Today I have the happiness of bringing you an excerpt from Craig Hallam’s latest book, Emi.
Emi is a Studio Ghibli-inspired dark fantasy about humanity and morality with Japanese folklore imagery.
The grass had decided to become everything it could be, growing until only the barn’s roof was visible above the swaying fronds. Slates had slipped, making wounds that exposed wooden ribs beneath. In the eaves, a dried bird’s nest rattled in the breeze.
Christopher stood at the foot of the hill, looking up at the sagging roof. Drifting toward the dilapidated marvel, his progress could be seen as a shifting wake in the tall grass, a shark splitting water.
Skirting the barn’s perimeter, he swept hair the colour of dirty butter from his eyes. Cracks and creases in the stonework grinned and grimaced. The masonry sprouted vibrant mosses and the odd weed-flower. Some stones lay on the ground, some shards of broken slate. He stood at a distance for a while, looking up and down the walls, back the way he’d come, across fields where the wind made eddies in the wild wheat that chased like swallows. He looked to the horizon simply because his eye fell there, made from a spine of hilltops, and saw beyond them to the empty prairies and meadows and clear green rivers he’d already traversed, everything silent and blooming and undisturbed.
He circled back around to the barn’s doors.
They hung askew, holes gaping between mouldered planks. The chain, so badly rusted that its links were immovable, snapped in Christopher’s bare hands. Where it had lain across the door, a deep red grin scarred the wood.
The scent of ancient hay and animal dung still remained inside. Light bled through slats of the boarded window in two glistening shafts. If he still breathed, Christopher would have caught his breath.
One shaft of light came to rest on a pair of mottled legs, curled beneath a summer dress of lemon and white. It was stiff with dirt, torn and frayed at the embroidered hem. A pair of dainty white socks had yellowed with age above pretty, dust-covered shoes. The other beam caressed the crown of a bowed head, blonde locks weaving their way like a golden briar about the child’s head.
Christopher tried to speak but only released a squeak of desiccated vocal chords. His unused tongue made a dry clack between receding gums.
“Ch-h-hello,” he managed, in a dry rasp.
The small legs retreated into the dark. The sound of a chain dragging in dirt as the little dead girl stepped forward, uncertain in what must have been her first steps in an age. Reaching the extent of her chain, wrapped thrice around her tiny waist, the girl jerked backward and almost off balance, waving her arms to stay upright. By the light from the broken doorway Christopher could see she was seven, maybe eight years old, and had been for a long time. Her leather t-bar shoes pointed slightly toward each other at the toes. Her hands hung slack on the apron of her dress. Her right sleeve was a tatter, the thin bicep beneath shredded.
Christopher’s hand strayed to his stomach, a spot on his threadbare dungarees where the rubbing had worn the denim white.
“Your name.” Christopher forced the sounds from his mouth, kneeling to her.
The girl lifted her head, hair plastered across her ashen forehead in some long forgotten fever. Christopher reached out to brush it aside, a reflex he didn’t realise he’d forgotten until it was remembered. Her eyes were the yellow of the Sickness. The colour of his own.
“Your name?” he asked again, his voice becoming softer with the practice, returning to its old disarming whisper.
When she opened her mouth, a moth battered its way from her lips and escaped through the wounded roof.
“Emi,” crackled the girl. “My name is Emi.”
Her Mummy and Daddy had put her there to keep her safe, and they were coming back. So, Emi waited. She waited until Christopher came and yanked her chain from the wall as if it were buried in sand, not stone. She waited until the world fell quiet outside, until the Sickness receded, taking most memories that she had with it. Except that Mummy and Daddy were coming back. That, she knew.
With the child free to roam as she liked, Christopher set off once more on his eternal pilgrimage without destination or purpose. The brief wonder of finding her forgotten.
Emi wandered to and fro in his wake, winding across the old track, taking in the colour of the bushes and flowers, watching insects flit and fly. Not much had survived, but the insects had.
“Where are we going?” Emi asked.
Christopher’s spine snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. He spun around.
She was still there.
Christopher had to think about his answer.
“Nowhere in particular,” he said.
“Oh,” said Emi, regarding a wild hedgerow at the roadside. Entangled in the branches were delicate white flowers on thin vines that curled like filigree. Without a thought, she reached out to pluck one.
Christopher’s hand lashed out, gripping her wrist tight.
“Don’t touch that,” he said with little urgency.
Still in his steel grasp, Emi asked why.
“It’ll kill you.”
Looking at the way his white knuckles enveloped the girl’s forearm, a memory surfaced to gather air and then submerged once more, leaving only the flash of a tail. Christopher drew back his hand to stare at it. This was turning into an odd day.
“We’re already dead,” pressed Emi. She shifted the chain that still wrapped her waist, flecks of red drifting down to stain her dress a little more.
Christopher was admiring his hand.
“It’ll kill you more.”
He walked away.
Emi didn’t move. Her little head tipped to the side. The flowers were so pretty, the petals so delicate.
The sound of his name on her tiny lips seemed wrong to him. At first, he didn’t respond. But there was something, something he should do, an itch to scratch. He should answer.
“Is everyone dead?”
Christopher stopped in the track, but didn’t turn.
“Are Mum and Dad dead?”
A small part of him expected tears, or at least another question. He heard the sound of Emi’s tiny shoes in the dirt, and felt her fragile hand slip into his own.
“We should go then,” she said.
(Out in April)