2-3 Youko was marched down a narrow path that wound through the paddies. After a fifteen-minute walk they arrived at a small town surrounded by a high fence. It was the hamlet she had spied earlier, little more than a rough handful of houses. Here, though, set into one wall of the squarish fence was a sturdy-looking gate.
The gate opened inwards, revealing another interior wall decorated with many pictures drawn in red colors. In front of the wall, for no discernable reason, someone had left behind a wooden chair. Youko was pushed along past the wall and towards the center of the village. When she came around the red wall, an unbroken view of the main street opened up to her.
The scene again roused in her both feelings of familiarity and strangeness. The feelings of familiarity came from its overall resemblance to oriental architecture--the white, plastered walls, black tiled roofs, the distinctive latticework of the arbors. But despite this, she felt no affinity for the place, undoubtedly because of the utter lack of a human presence.
A number of smaller paths branched out to the right and left of the wide street facing from the gate. She didn't see a single person. The houses were no higher than a single story, but were all hidden from the street behind a white fence that reached as high as the eaves. Gaps appeared in the fence at regular intervals, revealing glimpses of houses set back behind small gardens.
The houses were uniform in size, and looked very much the same, despite small differences in their outward appearance. They could have been rolled off an assembly line.
Here and there a window was open, the wooden shutters propped open with bamboo poles. Yet from the street Youko could sense no human presence. Not a single dog. Not a sound.
The main thoroughfare was no more than a hundred yards in length, ending at a plaza. Commanding the plaza was a building tiled with brilliant white stones. Yet the dazzling decoration seemed little more than a facade. The narrow streets intersecting with the plaza ran no more than thirty yards or so before meeting the surrounding wall of the town and bending out of sight.
On the streets there was no sign of human activity.
Youko glanced about the plaza. Beyond the uniform black-tiled roofs she could see only the high wall of the town. Turning around she could begin to make something of its shape. It was something of a long, narrow and deep box. The confines of the town were suffocatingly narrow, no more than half as wide as her own school. It was like being inside a big well, Youko thought. The town itself was like the rubble buried beneath the water at the bottom of the well.
They brought her to the center of the buildings facing the plaza. The building reminded her of Chinatown, in Yokohama. Yet the red-painted pillars the sparkling walls struck her as no less superficial than the rest of the town.
They entered a long, narrow hallway in the center of the building. It was dark and also devoid of people. After pausing to discuss some matter, the men prodded her forward again, and then shoved her into a small room and shut the door.
Her immediate impression of the room was that it was a jail cell.
The floor seemed to be covered with the same tiles as the roofs, though many of the tiles were cracked and broken. The earthen walls were cracked as well and stained with soot. A single window high up on the wall, blocked with bars. A single door, its peephole latticed with bars. Looking through the peephole she could see men standing just outside the door.
The room's furniture consisted of a wooden chair, a small table, and a larger platform the size of a single mattress. A thick cloth was attached to the top of the platform. It was obviously intended to be a bed.
She wanted to ask where this place was, what kind of place this was, what was going to happen to her next, and a thousand other questions. But she hadn't the courage to ask the guards. And they clearly had no desire to talk to her, either. So without another word, she lay down on the bed. There was nothing else she could do.
As time passed the human presence within the building became more marked. Outside her cell people came and went. There was a changing of the guards. The blue leather body armor the two new guards were wearing reminded her of policemen or security guards. She caught her breath, wondering what was about to happen. But the guards only gave Youko a pair of fierce looks and said nothing.
It was almost more cruel this way. It was better when something--anything--was happening. Several times, she determined to speak to the guards, but could not find the courage to speak.
The hours dragged on. It was enough to make her want to scream. After the sun set, and the cell had sunken into blackness, three women arrived.
The white-haired lady at the head of the three wore the kind of outfit Youko had seen in old historical dramas about China. It was a tremendous relief to finally meet someone, and a woman at that, not one of those grim-faced men.
The old lady said to the two who had accompanied her, "You can leave now." They deposited the articles they were carrying on the bed, and, bowing deeply, exited the jail cell. After they had gone the old lady pulled the table next to the bed. She placed the lamp on the table. The lamp resembled a candlestick of sorts. Next to it she put a bucket of water.
"Well, then, you'd better wash up."
Youko answered with a nod. Slowly she washed her face and hands and feet. Her filthy, blackened, reddened hands soon regained their normal color.
By this point, Youko began to notice how hard it was to move her limbs. This was no doubt because of Jouyuu. Over and over he had forced her body to do things it was hardly capable of, and now her muscles were torn and stiff.
As best she could she washed her hands and feet. The water soaked into the fine lacerations. She went to comb her hair, undoing the three braids gathered at the back. That was when she became aware of something truly strange.
"What . . . what is this?"
Undone from the braid her hair spilled down like a wave. She stared. She knew she had red hair, a red that faded at the ends, almost as if bleached. But not this! Where did this bizarre color come from?
It was red, a red steeped in blood, a red changed to a deep, dark crimson. To be called a redhead was one thing, but this was not that! She could not think of what to call it, this impossible, freakish hue. A shudder ran through her. It was the same red color as the coat of the creature in her nightmares.
"What's the matter?" the old lady asked. When Youko indicated her hair, she tilted her head to the side. "Why worry yourself so? There's nothing strange about it. A tad unusual, perhaps, but pretty enough."
Youko shook her head, searched in the pocket of her uniform and brought out a small hand mirror. No doubt about it, those scarlet locks were hers alone.
But who was this person peering back at her? For a moment it didn't make any sense. She timidly lifted her hand and touched her face. So did the stranger in the reflection. It was her, she realized in amazement.
This is not my face!
Even accounting for the effect that her hair might have on her appearance, this was somebody else's countenance. Its attractiveness was not the problem. The problem was plainly that this face--with its sun-bronzed skin, its deep emerald eyes--was the face of a stranger.
Youko cried out in great alarm. "This isn't me!"
The old lady turned to her with a dubious expression. "What isn't?"
"This! This is not who I am!"