Ever since crossing into Nihon, Sofia’s dreams had become so vivid that they almost outshone the reality of her experiences.
In her dreams, there were no periods of relief, no calm, no gazing into the distance and quietly absorbing what she beheld. They were wild and fast, jumping from one point to the next with no transition to smoothen the shift, making use of dreams’ unique freedom to override the common senses as if they were only an artifice to make life bearable.
Sofia felt breathless inside her dreams, disorientated, yet never questioning their reality until the moment she woke up. She would be soaked in sweat, her body rigid from the contortions her mind had twisted itself into, then suddenly freed from a realm in which she was held prisoner.
There were as many nightmares as there were pleasant dreams, and there was all that went in-between, colorful chaos and bouncy rides. But the exhaustion upon waking was much the same.
The people she encountered during the day, their peculiar get-ups, their movements that sometimes defied the laws of nature, and the contradictions of their characters, formed a parade with no beginning and no end in her dreams. They came out of doors that they had not been supposed to be lurking behind. Sofia would dream that she was sitting in Aunt Sybil’s room, studying for her exam, her feet bound to the floor with hard-woven ropes. Then the person she thought was Aunt Sybil turned around, and it was a stranger with a pink, gleaming face and short white spikes for hair, screaming laughter at her confusion.
Confusion was the common sentiment. In her dreams, Sofia kept forgetting and remembering, only to forget again. She changed direction, suddenly realizing that she had to get home as quickly as possible, but then she got lost again, forgetting where she had been supposed to go. She trusted people implicitly and then realized that they were the ones she had been running from. Her legs were leaden when she tried to escape, and she moved as if submerged in water. She forgot to breathe, and then she gasped.
She even fell asleep inside her dream, exhausted by the dream itself, but she always awoke back in reality. In Nihon, with Mica and Kaido. And the dreams were quickly forgotten with the day’s new impressions.
Sofia sometimes tried to remember how her dreams had been before she had crossed into Nihon. If there had been anything hinting at things to come as if there had been secret communications that she hadn’t paid attention to. She thought about the conversation she had overheard between Aunt Sybil and Mr Borrealis. Aunt Sybil had said that Sofia had been about four years old when she had arrived at the Border Village, but Sofia couldn’t believe this. Surely Aunt Sybil must have been mistaken. Or lying. Because ever since Sofia had heard this, she had searched her dreams for glimpses of memory. But there was nothing.
They arrived at the Big Tree in the early afternoon. They were staying there for two nights in a row, for Part Eight and Part Nine of the Talareduh.
“Finally, we can have some rest,” Mica said. “The constant traveling is wearing me out. I am not a young woman anymore, after all.”
She winked as she said this, but they weren’t yet in the mood to make jokes about the recent revelations, not even Kaido and Mica. Something had changed for them as well. They had been keeping their secret not just from others, but from themselves as well. Now, it had become more difficult.
Sofia had accepted Mica and Kaido’s explanations, and to a degree, she could understand the reasons for their betrayal. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been a betrayal after all. It was one thing to change one’s appearance to make it more flamboyant, more playful. But what they had done was an outright lie, and every time she looked at them, she wondered what else they were keeping from her.
As she got out of the carriage, these thoughts disappeared, pushed into oblivion by the overwhelming sight of the Big Tree.
When Sofia had asked what the Big Tree was, expecting a simple answer to match the simple name, Kaido had merely laughed.
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
And indeed, there was no way of being uncertain as to which tree was meant. The trunk of the Big Tree might easily have concealed a small village behind it, and the shade it cast resembled nightfall. The bark was as thick as a separate body, and its surface was hard and old like stone, serrated through the ages. The tiniest leaves had the size of hands, and the largest could cover two grown people.
The rest of the vegetation might have been impressive on its own, but there was no way to tell, as it all but vanished next to the Big Tree. The other trees resembled stalks of grass, gently swaying in the wind, dwarfed by the giant in their midst.
Sofia reclined her head all the way to look up, up, up. The Big Tree seemed endless from down below, its crown melting into the sky, and the sky was green instead of blue where the leaves touched it.
Sofia was amazed.
“How long did it take to grow that high?”
“It didn’t grow,” Kaido said. “It was made.”
Sofia had been determined not to ask silly questions anymore. Nothing was impossible in Nihon and she was trying to just accept things. But this was too much.
“Over time, it became what it had been turned into,” Mica answered the question Sofia had been trying to phrase. “A real tree, not an imagination or a conjured image. It doesn’t have to be sustained any longer. It has become its own creation. It is the most amazing sight in all the kingdoms.”
Sofia let the amazement wash over herself. The tree was a world onto itself, and it was real. Real, for once. But then the newly sowed doubt returned.
“Who made it?” she asked, steeling herself not to believe what she would be told.
“Nobody knows,” Mica said. She smiled. “Of course, there are legends.”
This piqued Sofia’s interest, she couldn’t help herself.
“What do they say?”
“Just wait for tonight. It’s not by chance that we came here for this part of the Talareduh.”
“What is going to happen?”
“Let’s just say, the tree will be one of the protagonists of tonight’s story.”
Kaido grinned. He put his hand on Mica’s shoulder.
“You should rest,” he said. “I will take care of the preparations.”
Mica nodded. Her serene, unlined face assumed the inward quality that meant she was entering a state of calm and wasn’t completely present anymore. She always did this before the performance. It was her way of “filling up”, as she called it. She had explained to Sofia that she was like a glass of water that needed to be still, and, drop by drop, fill up until full to the brim. “Then, I have some sustenance to spend”, she said. “And when the play is finished, I am empty again.”
“What should I do?” Sofia asked, her voice low and squeaky with the sudden timidity that always came over her when Kaido and Mica started to shift their focus on the upcoming show. They took the theater utmost seriously, and it always reminded her that this was what they lived for. It made her feel small.
“There is another highlight here,” Kaido said. “Not just the tree.”
“What is it?”
Sofia was sceptical.
“The food,” Kaido replied, his face breaking into a smile.
Sofia wasn’t as fond of the food in Nihon as she had expected to be. The taste was usually fine, and, objectively, it tasted much better than what she was used to at home, where a sameness prevailed in most foods that took the pleasure out of eating. But in Nihon, food and drinks looked so opulent, so succulent, so lavish that the mere sight of them made the mouth water. The smell was rich and refined at the same time, it made you want to heap your plate full and dig right in.
And yet, the taste never fulfilled any of these promises.
Sofia had first noticed this with a three-tier inky-blue cake, adorned with crystalized blue and white flowers. Its smell of caramel and butter and flowers had been intoxicating, and Sofia had been very hungry, too. But then, with her first bite, only politeness prevented her from spitting it out. The taste had been stale and old, with a hint of moldiness and a dripping sweetness that stuck to her gums.
Afterwards, she had asked Kaido if he had liked the cake.
He had shrugged.
“You get used to it.”
But he had not finished his piece either.
Now, Sofia tried to suppress her hopefulness at the promise of good food. She went to the place where Kaido had directed her, assuring her that the shell-shaped pink hairdo that Mica had created and the bluish-green skin powder that shimmered iridescently, would make her fit right in.
“And anyway,” he had said with a sigh. “They look for your reaction to them, and thereby they forget to look at you.”
Yet the first thing that the man at the most unassuming stall that Kaido had told her to look out for, said, was,
“What pretty hair you have, dear girl.”
Sofia blushed and almost made the mistake to touch it with her hand to make sure it was still in place. She barely dared to move her head for fear that the delicate shape would come loose.
She wanted to say Thank You, but instead, she just gave a complacent nod that she had seen on others.
The man’s face hardened just a little bit before softening again as if despite himself.
He had a big, perfectly round belly that seemed weightless, like an air-filled balloon. His cheeks were large and chubby, and a pleasant double chin bounced beneath his smile. His apron was sparkling white.
He bent down towards Sofia, his face beaming with a kind of longing, like a little boy seeing a cat that he would like to take home to keep, but knows it to be impossible.
“How old are you, sweetheart?” he asked, starting to carve up a soft vanilla cake into triangles. He held a piece out to Sofia.
“Twelve,” she said and reluctantly put the piece of cake into her mouth, determined to refuse if he offered her another one.
It melted in her mouth, flavors of orange, butter and vanilla mingling in the most delicious way she had ever tasted. Sofia made a sound of delight and looked at the man with big eyes.
He laughed, and the booming sound of his laughter reminded her so much of Mr Borrealis that her eyes filled with a layer of tears, and she had to look away for a second.
“That’s something else, isn’t it?” he said with well-deserved satisfaction.
Sofia could only nod.
“You’re with the Shadow Theater, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sofia said with a hint of surprise.
“I saw you arrive, before. I have been looking forward to this evening for a long time. It is such a wonderful distraction.”
“We will be here for two nights,” Sofia said, distracted by the sight of the cakes and fruit in front of her. She wanted to try them all.
“So will I,” the man said. “You can choose whatever you like, and take it back to your carriage.”
Sofia didn’t need to be told twice. She pointed at one delicious dish after the other, and as if by an invisible hand, perfect servings detached themselves and were wrapped into simple white cartons, stacked neatly one on top of the other, while the baker’s hands were folded in front of his belly. He looked wistfully at Sofia, drinking in her childish excitement.
“So nice,” he murmured. “So nice to have children here.”
Sofia looked up at him.
“Have you been travelling with the Shadow Theater for long?” he asked
“Just a little while.”
“Are you happy with them?”
Sofia thought about it for a moment. She wasn’t sure.
“Yes,” she said eventually.
“I’m sure that would please your parents. Even though they must miss you a lot.”
“My parents?” Sofia asked before she could stop herself. She bit her tongue in a sudden panic, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was lost in a reverie, a sadness that enclosed him like a shadow.
He tapped his round stomach.
“My wife doesn’t like this,” he said. “But I think it helps. Who wants to buy cake from a skinny baker? She says that I overdo it, that I look ridiculous. But I know it reminds her of being pregnant. So, I lose the belly before I go back to her. But when she needs to help out at the stall, it cannot be helped. It makes her sad.”
He looked into the distance, and Sofia wasn’t sure that he was still completely aware of her presence.
“Why does it make her sad?” she asked, quietly, as if a loud noise might scare him.
“Because of the children. She misses our children.”
Even the best cake she ever had turned hard in Sofia’s stomach.
“Where are they?”
“Gone. All gone but one, and we had to fight to keep him. Our second youngest son. He’ll take over the bakery one day, that is why there was the exception. And the twins are at the School because they like twins there. At least we get to see them twice a year, but they have changed so much. The others -. I don’t know what became of the others.”
His face had turned grey, and lines protruded from his hollow cheeks.
“We could have hidden them, my wife says. But, you know -.” His gaze drifted off, then he brought himself back. He laughed falsely. “The memories that you have brought back to me. But I look at you, and I think, maybe my children are as happy as you.”
“I’m sure they are,” Sofia said, although she had no idea. The baker’s sadness had spilled over onto her. But still, his words had not escaped her attention. “The twins must be very happy at the School,” she said, her heart beating against her ribs.
He nodded sadly, which could mean either thing.
“They have changed,” he said. “They have changed. And now that we are so close to the School, my wife wants to go visit. But I told her, they don’t like it when parents do that. We should wait for the last day of the year, like everybody else.”
Sofia gathered her courage.
“Actually,” she said as casually and detached as possible. “I’m on my way to the School myself.”
“You are?” The baker looked surprised. “At this time?”
“Yes, I -, I had to go back.”
Sofia tilted her head as if she was alluding to something personal that she didn’t want to talk about.
“Hmm.” He frowned. “Well, you’re almost there. But -,” he leaned in. “If you were my daughter, I would like some friendly stranger to tell you that you shouldn’t go back. That you should just stay with the Theater and travel the lands. It is the only way to be free.”
Sofia looked at him uncomfortably, and he broke into another too-big smile.
“But what do I know? I’m just a friendly stranger.”
He handed Sofia a bag filled to the brim with delicacies.
“Tell Mica and Kaido that I am looking forward to the performance tonight. And maybe I will see you there as well.”
“Thank you,” Sofia said.
“Thank you, my dear,” he replied. “You brought some sad memories to the surface today, but that is still better than forgetting.”
Sofia turned around, the smell from the food she had been given rising to her nose. It was much gentler than the heavy fragrances emerging from the other stalls, where colorful dishes were praised by loud voices. But for the first time since crossing into Nihon, Sofia felt sated and happy, as if she had been hugged from the inside.
She turned back to the baker.
“Why do your cakes taste so good?”
He smiled at her and cast a quick glance around. Then he whispered,
“Because I actually make them.”