Akito couldn’t remember what it was like not to feel cold.
The house was old, old beyond memory, Akito thought. The cold is seeping into the walls, and we are all freezing from the inside out. Perhaps, one day, someone will walk through these rooms and find nothing but a lot of statues, shining like ice, and only their eyes move.
Someone. An Akito, perhaps?
Akito liked that fancy. After that, she pretended sometimes that she was the only one alive, walking through a house full of statues. Then they couldn’t hurt her. They could see her, but they weren’t alive.
Then the statues started to crumble, and the darkness descended on her again.
Perhaps she was the one who wasn’t alive.
Akito was afraid of mirrors. She felt herself falling whenever she looked in.
It was like walking over a lake of black ice, peering into the depths. Who knew what monsters could stir in those depths?
What was up, and what was down?
Walking over the ice was fine, as long as you didn’t realise how deep it was below. But then you felt yourself falling. And you knew you were standing on the ice, but it didn’t matter, you were still falling, and there was no bottom so the fall would never end.
Akito had only walked over a frozen lake once, when she was very small. It had been an unusually cold winter, and everyone said that the lake was safe to walk on. Shigure had taken her to walk on it. She remembered struggling against the wind, and trying not to slip on the smooth, gleaming ice. Then she had looked through the ice and screamed.
It’s all right, Akito, Shigure had said, holding tight to her hand. It’s as safe as the ground you always walk on. You can see through it, but it’ll hold. Even if you slip, I won’t let you fall.
Shigure didn’t lie, but he never told the truth either. His words were smooth and empty like a lake of ice, a mirror world turned upside down. When he smiled, she was afraid to look too deep into his eyes.
After that, Akito had always distrusted the ground she walked on a little bit.
After she’d sent Shigure away, she often dreamed that she was walking over the ice again, trying not to slip. But she always slipped, and awoke, and realised that her feet were cold.
Nothing Akito saw in the mirror belonged to her. The eyes she saw looking at her were the eyes in Ren’s face. The body a pale, fragile thing. Ren told her she was scrawny and ugly. That was probably true, but she didn’t really know what it meant. Shigure had caressed her, and told her she was a beautiful woman. She didn’t know what that meant, either.
Man was a symbol of Akito’s responibilities, her destiny, the burdens she carried. The things she had inherited, the front with which she faced the world.
Woman was a symbol that she wasn’t really fit for them, a symbol of weakness. To her, woman meant Ren. The word was a crack in her armour, through which fear, envy and distrust seeped in.
When the older jyunishi called her a woman, though, they made the word a bond.
A bond: a connection, but also something that bound you. When you were bound, you weren’t free.
Was there anything about her that wasn’t a bond?
Who was it she saw in the mirror? A god? A monster? A man? An ungainly child? A beautiful woman? The words didn’t fit her, none of them did. She felt herself falling again.
Who did the body in the mirror belong to? Everyone decided what it was, what it meant, who Akito was. And her body did nothing but betray her, small, twisted, sickly thing that it was.
She didn’t know who she saw in the mirror, but it wasn’t her. Perhaps it was Akito.
Sometimes she retreated to a corner of her consciousness and watched as Akito did terrible things. Was it her, doing them? She wasn’t sure.
Did she enjoy being cruel, smashing things, breaking people? Perhaps she did. She didn’t really know what it was like to enjoy anything.
There was a darkness stirring in her heart. She was afraid of it, and fascinated by it. She explored its contours as a stranger would. She probed the inner mechanisms of her heart, and experimented with what it was like to be a cruel person. To be loved, to be feared. To be Akito. There was a strange fascination in it.
When she looked into the mirror, the darkness looked out of her eyes at her, and she felt herself falling.
It didn’t matter how many layers Akito covered herself with, she was still cold. Cold from the inside.
Kureno tried to warm her up, but his hands were cold too. Akito shivered when he touched her. She sent him away, and buried herself deeper under the great quilt.
‘They cannot love you,’ Ren had said to her once, a gleam of triumph in her black cruel eyes. Akito’s eyes. ‘They are bound by a curse. You are nothing but a curse to them. It is a hollow, twisted bond.’
And what of me, thought Akito. Can I love anyone?
It was then that Akito had begun to be afraid of people. Afraid of what they could do to her. Afraid that they would leave her if she gave them a choice.
When people looked at her with fear, she felt a little more certain of herself. This, at least, was one power she had. The only one, perhaps. Everything else about her had been decided for her by the curse of a bond from long ago. Her name, her body, her destiny. Her ugliness, her beauty. Being a man out in the world, being a woman in the jyunishi’s gaze. She was bound to the world by contracts that she had never signed. Her body was a contract with the world that she hadn’t signed. Her only power was the ability to make people feel afraid.
I am the curse, she thought.
Perhaps that was one answer to who Akito was. She tried inhabiting the name, being the curse. Perhaps she liked it, a little.
The main house was a house of shadows. The only colour in Akito’s living room came from the pot of red camellias that gleamed wickedly in the darkness. Those camellias fascinated Akito. They were the colour of the leaves that fell to the ground as the days grew shorter, and the baleful glare of the winter sun setting on a dead world.
Sometimes Akito padded through the rooms on noiseless, slippered feet.
The rooms were too big for her. She moved in them like a ghost. She felt insubstantial, as though she couldn’t move anything with her touch.
She wasn’t anything or anyone, she was just a nameless curse, as old as time.
One day, Akito found a man’s greatcoat in the attic. It was an old one of Shigure’s, that he had forgotten to take with him when he left.
Akito tried it on. It came down to her feet, and the fur collar came up to her ears.
The coat was too big for her, but this was a smallness she could manage. She liked the weight of the fabric. Clad in it, she felt that she weighed something too. She liked the way it trailed behind her as she walked, the authority it gave her footsteps. A faint suspicion of cigarette smoke clung to the coat, and she liked that too. It felt sharp and real.
And it was warm. The Akito wearing the coat felt real, and corporeal for the first time.
She walked over to the mirror and peered in.
For a moment the sensation of falling overwhelmed her, but then the newfound sensation of weight steadied her. She lifted her eyes to the mirror and saw herself looking out of it.
Who was that in the mirror? A small figure almost entirely hidden in the folds of a greatcoat. A pair of eyes peering over a fluffy collar. Still a stranger, but one she wasn’t afraid of.
Who did the eyes belong to? A small creature in a snowy winter world. An Akito, perhaps.
What did an Akito do when it was very, very cold?
Perhaps she dug herself into a snowdrift and went to sleep.
Akito fell asleep in front of the mirror, huddled in the coat.
Shigure walked in and found her there, wrapped in his old greatcoat. Akito didn’t wake up except to stir momentarily when he picked her up and carried her gently to her bed. He left the coat on her, but spread a blanket over it and tucked her in.
When Akito woke, she wondered how she had got to bed. She supposed one of the servants or Kureno had carried her there.
For once, her feet weren’t cold.
After that Akito wore the coat sometimes. Its weight steadied her when she put it on, and she slowly stopped being afraid of her reflection in the mirror.
She found more clothes in the attic. Rich old fabrics from long ago, in styles that had long since gone out of fashion, contracts that had outlived the world they were made for. As she had. And they were still beautiful.
Every time she tried on different clothes, she was different, and she was Akito. The Akito that no-one else would ever see. Perhaps this Akito only existed in secret.
A thousand faces, a thousand disguises. They felt more truly her than the pale naked self in the mirror, with its strange, awkward limbs.
Akito discovered colour. She had lived all her life in a house of shadows, the only colour the gleam of those burning red camellias; a house where even the dawn was grey.
Now she explored colour, feasted her eyes on it, filled her arms with it. Deep burnt browns with all the richness of soft music, and blues as sad and bright as an autumn lake. Silver like a shimmer of sunlight on a winter sea, and blacks that actually shone.
Sometimes she flitted through the rooms noiselessly, as though she was pure colour. Sometimes she draped herself in the weight and warmth of the fabrics and walked with the solemn tread of authority centuries old.
She found a kimono in the attic that made her catch her breath. It was of silk, patterned with deep red camellias, on a background of soft dull red like the ashes of a sunset. Next to it was an obi of heavy black brocade, patterned with soft heavy flowers that shimmered carmine in the faint light.
She knew at once that she wanted to try them on. She slipped into the kimono, holding her breath at the feel of the rich fabric. It took her several tries to get the obi tied, and she suspected it still wasn’t quite right, but it didn’t really matter.
Something seemed to fall into place when she wore the kimono. When she tried on the other clothes, she had taken refuge in them, become them. When she put on the red kimono with the black obi, she saw Akito’s face in the mirror for the first time.
Red and black, she thought. The colours of darkness. Perhaps darkness suits me.
And in the mirror, Akito smiled.
The next day she pinned a red camellia to her hair, and suddenly she thought: I am beautiful. She still wasn’t sure what that meant, but she knew it was true. People had called her beautiful before, but then it had been a contract with the world, a weight that carried no warmth; there was a quiet triumph in taking it back.
After that, she tasted the word, explored it. She looked for beauty, surrounded herself by it: rich brocades, old books, red flowers and antique tables.
And she learned to care for herself, soaked in warm baths and dabbed her skin with fragrant oils. She lay in the onsen until she felt warmth seep into her limbs, and watched clouds of steam rise and swirl against the ceiling.
One day, she slipped out of her robes, and she looked curiously into the mirror and thought: So this is how Akito looks.
Akito was small, fragile, and vital as a burning brand. She had weak, slender limbs and small soft breasts. Akito was beautiful.
And she thought with sudden certainty: I am Akito. Those things Akito did: I did them. And I will do them again.
She lifted her eyes to meet Akito’s gaze. She reached out and touched her fingertips to the cold mirror, meeting her reflection’s touch.
They will know who Akito is, and they will fear me.
No ancient curse has power over me. I am my own curse.