Sofie is not human.
That, she thinks, is a sensible place to start her story.
She looks somewhat human – to be more exact, she looks somewhat like a human child – but this is just a trick, an accident. ‘One of nature's lucky mistakes,’ says Dr Liszt.
In the gloom of Sofie’s cell, where the darkness is kept at bay only by the dim flickering of a candle in one corner, it is easy to believe she is the real deal.
When she hunches over in bed to read one of the dusty books from the shelf or when she lies down and sings a lullaby to remind her of the trees and wind and sky of her old life, her dark silhouette looks just like that of a seven-year-old girl’s.
But when she looks into the cracked mirror on the wall or when Dr Liszt pulls up a chair to shine the light from his lantern in her face, which he does often, it becomes clear that she is not the same as the heroes and heroines of the fairytales she reads.
She is not a seven-year-old girl at all.
She is something else.
She has heard the word several times now. She has heard Dr Liszt say it and she has heard the other tall, strange men who walk the corridor say it.
They must think Sofie is not listening, but she hears it when they say things like, ‘Are all the orphans back in their cells?’ and ‘She wants three more orphans up there by nightfall.’
She knows what an orphan is – she has read about them in her stories – and she knows that she is not one.
She has a mother, for a start. Her mother was there, always, in her old life. But she cannot deny that every time she thinks of her mother, the thought sort of fizzles out and goes nowhere. It is like when you have a missing tooth and you root around with your tongue to feel the empty space, to feel the soreness of the bare gum. It is as if all her mother’s character is embodied in that gap, that absence, that strangeness. In time she hopes the tooth will grow back, and her thoughts about her mother will make sense again.
But for now the thought usually goes like this: she tries to remember her mother, she tries to put the pieces back together, but all she sees in her mind’s eye is an image that seems both meaningless and irrelevant: it is the image of a tree, a symbol carved into its trunk. And even this she cannot keep steady. The crude lines of the symbol seem to jump and twist and collapse until they are nothing.
A few times, she has taken a finger and tried to draw the symbol into the dust and dirt of her cell floor. Every time, though, the lines she makes are all wrong and she soon gives up.
Perhaps Dr Liszt and the other men are right, then – perhaps she is an orphan after all – even if she knows deep down that that cannot be right.
One time, she feels emboldened and asks Dr Liszt the question.
‘Why do you call us that word?’
At the time Dr Liszt is standing behind her, using a long razor to smooth the hairs on her scalp down to a fine, bristling layer. It is only because Sofie cannot see him that the words slip out at all.
And when they do slip out, the razor comes to a sudden stop.
‘What did you say?’
Little hairs have fallen to rest on Sofie’s eyelashes and on the backs of her fingers. ‘I’ve heard you call us orphans. But we’re not orphans. I have a mother.’ It is a risk, she knows, to press her point. She doesn’t wish to displease him.
Dr Liszt clears his throat. ‘The way that you came to be … that is a tale for another time.’
She feels his fingers back on her head and around her ears. The razor starts up again.
‘Will I find the tale in one of those books?’ She nods at the bookshelf.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I should think not.’
And that is that.
So what does Dr Liszt see, then, when he scrapes up a chair and shines a light on Sofie? What is it that is different about her? What is it that is not right?
First he sees that she is all elbows and knees, her joints like knives. She looks as if she has never known a good meal. On her feet she wears nothing, and her scalp is fully shaved, but the rest of her is covered by a shapeless night shift, more a rag than a garment.
But none of these things are special; none of them tell him that Sofie is not human.
It is only when he shines the light in her face that he sees the truth. Her eyes are not quite right. They are bigger than a normal seven-year-old girl's, big and dark and a touch too far apart, so that she has the appearance not of a real child but of a child's bad drawing of a child. The nose, meanwhile, is so minimal as to barely be there at all. It gives the face a dollish, flat effect. And the mouth lacks the elasticity of a normal mouth. It is stubborn in its smallness, in its lack of range. It can do expressions that convey weakness – sad, scared, submissive – but expressions of strength and assertiveness are beyond it. Occasionally – and this is very rare indeed – a smile will steal its way through to the surface, but it is always gone as quickly as it appears.
Next, Dr Liszt notes the strangeness of Sofie’s skin. Depending on the light, and the way it falls, the skin can seem pure and smooth, like the bowl of a sink, or it can appear tough and shiny and rubbery, like it was made to survive the rain. Sometimes it appears the palest white, other times it is the tinted blue of a bruise. Then there are other times – when certain things happen, or certain things are said, or certain emotions are felt – when the skin gets stranger still. A reaction takes place. This has a name – a name that is far better chosen than ‘orphan’, Sofie thinks. But this too, as Dr Liszt would say, is a tale for another time.
There are other parts too – other parts of Sofie's body that are strange, different. But Dr Liszt is not interested in those. All this – all the tests, all the questions, all the games – is about Sofie's face and her skin and her thoughts. ‘In studying you, we can hold up a mirror to my own people,’ Dr Liszt says. ‘You have a great role to play in all this. Don’t forget that.’
But this is not the only reason that Sofie is here, living this new life.
Dr Liszt explained it all a long time ago, when she was first brought down to the corridor and the cell and the bed and the bookshelf and the cracked mirror.
But when she thinks about the beginning of it all, she wonders if it really was ‘a long time ago’. There is no day and night down here, there are no seasons. Just the darkness and the dimness and the occasional rude light peering in. It leaves you with no sense of time.
It hardly helps that for the longest while she has looked so young, so like a seven-year-old girl. She wonders sometimes how old she actually is. But neither she nor Dr Liszt has the answer. No one has been counting.
There was a storm the night she was brought here. She had been taken from her home by two strange men who spoke not a word. They bundled her into an ugly-looking cage whose bars were melded together here and there so that there remained only the barest, most spidery gaps through which to look. This meant that for as long as the journey lasted she saw the world in only slivers and shards. For a while they rolled along on what she could only assume was some sort of cart, but then the ground was taken from underneath her and she was lifted and manoeuvred and scraped along until everything sort of rocked. When she peered through a gap, she saw they were out at sea. Then the sky opened up. Thunder rumbled and rain lashed. She saw no forks of lightning, but every now and then the cracks in her cage would go momentarily white. The men who had not spoken a word suddenly became full of terrible ones, cursing and shouting and roaring as they fought to keep afloat. Then, out of the darkness and chaos of it all, all went white for one last moment, and that was when she saw it.
It was tall and slender.
It was looking down at her.
Once they hit hard ground again, and her cage was tipped and scraped and carried and dragged, it became impossible to see anything. But once they got inside and the storm died down to a ghost of a sound, she could tell one thing for certain: they didn’t go up, as one would usually do upon entering a lighthouse, they went down.
Down and down and down.
At times they seemed to plummet remarkably fast, at other times the descent was more faltering. Before long, the way became so convoluted that Sofie tired of trying to catch any glimpses of this new world beneath the sea, and so she closed her eyes and soon gave herself to sleep.
When she awoke, there was a man with a knife. She wondered at the time why they had taken her all this way just to kill her, but then the man had grabbed a scruff of her hair and started to hack. Once her hair was down to a patchy stubble, the man tossed her a night shift to wear, gave her a shove and said 'Done' before she was led off through a door and then finally to a long corridor where the cells were kept.
As she walked the corridor, she saw others like her through the bars. None of them seemed to notice her or register any interest at her arrival. They just kept to themselves. It was the way they must have liked it, and it was the way Sofie liked it too.
She was left in her cell for quite some time before anyone came to talk to her. First she acquainted herself with the hard bed, the little shelf with the books, the chamber pot, the ledge where a dish sat waiting for a candle, and the broken mirror. Then she acquainted herself with the leeches and the rats. She liked the leeches because they had no eyes to see her, and she liked the rats because – although they did have eyes – the eyes were too small and beady to scrutinise her. She was biting into one, feeling it protest and struggle even as she ate it, when she saw the figure standing in her cell door.
He stood there in the darkness, tall and strange. She could see the form of him, but no detail. ‘Do not be afraid,’ he said. ‘We have not brought you here to hurt you. We know that you favour the dark and the quiet. As such, this is the place for you. It is not a prison, it is a home. And this is not a cell, it is a room. You have books and a bed, and in time we will bring you food – more than these rats – and other things too. It is not much, but you will grow to like it. I know you will.’ He took a step closer. ‘I cannot read minds, but I can read yours right now. You wish to know why you are here. You are here because we want to help you. I know that there is a trembling in your heart and a fear in your eyes, and I know about this thing you call the red shame. I am here to take those things away. You are sick and I am your doctor. If you wish to be cured you must work with me. I know you will.’
She had long since put the rat down and allowed it to scuttle off, half of its back open and glistening.
‘From time to time you will hear bumps and creaks in the walls. You will start to wonder what this place is. But don't fear. The noises are your friends, come to watch you and guide you. And I am your friend too.’ He struck a match and lit a candle, and his face appeared in the stark orange light. He was smiling. An awful smile, Sofie thought. But then, like a broth that is at first bitter and twisted, the taste started to grow on her and soon went down easily, and she could now see that it was a kind smile, a watchful and wise and knowing smile. It was a smile that you could trust, a smile that you wanted to let in. This man understood her, she could see. ‘You may call me Dr Liszt. And I shall call you Sofie. In time you will see that this is your name. Your true name. I know you will.’