by Lisa Pais
Aiko took her place in the circle, somehow knowing it’s what she must do. Twelve spots had been marked in colored chalk on the wooden floor. Like a clock, twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year. Twelve playthings gathered round.
The moon, full and silvery white, made the icy frost on the window pane sparkle like diamond dust under its eerie glow. Although this was the only source of light in the room, it seemed to pour all of its strength into illuminating the circle while the rest of the room remained in shadow.
There were others, she could sense, if not see them. Phantoms hovering just out of sight. She was in an attic in a house that should not exist and yet it did, as real and as solid as she. Had it, too, been awakened after a long slumber? For that is how she felt, still groggy and unable to recall how she’d gotten there or for how long she might’ve resided within.
She glanced at those assembled. This night was special. This much she knew. Though how she knew remained just as much a mystery. Subdued whispers filled the tiny space and she took care to avoid eye contact with her companions.
She was unlike the others. Her sleek straight mane of ebony retained the luster it had when she was new. Her garments were of the softest silk and of the most delicate shade of lavender, and her plastic limbs were still pliable. Her pain was not reflected on the outside. No one spoke to her.
A cool breeze wound its way around her limbs the way a cat might wind its way around the legs of its owner. It was not an unpleasant sensation, though it caused her to shiver with anticipation. A disembodied voice called the meeting to order.
“Precious ones, I am the Chairman. You have gathered here on this very special night to take part in an ancient rite: Nox de Duodecim, The Night of the Twelve. We convene on the coldest of winter nights. You have from midnight until the first light of dawn to present your case before the Council. One of you will be chosen. Another will be taken. For that is the promise of winter, it takes so it may give.”
She did not fully understand. What must it take? What might it give? But there were eleven others set to present their requests before she would be called upon. She trusted that all would be made clear to her by the end.
One by one, the toys, looking more like wounded soldiers, made their way into the center of the circle. For some, the journey of mere inches was ploddingly slow; for others, nearly impossible. A doll, similar to herself in stature alone, had to drag her body forward. Each one was afflicted by the rigors of strenuous and imaginative employment. Not all toys had been awakened however. She learned that to be real was a rare and special gift.
All spoke of a love remembered and shared. Each broken soul bore the pain of this loss and, wishing to blot out the knowledge of such sorrows, they proclaimed regret that they’d ever been awakened in the first place. For certain, there are many lonely places in the world, but there is none lonelier than a box of toys consigned to the dusty and forgotten attic eaves, cast off by the very children who once loved them so dearly.
“Step forward,” the chairman commanded. “State your name.” A formality. All the toys assembled had been endowed with such an honor.
“Aiko,” she said softly, her manner demure and subservient. She kept her eyes on the floor.
“Do you know when you were first given to the child?”
“I believe I was a birthday gift.” This was a common answer.
“How long were you with her?” A doll was naturally assumed to have belonged to a girl child.
“Nearly two years.”
A hush seemed to steal through the already silent room, as if the thoughts of those assembled had been stilled in astonishment. Had she detected their thoughts earlier and only presumed them to be whispers?
“That is not so very long to have formed such an attachment,” said the voice. “You bonded quickly.”
“Yes,” she answered hurriedly, “but please do not hold that against me. In that short span of time, we shared so much. She confided in me all her worldly secrets, hopes and dreams.”
“As many of the children do with their beloved toys,” he said kindly. “What makes your bond so much stronger than any of the others here tonight?”
“She was sick,” Aiko said referring to the girl. “I was with her during the medical procedures. I comforted her when she cried and attempted to take on her physical pain so that she might not have to endure it alone, or at all.” But the doll’s lovely and delicate face remained unmarred and her clothes were not in tatters.
“You do not look like the others who are now worn from years of handling.”
“She loved me well,” was Aiko’s simple reply. “She took great care to brush my hair, to keep me properly clothed and to prevent any damage to my face.” Aiko lifted the hem of her gown. “But look here. Observe that I have not been spared from the ravages of the child’s suffering.” The pain which the child endured had left its marks on Aiko’s figure well hidden beneath her kimono.
“I see,” said the voice.
But she was not sure that he did. Not really. Did he understand that she had not been discarded but rather, that the angel had come for the girl and had taken her away?
“Tell us, Aiko, what do you desire? What is your request?”
“That my soul be freed of this plastic shell so that it might take flight and join the girl.”
There was a brief pause, when the voice returned his tone was gentle. “And if you are denied?”
“Then I would beg for oblivion.”
“Could you not find happiness in the hands of another? Might that not ease your pain?”
“You would do well to think on it for a moment before making your reply.”
“My answer would not change.” There was a moment of silence as if some sort of an exchange, unheard by her, was taking place. Then the voice came back. “Your name has meaning. Do you know what it is?”
“Beloved,” Aiko answered.
“Coincidence or providence, I wonder?”
With that the voice went away and the toys were left to wait. The others grew restless and her own impatience rose as the moments ticked on. What would happen if her request was not granted? Was there more she could say that might persuade them? Do I really need their permission?
With that last thought she edged back a step, but a sharp look from the toy on her left, some sort of Transformer action figure, made her hesitate. She stopped, however, when something in the corner of the room stirred.
The deliberations were over and once again Aiko was called to the center of the circle.
“The girl,” the chairman began, “You would follow her into the darkness so that she might never be alone?”
“It is decided then. Your request is granted.”
* * *
Alone now, perched against a rock in the frozen snow, Aiko waited, expecting her senses to dim as the black night crawled toward the gray and frozen dawn. From the corner of her eye, she saw a swirl of mist begin to take shape. In form and size it appeared to be a child, and she became hopeful. At the same instant the flap of wings drew her attention upwards. The angel has come for me.
Its great black wings spread open as it snatched her up with its talons. She gazed into its beady coal black eye for a moment and then felt herself lifted from the ground. The angel cawed just once then flew off into the blinding nothingness of the open sky.
In the attic the council and petitioners remained assembled as they had been. Like Aiko, they waited.
“Do you think in time she would have changed her mind and accepted another?”
“Would it have mattered?” replied the chairman.
For the truth remained that on this special night, two were always chosen. One born of flesh, the other merely a replica. It is also true that for every minute of every hour, an exchange occurs. As one soul battles its way into the light, another slips through the veil of darkness.
Some souls become lost and are left to wander this plane. Yet it is the little ones who find their way to the door of the house. Once inside, these little lambs are led to the attic to play with and love the discarded toys forever, the way that only a child can.
Copyright © 2015 by Lisa Pais