Date: July 26th
I've been thinking about writing this story down for a decade. I have a feeling that the time has come. I must write it before my heart becomes as hard as this damn world.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Karel. She lived in an orphanage where everyone was made of steel. Karel grew up playing with steel children and tended by steel nannies. The orphanage was a large, grey, concrete building shaped like a brick. Four walls, higher and greyer than the building, guarded it. There lied an empty field within the walls, serving as the playground.
Throughout her childhood, Karel assumed that the Steel People around him were “normal” human beings, as they are all she had ever seen. She regarded herself, made of flesh and bones, the abnormality.
Besides occasionally worrying about her identity, Karel had a happy childhood: the dinning hall provided gorgeous (although a bit repetitive) meals; the staffs gave them well-made (although a little bit plain) clothes. She had awesome friends, loyal and caring (although a little bit boring). The children’s playful nature was well satisfied. The workers often organize activities, from hide-and-seek to singing and dancing.
Among the activities, Karel enjoyed her birthday parties most. Every year on a kid’s birthday, she or he could make a wish. The orphanage would fulfill it, even if it seemed to be unreasonable. Once a boy wished to be on the moon. After the party, he disappeared for a while, and came back loaded with stories of his lunar adventure.
It was Karel’s seventh birthday. She had tortured herself with the choice of her wish for weeks. At last, she picked something really special from the storybooks.
Most of the party was fun but not exciting, because she longed so much to make her wish. The time came, as the birthday song faded and the seven candles on her cake blown out.
“I wish”, Karel closed her eyes, smiling, as if the wish had already been fulfilled, “I wish I could have a cat as pet.” She opened her eyes, tears came out as the crowd shouted, “Karel is going to get a cat; Karel is going to get a cat!”
Cats were always so cute and elegant in the books. They walked into her dreams a lot; she loved petting their comfortable fur and embracing their soft bodies. Now, she’ll have her own one!
A few weeks passed with no sign of a cat. Karel grew anxious, doubting if her wish would be fulfilled. One afternoon, as Karel walked into her room after hide-and-seek, she found a large box on top of her bed. Karel rushed to the box. When she lifted the lid, a sound she yearned for months flowed out: “Meow~” Karel jumped when hearing this.
There was a cat inside, shaped corresponding to the ones she had in dreams: huge eyes, cute face, and pact build. However, slimy metal skins, instead of soft furs, covered the cat’s body. It wasn’t made of flesh and bones, but solid metal.
Karel’s roommates gathered to see this rare creature. They’d never seen an animal before. They looked at the cat with happiness, as if they owned it.
Karel did like the cat during the first hour she owned it. It meowed regularly when being petted. She enjoyed hearing its heart-melting voice and the chilly feeling when touching it. Her friends begged her to hold the cat in turn, and Karel reluctantly agreed. When they discovered that the cat could roll side-to-side on the ground, all the kids cheered. They were all well amused by the cat.
Although other kids loved the cat, Karel got bored quickly. She realized that hers wasn’t the ones she desired. The actual cats should be smart and capricious, using countless techniques to trick other animals or to get attention from the master. They should be swift and strong as well, able to jump on a table or climb a tree. This cat can’t even walk! It couldn’t do anything besides meowing and rolling.
She gave the cat to her best friend Tracy the next day.
“I’ll get a better pet next year, for sure.” Karel told herself every time when she thought of the dull metal cat.
Karel’s eighth birthday came. She made up her mind easily this time, picking up her new favorite animal from the storybooks.
Most of the birthday party wasn’t fun for her, since the only thing she cared about was the wish. The time came, after her blowing the eight candles out with a deep breath.
“I wish”, Karel closed her eyes tightly, as if the thing was right in front of her, “I wish I could have a dog as pet.” She blushed with joy as the crowd hailed, “Karel is going to get a dog; Karel is going to get a dog!”
Dogs were the best companions in the stories. They had replaced cats in Karel’s dreams, since they were more reliable, loyal, and interesting. Their furs were longer and more comfortable; they were much stronger. Dogs did not trick others like cats; they acted nicely and frankly, being man’s best friend. Now, she’ll have it!
Karel waited patiently for a few weeks. As expected, she spotted a large box on top of her desk. She ran to the box and raised the lid. Barks penetrated the entire room. Karel gasped upon hearing this sound. She peeked inside the box.
To her disappointment, the dog was a metal one as well. She brought the dog to the ground, her heart getting as cold as the dog’s aluminum skin. The dog sat firmly on the floor, its metal tongue swinging out. It looked so vivid that Karel’s interest got rekindled. She threw her handkerchief away and ordered the dog to retrieve it. The dog dashed towards it like a flash. It caught the handkerchief midair and brought it back within a few seconds. Karel caressed the dog, and it barked gladly in return.
The dog brought attention from all the kids in the room. They lined up besides the wall, amusingly watching Karel tossing various objects and the dog retrieving them.
Gradually, Karel got bored of the throw-and-catch game. She tried to order the dog to do other things, such as following her around or playing with a ball. The dog did not respond to any of these. It was only capable of bringing stuff to Karel following her instructions and barking gently when being petted.
The Steel kids never got tired of these, but Karel felt cheated. While her friends were still surrounding the dog, their metal faces full of laughter, she stormed out of the room. Running and weeping, she lost herself in the labyrinth of straight hallways. A pair of powerful steel arms halted her. It was Mr. Watt, the head of this orphanage.
“What are you weeping for, my child?”
Karel raised her head, meeting Mr. Watt’s kind eyes, “Sir, the cat…the cat and dog aren’t real…my wishes haven’t come true!”
Mr. Watt smiled. He squatted and embraced Karel: “Karel, I’m really sorry that we did not pick the pets you like. But the cat is a real cat and the dog is a real dog, as real as you and me. Why do you say they’re unreal?”
“The cat could only meow and roll, the dog could only bark and catch, it’s not what the cats and dogs do in the stories.” Karel cried.
Mr. Watt’s left hand touched Karel’s face; it possessed an awkward chilliness. His right hand rearranged her messy hair. “My dear Karel, this is how actual cats and dogs work. I know it’s very tough to accept the reality…“ Mr. Watt looked firmly into Karel’s eyes as he went on speaking with big phrases like “grow up”, “fairy tales”, and “realistic”.
Her heart already drifted away, wandering in an imaginary world of real cats and dogs. She was truly happy in this world.
A shake brought her back from her fantasies. “Don’t worry, you’ll get a better gift next year.” Mr. Watt hugged her, and said so in a reassuring voice.
“Sir,” Karel turned to the headmaster as she was going back towards her room, “Are all the animals in the world similar to the cat and dog I got?”
“Yes Karel, that’s how it is. I can’t see what’s wrong with it…”
Karel walked away before Mr. Watt could finish his sentence. She paced slowly, large teardrops coming down her cheeks, wetting into her lips. It tasted salty.
Karel was on her ninth birthday.
She hated the party. She detested the grinning faces of the staff in the orphanage. Finally, the tedious event was about to end. She sent a feeble current of air across the nine candles, which left three candles still flickering. The crowd waited in silence, until she blew all the candles out on the third try.
“I don’t have a wish this year.” Karel said, glimpsing at somewhere far away.
Murmurs broke out among the kids.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“How’s it possible for her not wanting something?”
The adults were whispering among themselves as well, most of them with anxious and confused expressions. Karel felt dozens of eyes focusing on her, burning and stinging her with their questions.
“Quiet, please!” A cold male voice stopped the chaos.
“My child,” Mr. Watt walked up to Karel, “Why don’t you have a wish?”
Karel did not raise her eyes to meet Mr. Watt’s steely ones, “sir, I simply can’t think of one that will make me truly happy,” she responded in a strangely aloof tone, an obscure mixture of repressed emotions.
“Karel,” Mr. Watt’s face became as hard as its material, “I understand you did not like your gifts the previous two years, but they were your own choices. You can’t be this ungrateful. It’s your birthday. You have to do what you must. ”
“Yes Karel, you have to make a wish.”
“This is how a birthday party works!”
Her friends said these in a caring tone. Maybe they were trying to act like the adults, to help Karel out of her falsehood.
Karel sat up and yelled, “If I must make a wish, my wish would be: all my birthdays hereafter won’t have this dumb wish part!” Teardrops burst uncontrollably from her eyes. Then, as if she exhausted all her power in that cry, Karel fell from the chair and collapsed on the ground.
The next moment Karel regained full consciousness when she was lying on a comfortable bed, staring at the silver moonlight on the ceiling. She wasn’t sure what woke her up, and she would attribute it to some sort of force beyond mankind.
It was a simple room, with a narrow bed, a cabinet, and an overhead lamp. All seemed mundane, except the window was considerably larger than the ones in normal rooms. The bell, located two floors right above her, started ringing. One…two… Karel counted twelve strokes in total, while sitting up and scanning around. The moon hung right at the upper-center of the window frame. Its stillness gave Karel an illusion that it was imbedded on the window. Her eyes fixed on it, as her mind wandered through numerous things: the cat, the dog, Mr. Watt’s words, the chilly feeling of metal, and…her birthday wish. She began to regret her gaffe, as she could have lied and follow the conventions. Nevertheless, she genuinely could not think of a wish.
A shadow disturbed the calm moon face, as it also disturbed her stream of thoughts. The shadow grew larger and larger, as it moved rapidly across the pool of light. Karel came close to the window. It was a bird, a little bird with brown wings and a grey chest. Karel recalled that the graphic storybooks named birds like this “sparrow”. She did not know much about them, for they were always sidekicks of the stories, lacking the power or beauty to be the protagonist.
The sparrow landed on the windowsill, looking into the grey room with its curious black eyes. Karel moved closer and observed the bird. Its wings and back were not completely brown, but with black spots in the shape of raindrops, reminding her of leopards. Its feathers and claws were so vivid that convinced Karel it wasn’t a metal thing. It was the first flesh-and-bones creature she’d ever meet! Karel’s ecstasy took over her: “Having you as my pet is my birthday wish now,” Karel said to herself.
She lifted the window open, using all the might a nine year old could exploit. The sparrow noticed her presence and turned its little eyes to study this “giant” thing. For an instance, Karel’s eyes met the birds’. Its power shocked her, for she’d never seen a pair of eyes having as much depth and livingness as the sparrow’s dark ones. The eyes reassured her that the bird was real, for the metal creatures’ glass eyes couldn’t be as intricate.
The girl reached for the sparrow, whispering, “Come here, my precious”.
The bird did not resist. It barely moved, just letting Karel cuddle it with her warm hands.
Karel held the bird in the cool, midnight breeze. She stood there, feeling the bird’s temperature. It was magical, as heat transferred back and forth between her skin and the sparrow’s wings. No metal being could ever give her such experience. The touch of feather surprised her, for she didn’t know something could be both rough and smooth. Each feather tip itched her fingers, yet each feather’s blade was as smooth as her silk hairband. Carefully, the girl attempted to move back and bring the bird indoors.
As soon as the bird came fully into the room, it set off a fierce struggle. Its wings suddenly flapped, with power incompatible with its tiny build. Karel wasn’t prepared. Her hands let go of the bird. The sparrow landed on the sill, staring at Karel alertly, as if she posed an immediate danger. The gaze had a penetrating force - she felt her soul was stripped naked. Karel, uneasy under the little bird’s look, moved left and tried to approach it again. The bird seemed to be unaware of her moves. It peeked around the grey room with horror and defiance. The sparrow then nodded at Karel and waved its right wing. The next moment, it flew away, as rapidly as its arrival, towards the bright full moon.
Karel was stunned there like a pondering iron figure, trying to make sense of what took place. Then, following an irresistible impulse, she rushed to the window, watching a shadow growing into a black dot, and eventually it vanished into the moonlight.
Looking at the moon until the light hurt her eyes, Karel wondered about the origin of that bird, and perplexed about the meaning behind its final gesture.
Huh, finally done.
Happy birthday, Karel Aldouse.