I write to remember.
Touching ink to parchment recreates in my mind’s eye my most precious past gift that the future intends to take from me, when the end of days soon comes and lays waste to Termina’s fragile world. I’m shielding my diary as best I can from the downpour outside in this upstairs cubbyhole, weighing the pages down with rocks I salvaged from outside during my excursions through the streets for food scraps so the wind doesn’t rip them from the binding.
Everyone else has gone from
, headed for the ranch’s false salvation. Clock Town
Memories are all that remain to me now. Memories of her.
These I will record as faithfully as my scattered thoughts will allow in these dark days and although they shall never be read by eyes other than mine, they’ll purge the feelings I was unable to voice during calmer times. I owe her that much. I can’t be with her while she’s frightened. These child arms can’t embrace her, this high child’s voice can’t soothe her with lies that all will be well.
Perhaps I write to confess, too. I never did tell her that I love her, not properly.
Below, over the screaming of the wind, I can almost hear the laundry pool’s trickling water. I have to bite my lip to stem the tide of bittersweet nostalgia that threatens to stop my quill. That is the place.
That is where we first met, years ago, hours before the Festival of Time…
“Kafei? Kafei dear, where are you?”
There was an edge of aggravation in Mother’s voice as she called to me from her powder room. She’d assigned Father the task of dressing me that year, making sure the itchy, starched trousers and tunic that smelled of moth repellant weren’t too small compared to the year before. Now as Mother called again, he frowned at me.
“Looks as if Aroma’s forgotten something,” he sighed. “Just as she does every year.” He often grumbled this way to me as he never would to my mother’s face. He was especially sour today after finding out that Mother’s imported hair dye from overseas would cost him nearly a quarter of his mayoral treasury. “Go see what she wants, Kafei. I have to go over my speech to the town again before they light the fireworks.” He patted my shoulder, adjusted my uncomfortable tunic one last time, and gave me a nudge for the door as he straightened up.
I resigned myself to my fate and dragged myself down the corridor to where she awaited.
I’d never liked Mother’s powder room. It stank of too-sweet perfume and expensive concoctions. The clouds of white powder that always fogged up the place were enough to choke a horse. As soon as I opened the door, I couldn’t make up my mind whether to breathe through my nose or my mouth.
Mother turned away from her vanity mirror as I stepped into her lair, looking more like a specter from a fairy tale than the mayor’s wife.
“There you are, dear.” She smiled with obscenely red lips. “Can you do Mama a favor quickly?”
In all my four years, this was the first time she’d entrusted me with anything. I couldn’t have been more surprised than if she revealed she really was a phantom. Her smile grew at my expression as she turned back to the mirror and ran a hand thoughtfully through her newly-dyed hair.
“Mama allowed a neighbor to borrow one of her favorite hair clips,” she explained, rubbing at a cheek to blend the violent pink streaks of blush into her wan cheeks. “The Festival of Time is in two hours and Mama needs that hair clip to impress everyone with how nice she looks this year.”
Of course. As young as I was, I knew Madame Aroma wouldn’t place a toe outside if it meant she didn’t look her best. Well, what she thought was her best, anyway; the more garish the ornaments and clothing, the more it tended to impress. I nodded to show I understood completely like a good, dutiful son ought, although I didn’t at all.
“So Mama wants you to go and get it for her and come straight home. Without ruining your good clothes. Gods know we can ill-afford to send that pawn shop owner to barter for another set. He charges an arm and a leg. Thievery, I tell you.”
That was my mother’s way, to conveniently place blame on others when her own spending delayed necessary household purchases. As it was I’d needed to pull my socks up past my ankles to hide the way they stuck out from the short pant-cuffs.
Seeing I was still gawping in her doorway, Mother waved an imperious hand. “Run along now, dear. The neighbor’s house is in
, you know where that is, right? You have an hour to get there and back.” East Clock Town
I nodded again, hid my face in my sleeve to keep from sneezing, and ran out as if my shoes were on fire. As soon as I was outside, the magic that accompanied the Festival every year made my heart race with excitement.
I’d seen the Festival preparations from my bedroom window a couple days before, but as I came outside to see them up close, they were even more impressive. Burly men dressed in bright costumes juggled various things back and forth as they practiced their bantering acts, others testing small versions of the firework display that would be set off later. I would be up far past my usual bedtime, sitting on Father’s shoulders as I had every year prior so I could see them better. I could hardly wait and dawdled to watch the workers rehearse. Mother had given me an hour to come back after all, and I wanted to enjoy myself.
It took me the better part of a half-hour to make it to
and find the correct house. It wasn’t hard to find, for it looked as ostentatious on its outside as Mother was trying to make herself. At my knock, a servant answered the door and told me that his lady wasn’t in, but he’d retrieve the Madame Mayor’s hair ornament right away with a nervous smile. No one wanted to be in Mother’s bad books—I’d been privy to the teas she held in the afternoons and her gossip had a vicious edge that had ruined more than one poor sap’s public reputation. East Clock Town
The ornament was pressed into my little hands with a bow from the servant, and I started for home, proud that I’d accomplished the first part of the mission Mother entrusted me with. I reckoned I had a little more time before I was expected back and, after making a pest of myself around the Festival workers earlier, decided to indulge in another vice---the laundry pool.
Most of the town’s children were drawn to the pool for various reasons. In the hot summer we liked to splash water on each other, shrieking while we soaked our heads and washed our faces to cool off. It attracted dragonflies and bullfrogs, good for any young lad’s collection and the polished rocks the adults had lined the walkway leading to it were ideal for decorating one’s room.
That evening I was after bullfrogs. My last one died the week before, to my disappointment, since I’d taken such pains to hide it from Mother. Father, at first sighing at my mania, had finally accepted it and had secreted me back a small cage from the pawn shop owner to keep it in. The nights in my bedroom had grown still without its croaking and I needed a replacement.
The pool was swollen after the spring rains and the ground soft under my feet. Mud bubbled up around my soles and I lifted my legs high to keep the dirt from getting on my socks. On reaching the edge, I knelt with care. Lilypads floated within reach, but none of them played host to a bullfrog. I strained my sights to where the watery plants drifted to be overshadowed by the pawn shop’s walls and, as if to spite me, there they were, too far to reach by hands alone. With time running out, I grew creative.
Tucking Mother’s hair clip into a back trouser pocket, I found a long stick and poised myself at the edge of the pool, reaching to stir the water and change the current to bring the lilypads closer. It began to prove a more arduous task than I thought after several minutes’ labor and my patience strained. I’d fixed my sights on a rather large bullfrog, perhaps the biggest this spring had yielded, and I grew more and more determined not to go home empty-handed.
I must have leaned too far towards the water. With the weakened earth giving under my feet, that proved a dire mistake. One moment I was trying to reach for that frog and the next, water was flooding into my lungs. Sharp pains in my chest, frantic flailing as I discovered in a horrible instant that I hadn’t learned to swim. My head broke the surface and I gathered in the breath to scream, but the cry was weak. No one would hear me here over the shouts of the Festival workers, so far away from here. Spots flickered in front of my eyes.
I thought I was going to die as the pool closed over my head again. But it wasn’t to be.
Hands grabbed at my wrists, pulling. With my flagging strength I kicked upwards and flopped like a trout out onto the bank, wheezing for air and coughing. With closed eyes I expected an adult to be looming over me ready to scold. “Where are your parents, little boy?” Then on closer examination, “You’re Kafei, the mayor’s son. Wait until your father hears of this.” And then I would be doomed, pure and simple. Whatever Father heard of, Mother did too and on her demand he would give me a half-hearted speech about running around like a little hooligan when I was meant to be growing up to take Father’s place one day.
“Are you okay?”
It wasn’t an adult at all. In shock, I opened my eyes and allowed them to adjust. A girl about my age peered down at me, a halo of red hair and blue, worried eyes. I tried to answer but sat up and wretched instead, a stream of warm, vile water spilling out to further wet my Festival garb.
“You shouldn’t be playing so close to the pool,” she chirped, but patted me on the back to rid my lungs of the last of the liquid. When I’d finally stopped sputtering and gagging, she sat back on her heels in spite of the mud and smiled.
“It’s okay, I fell in there one time too. Mama was real mad and had to come get me out. That’s how I knew to get you out, too. My name’s Anju. Mama runs the Stock Pot Inn now with Grandma since Papa died last year,” she chattered, oblivious that I hadn’t spoken since she yanked me out to safety.
Yes, I’d heard of this girl from Mother—Tortus, the
Inn’s owner, had taken unexpectedly ill last spring and died within days.
“I wonder how they’ll get by, his mother, his widow, and their little daughter,” Mother had mused as she took off the black wrap she’d worn to his funeral. I was eavesdropping as she talked to Father. “She’s about Kafei’s age, too. Would be a cute child, if she was raised with any sense of class. I hear they changed the place into an inn now to make up for the business the cafeteria would have lost from Tortus’ passing.”
I wasn’t sure what ‘class’ was, but if it meant having fun rather than being stuffy, Anju was all right by me. She was still watching me in a way that made me feel like butterflies were flying in my chest. She giggled, probably because I looked a mess between my sopping tunic and wild hair.
“You have a name, right? You’d sure be funny if you didn’t.” She scooted closer and I could smell the dust on what had to have been her best dress, patched here and there at the sleeves. I summoned an answer and it came out choked and feeble.
“Uh-huh. I’m Kafei. My mama sent me to get her hair clip back before the Festival and I fell in the pool trying to catch a frog and---.” I cut myself off and stood to reach for my back pocket as a terrifying realization dawned.
It was empty.
I did what most four-year-olds in my place would have likely done.
“What’s wrong?” Anju cocked her head to one side and stood up too, confused. “Did you lose your mama’s hair thing when you fell in the water?”
My nose started to run and I wiped it on the back of my sleeve, unable to speak as my throat closed up. Anju bit her lower lip and went back to the pool, kneeling down to peer into the water seeing if she could spot it. After a fruitless minute, she shook her head and came back to me.
“I bet it floated away to the ocean. Mama says that’s where the pool eventually goes after a really long time. I heard there are mermaids out there too, so maybe they can use your mama’s hair clip,” she soothed, trying to make me feel better. All it served to do was make the tears come faster, for I’d also come to understand that on top of losing Mother’s things, I’d also ruined my clothes.
I sobbed as much to Anju and sank down into the grass. Her nose wrinkled—later I would come to learn this was her way when an idea struck—and then she grabbed my hand and pulled me up.
“Come on. Grandma has hair clips too that I bet she won’t mind us taking. I bet she has one that looks enough like your mama’s so she won’t know the difference.”
“What about my clothes?” I asked. She looked me over and nodded to herself.
“We’ll figure something out. But we have to hurry up before the Festival starts.” And she started pulling me along, through the connecting hallways that separated sections of
Clock Town, until we reached her humble Inn.
The door creaked as she opened it and she thrust me behind her, looking ahead to make sure her family wasn’t about before pulling me inside. The smell of something cooking reached my nose as she herded me up the stairs and down a narrow corridor.
“Here’s Grandma’s room. Wait out here a minute and I’ll get some of the hair things for you. Then you can pick one,” Anju told me. Later she would confess, rather shyly, that stealing the clips for me was the first naughty thing she’d ever done, but then, I’d thought her a pro at parental defiance. It took her only a minute to reemerge with clips in hand, and as if a miracle had been performed, I found a clip that resembled Mother’s enough so that she wouldn’t know the difference. I was to discover that such clips were cheaper than Mother purported and came a rupee to the dozen, but I was so grateful to Anju for her help I was hard-pressed to form a ‘thank-you.’
She started to lead me back for the stairs before I started to shiver in the open air.
“Wh-What about my clothes?”
“Oh!” She started to lead me in another direction, to a room at the very end of the hall. Turning the knob, she cracked open the door and slipped in.
“This is my room,” she explained in a whisper. “Boys can’t come in, but I’ll give you something to wear so you can take those wet clothes off. There’s a room over that way,” she pointed to the one next-door, “where you can get changed since we haven’t rented it out in almost forever to anybody. I’ll be back in a minute.”
True to her word, Anju came back and thrust a bundle of clothing into my trembling hands. Wanting to be out of my sodden garments as soon as possible, I went into the room she indicated and shucked my tunic and trousers. Forcing my head through the top of Anju’s loaner, I found the sleeves and put my arms through. I’d just gotten done when the door opened and Anju peered in.
“Good, you’re dressed,” she said.
“But…” I looked down at myself. “This---.”
“It’s okay. We’ve got to hurry up, you have to give your mama the clip and my mama’s going to call for me to leave with her and Grandma really soon!”
She ushered me out and back down the stairs, barely giving me the time to grab my discarded outfit before I found myself outside again.
“I’ll try to see you at the Festival,” she told me with a grin. “I hope your mama isn’t cross when you get home.” And with that, the door clicked closed, leaving me to walk home in trepidation.
“Did you get Mama’s hair clip, Kafei?”
I opened the powder room door just a crack and thrust my arm in to show my mother the ornament. Striding over with the swish of silks, she took it up and examined it as if she’d expected the neighbor to somehow sully it before fixing me with a speculative look.
“Funny, I don’t remember the stone to be missing from the edge like this.” A stubby finger ran over the clip and my heart almost stopped. The ruse was discovered, I was sure of it, and then I would need to tell her everything---
She simply shrugged and went back to her primping, sweeping up her hair and pinning it into place and paying me no further mind.
She didn’t hear the whoosh of relief leave me. As fast as I could, I made a bolt for the staircase that would take me back to my own room so I could hide my wet tunic and trousers. But the gods weren’t going to be kind to me that day.
I ran into Father on the way and stopped dead, the blood leaving my face.
“Kafei, I need you to come into my office and listen to my speech. I think there might be a word or two missing on the part about tax re---.” And there he paused, took the sight of me in, and went red about the cheeks.
“Son, can you explain to me what on earth you’re wearing and where you got it?”
I looked down again at my pleated skirt and back up into my father’s eyes, struggling for the words to tell him what had happened. My mouth opened and closed a few times with strangled sounds emerging, but the worst was yet to come.
“Dotour, why in the gods’ names is our son wearing a dress?” Mother asked as she came from the powder room to flounce up the stairs.
Looking back on it, I remember the occasion as the first and only time Father gave me one of his many ‘now my boy’ lectures of his own accord without Mother’s prompting. I found Anju at the Festival as the night sky lit with the first bursts of fireworks to explain to her that dresses weren’t meant for boys. It puzzled her as much as it had me when Father had explained it to me in his office over Mother’s intrusions to ask if anyone else had seen me ‘walking about in that state.’
But that day proved to be, despite my mother’s distaste for it in later years, the beginning of our lives together.
As time passed I learned there were two distinct sides to Anju. There was the spitfire side she displayed to me in snatches and starts that decreased as we grew older and she molded herself into a proper lady, and then the sensitive, soft side, the hesitant facet that emerged the closer our relationship grew. By the time we stumbled into young adulthood, much had transpired since that day at the laundry pool.
We’d never grown apart so much as gone different ways in our lives’ paths. Anju’s mother, after the dress incident, hammered home the importance of ladylike conduct at all times, ensconcing her daughter away into the
Inn’s kitchens to learn cooking, cleaning and sewing. I saw less of her as Father took me for longer hours into his office to show me scrolls of parchment detailing payroll to the town’s guard, taxes and their importance, organizing events and keeping meticulous books on finance. Mother had insisted on his doing so to keep me away from the Bombers and out of trouble.
I wasn’t a quick study in any of the above. Ciphers bored me to tears and I could have cared less about the town guard in peaceful times. One afternoon I made my escape into the fresh air and bright sun to take in the happenings at the marketplace. While I was studying an apple for bruises to make sure the vendor was importing only the finest fruit, someone bumped into me from behind, obviously in a hurry.
“Would you watch---.” I began, then forgot all of my scolding. Anju sat blinking up at me from the cobblestones, umbrella lying at her side. At the sight of me her cheeks went as rosy as the apple I held, and I felt mine do the same.
“Anju! Oh gods, I’m sorry, I was in your way, wasn’t I?” I stooped to help her up and hand her the umbrella. At the same time, we grew aware of one another’s proximity—my hands on her shoulders, the nearness of her face to mine. I felt my pulse pick up and those long-ago butterflies returned with different undertones to them.
“N-No, you weren’t in my way, Kafei. I should have watched where I was going. I was just in a rush since Mother wanted me to buy more fruit for the compote she’s making after dinner tonight.” Her voice had grown mature, softer, her hair styled and combed down, but those eyes were still the same. Dark eyelashes lowered over them. “I…burnt the one we were making this morning to the bottom of the pot. Mother’s stopped scolding me—it’s no use, I’m just going to be a horrible cook.”
The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. “I’m sure you just need a little more practice. I could help you, if you want me to.”
“Yes. I do owe you for that day by the pool, after all.”
“That was a long time ago. I’m surprised you remember it. I was such a disobedient little girl, wasn’t I? It makes me squirm to think about it. But…you’ll really help me?”
“Then you’ll come by tonight?” She was radiant with excitement and it was catching—I found myself giddy, too. “Dinner will be right as the sun goes down, around six, and then desert afterwards. Tell me your honest opinion on my food, Kafei. I won’t forgive you if you lie to make me feel better.”
I had to chuckle. “I won’t lie, Anju.”
I was sure she was exaggerating over her poor cooking skills. I went to the Stock Pot Inn that night looking forward to telling her as much.
And then dinner came. My hand to the gods, I’ve never had to force myself to pretend to like something so much as I did then. I choked down what I could and tried to keep the grimace off my face, but the plan backfired when I found myself huddled over the Inn’s toilet to return Anju’s underdone cucco.
“I’m so sorry, Kafei.”
An hour or so later we were in her room, she sitting at the far end of her bed as I struggled to remain upright next to her after washing up. My stomach was still tying itself into knots. “Mother tried to tell me it probably needed another fifteen minutes, but I got nervous.”
“About what?” I pressed a hand to my abdomen and inhaled as another spasm came and went.
“I…” She knitted her fingers in and out of one another. “This is going to sound…foolish, but since I knew you were coming to dinner tonight, I feel like my head’s been in the clouds. I know I should have paid better attention to what I was doing---.”
“You were nervous over me? That’s…” I trailed away before I could confirm that it was foolish. Hadn’t I spent the day with Father trying to get my focus back on paperwork? Hadn’t my heart felt like a feather? “That’s…a bit how I felt, too.”
She gasped and then caught herself, glowing crimson even as she smiled. A smile that I noticed for the first time wasn’t quite even at the corners of her lips, but pretty. It seemed a natural reflex to touch that warm cheek with the tips of my fingers, first with one hand then both to cup her face.
“I’ll keep coming for dinner as long as you keep trying to cook it, even if my stomach won’t be thanking me for it.”
I spent many evenings ill after that, but it was worth it just so I could be near her.
Our engagement several months later seemed a natural progression. Mother took it calmly in front of Father when I announced it, but later she came into my room to storm as I was writing of the event in my journal.
“Kafei, how can you do this?” She flung open my bedroom door without so much as a knock, dressed for bed. It was verging on late in the evening.
“Do what, Mother?” I asked, not looking up from my recording.
“You know very well what!”
“I’m afraid not.” I closed my journal and twisted in my seat to face her. “You’ll need to explain, Mother.”
“Getting yourself so, so attached to that girl!” she exploded. “She’s nothing like us, Kafei, and you know that!”
“And what are we like, then?” I asked with growing irritation. She had the grace to go red at my implication, but then composed herself.
“She’s not…” Ringed fingers fluttered in the air as she searched for the words. “From money. Her father was a poor man who kept a cafeteria and her mother depended utterly on him until he died. She’ll have nothing to inherit when the rest of her family goes but for that little inn and even that might be questionable since the neighbors tell me her cooking is atrocious---.”
I winced at that but held firm. “She’ll do just fine, Mother. We both will. Did you stop to think as you were composing this tirade that might be the reason why I asked her to be my wife? Did you? Father may have married you for your dowry, but it’s different between Anju and I. Whether or not we run the Inn together or she comes here to be the mayor’s wife just as you are, we’ll be happy.”
I’d never really spoken back to her. This was a first that she didn’t know how to handle. Guppy-like, her lips opened once or twice, and then she turned on her heel to stalk for the door. Then, with hand on knob, she whirled back to face me one last time.
“You’ll see, Kafei. That girl will lead you to a bad end. I’ve held my tongue until now because I didn’t understand how serious you intended to make things, but that was my mistake. When you’re poor as a mouse scurrying to have enough bread to feed you and your children---who I won’t by the by, acknowledge as my grandchildren if you go through with this travesty, you’ll look back on this and rue the day!”
She sounded so much like a contrived villain from a play that I snorted. But that wasn’t the last barb she had to throw at me.
“You may laugh all you like now, but you’ll come to your senses soon enough!”
That tore it. “What do you mean by that?” I demanded, making no effort to humor her anymore.
She smiled grimly. “I know what young men are like. Fickle and unable to help themselves when it comes to a pretty face and a set of curves. In ten years’ time, you’ll be sitting across from her at your dinner table, hardly able to eat her horrid food, and then she won’t be so young or so pretty then. And you’ll ask yourself where all your money went, feeding your children, hiring people to care for them, as I know she’ll be a poor mother as well, and then you’ll realize you threw your life away. Have I ever done ill by you before with my advice? You know in your heart I haven’t. I can see these things coming and am only trying to prepare you for them.”
“Get out, Mother. Please.” I kept my tone controlled even as I seethed. “Anju will be my wife soon, and I don’t need you speaking poorly of her before she’s a part of this family.”
“Suit yourself, son. But when I’m right…” Her ominous words were cut off as she shut the door and went down the corridor to head for her own bed.
I blew out the candle I had been writing by, then picked up my journal and heaved it for all my worth into the opposite wall. I didn’t sleep well that night, or for several after.
“Kafei, is something the matter?”
“What?” I startled and looked up from my plate as Anju came up behind me at the
Inn’s table to squeeze my shoulder. I had been lost in the turmoil of the past few days—constant meetings between Father and the townspeople, all panicked and looking to him for guidance on what to do next. Sleep had been miserly with me, for each time I shut my eyes in the nights since our argument, Mother’s ugly prediction came back to haunt me.
“I asked you if you were all right. You haven’t touched your dinner.”
I looked down at the brown-grey mass swimming in what was presumably gravy on my plate and felt my innards clench. My smile was thin, forced as I pushed it away and took the linen from my lap.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” I tried to explain. I felt like a cad, keeping my doubts about us from her. For hours, while soldiers pounded on my father’s desk with chain-mailed fists and demanded to know a course of action, I’d mused and pondered, thought and overthought our future together.
Anju sighed and squeezed herself in on the bench beside me, her warm hand creeping to my knee to touch my own. “I keep telling you that you shouldn’t work so hard. You’re not even the mayor yet and you’re already in that office as many hours a day as your father is. I almost thought you weren’t going to make it here tonight.”
I hadn’t either. The gatherings in the office were becoming more numerous and heated, the paperwork piling up. The peoples’ discontent was increasing. I hissed a breath between my teeth and meshed my fingers into hers.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you worry, but with the way things have been, Father says he wants me to ‘experience the job firsthand when it’s not all a basket of roses.’” I imitated the stern voice he’d taken with me earlier when I’d finally torn myself away to meet with my fiancé. Anju frowned and her hand tightened on mine, lowering her eyes. She didn’t approve of my overworking, but when it came to important matters, she didn’t speak up in protest. Then, abruptly, she lifted her gaze to me and smiled.
“Let’s talk about something else.” She leaned the warm weight of her head into my shoulder to cuddle against me.
“All right.” I was more than happy to pounce on the opportunity. “Like what?”
“Like our wedding. Our honeymoon.”
The happy bubble in my chest suddenly burst and I had to fight to keep my tone light.
“Already? Anju, we’ve only been engaged three months---.”
“I think it’s important,” she interrupted, then worried her lip at her own forcefulness. “I mean, with the way everything has been lately since the old man in the astronomy tower told the town his predictions and showed them those models he made…”
“Anju.” I turned to face her and brushed some of the hair from her forehead to press my lips there. “The astronomer has never been quite all there in the head. You know that, I know it, and the town knows it. The moon isn’t going to fall and destroy Termina.”
She sat huddled into me and said nothing for a short eternity as I played with the tips of her hair.
“Then why are all of those people going into your father’s office?” She spoke softly, but the undercurrent in her voice told me I wasn’t going to get away with embroidering the truth. I inhaled and considered my answer for a minute.
“It’s just in case there’s some validity to it. A good mayor is prepared to handle any adverse situation for his town, after all. Father is simply making sure rations are set aside and a meeting place designated for the town in case the worst does happen.”
“Mother says the astronomer told her that the ranch would be a good place to gather if we need to,” Anju said, then glanced up at me as I snorted. “He says it’ll be the furthest place away from where his models have shown him the moon will crash when it lands here.”
"If it lands here," I reminded her. “No matter how far you run, some things will be inescapable and a large moon would be one of those, so if it did...But I don’t think it will come to that, so stop worrying yourself. Please. Mother wouldn’t be so insistent that the carpenters she hired hurry and finish the scaffolding for this year’s Festival display if she thought there was anything to that man’s ramblings.”
Another silence passed before Anju spoke again. “We met for the first time right before the Festival when we were children,” she murmured. “Don’t you think that would be a lovely time to be married, Kafei, as soon as it was over? We could celebrate with the whole town that way.” Her eyes sought mine for reassurance. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Yes,” I hedged. “But wouldn’t something later be nice, too? The Festival is only two weeks from now and we have those traditional marriage masks to prepare, your gown, my clothes…”
“You don’t need to worry about me.” She was beaming now. “Mother helped me make my gown, and my mask is almost done. I just need to paint it.”
I felt the blood leave my face. “Is it? That’s…wonderful, Anju.” I’d barely looked at the materials for my Sun’s Mask, the time-honored mask for the groom to wear at his wedding. When joined with the bride’s Moon Mask, the magic formed with the couple’s union was meant to fuse the masks together to show their new bond. I’d just completed fitting it to my face the day before and hadn’t even touched the paints for fear of sparking another of Mother’s tirades.
She didn’t seem to notice the catch in my reply as she started to plan. “Now, for our honeymoon, what do you think? Termina’s got some beautiful places to visit this time of year. Oh, Kafei, what about the beach?”
“The beach?” I was growing distant again. How was I to cope with everything? Paperwork, deadlines, marriage…
“I want to see the ocean. I’ve never been. Mother went with Father on her honeymoon and said it was beautiful. She was going to take me when I was little, but then Father…It would be lovely at night to go walking along the sand with you.”
I was saved from answering as another of the fine tremors that had been rattling nerves and silverware all week struck again. The astronomer had predicted that as the moon came closer, earthquakes would begin. It was also beginning to look odd too, almost as if it had a face. But that was absurd. Wasn’t it?
The cups on the table bounced and spilled, trails of water seeping between the table cracks. I felt the first cold drops drip onto my trouser knees but made no move to wipe it away. My heart stopped and it felt as if fate itself stood behind us, watching. It was over as fast as it started.
“If…if the moon falls by the time the Festival comes, I don’t care what else happens. I’ll stay here with you even if the whole town evacuates to the ranch. I’ll wait. I want to be your wife and I’ll do whatever it takes.” Her fingers brushed my cheek. “I love you.”
“I…” The words died in my mouth. My mother had sown the seeds of discord and in that moment that was meant to be tender, they were blooming. I swallowed the lump in my throat and took her hand again in mine as the water continued to seep into our laps.
“I’ll be here for you too, Anju.” It was all I could find to say because then, fool that I was, was still working up the courage to tell her how I felt.
Looking back, I realize now that one can never predict how words tie him to later deeds.
“Dotour, this ‘world ending’ business is impacting things about town severely. If this keeps up…”
“I know, Aroma, you don’t need to tell me. I don’t know what to tell people. That astronomer was making another prediction this afternoon in West Clock Town---.”
“I heard it,” my mother snapped. “And I still think it’s hogwash.”
My parents argued while I mixed golden paint and pressed filigree into mask eyeholes. I’d heard the talk as I’d passed through town that afternoon.
Our world wouldn’t last more than a few more weeks, months at best.
My father’s meetings grew longer as the days wore on and as I made my jaunts between home and the
Inn, I could see that more people were beginning to take the tower astronomer’s words seriously. Families began to pack their belongings and strike off into the wild fields that lay beyond town, headed for the ranch tucked away among the mountain rocks. What I overheard as I started to paint my mask was the fifth argument Mother and Father were having this week alone.
The end of the world changed my thoughts and feelings.
As time passed it had become very clear so that even I was made to change my mind as I witnessed the moon drawing closer with my own eyes. The world was going to end.
We were, to the last small child, going to die.
I strove to finish my mask as fast as I could. It was out of defiance to my mother just as much as my dedication to Anju. I still couldn’t tell her that I loved her as freely as she told me the same, but I vowed that as our wedding drew closer, I would, come hell or high water.
Of course, things didn’t happen that way. In celebration of finishing the mask to my liking, I went to the milk bar to share the news with my friends. I won’t detail how much I drank, how foolish I was for bringing so precious a thing along with me. I won’t speak of the imp that accosted me as I wove my drunken way back home or the startling changes he wrought with his magic to my body. Nor will I give account to the thief that found me and mistook me for a child and stole my mask from me and with that, my hope. I was, and am even now, grateful to the pawn shop owner that knew my family well enough to take me in when I begged for a place to stay. I couldn’t show Mother or Father my face again for fear of needing to explain, and if word carried back to Anju—gods, Anju…
I knew she began to fret when the letters she sent me went unanswered. I knew also through gossip and subtle observation as I made my way about town to seek the thief and the imp that Mother had had quite the fit when I hadn’t come home and was speaking now of being deprived by cruel fate of an heir. Even behind my Keaton’s mask, I had to roll my eyes at that one.
Late one night, I dragged my sore body back into the pawn shop and dropped onto an empty milk crate, ripping my mask off to wipe away the beads of sweat that had formed over the hours under it. The shop owner was tinkering with knickknacks in the back room and glanced behind his shoulder as I came in.
“Shouldn’t do that, taking that thing off,” he warned. “What if someone comes in bargain-hunting?” He was still holding out hope that the emptying town might yield him some business before it was abandoned altogether. I put my chin in my hands and raised my eyebrows at him. He chuckled.
“A fella can dream, can’t he? You look wiped out, kiddo. Any luck tonight with that thief? Or that imp-thing?”
“None. And don’t call me that, you know I’m not really a child.”
“Oo, touchy tonight, aren’t we? I got something new in that you might like.”
“I don’t care. I’m going back upstairs to use that telescope as soon as my legs stop aching enough for me to take the stairs,” I grumbled.
“That’s a shame.” Something rattled as he drew it out of his apron pocket. “Guess I should say that your lady might like it, but since you told me you’re not interested…”
“Show me.” I’d been telling the shop owner over the past few days of Anju’s desire to see the beach for our honeymoon and he’d made mention that he might have some friends at the importing docks further south that knew of coral jewelry.
He withdrew it from a pocket and let it dangle in front of my eyes. It was breathtaking, small smooth stones worked around a polished piece of what had to be pink coral. I felt my eyes widen.
“Impressive, huh? And free too, if you let me bring all the milk I want to the after-wedding reception and get as drunk as I like. And in return you’d be footing the tab for it, too. Even then this beaut’s practically a steal. What do you say, kid? You going to buy?”
It was a poor trinket to make up for my inability to tell Anju that I loved her. Yet it was something. I hastily agreed to all the terms the owner set down and snatched up my prize, going back to my cubbyhole like a rat with a piece of cheese. Finding a scrap of parchment and some ink, I scribbled a brief letter to take out to the mailbox on the morrow.
I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. Things have taken a turn for the unexpected, but I should be with you and home again very soon. In the meantime, please wear this. The dealer assures me it’s real coral and ocean rock. Know that my thoughts are always with you.
My letter created a stir. Mother’s hopes renewed. She mused that I was alive somewhere but being defiant towards her opinion of my wedding and hiding in protest. I came dangerously close to the
Innto see that Anju wore her pendant. That night is perhaps my most painful recollection, the sight of her sitting hunched over her kitchen table in the candlelight, holding in clenched fist my meager offering while tears fell. At last her mother had come in to call me several unflattering names before gently leading her daughter off to bed.
It broke my heart to see her so. I pressed my hand to the windowpane, wanting to tell her ‘I’m here, look over here!’ but it couldn’t be so. I had to have something to show for my self-imposed isolation, my mask. I couldn’t tell her I loved her until I had it again, otherwise they would be nothing but empty words.
Days passed and I spotted no leads. The tremors became worse and rain began to pour in sheets across the shop’s tin roof, keeping me awake for hours until exhaustion dragged me under into sleep. During the days it was determination alone that kept me going, even as more moved away and houses became shells, refuse blew in the desolate streets, the screams of children fell into stillness.
Then I came back to the shop one dreary evening to find everything of any value had been taken. At first I entertained the notion we had been robbed by the same bandit that took my mask, but as I cast around the place for the owner, a rough-torn sheet of parchment fluttered to the filthy floor.
Gone to the ranch. Business finally caved. You’re free to stay if you really are that hell-bent to, Kafei, but the gods’ sakes, think about what you’re doing.
Dust and all, I knelt as my knees gave, feeling as if I’d been sucker-punched in the stomach. He had started to warn me in small ways, packing things up under my nose, making remarks about the slowing business, but I’d not connected it to this until after the fact. The ground gave a violent shake, sending what odds and ends that were left to the floor. I waited until it passed before walking with feet like stone to my chambers, sinking down to peer into the telescope so I could ignore the stinging that had set up in the backs of my eyes.
Time ceased to have meaning for me as the night of what was to have been the Festival drew closer. I stayed close to the
Innjust to catch a glimpse of Anju as she became my sun in an increasingly dark world. Each day, she would walk to the laundry pool, umbrella in hand, to sit and stare into the water. I never dared to get too close, but I knew what she was thinking and spent many a lonely hour cursing myself.
When she stopped coming, I knew she had given up. On that day I laid across the bench she had always occupied, hands behind my head as I looked up into the ever-reddening sky. Her smell was still there and I wanted to bask in it. The moon grinned manically back down at me. I lost track of the hours, the quakes that made the teeth rattle in my skull, but as the first stars came out, I knew it was time to leave. I glanced back at the pool, hoping maybe to see one last bullfrog, one final dragonfly. But they had the sense and the ability I didn’t to go somewhere presumably safe.
I made the slow journey back, my head for once empty. I didn’t care for life, for death, for anything as the tattered remains of a poster advertising the canceled festivities clung to my legs before being harshly blown away. Houses stared at me with black windows like sockets in a skull.
I had failed myself and more importantly, my wife-to-be. I’d known it to some small degree all along, but now there was no salvaging it as it loomed over my head as surely as the moon. So absorbed was I that I didn’t notice some garbage scattered across the cobblestones wasn’t all garbage, and so I fell over something, scraping both knees.
I swore and twisted, prepared to stand and kick at whatever had tripped me.
My own eyes stared hollowly into mine and my fingers reached down to touch a replicated cheekbone.
A mask shaped to look like me. It twisted a new knife into my heart as I picked up its cracked remains, a new thought emerging. Rumors had it that Mother hired an artisan to sculpt these in an effort to find me, even as her hair emerged greyer and greyer from its costly cover-ups.
Had she really, somewhere in there, cared?
There were fissures running up the side of the mask where someone had dropped it, probably when they were fleeing town. I touched these with care, prepared to put it down when something else grabbed at my sight.
I saw what it was in the poor light and was undone. It was damaged too, the links in its thin chain pried apart, the small decorations around the edges missing where they’d been knocked free of their gold setting, but the piece’s crowning glory still shone pink in the cast of the red moon.
An imp with a magical mask, a thief, neither mattered anymore.
I threw my likeness into the cobblestones to dash it to bits as my scream echoed from the buildings back at me, the cry of a deranged madman. I began to laugh as I wrapped my arms around myself, rocking to and fro just to hear something, to feel something, as the last of my dream died.
Everything must end, including this raving.
There are no proper words I can find to close my narrative, so I will finish with my final actions.
I took her pendant with me. My fingers still ache from clutching it so tightly on the way back here, to where I can lean on the sill overlooking the laundry pool.
Now the window beckons. In a few minutes, I’ll answer its call, letting the precious chain slip from my fingers. The pendant will fall to the water.
And my lips will form the words my doubts didn’t permit before, too late for her to hear, as it’s carried on the currents to the ocean she dreamed to see.
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