Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Senbazuru

Paper, scissors, rock.

That’s the way we’ve always made decisions. And settled arguments, for that matter. Marriage is all about compromise after all; I put something forward, he puts something forward, and our hands do the rest. My husband jokes if only diplomacy were so easy. When we play we are back in the playground of St. Gabriel’s again, with the Catholic sisters hurrying us in opposite directions towards the boys and girls dormitories and my husband is my darling childhood Teddy.

After all these years he knows how I play, my preference for paper, stretching out my hand as if holding it above a flame. I watch his calculated response, knowing his reaction in advance; his index and middle finger stretched into a v if he is being particularly stubborn or folded into a ball to satisfy me, letting me win.

Sometimes I let him win. When he suggested taking the job with the British consulate in Nagasaki, I was eager to break the monotony of my daily existence and curious to see the world. Being married to a diplomat had lacked the excitement I thought customary with the role. I’d imagined life as a newlywed to be different. So I lay my hand submissively straight and gave in to destiny.

Occasionally I won’t use paper but maybe rock. Scissors are my least favourite (as they hurt paper the most) and I’ll save it for only the most extreme situations. I register the hurt in Ted’s face when I use one of these two, his faith in my constancy momentarily shaken by my desire to win. It’s hard living without him.

• • • •

I live in a roundhouse. A tower, really. There are four windows, each presenting a different view of the surrounding landscape.

To the east, the sea, just beyond Nagasaki Harbour. This is my favourite view. In constant transit, the ocean rolls by, grey and tumultuous one day, calm and tranquil the next. Some days it is spotted with the red sails of Japanese fishing boats or the rickety sampans of larger freighters.

The window to the south depicts a small Japanese garden where sometimes Hiroko takes me for a walk. It is comprised of neat, straight borders of jasmine and honeysuckle. In the middle, pebbles like pale, flat eggs occupy the space that would have given way to lawn in England. It is the antithesis of my unruly garden back home. Now neglected, I imagine the profusion of wild hybrids and weeds have complete mastery over the box borders, and the wrought iron bench, speckled with rust, now completely submerged by green.

To the north, a road stretches into the distance to the town centre. In the morning the road is busy with people, rickshaws and carts taking goods to and from the port. At night it is usually quiet, save for the occasional beggar drunk on sake.

The west window depicts rolling green countryside and, further back, paddy fields tended by farmers, who are only tiny specks from this distance.

If I turn in the middle of the room I can see out of all four windows. I am at the centre of the compass.

It must have been hard, furnishing such a room on account of its shape. The bed, just off centre, juts out into the rotund space like a small island. Some of the chairs have curved backs so they don’t seem so anomalous against the curved walls. My desk seems to be the most incongruous object, its right angles at odds with the spherical nature of the room. But I wouldn’t be without it.

My desk is positioned next to the east window so I can watch the boats. This is where I write my letters, though I don’t receive many anymore. I try to write. Ted used to say that you could cure anything by writing, but I can’t seem to commit anything to paper. Sometimes I just like to think.

Hiroko brings me the British newspapers once a week. They are tied up in string. I keep these bits of string and tuck them away. I don’t care much for the news. I’m more interested in the paper. I usually tear out a sheet or two from the correspondence pages, the most insubstantial part, and if Hiroko ever noticed them gone, she’d be too embarrassed to question me. The Japanese don’t talk about their problems. I always make sure I read the foreign affairs pages before I leave the pile for Hiroko to collect. The wife of a diplomat must be well informed.

The days are so repetitive here, one can lose track of time. The dates on the newspapers are my only indication, though they are delayed of course. They tell me our anniversary is approaching.

I’m going to have to hurry.

• • • •

Do you know that you can fold a piece of paper in half no more than eight times, no matter its original size? Ted used to like folding paper. Origami is very important to the Japanese. I remember the first one he gave me. We had been in Japan a few months, and were guests at a party hosted by the Hammonds, a prominent English couple. Everyone wanted to talk to Ted. About whether war was really imminent. If expatriates should evacuate. Ted didn’t really talk to me about the war, eager to protect me from the world. But I’d hear it eventually through the wives, along with rumours about corrupt officials and counterfeit money and public relations of an altogether different sort. Ever the diplomat, he gave them the company policy, the official lines. With the crowd placated and able to sip their imported gin with ease, conversation moved on to less contentious subjects. The hostess, relieved that her soiree wasn’t overshadowed by Japanese foreign policies, gave the ladies a tour of her garden.

Like many immigrants, she had attempted to embrace her new home not by adopting Japanese customs or traditions but through their modes of decoration. Nagasaki itself, with its history of being an open port when the rest of Japan was fearful of foreign intrusion, was imbued with western influences. A medley of European and Japanese architecture, it was Western and Eastern in equal measure. What’s more, as foreigners tend to, we stuck together, colonising a district of the city and making it as much like home as possible. British children were sent to European schools and British women took high tea at the Hilton on Wedgewood china. Ted used to say that the British art of hegemony was conversion through cricket and cucumber sandwiches.

But it worked both ways. Many of the guests were Orientals who were perhaps more Western in customs and dress than many Europeans. Whilst the English women experimented with kimono-inspired garments and fabrics, many of the Japanese women wore the latest Parisian fashions that the European women would have to wait until next season to acquire, when the ships arrived. Amid the joviality and cocktail music, a strange exchange of identity was being played out on Mrs. Hammond’s landscaped terrace.

When Ted eventually managed to extricate himself from all the questions, he found me standing beside a small water-feature of polished stones. We watched as it propelled water into a stream that coursed its way through the garden.

“Ted, tell me the truth,” I asked. “Is there going to be a war?”

He produced a Yen note from the pocket of his tux and began to fold it. I watched his hands move deftly with rehearsed practice. He ran his fingers along each crease with deliberate care, and I wondered if he organised his thoughts as carefully. He placed the finished object in my palm.

“It’s beautiful.”

He told me to place it on the water. I didn’t want to. It was too beautiful but he insisted.

“The crane is a symbol of prosperity and peace,” he told me as I placed it on the stream. “But you can’t stop the current of things to come, Elaine.”

I watched as it bobbed uncertainly on the surface before being swept away.

• • • •

Whenever Ted went away, which was becoming more and more frequent as the Kwantung Army swept through China, I would find a little origami crane in his stead. On my pillow when I woke, at the breakfast table, sometimes tucked into my purse, waiting until I paid a street vendor or when I took a rickshaw. I kept every one of them.

I make my own now.

I try to keep them as secret as possible, which is easy enough as Hiroko’s jangling keys always announce her approach, long before the sound of her unlocking my door. I wouldn’t want her to think I’m cultivating a strange habit. I am an Englishwoman, after all.

After breakfast, I sit at my desk opposite the ocean and take out the segments of newspaper from the drawer. I’ll fold the page once, then, using the edge of a book as a weight, I’ll rip the paper until I have two equal rectangles. I repeat the action. Then I have four rectangles. The basis for four cranes.

You can make an origami crane fairly quickly, but I tend to prolong the process, relishing each fold and crease. Twenty eight folds, to be exact. There is a lot of satisfaction to be had in their creation and doubly so knowing how much time I have invested in each one. Afterwards, I’ll attach them to the others with the string from the newspapers and hide them behind my clothes in the wardrobe. I’ll lick my fingers afterwards, rubbing the saliva into the creases of my fingertips to erase the newsprint ink.

• • • •

The rainy season, or baiu, is nearly at an end. The days have been very humid. Hiroko brings me water for taking my pills in the evening, but I dab most of it onto my brow and neck, relishing the coolness as the droplets trickle down my spine. The rain pours down in torrents, but the mischievous wind blows it in all directions, and it hammers into the side of my tower.

All good fairy tales begin with a princess in a tower waiting to be rescued. I feel more like the Lady of Shalott, waiting and watching the world below, but unable to live in it.

I remember when I lived in England I used to visit my mother in her tower. Except, she wasn’t really Mother by then. She looked the same, but her mind was someplace else. Aided no doubt by the pharmaceutical concoction the doctors prescribed for her, sentencing her to a permanent state of oblivion. The staff would stand a little distance away, but their presence was palpable in the small circular room. It wasn’t the most conducive environment to form a relationship. I know that trauma can often prompt a collapse of this sort. But Father didn’t speak to me about such things. It wasn’t proper. In fact, Mother left when I was so young, it was easier for Father to tell me she was a princess in a tower. Every few months we would take the long journey by train to visit her. I would take my school projects for her to see. Father encouraged me; he hoped, I think, that something would bring her back to reality. But she would stare inanely at my crayon drawings and lightly rub the surface of the page until her fingertip was waxy and the colour faded and I felt as if I, too, were being erased.

The fact it looked like a fairy tale tower gave credence to Father’s lie. There were actually four of them, one tower on each corner of four crenulated grey walls, though the view from the roadside obscured the other three. I could only see the one perched beside the sea. If you looked closely, there were stars interspersed in the masonry. Every time we visited, it seemed to snow. So much so, that I can’t remember the tower without a layer of white, like icing on a wedding cake.

The town lay a little distance away, beyond the curve of hills, as if the inhabitants had deemed a buffer necessary. That the tower’s fortified walls were not sufficient to contain the sickness within. The pinnacle of the town was literally the church spire, which rose to an impressive height out of the cluster of buildings, attempting to brush the heavens. I assumed my mother could see it from her window. But even if she couldn’t, she would be able to hear the bells tolling, calling the congregation to worship or announcing the joining of those in matrimony.

The Lady of Shalott at least had her tapestry to keep her busy. I used to do a lot of needlepoint myself back in England, but a lot of commodities are very difficult to acquire here, especially now. I have to content myself with my paper cranes.

• • • •

She left them quite by chance. In the shade of the hibiscus, on a small ledge that serves as a border, I saw them glinting at me. The kind used for trimming bonsai trees. Sunlight reflected off their shiny surface and, magpie-like, I swooped. Hiroko was tending the wilted honeysuckle, examining the waterlogged roots, and did not see me. The rains had kept us indoors for so long that I took this brief reprieve to be a sign.

I intended to ask to borrow them. Yet asking posed a dilemma; what would I say I needed them for? I didn’t want to explain the birds in my cupboard. But a pair of scissors would help my project along no end. What harm would it cause to pick them up?

I’m afraid to say they slipped easily into my pocket.

• • • •

Ted always maintained that our wedding was hands down the best wedding he’d ever been to. It was, of course, an elaborate affair, full of pomp and ceremony.

Part way through the evening, Ted grabbed me by the hand.

“Let’s elope,” he said.

“We’re already married,” I replied.

But I was already following him. We walked for miles, it seemed, my wedding gown trailing along the ground, snagged on brambles and ferns. He led me through the long grass and laid his jacket down for us to sit upon. Then he opened the champagne he’d been carrying and we watched the sun set over the English countryside.

There were no speeches. A diplomat’s wedding with no speeches. My wedding gown still has the grass stains.

Not long now until our anniversary. I’ve worked out the date from the newspapers Hiroko brought me today, along with my pills. I didn’t want to take them, but there was no point arguing with her. She no longer waits until I swallow the pills so when she left I flung them at the window. I picked them up afterwards of course and tucked them behind a panel in the back of the wardrobe, stacking them up to form small cairns of tiny white rocks, which always topple when I close the door. Hiroko means well, but I need to be fully alert if I want to finish what I’ve started. The Japanese have their own customs, but my favourite is a special tradition reserved for newlyweds. They believe that to give a couple one thousand paper cranes on their wedding day is to give a thousand years of good luck. These paper cranes are held together on lengths of string and hung up in the home. Senbazuru: a thousand paper cranes.

We are not so entirely different. In England, paper marks your first year as a married couple. Everything of importance is made of paper.

This year will be paper too, despite so many having passed like the pages in a book. I’m ready to finish the story. It will always be paper, until he returns.

• • • •

I’ve always been a dreamer. My head in the clouds, Ted liked to say. He was always the practical one. I suppose he had to be, in his line of work. He was able to marry his ideals with pragmatism as easily as he married me. But you have to be pragmatic to survive.

After the war broke out, Ted was away a lot. His work was keeping him very busy back then. Many of the European families had started to evacuate. You needed a pass to get around town. Our European coterie that, months before, had been sipping champagne together in the warm evenings, was suddenly dispersed. The Germans and Austrians fared better, but all foreigners were regarded with a kind of contempt, a disdain too strong to be fashioned overnight. In retrospect, perhaps it had always been there, hidden behind painted smiles and strained pleasantries. Perhaps a kind of British stoicism prevented me from leaving, keeping me inside and ignorant of the dangers. Hiroko would venture to the market to get food and we would sit together silently in the evenings to eat whatever she had managed to acquire. It wasn’t much. Usually a meat broth of sorts, though I had no idea, nor did I want to know, what animal or cut of meat flavoured the meal. The banquets of food Ted and I had been used to eating before faded into memory.

When they started rounding up foreigners and taking them away, I knew we had to get out.

• • • •

I had the most alarming dream last night. I remember turning in the centre of the room and looking out all four windows. I was the compass point, choosing which perspective I preferred. But the landscape was different. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly how at first, as the land outside was cloaked in snow. And the snow itself fell in heavy sheets against the panes, obscuring what lay beyond.

When the blizzard subsided a little, I looked out of the south window, but instead of seeing the garden, I saw the road meandering towards the town. I rushed to the north window but instead of the road, I saw Hiroko tending the garden. I stood still for a moment trying to get my bearings, my compass was off; the views were inverted. The view from the west window confirmed my suspicions. Instead of green fields, the empty ocean lay before me. But the sea was void of vessels, the harbour vacant. The west window however, was completely masked by snow. All I could see was a dark shadow, a tall silhouette like a column. A reflection of myself in the pane perhaps, but the image was so dark I couldn’t make out any of my features.

I sat down at my desk, confused. I attempted to write a letter to Ted. He would know what to do. I was very cold. My breath formed little clouds, which floated on the air before dispersing. My fingers became so cold, I could barely move my pen.

A butterfly landed on my finger. It stretched its wings. I remember thinking it such an oddity, to have a butterfly perched on my hand in the middle of winter. But when I looked closely I saw that it was a bird, and I realised it was as white as the snow outside.

It was paper.

It rested on my finger a moment, then swept back its wings and flew away. It tried to fly out of the window but glanced against the glass. I would have opened it but I remembered that the windows couldn’t be opened. It repeated this a few times but gave up after a while and lay on the sill defeated. When I touched it, it was dead. I unfolded it and unfolded it again, dissecting the creature until all that remained was limp paper.

I heard a noise then. It was very faint. I strained my ears to identify its source. It sounded like rustling and it was coming from the wardrobe.

I took a few tentative steps forward. The din in the wardrobe was getting louder. As I neared, the wardrobe doors suddenly burst open and a flock of paper birds flew out. They orbited the room and I watched their frantic flight in awe. But then a crane swooped to my arm. Another to my shoulder. One nestled into my hair – a makeshift nest. I swiped them away but another landed in its stead. They descended with more urgency. Their claws scratched at my skin, tearing flesh as I attempted to strike them off. They swarmed until there was no part of me left uncovered. I called Hiroko, but I knew she couldn’t come. I called, and the cranes flooded my mouth, scratching and scraping against my throat, muffling my cries with folds of paper. I tried to shake them off and they fell to the ground like confetti, leaving near-invisible marks behind. I ripped the remainder from my body, slashing and scratching at their wings, tearing the paper into shreds. The mutilated remains of a thousand paper cranes lay at my feet like the crisp first dusting of snow. I looked at my skin and could see the thread-like incisions of a thousand paper cuts; tiny, minute slits which paused pale a moment before smiling red.

• • • •

Hiroko has dressed my wounds. She registers her disappointment by not talking to me. Not that she’s talked to me much since that last day in the market. She’s never really been the same since. But her silence speaks a thousand words, as if she holds me responsible for the bloodied sheets. I’m not sure if she is angrier at having to care for me or for the theft of her scissors. I know she suspects I’ve taken them, how else to explain the curious marks on my body. But she’d never believe me if I told her about the paper birds.

• • • •

The last time I saw Ted was around the time of Tanabata. The star festival. It’s my favourite one. The Japanese believe that the Weaver Princess Vega and her lover Altair are separated by the Milky Way. But on this day they fly across the universe and are united in the heavens. The Japanese celebrate by writing poems on strips of paper and attaching them to bamboo poles to bring good fortune. It doesn’t snow in July, but all that paper and Nagasaki is clothed in white. That last time, though, we didn’t feel like celebrating. No one did. We sat in the dining room and Ted went to the drinks cabinet only to find it empty. I asked Hiroko to fetch the liquor, which was locked with our valuables in the basement. There had been a lot of attacks on foreigners and foreign sympathisers, often fuelled by alcohol. It seemed best to keep it out of sight.

I waited until the jangling of keys subsided and went to him. I hadn’t seen him for so long. I had almost expected him to be arrested, knowing all that he knew, but somehow he had managed to escape capture. He wouldn’t tell me how. He looked small in his clothes, which were snagged and dirty.

Hiroko returned with a few bottles and Ted poured himself a large scotch and sat down heavily.

“In the next few days all foreigners will be taken to POW camps.”

The statement occupied the room. He swallowed the dregs of his drink and poured another.

“We should have escaped sooner.”

I asked if it was too late.

“We don’t have the right paperwork,” he said. “We would never make it past the check points.”

“Surely you know someone we could bribe?” I had asked.

“Wake up Elaine, it would never be enough.”

I knew he was right. We had lived like kings before the war, and Japanese resentment ran deep. Prices had inflated anyway, but foreigners had to pay ridiculous prices for simple commodities. Even Hiroko wasn’t exempt, the street vendors charging her exorbitant amounts knowing she served a gaijin mistress. One time she had returned with bruises on her face and arms. “Is there no other money?” I asked.

I could see him weighing something in his mind. And I noted the reluctance in his eyes as he told me about a great quantity of counterfeit money the embassy had seized before the war began. It should have been destroyed. Only a handful of officials even knew it even existed.

“To buy our freedom?” I asked.

Ted rounded on me. His eyes were fierce. “Do you know the risk if we are found out?”

We made the decision the same way we always did. I knew he would try to win this one. He thought we stood a better chance of survival in a prisoner of war camp. I knew that he would play scissors before our hands even began to move. He would hope I’d play my usual hand, and be the submissive wife he was used to. But I wanted to escape, to go home. I wanted England’s green fields.

I rolled my hand into a fist, unmoving as a rock.

• • • •

People often claim money doesn’t grow on trees but of course it does. Someone turns trees into pulp, then flattens in and stamps it with the head of some official. Who prints what onto those virgin notes is no concern of mine. But it matters to everyone else. Everything of importance is made of paper.

Marriage licence.

Money.

Travel permit.

Paper says who you are and what you’ve done. Our sentence was printed on paper.

• • • •

It’s our anniversary today. I’ve worked out the date from last week’s paper and though I can’t be sure, it feels like the right time.

I go to my wardrobe and carefully take out the paper construction I’ve assembled. It hangs from a coat hanger, which I suspend from the wardrobe door as I close it. I sit back on the bed and admire my handiwork. I’m sure Ted would like it.

The lengths of string are attached to the wooden frame, each with fifty cranes attached, which flap and float. The string is thick and coarse, and a length of bamboo would be much more suitable than a coat hanger, but needs must. As it is, the paper cranes weigh down on the coat hanger like a heavy robe, and from afar my creation resembles a white fur coat, the kind I imagine a Tsarina of imperial Russia to wear. A coat fit for a princess.

I pull the small silver scissors from my pocket. I’ve sharpened them on a rock from the garden. It, too, found its way into my pocket. My beautiful paper cranes bob up and down on the string, caught like fish in a net, fighting against a current stronger than they can contend with. In fairy tales the princess is always rescued. But what if your prince can’t come? What if your prince is discovered face down in a paddy field. His body broken and bloodied, misshapen by bamboo sticks and rocks. Unrecognisable, save for the paper crane crushed in his palm. You have to be pragmatic to survive.

I stand in the middle of the compass. I can see the stars out of the windows. Their brightness is reflected in the glassy surface of the ocean. Like Altair and Vega, we’ll meet again in the heavens. They are bright tonight, the stars, almost white. I watch them and realise they are falling. The stars are falling like snowflakes. But it doesn’t snow this time of year, not in Japan.

I turn to my favourite view—the east.

Rock: I throw the stone through the east window. The image of Nagasaki harbour shatters. The room is filled with icy air and I shield my eyes from the torrent of snow.

As the snowflakes settle around me I see in the distance a tower I have known all along was there. The dark silhouette from my dream. I can see it clearly now, reaching up into the heavens. And I can hear the bells. The bells tolling as they did on my wedding day. In the garden I watch Hiroko tending the wilted honeysuckle, except it isn’t Hiroko. Never was Hiroko. Easier to think it is though, than to remember she never returned that day from market. Everything is unfolding. I look back out of the east window, but all I see is west.

Scissors: I like the sound they make as the blades touch; Snip! Snip! Snip! I hold my garment of a thousand paper cranes and I cut the strings.

The cranes burst free from their shackles and soar into the air. The string falls to the ground. The cranes swarm around the room in unison and then, as in my dream, rest upon me. But the paper doesn’t hurt this time. Their claws scratch against me but I feel no pain. One rests in my palm. Its wings open and close like that of a butterfly. Then it flies away.

Paper: the cranes have begun to move, their wings beating, beating, beating. And suddenly I am weightless. They lift me up by my dress and I let them, remembering being carried in the arms of my prince. Teddy’s arms on our wedding day, across the threshold. My robe of a thousand paper cranes carries me over the broken glass, over the years, and out of the window I fly.

V.H. Leslie

V.H. Leslie’s stories have appeared in a range of publications, including Black Static, Interzone and Shadows and Tall Trees, and have been reprinted in a range of ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies. Her short story collection Skein and Bone from Undertow Books was a finalist for both the 2016 British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards for Best Collection. Leslie was also a finalist for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for her novelette, “The Quiet Room” and she won the 2013 International Lightship First Chapter Prize. She has also been awarded Fellowships at Hawthornden Castle and the Saari Institute in Finland, where she was researching Nordic water myths for her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. Her non-fiction has appeared in History Today, The English Review, Emag, Thresholds and This is Horror. Her debut novel, Bodies of Water, was released last year from Salt Publishing.