Shadows

LADY: I never believed it was a curse.

To me, the gifts I was given far outweighed the minor restriction. I had my mirror, after all, to watch the world. And all the threads I could long for, filling my chamber with light and color and magic.

KNIGHT: It was only an old, crumbling tower, and I didn’t believe for an instant that it was haunted. Deke’s cheek twitched when I scoffed at the idea and grabbed my keys. “You coming?”

He shook his head. “You’re nuts, man.”

“Yeah, so? It’ll be fun, you chicken.”

“Look, I’ve seen people go there and come back totally changed. Like, crazy. It might not be a ghost, ok, but there’s something wrong with that place.”

“Like what? Faeries? Ghosts?”

His silence was answer enough.

“God,” I laughed. My fingertips tingled like they always did when I had a great idea. Flexing them, I stomped out of the garage and slid into my Charger.

LADY: I tapped my slipper against the stone floor as I worked, keeping the rhythm of my heart. The giant circle loom surrounded me, and I stepped lightly between guiding threads, weaving delicately a brilliant vermillion here, a more gentle ocher beside it, and highlighted with the palest silvery blue – exactly like the shapes in my mirror.

All around me my weaving was a rainbow nest. It was my comfort, my art, and my protection at once. Nothing else mattered.

“Your gifts should live forever,” she’d said from her narrow boat. I was small, crouched in the rushes gathering lilies. I remember I’d taken out my braids and was weaving strands of water-grass into my long hair. “My gifts?” I asked.

The woman smiled, though her lovely face was hollow with sadness. “The weaving. I’ve seen you in my mirror. You have talent, little thing. Go to the tower in the center of the marsh and there you will find all you could ever hope for.”

Her geas led my feet surely through the deadly wetland, though at times the water soaked my skirts past my knees. Their sodden weight vanished when I reached the hard ground of the island and the tower rose over my head. A red door covered over with dried vines creaked open. Clutching my hands to my chest, I went in, unable to consider otherwise.

Inside, invisible hands tugged at my hair and hands and drew me toward a gentle fire. It was a warm kitchen the smelled of bread and berries and salt. My stomach begged for some of the bread, and it was proffered by those same invisible hands. Dried herbs hung from the low ceiling. There were no pots and pans, but only ready food. As I ate, my hair was combed and I relaxed, unafraid of my invisible friends, though every story I’d heard as a child warned me I should have been. Even though when I looked back around, I could find no door.

I discovered fine gowns on the second story, and a large bed tucked against the wall. It was laid with pillows of every shape. And opposite the bed, reams and reams of thread. My knees vanished and I sat abruptly on the bed, staring. I had never seen such color.

Finally, in the highest room, I found distaff and circle-looms of ten different sizes. An old hanging loom leaned against one curving wall, the stones clacking together like they laughed with pleasure. And the mirror, of course. It was angled beside the single man-sized archway that opened back up into the world. I could stand in the center of the room, or at the hanging loom, and see shapes and colors reflected there, becoming more than their own realities.

My mother was there, her face achingly sweet from across the marsh. She called for me, and I pressed my back into the cold stones to watch through the mirror. My hand found the archway, but I did not move, did not turn to meet her eyes. In the mirror, I saw not only her lips, her tears, her fingers reaching for me, but I saw the shape of her love. It was a vivid gold, and turning around her like the sun in the sky.

I set to work at once, weaving Mother’s love, and lost myself in it.

KNIGHT: The Charger kicked up mud immediately once I turned off the paved road. I patted the dash, muttering encouragements to it as the engine whined. What the hell? How did a car balk? But I shrugged to myself. Maybe it was a sign. The ground didn’t look too firm between me and the tower anyway, and getting my car stuck in a freaking swamp was not part of my plan.

Flicking it off, I climbed out. My sneaker sank an inch into muck. Great. Standing, I surveyed the marsh. It smelled like crap. And mold. This better be worth it.

Directly in front of me through trees crawling with vines and dripping moss the tower hunkered. At a squat three stories, it hardly counted as a tower. More like a roundish stone building. Maybe five hundred years ago it had been a tower. The stones glimmered in the sunlight, kind of greenish and slimy. Did I really want to go inside?

Hell, yes.

Ignoring the mud soaking my jeans, I plodded through. Sticky air clung to my neck, and my hair flattened against my head and cheeks. I focused on the tower. There, near the top, a black window sucked in light. As high as me, it was just an arch, no glass, like a door to nowhere. I stripped off my jacket and dropped it behind me.

I pushed on, thinking of nothing but that window. Something flashed inside, like a winking light. And then a sparkle: red, pink, orange like the sun setting behind me.

A stream spread between me and the tower. I slid down the embankment and splashed through water up to my hips. Dragging my fingers in the thick water, I paused halfway across and stared up. Was that humming? The soft song crawled through the humidity, straight to my ears. I closed my eyes as it seeped through my skin. Despite the heat, I shivered.

LADY: His face flashed in the mirror. Nothing surrounded it – no shimmering colors. No hopeful pink or curious blue. No bright reds, no violent purple promises, and no sleepy green that I might weave into a picture of his soul.

And then I heard it: “Hello?”

I frowned at the twine of cerulean thread caught between my fingers. A voice? I knew birdsong and my own hum, the careful whisper of my invisible friends. But a voice? Glancing back at the mirror, I saw his hair flash like the sun. A color between yellow and red, but not orange, not my salmon-pink or gold, not ginger or brown or… I hopped over rim of my loom and dashed to the piles of thread. Throwing aside five shades of scarlet, I dug past for my lacquered box of gold and copper-shot threads. I gathered it up and went back to the mirror. Tilting open the lid, I held it against the glass to compare his hair to the mounds of thread.

But he was gone. The mirror shone with merry emerald and sapphire, shot through with fiery-sunset-streaks.

My chest pinched and I gasped at the pain of my heartbeat. I was empty, hollow, and panicking. Stumbling away from the mirror, my hip hit the edge of the arch and the color flashed below. Whirling, I looked outside through my own eyes for the first time in forever.

He stood at the base of the tower, watching me. I fell to my knees and my hair spilled around me, fluttering down the side of the tower, weaving into the vines. His eyes were exactly the color of my favorite water-green: clear, pale, and cut with flecks of blue. I could weave his eyes into my loom. But his hair – oh, his hair. It would be impossible.

KNIGHT: Her face appeared in the black arch. My fingertips tingled, and I put them to the stone wall. It was rough and the spaces between the stones wide from crumbled grout. I took off my shoes and tucked my socks inside them. I could climb it.

Her gaze felt like a cool spring breeze on the crown of my head, running down over my ears and shoulders. The sweat on my spine cooled as I climbed, digging my fingers and toes into the creases. My muscles burned at the effort, but I focused on the memory of her face in the darkness and the cool weight of her eyes.

LADY: He climbed slowly, jerking as he heaved up and up. His fingers turned white as he pressed into the cracks of the tower wall. I scrambled for my shears. The silver metal blades were freezing in my hot palm. His head crested the base of the arch and then his eyes were level with mine. He hiked his arms up and over, hanging there, hands splayed, cheeks flushed, and his beautiful hair inches away. I reached out and touched it – silky and fine. His lips quirked up and he said something, but I hardly heard it.

KNIGHT: She was thin and pretty, like an ink drawing: all graceful lines without any color. “Help?” I asked breathlessly, smiling my most charming smile. Her eyes were gray, and fixed on me. My arms trembled with the effort of holding myself up, and I began to feel like a bug. The iridescent kind you pin to the wall and show off to your guests. She traced a strand of my hair onto my jaw, and her warm fingers continued to skim along my face, then up to my lips. I parted them, wanting to say something else, but I didn’t know what.

She leaned forward and kissed me. Lightly, barely, so I heard it more than I felt it. She drew my breath into her mouth and exhaled, smelling of moldy blankets and dust. Pulling back, I stared at her. She smiled, but I saw behind her a room filled with tattered, gray filth. It hung like thick spider webs all around the walls, and chunks of it piled up over the floor. Pieces of old wood, leaves, dead vines, what might have been ancient dresses and clothes. A flash of silver caught my attention, and I glanced into the gilded mirror. It reflected the room back at me: a room filled with color and light. Tapestries and beautifully woven rugs lined the walls, and the piles were treasures of jewel-toned thread or yarn or just heaps of cloth. It was a nest of color. And in the mirror, the lady shone as though made of glass. Her perfect skin, her long dark hair, her lips red and her eyes faceted like sapphires.

And the scissors in her hand. Schick-schick next to my ear: a chunk of my hair fell off into her hand.

I fell.

LADY: The hairs glittered in my palm as he fell and landed in the soft mud and water with a thick splash. I could taste his breath on my tongue. Far below, the current dragged him away from my tower. His arms spread as though he were flying and his eyes closed as if in sleep. Away he floated, away toward the city.

I went back to my circle loom and knelt in the center. Carefully, I began to weave the strands of hair into my image. But the more I wove, the less lovely the surrounding became. His hair turned my thread into gray dust, and soon it crumbed in my fingers. I crouched in a pattern of musty, moldy shadows. No. No!

In the mirror, my tower room was dead. The colors melted out like rain washing them off the reflecting glass. It all faded.

I looked down at my hands, which were gray, too, and through them I saw the pattern of the crumbling stone floor.

It was gone. I had nothing here in my tower. I could not weave, I could not see the colors of the world through my mirror, nor the hues of thread piled around me. It was only so much rot.

I ran to the archway and stood at the edge, searching down the river for him. There – he floated still, almost out of sight. And beyond him stretched the world in its plain colors. Only green and blue, only a bit of yellow and a soft edge of pink. Just colors.

Leaning out, I spread my arms like wings and I stepped off the tower.

I did not even feel the water as it swallowed me.

image by William Holman Hunt

18 thoughts on “Shadows

  1. I have a print hanging in my office — not ten feet away, I swear — of this story (or at least a similar story). I see something different every time I look at it.

    Kinuko Craft, The Tower at Stony Wood

  2. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH.

    I just want to sink my teeth into this story and tear it apart and devour it until I’ve digested every drop of it.

  3. perhaps skeins rather than reams, tho reams can mean that…
    perhaps mortar rather than grout.
    …It was better than sleep.

  4. Ooooo mortar is the word i was looking for. blast!

    I’m glad I could entertain you, however slightly. :p

  5. Oh, man, I just read that story to my daughter yesterday.

    As usual, fiendishly nice details in this, Tess.

  6. Your stories are so haunting and perfect in a broken way that sends chills up my spine. I love them!

  7. Thank you! I’m so glad you can enjoy them. I totally forgot about this one – thanks for the reminder! 😀

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