"...for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought of or dared to integrate into our lives...These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of self..." -- Joseph Campbell: "The Hero With A Thousand Faces"
~ * ~
Her dreams are of a tan and sandy silence, ringed round with flowers and rocks. She is dressed in white, flavored in cinnamon, as she sits on a softspoken rock and hums colorlessly to herself, one for sorrow, two for joy, plucking the petals of a rose that tastes like rue against her fingers, three for a girl, four for a boy, seeing the notes of her song skitter and dance around her, five for silver, six for gold, and she knows that it is not a rhyme for a flower but here it doesn't seem to matter (seven for a secret never to be told)...
She knows that something is wrong, with her, with her world, but she does not care. It is calm and quiet, here, and she has her flowers.
~ * ~
"What are you doing?"
"Listening to her dreams. They're ... beautiful."
~ * ~
And she is walking through a garden that tastes like the first bite of a peach after not having tasted one for years, each footfall sending up soft chimes of bells. The sunlight is quiet and dreamy on her skin, the fur of a kitten warm and soft from curling against its mother's body. She can feel each inch of her body arching into the sun's touch, like a lover, like a beloved, and she purrs contentedly; this, she thinks, may very well be paradise.
And she sees, in front of her, a tall archway, its limestone strong and quiet against the sun; it sounds like autumn, like the soft fall of ochre and sienna leaves, like the dark fingers of sakura branches reaching for a white and bloodless sky. She rests a hand against its side, closing her eyes to feel the warmth of the rock whispering to her. It tastes like broken promises, the disappointment of a lost phone call, the bitterness of knowing that your love is one-sided. She opens her eyes again and lifts her hand, unsurprised to find that the archway now leads into a mountain, broad stone steps skittering down into a dark and sleeping silence.
She plucks one of the white roses that embrace the side of the archway, stripping the thorns and tucking it artlessly behind one tiny, shapely ear, and begins her descent.
~ * ~
"What is she dreaming about?"
"I can't put into words. Dreams don't have words. They have senses." A pause; a turned head, a distant look as eyes unfocused, slipped further into her mind. "She's dreaming of stone, and roses."
~ * ~
By the first step, the archway behind her, with its warm and comforting sunlight, has disappeared; its loss was soundless, though not unexpected, and she is moving now more by the knowledge of what must be there than any visual cues. The air tastes like frankincense and myrrh, lavender and lemon-balm; she can feel the gentle breeze from below curling around her ankles, asking wordlessly for her to join it. It tastes like winter, and snowfall.
The breeze has always been her friend; that much she remembers. She remembers late afternoons of sakura petals and laughter, twirling in the grass until her skirts billowed along her knees, looking back over her shoulder and calling, giddily, to the man watching her; red hair, tall frame, gentle smile...
She can't remember his face, or his name. Maybe he'll be waiting for her when she reaches the bottom of the staircase.
~ * ~
"You shouldn't be in here, you know. It's not your place."
"Oh, but it is. She's not here; she's there. And that is my place. It always has been."
~ * ~
She leaves her name on the second step, prisoned in a tiny silver box barely large enough to contain the breath it needs to hold, resting abandoned behind one bare heel as she takes the next step into the darkness.
The third step claims her mother; every look, every touch, every lullabye ever crooned to the sleeping child. Ghostly hands reach out for her as she turns her back on the numen, but she takes the next step.
Distant and stern, yet always, always loving: the fourth step spins itself into an image of her father, whispers into a ghost and brushes a hand over her hair. She feels a stab of pain for a moment, and isn't sure why; surely her father has touched her like that before, has reached out in that casual and affectionate gesture. Surely he will do so again. But the pain curls around the ghost, and she leaves them both behind her, and moves on.
On the fifth step she stops, frowning lightly into the darkness that is darkness and yet not darkness; there are tears on her face, and she does not know why. She brushes them lightly away, and they fall to the ground with the soft ringing noise of diamond hitting stone. She leaves them there, behind her, and takes the next step.
She pauses again on the sixth step; the breeze has reached her knees now, tugging at her, demanding. Her brow furrows as she peers beneath her, into the inky fingers of darkness. One hand lifts to her left earlobe, and she twists her fingers; the simple gold earring that rests there parts, and she dips her knees to lay it as offering on the chilled stone. Part of her resists opening her fingers and straightening up again to leave it there; part of her is already looking towards the next step.
And on the seventh step she knows that she is almost there, but that she carries too much with her; she knows that she is not yet there, that she can not yet continue. The breeze twists beneath her skirts and lifts them up; she shakes back her long mane of hair and raises her arms, to the ceiling, to the sky. The breeze strips her thin white chemise from her body, taking the rest of who she is with it.
~ * ~
"Don't you have better things to do than sit here like a demented stalker?"
"Not really, no. I can't think of anything more important than this."
~ * ~
It only takes a moment for her to realize that she is standing in a cave, a cavern; its walls whisper secrets to her as she gazes around her, though she cannot quite hear or understand. Her eyes have adjusted to the not-light by now -- or perhaps it is just that the light has adjusted to her eyes, or perhaps she is not seeing with her eyes after all.
Her feet are solid on the bridge of stone beneath her; the cavern has been made by the passage of a river, inky black water skimming beneath the bridge and disappearing off into the distance. She frowns a little as she realizes this: surely, the river should be making noise? But it is not; it simply smells like forgetfulness, like sleep, like the blessed calm that comes from having nothing to do and all the world of time to do it in. She is tempted, briefly, to dip her hand into that water and feel its grey and anasthetic touch, but the impulse passes without being followed, and she moves on.
The other side of the bridge leads to another passage in the dark, dank wall; she steps into that, and the river is gone before her, as if it never were.
For a moment, she wonders if her world was always like this, this detached and distant dream-walking. It seems like it always has been, that she has always been here, that she will always be here, that this is her forever and ever world without end amen; but that thought too passes, and on she walks.
~ * ~
"Will you stop smiling like that?"
"Probably not, no. Dreams are so intense. When you're dreaming, you don't have any of the normal things that distract you when you're awake. You just feel. It's fascinating."
~ * ~
"Where did you come from, girl?"
The voice is as unexpected as it is ugly, intruding into her reverie; she whirls to look behind her, to find an archway in the cavern she travels, an archway that was not there a moment ago. The woman who stands there is old and withered, ash-white skin wrinkled and faded, wiry white hair flying loose like it has a mind of its own.
She opens her mouth to respond, but finds that she has no voice; helpless, she can only gesture.
The woman nods. "Left your voice for the stair, didn't you. Well, then, there's something to be done about that. Come with me." Decisively, the woman turns and hobbles her way, with the aid of a cane, into a room lit by the flicker of lamps and candles. Helplessly, the girl follows, looking around her with a distant curiosity; the shelves, made of wood and metal, hold what seem to be thousands of jars and bags. Most of them appear to be empty.
"Here; wrap yourself in this." The woman hands over a blanket, warm colorless wool; the girl takes it, and after a moment of looking at it dumbly, winds it around her body. It feels soft and gentle, like a lover's touch, and she only then realizes that she had been shivering with the cold. She gestures her thanks with a low bow, even as the wrap winds her into its protective embrace.
"No need for thanks. There are many travelers that wander through my realm, here in the sunless sea; most of them are in need of a little warmth. Now, let's see what we can do about the other problem." The woman turns around and pokes at one of the shelves. "Ah, yes. I can offer you this." She stands on tiptoe, fetching down one of the empty jars. "But here, nothing but the warmth comes free."
But I have nothing left, the girl thinks, her eyes registering her alarm.
The woman smiles; either she can hear, or she simply knows what the next statement would be. "Oh, but you do. I will give you voice to speak three times in this world, girl, but in exchange you must give me the tears you left behind you. You will not receive them back if you make it to the other side, though no doubt you will find others once you leave."
The girl considers this for a moment. She remembers sorrow, vaguely: the memory of smoke and nothingness, of swords against the heart, of emptiness and pain. But it is a distant memory, a copy of a copy of a copy long since faded and water-stained, and the bargain seems no bad one, to lose that.
And before she can stop herself, before she even pauses to consider what she is doing, she nods.
The woman nods, decisively. "Very well, then. For the time you are here, you will be known as Kanashimi, for what I have taken from you. Come here, girl." And the girl does, bare feet whispering over rough stone that seems barely unable to contain its joy at the bargain that has been driven. The woman opens the jar, and everything seems to go dark and pale all at once.
When her eyes open again, she is lying, curled in a tight ball, on a pallet that had not existed a moment before; the candles of the cavern sputter and jump with her first exhaled breath, and the woman turns. "Ah, I see you're awake. Don't talk, girl; you'll only waste your bargain. You must go; you've been here for too long, and if you stay any longer, your eyes will lose the ability to see the darkness."
The girl nods, testing her legs beneath her and finding them steady; she rises, still wrapped in the safety of wool, and bows again. And then, again before she realizes what she is doing, opens her mouth and lets the words fall. "I thank you."
Her voice is ugly, rasping, and not at all like the melody she remembers in her own ears; it cuts at her throat, razors and ribbons, but it does not bring pain. The woman makes a little tsking sound. "That's one," she says, almost sternly. "Two left." And yet the girl gets the impression that she is pleased. "No thanks necessary, but since you had the manners to offer them, I will tell you this. You will not lose the way if you always move only forward, even when you think that there is no way visible. Remember that, and go with my blessing."
~ * ~
"Well, I certainly didn't expect to come in here and find you playing with her."
"I'm not playing. I wouldn't play, not with her like this; it would be like smashing some small piece of exquisite sculpture, just because you felt like destroying something. Satisfying for the moment, but on the whole, pointless."
~ * ~
She is still in the cave, in the darkness; the soft cloth against her skin deadens the whisper of the walls, muting it to an almost-bearable hum in the back of her skull. She looks down as she walks, placing her bare and slender feet carefully on the loose pebbles and rocks that have sprung to disturb her way.
In the distance, she can see the faintest flickers of light, like the dawn painting its way across the blackness of night, fighting against the nothingness with its rose and violet. It calls to her, silently, not with the twisted cadence that the walls are using but with a purity of song that is felt rather than heard. It is not difficult to follow that siren; in fact, she finds that her feet are already moving towards it.
She stops when she comes up against a chasm, spreading out in front of her, deep and ugly gash against the rock offering no way to cross. The dawn is close now: close enough for her to smell it, the promise of spring just barely hinted at on the still air.
"Where did you come from, girl?"
Once more, a voice interrupts her from behind; this one is low and seductive, the purr of a lover, a beloved. She turns, though something inside her stops her from taking a step towards the sound; lounging against the wall of the cavern, behind her, is the most beautiful woman she has ever seen. Her hair is blonde and loose, falling around her shoulders in a golden aura; her skin is bronzed from the sun, her eyes green and cat-slitted. She opens her mouth to speak, and remembers, just in time, the conditions of having been given voice; she closes her mouth again, and just shakes her head.
"No voice, eh? Well, that's no problem. We can understand each other just fine, now can't we?" Her lips round in a smile, and she bows, deeply, to her. "I suppose you've been to see the crone already, and she's worked some kind of magic over you. What did she trade you, and what price did she ask, I wonder. Ah, but no mind. I can take you to the other side of the chasm, girl; I would be glad to help. I won't even ask a price for my assistance like she does." She holds out a hand, using the other to gesture behind her to where another set of steps stretch downward into the abyss. "Will you let me escort you?"
The offer is tempting, and she looks down at her hand; she reaches out to take it --
"You will not lose the way if you always move only forward, even when you think that there is no way visible."
-- and stops, shaking her head regretfully. With nothing save gestures and facial expressions, she attempts to convey her thanks for the offer, but that she must refuse. Her face twists a little, and she draws back; the expression on her face reminds her, for a fleeting second, of someone who would count cruelty as kindness, and dispense them both with a distant hand.
Before she can think twice, she whirls around, facing the chasm, and steps off the edge. Somehow, she is not surprised to find that the air beneath her bears her weight.
~ * ~
"I wouldn't have expected that from you."
"I'm more than capable of appreciating beauty as much as the next man. Now be quiet or go away; you're distracting me."
~ * ~
The room on the other side of the abyss is pale grey slate, warm with a light that she cannot find a source for. It is only that: a room, and nothing more. As she steps into it, the door behind her becomes nothing more than a crack in the wall; she blinks, and it is no longer even that.
She turns, slowly, in space, looking around her with quiet, accepting eyes; perhaps she should have taken the offer of aid after all, she thinks, and wonders if she has been lost here.
She narrows her eyes and gazes at the other wall, stepping close to inspect it. With that step, she realizes it is the process of the door's fading in reverse; she blinks, and there is a crack in the wall, blinks again and it forms itself into a doorway, the slate door closed and smooth, with no handle or keyhole but a smooth hole at eye-level in the wall beside it. She takes a moment to wait, to see if whatever mysterious force is shaping her journey shall aid her further, but nothing more happens.
A key, then. She needs a key, and has no idea what that key might be. She does not know how to access any of that part of herself that was left behind, to pay in the coin that seems so prevalent in this realm.
The garment that she wears has, at some point unnoticed to her, wrapped itself around her and flowed into a single, cohesive whole; it embraces her, tightly, like a second skin, with no sign of where it had been tucked and arranged into a wrap from a blanket. Her fingers fumble for a seam, and cannot find one; that, then, cannot be the key.
There is only one thing left to her, and that is the rose that she tucked behind her ear; she lifts her fingers to it, startled to find that it is still there. In this alien landscape, she would not have been surprised to find it had turned to a frog, or a necklace, or a golden ball. She plucks it loose, carefully unthreading it from the strands of hair that have wound around it, and reaches up to place it into the smooth hollow that waits for the key.
Nothing happens, and she swallows her disappointment; but the room seems to take on a sense of waiting, of anticipation, of that building tension when one party to a conversation is waiting on input from the other. She waits a moment more, just to be certain that she is not being foolish.
Foolish perhaps she might be, but she clears her throat and says, in that barbed-wire voice that is not her own, "Pardon me, Door-sama, but if it's not too much trouble, could you let me through?" And foolish perhaps she might be; but if she is, then the door is just as foolish, for it opens, even as the body of the rose turns to ash and dust.
~ * ~
"Just one warning. Don't get too attached. We're most likely going to have to kill her, you know -- or turn her over to be killed, which is much the same thing."
"I know. You don't need to worry about me; I'll do what I need to do, when I need to do it. And I'll do it gladly. But until then, I'm going to sit and listen."
~ * ~
There are two people in the room into which she steps, both of them on a dark grey slab of the stone that her entire world seems to be built of. A redheaded man, who seems familiar yet alien at the same time -- slender, foreign, with large blue eyes partially slitted closed and a dreamy smile of pleasure on his face -- is sitting sideways on that slab, with the body of a girl held closely to him. She is limp, but not lifeless; the pale chest rises and falls, steadily, beneath the thin nightgown she wears, and the ends of two black braids brush up against her skin. The man is holding her almost as a lover would hold his beloved; she is gathered close to him, head pillowed on his thin but strong shoulder, and both of his arms are wrapped around her. The fingers on one of his hands strokes her throat, idly, the touch a whispered caress.
The girl stops in her tracks in realization, as she feels those fingers on her own throat, and she realizes with a mounting horror that this is her lying there, limp and pale and languid, unmoving, unseeing, unknowing, and there are hands on her body and she can feelthem...
"You've come to find yourself." The thin, nasal voice of the man reaches out for her, closing the distance between her dream-self and her real self, its touch somehow more disturbing than the ghostly hands that she can still feel. "It's a noble goal, liebchen, but it's not time yet. You have to sleep for a little while longer, and then the sleep will all be over. It won't hurt, not in the least, and then all your pretty dreams will be all that you need."
She reaches out but cannot move, pinned there by more than the weight of his gaze. He only smiles a little more. "Don't struggle, liebchen. It won't hurt. We've got you now, and we'll take care of you. It will all be over soon, and there won't be any struggle anymore. Just the sleep, and the forgetting. I will watch over you until then."
But that is what scares her -- not the silence, not the darkness, not the caverns, but this pale and terrifying gaze, watching her with the lover's eyes and the knowledge of her. She cries out before she even knows what she is doing, the words torn from her lips: "No, please --" But she chokes on the sob that is rising in her breast, and by the time she has caught herself, she cannot speak further; those two words have used her last bit of grace, and she is drawn back down into the silent dreaming space, dream-self and aspect melding into one, unable to protest as he pulls her closer.
"It's all right, liebchen. Don't struggle. I will watch over you until it's time, and then there will be no more waking. I don't lie."
She cries, silently, against his shoulder, but there is nowhere for her to go. Her shoulders shake with the sobs, but there are no tears. Those have been left behind her.
Kanashimi = Japanese for "sorrow", at least according to my dictionary.
The astute reader will notice certain Jungian symbolism here. For a better look at it, I strongly reccommend Joseph Campbell's "Hero With a Thousand Faces", an excellent book.
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