A/N: Inspired partly by the discussions of "the other" in my Reading Fiction class. Originally I was going to give Ico some visible birthmark(s) instead of horns, but I went with something even less blatant and didn't see the need to add to his troubles.
Some random notes for the curious: The courtyard comes from a similar one in my high school. The fan is from my elementary school. I could never figure out why it blew warm air in the cold. The teachers wouldn't let us stand on it.
Also, please read before calling me on errors:
The apple cider could possibly have made her ill if it wasn't pasteurized possibly, but I don't think Ico would know or care about cider pasteurization so he didn't mention it.
Yes, I know appendices don't really explode bloodily, but these are kids.
When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my 'mind's eye' flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head.
- Keats ("To Hope")
He had seen her in the hallways between classes or at lunch. Like him, she ate lunch alone. He had come across her once or twice, nibbling an apple in a quiet corner.
She was almost inhumanly pale. Her skin was as white as paper and her hair the colour of coffee with too much cream. He had never felt more awkward in his dark Slavic skin with his dark home haircut. Muttering an apology, although he didn't really know why, he stumbled away from her. She watched him curiously but did not rise or speak.
The other kids generally kept away from her. She was different, she was weird – they weren't even quite sure she knew English. They avoided her, but they didn't tease her like they did him – he was strange in ways they understood: he was short and clumsy, he wore funny clothes, he didn't always smell nice, he wasn't particularly good at anything. He didn't have friends so he didn't make friends. He was content to play alone.
His goal was to get through school until he was old enough to quit. By then he would have a job at the shoe plant where his father worked. He had grown up with the smell of hot rubber clinging to his father; it was what made his classmates squinch their noses when they caught it on him. His parents were immigrants; they didn't have much, but they didn't need much, and he was raised to be grateful.
There was one spot in the school that he liked: if you ducked through the janitor's door when nobody was looking, another door led to a small courtyard where a giant fan for the furnace was kept. It was loud enough that you couldn't hear anything, and the fan spewed warm air in winter. That was his favourite place to go to eat or to be alone.
It was a cold sunny day when he found her there, crouched in the soft overgrown grass. He felt a stab of irritation, injustice even, to see his secret place disturbed. But he couldn't help but notice the glow her fantastically white skin seemed to give the air around her. He was about to turn and leave when he heard a whimper.
The girl was holding her ankle, which as he came closer he could see was swollen and ugly against the beautiful white. She looked up at him and tried to pull it in closer to her, but cried out from the pain.
"Are you alright?" he asked, feeling stupid. Of course she wasn't alright; she was hurt. "What happened?"
Her eyes darted from him to her foot and back again several times before she whispered, "Fell."
"You fell? Did you see the nurse?"
She shook her head.
"You should go see the nurse," he said lamely, and was met with a stare. "Come on, I'll help you." He extended his hand, which she gazed at with some terror before shakily taking.
The school nurse eyed them as they came in, the boy supporting the girl with an arm around her shoulders. It was the kind of school where the staff knew the students' social standings almost as well as the kids. So why, she wondered, should these two outcasts have found each other? The girl was several years older and neither had shown interest in ending their isolation before. The boy wasn't a good kid – he usually kept quiet, but at times he had tried to fight the other students' words with his fists. Teachers were never happy to discipline him for that. Maybe he belonged to that rare breed who protected a spark of nobility despite everything that happened to him, or because of it.
"She hurt her foot," the boy explained.
The nurse nodded and took the girl's hand free hand. "What's your name, dear?"
Wide-eyed, the girl responded in a strange accent, "Yorda."
"Yorda, that's a very pretty name. Why don't you come with me into the back here and we'll see what's the trouble?"
The boy stood uselessly near the door as the nurse led Yorda away, and then he bolted, expecting never to see the pale girl again.
Sitting in his private courtyard the following day, he couldn't have been more surprised when a tall white form limped into view from behind a tree. She clasped her hands together and nodded, by way of a greeting.
"Hello," he replied.
"Yesterday," the girl said, "the nurse. Thank you." She bowed from the shoulders.
The boy shrugged and gave up trying to place her accent. Hungarian? Swedish? Some of the other students thought she might be Dutch. Some of the girls whispered that she was a foreign princess who had somehow gotten left behind here and was lost without her jewels and servants. All agreed that she was quite pretty, but strange.
"I'm Ico," he said.
"Ico," she repeated, and smiled, her eyes turning into little crescent-moon slits. It was the first time he had ever seen her smile; her countenance was invariably tragic or frightened or both. This was a noticeably pleasant change. He smiled too.
She left soon after, to go to class, he assumed. He stayed in the yard because class wasn't important, and he had enough wits to know that no textbook could teach him about anything as significant as secret courtyards or peculiar pale girls or friendship.
He didn't see her again for several weeks until one unusually warm day in November, when he found her huddled in a corner of the courtyard. With one arm she held her knees tightly to her chest, while the other hand obsessively stroked her hair.
For several seconds he deliberated staying or going before ultimately walking over to her and asking what was wrong. In response, she raised her head enough for him to see her wet, reddened eyes. Her long light hair fell in front of her face and she cried harder. When she bent her head back down, he finally noticed that a large piece in the back had been harshly cut off to less than half its length. He asked her what had happened.
She grabbed a chunk of the hair hanging in front of her face and mimed cutting it with the other hand, then went back to crying.
So they didn't always leave her alone. Ico thought he knew who might have done it – the trendy girls who wore makeup and sometimes watched Yorda with hatred in their gaudily shadowed eyes. They were universally despised for their subtle cruelty and easy, spoiled lives.
He sat down beside her. "Those bitches."
She looked at him with surprise and he wondered if she knew what the word meant. She was still clutching her hair. He tried to gently lower her arm. "It's okay," he attempted. "It will grow back."
She shook her head quickly. "Mother…angry."
"Well she shouldn't be; it's not your fault," he declared. She just shook her head. But she had stopped crying.
They sat there in silence for a while longer. Yorda clearly had no interest in leaving the yard. Ico stayed with her, poking around the courtyard with a stick, looking for anything to alleviate his boredom. Finally they heard the dismissal bell. Yorda jumped up and ran out before it stopped ringing. Ico followed after a few minutes, neither in a rush to go home nor wishing to delay it.
The next day, he was climbing the lone evergreen tree in the courtyard when Yorda entered, part of her hair tied back to disguise the short section. She was carrying something. He dropped down, startling her and causing her to drop the object. It was a very old, battered paperback book. He squinted to see the cover but couldn't make out the words. "Can I see?" he asked, sticking out his hand. She looked at his dirty palm for a moment before cautiously giving him the book.
The picture on the front was of an old castle under a grey sky. The words were in a language he couldn't recognize; many of the letters weren't even in the English alphabet. When he asked her what language it was, she shrugged and pointed to herself. "Japanese?" he guessed. She stared blankly, squinted her eyes as if thinking, and shook her head. "Umm…Ukrainian?" She shook her head again. He had never been good at geography or learned much about languages in school. Two languages were enough – one for home and one for school.
He noticed her staring very intently at the book, so he offered it back to her. She took it and thumbed through the pages until she found a particular spot and started reading.
"What's it about?" he asked.
"Story," she replied.
"What happens in it?"
She stopped reading and struggled for words for a minute before giving up and returning to the book.
"Is it an adventure?" he suggested.
"You don't know?"
"Don't know," she corrected herself.
He tried to think of the kind of books girls read. His little sister liked fantasy novels with dragons and magic. "Does it have magic?"
She repeated the word slowly. "Magic?"
"Yeah, like…fairies or wizards, magic spells. Stuff that doesn't happen in real life."
"Magic," she said again.
"So it is about magic?"
She shrugged. "Don't know magic."
"Neither do I," he said with a grin. She looked confused. "Never mind."
After a few minutes of watching her read, he ventured, "Your hair looks better." When he received a now-familiar blank stare, he pointed to her pale tresses. "Better…nicer…more good?"
"Good," she said, showing a hint of a smile. "Mother fix."
"Was she mad?"
Yorda nodded and rubbed the side of her face, wincing.
"She hit you?" He demonstrated by slapping the back of his hand.
He nodded as well. Parental discipline was a fact of life. But his father never hit his little sister as much as he did Ico. He had become used to the unspoken law that girls were more fragile and needed protection as much as they did punishment. Looking at Yorda, that had never seemed truer. She was skinny and slow and shivered in the wispy white dress she always wore. Her feet were tucked under her because her thin white slippers did little to keep out rain or cold. She was the very picture of frailty, tall and awkward and graceless in her timid movements. An odd thought came into his head: if she were my daughter, I wouldn't hit her.
December. The wind made everything twice as cold and Ico didn't have a winter coat. Yorda had even less. Their city's winters weren't hard or even particularly cold compared to other places, but the wind still bit at bare skin.
He brought a hated sweater of his to school, an ugly wool thing from a second-hand store. They laughed at how funny it looked on her, baggy and comically short in the arms, but it was warm and she was grateful. He helped her climb on top of the big grated fan, which blew straight upwards, and they danced in the heated air. She gripped her dress tightly to keep it from blowing up above her waist, but a few times it did anyway and neither of them cared.
She skipped her English classes to join him on the fan and learn how to speak the language. Even though he was young, he made a good teacher because English was his second language too, and he remembered the struggles he'd had with it. She was an earnest, diligent student, slow but determined, and she made steady progress. Within weeks she was able to describe the most important part of her life: her mother.
To Yorda, she was God. To Ico, she was controlling almost to the point of abuse. Although the woman knew English, she refused to share any of that knowledge with her daughter, instead forcing Yorda to speak in only their native tongue. (Yorda was still not able to tell him, in English, what that language was.) Most of the time, she kept Yorda shut up in her bedroom with no toys or comforts. Occasionally she would yank her out and dress her up for display when she had company over. On those occasions, Yorda was expected to stay silently smiling while her mother chatted with the visitors. She brushed the girl's hair fanatically and refused to let Yorda do it herself, saying she couldn't do it well enough. She fed her as cheaply as possible, usually with gruel or potatoes, and sewed her a new dress only when her current one wore indecently thin. When Yorda made a small mistake such as tripping when she walked or dropping a dish, her mother would belittle the girl until she ran out of tears.
Ico asked about her father. Yorda had never known of one since as far back as she could remember. She recalled asking her mother about it once, because all the other kids in school had fathers, and was answered with a slap and the equally sharp response: "I need no man." She was still not sure what that meant.
Ico was familiar with strict parents and poverty, but his family was never cruel to him the way hers was. No wonder there was a cloud of hesitation around everything she did or said; the girl lived in fear that her own shadow would rise up and smack her.
During lunch period on the first day back to school after Christmas Break, Ico waited expectantly for his friend in the courtyard. When she didn't come, he went back into the hallway to check the clock. She was usually there within five minutes of class ending, carrying her tiny lunch in a plastic bag and greeting him with a shy smile. The clock hands went around and still there was no sign of her. She had never missed a day of school; her mother hated having her around during the day and insisted on flawless attendance. She had already given Ico several colds from coming to school ill.
She was there the following day, looking tired and, if possible, paler than usual, although her face was oddly flushed into an unpleasant pinkish pattern and her blue-violet eyes were puffily encircled by the same colour. She said she had been too sick to get out of bed the day before, but her mother made her come to school today rather than stay home twice in a row. She felt better today, she claimed. Her mother had been right to get her back up onto her feet.
Ico was doubtful. His parents would never let him leave the house looking as unsteady as she did. She spent all their time together sitting against the brick wall which enclosed the courtyard, barely moving, her eyes half-open. He hoped it was just a 24-hour bug or something else very temporary. When he got her to describe her symptoms, it sounded like the flu – a violent stomach sickness. But then he remembered his father having similar problems and the doctor thinking that it was caused by food poisoning. He asked her if she had eaten any eggs or chicken that might have been bad, although he doubted she ever ate those things. She confirmed his doubts, saying that she had had little more than warm gruel and cornbread lately – although her mother had allowed her a little apple cider over the holidays one time when she had friends over. She had taken it up to Yorda's room after they left. Yorda smiled a little at the memory, recalling her first taste of the spicy drink.
Ico went back to assuming it was the flu. Apple cider should be harmless, unless maybe it was hard cider and the alcohol disagreed with her stomach. Yorda said she didn't know; her mother hadn't said anything about it, just that she had a special treat for her. Her baffled delight at her mother's unusual behaviour saddened Ico; affection, he believed, should not be so rare as to cause confusion.
She seemed healthier the next day, and Ico's worries began to dissipate. He figured it was probably just a stomach virus. He discovered to his dismay that the illness seemed to have sapped her strength; she had never been hardy or possessed of his youthful vigour, but she was noticeably weaker in the following days. He held off on activities like climbing the lone tree – something he had always enjoyed more than her anyway – and instead sat against the wall with her, quietly conversing, and waited for her to return to normal.
To his frustration, the wait stretched on. If anything, she seemed to be growing feebler. Soon all she wanted to do was sit and talk. Once when she tried to join him in sitting on a tree branch, she didn't make it onto the first limb before tripping and badly scraping her arm against the rough trunk, tearing the sleeve of her dress in the process. She dropped to her knees and began to tremble. Ico jumped down from his perch to comfort her. By now he was used to her reacting with fear whenever she dirtied her dress or hurt herself or did other things she knew would irk her mother, but she was especially anxious this time. Her mother would have to sew the ripped part, and the blood on the fabric from her wound would be difficult to get out. And lately her patience had been shorter than ever.
Before the break, Yorda confessed, she had left for home in high spirits after she and Ico parted with a quick hug, still tasting the unfamiliar phrase "Merry Christmas" on her lips. Upon arrival, she enthusiastically repeated it to her mother, and then quaked at the furious expression that crossed the woman's features. Her mother demanded to know who had been filling her head with stupid ideas. She stammered that a boy she met had told her about Christmas and what fun it was. Immediately she was ordered up to her room without supper and ignored until the next day. She asked for something to eat and was slapped for her "insolence," instead receiving a lecture on how she was becoming disrespectful and "wild." Her mother threatened to punish her if her manners didn't improve. Bewildered and already confined to her bedroom, Yorda could only imagine what consequences might follow. She kept fearfully silent all day despite her rumbling stomach. Later, she heard the sounds of her mother entertaining acquaintances downstairs and smelled lovely things cooking, things she was never allowed to eat. The stabbing hunger pains became too much and she started crying. Minutes later, her mother came into her room and shouted at the sobbing girl for embarrassing her. How dare she be so ungrateful after being protected and cared for all her life? How could she cause her own poor mother so much trouble? Yorda tried to apologize, but her mother slammed the bedroom door behind her so hard that the wood cracked. She curled up on her bed – a mattress on the floor – and tried not to cry.
She woke up, weak and confused, some time later to her mother entering her room again. This time she bore a smile and a steaming mug, though her eyes were the same icy grey as before. Setting the cup down on the floor, she warned Yorda not to spill it, then turned and left.
Yorda rubbed her eyes and gawked at the cloudy brown liquid. She had smelled it earlier and knew it to be cider, but she had never expected to be offered some. She took a tentative sip and burned her tongue. It was delicious. When it had cooled enough to swallow, she gulped down every drop, then promptly fell asleep.
Since then, her mother had mostly ignored her, giving her gruel for breakfast and dinner and snapping at her if she tried to say anything. Worse than her mother's rage, Yorda said, were the times when she kept her resentment quiet. She could overflow at any time, and that was sure to happen tonight when Yorda returned home with a torn and bloody sleeve.
Ico tried to console her, but after hearing her story he was almost as worried as she. At the end of the day, they parted with gloomy faces and he hoped for the best.
It was cold the next day, colder than usual even for January. But Ico was warmed down to his skinny ankles by the sight of Yorda's smile as she entered the courtyard. She showed him the mended tear and excitedly told him that her mother had stitched it without so much as a harsh word, and on top of that, she had given the girl another mug of cider. Yorda was in heaven. Ico tried to share in her absurd happiness despite the pity he was sure he couldn't keep out of his voice.
Some of the hope drained from him when he saw that it was another one of her tired days. They sat side by side on the fan and he struggled to keep her awake, saying anything that came into his head on the chance that it might arouse her interest and provoke a response. Anything to keep her clear, timid voice from dipping low and sleepy as her words turned to murmured gibberish. Anything to keep that soft head from slipping down onto his shoulder.
That day, nothing he did could keep her conscious. He watched her violet eyes disappear under the white eyelids as they talked. In desperation, he probed the subject of her mother, but even that failed to excite her. He was beginning to think her suffering distressed him more than it did her.
Then, a miracle.
Ico sat slumped against the wall, despondent. He had given up trying to talk to Yorda and instead turned his mind toward his own gloomy thoughts. As if to add to his melancholy, he began to feel bits of cold pricking his skin. What could make this day any better but rain, he thought bitterly. The courtyard offered no shelter beyond the warmth of the fan and the tree's scrawny branches, so they would be forced to move indoors and find a secluded spot for Yorda to doze. But there was something odd about this rain. It wasn't as cold, he thought, puzzled. No – it wasn't as wet. And it was – was it? – it was, he realized joyously, white.
Thrilled, he shook Yorda awake. When her bleary eyes finally showed themselves, he shouted, "It's snowing!" She looked more confused than ever. He laughed as he realized that he had never taught her the word for snow because it was unheard of in their climate.
They watched in awe from the cozy fan as the white stuff fell. In minutes there was the faintest film on the ground, and by the time lunch period was over, everything had been thinly coated with white, and still the flakes came, thickly now. Yorda didn't get up and run to class when the bell rang. Even if she hadn't been glued there watching the snowfall, clutching Ico's arm for support, she was too tired to go to class – or so she told herself. Some part of her knew that this was an opportunity that should not be missed. The other children would be gawking at the windows anyway; this was not a day for learning, except for that particular kind of lesson which cannot be taught in classrooms.
The children sprang up from the fan to delight in the snow. It caught and stuck in Yorda's hair, sparkling like a crown of diamonds. She was shivering and smiling and Ico could not figure out why he found his eyes fixed on her. She was not so much beautiful as untouchably different in the most exquisite way. He laughed and she laughed and she began to spin in circles under the falling snow, ethereal, a ghost, a dream. She was impossible, he knew; yet she was here beside him.
If Ico had been a little bit older or smarter, he might have struggled for words to describe that moment and settled on spiritual. If he had been younger he would have firmly declared it to be magical. Yorda was so obviously part of another world, a place outside from her cruel mother and her meagre life… she belonged to an entirely different set of realities. She came from the same place as the snow. The quality inherent in those things was wrong, and so undeserved by mortals such as him, but it was so wonderful that he had to breathe it in or feel as though he was not really living.
Much later, Ico would look back and wonder if he had been in love. In a sense, he fairly worshipped the girl, but he couldn't get past the sensation that he was supposed to, independent of his feelings for her – as if it was the right thing to do, as if awe was the appropriate reaction to her. As if her very existence demanded reverence.
But none of those thoughts crossed his mind on that cold January day. He was wholly taken by the white on white on white of Yorda spinning in the snow. Then the moment turned terrible as she swayed and fainted.
It was like watching a leaf fall, but also like seeing an iceberg crashing majestically into the ocean. There was something inevitable about her turn from liberated excitement to the confines of unconsciousness. He shouted in her ear, but she would not rise. Her lips were slightly open and he could barely feel a breath.
He knew he should go for help, but he could not bear to leave. The delicate snow melted when it met the tears running down his face, until at last he ran into the building, sobbing.
A teacher who knew of the "troubled child" spotted him and, once she understood through his gasps what had happened, peeked her head into the courtyard and then hurried off to call an ambulance. Ico ran back outside to be with his friend.
When they arrived, they had to pry the boy off her before they could try to resuscitate. He hugged his knees in a corner of the courtyard and wept quietly while they did all kinds of things to her that he didn't understand. He jumped up when they picked her up and began to carry her away, demanding to know where they were taking her and declaring that he was coming too. They barely gave him a glance as he followed behind them. Soon she was in the back of an ambulance and he was screaming to come with her. One of them tried to explain to him why he wasn't allowed to, but Ico thought the reason was stupid and refused to listen, instead attempting to push through them into the vehicle. But in the end he was left crying in the street, numbed by the cold and the lovely snow, as the ambulance rushed away.
Without any idea about Yorda's condition or when she would be back (if ever, a small voice inside him said dolefully), he waited for word to come to the other students and spread around the school, as it eventually always did. For some time there was nothing, but then he began to hear the whispers: she was in the hospital. The doctors thought it might be—
"A broken leg," a boy said, "from climbing a tree around the school." Ico ignored this one. She hadn't had the strength to really climb the courtyard tree in weeks, and her isolated last attempt had only scratched her arm and dress.
"Her appendix," another boy declared. "It burst right here at school. Just exploded, boom! There was blood everywhere." Ico didn't know much about appendices, but he knew there had been no blood, so he figured that one couldn't be it either.
"Poison," a girl said excitedly, as Ico listened unnoticed around the corner. Her friend replied, "Wow. What kind? I wonder who did it?"
Ico cried out and hurried down the hall away from them. He knew who had done it, just as well as he knew that somehow, however impossibly, he should have tried to stop that hateful witch. How his blood simmered with fury and shame! His friend, his angel and goddess, was fading away in a hospital bed somewhere because he hadn't had the guts or the sense to challenge her evil mother. The monster had triumphed, he thought as he wept in his courtyard. She had heartlessly destroyed her own daughter.
He waited for her to return, for her tiny smile to come into his courtyard. He waited for weeks and then months. He listened to the rumours – hospitalization, death, foster homes – until the rumours quieted down; the students stopped caring and forgot about her. It made him furious and very sad that he was the only one remembering. At home, as the months went by with no news of his friend, he grieved the loss of her. When his parents asked what was wrong with him, he told them his friend had gone missing. They tried to sympathize, but they didn't know he meant his only friend, and they could not begin to understand the depth to which Yorda's impression on him extended. He couldn't stand to drink apple cider. He was obsessed with the colour white. He developed infatuations with pale girls and tall girls and foreign girls.
And she affected him in ways no one could have foreseen. When on a black day in English class he happened to catch his teacher's reading of Keats' "To Hope," he heard the word ethereal and inexplicably (to his mind) thought of her. After class he approached his teacher with wide, suspicious eyes and fairly demanded to hear the poem again. His teacher was astonished by the request but pleased to oblige and spent an hour after dismissal that day explaining the poem's more accessible parts to the boy. Ico found himself paying just a little more attention in the class, as much because of the teacher's patience with him as his newfound interest in written expression. By the end of that year, his English marks had improved enough for the other teachers to think there might be some chance of the boy's success, and their renewed efforts made all the difference. With vast amounts of encouragement and praise, Ico became more articulate, and his innate sensitivities began to show through beneath his crude exterior.
It was as much a surprise to him as to anyone else when he reached his coveted age of licence and found that he no longer intended to drop out of school. He was passing his classes, so he figured he would try to stick it out until graduation. Already he was beginning to reconsider his plan to work at the shoe factory with his father. Something about his time with the pale girl had opened his eyes to the idea that there could be more, even for a misfit like him.
On one brisk February day, he went walking through a park, watching the grey sky and remembering snow. That magical day seemed a lifetime away. He thought of Yorda and tried not to pay undue attention to the pale girls and the tall ones and foreign ones he saw as he walked. That is why he almost didn't see one lanky girl, whiter than fresh snow, sitting against a tree reading a book.
He tried to look away but found he couldn't; there was something very different and equally familiar about this girl. So he approached the tree.
Blue-violet eyes looked up at him, and he saw a tiny smile make room for itself on her face.
"Hello," said Yorda.