The stage at the Big Tree was shaped like a half-circle. The screen was spanned between two wooden poles, as close to the tree as if timidly hugging it. To illuminate the shadows of the shapes Mica conjured up behind it, candles were floating in-between the trunk and the screen. They were moving softly, swaying in the wind as if dozing peacefully, resting before their big performance.
The candles were supposed to be moved by Kaido. He had asked Sofia to be very quiet during the show so that he could concentrate.
“Did you ever drop one?” Sofia asked.
“Once or twice,” Kaido grumbled.
“Out of more than a thousand,” Kaido protested, then accusingly to Mica, “I thought you were meditating.”
“I can still hear you,” Mica replied, her eyes closed.
She was sitting behind the screen, cross-legged, with her back very straight, yet appearing completely at ease, as if she was barely touching down on the ground.
“Are you ready?” Kaido asked, and when she didn’t move a muscle, as if she hadn’t even heard him, he said, “okay,” and nodded towards Sofia.
She accompanied him to the stage as if she were his assistant, then walked a few steps backwards and crouched next to the screen. She had no specific tasks, but she felt as if Mica and Kaido were benefiting from her presence, that they were glad to have an ally, a friendly face.
Sofia suspected that theater life was quite lonely. Mica and Kaido knew many people all over Nihon, but they never stayed long enough to forge real friendships. After the first jokes and pleasantries were exchanged, silence fell, and they would move on to the next one. Neither the people they met nor Mica and Kaido knew if the other were to be trusted. They had grown accustomed to relying on themselves. They were used to it and clung to each other more than any other two people Sofia had ever known.
The audience tonight was seated on the enormous roots of the Big Tree that spread out from the trunk like the legs of a giant sleeping centipede. There were at least a hundred people in attendance, and more were arriving still. There was a happy, easy atmosphere, but as the Big Tree’s shadow elongated, night fell early, and the audience sat more attentive.
Kaido was wearing his red cape, and the horn on his forehead was shining and gleaming in the dark. He waited for the noise to cease and started talking, his voice dark and low as if coming from inside a grave.
“Welcome to the Shadow Theater. We are happy that you have all come out here to the Big Tree. As shadows darken and cool the day, we will witness Part Eight of the Talareduh, our most beloved tale, filled to the brim with intrigue, love and magic. As all of you surely know, the Big Tree plays a very special role in this part.
We witnessed in Part Seven, how Prince Tala and Princess Reduh, still unaware of their true identity and believing themselves to be siblings, discovered their love for each other. Fearing this love to be forbidden, they decide to leave the only home they have ever known, fatefully, on the night before their eighteenth birthday, when their adopted father had been planning to reveal everything to them.
We start with the young lovers as they make their way through the woods.”
With these words, the sphere around the screen darkened even more, and the candle lights revealed a long dark path, shrouded by trees and hedges. Far away, two riders appeared. They were Tala and Reduh.
They had traveled far, and even though they were not children anymore, the young man and woman were not used to strenuous activities, and they were exhausted.
“How much further?” Tala gasped.
“Further to where?” Reduh replied.
She had always been the more sceptical of the two. She didn’t let Tala get lost in his daydreams. And yet it had been Tala’s vision of their future, peaceful and just the two of them, living a self-sustained life in the woods, a happy couple in a little cottage, that had convinced her to leave her home behind.
Now, she was angry that she had let herself be seduced by this image that wasn’t sustained by any real plan. The truth was, they had no destination, and they had never learnt to take care of themselves.
Their adopted parents had neglected a real education, and all the magic they knew were simple, shiny tricks, as miraculous and helpful as fireflies glowing in the dark.
“We’ll rest,” Tala said, careful not to pick another fight. “There!”
He pointed at a spot a little off-side from the woods, a wide, beautiful plane onto which the cooling shadow of an enormous tree was cast.
“I’ve never seen a tree like that,” Reduh wondered, and for a moment, a cold kind of suspicion came over her. She opened her mouth to tell Tala to ride on.
But Tala said,
“I told you, the world out here is nothing like home. I cannot wait to see all of it!”
He smiled with his whole face, and Reduh was smitten by her lover’s happiness, and she chased all obstructing thoughts away.
They descended from their horses, who immediately started chewing on the fresh grass, and the couple sat in the shade. They leaned with their backs against the tree trunk and closed their eyes.
“This is the perfect spot to rest,” Tala murmured, and Reduh made a little noise of agreement, and they both fell asleep.
The tree opened its eyes.
A face appeared as if part of the bark, its lines bearing an unmistakable likeness to the sorceress Antibe, Prince Tala’s aunt.
The eyes looked down on the young couple, and the ears listened to their even breath.
Assuring herself that they were deep in slumber, Antibe’s figure became unstuck from the tree. She stretched herself, and her skin altered itself back to its natural state. She stood still for a moment, observing the tree that was her creation, making sure that not a single leave changed its shape now that she was no longer inside the tree to hold it together.
She looked up. The tree spread far and wide, all the way into the sky, too high even for the most courageous birds to reach its crown.
“I wonder,” Antibe said to herself, “I wonder which of the two will dare it first.”
She observed the sleeping Tala and Reduh, who in their slumber again bore much resemblance to the children they had been not long ago.
“Unripe,” Antibe said. “Unlearned, unschooled. Maybe even undeserving. They know nothing, yet. But not for long.”
And with a little smile, she morphed back into the tree, her hiding place, her observational spot. The sorceress had decided that she would bestow her magical gift on the most deserving of the young people. She had decreed to be objective, but her gaze lingered on Prince Tala’s face as she recognized her sister’s features in him.
The next days were spent in bliss by the young couple. They regained their strength, finding food and fresh water in abundance near the tree. They chased each other around the Big Tree as if they were children again, then tumbling into an embrace.
Thoughts of continuing their journey had escaped their minds as if this had been their destination all along.
And all the while, Antibe waited and watched.
She saw that Tala was caring, good-hearted and lazy and that Reduh was headstrong, combative and clever. She saw that both of them had as many flaws as they had merits and that they truly, deeply loved each other. She saw all of this with cold eyes.
She saw how Reduh kept looking upwards, and then one day, she heard the words she had been waiting for.
“I dare you to climb the tree!”
“All the way up?” Tala was sceptical, but as he saw Reduh’s expression, he didn’t want her to think that he was a coward. He grasped a branch and pulled himself up.
“The first one on top wins!” he shouted.
Reduh was quick to follow him, and like a couple of monkeys, they climbed the tree, fast and skillful, egging each other on and teasing each other.
Soon, they were out of breath and slowed down. They were nose to nose, none having an advantage over the other. Looking up, the tree went on and on, as if it didn’t have an end.
But then Tala looked down. The view in front of his eyes began to swim, and he held on tight.
“Reduh,” he called. “Reduh, wait.”
Reduh hadn’t noticed Tala stopping. She turned a little to look back at him.
“Don’t look down,” Tala warned her, and she stopped before it was too late.
Tala clung to the tree, feeling dizzy as if he might fall as if he might die. The world was turning around him, and he didn’t know how to make it stop, except by regaining the ground under his feet,
“Let’s climb back down,” he said.
But Reduh had her eyes fastened on the top again. It seemed to her like she could see a glimmer of the sky through the leaves.
“I’m almost there,” she said.
“No, you’re not. Let’s go back.”
“You go back. I want to reach the top.”
And she went on, her eyes firmly on the crown, her hands expertly reaching for one branch after the other.
From inside the tree, Antibe watched with gritted teeth.
She rustled the top of the tree so that the branches swayed from side to side, but Reduh remained steadfast.
She grew the branches longer, stretching as far as she could. She made the twigs break under Reduh’s hands. But Reduh went on.
She closed off the top of the crown so that Reduh had to wriggle herself through the dense grove, scratching her body as she went along.
And then Reduh sat there. From the top of the Big Tree, she could see all of Nihon, and the sight took her breath away. She had never known that anything could be so vast. She looked and looked, but there was always more to see. It was never-ending.
When they were both on the ground again, Tala was angry at Reduh for leaving him alone, and Reduh enclosed him in her arms and said that she was sorry.
But she wasn’t sorry. She had seen the world, and now, she felt as if she had to have it, to possess it. It was a feeling that Antibe recognized, and even though she had made it hard on the girl, she told herself that she would make good on her promise, and give her powers to Reduh.
So, at night, when the couple was sleeping, she emerged from the Big Tree and sat next to Reduh. The girl was in a deep sleep, and her face twitched as she dreamt of the sights that she had seen and the lands that were hers to conquer.
Antibe stretched her hand out to Reduh when she heard a noise behind her.
Tala had turned around in his sleep and was now facing her.
His beautiful face looked peaceful, dreamless. Antibe couldn’t take her eyes from him. He was her sister, her mother, her father. He was her grandparents, he was her childhood, her happy memories until she had been sent away from her home. He was herself, her blood.
And so, she broke her promise to give her magic to the most deserving, and, with a sigh, she gave it to the one who shared her blood.
The shadows lifted, and the audience awoke from their collective daze. Slowly, the air was filled with shuffling, ruffling and whispers getting louder.
As always, Sofia felt as if she was emerging from one strange element only to be thrown into another one that was similarly unfamiliar. She wondered if the others experienced the show as she did, or if it was less intense for them since they already knew the story. It felt to her as if she was witnessing the events with an additional interior sense that she couldn’t fully explain. Her eyes followed the shadows and the dancing lights, but the story came alive inside of her as if it was being told in a language that only she could understand, by a voice that only she could hear.
Could it really be the same for others?
“There you are”, she heard a voice behind her.
She turned and saw a man who looked strange and familiar at the same time. He smiled and waited for a moment until recognition set in. The baker! His belly was little more than a soft stomach now, and his face was more angular than round.
“Such a difference, yes?” He laughed. “I was hoping to see you tonight. My wife wanted to meet you. Come, come.”
He gestured towards the far end of the audience. Sofia looked for Kaido, but she couldn’t find him anywhere.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She just wants to have a look at you.”
Sofia smiled shyly. She wasn’t sure what to do. At last, she spotted a skinny woman with her hands folded in her lap sitting in a dark spot close to the tree. Even in her posture, there was sadness.
The woman stood up and made a hesitant step towards Sofia. She looked at her for a long time, until her eyes became too watery to see.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“You’re on your way to the School?”
“Yes.” Sofia looked at the baker. “Maybe.”
“But you’re also with the Shadow Theater?”
The woman frowned.
“That doesn’t seem right,” she said, more to herself than to Sofia.
“Is your son here, too?” Sofia asked the baker, as much to change the topic as from real curiosity.
After talking to him in the afternoon, Sofia had realized that she hadn’t encountered a single child yet. Suddenly she had felt very lonely, even though she had been used to this at her home as well, where the only other children had been Pip and Tin. All she wanted now was somebody to play with, even if it was only for an hour.
“No!” the woman said, shocked. “This is no place for a child. This is -.” She stopped herself, and reached for Sofia’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “I mean, it is good for you. You have people who look out for you, no?”
Sofia tried to smile in a way that would reassure the woman. She wished Kaido was there. He would make a lighthearted joke and then get her away from these people. They were nice, she thought. But they were filled with so much grief that there was no room for anything or anybody else. Suddenly, she pitied their son.
“You shouldn’t go to the School, Sofia,” the woman whispered insistently. “It is not a good place. Our twins, they -, they used to be good girls. Now, I am afraid that they are not anymore. Every time we see them, they seem stranger still.”
“Maybe when they come back -,” the baker interjected.
His wife shot him a hard look. “They will never come back,” she hissed.
Then she turned to Sofia again.
“If you go there and you see them -, their names are Varì and Kama.” At the mention of her girls’ names, her voice went soft, and her face too. “Just tell them that their mother loves them. Could you do that? If you see them?”
Sofia looked at the baker to see if he would object to his wife’s words, but he was looking at his feet.
“I will,” Sofia said.
“And tell them,” the woman added, “tell them that I am sorry. I want to say that every time I see them, but somehow I never do. There is an old saying in Nihon, maybe our oldest. Those who own the children own the future. I don’t know who you are, Sofia, but you should be very careful. This can be a dangerous place.”
She pressed Sofia’s hand so hard that she winced.
Then she heard Kaido calling out for her. She turned, and there he stood, his face pale and his eyes wide and panic-stricken.
“Sofia, come back here! Now!”