Shadowmate

By Sam Grieve

You do not know of us. We are hidden to you.

I saw you when I was already grown. It was spring and Mother had brought me to the edge for the first time.

“Don’t forget to hold on,” she kept reminding me as we made our way there. “And be careful. Do what I do and take it slow.”

But nothing Mother said could have prepared me for what I felt.

The want you exert in us, you see, is insatiable. You and your incandescent world. It is only as we age, as we learn to govern ourselves, that we can be trusted to venture near you. Mother was right to warn me so. Otherwise I might have succumbed. I might have leapt into that shining well. And who knows what might have happened then? Where I might be?

 

* * *

 

Sometimes now, in the night, when we are in bed, our breath synchronous, I find myself awake. I talk to you then, in my own way, silently. I tell you of the gray and the silver and the myriad shadows that lie between, the quenching black and the starry brilliance, the occasional splash of aubergine, the loamy green of willow, your lithium sky. I explain to your sleeping form how you pour color into our world, and light, but when your sun is shining down below, we go hesitantly to the edge, for it scalds our eyes. But in the evening, at twilight, when all is golden and the veil ripples backward and forward like breath, we come from our homes, and we watch you. You are our favorite entertainment, and we dissect you as such, gathering in conclaves to debate you: What are you?

I believed you were like us but denser – an opposition in light fractals to our dark consciousness – but I kept this to myself, for Mother disagreed. She thought you were nothing but the play of light spooling through the water, a mirage, she insisted adamantly.

Yet when you appeared that first time, I could not take my gaze off you, and neither could Mother for all her views. Now I know it was last April, but for us it meant the light was changing. The ice was melting, taking with it its milky luminosity. The edge began to gleam, and we woke from our hibernation, unfurling from our beds.

Little groups set out on pilgrimages, but because it was my first time, Mother and I made an expedition of it, taking the long route past the cousins, and the aunties, many of whom were still bundled in dusty heaps together. Mother did not want to appear eager; several times we had to stop for a chat, find out how so-and-so was doing, but I could sense her excitement, her desire for the light. We therefore got to the edge late, and crept up cautiously, clinging on to each other so as not to tumble in.

And there you were. The first thing I saw. Wending your way along your edge, bending down and peering every now and again into the water. Your feet were wreathed in yellow light, which I now know were daffodils, and you were immense, as tall as a small tree but uprooted, your hair the color of the setting sun. Jiggering near you were some small ones, whirling in gusts, and a dark mass with its few jagged sounds (Dog, my mother whispered into my thoughts). From our vantage point we noticed other things too, and each thing Mother named; the undersides of ducks, sometimes their eyes and beaks, dabbling up at us, the gray fans of swan feet, the sinuous curves of fish darting among the shuddering clouds.

 

* * *

 

At night you put the children to sleep with stories. I love to listen to you, be close to you, so I tiptoe up the stairs, pressing with my feet only in the places I know will not creak. Outside the bedroom, I crouch upon the homespun rug (fashioned by The-first-Katy on her loom that gathers dust in the shed) and rest my head against the wainscot. A spider labors over her web above me, leaping and jumping with such a clear plan, I am encouraged each day to brush down her work so I can see the artistry anew. You do not know I am here, or else you would invite me to join you. But I prefer to hear you like this, from afar, the way I used to see you.

Do not go into the deep woods, you read to the children from your book.

Be wary of the kindness of strangers.

 

* * *

 

We have our stories too, but compared to yours our imaginations are tepid things. Your world is our forest of the night, but in our dread tales, light falls everywhere. In your world there is not place for shadow; in your world we cannot exist.

 

* * *

 

And yet and yet and yet, into our world pours your light, a radiant temptation. After my first visit to the edge, I grew thin just thinking about it, wasting away to a smudge of air.

Be careful, my love, Mother begged. Do not be tempted.

But I could not help myself. I longed to feel the brightness of your sun. And you, you were an enigma, with your upside-down lives, the changing sky stretching thin beneath you. You moved so fearlessly. Your dog darted and sometimes he swam, and I saw his feet and the curve of his brown belly and the flat oar of his tail. And when he was in the water, he was not a blur but a something, an almost shape. And I wondered – if you were to swim, would you have a shape too?

Now I know the answers. Of your world, and mine, and the veil between us, which you call Echo Lake. I know because I have lost my shadow form and fallen into this place, of light and noise. In our world we are wordless. No, not wordless, for our thoughts pass like fog one to the other, and we hear, but we do not speak. This is something I only comprehend after I am in your world:, our silence. I know my world by what your world is not.

 

* * *

 

After I saw you and your family, I came day after day, to spy on you. My mother did not know, for I hid myself in the reed shadows or floated amid the skeletal reflections of trees. Evening was when you came: you in the front, a quivering, delicate form balancing on your shoulder, your children, Tom and Cecilia, with their pails, one red, one blue, that from my hiding place looked like hovering balls of light, your dog, Jacob. And on two occasions you came with Katy, which is my name now.

 

* * *

 

I did not know it could happen. I did not believe Mother and her old wives’ tales. But Tom dropped a coin from the bank, a quarter, a sparkle of light that spun into our world. I saw it rise, and I could not help myself. I sent out a limb to catch it, and as I did The-First-Katy stretched her long gray fingers into the water for him and caught it too.

 

* * *

 

This is where your many words fail me, for how can I describe for you what happened? That, as the tips of our fingers brushed against each other, my whole world shifted.

Up became down became up.

Sometimes now, I go out to the lake. Not too close, but close enough, to where the clover grows in a cool, dark patch on the grass. Minnows leap from the surface, and overhead I watch the same swallows I once saw from underneath now wheel above me. I go there to try and remember, not my shadowlife, of course, for that is still clear for me, but my transition, and its attendant terrors. I repeat to myself the story of how it happened. How, with that accident of touch, I found myself standing on the grass while all around the brightness and hardness and weight of your atmosphere bore down on me. What else do I recall? Screaming, which I now suspect was my own. And the children, all harnessed in set volumes, hurtling toward me. Fear surged though my being, and I fled – into gathering darkness.

“Katy! Katy!”

I opened my vision to a forest of blades. A monster clambered up a stalk, unfurled its enameled wings, and levitated into the air with a buzz.

And you were there. Your body was around me, encasing me. I stared in wonder at your face, at the blue brightness of your eyes. You lifted me and together we flew. In my true shadow form, a ripple, a wave, rose, fell, rose again.

 

* * *

 

Others came. They prodded me, poked me. I folded myself to the core and hid, but I could not truly hide, for the body I was trapped within was shaken and jerked, and each time I was compelled through curiosity to peek. Once I saw the sky so much further than I could imagine, and another time I was in a cave of white light with dark rivers streaming past. And the unyielding noise! Something pierced my integument, and I could not move for the shocking pain. I plummeted to the depths, sequestered myself there.

And there I stayed for a long time. At first I was confused, listening to the cacophony of thoughts that surrounded me. How rude you all were, with your constant interruptions, your babbly, overexcited shouting. But then I understood that you were all deaf to each other – all you could hear were the sounds you released from your mouths. And with that understanding came relief, for I knew then that you could not hear me; that you did not know it was I who paddled in the currents of my new form’s heart. I listened. I learned. And when you, my Jack, were not there to hold my hand, I kept myself busy. I sang songs and talked to myself or slept, for I was very tired.

Time staggered on. My fear ebbed.

 

* * *

 

How long did I stay in the hospital? I cannot say, for each day was the same. I began to grow bored with my confinement. I was offered sustenance. I had to get up and walk about, a challenge at the beginning, for although my carapace could stand, the weight of the world dragged on me, and I kept trying to float down. I learned to talk and look after my covering. In the shower I washed the hair and cast my hands, slick with soap, over the soft belly, the long legs covered in tiny brown marks, the flat feet with their callused undersides, the breasts, the one on the left a bit heavier than the one on the right, the hair, bristly and short down below, the red sheaf hanging down my back. I learned when the mouth is dry, I must drink, and when the stomach grumbles it is time to eat, and this is my favorite part of this new world – how each solid thing on the plate is a surprise in my mouth.

 

* * *

 

After lunch you would arrive. You dragged the blue chair from beneath the window and placed it beside the bed. You put your coffee on the bedside table. You would hunt in your flat case for a gift from the children; a message in bright, waxy colors that I could not interpret but which I would lay on my knees as though it were something of infinite value. You would entwine your fingers through mine. And you would tell me about your day. You were working because you needed to be home at four when the school bus drew up outside our house. But I should not worry, you said. Everything was fine. The children had been very upset initially but were very resilient. They were looking forward to me coming home. You were drawing in the evenings, in the guest room, for when did we have guests? And you were working on a plan for a law firm in the city. Oh, and the runner beans I had planted were going wild, so much so, you were giving them away, and even the tomatoes were ripening on the vine…

Light tumbled in from the window, setting the hairs on your neck aglow. Sometimes, as you were speaking, I dozed, but kept my eyes awake, blinking. I could feel your love emitting from you, and I wondered if you could feel mine flowing back. Mother, I loved dearly, but you, oh, you are different.

Often you came in and you were sad. I would catch you staring at me, and I would say, “What’s wrong, hon?” like the nurses do, and you would put your head in your hands and mumble, “Oh God, where are you, Katy?”

And sometimes you came in with Dr. Wing. He would sit on the edge of my bed and ask me questions: What had I eaten for breakfast, did I remember being a child, what is my favorite color. Some of the questions I could answer with the new words I have learned (toast, egg, oatmeal, muffin), but for others I had to cheat by sneaking into your mind. And some I could not answer at all, for you did not know me then.

Outside my door I heard the two of you whispering. Your voices rustled like leaves against a windowpane.

 

* * *

 

And then one day you said, “Time to come home, Katy.” And you looked in my eyes as though you were truly searching for me, the real me, my shadow self, floating in its pool of gray iris.

I compressed your hand. “There is a reason I am here,” I declared truthfully. “You.”

You laughed then, and clucked my chin with your finger. “Romantic now, are we? Well, I suppose I can’t complain about this change, old girl.”

 

* * *

We walked slowly to the car, for there was so much to look at. Cloudscapes evolved against their backdrop of strident blue. The sun glared out, left circles on my vision when I glanced at it.

At home you gave me a tour. You showed me my house that my great-grandfather had built, with its small sign attesting to its antiquity. We stood in the light-pricked shade of the oak tree, and with your fingers guiding mine, we traced the lovers’ letters delineated in the trunk. You pointed out my vegetable garden, where fragile spirals of bean plants waved in the breeze, the worn stone with its hitching ring for a horse, the oak front door, my bright brass key. I recalled so little of the place, from my last brief visit, and each thing was new, although I could sense that you hoped it was not so.

As we went inside you became flustered, a sheen rising on your forehead. In the pantry were my pots, heavy orange things, and the umbrella stand with my cashmere sweater still dangling from a handle, where I had left it. And on the hall table was our wedding photo, with you so carelessly happy, staring at my face with open wonder. And in the study was my cabinet of curiosities, over to which you dragged me, crying, “Katy, don’t you remember? All your precious things.” And together we stared at the oddments within: a piece of a star, a dinosaur bone, a fly trapped in a hardened toffee of amber, a sharpened angle of flint.

I could not hide from you my lack of interest. They were all dead things, lifeless things, and as such held little value for me. The only thing I saw that caused a stirring was a shadowbox on the wall. Inside was a creature of such beauty I gasped on seeing it. “Your butterfly.” You smiled. “Remember? We bought it in Paris. A Queen Alexandra Birdwing, Ornithoptera Alexandrae. You always wanted one for your collection.”

I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my face close to the glass. The butterfly lay still with its perfect wings outstretched, like an angel. I wished I could take it in my hand, see it fly.

 

* * *

 

As I am still learning, Mona comes in. She washes the clothes and fries eggs and takes out the trash. I try to help, but still, even now, the edges confuse me, their unforgiving rigidity. When I try to pour milk, it pools in a spill on the table. Mona says, “Don’t worry, Meesus, I do it.”

When she leaves I walk around the house. I lie on the beds. I feel the damp heads of the toothbrushes. I watch the raindrops chase each other down the windows, and talk silently to the butterfly, frozen in his case on the wall, the scales on his wings iridescent, sliding between lavender and blue. Sometimes I choose things from the fridge and try to cook, but nothing I put together works, and I am afraid of the knife and its fierce blade. I eat what I can from the pantry, pasta crunchy in my mouth, cookies, chips, pinches of salt.

When you return at lunchtime you say, “Christ, what a mess!” and you help me sweep the floor. You bring food too, and I open the hot bag and smell the inside. You tell me about your morning, about an interview and how your colleague’s a jerk, and I eat my curry, and then when you look away, I eat your curry too. You shake your head when you notice, and make a sandwich with tuna from a can. I watch carefully so tomorrow I can open the tins in the larder.

At four, we go outside to wait for the bus. The children jump off, dragging their sweaters behind them. You wrestle them to the grass, and they squeal and shriek. Then you say, “Kiss your mother,” and they come to me, reluctant. Their lips are soft against my cheek, dabs of moth wing.

Back in the house, I rest, while you occupy yourself downstairs with homework and dinner. We eat together, and afterward, while I pile the dishes in the sink with emerald streaks of detergent, you take the children upstairs for a bath and bed. At the beginning I stay in the kitchen, but then, one night I surmise your thoughts clearly. “When is she going to start being a mother again,” and I say loudly, “And I will be up soon to say good night,” and you wrap your arms around me, and I can feel your happiness piercing my heart, sharp and bright.

In bed later you roll toward me and move your hands over my body, and you say, “Do you mind, darling?” And I say, “Mind what?” And you laugh and caress me and then you hove above me and are in me, and I feel the joy in your thoughts and shut my eyes for my own joy, and I know now I could never go back, that, like my friend Ornithoptera Alexandrae on its pin, you have imprisoned me here.

In the late summer we sit outside, and you give me a glass of pale wine, but you say strongly, not too much. I have new clothes, for The-First-Katy’s clothes have grown smaller. The children run on the grass, throwing themselves into bent handstands and cartwheels, and Jacob the dog tears around, his tongue hanging from his mouth. In the crepuscular light our shadows lengthen, and every now and then a firefly sparks like an ember, fading into the sky. If the children go too close to the water, I stand up and shake my finger at them. “Hey! Get yourselves back on the grass this instant!”

“They both can swim,” you remind me.

I say, “I know, but that lake is full of things you cannot imagine.” And as I sip my wine, I watch the reflection of the willow flutter and slide between leaf and light and wonder if Mother might be resting in the shadow branches. The evening star hangs on the horizon, still invisible to her eye. Does she ever wonder what happened to me? Her beloved shadow child? Or has she seen it all before?

As for the The-First-Katy down there somewhere amongst the fractals and diffusions and the endless dark, drenched spaces, well, I do not like to think of her.

___

Sam Grieve earned her BA in English and French literature and graduated with honors in creative writing from Brown University. At Brown, she had the great fortune to study under Robert Coover and Paul West, among others. After gaining her MA in English from King’s College, London, she worked initially as a bookseller, and then moved into the antiquarian book business. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she lived in London, Paris, and Providence, Rhode Island, before settling down in Connecticut with her husband and their two sons. She writes under the name Sam Grieve.

Her work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in A cappella Zoo, Cactus Heart, Grey Sparrow, PANK, Sanskrit, and Wild Violet.


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