There are countless stereotypes in the world. A stereotype, after all, is just a very simple story, and people need stories to explain the world to their simple and straightforward brains. A stereotype is a kind of shorthand for experience, something simple and easy to keep track of. They’re a tool, neither inherently good nor bad. I have now met some tools which make me question whether a tool can be wholly innocent of their actions. But that can wait.
People get into trouble when they become over-reliant on stereotypes, like any other tool. When you start using the stereotype instead of experience, when you refuse to learn, you are chastised harshly. Yet still, understanding why the stereotype exists gives you power.
Allow me to name some stereotypes about the Japanese. Meekness, conformity to a wider social structure. Strict hierarchies. Propriety. Filial piety. Animism. These are things that people think of when they think of Japan. Of course, these things do not explain a society. They are a shorthand, and applying them with the expectation that they will be correct is a swift road to embarrassment. Yet they exist for a reason.
Less than one twentieth of Japan’s population is Shinto, and the religion now exists primarily for tourism. Yet this is not the whole story. Many Japanese practice Shinto beliefs, or Buddhist beliefs; but they do not identify as Shinto. My own father kept a small shrine to Amaterasu in our apartment. Not because he believed there was a sun goddess, but because he believed his father had kept a shrine much like it. And so he had done the same.
When I came home from school and revealed the truth to my father, that I had become a goddess of a foreign land’s religion, and that I could make the sunlight blossom within my fingertips, I saw something I did not recognize in his eyes. I was not certain whether it was fear, or awe, or something altogether stranger. I knew that it would forever change our relationship, however. Since that moment, I have not been his little Jenny-chan. He treats me with respect. Almost everyone treats me with respect, now. It is not nearly so satisfying as I might once have believed.
So there is a reason that the Japanese believe in gods, and ancestors watching over them. This is because it is true. But that is not the reason that they do it. I suspect there is some brilliant German word which captures this succinctly, but English- as always- manages to cobble together an appropriate phrase. ‘Right for the wrong reasons.’
Then, consider the filial piety. That stereotype exists for a reason as well. Worship of ancestors is a frequent thing among the Japanese. Look at the Youkai, the monsters we tell stories of- the monsters I now learn are quite real, though perhaps not as dangerous as they once were. The Kitsune, the Bakeneko, the Tsukumogami. They are all unified by one thing: By growing old, they grew powerful. A hundred years of experience and a thing transcends, becomes more than it was. Respect for old things is undeniably a part of Japanese culture. The same is true of the Undead, the culture I have been adopted-or forced- into. With few exceptions, age is power among the Undead. The older you get, the more powerful, at a slow and steady pace. They look on this as a great advantage, as strength is ever tempered by wisdom. They, too, believe that to be old is to be better.
But if I were nothing more than a stereotype, I never would have come to America to study. I never would have started dating Tony. I never would have been bitten by the vampire goddess Hun Came. I never would have become what I am now.
I am Jenny Nishi, and I am Kinich Ajaw. I am a Japanese student now entering my second year of college, studying English and Creative Writing, and I am one of two remaining Camazotz, an ancient and nearly divine clan of Vampires.
They say that writing is the art of understanding others’ mindsets. It is not enough to create what is inside you. You must reflect what is inside others to be a great writer. Whether poetry, story, or script, the You does not matter. Only what you can reflect within others.
It is predictable that one who found themselves in my position would be desperately, terribly lonely. It would be bad enough to be no longer human, to learn that you are already dead, and you will never cease to be. That alone might be enough to distance you. Then to discover that you are nearly unique among Undead, a mere infant by the standards of those around you, but with power that dwarfs theirs. That would be almost beyond bearing. But to be a symbol of the Sun? To have powers that make you a unique threat to all around you? To be a living embodiment of the death of the Undead, of the long-denied ‘natural order’? Isolated from the only ones you can now live among? That would destroy most people, I imagine.
But I am not most people. And I know that while many of those around me may fear me or stay distant, those who know me never shall. And that is enough.
I took a deep breath, and tried to project the confidence I wanted to have in that. I was doing my best, but I was still very young, and not the best at this. But someone was watching over me. Several someones. And they were not gods, but that did not make them any less able as guardians. I stood before the home of one of these guardians, a fine manor house over two hundred years old, on the hills of Binghamton, under a warm September sun. It was Friday, but my classes were finished, and I looked forward to the time ahead, when I would be undergoing a different kind of study.
The door opened, and a little girl smiled up at me. “Miss Nishi!” She grabbed my hand, and tugged me along. “Great Aunt Ann said you’d come by today!”
Ancient noble beast
Founder, beacon, always fair
Nearly took my life
I considered the flow. Not bad, but I still needed to improve my grasp of the cutting word. They did not translate well to English, a chaotic and bastard tongue. So unlike the language of my childhood, with its perfect syllables and strict flow.
But that was part of why I loved it.
Lady Ann Willing sat in the tea-room, and smiled as I approached. “Jenny. How have your studies been?”
“As always,” I said, and smiled. “My father would chastise me for my grades in Math.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, dry as toast. “Always a shame when children cannot be bothered to uphold cliches. The world starts to get so complicated. Tea?”
She waved a hand to the young man acting as butler, and he stepped away smartly, the children sitting down around her. Her extended family. We had a fraught beginning to our relationship, when she tried to have me executed unjustly for the murder of my boyfriend, and the crime of being a vampire. One would think that would be a bone of contention between us, but ever since I had become capable of burning her and every other undead in the city into cinders with a thought and a wave of my hand, I’d discovered I had absolutely no interest in doing so. There was something about power that removed the need to exercise it. And so, I had begun to learn from her.
“Well, children. What kind of story would you like today? One about fairies? One about demons? Or how about…” The Lady Ann wiggled her fingers, the great spectral talons rising from the back of her palms flickering into existence, flashing blue-white in the library’s pleasant light. “A ghost story?”
“Ghost story!” chanted a half dozen eager voices as the children shrieked with delight. I smiled. I was quite fond of the children, who were to a one cute, precocious, and possessed of much of their distant ancestor’s passion, even if hers had banked down over the years.
If one were to describe the stereotypes of Lady Ann Willing, words like ‘cold’, ‘haughty’, and ‘autocratic’ might spring to mind. These were stereotypes she had cultivated, stereotypes she had gathered around her like a shield, and for good reason. She had endured two hundred years of keeping Binghamton a haven for the undead, and had lost her husband to the predations of a vampire. Stereotypes go around, and they come around.
And now, I was learning more about our world from her perspective. She enjoyed sharing the stories with her children, the beings she’d met, her conflicts, her failures, and her many, many triumphs. The stories were, to a one, far more graphic than I would have thought acceptable, but the children adored them, and seemed to grow bolder, rather than more fearful, each time they heard them. I found I learned a great deal from them. There was a reason wisdom was said to come with age; without at least some wisdom, one rarely achieved age.
“And so, that is how the asylum was shut down, though it is said that the lingering resonance of the shattered ghost drew the attention of the faerie courts- ah, but that is a story for another day. Your parents will be coming by to pick you up any time.” Lady Ann Willing smiled warmly down at the children. “Be good, children, or Great Aunt Willing shall gobble you up!” She flashed her talons, and the children let out giggles and shrieks of excitement, running off. She turned towards me. “Are you alright?”
I became aware of the hand on my stomach. It was my hand, clutching gently through the light t-shirt I wore. “Ah. I am sorry, I was just… thinking.”
“No seed can grow in barren earth,” said Lady Ann Willing, not unkindly. “Children are for the living. We have our own way of reproducing, of creation. Though, I fear, it never quite matches the real thing.” She smiled gently. “If you wish, you of course have my permission to sire offspring, and I imagine I could persuade the rest of the Night Court to similarly allow it with a consenting partner, even if I’m no longer acting as part of the Court.” Another consequence of what had been done to save me. “Just say the word, and-“
“I don’t think I’m quite ready for that,” I admitted. “I’m not sure I’d be ready to have children, and a child doesn’t come into this world with enough power to disrupt the games of ancients.”
“Ah, you say that, but you just watch. They grow up so quickly.” Lady Ann Willing smiled. “I understand, on both counts. And who knows? You are a creature of rare talents. Perhaps you will discover another one.” She rested a hand on mine gently, and smiled. “If you do, I certainly hope you will let me know. You are not the only one who still wishes to create, after all.”
I smiled, and took a sip of the tea. From Lady Ann Willing, I had learned mercy. And more importantly, I had learned when to show mercy. Mercy must be shown while one is in a position of advantage. It means nothing when you are weak. It means everything when you are strong. And so, I showed mercy wherever I could, in order to teach others just how valuable the gift was.
For example, to the woman who was indirectly responsible for my death, and Tony’s.
Chaac. Ancient Mayan goddess of storms. Camazotz, like me. Sired by the same woman as I. Her scheme to destroy the Camazotz, vengeance for the destruction of her home nearly 700 years ago, had nearly cost me my undeath as well. Because of her interference, Tony was never raised. The boy I fell in love with was gone forever, and it was her fault. I’d not been ready to kill her. But for a time, there, I’d been ready to let her die. At the last minute- very literally- I had lost my nerve, and begged her to step away from the rising dawn.
That was how I’d learned that I could walk under the sunlight. How I’d learned just how deep the power I’d been given went. It was a gift she hadn’t intended to give me, but it was a metaphor. We were not always rewarded for doing the right thing, but we valued the times when we were out of proportion. The reward was sweeter for being unexpected.
I have heard this place called ‘Gloom County’; a play on its true name, Broome County, and the fact that the city tends towards the heavy cloud cover for most of the winter. It has approximately the same rainfall as the average in the United States; but nearly three times the snowfall, and 50 fewer sunny days than the average. These and other, far more depressing facts were shared with me by another of my guardians, who collects knowledge and information in much the same way that a stone gathers moss, if stones were avid and active moss-hunters.
Despite this, in the summer, it was a shockingly beautiful city, where the foliage was almost overwhelmingly green, the bright summer days lighting up the hills with spectacular golden sunsets. It was brilliant, and a bit of a trap if I were honest with myself, baiting the unwary to think that the city might be that way all year long.
This stretch of road was an exception. It saw nearly 30% more cloud-cover and precipitation than the surrounding roads. Property values had dropped significantly, and a single multinational corporation had bought the land, provoking endless speculation about possible new jobs. Unfortunately, it was just Chaac’s summer home. The vampire manipulated the weather to make herself more comfortable when outside, the sun shaded to the point of harmlessness by the thick, dense cloud cover. I sometimes wondered if the population of the undead was responsible for the gloominess of the city; it would explain so much.
In the traditions of Shinto, the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu, and her brother, God of the Storm, Susano-o, had a long-standing rivalry, often to the point of doing violence to each other’s possessions, which eventually resulted in the god being expelled from heaven after one angry outburst too many. Chaac had assured me that no such similar antagonism marred the relationship of Chaac and Kinich Ajaw, and I took her at her word. No such rivalry could exist. I was her perfect counter, the one who could bring the sun down to touch her. There could no more be a rivalry between us than between the ocean and a candle flame. And so I forgave her for what she had done, because it would be so easy to destroy her, and because that would leave me without a teacher in my own abilities, and because it would still not bring Tony back, or let me have children.
I stepped up to the door of the rather old-fashioned ranch house, and knocked twice.
Great Scaled Toothed-Bat
Bringer of the Summer Storms
We are both wounded
Î frowned to myself. No, no. Not wounded. Healing. That felt better. Put a more positive spin on it. I did not have a choice about what had happened to me, but I absolutely had a choice of how to interpret it. I had learned that from Chaac. Her vengeance had not brought her joy or closure; only regrets and pain. We were both healing because we had let go of what we lost.
The door opened, and Chaac smiled from within. “Jenny. Please, come in.”
The ranch was richly appointed with Aztec artifacts- Chaac had been born in what would one day become the state of Mexico, in a small outlying village. She maintained a strong interest in her heritage, collecting artifacts with the aid of less-than-legal hunters. I was of the opinion that she likely had a greater claim to them than anyone currently alive. We had even discussed opening a museum in the city, though it was hard to imagine how we could keep that endeavor discreet. “Thank you for having me, Chaac. I wanted to ask you about something.”
“Oh? Please, come in.” She settled down, and crossed one leg over the other. “We haven’t talked in a few weeks, ever since your trip down to Bolivia. Did you enjoy yourself there?”
“Enjoy isn’t quite the word, but it was an experience. And that is part of why I came to you. I want to learn more about my powers. How to use them.”
“I see…” Chaac leaned forward, fingertips pressing together. She was dark-skinned, handsome more than beautiful, and short, about as short as me, despite a more robust build- by which I mean muscular, not fat. She did not appear to have a trace of excess fat, though I had experienced some of that slimming down myself; a diet of blood is surprisingly good at creating an ideal body shape. I was aware of my own body having shifted slightly over the months, becoming… more… “Are you blushing?”
I was a stereotype in some ways. One of those was shyness. I coughed into my hand politely. “I apologize, my mind wandered. I would like to learn more about my powers, and how they work. I know a little from what I have done reflexively, but-“
“Instinct is no match for technique well-honed. Of course.” She smiled. “Whenever I asked the question of the older Camazotz, they told me that the path was for me to find, and that their tutelage would only cripple me into the wrong ways of thinking. They were often full of horse-shit like that.” Despite her age, Chaac had kept up well with the centuries; no doubt part of why she had been so successful in destroying the other Camazotz, she had never been susceptible to complacency. “I will not give you such aphorisms. But I will tell you that my path will only ever resemble yours at the beginning. Power, as it grows more refined, diverges from familiar paths. You will have to walk that road alone, soon. But I will begin you on it. Close your eyes. Concentrate. And focus on your heart.”
I did so. My legs crossed as I began to meditate, the way Chaac had shown me, my legs crossed in Agura– what I had heard referred to as ‘Indian style’ in American English, ‘Turkish style’ in Europe. It was associated with the Mongols, Turks, and other Central Asians, at least in Japan. I didn’t know a single part of that before I started doing it, but again, one of my guardians was… enthusiastic.
As I inhaled, I was aware of the flow of blood. The rush of energy as it pumped through my heart. “Despite our divinity, we are still vampires. We share a few things with all of them. Blood is the source of our strength, the heart of our power. And the heart- while it does not create blood- is what pushes it to all corners of our body. It is what lets us use blood. The heart is the focus. What do you feel in your heart?”
I let my mind focus on the heart, and my mind wandered. Warm summer days. My friends- adults, some of them a century or even centuries old. The strange friends I had begun to accrue, a peer group that consisted of the peerless. The scent of a man, the bright blonde hair, the seafoam green eyes-
“Ah!” I opened my eyes, and the ball of light vanished. Chaac winced, fanning herself. “That was… good. I may need a drink. Would you care for some?”
“Ah… please. Sorry about that.”
“It’s perfectly alright, just a little sting. What did you feel?”
“… Happy, I think.” It was happiness, wasn’t it? I hoped so. The other thing it could be was… a little more intense. Chaac nodded, and returned with two bags of blood, one of them with a straw inserted into it. She passed that one to me, and tore into the other one, savagely draining it in a practiced movement. I rolled my eyes, and began to take smooth sips from mine. The rich taste spread across my tongue, cool and untainted with disease, with sickness.
I’m told that blood fresh from the vein is the sweetest. Like juice fresh-squeezed, or fruit fresh-picked. Personally I thought it would be a while until I was comfortable with the idea of jamming my teeth into someone’s throat. It all seemed so… Freudian.
I thought of the man again. Such a strange thought to come to me. A thought that could not, should not, would not indulge in; He was someone else’s.
“Your power, your mind, your body, all must be in alignment. You must have the right pattern of thoughts, the right energy flowing through you, in order to use your abilities. As to what you can use them for- Well, that depends on the kind of thoughts you have. What you associate it with.”
“If you don’t mind my asking… what do you associate your power with?”
“Oh, isn’t that obvious?” Chaac grinned, a wan thing. “Regrets. Tears. All the things I should have done differently, all the mistakes I’ve made. A far less useful emotion than what you feel.”
“I don’t know.” I smiled. “It’s good for a teacher.”
She looked slightly stunned for a moment, and nodded silently. I could see how much the words meant to her, the way they healed a little wound in her heart. There were many more still open and bleeding, of course, but- well, one thing at a time. From Chaac, I had learned forgiveness- Because she had not forgiven me for a crime I had not committed, I learned to forgive even those who had hurt me most deeply, and had gained richly from it.
We spent the next couple of hours chatting, discussing breathing exercises and meditative practices I could try to explore my own abilities. Then I politely excused myself for a dinner engagement.
Not everyone had been bastards to me. I owed four people in this city my life- or undeath, I supposed- and of them, one had given up more than any other. Li Fang Fen had been the first person to be sent by the court after me. A Jiang-shi, a Chinese vampire- though apparently not considered truly a vampire, for a variety of reasons- she had been assigned my prosecutor because of a plot set up by Chaac and her associates. She had been the one to argue for my death. And she had betrayed that honor, that responsibility, to argue for my life instead. I’d not even known how much it cost her at the time. But that act had placed her in mortal peril.
Big Sister, my guide
Gave up everything for me
Sunburnt, now Sunkissed
That sounded distinctly homosexual. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but if I ever told a psychologist about that haiku, they would not need an active imagination to come to the same conclusion.
Part of what had driven me to understand my powers was what she had told us, when she returned from the city. The mysterious woman who had offered Fang Fen her honor. The mysterious woman who had revealed herself as Amaterasu. Who had wanted to find her brother’s killer. Who had been prepared to tattoo Fang Fen with a barbed curse that would have threatened her life. Who had burned my friend. Who had burned my friend, and who had sworn a horrible vengeance against her.
I did not know if I had any hope of protecting Li Fang Fen from a true goddess, something as old and powerful and elemental as the progenitor of the line of Emperors, the daughter of those who made Japan and mankind alike, a goddess who my own father had worshipped. But if I could…
“Ah, darling!” Li Fang Fen stood at the door to the cabin where she was staying, a brilliant smile on her face. The man she had brought back stood in the background, looking nervous. She had been taking care of him, keeping him company, and while I didn’t think much of him, she was close to him. And I could trust her to have good taste. “How are you? Come on, let’s head out!” She smiled over her shoulder. “Sweetie, I’ll be back in a couple of hours, just going out with Jenny!”
“Of course.” He smiled weakly, flinching slightly as he saw me, as he did every time I came over. I gave him a gentle smile, which seemed to calm him, and the two of us set out.
From Li Fang Fen, I learned the value of sacrifice, and the importance of a path that stood above all other concerns. She was immortal, and had nearly sacrificed that for my sake. That was one of the most valuable lessons I’d learned.
We were met at the bar by the third member of our party, the woman to whom I owed my life. Her dark black hair was streaked through with occasional strands of gray which she tried very hard to not act insecure about, and she towered over me, unnaturally tall even for an American, dressed in a sundress that I knew Li Fang Fen had bought for her.
Red in tooth and claw
Wisdom tempered by respect
Insert lawyer joke
My ancestors would rip themselves free of the earth just to throttle me if they heard me read that one to a crowd.
Atina ordered a double of whiskey, trying to show off as always. Li Fang Fen ordered a cosmopolitan, more concerned with something that was sweet and not-too-syrupy than anything else. I ordered a bloody mary, mostly because it made both of them giggle under their breath when I did, and the tomato nicely hid the sharp bite of vodka. The three of us settled down together around the table.
“I still think this is silly,” said Atina.
“Nonsense. I’ve been out of town forever. I’ve missed this so much, getting together and talking about something stereotypically girly. Have you been shopping, Atina? Met any nice boys?”
“I’m with someone already.”
“I said nice. Jack said she heard the two of you.”
I let the two of them banter for a bit, considering that. Jack. The tsukumogami. The thing that had frightened away Amaterasu, the way the story was told. An ancient sword, who was sworn not to kill…
I frowned. It sounded familiar, but I simply did not follow my own nation’s history enough. There were many great and famous swords and swordsmiths who had arisen in the history of that nation and its painfully shoddy iron supplies; craft and technique replacing resource quality, as it so often did. Another mystery.
I had great wealth and great power, now. What I lacked was direction, and certainty. Being the heir of Hun Came’s fortune and her power gave me much, but it could not give me a clear path to achieve my desires. That could only come from my friends. Atina had taught me that, by example. She had taken an impossible situation and cut a path through it that had saved all of our lives. Without her lead, I would have died, or been just as happy to let my attackers die. She showed me the value in forgiveness, leavened with a heavy burden of responsibility on the ones being forgiven. She also showed me the value of a good lawyer, and a good stock investor; I trusted her with the projects I thought needed to be done, and she kept me aware of where the money went, and what it was used for.
She’d thought she knew better than me. She thought she had known what was the right thing for me to do, and she had been right. And she had apologized profusely and begged me to forgive her for it, which is why I did, because even though she had been right, she didn’t think that mattered. It was the kind of thing which made me trust her. Atina, who gathered information like a weapon she might one day need to use to save a life, or take one. Atina, who loved her trivia.
“How about you, Jenny? You dating anyone?” asked Atina, smiling, deflecting one of Fang Fen’s teasing interrogations with all the delicacy and precision of a screaming viking with a battleaxe.
“Ah. I am afraid not.”
“No? All that private time with Alfred, and you never… Y’know?”
I thought of Alfred. Blonde hair and seafoam green eyes. I thought of him fighting to protect me, a knight in shining armor, saving my life through force of arms and sheer power in the face of ravening undead. I thought of seeing him in the snow and the ice in the far and sunless land I had led him through, and being close to him, how good the warmth of his body had felt. The warmth that even now spread through me again- Oh shit, that was a blush. “Ah.”
“Oh, jeez.” Atina grinned. “Take it from one who’s seen his romantic life, it’s not worth it, that guy’s a heartbreaker. I can’t imagine why he and Polly went to Europe together.”
I delicately crossed my legs. “I couldn’t agree more. Just a moment’s fantasy.”
From Alfred, I had learned that you had to move on. You couldn’t let tragedy and loss define you, or they would eat you up inside, taking away everything that was beautiful. Watching him embrace his ridiculous, swashbuckling, fantasy novel persona had been a reminder of why he’d been so exciting. It could never happen, of course, a relationship was out of the question for so many reasons, and yet- and yet-
I stared out the window into the cool evening night, my cheeks feeling warm and flushed from the blood and the drink and the embarrassing yet happy thoughts.
A knight and a girl
Worlds apart yet brought so close
I can’t share this poem