Torii is thin and hungry. Very thin, very hungry. She’s in her domain of wrecked houses. Catastrophic mudslides destroyed most of the town but spared the worst, including the shellfish factory. Sea fog carries and spreads the rancid stench of imports processed a little too late. The factory ejects its waste even later. The noxious effluent is pushed up and down gullies by streams and tides in turn – as if both want to repel it.
It’s night time and starlit but dark enough for Torii’s black clothes and rudimentary charcoal and oil makeup to render most of her exposed skin invisible in shadow.
She’s still alive after nearly a week of hiding. One particular person yearns to stroll back into the company home while dangling Torii’s severed head from a hand and boasting about it to the mistresses and potential employers.
Torii is not popular. Intelligent and quick to learn she generates resentment and hatred among her fellow pupils. Whole gangs of would-be elites would love to torture and kill her.
Though she could as easily kill them, Torii knows better. She refuses to leave this world as damaged as it’s trying to make her. She won’t kill, won’t torture. Escape and evasion are all she has – and she’s good at both. Suicide is her most likely fate but not yet, not until the last moment when all possibility of hope is lost. She believes there may still be things to learn, even enjoy, in this otherwise nightmare life.
Poised, she loves the way tendons stretch in subtle movement. She’s perfectly balanced on a ruined wall, one of endless linked walls harbouring wrecked roofs and the sucking mud which flowed from the heights, filled the harbour and turned most lagoons into deadly mire – her safe places.
She can smell food, the usual trap for potential victims. Someone is cooking meat, though she can’t see any revealing glow of fire in the haze or fog. Torii moves upwind, deeper into the ghosted ruins. She’s confused. No one comes here, not even the boldest members of the gangs have dared venture so far into an area from which few return.
Her mouth waters; she trembles with hunger. Avoiding one gang meant flight and abandonment of the food she’d stocked up for this critical week of secrecy. She’s fugitive, furtive and desperate.
A zephyr caresses her face and brings the scent anew. She sniffs the air. There, upwind, silhouetted, the building with smooth stone walls and ruined tower stands on a low pinnacle. Her citadel, her private refuge, a place she’s decorated with images of the mother she can’t remember. On the pinnacle surrounded by thorny trees, somewhere behind the arched windows, someone is preparing a meal.
Mud slid over that fang of rock, tearing the building apart, but most flowed around either side; in bright sunlight it looks as if the pinnacle wears a smooth scarf.
Underfed for years but always intrepid, Torii’s desire for secret places has made her stealthy and athletic. A rat would make more noise if it followed her routes across broken masonry, the tops of roofless walls. She drops, crouching in an empty window, rocking on the sill.
Her secret way to the summit is undisturbed. Cobwebs and hair, carefully hung between twigs, have not been pushed aside or broken. She wonders how the person reached this desolate building.
Torii squeezes under thorns; they stop most people but never her. Scaling a buttress and hugging the spike of the ruined chimney, she studies the quadrangle. The person is easy to see as Torii knows this place intimately. A small person, hooded and cloaked, crouches over something from which blossoms smoke, rising and fading into invisibility before it reaches the curling mist.
In public Torii’s hair and skin mark her out as different, strange, a mutant, someone to mock and hate, but her eyes are unusual too. She can see in the dark better than anyone she knows. On a wall there’s a new painting among the murals of her dream mother. Moving over crumbling masonry to study the painting more clearly, Torii sees this portrait is better, more defined than her crude attempts with soot, chalk and fish oil. The person depicted looks older and stronger than the pictures Torii paints of a young victim trapped in a breeding initiative – a girl of Torii’s own age forced into pregnancy by a guild of cruel women. Exactly the sort of women who join, and are corrupted by, the gangs nurtured within company homes for children.
Awe and resentment make Torii hiss as she takes in the portrait created on stucco. Whoever painted it has uncommon skill. Torii seethes with jealousy – tinged with admiration.
The crouched figure looks round and lifts a knife. She’s younger than Torii and hunched, looking terrified.
She appears small and weak, things Torii has learned to assess. Easy prey, easy to kill, easy to rob, maybe easy to scare and dominate to use for a while.
The girl relaxes after glancing around the area with cautious movements. Torii waits for several silent breaths, creeps until above the girl – and drops, crouching, in front of her.
To her amazement the girl fails to look terrified. Instead she lifts the knife in one hand and a small one-handed crossbow in the other, the sacking covering dropping away. “I heard you all. Some of you will die, the others will be scarred. Some I will blind.”
Torii freezes, stunned, and leans back on the wall. For no reason she can understand, she laughs. Shaking her head and gathering thoughts, she asks, “Was it you who did that?” She nods at the new painting.
“I could kill you now!” The girl’s hissing words seem purely defensive. Torii feels no threat.
“Go ahead.” A weight presses on Torii’s soul. She buries her head in her hands. “But can I have some of your food first? I haven’t eaten for so long.”
The girl asks, “Are you going to kill me … rob me?”
Torii sees reflective skin and eyes – things she wishes she had. “Please, can I eat something? Please … oh please?”
The girl studies Torii, takes a stick from her tiny fire and holds it out. “I’m only cooking it little bit by little bit. I was trying not to be seen.”
Torri pushes the sliver of meat into her mouth, moans and cries, “More, please more.” She passes the stick back. “Oh…” The joy of eating and of gulping real meat overwhelms Torii. “Thank you … please … more.”
“I have some berries and another whole seagull. How many of you are there?”
“There’s just me, only me.” Torii rests her head against the wall behind. “There was only ever just me.” It comes out as a whisper. “I’m called Torii, for what it’s worth.”
The girl stares at her, wide eyes, mouth hanging open. Shaking herself she impales another strip of meat on the stick and holds it over embers. “I’m Soo. I did have a bigger name once, like you. Are you dangerous?” She digs in a pocket, her gaze never leaving Torii, tension undiminished. Holding out a hand, she says, “Berries.”
Soo’s generosity and confidence mixed with vulnerability – and her weapons – startle Torii. “Thank you, Soo.”
“There’s loads of meat and I can make new bolts to kill seagulls. I’m not very good at making them though. I can never get two to fly the same.”
Torri is unable to make sense of Soo’s tone. There’s a suggestion of something she can’t identify. Torii looks around the walls, at the temple she’s made, to distract her from a wave of confusion and unfamiliar emotions. Fury and despair swamp everything. She curls into a ball, jerking as tears erupt.
Soo’s hand pats Torri’s head, disturbing the scarf wrapped around it. “More meat,” Soo says. “Is that your? … your hair is black! How did you do it?”
Torri wipes tears into the ragged sleeves of her company home shirt. “My hair is black.” She lets Soo cope with that.
Torii pulls meat from the stick and pushes berries into her mouth. “Yes.”
“It’s black. There is no why.”
“All the time?”
Generosity and spontaneous unguarded speech present new experiences for Torii, things against which she has learned no coping mechanisms. She relaxes against the wall. “What are you?”
“You’re from the school, aren’t you? I want to go there.”
Torii watches as Soo cuts more raw meat from the seagull carcass and winds it around the stick. “So, we both want to know about each other. I think that’s scary.” Rule one in Torii’s world is never to give information about yourself. Anything can be used against you. She studies Soo and is unsettled by a confident openness she’s never come across before. Curious to see where it leads, Torii chooses only to give information Soo would learn anyway if she entered the company home. “All right, I’m an orphan sent to the cohome, school, as you call it. I’m fifteen, nearly sixteen, and waiting for my pay. I have so many debts…”
Soo freezes and stares at Torii. “They pay you? Please tell me everything.”
“Oh, Soo.” Torii sighs. “They pay but they take away more. We’re slaves like everyone else.”
“Do they teach you how to read and write?”
Torii splutters, a breath of warmth and humour tentatively invading her tone. “It’s a cohome! They teach you how to behave. They teach you how to believe the things they were taught to believe. They want control of everyone … total control of mind and body. If you behave, and survive the gangs, you may just learn a bit of reading and writing.” Torii feels a worm of doubt and hope inside her. “I can teach you all that. Numbers too.” She pauses, biting a lip. “Is that bit of meat for me?”
Soo twists the stick in flame, fat popping and spitting. “I need to go to school. My mum said.”
Torii gasps. “Your mum … you have a real mother?”
“Stop it!” Soo shouts, dropping the stick and scrambling to the nearest corner. She curls up, shaking with shuddering sobs.
Torii panics; she doesn’t want to waste food so she lifts the meat from scorching embers. She’s also terrified of approaching Soo and damaging the mysterious bond growing between them. “You … do you want this food?” Torii’s hand shakes with her own desperate need as she says it, “I can bring it to you.”
Soo sits up, stiff and pale, starlight glittering on tears. “My sister said that when she was hungry too!” She frowns. “You’re really hungry aren’t you?”
“I am … oh … can I have just a tiny bit?” Torii holds it at arm’s length, scrambling to Soo. “Quick! Take it. I don’t trust myself!”
Soo snatches the stick, struggling to unwrap the steaming meat and stuff it into Torii’s mouth, sweeping up the dribbling oil and guiding it between Torii’s lips. Soo giggles. “I’ve never seen anyone so hungry. Come back to the fire. I’m going to feed you till you burst!”
Torri found mushrooms after Soo told her what to look for. Soo collected more berries – there are no nearby seagulls to shoot. Still a little hungry but hidden and out of danger, they lie pressed side-by-side. Bright stars sometimes show through breeze-torn gaps in the fog and bestow their own peace and infinity on the tiny corner space safe from mud. Soo says, “This is like having a new sister. I like you.”
Torii cringes. “This has been a good night and a good meeting. I like you too, Soo.” She sighs. “You … you are special and so different to anyone I’ve ever known. This is like having a sister, like I imagine having one. Now I’ve had a sister for a moment. You can’t imagine what that means to me. I could die content now.”
Soo sniggers; she’s barely understood the lifelong loneliness behind Torii’s words but still feels something. “Not a moment! Please, can we be friends? Can you really teach me reading? I can do numbers a bit. Can I come to your school?”
After a deep sigh Torii says, “I think I can teach but I’ve never really tried. You do not want to come to the cohome. It’s why, one of the reasons, I want to escape or die or… I can’t stand it any more.” She puts a finger over Soo’s lips. “It’s supposed to be a good school. That’s what it claims but it’s a training place for moderators … not real mods but their subservients. Utterly awful … we’re taught to be … I can’t even say. It’s disgusting, the way they want me to behave.” Torii pushes her head into Soo’s shoulder. “I don’t want to be that bad for my whole life. I don’t want it!”
“Tell me more. Why are you dressed all in black? Why are your face and hands all covered in blackness? Are you a robber?” Soo waits for an answer but nothing comes. “Tell me about your mother.” She jumps at Torii’s answering wail.
“I don’t know my mother. She probably died! I’ll never know.” Torri leaps up and turns away, pressing her forehead to the wall.
Soo asks, “Who is in the paintings then? Did you do them?”
Torii struggles, not with Soo’s words but her tone, plaintive, tentative. She hits the wall, dust falls in whispering lines. “Yes! But I don’t know what she looked like,” her tone deepening to a growl of overwhelming fury.
Soo stands and hugs Torii from behind. A tight fierce hug. “Don’t be upset. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Torii has seen people being hugged but never experienced it. Every nerve shouts ‘danger!’ but she fights the impulse to strike out, to hurl Soo into deep mud and death. Instead she sinks down trembling and crying.
“I’m sorry … I’m so sorry. What did I say wrong?” Soo strokes Torii’s arm. “You’re cold. I’ll make a bigger fire. Is it safe?”
Torii breathes herself calm. “I think it’s more dangerous not to have one. This night is colder than ever. Try under that bit of roof. I’ve made fires there before and they are difficult to see because it’s the lowest. But there’s only a little space to lie down. The mud beside it is very deep.”
As Soo busies herself with spars of broken roofing, splinters and tinder, Torii looks up at a pall of thickening fog. “I’m planning to escape after they pay me but before anyone can take my money. I just don’t have anywhere to go. I want to be free – or dead.”
“You can be free if you’re a sailor.” Soo studies Torii. “But you have to be strong and know about ships.”
“First I need to survive until tomorrow. This is the end of final week. The senior girls who are leaving prey on juniors, taking money, forcing subservience agreements on them, even killing them. I’ve hidden. I hate to think what has happened to people but at least they haven’t got to me.”
Soo frowns, worried. She glances at Torii several times. “Is it dangerous all the time? Why don’t you have even a sword?”
Soo making fire without matches, teaching how to find food, talking of swords, hugging, Torii struggles to cope with all of this. Soo seems so young, so small, so capable, so confident. “Soo, what are you?”
“An orphan now. They hanged my mother and sister … and all the crew. But my mum made sure I never got caught.” She sobs as quietly as she can. “There was a fire on board. Some sails burned and we couldn’t get away fast enough.”
“Your mother was a pirate?” Torii struggles to keep the shock and contempt from her voice.
Soo rolls her eyes, and spits in fury. “I thought you went to school! Don’t you know anything?” She chips flint against a segment of horseshoe and waves her free hand over a pile of brown dust.
“I don’t know anything much.” Torii isn’t sure if she said that out loud but knows her lips moved. “It’s a cohome, Soo. I’m not sure what you mean by school though I’ve heard the word. They make us work, work so hard. Sometimes it’s making clay, sometimes doing things to shellfish. It’s all hard. It’s supposed to be a good place … but they don’t really teach us much. I think all they want to make is factory workers or people for mods. It’s the moderators in guilds who buy the most promising pupils.”
“Can you get me in?”
“You don’t want to go there.”
“I need to. Winter is coming and I’ll die without food!”
“Getting you in would be easy because I’ll be in my final year and can champion you … after tomorrow. Some of the mistresses like me even if no one else does. I could help … like I could get you past the girls waiting to trap newcomers as slaves and take them away.” Torii shudders. “There are some who just want heads still dripping blood.” Torii’s eyes flood. “Did I get sent to the wrong life or is everywhere like this?”
“You say things like my mother did.” Soo catches her breath. “Please get me into the school.”
“I will, Soo … but it’s not good in there and I won’t be able to protect you.” Torii cringes at her own words. “I get bullied. I’m weak. I just hide when I can.”
“Will you be my friend?”
Torii tries to wipe tears away but more come. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what you mean. You use the word friend like it’s something nice and not just the leader of a gang. Help me understand. Is it someone you can trust with secrets?” Torii shakes. “I don’t know.”
“My mum had friends … they all died with her.” Soo pauses, watching Torii. “Was that the wrong thing to say?”
“No, yes, I don’t know.”
Soo looks around, as if trying to see into fog. She asks, “Don’t you have any weapons at all?”
Torii straightens, arms stiff down her sides, fists clenched. “No … no weapons. I hate them!”
Soo stands and hugs Torii again. “It’s all right. I’ll look after you. I will, I will.” She snatches up her crossbow and knife. “Did you hear something?”
“Just then? Yes, there’s one person coming in this direction.” She nods to the west. “There are two or three more but they are far away,” she points south west and purses her lips for a moment, “going away from us. Soo … no one comes here. We’re in trouble. We must get out.” Torii jumps up ready to leap over a low wall. “This way, quick.”
Soo throws more wood on the fire. “No! Stay where you are. This will lure the one on her own.” She scurries into the dark and fog.
Torii feels confusion and humiliation. It has never occurred to her to fight back, only hide. She lifts a broken spar, and shudders at the thought of hurting someone with it – even an enemy. Waving the stick she thinks: What is a friend? I still don’t know what Soo means but it sounds so different to what I know. She’s a pirate! but I don’t seem to understand that either. I can learn so much from her, learn about the world I want to escape to.
Only one person would trail so far into the mud land to pursue Torii. One girl, desperate to become an assassin, needing a trophy head. Mara has bullied and taunted Torii as long as she can remember, formed whole cliques to acquire power over people in Torii’s dormitory. People who attack with needles at night, glue in hair, rats, alive or rotting, pushed among sheets. Torii has always been the tearful and cowering victim.
Mara has bet everything she possesses, wealth and credibility, on bringing Torii’s head back to the company home.
Banging the spar against a wall, Torii feels weak knowing Mara, who only has cruelty and hate in her otherwise empty soul, will want to inflict pain. Torii sobs and whispers, “Mara, I could be just like you … what does life do to us? How much torture have you suffered to be as you are?” She drops the stick and sits against the wall, head on her knees. “Kill me if you have to, Mara, however you want to. I can’t hurt even you.” Torii’s tears soak her cohome trousers. “Yes, kill me. I’ve just promised to help a girl into the school because … because I need to learn things she knows. It’s going to be years of torture for her. This makes me too evil to endure being myself.”
Flames rise until Torii panics they’ll be seen from far away. She smothers them with mud. Someone is very close and making a lot of noise. A voice hisses. “It’s me!” Soo creeps over to Torii’s side. “Here!”
In the light of struggling embers, something is thrust into Torii’s hand. “What? A bag of money? Why are you giving me this?”
“You’ll know somewhere good to hide it. We can share it. Wait, I need to clean this bolt. I lost the other one. I got a knife you can have too.” Soo dips the bolt into mud, flicks it off, turns and places the knife in Torii’s other hand. “It was hers.”
Torii stares at it. “It was mine first. Mara took it from me last year. What did you just do?”
“That’s a silly question.”
Torii hugs herself. “Yes, sorry.”
Soo sits, leaning her head on Torii’s shoulder. “I’ve thought of something. Can you get to Red River from here … I mean without going by sea?”
“I remembered there’s a place you can go to in the desert to collect special metal and sell it for money. You have to go to Red River first. One of the crew went for a while and came back with enough money to buy all sorts of things. She said it’s very dangerous and I think they probably don’t let children go. I think there are no bosses or mods.”
“The trenches! Yes, I’ve read about them in news sheets. I didn’t think of that because… She, your crew member, came back? So many people die though … not that that’s a huge problem for me now. I’ve more or less given up.”
“You can read news sheets? If you read them can you learn to read other things?”
“Once you learn to read you can read anything. Everything uses the same words.”
“Will you put your arm round me?” Soo presses against Torii.
“Yes, here. Like this?”
Soo nods. “You go to the trenches and write to me. If it’s all right there, will you come and get me when I’m old enough?”
“Is this like being friends? Is that the sort of thing they do?”
“Yes!” Soo chirps, “and they stay friends for ever and ever.”
“Soo, I need to learn from you about the world. In return I’ll teach you reading and writing and numbers. Tomorrow I’ll get you into the school. In a month or two I’ll claim my money, escape and come back for you as soon as I can. Watch out though; you don’t get all the letters people send to you, well I don’t. They’re often stolen before I see them. We’ll have to work out code words or people will know what’s happening.”
“This is like planning a course through treacherous shoals in bad weather!”
Torii draws a pencil and tattered pad from her trouser pocket. “It’s a plan and it starts now. Make some more light. It’s time to begin work on your reading and writing.”
©Gary Bonn, 2017
This is a precursor to the book Harsh Reality by Gary and Christy Bonn.