Shino felt the air in the shop shift as the young woman walked in.
People stared—people who were used to being stared at. They just couldn’t help it. The woman wore a tight dress, obviously tailor-made for her, showing off the delicate curves of her hips and the perfect downward slope that led to her long, slender legs.
Shino’s boss remembered where they were first. “Ma’am!” She shuffled gracefully towards the woman. “Such an honour to welcome you here. But what brought the great Moon-White Tsukiko-sama to this mediocre robe shop?”
Today, the famous model’s skin shone bronze, blue-green patina here and there. She was called Moon-White not only because her original skin colour was glowing white, but because her skin was a white canvas that could change to any colour, any pattern that perfectly matched what she wore at the moment. “I just spoiled a bag,” Tsukiko said hurriedly to the proprietor. “Poured coffee all over it, and it’s a moon-white bag! It went so well with this blue-sandstone dress. And I have an important meeting soon, at the Hotel.”
Tsukiko and the proprietor both glanced in the direction of the Hotel, which was the largest and the only foreign-style place around here. In this region things mainly catered to sightseers from abroad, and the high street was clogged with shops for traditional commodities, this shop—selling traditional robes and accessories—being one of these.
“As you can see, we do not have much to offer you, to our great regret. We have drawstring purses, but I’m not sure that would suit this magnificent dress you are wearing. However…” Shino’s boss frowned and looked around her shop. “If you do not have too much to carry, perhaps a wrapping cloth might do?”
The boss called to Shino, who nodded and took to assembling some plain crepe cloths on a tray. Then she shuffled to the two women, the tray covered with various whites: from porcelain to deutzia crenata to plum flower. The famous woman’s lips shaped a tiny O, and then she took the one tinged with faint blue-grey, the silky-mouse-fur.
Shino quickly folded and made knots in the cloth so that it would keep a shape and ensure that the famous model wouldn’t have to re-fold or re-knot the thing later. The woman said, “Thanks,” flashed a smile at everyone in the shop and sprinted out into the street, into a cab.
“That shapeliness of her body!” the boss exclaimed beside Shino. “How is that even possible? Her figure and countenance looking so foreign and yet, she has the colours! Colours that even change! That’s no justice!”
Shino giggled. Her cheeks, swirling eastern clouds just before dawn, flushed into a deeper red of sunrise. “She’s beautiful.”
“She is. Oh, sir, close that mouth, for heaven’s sake!” One of the customers snapped his mouth shut at that, and everyone in the shop laughed.
And everything got back to normal.
A few weeks later Shino found the model in a magazine, a photo shot during that meeting. The makeshift bag was out of sight, unfortunately, but the woman’s nails were all white, various whites that Shino had chosen for her.
How was that even possible?
Today, off duty, Shino wore a colourful T-shirt over jeans, her usual outfit on such a day, as she walked along the street of shops for the local residents. She stopped at a place selling glasses, wanting not the colour-changing contact lenses for foreigners but simple rims to frame her complicated eyelids.
“Hey,” someone called. Shino shifted her gaze to look at the reflection of a woman in the window, standing right behind her. She wore sunglasses, her hair tucked in under her cap, all tourist-clad. But there was no mistaking the glowing skin, at least to Shino.
“Tsukiko-san?” Shino gaped as she spun around to face the woman. “What would you be doing here?”
Tsukiko raised an eyebrow. “Why, I’m a local here, I’d usually shop around here, not on the high street.”
“Oh. Sorry. People keep forgetting that, don’t we? You look so foreign, even more so without all the colours.”
Her nails were still in whites, and when she realized Shino was looking at them, Tsukiko raised a hand. “I didn’t paint them, I know it’s prohibited to change colours artificially. You can try some remover if you want.”
“No, I just think they are pretty.”
“Oh!” Tsukiko grinned. “Aren’t they, though? And you look great in that shirt. A bit loud but more like you than the plain robe you were wearing the other day.”
“My boss doesn’t like me in loud robes. She says my skin colour doesn’t go along with patterns. How did the meeting go, by the way?”
“Splendid, thanks.” She glanced up and down the street. “Hey. Can I buy you a coffee or something? As thanks for that cloth, and all these pretty whites?”
“Oh no, please, you don’t have to—”
“Please. Let me.”
Shino felt her cheeks warm up, and Tsukiko narrowed her eyes fondly. Then Shino said, “Maybe after you help me choose a pair of glasses?”
Tsukiko’s smile widened. “Sure.”
And soon they were friends.
“What?” Tsukiko said without detaching her gaze from the book she was reading.
From her chair, from behind her new black-rimmed glasses, Shino stared a boring stare at Tsukiko. “I just wonder how you do it.”
They had been friends for a few weeks now, close enough that Shino had invited Tsukiko to her own place, but Shino hadn’t told anyone. Perhaps on that account, Tsukiko seemed to trust her, which made her a bit bold, asking a question that seemed a bit too delicate here.
Tsukiko smirked. “The power of will.”
“Can your mother do that? Your father?”
“She could. He, no.”
“Oh.” Shino still wasn’t sure how much detail she could go into with Tsukiko. She could. “When did you come to this island?” she asked after a moment of hesitation.
“Why do you think I wasn’t born here?”
“You must have come here at some point, because if you’ve always been here, someone must’ve noticed you long before. You got famous like—five years ago? With that ad for tourism?”
It had been a campaign for attracting more tourists from abroad, waged by the island’s government. Tsukiko had laid herself down on a huge map of the island, her limbs turned into colours characteristic of the places they were cast over: her shimmering hands over the jewelled cliff in the map; toenails the ancient trees dotting the southern coastline; her blond hair flowing along the beach of golden sand in the north. Everybody was surprised, for the islanders had never seen anyone with foreign physical features and the native colours both. The ad doubled the number of tourists that year.
Much as Shino hated the way the government cut and pasted the island into something pretty to sell to foreigners, that was what paid her. If she hadn’t been hired at the shop, she might have died right after she had been kicked out of the orphanage.
Tsukiko set down Shino’s book about traditional robes on the table. “You are right. My mother was from here and she crossed the sea later, had me out there. I came here when I was fifteen, when my mother died.”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Tsukiko flashed a mesmerizing smile. “Without my colours I’d have been really lonely, but people liked them and were nice to me. So. I was okay, after all.”
Shino stretched her legs and looked at her toenails, which were the pale green of the back of a leaf. “I hear they have so many tools and materials to change their colours overseas! Not just paint for nails or hair but…things you can put on directly over your skin? Have you seen that?”
“Of course I have. We were all crazy about those, us young girls. But that’s obscene talk on this island, we shouldn’t be talking about that at all.”
“I guess I’m jealous.” Shino sighed. “Why can’t we change our colours just as we please? It’s not fair.”
“People abroad are jealous of the way you are born, that you don’t have to change colours, spend money on them. They say it’s not fair.”
Shino made a face.
Just then a soft beam of sunlight entered the room, through the sheer curtains. Tsukiko stared at Shino and said, “Did you know your hair also looks like pre-dawn clouds in the light from the setting sun? That’s absurd, your hair usually being so dark. But beautiful.”
Shino smiled. “Did you know your cheeks ripple like the sea in this light?”
Tsukiko put both hands over her cheeks. “No.”
And Shino thought Tsukiko looked the most beautiful when she wasn’t wearing any colours at all.
Shino had worked at the current place for almost five years now. She was trusted quite well these days, and sometimes, when the boss had a place to go, a person to meet, she would leave the shop for Shino to close down for the day. One of those evenings, as Shino was locking the safe, the phone rang. She took it, thinking maybe it was the boss needing an urgent word. “Hello?”
“Oh! Good, there’s still someone there!” A foreigner, a woman, sighed into the phone. “I need to ask a favour. This is important!”
Shino’s hand stiffened over the receiver as she switched to her clumsy formal language. “What’s wrong?”
“I think I left my purse in one of the booths of your bathroom. Can you look? My passport is in it.”
Shino inhaled sharply. “Oh dear, please hold on.”
The purse was found stuck between the tank and the wall, the passport securely tucked in. As soon as Shino told the woman, the other cheered, and promised to drop by to retrieve it the next day.
Happy that she had helped someone on such an important matter, that she’d managed all of that in her second language, Shino gleefully tapped the purse with her fingers. Then she recalled the strange, small bottle she had found when she looked into the purse to check for the passport. What was that thing?
She was alone in the shop.
And it wasn’t like she was trying to steal something. The owner of the purse knew Shino had opened it, anyway. Cautiously, she reopened the purse, pulled the strange bottle out with two fingers.
The bottle itself was transparent, but the liquid inside swirled in strange shimmers and glows. Shino read the label aloud: “Nail polish?”
So this was one of the things foreigners used to change their own colours. One of the things deemed extremely obscene on this island.
She had often wondered what it would be like to change her ten nails into ten different colours. She twisted the lid, and an unpleasant smell wafted out. The lid was attached to a tiny brush.
How did it work?
She looked around the empty shop again. Just a small drop wouldn’t hurt? She could wipe it away soon, anyway.
With shaking fingers, she put a tiny bit of the polish onto a shaking nail.
The drop stayed at the tip of her nail for a few moments. And then, the colour started to spread—a pink that looked like a cross between fuchsia and pomegranate, a colour too striking for Shino’s hand.
She hastily put the lid back on, and ran to the bathroom. When she opened the tap over the nail the colour was already fixed, and running water could do no damage to it. She tried hot water; no good. The paint thinner from the cleaning locker was no use, either. The colour had so closely, smoothly spread itself out, as if it were really part of Shino’s nail. So this must be a special sort of polish developed for the foreigners to take back to their homelands, which meant there must be a special remover for it.
No tourist shop was open at this time, and she couldn’t go into one without making excuses, anyway, being a local. If the colour was still there in the morning, the boss would know that Shino had touched a customer’s belongings, and that she had committed such an obscene act as trying to change her own colour.
What could she do?
She shuffled to the phone and dialled.
“Hello?” Tsukiko’s voice rang in her ear, hurting and reassuring at the same time.
Shino said, “Tsuki,” and she couldn’t continue.
“Shino? Anything wrong?”
“I…I need help.”
“Where are you?”
Shino blinked her tears away. “The shop.”
“Okay. Be right there.”
Half an hour later, Tsukiko shrugged off her jacket and hat as soon as she was inside the shop. Without a word Shino showed her the nail and the bottle of nail polish. Tsukiko’s expression clouded. “I don’t have a remover for this.”
Shino looked down at her feet, sighing a wet sigh. “I don’t mind being scolded or fined for what I’ve done, but I don’t want the shop’s, the boss’s reputation hurt for my sake. A shop girl touching a foreign customer’s belongings…”
Tsukiko was biting her own, perfect nail. “You’ll be all right,” she said after a while.
“Hush.” She moved to stand in front of a tall mirror and looked at herself in it. Her gaze settled on her back, which was barely visible under the loose shirt she was wearing. “Yeah.” She tossed the shirt over her head, her torso naked now. “Here. Somewhere near the shoulder blade. It will be hidden under the bra, and if I do have to model naked, I can make up colours and some stupid story around it.”
“What are you talking about?”
Tsukiko looked at Shino’s reflection in the mirror. “Bring a knife from the kitchenette. Make a small cut to draw some blood.”
Shino shook her head. “No! I don’t see how that would make things any better, anyway.”
“Come on, just a little scratch on my back, that’s far better than a mark on your shop’s reputation.”
“Do it! Now!”
Shino almost jumped. Without another word she went to the kitchenette and returned. She’d have said something once more, but she saw Tsukiko glaring at her in the mirror. Wincing, she touched the blade to Tsukiko’s skin. Too weak, though; she had to do it once again. Tsukiko sucked air between her teeth.
A drop of blood swelled. “Spread that over the nail,” Tsukiko said to Shino. And she did.
On her nail, Tsukiko’s blood boiled and rippled. Shino covered her mouth with her free hand. Tsukiko came to hold her shoulders, to touch her own forehead to Shino’s.
“Shh,” Tsukiko said and closed her eyes.
Slowly, dot by dot, Shino’s nail turned over into back-of-leaf, though a bit cloudier than the other nine nails. When the whole nail had changed, Tsukiko exhaled, and then smiled. “This will do for the moment. Until it changes back completely to your own colour in coordination with your metabolic cycle.”
Shino turned her hand around. “How did you do that?”
“You don’t need to know that. All you need to know is that you have nothing to worry about, now. But don’t you say a word about it, about what you just saw.”
“I won’t. I can’t, obviously. But—”
Tsukiko shook her head, and pulled her shirt back down over her torso. Just before it got hidden, Shino saw the scratch in the mirror; it had already started blooming like a grotesque, yet slashingly beautiful, impossible flower.
The next morning the foreign customer came and thanked Shino. “This is nothing,” she said as the customer beamed at her, and wished she had something to hide the sleep-deprived redness around her eyes.
But it was an obscene thought.
The customer checked her purse just in case, confirmed that nothing had been misplaced. She had bought a few things at the shop the previous day, but today she bought a practical but expensive garment of linen before she left the shop again, the purse secure under her arm.
“Good job, Shino!” the boss said cheerfully and walked away to greet another customer.
Shino secretly touched her nail under her sleeve.
Such an obscene thought.
A few days later, after Shino had learnt from a magazine that it was Tsukiko’s birthday that day, she called and told her she wanted to do whatever was suitable as celebration, and also thank her. But Tsukiko kept on saying no, Shino didn’t have to. Though they were talking over the phone, Shino could almost see Tsukiko’s frown, and for a moment she thought of retreating from the conversation. But then Tsukiko said, “Would you come to my place? Now?”
Shino sighed secretly, relieved. “Sure.”
“Meet me at that eye-wear shop.”
Shino soon left her place and started walking towards the shop, where she had first met the “colourless” version of Tsukiko. It was dusk, and when Shino looked up, there was a flock of starlings, strangely far in the sky.
Or was it something in the eye? She rubbed at her eyes, but the flock, or ripples in her vision, followed her. In the trees, around the gaslight. When she braced herself and forced herself to focus on the ripples on a flickering neon sign, however, she saw them slowly still, staying there as if evaluating her, measuring her.
She felt a shiver down her spine, through her finger. She hid her nail under her sleeve, which pricked at the touch of another finger. The neon sign—the ripple—and her nail buzzed to the same rhythm, and her heart beat as if it were trying desperately to avoid joining them—
A hand grabbed at her shoulder, and she cried out in surprise. “Oh no, sorry.” It was Tsukiko. “Didn’t mean—no, Shino, don’t stare at them.”
Shino glanced the sign’s way, but soon looked back at her friend. “What are they?”
“Not here. Let’s go.”
They started walking. Shino had always imagined Tsukiko’s place to be in one of the buildings in the complex for foreigners—ambassadors and official guests. But as they walked they switched between locals’ and foreigners’ avenues, slipping into a busier region with people of various races and then out into a quieter locals’ district. Shino vaguely wondered if her friend had had to take this route before, to shake curious people off her trail.
Or those strange ripples.
Finally they were in front of a door to a very small, one-storey house. Most of the roof was covered by the huge and dense foliage of a tree, making it harder for a casual pair of eyes to notice the existence of the house.
Shino looked around the entrance as she took off her shoes. “No offence, but… For a famous person like you, I imagined some fancier place?”
“The landlady and her son keep an eye out, and this is such a nice hiding place, don’t you think?”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to be in a place with a security system?”
“I said I need a hiding place. Now, do sit.”
Shino sat down on a small sofa in the small living-room. Tsukiko passed a framed photograph to Shino. It was a black-and-white photo of a couple, and the woman had Tsukiko’s eyes, while the man was obviously a foreigner.
“My parents. Right after Mother crossed the sea to marry Father.”
Shino looked up.
“It took only a few years for her colours to fade. They didn’t know the colours only showed on the island. Father wasn’t happy, you see? He married a woman with the colours. Not a woman with common skin, even if her features were beautiful.”
“What happened to her?”
“He forced her to go through surgery.”
“I think he did the same to me.” Tsukiko sat down and hugged herself. “I don’t know what she thought of it. The only thing she said, just before she died, was ‘don’t exploit yourself.’ But what could I do? I ran away from Father, and the best place to hide myself was this island, I thought at the time. But then people discovered me, and they wanted me to show myself off. And I had to make a living.”
Somewhere an old clock struck the hour, and Shino jumped. When the air was rid of the faint residue of the note, she spoke: “He didn’t let you get away just like that, did he?”
“No. He sent me a letter, telling me how he missed me.”
“What? Just that?”
Tsukiko shook her head and laughed dryly. “What if he knew how to turn this thing off—how to make me completely unable to change colours? People would know I’ve been using something, not my own ability that I was born with. What names would people call me, in a land where painting a nail could stir up gossip? With a little bit of money, he’d shut up. Then why not?”
“I don’t understand,” Shino said. “Are you saying it’s something you can turn off? Like a machine?”
Tsukiko stripped off her T-shirt and turned. The scar, which had first been just a tiny scratch, was now a scaly mosaic that covered one shoulder blade, reaching out just a little short of her left shoulder. One moment it seemed to shimmer in back-of-leaf shimmers; pre-dawn clouds the next, depending on the angle.
The scaly surface was rippling.
“As I see it, my skin is a mass of something that responds to my thoughts, like your legs carrying you,” Tsukiko said. “But this part feels like it’s no longer part of me. I never felt that way about my skin, no matter how many times I changed and unchanged it.”
Shino touched her nail, and sniffed once as tears crept up her throat. “My fault…”
“No way,” Tsukiko snapped. “Your nail or no nail, this would have come. This thing won’t last forever if you use it too much. Now I know what she meant. I shouldn’t have lived the way I lived. I shouldn’t have come here.”
Silence stretched. Don’t exploit yourself. Was that all her mother could say, in front of her father? Or had she herself been unaware and confused about what she and her daughter were forced to go through? “Can I touch it?” Shino asked despite herself.
“Do you even want to?” Tsukiko said over her shoulder.
Cautiously, Shino reached out one finger, the one with the nail Tsukiko had cured. As her nail approached, the rippling grew deeper, as if excited by the approach of its sibling. Tsukiko winced; it looked as though the ripples were extending a welcoming hand…
“No.” Shino retracted her hand almost reflexively. “I don’t think so.”
Tsukiko nodded and sighed.
“What can I do, Tsuki? Is there anything I can…or you can, do about it?”
Tsukiko looked at Shino, her huge eyes rimmed with silver tears. “Can you promise me one thing?”
“I don’t want to fall back into his possession, Shino. Even if I die, I don’t want him to have control over the reputation I have accumulated here. I don’t want him to take the money I have earned by myself and saved for my own future. I don’t want him to make money talking about me, his daughter he knows nothing about—”
“Tsuki, please, stop talking like that. If that’s what you really want me to promise, I’ll promise. But don’t you speak as if that’s what’s really going to happen!”
Tsukiko pursed her lips. “When the scar became un-part of me, when it started to ripple, I started to see it outside, too.”
Shino’s nail pricked again.
“At first it was tiny. Day by day it grew. Another mass of the same things that consist of my skin. I think my father sent them, to get at me. It was twenty years after the surgery that my mother died. And today, I turned twenty-one. If I had the surgery when I was a baby…”
“Oh no. No!”
Just then, as if responding to Shino, something hit the window with a loud bang. The two of them spun around to look at the curtained pane, and Shino dropped the photo frame to the floor. At almost the same moment, Tsuki cried out and fell to the carpet.
Shino screamed—she could tell what was wrong straight away. That scaly part had grown in size, as though a blister had broken and the fluid of colours had exploded. Now her back was mostly covered with the mosaic, and the rippling was so powerful, so compulsive, that how Tsukiko could keep in shape at all, Shino couldn’t fathom. In the same rhythm of the rippling, the window rattled behind the curtains.
“Don’t,” said Tsukiko.
But Shino couldn’t help it. She walked to the window, and after a moment of hesitation, drew the curtains apart.
A swarm of invisible bugs. A heat haze that buzzed and lulled. Shino tried to cry out as she fell to the floor, but her throat didn’t work the way she wanted it to. The ripple outside seemed to be obsessed with moving as a mass, but how long would it take it to realize there were slight openings in the wooden windowsill, or to simply break in?
“Tsuki…” Shino crawled back to her friend’s side.
Now, her moon-white skin and the mosaic were flashing in turns, covering Tsukiko’s whole body. Her entire self was a tide that tried to push Tsukiko’s—and Shino’s—sanity off the shore. The worst thing was that it was beautiful, the most beautiful thing that Shino had ever seen. “What…what can I do…” Shino said, and sobbed, despaired by how helpless she sounded.
“Shino.” Now the ripples were visibly crawling up Tsukiko’s throat, towards her mouth. “Don’t forget the promise.”
“No! Please, don’t leave me—”
Tsukiko was balancing herself on her arms, and as she moved closer to Shino, her hand smashed the photo frame on the floor under her weight. A shard cut her palm, buzzing blood spilling out.
Shino took Tsukiko’s injured hand into hers. She thought she saw Tsukiko’s lips curve into a smile, though now nothing was stable enough for her to—
—even keep hold of the hand. She felt the tidal wave retreat, pulling Tsukiko away like sand on a beach. No, with a cry that wasn’t, she thrust her hand with Tsukiko’s blood into the mass.
Just then the window smashed, and the rippling swarm washed over Shino; she let it. The mass of nanobots danced and mingled, discarding the ones too weak, rewriting the genetic codes of those that were strong enough to be renewed. Shino simply let them.
When the boiling, the turning had finished, in front of her lay a mass of flesh, shaped vaguely like Tsukiko but with nothing to wrap her up beautifully. Shino vomited. As the bile rose to her mouth she realized her lips, her entire skin, had changed.
She looked at the nail. With one final ripple there, the nanobots settled and became Shino completely. She cried, but the tears felt no longer warm enough to her cheeks.
Sooner or later people would discover this thing that used to be Tsukiko. Maybe Shino would be suspected of murder. There was no proof that she hadn’t killed her—even though no one would be able to tell how Tsukiko had died.
She looked at the photo of Tsukiko’s parents under the shattered glass, which was now clear of any blood. Cautiously, she picked up the photo. Under it, hidden between the photo and the frame’s wooden panel at the back, was a small key. A series of numbers were written on the back of the photo.
A key to a deposit box.
Don’t forget the promise.
She stood, and walked out the door.
People searched for the psychotic murderer of the famous model, who must have been either fanatic or jealous, as they concluded. The police came, wanting to talk to Shino, but she had already quit the job, moved out of her place. She was already at the pier, waiting for a ferry.
The police radioed and told the ferry staff to inform them if they saw a pre-dawn cloud woman going aboard. Stop her if they could.
“You can board now, Miss,” the ticket man called to the woman with the pale skin. “I hope you had a good time touring our island.”
“I did. Thanks,” she said as she handed him the ticket.
The man tipped his cap. “Safe journey back to your continent.”
She smiled at him, but said nothing. Her skin was too pale to go with her features, but no one took much notice. With the money Tsukiko had saved over the years, it hadn’t been so hard to counterfeit a foreigner’s passport.
Don’t exploit yourself.
She wouldn’t, because she had to find the man, together with the ghost she was wearing over her own skin. Maybe another ghost awaited her somewhere—awaited her daughter’s ghost to join her in the revenge.
Shino stepped onto the ferry, onto the rippling sea.
Story copyright © 2016 by Yukimi Ogawa
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Kat Weaver
Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. Her fiction has appeared in such places as Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons.