic, the magic of beginnings that can only be created by children at play.