The following short story is due to be part of a collaborative with two other writers. We are creating a universe in which to have fun in. Because, you know, we can. Have a read! And as always, comments are welcome.
The Heart of Jasper Kai
The moth spiralled slowly down from the treetops and landed gently on Jasper Kai’s outstretched palm. To the far left it laid two small eggs, and then blew away in the breeze. Jasper Kai sighed and made his way to the edge of the forest.
An indistinct crackling of twigs, and Jasper Kai was in place. From his vantage point in the tree he was in his preferred situation of being able to see without being seen. He had no physical weapons, nor the need for such things: he had his voice. And his tender, unheard feet. His paradoxical powers, scream and stealth. From the edge of his forest he sat and watched two men as his skin itched. They were walking towards the forest, seemingly minding their own business and speaking softly together. One was brutally large, the other stooped and grey. But this information was superfluous to Jasper Kai; it didn’t matter who they were. Large-small-hairy-scaled-winged-smiling-snarling redbluegreen, they were all the same: unwelcome. In the only way that he knew how (and it had always been effective before) Jasper Kai defended his leafy realm with vocal ferocity. ‘Out! Away! Get out of Jasper Kai’s forest! Get away HA! Out away!’ The sound was an eerie wail, viciousness blended with melancholy that had a strange hypnotic shade. As always, the hearers of the howl seemed to be momentarily stunned, and then as if nothing had happened and nothing was heard they slowly changed their course so as to miss the forest completely. Jasper Kai was satisfied. No one ever returned. He dropped noiselessly to the carpet of his beloved forest and hurried home.
‘Home’ for Jasper Kai was the forest itself, and at its heart there was a clearing that played host to his most beloved secret. ‘Protect and I will grow their skin, defend and I shall be their kin…’ He often grumbled this out loud, lest he forget. And he could not forget. Jasper Kai will guard the structures. He will never peek through windows or try the resilience of doors. Jasper Kai is sick of having skin that burns. Jasper wants milky, soothing skin. And he was promised: protect and he will grow their skin, defend and he shall be their kin…
He was nearing the centre of the forest and could already feel his skin being soothed as he got closer. He took a final step out of the foliage and found himself in the clearing containing the eight milky monoliths that dictated his life: Dharavi, Kowloon, Klong Toey, Khayelitsha, Kamagasaki, Rocinha, Neza-Chalco-Itza and Namuh. Each structure was slightly different, though they all shared the same outer layer of dermis. Roughly the same height and double the girth of the tees of the forest, they were all opaque, cool to the touch and had the texture of bone-marrow, milk and marble combined. Jasper Kai lovingly caressed the outside of each tower, rubbing his stinging cheeks and palms and back against their flesh like a feline between legs. Though he couldn’t be sure, he always thought if he pressed his ear down flat against each wall he could hear faint, muffled sounds coming from inside. From deep within Dharavi he believed he could hear a great mass of beings, greedily consuming all that they came across. From Kowloon he heard what sounded like the frantic beating of fists against padded walls, and from Klong Toey, love. From within Khayelitsha came the sound of violence personified, and from Kamagasaki, the Platonic sounds of friends in gathering. In Rocinha he could discern the sound of what seemed to be flaming wings flapping under water, and from Neza-Chalco-Itza (the largest of them all) he could hear the smell of alcohol. Only Namuh, the smallest and dirtiest structure that stood a little way away from the others, remained ominously silent. The sounds both intrigued and frightened Jasper Kai, and he never listened for too long. After completing his cat-like ritual of rubbing up against all the monoliths and listening to their voices, he lay down in their shade and slept. For the moment, the burning had stopped.
Lying unconscious in the shade of the monoliths, Jasper Kai’s body appeared extremely small and withered like that of a starved child, and was covered by nothing more than a light hooded cape draped over his shoulders. The hood was always drawn: Jasper Kai couldn’t stand the sight of his own face staring back at him from the reflective surface of the monoliths. His arms were stubby and crooked, his legs were bent and hairless, and his form was almost featureless with shoulders shapelessly running into a torso that ran into hips. The most fascinating thing about his appearance, however, was his skin. Every inch of it was welted, red and raw as if he spent every day not in the cool of a forest but in the blistering rays of many suns. His only reason for living was the redemption of his soul through the release of the pain caused by this nightmare condition. He didn’t know why the monoliths gave him reprise, as he didn’t know why he burnt and itched in the first place. It simply didn’t matter to Jasper Kai: he loved and protected the strange white formations because they lessened pain and he was promised that one day they would end it altogether. Protect and I will grow their skin, defend and I shall be their kin…
As he slept Jasper Kai relived the same recurring dream of being led into the forest as a child. His guide was an unfathomable creature; moon-pale and slender like an anthropomorphic land-dwelling dolphin with no distinguishable head and only two minuscule, vacant holes for eyes. Jasper Kai could feel great rage and pain within the thing, and he inexplicably felt both pity and embarrassment for it. He was led through the forest (his forest) and into a clearing in the middle. In the clearing stood eight tree-stumps and as Jasper Kai watched, the creature contemptuously ripped off great hunks of its own fatty white flesh and adorned each stump with the substance until the creature was no more and the monoliths that Jasper Kai knew so well all stood tall and proud before him. As he looked on, they spoke to him: be good, be a good person, even if that means you need to be something that you’re not, make sure you’re everyone else’s kind of good. Be everyone, do not be your heart. There he was left alone, naked and burnt and scared. This was what Jasper Kai dreamt and how he awoke each day, a cycle that had been going on for longer than he could remember. It was the only life he knew; he could remember nothing before the forest.
Suddenly, Jasper Kai opened his eyes. The thing that had disturbed him was a moth. Lying on his back, he opened his sorrowful eyes and watched the creature float downwards on the breeze until it landed on his forehead. This was peculiar as the moths always landed on his palm, but it wasn’t Jasper’s place to question these things. Lepidoptera, Leopard of Terror, why do you come to me, Lepidoptera? The moth suddenly rose into sight and fluttered away into time. The creature has put its stones on Jasper Kai’s face. Why? I won’t know how many. He sat and pondered this until he arrived at the conclusion. Ahhh, it makes Jasper Kai look at itself. It is cruel. It knows that Jasper Kai’s fingers are so burnt that they can no longer feel, and therefore can no longer count, so it makes Jasper Kai look at itself. It is cruel. After some consideration he pushed himself painfully to his feet and walked up to Klong Toey until he was only an arms’ length away. Slowly, he removed his hood and gazed at his hated self. He glared at his own small red eyes, stared at the protruding cheekbones and wiry chin, and he loathed. He didn’t recognise who he saw, and refused to believe that the thing reflected in the cool white skin was what he was. After a while of abhorrent disbelief, Jasper Kai saw a sight far more frightening: eight eggs had been laid upon his brow in a perfect circle. Never eight. Never more than three ever ever. The moth-creature is delusional. It cannot be. They will come from all sides, Jasper Kai cannot scream loudly enough, cannot screech with enough force! Too small, Jasper Kai is too small! He panicked. His only reason for existing was to guard the inhabitants of his forest, and this time he might fail. He didn’t know what to do, which angle to take or whether he should run and hide. So he turned to the only things he knew. ‘Neza-Chalco-Itza, Kamagasaki! Dharavi help! Please Rocinha, Khayelitsha, sweet Klong Toey! Kowloon, Namuh, help your servant, they are coming for us, something is coming for us all!’ He yelled these pleas at each of them, looking at them and hoping that they would look back: for Jasper Kai knew that they were alive, somehow they were living beings, though he could not explain how or why. But there was no answer to his petitions. He knew he only had two options: stay, and let whatever it was that was coming for them infiltrate from all sides, or go out and face them. By the circular pattern of the eggs he knew that they were coming from all sides, so he agreed with himself that the best way to defend his charges and his realm was to run around the perimeter of the forest and try to repel them all. He set off at a furious pace.
As Jasper Kai ducked under branches and dodged about roots and rocks, he realised that for the first time he could recall he did not suffer the intense burn that came with the separation from his monoliths. He found this both strange and relieving, and it served to strengthen his conviction that this would be no ordinary warding off of passers-by. He reached the outskirts of his forest and slowed down. Silently he scaled a tree and looked out across the vast plains in which his little forest was an island, desperately straining his eyes in the hopes of spotting the fiends before they got too close. At first, nothing. And then he saw them. Two white bodies were standing out in the distance. They seemed to sway in time with the tall grass. They were too far away for him to be certain, but Jasper Kai had the eerie feeling that the things, whatever they were, were looking directly at him. He dropped out of the tree and started to skirt the boundary of the forest. Each time he climbed up to inspect the plain he was met with the same sight: pale white, indiscernible beings seemingly watching him from the distance. Oddly enough their presence didn’t bother Jasper Kai; he found it strangely soothing. After convincing himself of the fact that the visitors were nothing more than curious passersby, Jasper Kai made to return to his monoliths.
By the time he made it back to the clearing he was so out of breath that he didn’t take note of the change for some seconds. He slowly turned on the spot and began to shudder. ‘No! Where!? Where have you gone!?’ Where his beloved monoliths once stood there were now only dead tree stumps. The air was heavy with the smell of damp moss and sadness, and for some time Jasper Kai could not react. He was gripped with a fear and grief so profound that movement was impossible. And then his skin began to tingle and burn. His brain began to skip frames and fizzle at the questions why do I love these things so, am I a good person, why do I burn? to which Jasper Kai had no clear answers, and it made him aware of his lack of sanity, and his loneliness, and his despair. Jasper Kai truly did not know who he was, why he was, or even what he was. All he knew was trees and strange white monoliths, and the feeling of raw skin and pain. As he fell to the ground and wept, his salty tears burned blackened furrows down his cheeks and left scorched marks where they fell on his forearms and thighs. The only thing that he understood was that he understood nothing at all, and this notion and truth left him weaker than death and in search of its release.
As if in answer to his agonies, eight milky phantoms came forth from the trees. They were all similar, yet each had its own idiosyncratic features. They were all moon-pale and slender with bodies like bipedal fish. They crowded around Jasper Kai and looked at him with small sad eyes that seemed to long for a home. One disbelieving glance told Jasper Kai all that he needed to know, and he realised that he had known all along. They were the creature that led him into the forest in the first place: they were Jasper Kai. They were his fears, his own loathsome character traits. They were him, the parts of his being that he himself had torn from his body and planted on dead stumps to fester. He, the small raw forest-dweller, was all that was left after the cathartic ritual, a sad burnt imp doomed to dwell in the presence of his own anathemas until he could find a way to start life anew.
As they approached him he recognised each embodiment of his personality clearly: his hatred for mass breeding in Dharavi, his lyssophobia in Kowloon, his double-edged disgust in and yearning for love in Klong Toey. His fondness of violence he heard in the rattling breath of Khayelitsha, while in Kamagasaki’s eyes he spied the lonely void of isolation and the impossibility of happiness. Rocinha’s flaming wings could not be doused, and in that great power Jasper Kai now felt pride instead of shame. Namuh was nowhere to be seen, and he knew that he had been Namuh all along, empty and silent and waiting. Neza-Chalco-Itza had already begun melting, and as he did he spread about the feet of the others and assimilated them into one proud being that stood before Jasper Kai with a gaping hole in its chest.
Jasper Kai knew now how wrong he had been. He had feared his demons and was repulsed by them, but it was his demons and his flaws that made him who he was. He was no longer afraid or ashamed. He stood up and shed the burnt skin of his denial and stepped into his old husk, embracing his flaws and his terror. His demons had become one with him, and now he could hold his pale, piscine body up proudly, and he knew that the forest was his home no more, and that he would go out into this world, whatever world this was, and be strong and be wise and not be burnt and stinging and raw, but be his true self, and he would go forth wearing his flaws like crowns and like shields and like swords, and he would forever be his own heart.