The Bridge To Nihon (BOOK ONE)

Chapter 24 - Kaido's Story

Kaido told,

“I was born in a mid-sized town halfway between the border and the ocean, which had somehow become permanently stuck between progress and backwardness. People still washed their clothes in the river, but there was a fabric industry that rivaled the best in the whole world. It was not merely industrial in its approach and size, but also extremely ambitious in its craftsmanship. The speciality the town was known for – and still is – was an intricate brocade pattern that is used for trimmings and wall hangings.

The pattern consists of two geometrically shaped twigs in an almost parallel line, its tiny branches intertwined with each other without ever touching. Stylized birds, made of only a few stitches, sit next to the twigs, their delicately spread toes barely touching them so that you never know if the bird is landing or taking off. The result is a pattern that is both still and serene, and alive.

I only lived there for eight years, but I can still see it in front of me, and sometimes when I come across something similar, it fills me with memories and nostalgia that not even the smell of my mother’s soap could bring up.

Everybody in my family was engaged in this business, as were most people in town. My father was a very talented weaver. No thread was too fine for him and he possessed almost supernatural patience. To him, an hour at the loom felt like a minute. My mother worked as a supervisor in one of the larger houses. All-day long she would make her rounds, spotting the tiniest deviation from the pattern, or noticing when a loom needed to be tended to. She had the eyes of a hawk, my mother.

It is strange to think that they must long be dead by now. In my mind, they are still exactly the way they were when I was living at home. Getting up early, making breakfast and requiring me and my brothers to be reasonably quiet, so that they could enjoy their morning before heading off to work, not returning until late in the evening.

My brothers – I had two brothers, I don’t know what became of them, probably they followed in my father’s footsteps and became weavers, too -, my brothers and I would visit one of the more or less improvised schools that were attached to the factory buildings, and that rather minded the children than teaching them. We were allowed to enter the factories, as the industry was so much a part of our lives that it was beneficiary to spend as much time there as possible. This was our real education, and it prepared us perfectly for the lives that were waiting for us, ready-made, if not tailor-made.

I do pity those who disliked the fabric industry. It must have made for a very unhappy life for them. But most people, I am fairly confident to say, had a good life there.

Once, when I had been on the road with Mica for about two decades, we were invited to give a week-long performance at Hill Castle. The walls of their banquet hall were covered in hangings that must have originated in my hometown. I was overcome by a sudden emotion, and I had to leave the room. Outside I wept and wept, for the first time grieving for what I had lost.

You can believe me, I never had to work so hard on my composure as during that week, and, having mastered it, I finally felt confident in my ability to blend in and make Nihon my home. As much as this is possible for the homeless.

I had let go of my childhood, even though, oddly enough, I had assumed that I had done that ages ago. Yet, recalling all of this, and feeling the sadness rise with an immediacy and freshness as if I was recounting yesterday’s events, I guess we never completely shed our childhood. We are not snakes, after all.

When I was taken, it was partly my fault, although Mica always tells me that I shouldn’t look at it that way. I was unlucky, she says, and that nothing defines our lives more than luck, good or bad. Of course, she insists that my bad luck was her good luck, so we had better not question the past, but accept it.

There had been a rumor among my friends that a caravan of strangers had arrived, and that they were camped out on the fields at the outskirts of town. Naturally, a bunch of us ventured out there one early evening to have a look. We were a strange procession. We started in good spirits, ready for adventure, ready for anything. As we moved along, the group became smaller. One by one, children changed their minds and returned home, sometimes making excuses, or, stopping and with their heads sinking, turning back, running away. They were the smart ones, of course, but we didn’t see it that way. Making fun of the cowards, a few of us kept going, talking more loudly the more anxious we felt.

I am sorry to say, I was among the most boisterous. With two older brothers, I constantly felt the need to prove myself. And I was curious. It’s like I said before, for those not interested in the industry, it might not make for a happy life in my town. And I had that sinking feeling that I would become one of the unhappy ones. I saw them around town. Their faces grey and furrowed, their voices heavy from complaining.

I was a child veering between happiness and unhappiness, and all I cared about were stories, the more improbable, the better. I had little regard for reality.

So, the mysterious caravan was just what I had been waiting for. But when we arrived at the fields, there were no signs of anyone or anything having been there. There were no traces in the grass, no stamped out fireplaces.

We were only four children by then, two boys and two girls. The girls immediately went back, relieved, I guess, that they didn’t need to prove their courage any longer. My friend and I, we remained. We were kicking stones in frustration, but we felt unable to turn back. At least, that’s what it felt like for me, and I am just assuming that it was the same for him. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t know what became of him. If he managed to get back home, or if he was taken as well.

There was an eerie feeling. There was no wind, everything looked still and perfect. Too perfect, like a painting, not like real landscape. We went closer as if we were trying to convince ourselves that nothing was amiss, even though our breath caught in our throat, and that voice of intuition that is always right but rarely listened to was shouting at us to get out of there.

When we finally turned back around, there was nothing to turn to anymore. Nothingness lay where we had just come from as if we were standing at the edge of the world. Now, of course, I know that it was merely an illusion and not a very good one. But at that moment, it was my first confrontation with pure fear.

And then there was the caravan. It was not hidden anymore, and it wasn’t embellished or transformed or made to look like anything other than what it was. It was dirty and dingy. It was the last place you’d ever want to be. They were brigands, but without the adventurous aura. They pounced on us so quickly that we couldn’t scream. In my memory, it all happened noiselessly. They had human shapes, but they looked like shadows, and they moved as if no contortion of their limbs was impossible. Their grip was inescapable. It wasn’t possible to even try to wriggle free. I went rigid, and then I went limp.

The next thing I knew, I was in a small cabin, barely large enough to stand. It was made from wood and didn’t look especially sturdy. But it didn’t budge when I threw myself against it, and it absorbed every sound so completely that I became convinced I had turned deaf. I couldn’t even hear my own voice, except in my head.

From early childhood on, I had sometimes been able to move objects. Nothing big, only a pen or so, or the needle on the sewing machine, when I was too lazy to do the work myself. My family didn’t believe me, saying it was just one of my stories, and I was never able to demonstrate it to them. The skill immediately seemed to leave me in the presence of others. Later, it took Mica considerable time and patience to draw it out of me, but it had always been there.

Yet, in this cabin, nothing worked. It remained still for a long time, and then after a few days, it started to rumble. I knew that we were on the move. I got sick, as I have already told you. I thought that I was not going to make it, that this was the way my life would end, throwing up in a dark cabin, all alone. It was the worst time of my life, without the slightest of doubts.

But I survived, and one morning I woke up in a small, pleasant room. I was lying in a comfortable, warm bed, and the sun was shining through the window. I felt happy, but that made me wary. I knew that I was not supposed to be happy. It was wrong. But I couldn’t help myself. I got up and stretched, and immediately felt the urge to go outside, to play and to run. And that was what I did. Nobody stopped me.

When I had tired myself out, I went back to the house. I was in a strange place, I had no idea where to go. So, it turned out that I chose my prison freely and went back to it on my own free will.

I have often thought about how my life would have gone if I had not gone back if I had kept running. Sometimes I imagine that I would have returned home, but they wouldn’t have let me out if they hadn’t known that I would come back. As I would learn later, they didn’t leave much to chance. But still, I believe in free will, because I have made the experience that I can form my own destiny. I am entirely sure that they didn’t intend for me to end up how I did, and to lead a happy life, after all.

When I returned to the house, a man and a woman were sitting in the kitchen, waiting for me. The woman had beautiful long silver hair that looked like linings in the morning sky, and the man had no hair at all. Despite this, they looked both rather young.

They told me to sit, and then they told me that they were my Aunt Nola and my Uncle Dervin and that they were happy that I had finally arrived.

But they didn’t look happy. They smiled and gestured towards me, and my new uncle got up and served me a lovely warm meal, but the whole time it felt to me as if they were performing for an audience, even though there was nobody to be seen.

I had so many questions, but instead of asking them, I ate my meal, which I remember being delicious, and when I had finished I asked if I could go to my room. They said yes, and I did, and I slept well that night and the following nights.

My dreams about home only started months after my arrival, and by then it seemed rude to ask what I was doing there. I was somehow growing accustomed to my life. I had a large room of my own, the food was very good, and during the day I was allowed to do as I pleased. There were a few other houses there, but no other children and the grown-ups didn’t seem surprised to see me.

I was shy and didn’t speak a lot, very unlike how I had been at home, but nobody pressured me to behave otherwise.

From time to time, there would be visitors, usually in the evening. We would sit around the kitchen table, my aunt serving endless jugs of hot wine, and the visitors would ask me many questions. Aunt Nola would smile all the time, but her hands would be curled into fists. Uncle Dervin would say little, but laugh very loudly at everything even resembling a joke.

I dutifully answered the questions and was quite flattered by the attention. Truth be told, I might have embellished some of the stories. They mostly asked about my home town, the structures, the people, and, again and again, about the fabric industry. They were a little disappointed that I couldn’t describe the exact process of the weaving, but they were very good-natured, and sometimes gave me little presents.

I did not like my uncle very much. I tried to, at first, following him into the woods when he went to make firewood, but he did not show much affection towards me. When Aunt Nola was out of sight, he would even send me away, tapping me on the back of my head if I didn’t go right away.

But I came to like Aunt Nola a lot, even loving her, I think, though I never knew how she felt towards me. She certainly behaved as if she was fond of me. She nursed me when I was sick, which was quite often, and she would sometimes tousle my hair when she walked past me. At night, she sat at my bed and told me stories. There were no books in the house, but Aunt Nola had quite an imagination. Only, she was quickly distracted, and most of her stories would end with completely different protagonists than they had begun with, as if her characters were constantly getting lost in the woods, never to reappear, but cheerfully replaced by others that interested her more.

I didn’t mind. After she had finished, I would often go back to the characters she had forgotten along the way, and I would finish their stories for them. It was good exercise and always made me fall asleep.

I lived with them for about five years. I had not forgotten about home. But it had become a place far away. It had nothing to do with me anymore, and my longing to go back transformed into a habit with no real basis. If I had been offered to return, I don’t know if I would have.

Then, one night, Aunt Nola and Uncle Dervin sat me down. Aunt Nola looked at me seriously, and Uncle Dervin didn’t look at me at all. I knew that something was up. They told me that I was to go away the next day, that I was old enough to go to the military school, where I would receive an education and later be recruited into the Guard.

I had no idea what the Guard was, and I didn’t think that I had any military aptitude. But they went to great lengths to make it sound exciting, and so I went to equally great lengths to seem excited.

I went to bed feeling like a wooden toy as if my body had already ceased to be my own. Aunt Nola didn’t come to say good night, and I couldn’t sleep, so I went back down a few hours later. They were still up, and I could hear them talking to each other through the closed door.

“Well, I rather liked this one,” Aunt Nola said.

“You say that every time. He is weak. He’ll shame us.”

“You could have tended to him more.”

“Like the last one? He was killed in the third week of training.”

“That was the one before.”

“Ah yes, I can’t keep them apart anymore,” Uncle Dervin said as a reply. “You always get too attached.”

To which Aunt Nola didn’t say anything, she only laughed.

I have never been able to make sense of that laughter. If it was sad, or bemused, or if she simply didn’t care. I don’t know. Sometimes I think that I might have misheard and that it was a sob. But I went back upstairs a different person.

For the first time, I realized what had happened to me. I had been robbed of my life and of my identity. I was ‘this one’ to them, and soon I would become ‘the last one’ and then ‘the one before that’. Finally, I would be ‘no one’.

‘Killed in training’, that was the phrase that stayed with me most, as well as the carelessness with which it had been uttered. Now, I think that they must have been protecting themselves and that their lot was a hard one as well. But never mind.

That night, I took as much food as I could carry, and I left. I went through the woods and got lost. I couldn’t have returned if I had wanted to. I wandered for a few days and then reached a small lodging. I turned in there and got myself a placement in the kitchen. I stayed for a few weeks until I overheard the innkeeper talking about getting ‘a good price’ for me. So, I took off again.

That was how I lived for the next two years. Improvising, surviving. Taking off during the night. I became an expert eavesdropper and learnt to sleep with one eye open. I learnt about Nihon, but I didn’t understand it. I confided in people I should not have trusted, and I refused help from those I should have put my faith in.

More than once, I barely escaped, and more than once I went hungry and slept in the woods. But then, as I was selling worthless stones, passing them out as semi-precious, I saw a girl about my age, who was playing with dolls as if they were real people. She had erected a small stage, and a crowd was assembled before it. She took a deep bow, somehow exaggerated and her expression was very proud. The curtain of her stage opened as if by magic, and the dolls came sashaying onto the wooden planks. They twisted and turned, and from an unseen place, a melody came that adapted itself to the dolls instead of the other way around.

I couldn’t see any instruments or singers. The only tangible item was the little stage, the dolls which were charming but shoddily made, and the girl whose eye color changed every time she looked my way.

After her show, I remained close to her but didn’t dare to speak to her. I had made so many bad experiences with people that I had become almost mute, except when it was absolutely necessary to address somebody.

I started to follow her as she went from town to town. She was like me, unattached, a wanderer. But unlike me, she was at ease, she was not afraid. She enjoyed herself.

She allowed me to remain close to her without talking to her. She would grin at me as if she was daring me to make the first move. She, in any case, wouldn’t be the one to speak first. And so, one day, I went to her and I said,

“Do you want me to mend your dolls’ clothes?”

She looked at me and said,

“That would be very nice of you, Kaido.”

“Kaido?” I asked.

“Yes. I have called you that from the first moment I saw you.”

So, from that day on, my name was Kaido, and I have stayed with Mica and I will continue to do so until the day I die.”

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.