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The Shadow’s Flight

by Andrea Blythe

The Shadow peels itself from the station wall and balloons into a human shape, stretching toward the image of adulthood and managing only a lanky adolescence. It glides to the center of the platform. Rows of empty train tracks lace into the distance beneath a smudge of charcoal sky. The Shadow slips over the platform, admiring the people caught in a stage of transition. Not where they used to be. Not yet where they are going.

A sharp man grips a briefcase and growls into a phone. An old, white-haired woman hugs her purse to her chest and tries not to make eye contact with a rotund drunk wobbling toward the stairs. A woman with black hair sits with expression fixed, unseeing, on the distance. A man in a teal hoody grasps the hand of little pink-tulled girl, who tugs and spins and dances at the end of the man’s hand.

The Shadow watches and wonders which one to ride.

***

The first time the Shadow slipped free from Pan, it had been by accident. The Boy floated, a frail tinkling fay bouncing about his head. He pressed close to the closed nursery window, listening to a girl spool stories of adventure for her brothers. Enraptured by the stories of adventure he already lived, the Boy had not noticed his edges fraying, had not noticed his own shadow falling from him and landing like a silk scarf upon the windowsill.

At first unsettled by the Boy’s departure, the Shadow flowed in between the window jamb and curled up under a bed. Later, after days of lonely detachment, it discovered the pleasure of its freedom. It frolicked two-dimensionally about the playroom, knocked over block towers, tugged the girl’s hair, and ruffled the children’s hair while they slept. It slid under the nursery door and spied on the maid rubbing the corns on her feet. It tripped up the one called Mother, smothered the pipe of the one called Father. It slithered into the parent’s bedroom and watched them make love in discrete silence.

When the Boy returned, desperate for what he had lost, the Shadow launched into hiding. Neither expected to wake the girl during their scuffle. Neither believed she could reattach Shadow to Boy with a simple sewing kit. Yet the painful tug-pull of her needle trapped anchored Shadow to Boy and it had no choice but to follow the Boy back to the island in the stars, where he cavorted about, bearing his interminable youth, having adventure after rollicking adventure, while the Shadow longed for the calm mystery of adulthood it had witnessed in the girl’s home.

The second time, the Shadow escaped on purpose. While the Shadow was towed behind the Boy in his flight over London, it had reached out and snagged itself on a cathedral spire. The Boy tugged and pulled, and the Shadow held tight, feeling as though it would rip in two, until finally the stitches tore from their seams and the shadow fluttered to the ground like a leaf.

The Boy gave chase, but it was night and the Shadow fled down dark alleys and disappeared into gloomy corners. It stayed hidden while the Boy wept for his loss. It stayed hidden even after the Boy had vanished into the sky, even after it was finally alone.

As the night inched toward morning, a woman stepped into the alley, her shade overlapping the Shadow where it crouched. It could taste a rush of nicotine as she inhaled one puff of smoke after another, could feel the mixture of emotions that swam about her waking hours. Without even meaning to, the Shadow merged and rode home with her. Within her shade, it experienced her ache of self-doubt as she changed from pencil skirt into sweatpants, savored the burn at the back of her throat as she downed a whiskey before brushing her teeth, felt the ebb of her consciousness as she plunged into sleep. Dazed by this new experience, rich with adult worry and self pity, the Shadow lingered with the woman for a long while, riding her shade, tasting the periphery of her life.

Until one day it grew bored and while the woman slow danced in a dimly lit club, the Shadow slid from her shade (rife with longing) to the man’s shade (slick with lust).

The Shadow went on like this, hitching a ride on a person’s shade until ennui bore down upon it and it moved on to another, selecting almost at random while among thick crowds. It liked places of transit best — train stations, bus terminals, airports — the in between places, where people were as nearly undefined as itself. It liked hopping on someone’s shade just as they boarded and riding with them wherever they were going, all the while savoring their fear of a return or hope of a departure to someplace new.

In this way, the Shadow traveled the Trans-Siberian from Beijing to Moscow as a drug trafficker, arrived beneath the illumination of Paris as a trapeze artist, holed up in Rome as a dusty bookseller, slunk through in New York on side streets darkened by skyscrapers as an eighty-year-old street vendor, abandoned Hong Kong as a bankrupt business man, absorbed the muggy air of New Orleans as a middle aged school teacher. Without the power to change or influence any of the lives it brushed up against, the Shadow sucked at the edges, trying to feel more, touch more, inhabit more, longing for a whole self of its own — but never with children and never to London.

Perhaps it was this desire for life, for a physical guise of its own that allowed the Shadow to learn to expand itself into the approximation of humanness, a desperate articulation of its need for three-dimensional being. But even this autonomous movement was not enough. The Shadow was insubstantial. It could not breathe, drink, touch, or taste, could not experience fullness on its own, and so it quickly returned to riding the shades of those it discovered amid the throngs of city streets and train stations.

***

As it stands on the platform, looking out over the rows of tracks and feeling the girl’s gaze upon it, the Shadow senses within itself a distant tug, the plea of the body to which it used to belong. The Boy, yearning for his lost shadow, calls out for it, seeks it over land and sea, demands its return. But the Shadow does its best to ignore these pulls, always present, often building to an anxiety so sharp its edges fizzle.

The Shadow spins around, all at once certain that at any moment the Boy will appear, crawling along the ceiling like a spider. The Boy, at once infinitely childlike and grotesque, will come floating, flying, laughing, and will pounce upon the Shadow, reclaiming it, dragging it back past the stars into a land of nevers, of youth, of endless adventures. The Boy will cage it within himself, unaware of what the Shadow has long since learned — that there is more beauty in the mundane lives of the people it piggybacks than all the strange and savage wonders of the Boy’s enduring childhood.

The Shadow knows his fear of the Boy is irrational. In all these long years, it has not once seen any sign of the Boy, who may have forgotten the Shadow entirely. The young are like that.

But standing there, waiting for the Boy to appear, the Shadow’s anxiety grows, twisting like a python, until the Shadow can barely hold its shape, nearly collapsing under the crushing weight of its fear.

Down the track, the 10:45 blares its horn, warning those on the platform that it will simply be passing through the station without stopping. The Shadow shudders like a sigh and steps forward into the windy wake of the passing train. Caught like a sheet of paper, it flips and furls, bouncing along the side of the railcars until it snatches the frame of an open window and slithers inside.

The Shadow presses itself against the vinyl seat like a stain, surprised to find the compartment occupied. But the woman on the seat across had not seen it enter, her cool, green eyes turned to the blur of city and trees out the opposite window. Wrinkles gather around her eyes, reflecting the small smile alight on her withered lips.

It considers for a moment melting into the woman’s shade to taste whatever nostalgia or sweet contemplation shapes that smile. But the shadow stays put, letting her keep her moment hers. Instead it allows the rocking motion of the train to ease its restlessness, the rhythm carrying Shadow and woman both farther and further from where they’ve been.

Andrea Blythe writes poetry and fiction with primarily a speculative bent. Her poetry has appeared in several publications, including Yellow Chair Review, Nonbinary Review, Linden Avenue, and Strange Horizons. Her work was nominated for Independent Best American Poetry and Sundress Best of the Net in 2015.

Photo credit: Kat… via Flickr, All Creative Commons

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