There was a bowl of rice and a cup of water set on a tray on the floor near the door, like there was every morning when she woke up. Once a year, the tray would also have clematis flowers on it, though she never understood why.
Perhaps it was a special day.
Perhaps it was her birthday.
Perhaps they were simply in bloom.
The old woman never told her, and, like many questions, Maya eventually stopped asking.
She liked to think it was her birthday. That someone had thought of her. That her parents were somewhere, remembering her. Even if she was no longer part of their lives. Even if they had other children. She liked to think that they had other children, and that somewhere, she had a mother and a father, and many brothers and sisters.
She liked to think they would look like her. Like looking in a mirror. She would know them upon seeing them, and they would know her.
Today, the tray was bare of flowers, and only held rice and water. She didn’t know how to count the days of a year, but she knew – whatever day it was – it would come soon.
But, she thought as she ate slowly – for there was no rush, and she was almost always left entirely to herself – every year there were fewer flowers. In the years she was small, before she could count, there were many.
Last year, there were five.
Finishing her meal, she set the bowl back on the tray. From there, her mind wandered to other questions.
The old house was full of questions, many with no answers.
At night, when the old woman was asleep, it showed a different face. In her wanderings, Maya had once woken her taciturn guardian by screaming, but by the next morning she couldn’t remember clearly what it was that had frightened her so.
She had been more cautious after that, for a time, mainly staying within her room once the sun had set. But whatever it was had since retreated back into the darkness, and of late the house at night offered the promise of imparted secrets.
On a day like today, it was full of sunlight and dust.
Maya’s wanderings took her into the basement, and then up into the attic. Finally, they took her to the library, where she sat among the stacks of books, picking through many she had already read. Every so often, she found something new – like it had simply appeared out of thin air.
An ominous painting watched her from the far wall, one she had never truly liked but had been there her entire life, and she thought little of it. It couldn’t leer at her past her wall of books, anyway.
One account she was reading had been written by a folklorist. She didn’t know what that meant, but he wrote of a house like hers, but with many more people. It was a strange book. There were several like it, and Maya had never managed to read any of them all the way to the end.
A voice startled her from her readings. And then another, both unfamiliar.
Maya huddled among her books for a long moment. Gathering up her courage, she crept to the window, peeking out into the garden below the house.
There, she gave a soft, startled gasp.
At first, she mistook them for demons. Like the ones in the folklorist’s books. Like the one in the dark of the house. As she watched, she soon realized they were not unlike herself. Three of them, wearing masks – and one of them carrying what she at first mistook for a fourth, but... she wasn’t alive. She was a doll... a lifelike doll, but a mere doll.
Their voices raised; two of them were arguing. One gestured at the house. They were afraid of something, she thought... something to do with the house.
But it wasn’t frightening... was it?
At night, at times, but not during the day.
Maya tried to wave. To attract their attention.
The one that hadn’t gestured stooped to grab a rock, and threw it at the window. Although it bounced harmlessly away, Maya started back.
They couldn’t see her, she realized. The vines covering the frosted glass were too thick.
There was a shout, and then they were gone. Run away down the hill, towards where at night were distant lights. She stifled the small cry that rose in her throat, clamping her hands over her mouth, lest the old woman hear her.
Maya knew there were other people in the world, besides herself and her guardian. She knew they came to the house sometimes, and she was never allowed to see them, let alone speak with them. But she had never before seen the old woman chase them away.
Swallowing, she pressed her hands against the glass and squinted out the window, to where the strangers had been.
Her eyes widened.
Climbing down, she bolted through the twisting passages of the house, slowing to a creep as she came to the stairs overlooking the grand foyer. The sound of chanting came from downstairs – the old woman, sanctifying the house from Outsiders.
Satisfied that her guardian would be occupied for a time, Maya turned back the way she had come, then turned away from the library further in, climbing up to the attic.
There was a hidden way out from the attic, if one were brace enough to climb down the clematis vines that covered the house.
She had snuck out a few times in her life, and only been caught once; the punishment had been severe, even though she had nowhere to go. The books of folklore spoke of villages, and she could only imagine many old houses clustered together side by side... but here there was only the garden.
And in the garden, one of their strange visitors that the old women had frightened off had left behind the doll.
It was smaller than Maya, but larger than any of the dolls she had found in the house. It was mechanical, too – with joints that moved and eyes that opened and closed.
Maya introduced herself, even though it must have been silly to do so.
“We have to go,” she told the doll. “She will be angry if she catches us outside.”
Remembering how the others had acted towards the house, she added, “Don’t be frightened. It’s not that scary, I’ll show you.”
Climbing back up to the attic with the doll was harder than she had imagined it would be. Once back inside, Maya took the hidden ways back to her room.
Up close, with its hair down, the doll almost looked like her. It fit an old dress she found for it, which might have been hers before she outgrew it, and Maya pinned its hair with one of her own ornaments. Several hours passed them by, as she told the doll all about her life at the house and showed her things that she had found within it.
There was a soft rasp of footfalls down the hall. Startled, Maya shushed the doll – for all that she knew it couldn’t speak.
The door to her room slid open, and she stilled.
Her caretaker’s eyes flicked from Maya to the doll.
Between the two of them, Maya thought, the blank expression on the old woman’s face made her appear to be the doll.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
“I... found it,” Maya replied, in a tiny voice. She had found many things, if most were questions, living in the house she did. Perhaps if the old woman believed that the doll had been hidden away within the house, it wouldn’t be taken away.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed, as though she were trying to discern some hidden meaning behind that, but she said nothing. She was never truly stern, like the illustrations of samurai lords in armor or ceremony masters in ritual dress in Maya’s books.
If anything, the old woman was... empty.
Like a spirit, given flesh.
Her guardian hummed thoughtfully, and left Maya alone again.
Alone, but not alone.
Even if it was only make believe.
The novelty of the doll lasted the rest of the day, as Maya showed her around her favorite rooms in the house. That night, the doll kept fearless watch in the dark, as Maya settled down to sleep.
The next morning, there was a bowl of rice and a cup of water set on a tray on the floor near the door.
Beside the bowl were four clematis flowers.