"A curse that only affects girls." Kasumi had heard the rumours, stuff of legend, that had been passed down through the generations at St. Loudun's Academy For Girls. A curse that only affects pure-blooded, chaste virgins. What kind of curse was it?
In the isolated world of a girls' school, still unsure young girls, they loved not the opposite sex but the same one, and a silly love curse girls would put on the object of their affections. That was what someone had sinfully called "the curse that affects only girls" in the distant past.
I'd like to try being under that curse, thought Kasumi. I wonder how nice it would be to curse her - the most beautiful girl at this school. Aya.
Since she first showed up at the middle school entrance ceremony six years before, all of the girls at the academy had wanted to be Aya, yearning for her. Her skin, white like porcelain. Her long hair, black as ink with her camellia hair ornament, flowing down her back. Her glittering, almond-shaped eyes. Her slender limbs, like those of a fawn. Even in the sea of black dresses with white collars and cuffs, all eyes were always on her. If Aya won't curse me, then I'll curse her, Kasumi always thought. She had been dreaming about it that day, too.
"Roles in the musical program for graduation" wrote committee chairwoman Ritsuko - her thin, flax-coloured hair cut to her jawline, wearing red glasses - her brow furrowed with concentration, on the blackboard in chalk. Beside this she added: "Ophelia Song", "conductor", and "piano accompaniment".
"Kasumi's on piano, and I don't think there's any other candidate for conductor, so that'll be me."
Having been called out by Ritsuko, Kasumi, her hair braided and wrapped around her head, nodded. Ritsuko added her and Kasumi's names, then put down the chalk and leaned over the teacher's desk, peering around the classroom. She looked to see if anyone was in opposition, but no one spoke up.
She checked to see who was for and against. Ritsuko was over-serious, and was so in everything she did. When she wasn't around, their classmates would do impersonations of Ritsuko, making fun of her character, but Ritsuko didn't care. She studied hard, too, and would take on any of the work that the other committee members didn't want to do. She liked to keep things moving, and if there was something she could do then she wouldn't hesitate.
"All we need to decide now is who's going to sing the solo part in Ophelia's Song."
The song that the graduating students sang at the graduation ceremony at the academy was a closely-protected tradition. Ritsuko was waiting for someone to put themselves forward to sing the solo in the second half.
The classroom was full of girls wearing the same uniform: white collars and white cuffs; black dresses with black patent school shoes. Everyone looks the same, thought Ritsuko. Everyone had been the same for six years.
Accompanying on piano, Kasumi believed that only Aya could perform the solo in Ophelia. It was the most beautiful of all of Shakespeare's tragedies. As far as Kasumi was concerned Aya, as beautiful as jade, was the only one would could perform the tragedy of falling to her death into a river while trying to retrieve a willow garland tossed by a prince.
But just trying to say Aya's name, she found her lips unmoving, as though paralysed. Her trembling voice and red earlobes would prove that she was in love with Aya. It was too embarrassing. Instead, she repeated Aya's name inside her head like a prayer. And, as though her prayers were answered, Risa, the boldest girl in class, said carelessly, "I guess it has to be Aya."
Kasumi's heart pounded. She hated it when other people said Aya's name. I should've said it myself, she thought regretfully. Thinking she should at least agree to the idea of giving the part to Aya, this time Waka cut in with, "Yeah, I agree with Risa." Her hair swishing in twintails, baring her cute, white, squirrel-like teeth, she added, without being asked, "To be honest, I want to do it, but I'm so busy with auditions right now."
Waka dreamt of becoming an idol. She was definitely cute, and didn't try to hide it, which annoyed everyone else. Itsuki, also not caring about hiding anything, muttered so Waka could hear, "What an idiot." Itsuki was tall, and the most mature in the class. Everyone else only talked about Waka behind her back, but Itsuki would say things directly in front of everyone. Waka glared at Itsuki, but didn't say any more. Itsuki, not caring less about the topic of discussion in the homeroom, went back to applying blue polish to her carefully-shaped nails.
"But Aya's under house arrest right now, isn't she?" Risa murmured. Risa was always with Itsuki.
"I heard she broke some kind of rule or something..." Waka added again, poking her nose in. Chatter swept through the class. Waka had brought up the taboo subject they had all been wanting to talk about. Rather than being worried about Aya being disciplined so close to graduation, irresponsible curiosity spread throughout the class like a wave.
"Quiet, everyone," Ritsuko said from atop the teacher's desk. She looked over at Michi, who had, as usual, made sure to keep some distance between her and the commotion inside the classroom, sitting by herself. Michi's eyes were bad, and she always wore a black eyepatch over one eye for treatment - or so the rumours went. The eyepatch would periodically shift from eye to eye. It was apparently to stop her vision decreasing. She had short, smooth hair, a small, round head, and a narrow body, just like a boy.
"I'll ask the headmistress about it. For the time being at least, let's give the solo to Aya, alright?"
The other students nodded meekly, not voicing even a little of their curiosity, which meant that Kasumi was probably the only one in the class bravely thinking she wanted to hear Aya do the solo, because it was their graduation, and she wanted the memories. Kasumi knew she had to have courage. Raising her hand, mentally telling herself to calm down, she said in a small voice: "I'll come to see the headmistress with you. I know the class leaves everything up to you, but I'm the committee vice-chairman after all, so..."
She worried that her voice had trembled, but Kasumi knew that no one really cared about her. Ritsuko glanced at Kasumi, saying only, "Alright, then we'll go together at lunch," then picked up the chalk once more. Homeroom went on for a long time after that.
Lunchbreak came around. Going down a dimly-lit, cold hallway and standing in front of the headmistress' office, Ritsuko and Kasumi made sure that not a single thread on their black dresses was out of place. Then they took a deep breath and knocked on the headmistress' door, with its large lock.
"Come in," the headmistress said in a flat, level voice, without a hint of displayed emotion.
Ritsuko and Kasumi entered the room. Kasumi glanced at Millais' painting of Ophelia that hung in the office. It was a painting of a beautiful young woman, floating in the water surrounded by green grass and various flowers. It was also on the cover of the school pamphlet.
"You said there was something you wanted to discuss about the graduation ceremony?"
The headmistress pushed back her glasses, looking at Ritsuko. If you wanted to meet with the headmistress, you were required to submit a request at least a day in advance. Kasumi assumed that Ritsuko had foreseen Aya becoming an issue and submitted a request for a meeting the previous day. Ritsuko was clever when it came to those kinds of things, in a way Kasumi could never hope to be.
"Yes. There are some students who have already been referred to universities, but there are some who still aren't done with exams. With graduation coming up, the whole class seems restless. So I was talking to the vice-chairman about how we had to take each problem one by one and fix it, as members of the class committee, and decided to ask you about it."
Ritsuko looked over at Kasumi, who had said nothing so far.
"Oh... right." Kasumi hurriedly nodded.
"Everyone in the class is worried about graduation, so..." Ritsuko said.
"...Graduation happens at the end of winter, doesn't it? And then spring comes, and the cherry blossoms flower. The year's gone so quickly again..." the headmistress said evasively, gazing into the distance, as though putting on a bit of an act. Kasumi thought she seemed like she was purposely reciting the lines of a play without a hint of emotion. "Being here all the time and seeing the students all wearing the same uniform, just repeating every year just the same, ah, it makes it seem like the seasons all pass in the same way, and you forget the passage of time... But for you this moment, this very moment, is everything; a precious time when you change from girls into women. Even at this very moment, you're making your way to adulthood. And the final ritual of that is your graduation."
The headmistress clearly knew that they had come to ask about Aya, and was trying to avoid the subject, thought Kasumi. Wondering if Ritsuko had realised this, she sneaked a glance across at her.
"I did it way back when, too, you know - the solo part in Ophelia. Holding a bouquet of gladioli..."
"Um..." Ritsuko interrupted. "Why do the graduating students have to sing a song about a tragic love story where Ophelia jumps into a river and dies?"
Kasumi admired her casual attempt to bring the conversation back on topic. The headmistress stared at Ritsuko. Even though she wasn't the one being stared at, Kasumi drew back.
"You may be approaching womanhood, but you aren't adults yet. You aren't children anymore, either. Right now, I would suppose you to be like formless beings still wrapped up in thin, brittle thread like a chrysalis. This is the time the poets of the Meiji era called "girlhood", just like they named the lily of the valley, blooming silently in the forest as spring draws near, which never used to have a name. But in order for the season to change, in order to bloom once more, the flower must first die."
The moment the final, ominous words spilled from the headmistress' lips, Kasumi sensed a girl in white pass behind the headmistress like a rain shower and gasped. Who was that? Kasumi whispered internally. Was that a vision only I could see? No. She looked like Aya. Had Ritsuko seen her, too? Kasumi held her breath, then let it out softly. It was a habit of Kasumi's when she spoke to people - more like a ritual than a habit, actually.
"The flower... has to die?"
As she spoke the girl in white, as if in reaction to the word "die", appeared again for a second in front of the Ophelia painting, then vanished.
Ah, look how startled the girl is, the headmistress thought happily. Only when you're a young girl can you be so sensitive to the word "death', she thought with compassion toward Kasumi, and smiled.
"In symbolic terms, of course."
"You mean Aya, too?" Ritsuko asked plainly. Kasumi was shocked. Ritsuko hadn't forgotten why they had come here.
"That's right. At the present, she is suffering through the pain of a chrysalis transforming into a butterfly inside her small, soft cocoon. If you refer to it as "death and rebirth", the protagonist of a story must first die before they can be reborn. You are suspended upon a cross as girls, and later reborn as women. This is the story you have symbolically progressed through at this academy. In the end you will shed your uniforms and leave here. In that sense, you are all Ophelia."
The headmistress had clearly changed the topic away from Aya's whereabouts to the meaning of the graduation ceremony, but Kasumi was drawn in by it, and compared herself to Ophelia in the painting. And then she froze. I want to be Ophelia, Kasumi thought suddenly. But the headmistress drummed the fingers of her left hand, placed on her desk, rhythmically, like she were playing the piano. That was her signal that she was done with them, and they were to leave the room.
"I guess she avoided the question in the end, but I guess the gist of it is that she's being punished," Ritsuko said as soon as they were out of the headmistress' office, walking quickly.
"But the headmistress said nothing about..."
"Wasn't that talk about death and rebirth all about how Aya has to reflect on her behaviour and can come out when she reforms? If so, there's nothing to worry about. It says in the school rules that disciplines last a maximum of fourteen days, right? We have plenty of time until graduation." Ritsuko was also trying to say that one of their jobs was done with. "Besides - I wonder what Aya could've done to get herself disciplined," Ritsuko said, voicing an obvious concern, but it made Kasumi want to cry. That was the thing she wanted to know most of all. Noticing that Kasumi was weeping, Ritsuko cried to console her. "Sorry. It's not good to pry about your classmates, is it? But forgetting the headmistress, the nuns sometimes punish people over the stupidest little things."
Ritsuko talked about "silly little things", but she didn't know what that meant. If she had been punished for something as long as two weeks, that meant she had either done something terrible to break the rules, or that she had told a nun about the curse. If you had feelings for someone at the school and you thoughtlessly went to confession for love counselling, you would be disciplined for two weeks. Kasumi had experienced it herself, so she knew.
Aya didn't seem the kind to break school rules. So did that mean that she was in love with someone? Wasn't that the reason behind the long punishment? "I hope not," Kasumi murmured softly. Her voice was muffled by a sudden wind that blew through the corridor, unheard by Ritsuko. But the white shadow behind the pair heard it, chuckling.
The rain turned to sleet. The sky was grey and winter hung in the air, the sleet not seeming to abate any time soon. Michi stayed back in the classroom after school alone, sorting through her photos. She had taken them with the digital camera she always kept in her pocket. She printed out and filed away the ones she liked.
Michi disguised her presence in the classroom. She had naturally learned this habit, so she wasn't lonely when she was by herself. It was a secret that she chose to be alone. Michi could see ghosts. "Ghosts" was a metaphor - Michi called it "them". She'd never called them ghosts herself. Since she was a child, she had always been able to see something like shadows swaying and moving around her. The first time, she'd thought someone was watching her, and innocently pointed it out, spooking the people around her. That was what she was doing at this boarding school. Her mother in particular hated the ability Michi had been born with. So after arriving at the school, Michi decided to keep her mouth shut and be alone.
And then she met cameras. When she looked through a camera, "they" vanished. They never showed up in photos she printed out, either. When she met cameras, for the first time Michi was able to live in a world without "them". When she dwelt upon it, she realised that only one of her eyes could see "them". This led Michi to always wear an eyepatch over that eye. She simply put it down to there being something wrong with her eyes, and the rest was conveniently filled in by the school's dramatised rumours.
The eye that could see "them" changed periodically. It was always at the same time as her periods, irregular due to her immature body. When she suddenly began to bleed, she could see "them" in the eye not covered by an eyepatch. When it did, Michi would switch it to the other side.
Michi didn't notice Kasumi arrive in the classroom, mixed in with the sound of the rain. For Michi, who always monitored her surroundings, Kasumi was the exception. It wasn't like Kasumi made an effort to conceal herself the way Michi did, but her very presence was hard to notice. So, when Michi finally noticed her, she was always already beside her. This meant that Kasumi was one of the few of Michi's classmates whom she talked to. "Michi," she called, and Michi looked up in surprise.
"Oh, Kasumi? Don't scare me like that."
Michi began secreting the photos away inside her folder. "They" weren't in any of the photos, so there was nothing to hide, but she felt embarrassed about letting others see her photos, like they were peering into her head. She found it hard to imagine how people could so casually take photos on their smartphones and upload them to the internet. Kasumi glanced at the folder in Michi's hands as though looking for something, but she didn't know what.
All she could hear was the sound of the rain. The lights in the classroom flickered occasionally. Perhaps the lightbulbs needed changing. Clouds created complex patterns in they grey sky, casting shadow through the window into the classroom.
"However many times I ask you, you never bring me one!"
Aya knew what Kasumi was trying to say. In anticipation she said, slightly uncomfortably, "It's a photo of Aya you want, right? But I can't. Aya doesn't like having her photo taken, and as a rule I don't take covert photos of people. So, like always, I don't have any photos of Aya." Michi closed the folder and stood up. "Sorry."
Michi left Kasumi behind as rain echoed throughout the classroom. She wondered if she had said it a little too coldly, but something was irritating her today. Maybe her period was due. The old wooden hallway was waxed, dim, and shone faintly. There was a chill in the winter air. Another reason for Michi being annoyed with Kasumi was because she couldn't understand her feelings towards Aya.
"Kasumi is in love with Aya," Michi tried saying out loud. Michi didn't understand what would make a girl love another girl. Michi didn't want to become an adult, or a woman. She was probably afraid of love itself. If people fall in love, they become adults. Girls become women. It annoyed Michi that Kasumi could fall in love with a girl without being prepared for all of that. But the eye that could see "them" was covered with an eyepatch. Michi never noticed the white shadow pass beside her.
Kasumi stood vacantly in the steadily-darkening classroom. Her uniform suddenly seemed tight around her chest. When had it gotten so big? Only the two bulges stood out on her thin body. I don't want to become something that's not me, but my body is changing from the inside, she thought with strong irrationality. When she had been walking around in town, someone had suddenly grabbed those mounds hard. It made her feel dirty. Remembering this out of nowhere, the tears came again.
"Are you crying?" Turning around, she saw Itsuki standing there. Kasumi flinched. "Don't cry. I'll give you something nice," she said suggestively, peering up at Kasumi.
Itsuki held up a photo in front of Kasumi. Just looking at the photo, held between Itsuki's manicured fingernails, made her heart race. It showed Aya, staring sadly back at the person viewing the photo. Was this what they called soft focus? She'd heard of it from Michi. It was a method of photography that was intentionally out of focus. It made Aya look even more mysterious. Kasumi's eyes shone.
"Are you giving this to me?"
"No, but I'll sell it to you. How much will you give me for it?"
Kasumi thought for a moment. They had a fixed amount of pocket money each month at the academy. Making sure that she had nothing to buy this month, since it was close to graduation, Kasumi said, "This is all I have, but..." and took all of the notes from a small wallet in her pocket. Itsuki probably wouldn't agree unless she did.
"Thanks for your purchase." Grinning, Itsuki set the photo of Aya down on the desk and left the classroom.
The sleety rain showed no signs of letting up. Winter rain was, like the girls' souls and their connection to this world, incredibly unreliable.
Turning on a single table lamp, Kasumi got out of bed and sat on the floor, the photo of Aya in her hand. She was happy just to have Aya in her palm.
"How should you reclaim a princess from the tower she's imprisoned in?" Kasumi said to herself, in high spirits. Something about Aya reminded her of Rapunzel, shut away inside a tall tower. The moment she touched Aya's photo, Kasumi felt somehow uplifted. Her worry about being away from Aya lifted, and when she thought about her like a princess from a fairytale, though irrational, Kasumi felt ecstatic. As long as she was there, no one could get near Aya.
But having this photo, she must be different. That was it - Aya had long hair, so maybe she could dangle it out of the window. She could use her hair as a rope and climb up. And then - as Kasumi's excitement reached a peak, she heard a voice.
"And to do that, you must curse her."
The white shadow stood there. It was just like the vision she'd seen in the headmistress' office. It felt as though Ophelia, possessed by madness in the darkness, had appeared as a phantom. She stared at her absentmindedly. Huh? Kasumi realised, to her surprise, that she wasn't afraid. Is this a dream? Am I dreaming? I saw this earlier, when I was in the headmistress' room. Is it an omen? As she thought, she got excited again. An omen. How wonderful that sounds. Who is it, and what are they trying to tell me?
"She has been cursed. The one you hold so dear has been possessed by a spirit, and is no longer herself. I was under the same curse, and fell into the water..." The vision spoke the lines as though she were Ophelia herself, but Kasumi couldn't seem to remember Ophelia having any lines in Hamlet after her death. "That's right," she said as Kasumi thought, "because I'm not Ophelia." It was Aya's voice.
Kasumi stared at the white shadow. Like a camera slowly focusing, the white shadow turned into Aya. It's really Aya, Kasumi thought, her heart racing. I'm dreaming about Aya. Is this because I've prayed so many times as I go to sleep to dream of her? And I finally managed it.
"Hey, Kasumi. Can I ask you a favour?" Aya whispered sweetly to Kasumi. The word "favour" sent a thrill through Kasumi.
"I'll do whatever it is you want..." If you told me to die, I would do it. I'll listen to anything, Kasumi thought.
"Kiss my photo," Aya whispered. "Do it in a little while from now, a thousandth of a second before midnight."
"Me? Kiss you?"
Kasumi felt not only her earlobes but her entire face burn red. It wasn't because she had mistaken it for a real kiss; it was because kissing a photo had a special meaning at this school.
"Yes. Kiss that photo of me." Aya whispered the word "kiss" once more. Controlled by the word, Kasumi reached out to Aya, as though trying to pluck a red berry from some holly.
"No, my photo," Aya said, and Kasumi hurriedly drew her hand back. She wondered if she had been scorned by Aya, but her serious expression didn't change at all. "At the time when it's neither today nor tomorrow. On a moonlit night. Before the apple falls. The moon won't fall, but the apple will, so be careful. You won't come back."
Kasumi was surprised by the way Aya spoke, as if reciting a poem, wondering if this was how Aya talked. She didn't really know what she was saying, but it didn't matter at all.
"I don't care if I can't come back, as long as it's for you..." Kasumi said.
And then, as though her words had been some kind of signal, water flooded across the floor. At some point, water had begun to bubble up like a spring from the floor, quickly becoming a small stream. Then Aya was floating in the clear, flowing water. The water was so clear that it looked blue. Aya, in her white clothing, floated in it with her eyes shut. Various flowers - deep green, white, yellow and pink - surrounded her head. She looked just like Ophelia in the painting in the headmistress' office.
She heard her voice once more say, "Kiss me." Will she open her eyes if I kiss her? Kasumi wondered. She softly kissed the photo of Aya in her hand. But Aya's eyes didn't open. Kasumi was disappointed. But then she heard the voice again.
"Put that photo on the wall behind the confessional, and make sure it's with a photo of you."
"What will happen if I put the photo up?" Kasumi asked resolutely.
"I told you, didn't I? I'll curse you," she said clearly. Aya was indicating the love curse told of at the school. The curse that affects only girls, they secretly called it. All you needed was a photo of the one you loved, which is why Kasumi had always been pestering Michi, who always had her camera with her, for a photo. But, aside from kissing the photo, no one knew the exact way to do it. Aya told me. That means that she... Kasumi thought, feeling as though her heart would explode.
"That means I'll be cursed just like you? That I can be with you forever?" Kasumi said, her voice trembling.
"Yes. Forever," Aya said plainly, and disappeared from the water.
Kasumi's room went back to its boring, dull self. The river was gone. I wonder where the flood of water and beautiful flowers went, thought Kasumi. The rippling had ceased, too. Did that mean it had all been a dream after all? But Kasumi noticed that the clock showed that it was a little after midnight, and Kasumi's own lip marks were on the lips of Aya in the photo in her palm. She had put on lip balm before sleeping. Her lip marks seemed strangely vivid on the printing paper. I kissed her a thousandth of a second before midnight, Kasumi thought. That means there's only one thing left for me to do.
As told by Aya, Kasumi left her room to post the photos in the confessional. In the empty room, Kasumi stared at the photos of her and Aya stuck up side by side. Now, Aya and me are joined together, she thought, her heart settling, feeling majestic. A cold wind blew against her cheeks. The night was growing late. Kasumi turned over and over, making sure that their photos were still there, then quietly left the confessional. When her footsteps became distant, someone entered the confessional and tore down the two photos. Who could it be...?
The person who took down Kasumi's photo went to his secret place, took out a photo album, and pasted Kasumi's photo inside.
"Is this okay?" he asked the girl sleeping inside the coffin. The girl nodded and smiled, her eyes still shut. She - the one he called Ophelia - had ordered him to take down the photo; the most beautiful drowned corpse in the whole world. He was now Ophelia's servant. "I'd do anything for you." Looking at the smiling girl, he felt happy, then whispered to the body as though in song. One day, you and I, will ride a bike, and leave this tiny town, he repeated over and over.
That's right. It has to be on a bike. He said it again, so as not to forget. I'll take you away to the ends of the Earth.
Even then, everyone in the town was beginning to dream of the dead, as though the border between the world of the living and the land of the dead had crumbled. Another green spring was coming to St Loudun's Academy For Girls.