The Emissary of Shadows
by Elana Gomel
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Magda and Sever were out and Nathaniel wondered through the large empty rooms of their apartment, picking up the kids’ discarded clothes and straightening their clutter. Old habits die hard, he thought; parents were supposed to supervise their children, making sure they did not turn into shadow-breeders, allowing the Dark to infest the conurbation tower through piles and scatters of opaque objects. But the population was shrinking, while quantities of things grew. And though the deserted apartments were emptied out and sealed by the militia, who knew what would emerge in those caverns if a lamp chanced to fail?
For a moment, Nathaniel considered the possibility of breaking into one of those sealed apartments instead of following his original plan but gave it up as too risky. He looked out the window: the sun was setting above the featureless tawny desert. Soon enough the automatic shutters would slide over the glass and the automatic lights would come on in every nook and cranny of the tower, making sure no lair was left for shadows to breed.
Nathaniel was in his bedroom, trying to move his futon — fruitlessly, of course, since like any other furniture item it was fixed to the floor — when he heard the front door open. The familiar giggles of Magda were overlaid with a deeper masculine voice.
Nathaniel sighed. After her mother’s death his daughter became overly social, coming back home every day with a new boyfriend or a couple of chattering girls in a tow. He tried to talk to her but she looked through him with those glassy eyes that hid no mystery and he gave up. He used to be much closer to his son but now Sever had taken up with the Light Patrol and spent most of his time in training sessions.
He tried to convince himself that it was better this way.
Finally, the day had come. He went to his work in the library and spent an empty afternoon repairing dog-eared children’s books (the only kind that was still taken out). He ate a canteen dinner without knowing what was on his plate. And then he trod the stairs to his 15th floor apartment rather than taking the elevator. It had left his perspiring and out of breath, but the stairwell was always just a tad dimmer, simply because few people used it.
He passed Olga’s apartment. It was sealed; her husband had moved in with another woman. Nathaniel still felt sorry he had not asked the question but now he was about to find out the answer for himself. He repeated it under his breath. What do you see in the Dark?
He slipped into his apartment and quickly locked the door. Neither of his kids was supposed to be home until much later. What would they find when they walked in? He banished the thought.
He dragged the stool from the kitchen into the living room, having previously loosened the screws that held it to the floor. Standing on top, his hand wrapped in a handkerchief, he reached up and smashed the panel that protected the ceiling lamp. The main fuse was supposed to kick in emergency lighting but Nathaniel had taken care of it.
He could barely see what he was doing because his wife’s face seemed to hover in the air before him. Wasted and fallen in, as it was when she was being wheeled away from him, on that immaculate gurney they used to take the incurably ill and dying into the sealed chamber where the Dark would extinguish the weak flame of their physical existence. He had to be restrained as he tried to follow her.
When her body was returned to the family for viewing before cremation, the morticians had been at work and what he saw was a tolerably presentable and totally irrelevant shell. The real Vicky was left behind, with the Dark. And he intended to find her.
Silvers of glass showered his face as the panel cracked. He punched again. The bulb popped out with an angry hiss.
He thought his eyes were injured by the glass but then realized it was the room itself, light instantly draining out of it and leaving behind the almost-palpable dusk the color of weak tea, diluted by the little glow from the adjoining room. There were quick, furtive movements in the corners.
Nathaniel’s heart beat so fast he was afraid he would faint. He reached for the door to the lit room, to shut it.
The entrance door crashed open and his son Sever walked in, followed by two other boys.
Nathaniel saw his son and his Patrol buddies crowd at the entrance, a knot of black silhouettes limned by the glow from the outside, and it suddenly occurred to him that without any light he would not be able to see the Dark.
“Dad?” Sever took a step forward, his shock transmuting into outrage. Behind him, the Patrol youngsters stirred like a pack of dogs.
Nathaniel shut the door, cutting off the light.
He was blinded but it was no worse than what happens when one starts drifting into sleep, before the light of dreams takes over from the light of reality. And indeed, in a moment he could see again in the ghostly twilight.
The entrance door was still half-open and the pale dribbles of illumination reached the room like a weak stream seeping through the cracks in a dam. And on this stream, the Dark had flown in.
The shadows were not skulking in the corners anymore. They reared up like a velvety palms, their fronds growing over the ceiling, cupping the room in their long furry fingers. Something silky and sticky like a spider-web caressed his cheek.
He could see, but movements rather than objects, a stirring and a weaving, a growing and a capering. And then he realized that among these movements none were produced by his son and his two friends who still clogged the doorway, frozen in mid-stride.
Nathaniel stepped toward them on shaky legs — or rather, tried to. The web of shadows kept him immobile, swathed in the soft strands of gloom. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that the boys’ gaping mouths were leaking thin dribbles of the Dark.
He struggled to free himself. But the strands of the Dark were as gently unyielding as the mother’s hands restraining a hysterical child. The more he kicked, the more entangled he became.
His eyes were tearing with the effort to make out what was around him. Nathaniel understood how naïve he had been in assuming that the Dark was a well-defined entity: something to run away from or, in his case, to welcome. His tame book-shadow was no indication of the real thing, because he could peer at it from the outside, safe in the light. But now he was inside the Dark, embraced by it. And he still was no closer to understanding it than before.
Out of sheer frustration, Nathaniel opened his mouth to scream — and felt something flow out of it, something warm and thick like blood. But he felt no pain.
The shadows crowding him shifted, fell apart, and reconfigured themselves. Within the flickering kaleidoscope of gray and black he was now able to distinguish shapes, though they still seemed to have no depth to them.
He was surrounded by what first seemed to him a hedge of branching saplings, a forest of twigs. No, not that: these were animals. One of them moved and he could discern an outline of a rabbit. No, the muzzle of a dog. No, a pair of human hands, opening and closing like a butterfly.
The butterfly spoke in a sibilant whisper: “Don’t fret. It’s easier this way.”
He tried to ask a question but his mouth was gagged with a soft flow that spilled out of him with no effort and no volition. He tried to bite through it but it was like biting through cotton-wool.
Another shadow shifted, turned on its edge, becoming a line, and then turned again, becoming a sharp human profile, a black imprint on the ashen background.
“We’re glad you’re joining us, Nathaniel.”
It was the shock of hearing his name that did it. He forced his mouth to close, biting through the tasteless thick warmth, and an unbearable pain shot through him, twisting his guts, so he sagged and would have fallen had not the strands of the Dark kept him upright. But now he could speak.
“Who are you?”
Another shadow, a two-headed one, like two people closely embracing: “We are the living. We are the dead.”
Two voices, intertwined, overlaid upon each other. But he could make out — barely — what each said.
“How can you be both?”
“Without the dead, there are no living.”
He suddenly understood.
He shrugged the weakened strands off and bent over, feeling in the dense pool of shadow at his feet. His fingers touched it, one shadow among many, and he lifted it up. It was as light as a kitten and as silky-smooth. It was just a formless roll of darkness, but when he held it up, it reconfigured itself, becoming a multi-winged moth, a flutter of pages. It winked in and out of existence, riddled with nothingness.
“Me,” he said. “It’s me.”
The three boys at the door moved.
Or rather, one of them moved, breaking the paralysis that had kept them spellbound. Sever’s friend whose name Nathaniel could not remember.
The boy stepped forward, straight-legged, and then toppled over, as rigid as a felled tree. Something crackled and dark swirls emerged from his mouth and eyes, condensed above his body. He gave one strangled howl as his chest exploded and shadows poured from the fissure, roiling in the dim air, coalescing into a churning, smoking shape. The shape opened its toothy, indistinct maw and roared noiselessly.
The second boy stepped forward.
“No!” Nathaniel cried and rushed to the door, caught his son’s rigid shoulder, propelled him out of the apartment, into the glare of the hall. He pushed the second boy after him. And then, because the glare was cutting into his eyes like a handful of broken glass, he shut the door and stepped back into the welcoming Dark.
The multi-winged moth in his hands beat feebly like a dying heart.
“You must choose,” another voice whispered, caressing him with its familiar echoes.
“Some of me, yes.”
This is what we have done, he realized. It was us. Both Light and Dark in that ancient war; it was us, people. We have killed the world and now the few who are left cling to its corpse. But we don’t want to remember. Too much pain and sorrow, too much guilt. We shut out the darkness of memory. So here we are, in our eternal light that breeds monsters.
He opened his palms and the shadowy book-moth in his hands flittered away, merged with the indistinct forest of fluid forms, and became an opening flower, a twitching rabbit, a pair of clapping hands.
Nathaniel started walking.
“Where are you going?” the chorus of questions swelled like the susurrus of the sea, and he could no longer distinguish Vicky’s voice in it. There were no identities in the Dark.
“Out,” he said and stepped into the hall.
The glare hurt him so much he had to cover his faces with his hands but he could endure it. Barely.
Sever was sitting up groggily.
“Dad?” he said. And then, unable to understand what he was seeing, repeated it again, hysterically: “Dad?”
“I’m fine, son,” he answered but Sever could not hear him.
A part of him, left in the Dark, called him back but he resisted. He had work to do first. The work that has always been done by such as he was now, shadow-walkers, dwellers on the borderland. To keep the past alive in the present, to bring the dead and the living together. To soften the pitiless clarity of the day with the soothing mystery of the night.
He walked down the hall, into the harsh, unchanging light: a shadow on the wall, a shape of twilight, a reminder of the dead. A ghost.
Copyright © 2013 by Elana Gomel