The Emissary of Shadows
by Elana Gomel
part 1 of 2
As the days grew shorter, Nathaniel started his preparations.
He disabled the apartment’s main fuse, hoping Magda and Sever would not notice. He could have waited till they moved out, of course, but he was too impatient. Another year or two of lying in his solitary bedroom, staring into the pitiless glare of the ceiling lamp... He could not face it.
And he started spending time with Olga.
Since her toddler had been taken she had become morose, going through daily motions with a perplexed frown etched into her thin grey face. She did not talk to Nathaniel much but she consented to sit with him on the balcony at sunset, watching the orange fireball plummet into the night. This was the time when the convict crews would scurry back into the brightly lit maw of the tower and the gates would be hastily shut. Soon the tower would be sealed and the balconies be abandoned to the Dark.
But Nathaniel had always pushed against the barrier of night, eking out a couple more minutes outside even as a child, driving his parents crazy. Now it was his children who gave him dirty looks. Since his wife’s death, he had been rapidly losing whatever authority he still retained over his son and daughter. So even without his secret motive, Olga’s company was soothing to him. Two outcasts, together.
Nathaniel smoked his pipe and read until the twilight flooded the page and erased the familiar and by now meaningless words. Olga just stared upon the featureless plain where gnarly desert plants, sandstone hillocks and anything else offering any kind of purchase for the Dark had been ruthlessly removed by generations of tower dwellers. But wind and rain persevered in producing tiny shadow-lairs: a rut here, a scatter of pebbles there. Every evening Nathaniel would spy a new smudge of the Dark on the plain, only to see its shelter demolished next morning by the convict crews.
One evening, Olga spoke out of the blue: “It’s always night there, isn’t it? Before they are born?”
At first, Nathaniel thought she was making some metaphysical statement, heretical of course, since the eternity before birth was supposed to have been spent in perpetual radiance. But then he saw her hands pressed to her wasted belly and realized what she meant.
“Yes,” he said, “there are no lamps in women’s wombs.”
“She would not sleep under the lamp,” Olga continued in a dull voice. “So I covered it. With a handkerchief. What was the harm? So she could get a good night’s sleep. Like she did when I carried her.”
Despite himself, Nathaniel was shocked. Now she realized why Olga had been called twice to the Court of Light. So far, her husband’s position in the administration had shielded her from the hard-labor crew. But she was marked; it was only a matter of time before she went. As the population shrank and the Dark encroached, the people of the tower became ever more zealous in their devotion to all things bright and illuminated.
At the same time, he was thrilled. Now it was the moment to ask his question.
But just as Nathaniel opened his mouth, trying to sort out the words that tripped over each other in his eagerness, his son Sever walked out onto the balcony.
“Dad!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here? It’s almost night-time!”
Nathaniel sighed. His son’s beige uniform, with a torch pin on his breast-pocket, suddenly struck him as vaguely threatening. Even worse, so did his son’s well-scrubbed, eager face.
“Say hello to Olga,” he said, trying to reassert his parental authority. Sever glared at the woman, turned around and left. Nathaniel followed, not before patting Olga’s hand. Later he was glad of this small gesture of compassion because by next morning, Olga was gone.
* * *
Over the cold tea in the canteen, Nathaniel studied the open book laid face down on the table when Owen clapped him on the shoulder, making him jump. The fat man plunked himself onto the chair without invitation. Nathaniel and he were the only ones left of their crèche grade.
“They’re sending me to the greenhouses again,” Owen said plaintively. “Look at me! The only way I can help the crops is as fertilizer!”
Nathaniel laughed but it was true: Owen did not look capable of hard labor. His broad face was veined with broken capillaries. It was mostly the convict crews that labored outside, people convicted of minor felonies that darkened the life in the Tower of Light, humanity’s last refuge in the world beset by the Dark (more serious crimes were punished by being locked up in an unlit chamber — death, in other words). But as the population fell inexorably, older expendable people were being increasingly sent to help outside.
“And how am I supposed to run after the youngsters when they’re taking off at sunset? They’re just happy to leave me behind, I’m telling you! They probably think it’s a grand joke to slam the gates in my face and pick up my bones next morning!”
The couple at the next table cast baleful glances in their direction: mentioning the Dark in public was in bad taste. But Owen did not care; being slated for the funeral furnace in the near future made him fearless. And, Nathaniel realized, the same was true for himself.
“Still reading?” Owen snorted. “You were a reader in the crèche too, weren’t you? We all laughed when Mrs. Roseberry took away your book and you cried like a baby! And then you pestered her for ages asking those darkling questions: why is the tower here, who built it, why is the Dark after us? We thought she would call the Light Patrol and get rid of you or sic them on your parents. But she was always partial to you, Light knows why!”
Nobody hates you as much as your oldest friends, Nathaniel reflected wearily.
“Weren’t you ever curious yourself?” he asked. “To know the answers?”
Owen shrugged. “I know what everybody does. There was a war between Light and Dark. The Light lost. We are the last outpost of the defeated army. We have to nurture the Light and one day we’ll be strong enough to take the world back. And I also know I won’t be alive then, so what do I care?”
This was the attitude that had always set Nathaniel apart from the rest of the tower dwellers. He wanted to understand the world; they cared only to survive in it.
His late wife Vicky had been the only one to share his passion for questions. Like him, she had realized that most of what they were told was a lie, or a fable at best. The tower had been built by people who were not afraid of the Dark: the occasional disconnect switch clearly meant to turn the lamps off bore witness to this. There must have been other towers, other conurbations, once upon the time: eroded ruins were still discernible on the dusty plain outside.
But the devastating war might have actually happened. Nathaniel knew that outside crews often dug up bones when working in the greenhouses and vegetable gardens.
He and Vicky had talked about the mysterious past, clinging to each other in the yellow glare of the night-time, keeping their voices low, so the children would not overhear. They had made a mistake, he thought now, of bringing up Magda and Sever as orthodox as possible, while being rebels themselves. They had hoped to make it easy for the kids; now Vicky was gone and he was a stranger to his own family.
Lost in his thoughts, Nathaniel did not hear Owen’s remark and had to ask him to repeat it.
“Getting deaf, are we?” Owen said maliciously. “I asked, what are you reading?”
“I’m not reading,” Nathaniel said mildly.
“The book is just following you around, isn’t it?”
“Look under it,” Nathaniel said.
“The book. See, it’s like a little tent when I lay it like this. Like those things the convict crews use when it’s raining outside.”
“Those tents are transparent,” Owen objected.
“I know. But what if they were not? Then you would have what I have here.”
“And what is this?” Owen asked skeptically, peering under the book’s spread pages.
Owen started violently and cast a suspicious glance around. But they were alone now, the couple at the next table having left. Alone in the large bright room with walls the color of curdled milk and transparent plastic tables, the matron loitering behind her glass partition.
“Why do you need one?”
“Because it’s tame. See!” Nathaniel slammed the book shut and the shadow disappeared. “Now you have it, now you don’t. It’s my own tame Dark!”
Owen pursed his thick, wet lips.
“You have always been a darkling, Nat,” he said. “I thought you’d be the first to go. But here we are, two old farts, the last of our generation. The Dark has eaten my daughter and son-in-law but you have two healthy kids. So much for the ‘Light in you’!”
Nathaniel shrugged. The naked hostility in Owen’s voice did not bother him. At least, here was somebody who was not indifferent. Unlike his children.
Before leaving, Owen picked up Nathaniel’s book and repeated his trick.
“Now you have it, now you don’t,” he laughed. “Neat!”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Elana Gomel