I really hated snakes, and the snakes themselves weren’t the worst part. The snake-woman would, every time she saw me, show me her stained, cracked teeth, which she used to bite the heads off the snake, as if it were a piece of foreign, tube-shaped piece of some sort of meat a rich merchant once brought in.
As if that was the worst part.
Now Dai loomed above me, huge and tall, just true to his name. He had a name that was related to none of his colors. His skin was brown, one of the common colors. And he had his head and face all shaved and always wore a long robe even when it was too hot, but I knew, from a few occasions when he let us see his body hairs, that his hair was a bright, reddish pink of peach flower. I’d once heard that his father had been a warrior, so I guess his parents didn’t want to name him Peach or something of the sort. His eyes were the color of pomegranate, only another choice of fruit/flower name.
And really, none of this was important, except that he was huge like his name. He raised his meaty hand, and I stood there rigid, a cloth between my teeth, trying, but never managing, to be prepared for the blow.
The blow landed in full, and the next thing I knew the ground hit my other cheek. Both cheeks burnt and I curled like a puppy, whimpering like a puppy. And this was only the first blow this month yet.
“Pick up your cloth and stand,” Dai demanded.
I swore many times, loudly, and the only reason I could stand all this about Dai was that he didn’t mind my swearing. I said something about hoping he would die, and I meant it, and he didn’t seem to care. He motioned for me to hurry and get ready for the next blow. I stuffed the dirty cloth into my mouth and stood in front of him.
Again and again.
Half an hour later Dai was satisfied with hitting me; or more accurately, he was happy with the results of his hitting me, showing on my face and arms. My original skin color was one of the commonest ones, pale and vulnerable to any sort of damage including strong sunlight. But when it was hit, it showed the craziest color spectra. Blue to green, yellow to pink to purple, all weaving pointless patterns all over my skin. Later, when they were half-way healed, the bruises would look like golden needles. Caramelised frost crystals.
I sighed, my face and lips about to swell. “I’ll be in my booth, get ready for the visitors.”
“Yes.” Dai rubbed at his jaw, probably checking for his peach-flower stubbles. “Wear the silver dress. This time the colors are a little weak.”
I went back to one of the staff’s tents. Everything on me hurt, but I didn’t know how to live without being hit by Dai and showing my stupid bruises to stupid visitors. From the closet I pulled a foreign-style dress, one of the things Dai the Freak-Show Hut owner had bought for me a few years ago.
And I never seemed to outgrow it.
Being an orphan, and one with the commonest of the common colors, had never been easy. Many of my old friends found decent jobs in the end, most of them companions for sight-seers from abroad, or some of them, at the very least, shop assistants. Moe with her hair the green of early summer greens, too bright and too rich for the eye, worked at a wig shop, the last time I heard. Tsuyu, his eyes the color of Asiatic dayflower, attracted customers to his eyewear shop. Shino’s skin was the color of pre-dawn sky, and she stood in a kimono shop like a mannequin for simple, no-pattern, no-embroidery garments, for her skin was a little too complicated for more exquisite ones.
And, really, me. My skin pale-pink at first sight, hair and eyes dull brownish grey. True, if you were careful, you might notice my eyes emit blue-green schiller, but that was like only when you looked from one and only perfect angle, which was close to never. When I was twelve and kicked out from the temple which cared for smaller children, I knew the only ways for me to survive was to become a thief, or to sell my body.
Almost naturally I chose to become a thief, but I’d always been clumsy, and so just as naturally, one night got caught. It was a lean, tall man with bulging moon-gold eyes, and that was all I could remember about the man. He hit me once, twice, across my face. The pain dimmed the world. I was somewhere between conscious and unconscious. The man grabbed at my collars and tore them apart, muttering, “You filthy dog — ”
Funny how he wanted to touch a filthy dog.
I was conscious and unconscious, too weak to do anything. But I knew, if I let him have his way into me, I would shatter to the point where I would never recover. In many ways. I was thirteen, and even a lean man like him was too big for me. I wouldn’t survive this, even if I survived just this one minute.
But then something much, much bigger came into the scene. The thing hauled the man away from me. I looked up, into those pomegranate eyes.
The huge, huge guy grinned, as the lean man yelped away from us. He produced a small mirror from his bosom — it was so strange, a huge man like him carrying a woman’s mirror.
What I saw in the mirror was my cheeks blooming in crazy gradations.
“Come with me,” the huge man said, and of course, that was why I’d never run away from him.
The silver dress’s hem was just a little above my knees. My legs had been whipped a few weeks back, and the scars were now golden needles. I went into the Freak Show Hut, this month stopping at a shrine near a relatively large town, and let myself into one of the small booths, thinking of how to exhibit myself.
Baba the three-limbed woman talked to me from the next booth. She wasn’t actually three-limbed, just one leg was too deformed to work properly as a limb. “You should shackle yourself,” she said, chuckling. “Will look sexy.”
I sighed. I was seventeen by now, and though I couldn’t seem to grow much (probably from too much hitting) my body curved like a woman, at least much more so than Baba herself. “Do we have shackles?” I asked her.
She chuckled some more, disappeared into the back. Baba had black-diamond eyes, starling-silver hair and seven-color skin that shimmered like rainbow. People wanted to experiment with her colors on a genetic level, and what they got was those extraordinary ones she had, as well as her deformity. Funny how they didn’t like the latter result they themselves had created, so much so that they had to drop her at a dump.
Baba came back with a thick rope. She tied me to one of the bars of the cage-like wall of the booth. “Look sexy,” she said between her chuckles, and went back into her own booth, dragging her useless leg.
I leant onto the bar, trying to look weak, look helpless, making sure my face, arms and legs showed well. I wondered if this was any different from the way I so much hated to live, when I’d got kicked out to live on my own.
“Snake blood for your medicine?” the snake woman grinned wide as she asked. Her features were something you’d call beautiful, but she had black hair, black eyes without whites, as well as black lips and nails, and some said she looked like the worst ghost. Some said she first bit into a snake to avoid men who wanted to have her.
I grunted. “Some ice would do. And I don’t want my bruises to fade so quickly, anyway.”
“At least people come to see you for your beauty, no matter how swollen your face is!”
“True.” I grunt-laughed, popped some rice into my mouth and chewed. “Do you know how long we will stay in this region? I have to control my healing speed, if I can,” I added, my mouth still half-full.
Our dining area was set in the store-room tent, the low table placed amongst jars of jewel-colored eyeballs, and a skeleton of transparent bones. Stuffed foreign animals were stacked in the corner, because they didn’t attract the sight-seers.
“Better be more than a few weeks. My back still hurts from the last travelling.” The crow-speaker joined the table. Like Snake, Crow’s colors were mostly black, and his skin was grey with patterns like crack crawling all over. His shoulder blades protruded, just deformity like Baba’s and not “growing wings,” and his bird wasn’t a crow. It was some speaking sort of bird from abroad, he only insisted it was a crow that could speak.
After that, we ate in silence. Until Dai came in to find me. “Hai,” my name almost drowned in his sigh. “We have to talk.”
When he saw I wasn’t going to leave the table, he sighed but came to sit beside me. “We have a customer who wants to have a look at you personally.”
I put a piece of pickled radish into my mouth and munched noisily. When I had swallowed, I said, “You know I wouldn’t take ‘personal’ customers.”
“I know, and I told her that. She says she just wants to examine you more closely, and thoroughly. She says she’s a jewelry designer and wants inspiration.”
I laughed at the word; it seemed like the last thing we had to offer an artist: inspiration.
“She’ll pay us a lot if you accept this. Perhaps we could have a season off.”
“Or at least we could afford a more comfortable van?” Crow cut in, but his grin faded as soon as Dai cast a glance at him.
“She said she wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, though I’m not sure how far promises go with artists.”
“Well, if she’s a designer what she’d do wouldn’t hurt me as bad as what you do to me every month.” I meant it to be a joke, but Dai didn’t seem to find it funny at all. He stared at me for some time, and looked at my dish of pickles. I quickly scooped them up, into my mouth. “Perhaps I should talk to her and figure out what she is,” I said, mouth full.
“Yeah. Okay.” Dai stood up, and without looking at any of us, left us behind.
Dai brought the woman to me a few days later. At first sight I knew she was a foreigner, with her unfamiliar features, and her colors all common ones yet suiting her well. Her eyes were the same honey of her hair, but they didn’t seem to have any schiller effect. I should have known; an artist who’d be interested in our colors, with such a big amount of money to spend on it, was always a foreigner.
I bowed low to her. She smiled, tilted her head, her wavy hair moving slightly. I saw strange, sesame-oil gold streaks in her hair, and suspected she might have dyed it that way.
“Hai, your name, I heard.” Her pronunciation of our language was pretty good, though the intonation still had that strange, song-like rhythm to it. “Nice to see you again.”
I didn’t remember seeing her. “You, too, ma’am,” I said anyway.
After that, the artist talked like a profuse river that had been stopped at a bank and then suddenly released. She did give me her name, but I couldn’t pronounce it, and I settled with “ma’am.” She chattered on how she liked this country, the people with their beautiful colors, how everything inspired her, without stammering once. I didn’t like her particularly, but the way she talked on made me smile sometimes. I decided she was an okay person.
So later I talked to Dai, said, “Let’s take her offer and get the vacation, or the nicer van, or whatever.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. She just needs sketches of the process of my healing, right? What’s there to lose for that?”
Dai shook his enormous head. “I’ve heard people doing nasty things to learn the secret of our colors.”
“Like they done to Baba?”
I shook my own head and tapped his upper arm with my knuckle. “Baba was a helpless egg when they tampered with her. I’ll just run at first hint of nastiness.”
He still seemed uncertain, but after a moment, nodded.
So the next morning, I found myself at the lobby of the finest hotel in the region. A young man wearing a strange cap — which didn’t seem to serve any other purpose than looking ridiculous — volunteered to take me to the artist’s room. He had a foreign accent and all his colors were very common ones, but his features looked like ours, and when I commented on it he smiled and said, “My parents were from this island, taken to a country afar from here, where I was born. Seems like the magic can’t cross the border, for some reason.”
I frowned, not knowing what to say. But then we were standing in front of a door, and he was knocking on it.
The artist herself came to answer. “Hai, come in. How would you like some tea?”
The tea had a different color than our usual one, and I couldn’t decide if I liked its bitterness or not. The confections she let me have were good, and when I was discussing in my head whether to sneak a few pieces for the Hut’s members, she looked up and said, “You can take the rest home with you, of course.”
I felt my cheeks burn.
The artist muttered something in her own tongue, set down her cup and walked round to my side. “You blush and the colors get even more beautiful!”
“You didn’t know? You should spend more time looking at yourself, really.”
She produced a small sketch pad and started sketching fiercely. I stole a glance, and could just see a rough outlines of my face and many words in her language. I stiffened, not knowing how to react to this, but relaxed as soon as I realized she didn’t mind whatever pose I was in as long as she could see the colors on my face.
Fifteen minutes or so later she moved on to other parts of me. “You want to see me naked?” I asked.
“You don’t mind?”
“Sure. What would a freak-show girl want to hide?”
“You shouldn’t talk like that.”
“Why not?” I stripped off my undergarment. “This whole island is a huge, huge freak show, isn’t it?”
The artist didn’t answer this, and went on drawing me. Today my bruises were just a little healed, the borderline of each color slightly blurring. She turned my arms around, asked me to wiggle my toes.
By the end of the daylight she looked pleased and said, “Come back in…two days? Do you think the bruises will have healed a little further by then?”
I said yes, and promised to come back in two days.
The Freak Show members asked me how it went, to which I answered by shrugging.
“She didn’t do anything that hurt, did she? Or did she?” For the first time, Snake looked worried.
“No.” I almost laughed at her unusual tone. “She just drew me. She didn’t even touch me too much.”
“Dai had been worried for nothing, then,” Baba said. “When she pays, we’ll treat you like a princess, for a few days.”
“A few days?”
Everyone laughed. Crow chuckled on a little longer and then said, “Sure, we’ll make you a crown with flowers of colors that suit you when your skin is healed. And we’ll bow and sing for you.”
I shook my head, grinning.
When I went back to the artist’s hotel room two days later, my cheeks and forearms already had the golden needles. The artist asked me if I made them by scratching, and I said no, they just came out this way.
“Wonderful,” she said, cupping my cheeks with her jeweled hands. All the fingers had at least one ring on, and all shimmered like a distant river.
“Aren’t they heavy?”
“Oh, of course they are. But we aren’t fortunate like you and we have to wear them to shine.”
“What do you mean, fortunate?”
She slowly released my cheeks. Then said, “Rutile.”
“The needles. I’ll use rutile quartz for them.”
I frowned, but she took my hand and led me to a sofa beside the window. There she even tried seeing if my arms were translucent, holding them over in the sunlight. Silly; who could see through a solid human.
Two days later I went back to her, and another two days after that, and on and on. By the time my bruises had mostly healed, she seemed to have got some idea of her new design, so on the final day of our meeting we just chatted over her strange tea.
“I’m almost done with my new design. Would you like to see it?”
I wasn’t sure if I did, but nodded, just to be polite.
The artist woman retrieved a large, heavy-looking sketchbook from a shelf and opened it in front of me.
At first I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing. The page in front of me was all but a blurry gradation of colors. But when the first shock passed I could see, at the center of it all, a model, who looked a lot like me. I was sure, at that moment, my cheeks turned very red.
“Don’t you think this is beautiful?” the artist said when I looked up at her. I nodded, using the gesture to look back down on it. Yes, the colors were beautiful. The stones were very deliberately arranged, and what had looked crazy on my skin was now, on this sketchbook, a mass of colors that was alive, that had purposes. But…
The model had a sort of head-gear that made colorful stones hover around the face. The eyes looked like opal, and I could guess this was one of the strange, tiny lenses some people bought at Tsuyu’s eyewear shop.
Over the torso of the model, over her simple dress, was draped a cape-like thingy, densely yet delicately strung with those stones of countless colors. At the front, I could see slightly darker stones aligned as to probably indicate collars of our traditional robes. On the wrists were flowing cuff-like bracelets, made with wire and lined with stones with weaker and yellower colors. Thinner wires like vines drew upwards to just short of elbow, writhing and winding, and there, golden stones with needles trapped inside shimmered like painful dews. I could see that every color was neatly placed in such a way that no color came next to the same color, while on the whole everything built up the gradation imagery.
“These stones are mostly fluorite; they aren’t exactly what you’d call ‘precious’ stones, but they look just like your bruised skin, don’t they?” she said, pointing at the cape costume. “And these.” Her finger slid down to the model’s stockings. “Will be made of gold thread, knitted and woven in many different ways to depict your half-healed skin.”
I stared on at the picture. Jewelry and other luxuries as such had never been my — our — thing, but nevertheless, this whole thing looked ridiculous. This strange costume looked like “the way foreigners would think of us,” exotic to them but meaningless to us; she didn’t seem to even understand that we had a rule for the way collars were folded one over another.
The artist giggled and held my shoulder. “This is for becoming you.”
Me? Becoming me? “But…is this — structure — even possible?”
“Of course! It’s bound to be rather heavy, but it’s a price for wanting what we don’t have, isn’t it?”
I felt my face flush; why would she keep saying that? “We didn’t want these colors in the first place, you know?”
“Oh, but how could that be so?” She tilted her head, her eyes slanting, genuinely confused. “You are so beautiful!”
“Okay, thanks, but that beauty only comes from beating me, you see? It hurts, but that’s how we get by. If I could help it, I would’ve chosen a life without bruises.”
“Well…but…” She looked down on her own sketch. “Sorry, I’m just an artist, I understand only beauty.”
“But even that!” I knew, probably, I should have stopped here, or before. But I couldn’t. “Before you foreigners came, we didn’t even know our colors were different from others’. Before you came, no one had trouble finding a job without worrying about our colors. Before you came, no one put anyone above anyone only because of the colors!”
The last few words came out much louder and hoarser than I intended, and it made her — the older, taller, and of course, higher one — flinch. I thought she might cry, but she didn’t. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean any offense.”
I shook my head, suddenly really, really weary. “No, sorry. Like I said, this is a country-size freak show. We feed on you, and you feed on us. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m sorry.”
She seemed at a loss what to do for one moment, but then, touched my almost-healed forearm and said, “I have something for you.”
Embarrassed but unable to avert my eyes, I said, “You do?”
“Yes. Give me one moment.”
She went to the small chest beside the bed, and came back to me with a glass vial in her hand. “You see, obviously, we know magic you don’t,” she said, but flinched when she saw me frown. “Uh. Sorry. Anyway. I asked around among wizards and witches. And finally reached a conclusion about this.”
“And this is?”
She flashed the same, radiating smile that she had when she saw me with my bruises still very vivid. “Fixative!”
“Fixative. A magical one, of course. It’s used to stabilize the colors on artwork. We usually spray these magical ones on something we want to paint, because it preserves the real colors better than photographs. But after some research, we believe that, by drinking it, you can have your extraordinary skin colors preserved!”
“W-what?” I stammered out, but didn’t protest when she made me hold the vial. “Just…like that?”
“Yes, I talked to high-rank wizards and witches, so it’s bound to be true!”
Could it be true? If it could… “I don’t have to be beaten again?”
“Well, you have to, once. To get the colors onto the surface that you want to preserve. But after that, no, you will never have to bear with that guy’s beating anymore!”
I looked up at her honey eyes, and back down at the vial. The vial itself, and the liquid inside, both were plain clear, with no color, no tinge to it. Might as well be just water.
“Keep it.” The artist closed my fingers around the vial, holding my hand as if it — my hand — were something very special. “Use it well. It’s my personal thank-you. The payment has been already made this morning. Thank you.”
I nodded and bowed low, clutching the vial tight to my chest.
I ran back to the Hut. Dai was leaning on the shrine’s gate when I found him, waiting for me.
“We got the money.” He smiled down at me. “You can have a month of no pain.”
But I shook my head. “Give me the bruises, just one last time!”
I shook the vial in front of his face and explained what it was. When he’d heard me out, he said, “But I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be something we know of. They even pray to different gods, you see? Perhaps they know things we don’t. They must! And they even spray this onto animals to bring home the colors, so it must be safe to humans, too.”
Dai still seemed uncertain.
“Besides,” I said, impatient, “what’s there to lose even if it doesn’t work? I’d only get extra pains, not you.”
He grunted. I knew his hand hurt when he struck me as well, and he hated beating me as much as I hated him beating me, but for now, I decided to take advantage.
Dai rubbed at his peach stubbles on his brow. “At least, you should wait till you are fully healed of the last bruises.”
“It’s almost fully healed.” I nearly begged. “Please!”
He sighed. But then led me to the back of the shrine, and told me to put my biting cloth into my mouth.
The next few minutes were all a blur. Like Dai had been concerned, it was the first time I ever got struck while there were still more than a few golden needles. It hurt like hell, and I had to lie down for a few hours afterwards.
Meanwhile, my co-workers came to visit the makeshift medical ward of the van. Baba and Snake came and placed a flower crown beside my head. Crow came with his bird, and the bird repeatedly tweeted “Hail Hai! Hail Hai!”
I laughed weakly. They smiled back at me.
When I was just a little more recovered, I went to kneel in front of the mirror. Yes, it hurt like hell, but it was worth it; my bruises were the most vivid and beautiful ever. I sighed with joy and excitement at my own reflection. The needles were still there, along with other colors and patterns. I looked like the best mosaic I’d ever seen. Perhaps I could be the highlight of the Hut. Perhaps I could even find a better job.
As if a better job than at a freak show even existed on this island.
I pulled the vial out of my bosom, and drained the content in one go.
It tasted slightly bitter and weird, and I almost coughed out some, before forcing my mouth shut. Only after I had swallowed it all I let myself cough, again and again. My chest still weary, I looked myself in the mirror.
The faint lines between colors seemed to shimmer. Oh, would I even get glows? Feeling almost drunk — perhaps the liquid did contain some alcohol — I giggled at the new pattern woven by the light-ish thing. The shimmer seemed to come from within me; how could I have held something so glorious hidden within me?
But then —
I found something new happening on my skin, and squinted. From where the light seeped out, something — something very much like cracks — ran, over all the colors. I looked away from the mirror and then down at my own skin, only to find the cracks getting worse and worse.
And then —
Without a sound, all the cracks exploded. Like paint on an old oil painting, or bark on a dry, dead branch, the colors peeled off me. Beneath my colorful skin, a black appeared. A black of wet feather of the crow. Darker, deeper, more hopeless black than anyone’s. Even through my grey hair the same color ran down, making me wholly wet-feather black.
I screamed. When my lungs could no longer give me enough air, I looked down at my skin, up at my reflection in the mirror, in turns, so many times. Nothing changed.
Nothing further happened.
At some point, hearing my screams the Hut’s members came into the van. Crow and Snake. Baba wasn’t fast enough. I shrunk into a shadowed corner, unable to face my co-workers in this state.
Crow hunched down over my peeled skin. “What happened here?”
“Look.” Snake pointed at my crumpled futon. “Someone must have been sleeping here. But who?”
What did she just say?
“I don’t know. Baba was with us at the back. I saw Dai go out, to get some painkillers, he said. The drug must be for the same person who was sleeping here. But…who?”
As it turned out, even Dai didn’t remember who had needed the painkiller. He came back empty-handed. They cleaned the van, of the peeled skin, of the sweat-drenched futon, of the beautiful flower crown that no one remembered making.
Only the black bird repeated, “Hail Hai, Hail Hai,” to everyone’s confusion. The words that meant nothing now.
I saw the new, nice van off, just before it left town. A few drops of liquid fell off my face, landed on the soil, before they singed blue and green and then went out. It took me moments to realize they were my tears, rolling out of my labradorite eyes, the only thing that didn’t turn wet-feather.
I erased the traces in the soil with my foot.
Someone bumped into me, swore, but then looked around, utterly perplexed. Now my colors blended too well into the night, and no one could see me in the dimly lit corridors between rows of houses, shops.
Well, perfect for a thief, right? The path that I’d chosen a long, long time ago.
I made my first step as a thief, towards the artist’s hotel. I’m going to steal the jeweled gear. It was being made for becoming me. I’m going to steal it, to be me again.
Yukimi Ogawa lives in Tokyo where she write in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. Her fiction has appeared in such places as Expanded Horizons, Strange Horizons and Mythic Delirium books anthology Clockwork Phoenix 4. She says:
I once saw, somewhere on the Internet, someone asking “why the people in Japanese anime all white?” The Japanese anime fans’ general response to this was “No, they aren’t white, they are anime people. Have you seen any white person who has a hair that’s naturally pink?” So, these people on this island in the story are my anime people, who are very confused about the way others see them.
Gala Concert I by Valeriu Pantazi (1991) is offered under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.