The Unfolding of Wings



Her eyes are closed. Yet she sees the ghostly flickers of the koi.

There is no wind. Yet she feels its gentle, relentless pull.

The grass beneath her silk-covered shins cushions her, welcomes her. As it does every evening.

Shinizi slowly opens her eyes.

The moonlight shines through the canopy and paints the world in a suibokuga of black and white. Light and shadow dance across the canvas of reality. Of a reality.

"Grandfather," she whispers. Her pale fingers stroke the pond's water. "It is neither water nor forest that calls me." She looks up. Her moist eyes reflect the moon. Unspeakable longing cries a desperate plea.

As if summoned, the largest koi in the pool – a large, scarred apparition in fading whites – comes swimming up with slow strokes of its tail. The rents and tears in its tail fin tell tales of ancient, hard-won battles. The fish softly nibbles on Shinizi's fingers.

The girl smiles faintly. "Hello, old one." The smile fades. "Do you think the ancestors hear me?" She retracts her hand. "Do you think they're disappointed?" She folds her hands in her lap. The koi circles a few times before it returns to the darker regions that summon it.

Shinizi's hands unfurl. She slowly raises them and they find their way to the nape of her neck. Between her shoulder blades, the rash still holds sway. It doesn't hurt or itch. It is just there. A taunt. Here and there beneath the tapestry of reddened skin, she can feel small bulges. Minions of the rash that echo its scorn.

What was supposed to be a blessing is a curse.

She sighs and withdraws her hands, chiding herself for the foolishness of expecting something else than the landscape beneath her skin that her fingers trace night after night. Shinizi leans back and gets up.

The path of stone slabs lies before her. With much more ease than her kimono seems to warrant, she hovers from slab to slab and tours the pond in the middle of her family's garden.

She stops in her tracks.

There they are again. The whispers. She turns, even though she knows no one – no thing – will await her there. Tree bark, transformed into an alien landscape by the moonlight. Still leaves painted as still lifes by an ancient celestial artist. Nothing more.

The spirits rarely descend these days. And when they do, they make sure they remain unseen and unheard.

She still remembers the day when the mountain ghost came down from his realm to speak with her father. She had only caught a glimpse of the mythical man, but it was enough to dazzle her young mind into dreams of worlds hidden within worlds. The man-spirit wearing a red and black kabuki mask towered over her father, who is a tall man himself. The spirit's cloak was cut from the hide of an unknown beast and thick black fur lined the shoulders. Still the impressive apparition showed deference to her father.

That was the first time she really grasped how much power her father yielded. In this world and others.

The first snowflake lands on her nose and sparks a sad smile.

#

He can smell her. His daughter. Even though she is outside. As she is every night.

He sighs and softly puts down the slim brush. When his mind wanders, his calligraphy suffers.

Lord Shen gets up, grabs a thick blanket, and heads to the garden.

He stops when his geta touch the first stone of the path. With closed eyes, he points his weathered face towards the bright moon and basks in its light, soaking up the mysterious power emanating from the heavenly body. For a brief moment the world stops turning. The reprieve passes and Lord Shen resumes his walk.

He worries. As he does every night.

He loves his daughter but he doubts whether she can bear the burden of carrying on his name in the absence of sons. He doubts whether she has the strength to stand on the edge of two worlds as he does, as his father did before him. All the way back to the age of myth, the family has stood there.

His daughter's muttering softly wriggles its way into his awareness. He slows his step and becomes soundless.

Under the cover of the trees and the spirits that dwell within them, he approaches and sees Shinizi launch her prayers.

She is a bud. But what lies within, a flower or ashes? He bans the thought. She is his daughter and she is beautiful.

He sees her inspect her rash.

It shouldn't be like this. In none of the family tales was it like this. The blessing has always manifested smoothly, not as troublesome as in Shinizi. If it will manifest at all.

Banish the thought.

Shinizi gets up and lithely glides from stone to stone.

Lord Shen steps back and melts into the shadows. Only the faint glitter of his eyes remains. Silver pinpricks in a black sea. The pinpricks narrow into lines when his daughter halts her journey over the smooth slabs and tilts her head, as if listening to something.

So she hears them too.

Shen's tensed features soften.

Not all is lost then.

Before his mind's eye a scene unfurls. A memory of a meeting.

Yobu, the mountain's spirit lord, untangles his legs and stands up. "I am pleased that you understand, Shen-san," the giant says with a voice that is the deep rumbling beneath the earth's crust. "This is about both continuity and confidence."

Lord Shen bows his head. "Your query is justified, noble Yobu. However, I hope you understand that it cannot be forced. The ancestors decide, and their reasons are hidden for us."

Yobu's kabuki mask nods thoughtfully. "Indeed. All we can do in matters like these is rely on their accumulated wisdom."

Before Shen can respond, Yobu turns around and strides towards the rice paper door. With giant strides, the mountain spirit leaves the abode. The blizzard embraces him with swirling snow. In an instant, the apparition has disappeared, leaving Shen standing in the doorframe.

"Daddy, daddy?"

Little Shinizi had entered the room as soon as she'd heard the blizzard announce the opening door. Technically, she hadn't disobeyed Shen's command not to interrupt.

The lord smiles as he squats. "Yes, dear daughter?"

"Was that the mountain spirit? Is he our friend? What's behind his mask? Does he have powers?"

"Slow down, daughter. Questions like those should ripen like yuzu fruits before we answer them."

He picks up Shinizi and twirls her around. They both laugh.

Snowflakes pull Shen's mind back to the present. He sighs and emerges from the shadows, ready to drape the blanket over his daughter's frail speckled shoulders.

#

The silver fox circles an unmarked spot in the featureless space. It leans back on its haunches and waits patiently with its eyes closed.

Its right ear twitches when the koi appears. The large ghostly fish swims through the air as if it found itself in the waters of its home.

The fox's eyes open when the white baboon manifests, clutching, as the primate always does, pieces of crumpled paper.

A badger and a snake, forever inseparable, step out of nothingness and join the group. The head of the snake rests on top of that of the badger. The rest of the reptile's colourless body is swallowed by the white fur of its carrier.

The animals regard each other. Curious. Careful. Their bond is strong, unbreakable. But there are always secret agendas and pacts within pacts.

"Anyone else joining?," Fox finally asks.

Koi stops swimming. "Don't think so. The older ones rarely let go of their lofty pursuits to address more earthly issues."

Baboon guffaws.

Badger shakes its head. Snake has no choice but to follow suit.

"Jokes aside," Fox continues, "the issue at hand is serious."

Baboon rolls back onto his feet. "That it is." Long fingers deftly begin folding the crumpled papers. By now, the scraps of paper are all folds and edges, yet Baboon manages to find the right creases to bring forth origami that would make human masters green with envy and yellow with jealousy.

First creation. A fox watching the full moon.

Fox's shoulders drop. "Is there hope?" The question is aimed at none of its companions in particular.

Snake lifts its head. "There are signs to cherish."

Badger adds, "But also signs to fear."

Second creation. A set of dragons, each one slightly different from the preceding one.

Baboon shrugs. Its eyes remain fixated on its fingers that shape the quickly transforming paper. "What once was does not need to be forever. Change should be both cherished and feared."

Koi completes a quick vertical circle. "There is more than philosophy at stake here."

"And yet the future exists only in our minds, nestled cosily next to the philosophies we use like fortune-tellers use tea leaves." Baboon smiles. Its skilled hands stop and engulf a new paper statuette. The primate looks at Fox. "What I mean, my friend, my kin, is that none of us can give you certainty, only guesses and support. What will be is the sum of innumerable threads. Only when the tapestry of fate reveals itself will we be sure of its shape and form."

The others nod their agreement.

Baboon unfolds its hands.

Third creation. A bird of paradise with unfolded wings and a long tail, calling defiantly.

"Both guesses and support are gratefully accepted, old ones."

Baboon chortles again, rolling onto its back. Even Badger and Snake smile this time.

Fast fingers grab the paper bird and crumple it.

Baboon fades into whiteness. One by one the others do too.

Fox is the last one left. It takes a deep breath and leaves as well. Its eyes are the last thing to disappear. Silver pinpricks in a white sea.

#

Something is wrong. Lord Shen smells it in the air.

His legs quickly unfold from lotus position and he shoots up. With closed eyes, he swivels his head left and right. His flaring nostrils taste the strands of information encrypted in the air currents.

Shinizi.

As usual, his daughter is outside praying. Pleading to the ancestors, appealing to hidden forces, channelling hidden deities.

Shen moves quickly, yet his steps remain silent.

His geta barely touch the stones' cold surface as he nimbly navigates the path.

He slows down his legs to a trot and his heart to a steady drum when he approaches the pond.

Shinizi is bent over the grass near the pond's edge.

Everything looks normal. It is a familiar sight. Lord Shen slows to a walk.

His eyes narrow. Shinizi is breathing hard. Too hard. The fleshy bellows of her lungs are pounding. Shen hears this. He hears her struggle and smells the effort of her body. She is fighting something.

Lord Shen bursts from the shadows. He sees the bulges on Shinizi's upper back assert themselves dominantly underneath the silk of her kimono. Her hands are planted firmly on the wet soil near the water.

He reaches her and drops to his knees.

"Daughter, what is wrong?"

Her head jerks towards him. Her eyes are wide open. And fully silver. Her mouth is shaped by a soundless scream.

Involuntarily, Lord Shen draws back the hand he had extended before he regains his composure.

"I am here, daughter. I am here."

Shinizi's head jolts back to its earlier position as the bulges begin ripping her clothing.

Unfolding wings appear. Silver feathers catch the light.

Shen steps back.

Shinizi's body violently rights itself to full height. A grisly cracking sound accompanies the wing stroke that lifts her into the air. Her silent scream finds its voice again and rips through the night air, piercing its way to the full moon. During the same breath, it becomes something else. A call. A declaration. Chimes of silver bells and the tinkling of crystal beads.

The sound travels to the mountain peaks. There, embedded in an eternal blizzard, reassurance and envy craft an ambiguous smile beneath a red and black kabuki mask.

Confidence and continuity. Another generation. A new guardian.

Her transformation is complete. She descends as a silver bird of paradise. Moonlight reflects on her feathers and creates a halo around her new form. The long shiny tail forms a trail to the pond. Beyond water, beyond forest, the moon and the sky have finally fully embraced her.

She looks to her side and sees the silver fox.

"Father," she says.

"Daughter." Tears twinkle in the corners of the fox's eyes.




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