CHAPTER 5 - SHADOWS CAN’T DO SOMERSAULTS
The days and weeks passed like the water running through the river. All alike, gone in an instant, yet never to return in exactly the same fashion.
Sofia felt restless. It had only been one day, one single day, in which the world had suddenly opened up and had revealed itself for the large and old place that it was, full of people, stories and history. It had scared her, but it had also filled her with a tingling sensation, like blood running wild through a foot that had been asleep. Now, she felt as if her limbs were slowly going numb again.
She had hoped that Aunt Sybil would continue to teach her about Nihon, about the bridge, about the Assessors, but she had not said another word about any of this, and she seemed even more reluctant to have her niece around than she had before. The few times Sofia had ventured into her room, Aunt Sybil had treated her as if she wasn't there. Sofia had sat in a corner, silently, turning the words and questions around in her head until they were fragmented beyond recognition. Then she had gone out, throwing stones into the river without even trying to make them jump.
She spent more time at the riverside. She would strain her eyes towards the other side of the shore, but the harder she tried, the further it seemed to move away as if it was deliberately escaping her view.
She started to think that she had dreamed up Orì like an imaginary friend that only appears in the moments of greatest boredom. Sometimes, she would whisper her name as if she could be summoned like an apparition. But nothing happened.
When she went to the store, Mr Borrealis treated her with cautious detachment, and he always seemed relieved when she left. He probably felt like he had said too much, Sofia thought, or maybe he dreaded her questions. It was the same with Pip and Tin. The peculiar boys wouldn't even meet her eyes, and moved away from her as if to shield themselves.
"I don't want to play with you, anyway," she said with disdain, but she felt increasingly lonely.
One evening, Sofia, Uncle Tomas and Aunt Sybil were sitting in the kitchen after dinner. Aunt Sybil looked up from the book she had been reading and said without forewarning,
"The Assessors are coming next week."
Sofia looked up. Her mouth went dry. The mere mention of the Assessors filled her with dread, but with a kind of impatient anticipation too.
"Those guys again?" Uncle Tomas said. "Weren't they here a month ago?"
"Six and a half weeks ago. Your sense of time is somewhat flawed, Tomas. I wonder why that is."
Uncle Tomas shot her a conciliatory look, but she didn't return it. He sighed.
"The Assessors give me the creeps."
"You don't have to talk to them."
"They make everything around them feel cold."
"I don't feel that way."
Uncle Tomas snorted. He had obviously given up on his short-lived plan to keep the peace. "That's because you might as well be one of them."
Sofia thought that Aunt Sybil would be pleased with the comment, but she saw an expression of hurt playing around her aunt's thin lips. She opened her mouth to say something, maybe to explain herself or defend herself, but then left it unsaid, and returned to her book. She was reading about the development of insects from eggs or larvae to full-grown creatures. From the look of it, this matter demanded her full attention.
Uncle Tomas looked conflicted, but soon his gaze wandered towards the window. A few minutes later, he got up and left the house. The door fell in its hinges, and Aunt Sybil made a point of not moving a muscle as if she hadn't noticed his departure. Soon afterwards, she went to bed, and Sofia was left to herself, thinking about the Assessors. She had a vague picture of them in her mind. Tall and skinny men with earnest grey faces, wearing blue suits with red-banded collars and red button plackets running down the front of their lapel. She had once caught their sight a few years ago without knowing who they were. Usually, they came and went like ghosts, leaving no traces, never crossing paths with those they didn't have an appointment with. Sofia had not noticed them six and a half weeks ago, and she couldn't recall any difference in her aunt and uncle's behavior.
She resolved not to be scared of them, but that night, she dreamed that she was sitting cross-legged in the middle of a large round table, candles burning all around her. Ghostly men with concealed faces were addressing her in a language she didn't know. She tried to tell them that she couldn't understand them and therefore not defend herself, but the words were stuck inside her throat. She became more and more desperate, and tried to scream at them, to let them know that she wanted to cooperate, that she wanted to come clean. To no avail. When she woke up, she was drenched in sweat.
She got out of bed and got dressed. She would never be able to fall back asleep, and the sky was already slowly starting to grow lighter, so she went outside, hugging her winter coat close to her body. The village was silent and empty. The solitude made her feel even colder.
She looked at the river, wondering if she had not better to go back to bed after all when she heard a voice coming from the exact spot where she had been looking. But there was nothing except the water. It gurgled along slowly and peacefully, as if it was not fully awake yet either.
"Hoo-hoo, Sofia! Long time no see."
For a moment, Sofia worried that the wind, or maybe her mind, were playing tricks on her.
"Look closer, silly," Orì's voice came again, delighted with her own mischief.
Then, even though Sofia hadn't even blinked, there she was, stretching herself like a cat on a large flat rock in the middle of the river.
The rock had not been there before.
Not visibly, Sofia thought.
"How long have you been here?" she asked, careful to hide the joy that had swept over her at Orì's sight.
"Who, me? I just arrived," Orì smiled. "And that's no way to greet a friend. As if you're not even happy to see me."
"We're not friends."
"No?" Orì feigned a pout. "How would you know? You don't have any friends."
Sofia stared at her in shock. She turned away.
"Wait, don't go," Orì called after her. "I'm sorry, that wasn't nice."
Sofia stopped, but she kept her back turned until the tears rising to her eyes had dried up. She pulled up her nose.
"I don't suppose you have many friends yourself," she said in a haughty voice. "If you're always mean like that."
"I was only joking."
Sofia looked at Orì. Her face was fluid, and all the colors of all the deep and shallow waters in the world were mirrored on it, but she couldn't say if it was a reflection or coming from within.
"I don't think you were," she said.
"Don't be a bad sport," Orì said, flicking her hand at her in an annoyed gesture. She was half sitting, half lying on the rock, stretching her limbs in every direction as if doing some strange kind of morning gymnastics. She lifted her back a little bit, almost imperceptible. And then, though sitting perfectly still, her shape jumped out of herself, flipping around in a flawless somersault. Then, it vanished back into Orì as if her spirit had only emerged to do a trick that the mere body was not able or willing to do.
Orì grinned at Sofia and didn't say a word.
"What -?" Sofia said. "What?" she repeated, completely forgetting that she had planned to impress Orì with her wit if she ever saw her again.
"What?" Orì repeated innocently.
"Did you do that?"
"Do you mean this?"
Orì closed her eyes, and once again her shadow darted out, colorful and light, yet with an explicit weight. It spiralled not once, but twice, around her bodily form.
Orì stretched herself with obvious relish.
"Ah, it feels good to jump. It awakens the body and the mind."
"But you didn't jump or do anything!" Sofia said. "I looked at you, and you just sat there. You barely moved."
"Well, not my body. But you saw me do it, no?"
"I -, I don't know. You did a trick. A magic trick."
Sofia moved a step away from Orì, but just one. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Aunt Sybil was nowhere to be seen. She remembered what she had said about magic, about how it ruined the character. She wanted to tell Orì off, but she was too curious about what she had just witnessed.
"How did you do that? Was that your shadow?"
"No, silly. Shadows can't do somersaults. It's just a simple trick. Look."
Orì lifted her head, and with a little tilt, her shape sprang out, bolting like an arrow into the stratosphere. When it came back down, it was gliding through the air like a leaf.
Orì giggled and shook her head.
"That always makes me dizzy, but it's worth it."
She held up her hands, and the tips of her fingers lit up, turning the blue color of her skin green. She held them into the water, and green and yellow streaks ran out of them like ink flowing from a pen.
"I can do other colors, too," she said. "But this is the easiest. I'm a bit tired from the jumps." She looked at Sofia, and for the first time, her impish expression turned thoughtful. "You really can see all of this, can't you?"
"Of course," Sofia said, gesturing towards her as if it was plain and obvious.
"Do you think that everybody from your village would be able to see it?"
Sofia opened her mouth to say Yes but stopped herself.
"I don't know. Many people here seem to be quite bad at seeing things. It's almost as if they don't want to."
"Some don't want to, but many really can't."
"Only here, or in Nihon, too?" Sofia asked timidly.
As she had feared, Orì burst into laughter.
"In Nihon?!" she exclaimed. "You ask the funniest questions, really, you do."
"How am I supposed to know? I've never been to Nihon, and nobody talks about it here."
"You don't talk about a good many things here."
"So? There are other things to do. And do your people talk about us?"
Orì shrugged. "Not much," she said. "But you are so drab and boring. Nothing ever happens."
"Many things happen here," Sofia protested, though she hoped that Orì wouldn't ask for an example.
She looked back up towards the window.
"Your aunt is waking up," Orì said. "Soon she'll be at her post."
"Can't you make yourself invisible again?"
"Not to people who can see me," Orì said. "Or not for a long time, anyway. And won't she be suspicious why you're down here?"
"She doesn't care where I am as long as I don't make any trouble."
"My mother is the same," Orì said. "But I always make trouble."
"I never make trouble."
Orì looked at Sofia. Then she smiled a little, mischievously.
"Don't you want to start? How about adding a little color to your life?"
Her fingertips started to glow red and purple. She held them into the water, and spidery streaks colored the water pink like a sunset.
Sofia felt overwhelmed with jealousy. "I can't do that."
"Sure you can. If you can see it, that means that you can do it."
Orì's eyes shot upwards again. The shutters were opened from the inside by Aunt Sybil's long pale hands and clattered against the stonewall of the house.
"Try it tonight," Orì whispered quickly. "And come back tomorrow morning, then we can paint the river together."
She giggled again, and then she was gone as if she had never been there.
CHAPTER 4 - THE VILLAGE STORE AND MAGICAL WINDOWS
Sofia loved going to the store.
At the border village, it was sometimes easy to forget that the streets didn't only lead into the village, but also out of it. But being located at the border - at any border - obviously meant that one part of the world was both ending and just beginning. It all depended on where one was coming from. Since nobody ever went to or came from Nihon, there was only one direction to go. If one went, that was. Sometimes, people left for a while, to explore or to escape, but when they came back, they were met with a deliberate withholding of curiosity. No questions were asked, no quizzical stares given. As soon as they had settled in again, everybody pretended that they had never been gone.
But the goods on sale in the store proved that there was a world beyond the village, despite this reluctance to admit it. There was food and drink of all provenance, though not all of it appealing to everybody. There were fabrics, both plain and sturdy, and colorful and whimsical. There were tools for building and tools for making, and even tools for having, just in case they would become necessary. There were books with letters and books with pictures, and some with both. Though the supply of books was rarely re-stocked, because people who distrust physical travel also often distrust travel of the imaginary kind.
When Sofia got there, Pip and Tin were engrossed in one of their mysterious games in front of the shop. Their uncle was the shopkeeper, and he preferred to keep the boys close by so that he could call them in to help. Yet, despite his efforts, the twins showed no signs of enthusiasm when it came to any kind of work. They obeyed his instructions only when he insisted, and never lifted a finger without being prompted. As soon as their uncle's attention waned, they slipped away again.
Sofia tiptoed towards the boys, so they wouldn't conceal what they were doing. They had drawn an elaborate net of lines on the ground and were moving white and black stones in formations that made sense only to them. To Sofia, it was like gibberish in the form of stones. Still, she was curious.
"Attack!" Sofia heard one of them say. She thought that it had been Tin.
"Who are you attacking there, Tin?" she said loudly, grinning as they both jumped to their feet.
"I'm Pip," the boy said.
"Are you sure?" Sofia teased.
Pip's face went almost purple, and Sofia remembered that she had intended to be nicer to them.
"What are you playing?" she said conciliatory.
"We are playing War," Tin said.
"The Great Wars," Pip boasted as if he had something to make up for.
His brother punched him in the side. "Shh," he made.
Sofia sucked in her breath, trying not to show her surprise. It was the second time someone had mentioned this expression, today. Maybe she hadn't been paying attention, but she couldn't remember a single time that she had heard it before. Wars could hardly be kept a secret, though. Maybe she had heard about it in another term? Or maybe she hadn't been paying attention. Though that was unlikely.
"You and your little kids' games," Sofia said with deliberate boredom. "I know all about the Great Wars, so don't you worry about me."
"You do?" Tin asked, suspicious.
"Sure. I'm only surprised that you know about it, since you usually don't know anything."
"We know a lot!" Pip protested.
"Much more than you," Tin added, but he was looking at his feet.
Sofia shrugged her shoulders. "So, which color is for Nihon?" she asked as if it was no big deal to mention it.
The boys looked around to make sure that nobody was around to overhear them.
"White," Pip whispered.
"This is the Battle of Saguran," Tin said, pointing towards a cluster of white stones that were almost completely encircled by black stones.
"Ah, that one," Sofia said as if she couldn't care less. Inwardly, she felt like a pot of boiling water, about to explode.
"Do you want to know how we are playing the ambush?" Tin said, now desperate to make an impression.
Tin turned around a few of the white stones. They were painted black on the other side.
"Yes, that's very clever," Sofia said, not understanding what it meant, wondering how the boys could know so much more than she did. It also crossed her mind that they were only making stuff up, and that this was a silly children's game that she was much too grown-up for.
"Can I play, too?" she asked, suddenly feeling shy.
At this, the boys turned fire-red and placed themselves in front of their game as if preparing to physically defend it.
"This is our game."
"You don't know anything about it."
Sofia felt tears rising. She didn't like the twins anyway, they were stupid and immature, and on the few occasions she played with them she was always bored. She looked past them, fighting the impulse to push them aside and kick away the stones. But Aunt Sybil had given her enough leeway for one day, and she wouldn't be so forgiving if she got into a fight with Pip and Tin.
She snorted with as much disdain as she could muster.
"I don't want to play with you, anyway," she said. "I have a new friend, and she knows much better games than you."
Pip knitted his brows together. "What friend?"
Sofia almost stuck out her tongue, but she figured that she was above such childish gestures. "She's a secret," she said and turned on her heels before the boys could voice their disbelief.
She pushed open the door to the store. The doorbell played its familiar ding-a-ling as she entered. Sofia blinked away the tears, and Pip and Tin's laughter ebbed off behind her.
The village store was much larger inside than it appeared from the outside. From the outside, it fit in discreetly with the other houses, except for a sign above the door that said Groceries, Tools and more. It used to say ... and everything you dream about, but the villagers had not appreciated the lofty notion, and the name had been changed.
Of this, Sofia knew nothing, but the store owner, Mr Borrealis, reminded himself of it daily, with a sadness that kept accumulating like drops of water in a bucket.
"Sofia! What a lovely surprise," Mr Borrealis called out as he saw her.
He was a large man with a loud ebullient voice, brimming with happiness on the outside and melancholia on the inside. His face was round and joyful, and he had a long, thin mustache that he carefully curled every morning with a hot iron and tried in vain to keep in place with an oily pomade that smelled like cured fish. He never achieved the symmetry he was aiming for, and since he had the unfortunate habit of touching his face when he was immersed in his thoughts, his mustache became more lopsided as the day went on.
"Hello, Mr Borrealis," Sofia said politely because she liked the old man enormously and had more than once wished that she could trade places with the twins, and work in the shop with him. She would never be too lazy to help or sneak away when she wasn't supposed to. Not often, at least.
"I was just about to call in one of my no-good nephews to help me stock the shelves, but I would much rather you help me, and not just," here he winked at Sofia, "not just because you are much less clumsy than those boys."
"I'd love to," Sofia said, delighted. She dropped her shopping bag in the corner. "I'm just picking up a few things for dinner, but Aunt Sybil didn't say that I needed to return right away."
"Ah, clever girl. Omission is the same as permission, isn't it?"
Sofia shrugged with a guilty little smile.
"Did you pass my nephews outside? What are they up to?"
Sofia felt her face redden, but Mr Borrealis was already stepping up the ladder and didn't see it.
"I never understand their games. They were playing with stones."
"Strange boys, those two."
"They never want to play with me." Sofia couldn't keep herself from saying. She sounded hurt and regretted right away having said it.
Mr Borrealis looked at her for a moment. "Like I said. They are strange boys."
Sofia handed him the tin cans of pickled beets that he had just started to stock. He put one next to the other with as much care as if they were living beings, turning the labels so that they stood in a straight line. His face was serene as if he was finding great pleasure in the task. Sofia didn't know anybody who was as dedicated and appreciative of the things around him as Mr Borrealis.
A few years ago, she had found herself staring out of the windows of the store. She had noticed something that she had not understood and therefore had not known how to talk about. Sunlight had been pouring in with a light orange color, and the trees outside had been gleaming as if their leaves had been polished. The sky had looked as soft as a blanket of cornflowers. The whole store had been immersed in soft and pleasant light, but outside, the day had been grey and drab, the skies hanging low and wet, almost touching the ground. She had been completely certain of that, and the difference between outside and inside had made no sense to her.
Mr Borrealis had approached her with a careful expression on his face, following her gaze out the window. "I had them made specially," he had told her in a confidential tone, his voice as low as a whisper. "Because they make me happy, and everybody who comes in is immediately in a better mood."
He had looked at Sofia and had put his finger to his lips, saying, "Shhh," in a very earnest manner, not like he did when he was kidding around with her. They had never mentioned the windows again, but sometimes Mr Borrealis saw her looking at them, and he would repeat the confidential gesture and smile.
But when he put his finger to his lips this time, Sofia felt unable or unwilling to play along as she had always done.
"How come nobody talks about the windows in the store?" she asked. "And why don't people have them in their houses, too?"
Mr Borrealis looked surprised that she would break their wordlessly agreed upon silence.
"People here tend to see only what they want to see, and ignore everything that could make them question their way of living."
"Why would anybody question their way of living because of windows that make the outside look pretty?"
Mr Borrealis climbed down the ladder and folded the cardboard box that had held the tins. He put it away neatly behind the counter in a stowaway compartment for just this purpose.
"People question their lives for the oddest of reasons."
He went behind the counter, and Sofia followed him, picking up her bag. She chose a few vegetables that were still almost fresh, and looked quietly at the bags of dried beans for a while as if it was important to select the right ones.
"You will soon turn twelve, won't you, Sofia?" Mr Borrealis asked.
"I think so," Sofia said, "but I don't know when my birthday is, so maybe it has happened already."
"You don't know when your birthday is?"
"I once asked Aunt Sybil, but she said that babies are birthed every day of the year, and it is nothing special at all. She said that celebrating birthdays is a way for simpletons to pass their time and drink."
"Ah." Mr Borrealis smiled. "Maybe that last remark was not aimed at you. But children should have birthdays."
Sofia pulled her lips into a flinch and didn't meet Mr Borrealis' eyes. She agreed with Aunt Sybil and thought that birthdays were very silly.
"My own birthday was about two months ago," Mr Borrealis said. "I came to the store early that day, and I chose the largest piece of chocolate cake for myself. I sat by the window as I ate it, and I closed my eyes and listened to the birds." He smiled at Sofia. "It was very nice."
Sofia shrugged uncomfortably. "Aunt Sybil is the smartest person I know," she said.
Mr Borrealis nodded.
"That's true. She's probably the smartest person in the village, and even beyond. There is not a fact in the world that I wouldn't trust your aunt to know. But there is more to life than facts, and sometimes, the smartest people are also the dumbest people."
Sofia stared at him. She couldn't help the crazy giggle that escaped her. It felt outrageous to associate Aunt Sybil with the word dumb.
Mr Borrealis started laughing as well.
"Do not tell her I said that, or I will be in big trouble."
He wagged his finger, and they both kept snorting.
"Why are you in such a queer mood, today, Sofia?"
Sofia shrugged her shoulders, looking away.
"I'm not," she muttered. Then she said, "I don't know why."
"I think you do. But it is fine if you don't want to tell me. I am sometimes in a queer mood, too. My wife says that I should put both my feet firmly on the ground and feel that there is the ground and nothing but the ground. And then I should get on with my life." Mr Borrealis looked at Sofia. "Do you think that is good advice?"
"It sounds reasonable."
"Yes, I guess it does. But I am just an old dreamer. A romantic fool." He smiled sadly. "I wish for things that are out of reach. But if they were within reach, I would probably reject them with the same vigor as everybody else, or maybe even more, because that is the way of fools."
Sofia frowned. "If what was within reach?"
The question seemed to pull him out of his reverie. He shook his head so that his mustache trembled, and laughed a fake and booming laugh.
"Nothing, my dear. Nothing at all."
He handed her the bag, and put a small net of candied walnuts on top of her groceries.
"Those are only for you," he said, with a wink that almost resembled his usual manner. "Run along now, it is going to be dark soon."
Sofia followed his gaze towards the window where a soothing sunset was announcing itself in blurred shades of yellow, pink and orange. She knew that the sky would look nothing like this outside, where nighttime fell quickly in dark grey and blue.
She thanked Mr Borrealis, and as she turned to leave, she heard him muttering to himself,
"The world is the way it is. No point in dreaming, no point in dreaming at all."
CHAPTER 3 - AUNT SYBIL
Sofia expected to be reprimanded, but Aunt Sybil merely led her to the small bathroom at the back of the house, then disappeared up the stairs without saying a single word.
The fire in the bathroom was already burning, even though Aunt Sybil was usually obsessed with saving firewood. To her, a single moment of warmth in an empty room was the embodiment of wastefulness. It was Uncle Tomas' duty to provide the wood, either by cutting it himself or buying it from a neighbor, and he could never be trusted to procure enough in time. Maybe that played a role in Aunt Sybil's stinginess, too.
Sofia quickly removed her wet clothes. She took a cloth and was pleasantly surprised that the water was already hot. She rubbed the cold from her body until she was red and warm and prickly.
Despite this comfort, she couldn't shake an eerie feeling. The bathroom had been prepared as if for an important visitor. How long had Aunt Sybil known what was going on outside? Had she been watching from the window? Had she heard what Orì and Sofia had talked about? And why had she taken the time to prepare the bathroom beforehand?
Sofia couldn't picture her aunt taking deliberate time for any domestic task. Aunt Sybil was not the kind of woman who took pride in her home, nor in her child-rearing skills. Sofia didn't understand her aunt's character and behavior, but she didn't question them, either. While she didn't think of her as a maternal figure, she had no memory of her own mother, and therefore nothing to compare her to. Pip and Tin didn't have a mother either, so Sofia didn't know what she was missing, except from books, and she tended to skip over the parts that spoke of families with too much tenderness.
After putting on the clothes Aunt Sybil had laid out for her – for the first time since she could remember – Sofia looked at herself in the mirror. Usually, when she considered her appearance, which she didn't do often, she saw a girl with no distinct features. But now that she was able to compare herself to Orì, she found that she looked very different from her.
Orì had been tall and slim as if pulled to the maximum of her length by some invisible force. Her light blue complexion and silver hair had given her an otherworldly appearance as if she would be neither cold nor warm to the touch. She had been fluid and slippery as if she was neither fixed in time nor in space, but changeable, mercurial. Sofia had not trusted her, and she felt that she had been right not to.
Sofia herself was tall for her age, though she didn't know this. She was taller than Pip and Tin, but she thought that maybe it was normal for girls to be taller and stronger than boys. She had brown hair that was always messy, even though she brushed it every morning, unknotting the strands until tears came to her eyes. Her eyes had an undefined muddy color which Sofia secretly resented because girls in books had blue or green eyes or even the color of violets. Her skin was becoming more tan with every day she spent outside.
She wondered what Orì had seen when she had looked at her. She had never thought about other people looking at her and forming an opinion of her. If she never saw the blue girl again, would she remember her? And how would she remember her?
With one last unsatisfied glance into the mirror, Sofia left the bathroom. The house was quiet. Uncle Tomas had spent the night with his drinking buddies and was still asleep, and Aunt Sybil had taken up her duties upstairs as if nothing had happened.
Sofia considered her usual tactics for joining her aunt, bringing her something, or coming up with a phony question. She decided that this wasn't necessary for once.
She walked up the narrow spiral staircase, curiously feeling herself tread into her aunt's footsteps. What must it be like to climb these stairs every day? The walls were cramped, and she had to be careful not to bump her head. When she had been smaller, she had sometimes run up these stairs - to Aunt Sybil's horror - and had always come away with bruises on her elbows and knees. Now, as she had grown, there was no question of running anymore, the space was much too tight.
As she entered the room, her aunt was sitting in her chair, a book open but unread in her lap. Her eyes were fixed onto the bridge. There was nothing to see.
Sofia sat down on the windowsill. She pulled her knees up under her chin. For a while, they both looked out the window without talking.
The river was peaceful and gurgled quietly, leaves floating lazily on its surface. And yet, the further towards the other side Sofia looked, the more torrential the water became, dark and dangerous, tearing along with brutal force. She wondered if her aunt ever allowed her eyes to wander to the other side of the shore. She wasn't even certain if they were both seeing the same things. She wanted to ask her this but didn't know how.
Instead, she asked a question that she knew the answer to anyway.
"Do you guard the bridge every day?"
Aunt Sybil did not turn towards her. "Every day."
"Because it is the duty of the Guardian of the Bridge, and I am the Guardian of the Bridge."
Aunt Sybil had a frustratingly straightforward way of answering questions, cutting off every thought that might open up into an interesting direction. It was all but impossible to strike up a real conversation with her.
"How did you become the Guardian?" This, Sofia did not know.
Aunt Sybil's mouth pulled as if she had bitten into something sour.
"I came here when I was a very small child. So small that I only remember the journey from other people's accounts. It was me, my brothers Sermon and Davis, and a few other children who had been sent to the Border Village. People kept leaving, and there were worries there would be nobody left to guard the border, and then people from Nihon would cross over. Sermon was chosen to be the Guardian of the Bridge because he was the oldest, and at first, he walked through the village swollen with pride, like a silly peacock. But as soon as he realized the responsibility, he started to neglect his studies and didn't show up for his shifts. So, it was decreed that I was to be the successor to the previous Guardian."
"Were you the second oldest?" Sofia asked timidly.
She couldn't picture Aunt Sybil as a child. To her, she had always been an elderly woman, thin and rigid, serious and impenetrable, with nothing on her mind but her duty.
"A few were older than me," Aunt Sybil said. "But by then, we were not strange children any longer, and they had been able to observe us and determine our aptitudes."
Aunt Sybil still wasn't looking at Sofia. Her eyes remained directed towards the bridge, but they were glazed over, lost in her memories and all the unlived versions of her life.
"The Assessors. They travel the border villages, making sure that the bridges are well-protected, and that there are no crossings from Nihon. They are clerks, in a manner of speaking. They love their paperwork, that much I can tell you." For the first time, a little smile played around Aunt Sybil's lips, but it quickly vanished. "They are everywhere, but they live nowhere. That's how they ensure that we remain safe."
This didn't seem like a well-thought-out system to Sofia, but she figured there were many things she didn't understand, and she did not want to interrupt this rare and precious moment. Aunt Sybil wasn't fond of objections.
Her throat became suddenly dry.
"Will I be the Guardian after you?"
Sofia wasn't sure what she wanted to hear. Guardian seemed to be a lonely, reclusive life, and Aunt Sybil wouldn't strike anybody as a happy person. But it was the only example Sofia knew. She wondered what Orì's life was like, but she came up blank. She had not the slightest idea about Nihon, not how the air smelled, if it was cold or warm, or if all the people looked and behaved like Orì. She had so many questions that her head was bursting from the restraint she had to show towards her aunt. Once Aunt Sybil ended this conversation, she might not be able to start it again.
"Nothing has been decided," Aunt Sybil said, her face so tight it resembled a block of wood. "Nowadays, children seem to be unable to do what they are told. And everybody asks for their opinion, which does not fare well for building character."
Sofia couldn't remember when her opinion had ever been requested, but she held her tongue. She chose her next question with care.
"Aunt Sybil, have you ever been to Nihon?"
"Been to Nihon?" Aunt Sybil looked at Sofia for the first time, so surprised was she. "Child, nobody ever goes to Nihon."
"But -" Sofia said, frowning, "It is right there."
She pointed out of the window, at the bridge covering the distance between the village and Nihon. There was no obstacle, no border post, no barrier of any kind. Walking across it should have been the easiest, most mundane activity there was. But even as she spoke, Sofia felt the impossibility of crossing the bridge, and she almost regretted having asked this silly question.
"It is not our world," Aunt Sybil said. "You wouldn't fly to the moon, now would you?"
"That's because I can't fly."
Aunt Sybil pulled her eyebrows together. "You know how I meant it. It is another world, not like ours. We have been separate ever since the Great Wars."
Sofia's gaze slid over the book spines in her aunt's library. She couldn't remember a single one that mentioned this expression.
"Our people and people from Nihon cannot be together," Aunt Sybil continued. "The differences are much too great."
Sofia thought about Orì and all the strange things she had said.
"They have magic." Aunt Sybil pronounced the word with disgust as if she'd like to hurl it across the room, but Sofia felt as if the air had gone out of her lungs for the second time that day.
"Magic?" she breathed.
"It is not something to marvel at," Aunt Sybil said with a strict voice. "Not like the stories for children, where magical tricks save the day and fill everybody with wonderment. Real magic changes people's character. It makes them lazy and dishonest and wicked. Magic is nothing but cheating."
"How do you know?"
"It is common sense. If you could change at will and do anything you wanted, you would go through life a liar and a cheater, wouldn't you?"
Sofia thought that what her aunt was describing sounded marvellous, but she nodded dutifully.
"That girl outside," Aunt Sybil continued. "Did she strike you as a good and nice person?"
No, Sofia thought.
"I don't know," she said, suddenly worrying if she was a good and nice person. She was often bored and angry, and she thought that Pip and Tin were stupid, that Uncle Tomas was weak, and that Aunt Sybil was mean. Those weren't the thoughts of a good and nice person.
Aunt Sybil smiled in a pinched way. Sofia had the feeling that she would now say what she had wanted to say all along. And it didn't appear to be something that brought her pleasure.
"Every exchange between us and Nihon needs to be documented and evaluated by the Assessors. I have to report the incident, and when they come to the village, they will question you."
A coldness spread through Sofia's spine.
"The Assessors," she repeated. The word had a menacing feeling, a strange kind of power that didn't need an explanation to be real.
"They are only looking out for us," Aunt Sybil said, trying to sound soothing, but not meeting Sofia's eyes.
"Of course," Sofia said. She wanted to get out of this room with its narrow walls that sealed off the outside world. For once, she even wanted to get away from the bridge, away from the endless space behind it that seemed to be alternatingly opening up and closing shut like a beating heart.
"Shall I go to the store and fetch dinner?"
Aunt Sybil looked relieved, glad the conversation had come to an end. "Yes. I am sure your uncle is quite incapable of providing for his family once again."
And as Sofia was almost out of the room, she added, "You are not allowed to talk to that girl ever again. And if you see her, or anybody like her, you need to tell me immediately. You understand that, right?"
Sofia stopped in the doorframe and looked back at her aunt.
"Yes, Aunt Sybil," she said.
Author: Raphaelle Hoffmann
Chapter 2 - The Girl from the Water
Below the surface of the water, the sky moved far away, and the river expanded in width and depth until it seemed as endless as an ocean. Sofia swam towards the body, trying to ignore the eerie feeling of having entered another world. She reached for one of the arms and grabbed its wrist.
All of a sudden, the girl came alive and struggled to get out of her grasp.
Sofia tore back in surprise and fright. The two girls shot towards the surface of the water at the same time. Sofia gasped, frantically filling her lungs with air, brushing her hair out of her face, as her eyes became used to the outside world again.
She stared at the girl who was staring back at her, although she was not gasping for air, and didn't seem dishevelled or ruffled in any way.
"Who are you?" Sofia said with the first breath she managed to draw.
The girl moved backwards, not taking her eyes off Sofia. With every inch she put between them, her gaze became calmer and somewhat superior. She reached for a rock in the water and pulled herself upon it in one fluent motion.
Sofia could have sworn that there had not been a rock in that place before, and she realized that she was standing comfortably on the ground, the water only reaching up to her stomach, even though it had been deep and endless a mere few seconds ago.
The girl brushed her long silver hair from her face. It seemed neither wet nor dry, but smooth like a velveteen sheet.
"Since you disturbed me," she said in a haughty voice, "you should answer that question before I do."
"Disturbed you?" Sofia blurted out. "I saved you."
The girl gave a little laughter that rang as clear as a bell. "Why should I need saving?"
"You - you were drowning."
The girl pulled her legs up on the rock and looked around with a slightly bored expression. Her arms and legs were light-blue as if colored from inside. She was wearing a white and silver suit that was constantly changing form, wrapping itself differently around her body every time she moved.
"What is drowning?" she asked, as if she knew exactly what it was, but enjoyed putting Sofia on the spot.
"It's -," Sofia started. How could she possibly explain drowning? "It's when you are underwater for too long, and you - you stop breathing."
"But I never stopped breathing."
"You can -?"
"Of course!" The girl laughed again. "Of course, I can breathe underwater."
She elongated her neck like a cat, exposing green and yellow gills that flapped open and closed again before Sofia could get a good look. She giggled at Sofia's confusion.
"Can you not breathe underwater?" she asked with an air of mock-innocence.
"No. I -." Sofia stopped herself. She looked at the girl angrily. "You shouldn't make fun of me. I saved you. And even if I didn't, that's what I set out to do, and you should thank me for it."
"If you only saved me to receive gratitude..."
Sofia felt her face turn hot. "That's not what I meant!".
The girl smiled sweetly then as if she had established her position and could now allow herself to be graceful.
"My name is Orì," she said, like a peace offering. Pronouncing her name, she sat upright as if expecting reverence.
Chapter1.The Bridge To Nihon
Uncle Tomas was a soft and chubby man, with a heart of gold and an incorrigible weakness for drinking, which meant that every good-natured promise he made was broken almost as soon as it was uttered. Most days, he slept until noon, then dragged his aching body to the kitchen where he woke his spirit with - - spirits. Sofia loved her uncle for his tranquil smile and hated him for his cloudy eyes. Aunt Sybil seemed to only hate him by now, and he didn a post appear much fonder of her.
Most days, Sofia roamed around outside without much supervision, hoping to discover something, anything new. It didn't matter to her what it was, as long as it jolted some life into the village routine. The Border Village counted a mere few hundred people, and the strange thing, apart from the bridge and what lay beyond, was the fact that only three children were living there, and none of them knew their parents. There was Sofia, who was almost twelve years old, and twin boys of about the same age called Pip and Tin, who also lived with an aunt and uncle.Pip and Tin only went places together and didn't like to talk to anybody but each other. They played enigmatic games, and when somebody passed them, they cast their eyes down, giggling at their private jokes. To Sofia, it often felt as if she was the only child in the village, and while she had become used to this, there are some things that are impossible to get used to.When Sofia was sent outside to play, she often stayed in calling distance of her aunt's window, in the hope that, one day, Aunt Sybil would call her inside and finally start teaching her how to become Guardian of the Bridge. In Sofia's mind, she just had to be her aunt's successor. This was never mentioned, but she refused to waver in her conviction.
Beneath the pillars of the bridge, the lawn stretched all the way down to the water. The water was clear and smooth, with polished stones glinting on the ground. Sofia often flipped stones over the mirrored surface. She had perfected her technique, and the stones raced weightlessly over the waves with up to seven jumps.There were a lot of strange things to be said about the bridge. There was its size, which seemed to change every day, or its pillars, rammed deep into the river's ground and yet changing in number. But the strangest thing was that nothing was ever said about the bridge as if the inhabitants of the village had forgotten its existence. People had unlearned to look its way, and, when mentioned in conversation, it sometimes took them a moment to understand what was being talked about.The changeability of the bridge extended to the river as well, or maybe it was the other way around. The water was peaceful on this side of the shore, but when Sofia directed her eyes to the other side, the change could be drastic.
The water was crashing dark and wild against spiky rocks. The stream tore mercilessly downhill, its foam yellow and foul. When Sofia focused, she could hear the wind howling and hissing far away, and smell the rancid odor of the fish that had found their watery grave smashed against the rocks. Quickly, she turned her eyes back to this side of the shore, and all would be well again. A few ducks would swim towards her, and she greeted them like old friends, even though she could never be sure that they were the same ducks as the day before.
But no day went by that Sofia didn't lift her eyes towards the other side, at least for a little while. Some days, the shore was shrouded in fog, white and thick, and it was impossible to imagine anything behind it except the sky. On those days, Sofia quickly lost interest and went back to her solitary games. Other times, the shore stretched out hellishly towards the end of the horizon, an inhospitable wasteland, colored in black and grey and flashes of red as if fires were burning. This gruesome setting made Sofia hug her arms around herself and feel cold even on the hottest day.But occasionally, the view took on a beautiful aquarelle quality, soft colors bleeding into each other, the sky blending with the tops of the trees. Butterflies and birds outdid each other in splendor, and a breeze wafted across the river like an invitation to come over and play. On these days, Sofia would have crossed the bridge and gone over, but it never occurred to her that it was possible to do so.
Sofia was sitting against the outer pillar of the bridge, immersed in her favorite game, Guardian of the Bridge. Her back straight, and her eyes fixed on the stone structure in front of her. She held a few pages of paper she had bound with a leather string from one of her uncle's shoes, and with a piece of coal, she noted the time and date.She wrote, Uneventful, and out loud, she mimicked Aunt Sybil's stern tone of voice.
But that does not mean we can be any less vigilant!She looked to her right as if there had been a question from an imaginary interlocutor, and clarified,Because it is a very important duty, and only few people are chosen to fulfill it.
She frowned at the imaginary answer that seemed to have contradicted her.
She said uncertainly. "Aunt Sybil will teach me. But, she added, her face lighting up again, "it is a big secret, and I won't be allowed to tell.She rolled up the paper and hid it carefully between two stones. She got up to take a little stroll along the shore. Maybe she'd go and find Pip and Tin and see what they were up to. At least, she could interrupt their games if they wouldn't let her join in. She didn't much like the boys, but she wasn't exactly spoiled for choice. She had tried to be like an older sister to them, then like a younger sister, like a teacher, like a curious student. The boys seemed immune to her charms as well as her bullying.
She was thinking about a way to maybe play one against the other when she heard a strange choking noise. It was coming from the river.Sofia looked its way, adjusting her eyes to the texture of the water, which always took some effort as if it didn't want to be seen.There was nothing, except for a few bubbles rising.
Sofia turned away again, continuing in the direction she had been going. It was only after a few steps that she realized she saw something beneath the waters. There had been an elongated shape in a light blue color, which had not been the color of the water, but of something else. She hadn't become aware of it at first as if her eyes had refused to see anything they weren't expecting to see.Sofia went back to the shore.
She stood very still as if every movement might distort the image. She glanced up towards her aunt's window, but it was too steep, and she could not see her. Which meant that Aunt Sybil couldn't see her either.The bubbles had intensified, then lessened until they had almost vanished. Sofia took another step closer, the water lapping onto her shoes.
Feeling the moisture, she took them off and stepped into the ice-cold water, carefully keeping her balance on the slippery stones. She leaned over, trying to get a better look. It was a body.It was lean and slim, and a mass of silver hair surrounded its head like a crown. The limbs were long and light blue, and it was completely motionless, floating.The bubbles ceased. There was no more breath leaving the body.Sofia opened her mouth to call for help. But she didn't, even though that would have been the most logical action. Instead, she waded into the water. It deepened infinitely after the first step as if she had entered into another space than the one that she had perceived before. But she didn't have time to question this.