Ghosts of a Self

 

 

"But he isn't here in this school anymore. He never really was in the first place. Just like you..."

 

   --Ohtori Akio, to Himemiya Anthy, concerning Souji Mikage

 

 

Haro Gerasimos, in 2002

 

There is no use in speaking of what happened when I first left Ohtori. Even if my memories were clear enough to piece together a story it would be nothing but endless days of agony and confusion. I have no recollection at all how I first came to be all but imprisoned in the psychiatric ward of the regional hospital, and very little of how I managed to heal enough to earn my release. I did; that's all that matters. I discovered, to my surprise, that my savings account, pleasantly swollen from decades of interest, was still accessible. It was not much, but enough to leave. I counted it good fortune at the time, but I suspect now who might have had a hand in keeping it active.

Though they addressed me as Nemuro-san as I checked out from the asylum, I had already, even in madness, chosen a new name, one that was not Japanese, not even remotely his.

I had been exiled from both work and home. Mamiya was dead. Tokiko had vanished into the horde of normality, and while I suspect I could have found her if I put my mind to it, I ultimately chose not to--perhaps I didn't dare. There was nothing left for me in Houou, nor anywhere in Japan, and it seemed proper to emigrate.

It was easy enough to choose to go to England. I was already fluent in the language: no scientist can keep up with the latest papers without being able to read it, and I learned to speak it from international businessmen I'd dealt with while at Ohtori. While Mikage. Yet my memory of the language was, at least, intact. America seemed too overbearing, too massively continental, and the Americans I'd dealt with had always filled me with a vague disdain. And I knew there could be a place for me in the nexus of academics that is Oxford. I was already a researching parasite, an intellectual whore; it was something I'd been accustomed to ever since I'd laid down my soul for the End of the World in opening that doorway. It would be child's play to find work. So I took on as many clients as I could, buried myself in their problems, and tried to forget about my own.

I made exactly one concession to my past. I had no photographs, no keepsakes, nothing but my fragmented and conflicting memories; the End of the World left me nothing else. Somehow, though, I knew that dark red roses, when preserved properly, dried to a color that was almost black. So on my desk in my little apartment, along with my piles of manuals and journals and pieces of new-fangled equipment that I was fast familiarizing myself with--for there were no computers in the well of time that was Ohtori--is a vase of midnight-red dried flowers. That is for Mamiya. For his sister as well.

So that had been my life. Not happy, certainly--though I am not sure I could say any part of my life had truly been happy, except perhaps for those few weeks in balanced affection with Tokiko and Mamiya--but a life nonetheless. And I took small and bitter pride in the fact that, no matter what that man had done to me, no matter that he had built up my illusory life for decades and then shattered it with a few words, had made false my love and divided my sanity and used me mercilessly for his own ends--no matter what, I had not gone mad. Even if I could only sleep in catnaps because of terrible nightmares, even if I began to question my own existence if I spent too long in my thoughts, I was functionally sane. I had escaped the asylum. I was making my own way in this outside world. His victory was incomplete.

It was two years into my time at Oxford--four years since I had left Ohtori--when, without any warning, I felt a razor-sharp sword plunge into my chest and straight through my heart, scrape one side of my spine as the point cleared my body, and slide home to the hilt.

 

 

I never was sure whether he or his sister could leave their domain, their trap, nor whether they would consider me worth pursuing. But the possibility had weighed on me, and so, as soon as I could after arriving in England, I purchased a handgun. It seemed a useless gesture even at the time--against the witch or the End of the World, what are a few bullets? Still, it comforts me.

I have considered it. I have not killed face to face before, even if I have set fire to a hundred living boys who did nothing against me. But I did not have to consider it for long. Either of them? I could kill without blinking.

 

 

It was fortunate that I worked from home. Nobody was there to see me slide out of my desk chair with a little scream, shaking with pain as the first sword pierced my heart, as the second twisted between my ribs, as the third plunged low in my stomach and the fourth slid under my collarbone. Swords riddling my thighs, a point lodged amongst the bones of one knee that should have hamstrung me, a blade down my arm that should have sliced the muscles from my skeleton, rapiers crosswise in my wrists, a broadsword straight and choking into my throat. I stared at my body, clutched at it--for I was unhurt. There was no blood or injury. Only the pain, and a noise that hid beneath my perception like an auditory hallucination: a shriek of metal and a low murmur of distant voices.

The first week was beyond hell, perhaps even worse than my time in the madhouse. I could barely manage to type up the e-mails necessary to cancel or delay my jobs. Many apologies, I have contracted a sudden illness and will be unavailable for some time. The words would water and blur before my eyes. I am sorry, but I do not know when I will be able to return to work. I would advise finding another mathematician to aid you. I could eat, but it would never stay down, because my stomach would be sliced open before I could digest. Sleep was out of the question. I managed water, a little, but I grew dizzy from dehydration and dry heaves, and the tears of pain which I could not stop seemed such a waste. Still I drank as much as I could stomach, cold and hot and everything in between, to soothe my throat--at least as much as I could get in between breaths, between screams. Nights I would lie in bed and cling very tightly to the sheets to keep myself from writhing and watch the clock numbers turn. Midnight. The hour of the wolf. Morning. Interminable.

I lie when I say there was no warning. The night before I had been wracked by terrible nightmares, worse than usual, and ones which I was not used to. But from that I could never have expected this.

It seems impossible to think that I got used to it. I walk and eat and work and sleep and it never lets up, not for a moment. I would likely be unable to hold a normal job, certainly; my hands tremble at times, I walk hunched and shuffling with pain, and every once in a while a particularly bad one will still wrench a shriek from me. Like the one that pierced in through the arch of my foot and came all the way up my leg, grinding and scraping past all that bone, until the point severed something deep and agonizing in my hips--I can still remember how that felt. But I can type well enough, and read, and think, and speak without being hoarse from screaming, and that is all I need to live. The adaptability of the human animal is amazing.

My helplessness is equally amazing. As soon as I could think and work again, I researched along every line I could think of, only to find that nothing quite like this has ever been documented. I've drugged myself with more medications than I'd known existed, and none of them did the slightest bit of good. There was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. So, doggedly, I continued to do enough work to keep myself in clothes and software and instant noodles. There was nothing else to do but continue. I had a condition that didn't exist.

I had my suspicions, of course, that it was the work of Ohtori Akio. It wasn't until weeks after it began that I came to understand, even a little, what was happening and why. And even with that knowledge, I was still powerless to prevent it.

They say that people who had a limb amputated will often suffer from the illusion that it is still there. They will have sensations of their missing arm, a phantom map upon their consciousness. Phantom pain, if they think it's been damaged.

Thousands of miles away, my amputated consciousness is impaled upon a million swords. Phantom pain.

 

 

There were times during those first few weeks--have been times even since--when I have considered committing myself again. It would almost make my life easier. Nobody would mind if I screamed. They'd drug away the nightmares. Maybe they'd even find a drug to dull the pain--even if it dulled my mind, my intellect. Then I would be able to sleep in peace.

They are not thoughts I allow myself to have for long. Childish dreams. I've been in that hell and climbed out of it with my bare hands. I am not going back. Not even for peaceful sleep. And without my work, what would there be to keep my awareness away from the voices and the shriek of metal and the sheer unending pain?

My work and my coffee. I shall allow myself no other addictions. I can survive this.

 

 

I am the fragmented self, spread across years and continents. As if I left so much of myself behind at Ohtori that I have another body, connected to mine, another body stabbed through with swords. Perhaps not even a body; merely an existence. The more I ponder it the more I think: that campus and that man crawled with a power that was not science, could not ever be comprehended by a mind such as mine. Witchcraft, were I to name it.

It has happened before, after all. I saw my self in the halls of the Academy, back when my self had the absurd purple coat, the ID card, the rose-tinted lenses. I saw my self pushing that coffin. A little while later I laid myself down in a narrow dark coffin and burned my self alive and felt every inch of it, felt that phantom pain and fell screaming to my knees while Tokiko watched, bewildered.

I left Nemuro behind to be burned to ashes and his bare bones entombed in the empty, echoing basement, inhabited only by the illusion of Mamiya. I suppose I left Mikage behind to be used and tortured by that accursed man. Nemuro is dead, so I have no more pains to feel from him; but everything of Mikage's is still mine, now that I am Haro.

Not that Haro Gerasimos is a name I care for, even if it's the only one I've given myself. The meaning is close enough, perhaps. Honor and time, at least, though I have no claim for the former. No, Haro is a hollow name for a hollow self. But who will give me another one? One of the short-sighted professors I work for? The British naturalization services? I think not.

Nemuro has seen death and Mikage agony. That does not leave much for Haro to do but thrash in their wake.

 

 

I dream, often the same. This is what I see.

Mamiya's hands hold photographs, sheaths of them, and he pages through. Sometimes I see different ones, but usually, this:

Snap: a blank shuttered wall, glowing deep blue like the bottom of the sea

Snap: Ohtori Akio

Snap: myself, sprawled on the hood of a fire-red convertible, my--Mikage's--navy jacket stripped open, something akin to pain in my eyes

Snap: the same, with the jacket yanked down to my elbows, pinning my arms

Snap: Akio, his blood-red shirt unbuttoned, a savage smile on his face

Snap: dark hands on pale skin

Snap: my throat, bared, because my head is held back by my hair

Snap: myself, naked, at Akio's feet

[Note: From the look in my eyes, and his, he'd taken me entirely and against my will. I do not remember this at all. I only dream it, in frozen images, my beloved spreading forth my humiliation and debauchery. As if he took the pictures. As if I was raped before his eyes. Oh, Mamiya.]

Snap: a long tiled floor, empty, which I imagine echoing like a church

Snap: steps leading up to an empty wall, a stained glass window like rose petals, streaked with veins and glowing with a fell light

Snap: Akio again, a silhouette of him, and I can almost see dozens of swords transfixing him in their midst

Snap: myself, still naked, strangely transparent, crumpled on the stairs before the window

Snap: Akio's hand on my chest

Snap: calling light

Snap: drawing a sword, a saber hilted in an elegant curl of gold and black

Snap: and smashing it down on the hard tile floor

Snap: until the blade snaps off

Snap: and spins

Snap: and clatters at my feet

Snap: myself, screaming

[Note: Even I, for all my cruelty, had never fully contemplated that. I almost have to laugh, because else I'll be sick. He broke my heart. Literally. No wonder I feel so hollow inside. I'm a fragmented man, one fragment long dead, and my very essence has been snapped in two.]

Snap: Akio, forcing me up against that window wall

Snap: and stabbing my right hand through with the blade of my sword

Snap: and grinding through the left with the few inches left on the hilt

Snap: so my feet can no longer touch the ground

[Note: I almost wish I could remember that pain. That I can remember how my sword felt in my flesh. Sheer curiosity, you understand. I imagine it might burn like acid, shock me to the bone. But I do not know.]

Snap: myself, pinned there naked in the window, face white with pain, and Akio with his back to the camera, raising his arms

Snap: a million glints of steel in the darkness

[Note: I know by now the noise they make, quite well. The hiss of flight, the clash of steel upon steel as they wrestle for my blood, the creak and grind of metal as my other self arches helplessly in the web of blades that suspends and impales and imprisons him; and the unending sea of curses, a susurrus of hatred. I can only imagine what it must have been like hearing that rising for the first time, closing in upon me, when I couldn't even run.]

Snap: and the first one strikes, straight to my empty heart

Snap: myself, the Rose Bride.

There is only one thing I know of that time which isn't a picture, which isn't a dream:

"This is eternity, Nemuro," Ohtori Akio says quietly, and turns, and leaves.

 

 

Note.

Mamiya's hands are the same as the witch's. The Rose Bride's.

I only let myself realize things in bits and pieces. It is a peculiar understanding, as if I'd merely absorbed it from the air along with the stink of sparking metal. It hurts too much. More than the sword which is stabbing through my forearm, between the bones.

The Rose Bride.

I had thought the role was an honor. The Rose Bride, bloom and desire of the universe, beloved of all souls. So I sought to give her crown to Mamiya. Now, through some twist of fate or whim of cruelty, it has been bestowed upon me. And only now do I understand what I would have done to him.

Now the blade twists.

The moment I fully realized what it meant to be the Bride, that it was for that role that the swords came to me, I imagined it. I couldn't stop myself. Mamiya, naked before the blades. Mamiya, transfixed, his slender body torn through. Mamiya, screaming. Dark skin or pale, it didn't matter. My entire broken existence had betrayed itself to the utmost.

Let Akio or his witch take their swords back. I don't care about them. I don't care if they're torn to pieces. But Mamiya...Mamiya, dear god...

For him, I would have taken every blade. A meaningless thing to say, perhaps, but.

This is eternity. The Rose Bride. Sacrifice.

 

 

There are times I consider putting that gun to my own head.

There is no reason not to. No rational justification for my existence. The pain would end. It would even be a final little victory against him--because with me dead, where else would those swords go? It is sheer stubbornness. Perhaps, even, hope--as irrational as love, as irrational as kindness--which keeps me from pulling the trigger, holds me as its prisoner. I am truly not as reasonable a man as I once was. Nemuro would have done it. It is the most acceptable result of the calculation.

Perhaps part of the reason Akio chose me for this is that, if nothing else, I doggedly survive. I kept myself alive for countless years in his basement, after all.

Though now I don't have Mamiya at my side.

I do not understand what keeps me going. I am not sure I ever will.

 

 

A few weeks after the first sword, I logged in bleary-eyed in the morning to find an e-mail waiting for me, addressed from the domain of ohtori.jp, with the quiet subject line of Some further explanation is in order.

I reached for my coffee, my hand shaking, read it at least ten times without moving, and delayed the paper I was working on by over half a day.

I overstated things slightly, Nemuro. Or should I call you Souji? Haro does not suit you.

You still have not grasped eternity. I suppose now you will take this as comfort. Eternity does not exist. Not even my sister or I live forever and unchanging. One day your body will give way, and the ghost-self whose pain you feel will fade with your death, and the swords will have to find a new victim. But you will last far longer than any normal man. Years certainly, perhaps even decades, even with the stress of being the target of those blades. The splitting of your self affords some security, strangely enough. So does the little shred of immortality you achieved as I let you stay on my campus for thirty years.

You will not be able to save yourself. I can assure you of that. You must be saved by another, someone with both power and compassion for you. You have not the knowledge or will to force the swords upon a new target as I did to you, and nobody can dismiss them entirely. Your third eye is not open, nor will it ever be, because you'd need your own sword intact and in your heart for that. There is a certain logic to these things, you see. Somebody must care for you and understand everything and be strong enough to save you, and somehow I doubt that will ever happen. Even if princes exist, they never rescue boys.

I see no need for further communication with you, although, if necessary, I can be reached at this address. Or send post to Ohtori Academy and it cannot fail to reach me. But I will not spare you, and I might also inform you that my reputation is secured through means no mere genius could touch. There is nothing you can do to me. I, on the other hand, can easily control the freedom and life of this new self of yours, though I see no reason to meddle in your affairs if you do not offend me.

Enough threats. So that I do not sound entirely uncivilized, I give you a last offer and a last warning.

The offer is this: If you can ever bring yourself to return to Ohtori Academy, I could show you the location of Chida Mamiya's grave. There were respects you did not have the opportunity to pay. I would, however, advise you to leave soon after. The effect of the campus upon alumni is unpleasant.

The warning is this: My sister has left the Academy and is loose upon the world. Even I underestimated the witch's power. I would advise you not to meddle in her affairs.

It seems odd to close this letter with a thanks, since most of the help you've given me has been entirely inadvertent. You have, however, been most useful.

In truth,

Ohtori Akio

Some of the delay, I will admit, is because I went down to the range and fired at the blank targets in a machine-like haze until my trigger finger went numb and brown skin and mocking green eyes swam in my blurring sights.

 

 

Sometimes I like to imagine that I remember all of what my other self experienced. It is a foolish venture. How can one know the memories of a severed existence, far off and forgotten? I vaguely recall standing alone in an unlit basement, the stones timeworn and streaked with soot, resting my head on an empty metal tank. But that could not have been thirty years.

Or perhaps it might have. I am not sure Mikage still exists in any standard measure, if that is even the name to give to that self. Perhaps he needs not eat, drink, sleep. Nothing more than a ghost in a burned-down building.

Sometimes I will be assailed by fragments. A few irrelevant words from one of my assistants, before I gave them to the flames. Mamiya's illusory hand brushing over my lips. Tokiko, teacup in hand, on the verge of mentioning their father's death, catching herself before she spilled. Offering Arisugawa Juri membership in the seminar, and her proud refusal. Carefully packing my master's certificate and never remembering to put it up in my office at Ohtori. Breaking chalk in frustration. The first time I saw Himemiya Anthy, a dour girl trailing her brother with eyes as soulless as a robot's. Eating candied rose petals. Mamiya's illusory lips, brushing down my stomach.

That man, leaning over me with eyes as dark and hungry as an animal's.

"You do realize, Souji, that I could talk you into this. That I could twist your mind so thoroughly that you would endure every pain for me. But I'm not going to. That would, I admit, take time. Right here, right now, I could destroy you against your will as easily as I could if you begged me for it. And I admit to a certain exhaustion, a certain impatience with the game, for reasons which will soon become clear to you; and at the moment, time is against me. It's simply more to my benefit to conduct this business in a uncivilized manner. So for this--" and he reaches out to me "--and for the nature of what I must do, how I must debase and sacrifice you--" and dark hands tear open the clasps of my jacket "--I must apologize."

I do not know why I remember these things now, even a little. That wasn't me that he raped. It was barely even my name. Nobody called me Souji. Nobody came to that that intimacy; even Mamiya, tease that he was, rarely called me anything but senpai, if he spoke a name or address at all. But Akio took that intimacy. He forced it. To hear my unused personal name from him was like a physical blow.

Sometimes, when it comes to those memories, I try to forget--which is not something I like to indulge in, these days--but every time I force them away more come, digging like broken glass into my mind. My nightmares grow less of swords and more of violation. I woke up once sobbing and begging for mercy. The shadow of Mamiya stood impassive beneath one shuttered window and watched. I staggered to my closet-bathroom and retched.

"Don't you remember that eternity is built upon sacrifice, senpai?" He said that.

He was nothing but an illusion, all those years. Those words are nothing but an illusion.

He said that.

 

 

Sometimes, though not very often, professors or businessmen with a particularly nervous attitude towards my work will meet with me in my apartment, at least if they dare to venture to the poorer side of town. Occasionally they come unannounced, which does not surprise me; I have not limited myself to scrupulous employers. And often, too, I get deliveries of equipment. I certainly never have any other visitors, as I've gone out of my way to remain isolated, so those who knock, enter.

I hear a knock and turn in my desk chair, expecting the Balliol doctoral candidate who I've been aiding with his thesis.

Brown skin. Green eyes. Midnight-purple hair, loosened and down to her waist like a fairy-tale princess. Or witch. There is little distinction with women.

My gun is in my top desk drawer, loaded. I have it out before I breathe. As I stand, I feel an unusually large blade slide home between my ribs, piercing me through with the familiar hollow rush of a punctured phantom lung, and my stomach caves in from the pain, but my aim is steady.

There is another woman standing beside her, faintly familiar and smelling distantly of roses. Almost the shape of Tokiko's face, but different, no beauty spot; but I barely register her but for the widening of blue eyes as I click off the safety.

She does not look surprised in the least.

"Wait," she says, very quietly.

For a moment, I hesitate; and as I do, I feel, undeniably, the sword quiver, pull back out of my body, blood-slick and grinding against bone, and fall with a clatter to a church-tile floor.

 

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