A sequel to Leave, a story I wrote previously. Also works as a standalone story.
Shadow of the Crane
It is a gentle January wind, sifting through the trees and caressing the last few apple blossoms, their white and pink petals falling through the air like delicate miniature boats. They reach the ground that is a sea of green speckled with gold, along with the few red fruits nestled amidst the grass.
Donned in clothes of black and white, a small mob gathers. Prayers are said. Tears are shed. Murmurs are exchanged. Bouquets are settled.
He stands alone, behind the small and dispersed crowd as they make their way towards the dusty road, where a couple of cars are parked. A particular lady with honey-blond hair lingers for a while, then turns to leave as well.
He watches the car doors open and close, and the vehicles pull away. They travel further and further down the road, and vanish as they turn a bend.
Petals continue to fall from the trees.
He paces slowly towards the grave that the crowd had so recently gathered around earlier, as his shoes crunch on the yellowing leaves in the grass. A white petal brushes across his face and lands on his shoulder, but he doesn't bother to brush it off.
He kneels down. Shafts of sunlight winnow through the branches and land on the bunch of white lilies laid upon the stone before him.
It is hard for him to believe that in a peaceful place like this, someone has actually left for good, to another place where no living soul has ever gone before.
He closes his eyes. A faint stream of music echoes from deep inside his mind, and he carries himself away.
– – –
For a moment she thinks that she is still there — under a patch of sky full of stars. It seems to be so, for she sees them twinkle, as if beckoning her closer to them with their kind whispers. She remembers seeing them like this before, and she feels safe.
Suddenly it all seems different: the pinpoints of lights are shining more steadily; she can no longer feel grass by her feet, but instead a ghostly silence that hangs drearily around her. There appears to be nobody else around save for the strange sensations of beings she could not see — beings who caress her skin as they brush their way past her, oblivious to her presence. A distinct coldness washes over her, and she feels vulnerable.
He's not here.
Uttering a small cry, she sits up suddenly, only to knock into a blurred shadow she has overlooked. There is a vaguely familiar glimmer of colour — gold, like the hair of someone she knows.
She widens her eyes, and almost cries out his name.
"No, I'm not him," the figure says, in a very final sort of way.
From her position she can hardly make out the facial features of the figure. But as her eyes adjust to the dim light in the place that she is in, she sees that the figure — a young man, it seems — does not resemble her illusion much after all. He stands tall and pale, and wears a white robe that resembles a toga. His face is pointed and his hair gold, and in his hand he holds a long, glowing object, emitting twirls of pale mist every now and then.
"My name is Orestea," he says, with a small smile. "Welcome to the Ultimate."
She grips the emptiness underneath her palms; the ground beneath her consists only of dirty grey cloud-like material, nestling thickly beneath and supporting her, even though it almost dissolves at the touch of her fingers.
"The . . . the Ultimate?" she flusters. "What —"
"It looks quite obvious by now, doesn't it?"
Her breaths are raspy and shallow as she takes in Orestea's words, but she says nothing.
"You have gone and come," Orestea continues, not unkindly. "Left everything behind you — down there." He points at the cloud cover that seems to make up the ground. Beyond it, in the horizon, a sickle moon peeks out against the sky, now appearing larger than usual.
It is then that the implication of Orestea's words — and his presence — dawn upon her.
"No!" she cries. "I have not died! I'm . . . look, I'm still here, alive and talking, talking to you." She laughs uncertainly to herself. "I can see, I can hear, and I can breathe —"
At her own deep inhale she pales visibly. Something is smothering her, and she cannot feel any air rushing through her lungs, yet she feels normal.
I . . .
"I can't be dead," she whispered to herself. "I can't."
Orestea looks away.
"I can't . . ." Instinctively she curls herself up into a ball and draws her knees to her chin. Her wide hazel eyes stare downwards at the strange, misty ground, as they brim with involuntary tears and glisten in disbelief.
Orestea sighs. "It is true," he admits. "I know it always hurts to see how newcomers like you go into such denial and depression once they arrive here." He scans the other souls with their own mentors — some burst into messy tears, some simply sprawl out on the clouds, and look blankly at the sky. "But that is just my job," he adds, under his breath.
She raises her head and stares at Orestea. "Then . . ." she hazards, hopefully, "then you can let me go back, right? If we can come up here then we can surely go back down as well . . ."
His answer is curt, and tears begin to pour silently down her face.
"Although, every one millionth soul that come up here can have the choice of staying here or going back. Those who go back lose their memories most of the time . . . and you're not even halfway to the next millionth."
There is a long pause.
"But, but I just left . . . like that," she reasoned, more to herself than to Orestea. "I didn't even survive the year. I . . . I still have my . . . my parents, my sister, my friends, and . . . and . . ." She tries to speak the name out loud, but fails miserably.
For a while it looks as if Orestea sympathises with her. He — a soul himself, though of a higher status than most others — is actually trying to comfort another, and though it is tempting to give her another chance, he lets it go.
"Rules are rules," he tells her, finally. "I cannot help you, however much I wish to."
– – –
He pushes the brass handle, and chimes tinkle as the door swings open. A faint scent of freshly ground coffee powder wafts over to him, and he finds himself a seat near the front window.
This is where she will choose to sit as well, he recalls. He remembers how she likes to watch all the people walking past the café, and to make stupid suggestions about them. She had once even told him that the seats hidden at the back corner of the shop were 'suffocating'.
"May I take your order, sir?"
Sir? she would repeat quietly, and nudge him on the arm. You call this sissy a 'sir'?
He asks the waiter for an iced coffee, all the while gazing at the empty seat opposite his own. Then he remembers.
"No wait — can I have another cup of . . . just whipped cream with a cherry? Thanks . . ."
The waiter does stare at him at this peculiar request, but he only nods, and walks off.
"This is really dumb. You know I don't like these . . . chic and classy places, and —"
"And all the more I should bring you here. For more exposure. And it won't hurt giving it a shot right?"
She went on sulking, until a waitress — who looked like she was in her late thirties — came up to them with a bright smile and said, "Hello, dears . . . what'll you have today?"
The girl cringed slightly at the waitress's second word, but he only stifled back a laugh and looked at her across the table. "Well?" he asked.
"I don't know."
The waitress's kind smile extended all the way to her wavy blond hair. "Tell you what," she suggested, eyes twinkling. "Today's special is the Almond Joy Cappuccino, freshly prepared just for the two of you. Plus a good deal of chocolate almond topping. How does that sound?"
He nodded and smiled politely to her on the girl's behalf, and within minutes their orders came. In the simple white china cups was a delicious frothy espresso and milk confection, topped with whipped cream and delicately sprinkled with cinnamon powder. The most attractive part to the cappuccino, though, was the glistening red cherry atop the cream.
She pulled one up and popped it into her mouth, grinning at him.
The waitress laughed as well, and said, "Well, I suppose it's hard to please her, isn't it? You should thank me, then." She pats proudly at the her badge on her apron, and winks at the boy. "Panacea — remedy for all difficulties. Enjoy!"
The next few minutes was spent with her scooping up the cream with the silver-plated spoon to taste it, and with him trying to teach her how to sip it properly without getting a white moustache (it was her first cappuccino, after all). She seemed to like the chocolate and cream much more than the espresso itself.
"But that's what sweetens the whole thing, anyway," she argued. Then she went all thoughtful. "You suppose I can order just a cup full of cream? Cherry included, that is . . ."
He gave her an amused smile. "Try Panacea, then," he suggested.
Though she was highly bewildered and amused, the jovial waitress did bring the girl her special order: whipped cream in a cup twirled to a peak, with a generous sprinkling of brown powder. Plus the small fruit, of course.
He was happy enough to watch her enjoy her own choice of 'beverage' in the café, despite the other customers glancing towards their table occasionally, presumably thinking how they were going to satisfy their own sweet tooth.
Sometimes, he couldn't understand how she could react to everything around her so differently, as compared to anyone else.
But she was happy. And if she was, then he was just as content.
Her cup of cream was emptied quickly, and she leaned back, smacking her lips in content. "You know," she suddenly said. "I don't understand why people won't just go for this cream, instead of drinking stupid coffee that only stains their teeth and gives them bad breath. . ."
"It's not that bad actually . . . Maybe next time when I bring you here you'll be able to appreciate the goodness of coffee and not sweeten yourself to —"
"All done, then?" Panacea walked by their table and asked. Then she smiled at the petite girl. "Cream's on the house."
She turned back to the boy across her seat. "See?" she whispered smugly. "What's so bad about that?"
– – –
Yet the cup of whipped cream before him is still full to the brim, and his half-finished drink is turning cold. He watches as the cherry — untouched — sinks slowly into the fluffy whiteness of the cream, and finally he tears his eyes away. He leaves through the back door, feeling a sense of emptiness pricking at the back of his eyes, yet again.
– – –
"But . . ." she asks quietly, tugging at her own sleeve. "Can't rules be changed? Can't you be a bit more . . . flexible about them? Can't you make any exceptions?"
Orestea is already seated beside her on the bank of clouds that is the ground, and staring at the rising moon. "I have been here for over a year now . . ." he muses, "and nearly everyone asks the same thing." He smiles at her, with a hint of secrecy. "But all of them get rejected, of course."
Her anguish fades slightly, and she stares at Orestea's hair. It is a very pale gold, unlike the darker shade of blond of someone she knows — someone she knew. "Then why are you still here?" she asks him, instead. "What do the rest of them do once they come here? Do they get incarnated or something?"
He pauses for a minute, drawing continuous circles with the radiant baton he is holding, before explaining. "Here at the Ultimate, people reach the highest level ever in their lives. A few lucky ones get Enlightened, and sent off to the West, where they will know the real meaning of paradise. Some others make for the East, where they will get better chances of rebirth.
"But some others just cannotaccept the fact that they have left the mortal world, and so start to wreak havoc. Once they do that, the only place left for them to go is Hell, several levels down. Then, they will just have to be good and earn their way up here again, though they may not necessarily be able to spend any more time in your world."
Orestea stops twirling the wand, and the vapour fades out in its wake. "And there are some of us who are Chosen, to guide the newcomers, to help them settle down and let the Ultimate take care of them naturally. I am one of them."
She pauses for a while to think. "Then . . . why me?"
He smiles again. She cannot understand why his smile looks so warm, yet so distant, and it triggers off even more memories.
"A Chosen can only leave this part of the Ultimate until he has guided a hundred souls. You are my hundredth."
A brief silence hovers between them.
"What exactly do you want to go back for, anyway?" he asks, curious. "You have left too much behind; there is no way you can change anything."
The girl whispers something, almost inaudibly, and Orestea cannot catch the words. But he can somewhat figure out the nostalgia behind her expression, and so he asks no further.
– – –
He does not remember how he actually can survive school. The days simply drift by hazily, and his feet merely carry him off to the different destinations in school for each period.
He has, during one of those periods, picked up the habit of staring at the back of an unoccupied chair a few rows in front of his, and imagining the figure that once sat there — poring over complex equations as she struggled to understand her work.
"Are you free after school?"
"I've got a meeting regarding the paper, but I think I can squeeze out some time in between." He leaned back in his chair and grinned at her. "Why do you ask? Sick of me asking you out and dying to make the first move now?"
"No." She glared down at him.
"Careful with those eyes of yours!" he warned, in jest. "I don't want to see them on the floor later. And you haven't told me why."
"I, um, I need some help with — okay, let's make that a lot of help — with the . . . assignments."
"Assignments? Which one?"
"The whole lot."
"What do you mean, the whole lot?"
"Can you stop repeating all my words?" she exclaimed. "And yes, I know you're smart and all, and I'm just some idiot who can't digest all the information in class and —"
"You're not. Anyway why do you always think of yourself like that? Nobody ever said you're dumb."
She lowered her head.
"Look, we can settle this — Either we stay back at the library this afternoon, or I come over to your house, or you come over to mine, to discuss everything again, and if there's anything you don't understand I'll just have to be your personal tutor — stop rolling your eyes— and the meeting can wait . . ."
"I thought the committee simply cannot do without you? And I hear there's this really big sports event coming up and you all are supposed to do a whole lot of write-ups and interviews and such —"
"I said that can wait. You think I really enjoy exaggerating all the stuff that happens in the stadiums when you know what exactly goes on under the stands? You think I really like to suck up on those champions with their perfect interviews and their stuck-up attitudes? If I could I'd just kick their —"
"Okay, okay, I get the idea! Anyway we have to go back soon . . ."
An unusual length of silence hovered between them.
"So . . . same place after lessons, then?"
"Yeah. See you."
"See you. And — be careful, okay?"
– – –
He himself isn't careful enough; the teacher stands right next to his desk and catches him lost in his thoughts. With a frown she returns him his test papers. A blood-red 'F' instead of the usual A's meets his eyes.
"See me after class," she says.
– – –
"Can I just take a peek down there —"
"I just want to look down and not go down there or whatever!" she exclaims indignantly. "Why can't I make sure my family is fine and that everyone else is doing well? Why must you be so bent on being such an obedient Chosen so that you can get out of this place after you've gotten rid of me?"
Why must you look so much like him and act so different from him just to make me feel worse?
"I'm not trying to get rid of you," Orestea assures her, gently. "I'm just here to guide —"
"To guide me, guide me to whichever Ultimate? Does it matter to me? No. Do I care? No. I don't need any guidance, thank you."
"My dear girl," Orestea said sternly. "You have to learn to put it all behind you. To let it all go. I know it takes time but —"
"It's not as easy as you think, Orestea." She brushes the searing wetness out of her eyes hastily. "It's not. And you know why? Because it's only after I came here did I realise all the things I've missed when I was alive. Because I regret not having cherished everything I had. Because I took everything for granted —"
"Because you know he still thinks of you. And because he's the last person you saw before you left to come here."
She raises her head through her tears, and Orestea smiles softly.
"I can tell, you know. I know there's something, someone important that you don't want to part from." He touches the ground with the tip of his wand, and a hole spreads out evenly, revealing a never-ending patch of stars below. "Tell me, then. How long had it been?"
"Four . . ."
"Four months? That's pretty short —"
"No. Four years."
There was another silence.
"And how did you two meet in the first place?"
Orestea's voice becomes more and more gentle as she tells him. He doesn't want to just hear her speak; he wants to listen. And hopefully, after that she can realise the truth.
For once she was silent, and not being her careless self with her devil-may-care attitude. When he tried to ask, all that came from her lips was a lifeless monotone.
"I think we should stop seeing each other."
It didn't hit him the way she expected it to; instead he gazed steadily at her, trying to get a hint of explanation from her eyes, and she avoided him. But deep inside he felt a sudden chill, and suddenly felt exposed, more vulnerable, more afraid than ever before.
"Why? You still dare to ask why? Haven't you seen everyone else and their reactions when they see me anywhere near you?"
"I, I don't —"
"You remember that time you pulled me over for dinner? Did you see the way your mother glared at me throughout? Did you see her smug face like she's so high up above me? And did you hear her snide remarks in the kitchen when she talked to your sister? You may not have heard, but I noticed."
"But what's that got to do with —"
"And did you see how all your friends stare at me when I tag along with you? Fine, I know I'm a girl and that's not my business, but I know they don't like me. Think that I'm a pest clinging on to you when I have my own life to live, those buddies of yours!"
"You're being para—"
"And just about everyone else does the same thing: give me looks and sneer at me and talk about me behind their backs. I can hear them all. And you know why? All because I have Asian blood running through my veins. All because they look down on me, thinking that a mongrel like me is trying to fit in into the society. All because I look . . . different."
She paused in her reasonings; he looked on at her, unable to say anything to disrupt her, to stop her from giving excuses, excuses for leaving —
"You know where my Mum comes from."
"Does it matter that you mother is Asian? That doesn't mean that everyone can treat you like you're nothing to them! You're still human, and you still have feelings and all! And even if the whole world turns against you, I . . . I'll still be here, beside you. With you."
She said nothing.
"We can't just . . . just break up like this by those excuses of yours. And . . ." His voice fell. "I think I know why you're saying all this."
By then her tears were flowing freely down, and she stared hard at him. "Fine, so now you know that I'll die anytime, so why bother if it's going to make you sad anyway? Why don't you just go look for someone else to go out with and take it as if I never existed?"
"You're not making any sense at all!"
The dreary silence hung for a long time, and none of them could think properly. Then she said, very, very quietly:
"I don't want you to get upset if I die."
All of a sudden he regretted having shot back at her, and blaming her, and flaring up at her, but before he could open his mouth to say anything else, she mumbled, "I want to go home."
At the porch of her house they never said anything; he merely watched her enter the house and slam the door behind her. He expected her to bound up the stairs, but heard no footsteps. Instead, muffled sobbing wavered from the other side.
I don't want you to get upset if I die.
Telling himself that nothing of that sort would happen was a fatal illusion, and it would hit him even more badly if she ever left. He slumped down against the wall at her doorstep, staring at the distant night sky, distressed and broken.
– – –
She stares at the silver-tinted moon, now hanging midway between the horizon and the zenith. The Pleiades twinkle on in the constellation of Taurus, and a stray meteor streaks through the night sky.
People come and leave. All the time.
"Maybe you're right," she says, finally. "I should be letting go."
Orestea does not reply, and only twirls the baton again. The small hole in the clouds swirls and closes, and he stands up.
"Come," he tells her gently, holding his free hand out to her. "I will show you the way."
She takes his hand — cool, and soft, and now only distantly familiar — and stands up after him.