Break the bowl—
instead of regret,
fall back into
the potter's hands
and be reborn.
- Saskia Madding,
"Falling" (Spirits and Ghosts, 2000)
Extract from the journals of Christy Riddell:
According to Jung, at around the age of six or seven we separate and then hide away the parts of ourselves that don't seem acceptable, that don't fit in the world around us. Those unacceptable parts that we secret away become our shadow.
I remember reading somewhere that it can be a useful exercise to visualize the person our shadow would be if it could step out into the light. So I tried it. It didn't work immediately. For a long time, I was simply talking to myself. Then, when I did get a response, it was only a spirit voice I heard in my head. It could just as easily have been my own. But over time, my shadow took on more physical attributes, in the way that a story grows clearer and more pertinent as you add and take away words, molding its final shape.
Not surprisingly, my shadow proved to be the opposite of who I am in so many ways. Bolder, wiser, with a better memory and a penchant for dressing up with costumes, masks, or simply formal wear. A cocktail dress in a raspberry patch. A green man mask in a winter field. She's short, where I'm tall. Dark-skinned, where I'm light. Red-haired, where mine's dark. A girl to my boy, and now a woman as I'm a man.
If she has a name, she's never told me it. If she has an existence outside the times we're together, she has yet to divulge it either. Naturally, I'm curious about where she goes, but she doesn't like being asked questions and I've learned not to press her, because when I do, she simply goes away.
Sometimes I worry about her existence. I get anxieties about schizophrenia and carefully study myself for other symptoms. But if she's a delusion, it's singular, and otherwise I seem to be as normal as anyone else, which is to say, confused by the barrage of input and stimuli with which the modern world besets us, and trying to make do. Who was it that said she's always trying to understand the big picture, but the trouble is, the picture just keeps getting bigger? Ani DiFranco, I think.
Mostly I don't get too analytical about it—something I picked up from her, I suppose, since left to my own devices, I can worry the smallest detail to death.
We have long conversations, usually late at night, when the badgering clouds swallow the stars and the darkness is most profound. Most of the time I can't see her, but I can hear her voice. I like to think we're friends; even if we don't agree about details, we can usually find common ground on how we'd like things to be.
Don't make of us
more than what we are,
We hold no great secret…
- Saskia Madding,
from "Arabesque" (Moths and Wasps, 1997)
"I feel as if I should know you," Saskia Madding says as she approaches my chair.
She's been darting glances in my direction from across the café for about fifteen minutes now and I was wondering when she'd finally come over.
I saw her when I first came in, sitting to the right of the door at a window table, nursing a tall cup of chai tea. She'd been writing in a small, leather-bound book, fountain pen in one hand, the other holding back the spill of blonde hair that would otherwise fall into her eyes. She looked up when I came in and showed no sign of recognition, but since then she's been studying me whenever she thinks I'm not paying attention to her.
"You do know me," I tell her. "I'm pieces of your boyfriend—the ones he didn't want when he was a kid."
She gives me a puzzled look, though I can see a kind of understanding start up in the back of those pretty, sea-blue eyes of hers.
"You—are you the woman in his journals?" she asks. "The one he calls Mystery?"
I smile. "That's me. The shadow of himself."
"Know I was real?" I finish for her when her voice trails off.
She shakes her head. "No. I just didn't expect to ever see you in a place like this."
"I like coffee."
"I meant someplace so mundane."
"Ah. So you've made note of all those romantic flights of fancy he puts in those journals of his." I close my eyes, shuffling through pages of memory until I find one of them. "'I can see her standing among the brambles and thorns of some half-forgotten hedgerow in a green bridal dress, her red hair set aflame by the setting sun, her eyes dark with mysteries and stories, a wooden hare's mask dangling from one languid hand. This is how I always see her. In the hidden and secret places, her business there incomprehensible yet obviously perfectly suited to her curious, evasive nature.'"
I get a smile from Saskia, but I don't know if it's from the passage I've quoted, or because I'm mimicking Christy's voice as I repeat the words.
"That's a new one," she says. "He hasn't read it to me yet."
"You wait for him to read them to you?"
"Of course. I would never go prying…" She pauses and gives me a considering look. "When do you read them?"
I shrug. "Oh, you know. Whenever. I don't really sleep, so sometimes when I get bored late at night I come by and sit in his study for awhile to read what he's been thinking about lately."
"You're as bad as the crow girls."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Mmm." She studies me for a moment before adding, "You don't read my journals do you?"
I muster a properly offended look, though it's not that I wouldn't. I just haven't. Yet.
"I'm sorry," she says. "Of course you wouldn't. We don't have the same connection as you and Christy do."
"Does that connection bother you?"
She shakes her head. "That would be like being bothered by his having Geordie for a brother. You're more like family—albeit the twin sister who only comes creeping by to visit in the middle of the night when we're both asleep."
I shrug, but I don't apologize.
"I'm only his shadow," I say.
She studies me again, those sea-blue eyes of hers looking deep into mine.
"I don't think so," she says. "You're real now."
That makes me smile.
"As real as I am, anyway," she adds.
My smile fades as I see the troubled look that comes over her. I forget that her own exotic origins are no more than a dream to her most of the time—a dream that makes her uncomfortable, uneasy in her skin. I wish I hadn't reminded her of it, but she puts it away and brings the conversation back to me.
"Why won't you tell Christy your name?" she asks.
"Because that would let him put me in a box labeled 'This is Christiana' and I don't want to be locked into who he thinks I am. The way he writes about me is bad enough. If he had a name to go with it he might be able to fix it so that I could never change and grow."
"He does like his routines," she says.
I nod. "His picture's in the dictionary, right beside the word."
We share a moment's silence, then she cocks her a head, just a little.
"So your name's Christiana?" she asks.
"I call myself Christiana Tree."
That brings back a genuine smile.
"So that would make you Miss Tree," she says.
I'm impressed at how quickly she got it as I offer her my hand.
"In the flesh," I tell her. "Pleased to meet you."
"But that's only what you call yourself," she says as she shakes my hand.
"We all have our secrets."
"Or we wouldn't be mysteries."
She's been sitting on her haunches beside the easy chair I commandeered as soon as I'd picked up my coffee and sticky-bun from the counter, leaning her arms on one of the chair's fat arms. There's another chair nearby, occupied by a boy in his late teens with blue hair and razor-thin features. He's been listening to his Walkman loud enough for me to identify the music as rap, though I can't make out any words, and flipping through one of the café's freebie newspapers while he drinks his coffee. He gets up now and I give a vague wave to the vacant chair with my hand.
"Why don't you get more comfortable," I say to Saskia.
She nods. "Just let me get my stuff."
Some office drone in a tailored business suit, tie loose, top shirt button undone, approaches the chair while Saskia collects her things. I put my scuffed brown leather work boots up on its cushions and give him a sugar and icicle smile—you know, it looks sweet, but there's a chill in it. He's like a cat as he casually steers himself off through the tables and takes a hardback chair at one of the small counters that enclose the café's various rustic wooden support beams, making it look like that's what he was aiming for all along.
Saskia returns. She drops her jacket on the back of the chair, puts her knapsack on the floor, and settles down, tea in hand.
"So, what were you writing?" I ask.
She shrugs. "This and that. I just like playing with words. Sometimes they become something—a journal entry, a poem. Sometimes I'm just following words to see where they go."
"And where do they go?"
"Anyplace and everyplace."
She pauses for a moment and has a sip of her tea, sets the cup down on the low table between us. Later I realize she was just deciding whether to go on and tell me what she now does.
"You know, we're like words," she says. "You and me. We're like ghost words."
I have to smile. I'm beginning to understand why Christy cares about her the way he does. She's a sweet, pretty blonde, but she doesn't fit into any sort of a tidy descriptive package. Her thinking's all over the place, from serious to whimsical, or even some combination of the two. I think I just might have a poke through her journals the next time I'm in their apartment and they're both asleep. I'd like to know more about her—not just what she has to say, but what she thinks when there's nobody supposed to be listening.
"Okay," I say. "I'll bite. What are ghost words?"
"They're words that don't really exist. They come about through the mistakes of editors and printers and bad proofreaders, and while they seem like they should mean something, they don't. Like 'cablin' for 'cabin,' say."
I see what she means.
"I like that word," I tell her. "Cablin. Maybe I should appropriate it and give it a meaning."
Saskia gives a slow nod. "You see? That's how we're like ghost words. People can appropriate us and give us meanings, too."
I know she's talking about our anomalous origins—how because of them, we could be victim to that sort of thing—but I don't agree.
"That happens to everybody," I tell her. "It happens whenever someone decides what someone is like instead of finding out for real."
"You're thinking about all of this too much."
"I can't seem to stop thinking about it."
I study her for a long moment. It's worrying her, this whole idea of what's real and what isn't, like how you came into this world is more important than what you do once you're here.
"What's the first thing you remember?" I ask.
How We Were Born
Words are like a corridor;
put enough of them in a line
and who knows where
they will take you.
- Saskia Madding,
"Corridor" (Mirrors, 1995)
I remember opening my eyes and—
You know how if you blow up an electronic image too much, you don't have a picture anymore? When you push the image that far, all you really have left is a pixelated fog, a screen full of tiny coloured squares that don't form a recognizable pattern, never mind an image.
That was the first thing I saw.
I opened my eyes and I couldn't focus on anything. A hundred thousand million dots of colour and light filled my vision. I stared hard, trying to make sense of them, and slowly they started to come together, forming recognizable objects. A dresser. A cedar chest. An armchair with clothes draped over the arms and back. A closed wooden door. A poster from the Newford Museum of Art advertising a retrospective of Vincent Rushkin's work. Close by my head on the night table was an unlit candle in a brass holder, and a leather-bound book with a pattern of pussywillows stamped into the leather, a fountain pen lying on top of it.
It was all familiar, but I knew I'd never seen it before. Just as I myself was familiar, but I didn't know who I really was. I knew my name. I knew there was a computer and paper trail tracing my background—where I was born, grew up, went to school—but I couldn't actually recall any of it. The details of the experiences, I mean. The sounds, the smells, the tactile impressions associated with them. All I knew were the bare bones of cold facts.
I studied the explosion of pigeons in the painting they'd used in the poster for the Rushkin show and tried to make sense of how I could be in my own bedroom, but have no sense of where it was or how I got here or anything that had happened to me before I opened my eyes at that moment.
And I was strangely calm.
I knew I shouldn't be. Somewhere a part of me was registering the fact that none of this was right—neither the where and how of where I'd found myself upon waking, nor my reaction to it.
I had the strongest sense of being temporary. A shadow cast by a light that was about to move or be turned off. An image in a film that the camera had lingered upon before moving on.
I held one of my hands up in front of my eyes, then the other. I sat up and looked at the reflection of the woman in the mirror on the back of the dresser.
But I knew every inch of that face—the blue eyes, the shape of the nose and lips, the way the blonde hair fell in a sleepy tangle on either side of it.
I swung my feet to the floor and stood up. I pulled the flannel nightie I was wearing over my head and faced the mirror again.
I knew this body as well.
Still a stranger.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. Plucking the nightie from the floor, I hugged it to my chest.
An odd notion came into my head. I had a sudden impression of some other place, a pixelated realm that lay somewhere in cyberspace—that mysterious borderland of electrons and data pulses that exists in between all the computers that make up the World Wide Web. I could almost see this deep forest of sentences and words secreted in a nexus of the Web, and as I did, I sensed some enormous entity swelling up out of it, a leviathan of impossible proportions that had no physical presence, but it did have a vast and incomprehensible soul.
The thought came to me that I was a piece of that entity. That I had been broken off from it, born there in that forest of words and sent away. That I was separate, but also still a part of that other. That it had made me up through some curious technopagan ritual, given me flesh and then set me free to make a life for myself in the world beyond the endless reaches of cyberspace.
I know. It sounds like science fiction. And maybe it was. But it was magic, too. How else can you explain a computer program that was self-aware? Some voodoo spirit, itself made of nothing but ones and zeros, that was able to create a living being out of neurons and electricity and air and send it off into the world to be its own being.
The island of calm I'd sensed before whispered to me through this whirlpool of disquiet and speculation.
In a normal person, it said, what you are experiencing would be considered madness.
But I already knew I wasn't normal. I wasn't even sure I was a person.
Finally, I lay back down on the bed and closed my eyes.
Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe when I woke up in the morning I'd remember my life. I'd be myself and just shake my head as I went about my morning, dimly recalling the very strange dream I'd had the night before.
* * *
But in the morning, nothing had really changed. Only the force of what I was feeling had.
I could see normally as soon as I opened my eyes. The sensations of disassociation and confusion I'd experienced in the middle of the night were still there, but they weren't as intense.
This time I was able to get up and get as far as the door of the bedroom. I looked down the hallway into familiar/unfamiliar territory. I/my body had to pee—but it was something I only knew from the pressure in my bladder. I knew the mechanics of how I would do it. I knew where to go, to lift the lid, and sit down. But I couldn't seem to call up one memory of the actual experience. The only real, tactile memories I had were of waking last night.
Panic came rolling up through my body, quickening my pulse, making me sweat, creating a worse confusion in me than I was already feeling.
Let it go, that small calm place inside me said. Stop thinking about it for the moment. Give your body control—it knows what to do.
What did I have to lose?
I took a deep, steadying breath. Another. I don't even know how I did it, but somehow I managed to step back from the panic and confusion and follow the voice's advice.
I was like a passenger as I made my way to the bathroom, peed and showered. Back in my bedroom, I looked in the closet and was momentarily overwhelmed by the choices. It's not that there were a lot of clothes—because there weren't. But there was still too much choice. I was still confounded by knowing exactly what all the various materials were, but not what it would be like to touch or wear them—their texture, their weight, the feel of how the fabric would hang.
I took another steadying breath and let the decision go. I watched as I chose a cotton T-shirt and a pair of jeans, enjoyed the sensation of the cloth as it covered me. Slipped on a pair of moccasins and wiggled my toes in them.
It wasn't until after I'd made toast and coffee and was still drinking the coffee at the kitchen table that the immensity of my disassociation began to ease. It came and went throughout the rest of the day, like the ebb and flow of some inexplicable tide, but the troughs and crests began to even out and calm.
The oddest thing was how whenever I had a question about something, that calm voice would speak up from the back of my mind in response. Like when I took the coffee from the fridge and I wondered about the beans as I spooned some into the grinder.
Coffee, the voice in my head said. It's a beverage consisting of a decoction or infusion of the roasted ground or crushed seeds (coffee beans) of the two-seeded fruit (coffee berry) of certain coffee trees. It can also be the seeds or fruit themselves, or any of various tropical trees of the madder family that yield coffee beans, such as Coffea arabica and C. canefora.
It was like I had an encyclopedia sitting in the back of my head. One that knew everything.
* * *
I didn't leave the apartment all day. I didn't dare. I explored its four rooms—bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and the final all—purpose room that looked to be a combination of study, library, office, and living room. I opened the patio door that led out of that last room, but I didn't go onto the balcony. I simply stood in the doorway and studied the street below, the buildings on the other side.
Mostly I poked through the books and magazines I found, studied the contents of my purse and the wallet inside it, turned on the computer and explored its various document files.
It turned out I wrote poetry. A fair amount of it. I'd had three collections published, with enough in these files for at least a couple more, though some of the poems were obviously works-in-progress.
I also did freelance writing for various on-line magazines and wrote some op-ed pieces for Street Times, a little paper produced mostly by street people for street people—to give them something to sell in lieu of asking for spare change.
I found a financial program and saw that while I wasn't rich by any means, I had enough money banked to keep me solvent for a few months. When I thought about where that money had come from, my own work history popped up in my head. Dates, places of employment, job descriptions, salary and benefits. But I had no personal, hands-on memories of even one of these places where I was supposed to have worked.
I closed all the files and turned off the computer.
* * *
After a supper of asparagus, tomato, feta cheese and shredded basil on a small bed of pasta, I was finally able to go outside and sit on the wicker chair I found out on the balcony. The flavour of my meal still lay on my palette, the food itself a comforting pressure in my stomach. It was dark now, the city lit up with lights, but I was safe and unseen in a pool of shadow since I'd turned out the lights in the room behind me.
I watched the people passing below, each of them a story, each story part of somebody else's, all of it connected to the big story of the world. People weren't islands, so far as I was concerned. How could they be, when their stories kept getting tangled up in everybody else's?
But all the same, I understood loneliness right then. Not the idea of it, but the empty ache of it inside me. How one could live in a city of millions and realize that there was not one person who knew or cared if I lived or died. I searched my mind, but nowhere in amongst the neat and orderly lines of facts and work histories was there the memory of someone I could call a lover, a friend, or even an acquaintance.
That will change, the calm voice in the back of my head assured me.
But I didn't know—not how my life could have come to this, or if it even should change. Either I was so unlikable that I'd been unable to make a single friend in the—I counted out the years from the facts in my head—four years since I had apparently moved here from New Mexico—or I was some kind of freak. Neither, it seemed to me, deserved friends.
* * *
I dreamed that night that I was flying, soaring, not over city streets, but over circuit boards, and rivers of electricity…
* * *
The next morning—my second that I could truly recall—I felt a little better. I still had a lack of hands-on memories and a calm, quiet voice in the back of my head that was happy to play encyclopedia for me, but the weight of a full day's experience seemed to have steadied me. Even if all I'd done for the whole day was wander around in my apartment and then get terribly depressed as I sat out on the balcony in the evening, that one day still felt as though it had anchored me to the real world.
In the morning light, things didn't seem quite so bleak, so desperately black and white, it had to be this way or that. I was able to consider that I might be different and it didn't cripple me. Last night's loneliness and despair had no real hold on me this morning. I didn't know quite how or where, but I was sure I had to fit in someplace.
Today I meant to go outside.
I finished my coffee and washed my breakfast dishes, then put on a pair of running shoes. I found my purse. After checking it for apartment keys, I stepped out into the hall.
My neighbour across the way opened his door at the same time and smiled at me.
"So there is someone living in that apartment," he said. "I'm Brad." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "In 3F, as you can see."
"I'm Saskia," I said and we shook hands.
He was nice looking guy, dark-haired and trim, dressed in casual clothes. I could tell he liked what he saw when he looked at me and that made me feel good. But as we stood there talking for awhile, I saw something change in his eyes. It wasn't like I had a bit of egg stuck between my teeth or something. I was just making him uncomfortable. By the time we'd walked down the two flights of stairs to the streets, I got the sense he couldn't get away from me quickly enough.
He gave me a brusque goodbye when we reached the street and headed off in the direction I'd been planning to go. I stood there by the door of the building, letting some space build between us before I set off myself. While I waited, I went back over our conversation, trying to see what it was I'd said or done to make his initial attraction toward me cool off so quickly. I couldn't think of a thing. Whatever it was seemed to have happened on some purely instinctual level—almost a chemical imbalance between us. The longer he was in my presence, the stronger it had become.
I won't say I wasn't disturbed by it, because I was. But there was nothing I could do about it now. He'd finally reached the end of the block, so I started off myself, aiming for the Chinese grocery store on the other side of the street, across from where he was. By the time I reached the corner, he was long gone.
There was a scruffy little dog tied up outside the grocery store, one of those mixes of a half-dozen breeds, but the terrier seemed strongest. He watched me approach, tongue lolling, a happy dog look in his eyes.
"Hey, pooch," I said, bending down to give him a pat.
He snapped at me and I only just pulled my hand back in time to avoid getting bitten. He was still growling at me as his owner came bustling out from the store.
"Rufy," she said. "Don't do that." She turned to me. "I don't know what's gotten into him," she added. "Rufus is usually so sweet tempered."
But I could see the same instinctive discomfort start up in her eyes as I'd already seen in her dog's, and in my neighbour's eyes earlier. Before it grew too strong, I slipped past her into the store where I picked up some milk, a bag of rice, and some vegetables for a stir fry. I completed the transaction as quickly as I could, not looking at the elderly Chinese man behind the counter. When I was outside the store again, the woman and her dog were already gone.
I stood there for a long moment, just watching the traffic at the intersection and not knowing what to do.
I was ready to retreat to my apartment, to stay there and stubbornly wait for them to show up—the people who had played around in my head and erased most of my memory, or the people who had created me and left me there to fend for myself. I didn't know which, but it had to be one or the other.
For a moment I had a shivering recollection of some invisible voodoo spirit in cyberspace, but that I firmly put out my mind. No, whatever the origins of my present condition, they weren't that improbable.
But maybe I'd been in an accident. Banged my head on something.
I felt through my hair, searching for bumps or a sore spot, but could find neither. That didn't really prove anything. It could have been awhile ago. Or it could be some recurring medical problem. Perhaps there was someone coming to check up on me—I just couldn't remember who, or when they'd come.
Or I could be crazy.
I took the long way back to my apartment, circling the block that the grocery store was on. When I saw a homeless man sitting in the doorway of an abandoned store, I dug into my pocket for a dollar. I dropped it in his hat and smiled down at him, ready for a repeat of the reactions I'd already gotten from the other people I'd met so far today.
But he only returned my smile.
"Thanks, lady," he said. "You have a good day."
I couldn't tell his age—it could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty—but he had kind eyes. They were deep blue, clear and alert, which seemed a little at odds with his shabby clothes and weather-beaten skin. They were the eyes of someone at peace with the world, not someone living on the street and barely able to eke out a living.
"I'll try," I told him. "So far it's sucked big-time."
He nodded, eyeing me in a way that put me on edge again.
"Maybe you should try and turn down that shine of yours a watt or two," he said before I could go. "My guess is that's what's making people so uncomfortable around you."
I just stared at him, not really sure what I was hearing.
"What did you say?" I asked.
"Come on," he said. "Don't tell me you don't know. You've been touched by something—call it whatever you want. A mystery, the spirits, some kind of otherness. It's left a shine on you that most people aren't going to see, but they'll feel it and it's going to make them feel edgy and weird. It's like the world's shifting under their feet and no one likes that feeling."
"And it doesn't bother you?"
He shrugged. "I know what it is. I also know it's not going to hurt me. So why would I be bothered?"
"How do you know all this?" I asked.
"Hey," he said. "I wasn't always a bum, you know. I used to run a New Age head shop and while we sold a lot of let's pretend, some of our customers were the real thing and I learned a thing or two from them. Reading auras is pretty basic stuff."
"I wasn't paying attention. That's the big lesson life teaches you: you always have to pay attention. Your marriage broke up? You weren't paying attention. Your partner cleans out your bank account and sells all your store's assets, leaving you bankrupt?"
He gave me an expectant look.
"You weren't paying attention," I said.
He nodded approvingly. "Exactly. I lost everything when the creditors came calling."
I crouched down, sitting on my haunches, so that our heads were level with each other.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Yeah, me, too. But it's all water under the bridge now. Life goes on and most of us, we're just along for the ride."
A bus came by, making conversation impossible for a moment.
"So how do I turn down this…shine thing?" I asked when it was gone.
"Beats me. But the good news is, the longer you're away from the source of whatever put it on you, the weaker it'll get."
"And if it doesn't go away?"
"Then you'll only be comfortable with people like me who already believe. Who accept that there's something else out there and it's just as much a part of this world as you or me. The only difference is, it's in some hidden part that most people don't get to see. Hell, that most people don't want to see."
"Which is why I make them uncomfortable."
He nodded. "What was it that you experienced?"
"I have no idea," I told him.
I didn't really want to get into how weird my life had become in the past two days—not with a complete stranger, no matter how helpful he might be.
"Can I do anything for you?" I asked instead.
"Hey," he said. "You gave me a dollar and treated me like a human being—that's more that ninety-nine percent of the people I run into would do. So no. I'm good."
"Just say hello the next time you see me," he said. "Let me know how you're doing."
"I will. What's your name?"
"Marc—with a 'C.'"
"I'm Saskia," I said offering him my hand.
He cocked his head as he shook.
"Saskia Madding?" he asked.
I nodded. "How would you know that?"
"I've read some of your pieces in Street Times. No wonder you took the time to talk to me."
"Why—" I started, then stopped myself.
He'd already told me how he'd ended up on the street. It was none of my business what kept him there.
"Why do I live like I do?" he finished for me.
I shrugged. "I know it's not like you'd be doing it by choice."
"I suppose. But the truth is, I'm damned if I know. I guess I just gave up. Got tired of trying to find a job. I'm forty-eight and my back's shot. So I can't do heavy work, and nobody wants to hire an old man when he can get some bright-eyed kid with twice the energy and all the office smarts."
"Forty-eight's not old."
"It is in the work force. It's ancient. And it doesn't help that I'm a little too familiar with the bottle."
I paused for a moment, then asked, "Do you have someplace to stay?"
He smiled. "Come on now, Saskia. Don't go all caseworker on me. Let's just be friends."
"I wasn't trying to—"
"I know. It's just that your heart's too big. I already got that out of those pieces you wrote. But you don't want to be bringing home strays—not unless you've got a mansion on a hill and more money than you know what to do with. If you're not careful, you could end up with a mob of street people taking advantage of your goodwill and—" He gave me a toothy grin. "They wouldn't all be as pretty as me."
"It's okay. I'm sharing a room with a guy in a boardinghouse off Palm. I make do. And who knows, one of these days I might actually get it together and try to rebuild my life. Next time I see you, maybe we'll go for a coffee and I'll share all these great plans I've got for fixing the world—starting with yours truly."
"All right," I said. "I'll hold you to that."
"Thanks for stopping by," he said.
I smiled and stood up. "No, thank you for helping me figure out my problems. Maybe you should consider becoming a counselor."
He laughed. "Yeah, I'm just chock-full of good advice, even if I don't put it into practice for myself."
"See you, Marc," I said.
"You know something?" he said as I started to walk away.
I paused to look back at him.
"If it was me, I wouldn't be in such a hurry to get rid of that shine of yours."
"Well," he said. "It seems to me that everything's got a spirit, a mystery that most of us can't see. But invisible or not, that doesn't stop these secret spirits from being the heart of the world—sort of what keeps it beating. Are you with me so far?"
"Then tell me this: why would you want to hang around people that get uncomfortable, or even scared, about that kind of thing?"
"Maybe just to feel normal," I said.
He laughed. "Normal's not all it's cracked up to be."
"Hell, I know."
* * *
I don't know if I could have taken Marc's advice even if I'd wanted to. So far as I could see, whatever was different about me came from inside. How do you avoid yourself?
But he made a good point about normalcy. Except I don't think it was so much that I wanted to be normal. It was more how nobody likes to be the brunt of other people's ill will—especially when you've done nothing to earn it.
I think the bigger question for me was that I needed to know what I was, and not even the voice in the back of my head seemed to have an answer to that.
* * *
In the weeks that followed I made a point of getting out and seeing people. It was hard. Most of the time I got the same kind of reaction as I had from my neighbour across the hall, or the woman with her dog outside the Chinese grocery store. I'd go to music shows, art openings, poetry readings—any place that a person could go by herself to meet other people. Invariably some guy would start to hit on me—especially in a club—only to back off as though he'd suddenly realized that I had a third eye, or a forked tongue, or who knows what? I'd stay for awhile, but eventually the general level of barbed comments and ill will directed toward me would get to be too much and I'd have to go.
Later, when I got to know Jilly and her crowd, I discovered that I'd been going to the wrong sorts of events—or the right events, only attended by the wrong sorts of people. But at the time, I didn't know and there were a lot of nights that I left hardly able to keep my tears in check until I was safe in my apartment with no one to see my despair.
I didn't have the same problem when people weren't actually in my presence. I was able to submit pieces to Street Times, In the City, The Crowsea Times, and some of the daily papers—soliciting commissions over the phone and submitting the finished pieces by e-mail. I developed a number of friendships that way, though I made sure to maintain them at a distance. The one time I didn't was a complete disaster.
* * *
Aaran Goldstein was the book editor for The Daily Journal at the time—still is, actually. I'd done a few reviews for him and we'd talked on the phone a number of times when he asked me if I wanted to get together for a drink before a book reading that he had to cover that night. Against my better judgment, because, logically, I knew it wouldn't work out—why should this be any different from all those openings and shows I'd attended?—I said yes.
We made plans to meet at Huxley's—not somewhere I'd have chosen on my own. It's that bar on Stanton across from Fitzhenry Park where the young execs on their way up congregate after work. Lots of chrome and leather and black glass. Lots of big exotic plants and various flavours of ambient techno music on the sound system. Lots of people who want nothing to do with mysteries or myths or magic, so you know how they'd react to me.
I started to tell him I was blonde, but he stopped me and assured me we'd have no trouble finding each other.
"Descriptions are for peons," he said. "But you and I…fate has already decided that we should meet."
The weird thing is, he was right. Not about fate—at least not so far as I know—but about our not needing descriptions. I stepped in through the front door of Huxley's at a little past seven that evening and immediately saw him standing at the bar. I've no idea why I recognized him. I guess he just looked like his voice.
He lifted his head and turned in my direction, smiled, and came to meet me.
"You see?" he said, taking my arm and steering me back to the bar where a pair of martinis were already waiting for us.
He clinked his glass against mine.
"To radiance," he said. "By which I mean you."
Aaran was a good-looking, confident man in his late twenties—very trendy with his goatee, his dark hair cut short on the top and sides, drawn back into a small ponytail at the nape of his neck. One ear lobe sported two earrings, the other was unadorned. Pinky ring on each hand. He was wearing Armani jeans, a white T-shirt, and a tailored sports jacket that night. Shoes of Italian leather.
But the best thing about him—what let me overlook his overly suave mannerisms, what meant more to me than his appearance or his sense of fashion—was that he didn't get the look in his eyes.
Five minutes went by. Ten. Fifteen.
Not once did he seem to get creeped out by me. We just talked—or at least he talked. Mostly I sat on my stool, leaning one arm on the bar top, and listened. But it wasn't hard. He was well-spoken and had a story about anything and everybody: droll, ironic, sometimes serious.
We had two drinks at Huxley's. We went to the reading—Summer Brooks had a new book out, So I'm a Bitch, a collection of her weekly columns from In the City—and it was just as entertaining as you might imagine, if you follow the columns. We had a lovely dinner at Antonio's, this little Italian place in the Market. We went down the street to the Scene for another drink and danced awhile. Finally we ended up back at my place for a nightcap.
We'd been getting along so well, it seemed inevitable to me that we would end up in bed the way we did. I remember thinking I was glad I'd worn some sexy black lace underwear instead of the cotton panties and bra I'd almost put on when I'd been getting dressed earlier in the evening.
Sex had definitely been one of the things I'd wanted to experience as soon as I could. My own recollections of it seemed to have come out of books, and like everything else in my life, I couldn't find one real tactile memory of it in mind. From what I did know about it, it was supposed to be totally amazing, so it was disappointing to have it all be over as quickly as it was.
Later, I realized it was only because Aaran wasn't a particularly good lover, but at the time I just felt let down. Not so much by him, as by the whole build-up about the act of making love.
"Is that it?" I let slip out as he rolled over onto his back.
I hadn't meant to say it aloud and when I saw the dark look on his face, I really wished I hadn't.
He sat up. "What do you mean?"
"Wasn't it good for you?"
"Of course. It's just…I thought…"
I stopped myself before I made it worse, even though what I wanted to say was, no, it was disappointing. I thought it would be more tender, and also more abandoned. That it would last longer. That the world would turn under me. That everything would stretch into this long moment of unbelievable bliss before finally releasing in long, slow waves that would leave me breathless. The way I could make it feel with my own fingers.
Yes, I stopped myself from saying any of that, but it was already too late.
"Jesus, I can't believe you," he said.
He swung his feet to the floor and stood up.
"I mean, it's not like I didn't know there was something weird about you," he added as he put on his briefs. "But I was willing to overlook it—you know, that twitch you put in people that just makes them want to back away?"
I stared at him, speechless. He found his T-shirt and pulled it on over his head, stopping to smooth back his hair.
"It's not like I'm alone in this," he said. "Sure, you look hot, but everybody who's spent any kind of time with you talks about how you've got this thing about you that just rubs them the wrong way."
"You've talked to people about me?"
"Well, sure. It's a small world. When a good-looking woman like yourself turns out to be such a cold fish, of course it's going to get around. What did you think? But I thought, 'I'll do her a favour. Show her a good time. Teach her how to loosen up a little and enjoy life.'"
"Get out," I told him.
"Right, like you're the one who should be pissed."
I got out of bed and gave him a shove toward the doorway.
"Now you just wait a—" he started, but I pushed him again.
He was still off-balance from the first push and stumbled backward, out into the main room. I collected the rest of his clothes and followed after him. There was a moment right there when I thought he was going to hit me, or at least try to, but I dumped the clothes and shoes into his arms and he instinctively grabbed hold of them. That gave me time to slip around him and open the front door of the apartment.
"Out," I told him, pointing to the hall.
"Jesus, would you let me put my pants—"
"Out," I repeated.
I grabbed my umbrella from where it was leaning by the door and held it like it was a baseball bat. He took one look at my face and went out into the hall. God, I wish I'd had a camera to capture that sorry image of him standing there, as good as bare-assed, skinny legs coming out from under his T-shirt, the rest of his clothes all bundled in his arms.
"This isn't the end of this," he told me.
"It is for me."
He shook his head, his face flushed with anger.
"Nobody treats me like this," he said. "I'll make you sorry you ever—"
"I already am," I said and shut the door in his face, engaged the lock.
* * *
I cried for a long time after he was gone. It wasn't because of what had happened with him—or at least not only because of that. Mostly it was because I felt so bereft and alone, abandoned in this unfair world where my only intimate human contact so far had been with such a sorry excuse of a loser. Now that the happy blush of just being accepted for once had been swept away, I realized that he was completely self-centered. He was full of words, but empty of anything meaningful. Our evening together had been for him, not for me, or even to be with me.
If Aaran Goldstein was an example of what it meant to be human, I wasn't so sure that I wanted to be one anymore.
* * *
I had my flying dream again that night, soaring over an endless landscape of circuit boards, their vast expanse cut with rivers of cruel electricity…
* * *
I had gained some useful experience from my evening with Aaran, but otherwise not a lot had changed. Everything was still new and fresh. I knew what things were—and if I didn't, the voice in my head could give me its history—but not how they tasted, or felt, or sounded. Not how their essence reverberated under my skin.
I didn't stay away from readings or openings or clubs after that—I was too stubborn to give Aaran that small victory—but I didn't look to find acceptance or kindness at them anymore, and didn't find it either. Turns out, what honest friendships I came to make, I made on the street.
There was Marc, of course. I'd see him from time to time, always in some different doorway, panhandling on a street corner, dozing on a park bench. He carried a constant undercurrent of bitterness inside him—directed at what he saw as his own personal failures, as much as at the uncaring world he was in, a world that had no time or place for those such as himself who, for one reason or another, had fallen through the cracks.
But most of the time, he kept that bitterness locked behind a cheerful front. I think what he liked best about me was that, no matter which face he showed me, I accepted him as he was and made no judgments. I also didn't hand out advice, or try to change him. I'd just buy him a meal or a coffee, and share it with him as though we were simply friends out to enjoy each other's company.
Charity didn't enter into it. He knew I'd give him a place to stay, or money, if he asked. But he didn't. And I didn't offer.
Then there was the woman that everyone called Malicorne whom I met on the edge of the Tombs one day, that part of the city that the citizens have abandoned, leaving I don't know how many blocks of empty lots, rubble-choked streets and fallen-down, deserted buildings. Factories, tenements, stores. The only legally-inhabited building was the old county jail, an imposing stone structure that stood on the western border of the Tombs, overlooking the Kickaha River, just north of the corner of Lee and MacNeil, but you couldn't call what the prisoners in there did as living. They were just marking time.
Malicorne was tall and horsy-faced, her eyes so dark they seemed to be all pupil. Her long chestnut hair was thick and matted, hanging past her shoulders like dreadlocks. But the thing about her—the strange thing, I mean—is how she had this white horn curling up into a point coming right out of the middle of her forehead. Now that's unusual enough, but even stranger is how nobody really seems to notice it.
"People don't pay attention to things that don't make sense to them," she said when I asked her about it.
Now I had a maybe strange origin, if my dreams and the voice in my head were anything to go by. She had one for certain. So why didn't people treat her the way they treated me?
She laughed. "Look at me," she said. "I'm living in a squat here in the Tombs, sharing meals and drinks with hobos and bums. Regular citizens don't even see me. I'm just one more street person to them. And if they don't see me—if I don't even register on their radar—how would they ever notice anything strange about me?"
"So why do you stay on the streets?" I asked.
"You mean, why don't I become a citizen?"
"Because the only stories that matter to me are the ones that are told here—on street corners, under an overpass, standing around an oil drum fire. It wouldn't be the same for someone else, but I'm not someone else, and they're not me."
I liked talking to her. She didn't just absorb stories other people told; she had countless ones of her own to tell. Stories about strange places and stranger people, of gods living as mortals, and mortals living with the extravagance of gods. I often wondered what my own story would sound like, coming from her lips. But I supposed first I'd have to figure out what it was for myself.
She left town before I could. One day she just wandered off and out of our lives the way street people do, but before she left, she introduced me to William.
He was living on the street at the time, too. There was a whole family of them that got together at night around the oil drums. Jack, Casey, William, and just before Malicorne left, a slip of a girl named Staley Cross who played a blue fiddle.
William was in his fifties, a genial alcoholic—as opposed to a mean drunk—with weather-beaten features and rheumy eyes. Something about Malicorne's going motivated most of them to get off the street. In William's case, he started attending AA meetings and got a job as a custodian in a Kelly Street tenement, just up from the Harp. He's still there today, surviving on the money he gets from odd jobs and tips.
I go to the AA meetings with him sometimes, to keep him company. He's been off the wagon for a few years now, but he's still addicted to one thing they don't have meetings for: magic. I don't mean that he's a conjuror himself, or has this need to take in magic shows. Or even that he's some kind of groupie of the supernatural and strange. He just knows a lot of what he calls "special people."
"I'm drawn to people like that," he told me one afternoon when we were sitting on the steps of the Crowsea Public Library. "Don't ask me why. I guess thinking about them, listening to them talk, just being with them, makes the world feel like a better place. Like it's not all cement and steel and glass and the kind of people who pretty much only fit into that kind of environment."
"People like Malicorne," I said.
He nodded. "And like you. You've all got this shine. You and Malicorne and Staley with that blue spirit fiddle of hers. There's lots of you, if you look around and pay attention. You remember Paperjack?"
I shook my head.
"He had it, too. Used to give you a glimpse of the future with these Chinese fortune-tellers of his that he made out of folded paper. He was the real thing—like Bones and Cassie are."
"So we've all got this shine," I said, remembering how Marc had told me he could see mine that day I first met him.
William gave me a smile. "I know it makes some people uncomfortable, but not me. I guess maybe I don't have a whole lot else left in my life, but at least I've got that. At least I know there's more to the world than what we see here."
"I suppose," I said. "Still, I wouldn't mind learning how to turn it down a notch or two."
"I don't know, exactly. So that I can fit in better when I want to fit in, I suppose. It's hard walking into a room and after five minutes or so, pretty much everybody's making it clear that it'd all be so much more pleasant if you'd just leave."
"That's important to you?" he asked. "Fitting in?"
"Maybe. Sometimes. I guess it's mostly wanting to do it on my own terms."
"Well, I know a guy who might be able to help you."
* * *
We tracked Robert Lonnie down at the Dear Mouse Diner, just around the corner from the library. He was sitting in a back booth, a handsome young black man in a pinstripe suit with wavy hair brushed back from his forehead. There was a cup of coffee on the table in front of him, a small-bodied old Gibson guitar standing up on the bench beside him.
"Hey, Robert," William said as he slid into the other side of the booth. I sat down next to William.
"Hey yourself, Sweet William," Robert said. "You still keeping your devil at bay?"
"I'm trying. I just take it day by day. How about you?"
"I just keep out of his way."
"This is my friend, Saskia," William said.
Robert turned his gaze to me and I realized then that he was another of William's special people. Those eyes of his were dark and old. When they looked at you, his gaze sank right under your skin, all the way down to where your bones held your spirit in place.
"Saskia," he repeated with a smile, then glanced at William. "If this isn't proof positive we're living in the modern world, I don't know what is."
I gave him a puzzled look when his dark gaze returned to me.
"Well, you see," he said. "I know that machines have always had spirits, but I look at you and see that now they're making babies, too."
I suppose that was one way of putting it.
"That's why we're here," William said. "We're looking for some advice on how to turn down her shine."
Robert pulled his guitar down onto his lap and began to pluck a melody on its strings, playing so soft, you'd have to strain to hear it. But the odd thing was, while I couldn't hear them clearly, I could feel those notes, resonating deep down inside me.
"Turn down your shine," he said.
I nodded. "It makes it hard to fit in."
"You should try being black," he said.
He improvised softly around a minor chord, waking an eerie feeling in the nape of my neck.
"I know it's not the same thing," I started, but his smile stopped me.
"We all know that," he said. "Don't worry. I'm not about to go all Black Panther on you."
His fingers did a funny little crab-walk up the neck of the guitar that took away the strange feeling the minor chord had called up.
"So can you help her?" William asked.
Robert smiled. "Turn down a shine? Sure." He looked at me. "That's an easy one. You've just got to stop being so aware of it yourself, that's all. Have you got any hard questions?"
"Pretty much. Oh, it won't happen overnight, but if you can stop yourself from remembering, or believing, or what it is that you're doing inside that head of yours, soon enough everybody else will be seeing it your way, too. It'll be like you'll all start to agree that this is the way things are. Or should be."
"Making a consensual reality," William said. "Like the professor's always talking about."
Robert nodded. "Of course, you've got to ask yourself," he said to me, "why would you want to turn down a shine?"
Now it was my turn to smile.
"I've already been through that with William," I said. "Like I told him, I want the option of fitting in if I want to."
"Curious, isn't it?" Robert said. "All the magic people want to be normal, and all the normal people want magic. Nobody ever wants what they've already got and that's the story of the world."
He started a twelve-bar blues, humming a soft accompaniment to the aching music his fingers pulled from the guitar.
William and I sat there for a long time, just listening to him play before we finally left the diner.
* * *
I don't know if this happens to you, but it's a funny thing. There's this synchronicity with street people. Doesn't matter how unusual they might be, like Tinfoil Annie making her animals with aluminum foil that she then sets free in the gutters, or talented, like Robert Lonnie and the way he can play a guitar. See them once and suddenly you're seeing them all the time and you have to wonder, how was it that you never noticed them before?
After that afternoon in the diner, I started seeing Robert everywhere, playing that old Gibson of his. He was so good that I asked William once why Robert wasn't playing out, doing real gigs instead of sitting in the back of clubs, after-hours, or all the other places you might find him making music: on park benches, in diners, on street corners, in the subway.
"The story is," William said, "that he traded his soul to the devil to be able to make the kind of music he does. But it wasn't a fair trade. Turned out, Robert had that music in him all along—he just hadn't been patient enough to take the long way of getting it out. Anyway, he's supposed to have figured out a way he can live forever—just to spite the devil, he says—but he likes to keep a low profile anyway. Seems the devil will let you get away with a thing or two, just so long as you don't rub him in the face with it."
"Do you believe that?"
William shrugged. "I've seen enough things in this world that I'll keep an open mind about anything. And I like the idea of somebody putting one over on old Nick." Then he smiled. "'Course there's others say Robert just ages well and has a natural talent."
* * *
Not everybody I met on the street actually lived on the street, even when, at first, it seemed as if they did. I guess some people were like I came to be—they just felt more comfortable carrying on their business on the edges of society.
I thought Geordie was homeless when I first met him—busking with his fiddle for people's spare change instead of panhandling. But once I got to know him, I realized that he just liked playing on the street. He played in clubs, too—had an apartment on Lee Street and all—but busking, he said, kept him honest. He was one of the first street musicians you'd hear in the spring—standing on some corner, all bundled up, fingerless gloves on his hands—and one of the last to give it up in the fall.
Geordie and I hit it off right away. I suppose we could have become more than friends, but I could tell he was carrying a torch for someone else and that kind of thing always gets in the way of developing a meaningful relationship. One or the other of you ends up settling for what's in front of you, but you're always remembering the something you couldn't have.
At first I thought that something was Sam, this old girlfriend of Geordie's who did this mysterious sidestep out of his life, but once I got to know him better, I realized he was really carrying the torch for his friend Jilly. I got the idea that neither of them was aware of it—or at least would admit it to themselves—though everyone else in their crowd seemed to be aware of it.
It's funny, considering how close he and Jilly are, that I must have known Geordie for almost half a year before I ever met Jilly and got pulled into her mad, swirling circle of friends. Geordie often talked about her and Sophie and Wendy and the rest of them, but somehow our paths never crossed. I know it's a big city, but when we finally did meet, it turned out we knew so many people in common, you'd have thought we'd have run into each other a lot sooner than we did.
Something similar happened with Christy, though in his case I'd actually seen him around before. I just hadn't known who he was.
The way we met, I was walking down Lee Street and saw Geordie at a table on the patio of the Rusty Lion with some fellow whose face I couldn't see because his back was to me. By the time I realized who it was, it was too late to retreat because Geordie'd already seen me. I made myself go up to their table to say hello.
You see, I'd already noticed Christy and been attracted to him long before we actually met. The first time was at a poetry reading. I spied him across the room and there was something about him that I liked enough to almost give up my promise of not trying to connect with people at those things. But then I saw that he was with Aaran and a woman—that I didn't get along with either—who worked for another paper. If they were his friends, I didn't want to be one myself.
I noticed him from time to time in the neighbourhood after that, usually on his own, but never put it together that this brother Geordie often talked about was the same person as this attractive stranger with his bad taste in friends.
Turns out I was wrong about the friends. Christy has impeccable taste in them, not least because he dislikes Aaran about as much as I do, though not for all the same reasons.
Once we got that out of the way, one thing led to another and…well, that's how I came to be where I am now, living with Christy.
I've learned to turn down my shine enough to get along in a crowd when I want to, but the price I paid for that is losing the voice in my head. And when I lost it, I lost my connection to whatever that big voodoo spirit in cyberspace might have been. I don't dream about flying over circuit boards anymore. I don't dream about pixels and streaming bands of electricity or any of that. Most of the time all those ideas just seem like some crazy notion I once had.
But I don't trust this flesh I'm wearing, either.
I don't trust the experiences that fill my head because they only date back to when I first appeared in this world. Like I said, I can follow a computer and paper trail tracing my background—where I was born, grew up, went to school—but I still can't recall any of it.
So, sometimes I still think that there used to be something else in my head, some vast world of information—or at least a connection to the spirit that people surfing on the Net can access as the Wordwood. Or perhaps it's still there, but I'm cut off from it.
I guess I'm not really sure of anything, except I know I'm in this world now. And I know I can count on Christy to stand by me.
Most days that's enough.
* * *
It was different for me.
The first time I opened my eyes I knew exactly what I was: all the excess baggage that Christy didn't want. How does he put it in his journal?
… at around the age of six or seven we separate and then hide away the parts of ourselves that don't seem acceptable, that don't fit in the world around us. Those unacceptable parts that we secret away become our shadow.
I know. It sounds desperately grim. But it wasn't all bad. Because the things that people think they don't want aren't necessarily negative. Remember, they're just little kids at the time. Their personalities are still only beginning to form. And all of this is happening on an instinctive, almost cellular level. It's not like they're actually thinking any of it through.
Anyway, in my case…
Even as a little boy, Christy shut people out. That let me be open.
He was often so bloody serious—because he didn't trust people enough to relax around them, I suppose—and that let me be cheerful.
He didn't make friends easily. I could and did.
But I got his dark baggage, too. A quick temper, because he held his in check. A recklessness, because he didn't take chances—
Well, you get the picture. I was the opposite parts of him. Elsewhere in his journals he describes our physical differences:
She's short, where I'm tall. Dark-skinned, where I'm light. Red-haired, where mine's dark. A girl to my boy, and now a woman as I'm a man.
Basically, I opened my eyes to find that I was this seven-year-old girl who knew everything about being a seven-year-old boy, but nothing about being herself.
I suppose it could have been dangerous for me, trying to make my way through the big bad world all on my own at such a tender age, but it didn't quite work out that way. For one thing, when a shadow is created…yes, she's all the unwanted parts of the one who cast her, but she takes an equal amount of…I don't know…spirit, perhaps, or experience…some kind of essence from the borderlands. So right away, I was this unwanted baggage and something more.
What are the borderlands?
Once we started talking to each other, Christy was always asking, "Where do you go when you're not in this world?"
I wouldn't tell him for the longest time—as much because I like to hang on to the "woman of mystery" image he has of me as for any logical reason. But one night when he was going through one of his periodic bouts of self-questioning, I relented.
"To the fields beyond the fields," I finally told him, explaining how they lie all around us and inside us.
What I didn't explain is that they're part of the border countries, the fields that lie between this world he knows so well and the otherworld—Fairyland, the spirit world, the dreamlands, call it what you will. That otherworld is what the mystics and poets are always reaching out for, few of them ever realizing that the borderlands in between are a realm all their own and just as magical. They lie thin as gauze in some places—that's where it's the easiest to slip through from one world into the other—and broad as the largest continent elsewhere.
The beings that inhabit this place are sometimes called the Eadar. Most of them were created out of imagination, existing only so long as someone believed in them, though it's also the place where shadows like me usually go. The Eadar call it Meadhon. The Kickaha call it àbitawehì-akì, the half way world. I just think of it as the middleworld. The borderlands. But I didn't get into any of that with Christy.
What I also didn't explain is what I was just telling you about how a shadow takes as much of her initial substance from something in the borderlands as it does from the one casting her. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's just from the air itself. Maybe something in the borderland casts another shadow and people like me are born where the two shadows meet. What I do know is that I had an immediate connection to that place and when I first slipped over, I met my guide.
I say "my guide," like everybody gets one, but that's not necessarily the case. I just know there was someone waiting for me when I crossed over.
Being new to everything, I simply accepted Mumbo at face value. It was only in the years to follow, as I began to acquire a personal history of experience and values, that I thought, isn't this typical? When other people get spirit guides or totems, they're mysterious power animals, maybe wise old men or women, like the grandparents you maybe never had.
I got Mumbo.
She was basically a mushroom brown sphere the size of a large beach ball with spindly little arms and legs that were folded close to her body when she wasn't using them to roll herself from one place to another. Much like those Balloon Men that Christy wrote about in his first book, How to Make the Wind Blow, I suppose. Today I can't imagine anything less mystical or learned, but she had a kind face and I was a newborn seven-year-old when I first met her. No doubt she was an appropriate shape to capture the interest of that child I was, and the immediate affection I had for her carries on to this day, for all that she's just so…so silly-looking.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The first time I opened my eyes, I was this scruffy little girl in a raggedy black dress, skin the colour of a frappuccino, eyes the blue of cornflowers, red hair falling in a spill of tangles and snarls to my shoulders. I was in the field behind the Riddell house. I sat up and looked at the window that was Christy and Geordie's bedroom. Paddy, their older brother, was already in juvie.
I knew who they were. I knew everything Christy knew up until the moment he cast me off. After that our lives were separate and we had our own experiences, although I still knew a lot more about him than he did of me.
He didn't even remember casting me out. That came years later, when he was reading about shadows in some book and decided to try to call his own back to him.
But I remembered. And I knew him. I'd follow him around sometimes, until I got bored. But I always came back, fascinated by this boy who once was me. Or I was once him. Whatever.
When he started keeping a journal, I pored over the various volumes, sitting at the shabby little desk beside his bed, reading and rereading what he'd written, trying to understand who he was, and how he was so different from me.
He woke once or twice to see me there. I'd look back at him, not saying a word. Closing the book, I'd return it to its drawer, turn off the desk light, and let myself fade back into the borderlands. I'd read later in his journal how he thought he'd only been dreaming.
But that first night I didn't go into the house. I was too mad at him for casting me out of the life we'd had together.
How dare he? How dare he just cast me off. Like he was putting out the trash. Like I was the trash. I'd show him what trash was.
Little fists clenched, I took a step toward the house, planning I don't know what—throw a rock through his window, maybe—but I accidentally stumbled out of this world and into the borderlands.
Where Mumbo was waiting for me.
Remember how easily distracted you could be as a kid? Oh, sorry. I guess you don't. Well, take my word for it. You can be in a high temper one moment, laughing your head off the next.
So I stood there, blinking in this twilit world that I'd suddenly found myself in, too surprised to be angry anymore. I can't tell you how I knew I'd stepped from one world to another, I just did. The air was different. The light was different. The biggest clue, I guess, was how the Riddell house at the far end of the field that I'd been walking toward wasn't there anymore.
I suppose I might have gotten scared, though I've never scared easily, except that was when Mumbo showed up.
I watched this brown ball come bouncing across the meadow toward me. When she stopped herself with her little spindly limbs and I saw her face, the big kind eyes twinkling, the easy smile so welcoming, I clapped my hands and grinned back.
"Hello, little girl," the brown ball said.
"You can talk."
"Of course I can talk."
"I've never heard a ball talk before."
"There are a thousand things and more that you have yet to experience," she said. "If you spend less time being surprised by them, you'll have more time to appreciate them."
"Are you going to be my friend?" I asked.
"I hope so. And your teacher, too, if you'd like. My name's Mumbo."
"I'm Christy," I said, then realized that wasn't true anymore, so I quickly amended it to "Anna," taking the first name that popped into my head.
Anna was a girl in Christy's class at school that he was sweet on at the time. Actually, Christy was always sweet on some girl or another—a serial romantic, that boy of ours. Or at least he was until he met you. But he'd never do much. Just give them moony looks and write poems that he never gave to them.
"It's nice to meet you, Christiana," Mumbo said.
I almost corrected her, but then I decided I liked the way it sounded. It was a new name, but it still had history.
"What kind of things are you going to teach me?" I asked.
I was a little nervous. Seven years of being part of Christy had taught me not to trust grown-ups. I knew Mumbo was a ball, and all of this was like out of some storybook, but she still had a bit of the sound of a grown-up about her when she spoke.
"Whatever you want to learn," she said. "We could start with my showing you how to move back and forth between the worlds. That's a very handy trick for a shadow."
"What's a shadow?" I asked.
I could tell from the way she said the word that she meant something different from what a light casts. But as soon as she started to explain, I realized I already knew. It was me. Cast out of Christy.
Not everybody has a shadow the way Christy describes it in his journal.
Wait. That's not right. What I meant to say was that while everybody has a shadow, not everyone has access to the person that shadow might be become.
First you have to call the shadow to you.
Some children do this naturally and never recognize these invisible companions and friends as ever having been a part of them. And most of those children put aside their shadows once they grow up so the poor creatures are rejected twice. Those that do remember, or learn about us somehow, are often surprised at who they find. I know Christy was.
At first he thought he might be going mad because I only came to him as a voice. I'm not sure why I did that. I think it was probably nervousness on my part. I wanted him to like me—I was a sort of twin, after all, and I'd long since gotten over being mad at him for casting me out of him—but I wasn't sure he would since, after all, I was all those parts of himself that he'd put aside.
* * *
Being born from the cast-off bits of someone else's personality isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because just like the people we echo, we go on after the split. We have the same capacity for growth and change as they do. We may begin life as evil, or clumsy, or outgoing, but we can learn to become good, or agile, or shy.
And I shouldn't have worried about Christy's reaction to me when we finally met in the flesh. He proved to be quite taken with me, half in love at first, though I've learned that isn't so surprising in situations such as this. It's also why shadows are drawn to those who cast them off, no matter what the difference is between them: You're meeting your other half, your missing half. In many cases, the changes you go through make you more alike, rather than less. Perhaps we teach each other the best parts of ourselves.
After his initial infatuation, Christy and I settled into more of a sibling relationship. He treats me as the older and wiser of the two of us, the one who understands Mystery because I live in it, because my very origins are so extraordinary. I don't feel that way. I learn as much from him, but I let him keep his misconceptions. Let's face it, a girl likes to be mysterious, doesn't matter if she's human or a shadow.
What's life like for a shadow? I don't need to eat or drink, but I love good food and a fine wine. I don't need to sleep either, but I still enjoy luxuriating under the sheets or spending the whole morning just lying in bed when the rest of the world is up and about its business.
And sometimes when I close my eyes and pretend to sleep, I actually dream.
* * *
I'm not doing such a good job of this. I should be explaining things in a more linear fashion—the way you did—but my brain doesn't work that way. Another difference between Christy and me, I guess. He's so logical, working everything through from start to expected finish, while I flit about like a moth attracted to any light with a strong enough flicker.
So where was I?
Right. Growing up as a shadow.
I grew more quickly than Christy. It wasn't just a matter of girls maturing sooner. Shadows can choose their age. We can't change our specific looks—I mean, I can't suddenly appear in front of you as a cat or a dog—but we can appear to be whatever age we want to be and that's a handy thing.
But I did mature mentally and emotionally much more quickly than he did.
That can't be helped when you spend most of your time in the borderlands where there's always something to learn. Not to mention that the spirit world lies just beyond the borderlands, and in the spirit world, anything you can possibly imagine and then some exists in one corner or another.
I also think that—remember I told you how some piece of the borderlands helps give a shadow her substance? I think it also allows you to acquire and understand knowledge more readily. It's not that you're smarter. That connection just allows you to assimilate things more easily. And you have access to more information and experience than the one that casts you off does, because you have three worlds to explore, instead of only one.
Plus, in some parts of the spirit world, time moves differently than it does here. Strictly speaking, I suppose I'm a lot older than Christy anyway because of living in some of the Rip Van Winkle folds of the spirit world, where the passing of a year is no more than the length of a day here.
And I was certainly sexually active a lot earlier than him. Truth to tell, by the time I was in what would have passed for my teens, I was pretty much an incorrigible wanton. I wanted to try everything.
I'm way more choosy about who I sleep with now.
* * *
"Why were you waiting for me?" I asked Mumbo one day after we'd known each other for a few years.
She was showing me how to braid sweetgrass into a strong, sweet-smelling rope. I don't know why. She was forever telling me about stuff and teaching me how to do things that seemed to have no relevance at the time, but proved to be useful later. So maybe at some point in the future, knowing how to make a grass rope was going to come in handy.
"You know," I added. "That first time I crossed over."
"It's what I do," was all she said. "I teach shadows."
Like that was all there was to it. But you know me—well, I suppose you don't, or we wouldn't be here talking. But I'll worry at a thing forever until I figure out what it is or how it works. Someone told me once, "Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I'll bet she had a really interesting life up until then." I'm like that cat. I do have a really interesting life.
Still do, because I'm not dead yet.
* * *
There's always something going on in the borderlands. Between storybook characters, faerie, spirits and shadows, there's no time to be bored. Instead, you just appreciate any time you might get on your own.
You'd like the place I have there. I should take you sometime.
It's this little meadow the size of a loft apartment that I plucked out of a summer day—that's a trick Mumbo showed me. You choose it like you'd call up a memory snapshot, except it's got a physical presence that you can store away in a fold of space where the borderlands meet this world. You can visit it whenever you want and it just stays there, hidden away, forever unchanging.
I've got this meadow decked out like an apartment. I have a dresser and a wardrobe at one end where the birch trees lean up against a stand of cedars. Sofa and easy chairs, with a Turkish carpet between them, at the other end, under the apple tree. A coffee table and a floor lamp, though I don't need it because it's always light there—morning light, when the day's still fresh and anything's possible.
There are chests and bookcases all over the place because I'm a serious packrat and collect any and everything. My bed's tucked away in a shaded hollow under the cedars. I hang things from the branches of all the trees—ribbons and pictures and prisms. Whatever catches my fancy.
* * *
Christy wonders what my life is like when I'm not with him. He says, "Isn't that what we always wonder about those close to us? What are they doing when we're not together? What are they thinking?"
I know it bothers him that I don't appear to have the same curiosity about him—he doesn't know that I still go walkabout in his journals at night when he's sleeping.
But as you can see, I don't live a life seeped in ancient mystery and wonder the way he thinks I do. I have an adventurous life, a lively one, and I certainly rub elbows with all sorts of amazing people and beings, but I'm just an ordinary girl. Oh, don't smile. I am. An ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances.
* * *
I was at a party once, in Hinterdale—that's this place on the far side of wherever. In the otherworld, you know?
You'd have to see this place to believe it. Imagine one of those old fairy tale castles, up on a mountaintop, deep forests spilling from near the base of its stone walls all the way down into the valley below. It doesn't have a moat, but it has the towers like spires and a grand hall as big as a football field. Or at least it feels that way. But the best thing about it is that there's this enormous tree growing right in the middle of that field-sized hall—an ancient oak that's I don't know how many hundreds of years old.
I guess what I like the most about it is the fact that it's indoors. Like my meadow apartment's outdoors. They're just off-kilter enough to make me feel comfortable.
I can't remember whose party it was—the castle's sort of a communal place with people coming and going all the time—but there must have been at least a thousand people still there after midnight, every kind of person you can imagine. Faeries, shadows, Eadar, ordinary folks who've learned how to stray over into the borderlands. Everybody was in costume.
What was I? A blue-masked highwayman—highwaylady? Whatever. I had the three-cornered hat, the knee-high boots, breeches and ruffled shirt under a riding jacket, a pistol as long as my forearm except it wasn't real.
Anyway, I was sitting with Maxie Rose in a window seat that overlooked the courtyard outside and we got to talking about the meaning of life—which, let me tell you, is an even bigger question in the borderlands than it is here—and all the other sorts of things you find yourself talking about at that time of night.
"What I don't get," Maxie was saying, "is how people keep trying to come up with these theories to unify all the various myths and folk tales you find in the world. I mean, I know there are correlations between the folklore of different cultures, but really. Half the point of mystery and magics is their inconsistent and often contradictory nature. We live in a world of arbitrary satisfactions and mayhem. Why should Faerie be any different?"
"People just need to make sense of things," I said.
"Oh, please. Sense is the last thing most of us need, though I suppose it does keep me pretty and alive."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She shrugged. "It's how Eadar stay potent. You know here. We teach sense to the shadows."
Maxie was an old friend of mine, a green-eyed, pink-haired gamine, not quite as tall as me, with a penchant for bright-coloured clothes, clunky boots and endless conversation. Tonight she was dressed as a punk ballerina. Her tutu was the same shocking pink as her hair and her leggings were fishnets that looked as though they'd lost an argument with a shark, they were so torn and tattered. Big black Doc Martens on her feet. Truth is, her costume wasn't much of a stretch from her usual wear, except normally she didn't wear the Zorro mask—a black scarf with eyeholes cut in it.
She was always full of life, always so present that it was easy to forget that she'd been born as a minor character in an obscure chapbook that had been mostly unread in its author's lifetime and forgotten thereafter. Since Eadar—such as she was—depend on their existence by the potency of the belief in their existence, it never made any sense to me that she would continue to be as vibrant and lively as she was. From all I know of them, she should have faded away a long time ago.
"Teaching," I repeated, my mind going back to that day I'd asked Mumbo why she'd been waiting for me the first time I'd crossed over. "Like Mumbo did with me?"
"And doing that makes you stay real?"
Maxie grinned. "I always said you were a quick study."
"Are there a lot of you doing that?"
"Oh, sure. Mumbo and Clarey Wise. Fenritty. Jason Truelad. Me. Whenever you see an Eadar who's particularly present, it's either because they were born in a story that was really popular—so lots of people believe in them and keep them real—or they're connecting with shadows."
"So Mumbo wasn't there to help me. She was only there to help herself."
"No, no, no," Maxie said. "It doesn't work like that. You really have to care about your shadows. Lots of Eadar don't even like them. I mean, think about it. You shadows show up in the borderlands, snotty little toddlers full of new life but without a clue, most of you with a chip on your shoulder and the last thing you want is advice from anybody."
"I wasn't snotty," I told her.
She grinned. "Says you. Regardless, it can be so frustrating teaching some of you how to get along. I can't imagine anyone getting into it unless they really, truly loved the work. The fact that it keeps us real is a side-benefit. Or at least it is now. I can't answer for the first Eadar who figured out that the relationship benefits them as much as the shadows under their care."
"I never knew."
"Lots of people don't. Lots of Eadar don't, which, when you think about it, is being really dumb. They just piss and moan and fade away. But like I said, if it's not something you feel comfortable doing, it's better that you don't try."
"But why shadows? What makes us so important to you?"
Maxie shrugged. "I don't know. For some reason your belief is really potent. All it takes is one of you to keep us here."
Isn't that a kick? One shadow, cast off and all, is equal, at least in this particular case, to all the readers of some bestseller.
* * *
The first time I met Christy?
I can't remember the exact when of it, but I remember the where. And the look on his face. He can be so cute, don't you think? You know, when something really catches him off-guard.
So what I did was, when I saw he was going out for one of those late night rambles of his, I followed along until I got a sense of where he was going then slipped on ahead of him. By the time he stepped onto the Kelly Street Bridge, I was already there, leaning on the stone balustrade and gazing down into the water. It was a lovely night, late summer, the sky clear above and full of stars. There was a bit of a wind and the moon was just coming up over the Tombs.
I listened to his footsteps, timing it so that I looked up just when he was getting close. He started to give me a nod, the way you do when you meet someone out on a walk like this, but then he stopped and gave me a confused look. You know—he thought he knew me, but he didn't.
"Need some directions?" I asked.
I knew that my voice was just going to add to the off-kilter sense of familiarity he was feeling.
"No," he said. "You…I feel like I should know you."
"I'll bet you use that line on all the girls," I said, smiling when it called up a blush.
I relented. "I know what you meant. You should know me. I'm the voice in the shadows."
I saw understanding dawn in his eyes and he got that look I was talking about, so cute.
"But…how can you be real?"
"Who says I'm real?"
Okay, so I was being a little mean. But I guess I still had some issues with him at that time, like how he cast me off when we were only seven years old.
He leaned against the balustrade, looking like he really needed its support.
"Relax," I said. "You're not going crazy."
"Easy for you to say."
I was going to reach out and touch his arm, just to reassure him, but something made me stop, I'm not sure what.
"I just thought we should meet," I said instead. "Rather than you sitting in your reading chair and me talking to you from the shadows. That's starting to get really old."
He was studying my features as I spoke.
"I've seen you before," he said. "How can I have seen you before?"
"Remember when you first started to keep your journals?"
He nodded. "And sometimes I dreamed that I woke and there was this red-haired girl sitting at my desk, reading them."
"That was moi."
"You've been around that long?"
"I've been around since you were seven and cast me off."
"I didn't know I was casting you off," he said. "I didn't even know about shadows until a couple of years ago when I came across that reference to them in a book about Jung."
A cab went by, slowing as it neared us to see if we might be a fare, then accelerating again when we looked away.
"Did it hurt?" he asked.
"Did what hurt?"
"When you were cast off."
He gave a slow nod. "Are you okay now?"
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. You seem very self-assured. I got that from our conversations. You don't seem unhappy. Actually, you seem nice."
"I am nice."
"I didn't mean—"
"I know," I said. "You just figured that all the cast-off bits of you would make some dark and evil psycho twin."
"Not exactly that."
"But someone the opposite of who you are."
He nodded. "Something like that."
"But you cast me off when you were only seven," I said. "Lots of what you got rid of were positive traits. And we've both grown since then. We're probably more alike than you'd expect, considering my origins."
"So…where do you live? What do you do?"
I smiled. "You know how you like to write about mysterious things?"
He gave another nod.
"Well, I live them," I said.
"And you won't tell me about them because—"
"Then they wouldn't be mysterious, would they?"
We both laughed.
"But seriously," he said.
"Seriously," I told him, "I live in between."
"In between what?"
"Whatever you can be in between of."
He gave a slow nod. "Where magic happens."
"Something like that."
"So why are you here now?" he asked.
"I already told you. The whole speaking from the shadows bit was getting old for me. Besides, I thought you'd be interested in us finally meeting."
"I am. It's just…"
I waited, but I guess for all the words he puts down on paper, he didn't have any to use right now.
"Disconcerting," I said.
"That's putting it mildly."
"Tell you what," I said. "Why don't I just let you deal with this for awhile."
He grabbed my arm as I started to turn away and an odd…I don't know…something went through me. Bigger than a tingle, not quite a shock. He let go so quickly that I knew he'd felt it, too.
"Do you have to go?" he asked.
I shook my head. "But I'm going to all the same. It's not like we won't meet again."
"When? Where? Here? On this bridge?"
"Wherever," I told him. "Whenever. Don't worry. I can always find you."
I let myself fade back into the borderlands.
I'd been as interested meeting him as he'd appeared to be meeting me, but I felt a little strange, too, and suddenly felt like I needed some space between us. That strange spark that had leapt between us hadn't been the only indication that there was something going on—just the most apparent.
* * *
"It's good to keep some distance between yourself and the one who cast you," Mumbo told me when I asked her about it later.
We were on the roof of an abandoned factory in the Tombs, looking out at the lights of the city across the Kickaha River. Below us on the rubble-strewn streets, the night people who made this lost part of the city their home were going about their business. Junkies were shooting up. Homeless kids and tramps, even whole families, were picking their squats for the night and settling in. Small packs of teenagers from the suburbs and better parts of town were travelling in small packs, avoiding the bikers and such, while looking for weaker prey they could harass. Business as usual for the Tombs.
"I kind of felt that I should," I said. "Except I don't really know why."
Mumbo went into her lecture mode. "The attraction between a shadow and the one who cast her is understandably strong. You were once the same person, so it's no wonder that you'd be drawn to each other. But spend too much time with him, get too close, and you could be drawn back into him again."
"What do you mean back into him?"
"He will absorb you and it will be like you never were. It's happened before. It can happen again."
* * *
Sometimes I'd get curious about the Eadar I met, and I'd go haunting libraries and sneaking into bookstores when they were closed to see what I could find. I was probably most curious about Mumbo and Maxie Rose. It took me awhile, but I finally tracked down the books that they'd first appeared in.
Maxie's was particularly hard. There were only fifty made and it was so dreadfully written that their original owners tended to throw them away.
Oddly enough, the copy I eventually found was in Christy's library. It was a thirty-page, saddle-stitched chapbook called The Jargon Tripper by Hans Wunschmann and though I managed to read it all the way through twice, I never could figure out what it was supposed to be about. The only character he brought to any semblance of real life in its pages was Maxie and, in the context of the abysmal prose that made up the greater portion of the text, that seemed more by accident.
I never did find out who the 'jargon tripper' of the title was, or what it meant.
"Did you ever figure out what Wunschmann was trying to say?" I asked Maxie the next time I saw her. "You know, in that story he wrote that you were in."
Maxie laughed. "Sure. He was saying, 'Look at me. I'm pathetic and I can't write a word, but that's not going to stop me from being published.' Though he didn't say it in so few words." She grinned at me. "He didn't have to. All you had to do was try to read it."
"That's a little harsh."
"You did read it, right?"
"Yeah. But I'm sure he must have been trying to do something good. There must have been something in what he was writing that meant a lot to him if he'd spend all that time writing it and then self-publishing it."
"Come on, Maxie. At least allow that he gave it his best shot."
"Did he?" Maxie said. "And don't get me wrong. I've nothing against self-published books, so it's not because of that. I just don't like crap."
"And I guess it particularly ticks me off because that's the story I got born in. It couldn't be a good book. Oh, no. I had to get born in the literary equivalent of an outhouse."
"But he made you," I said. "You were good in the story. And you're still here, so there must have been something in what he was doing."
Maxie shook her head. "The only reason I'm here is because I'm tenacious and I was damned if I was going to fade away just because I had the bad luck to be born on the pages of some no-talent's story. I don't know what I'd have done if I hadn't discovered I have a gift for teaching shadows. But I would have done something."
Some days I really feel bad for the Eadar. It must be so hard to be at the whim of someone else's muse.
* * *
I also asked Christy about Wunschmann.
"I still have that?" he said when I showed him the chapbook. "I thought I'd thrown it out years ago."
"Did you know him?"
"Unfortunately. He was this little pissant who was in some of the classes I was taking when I was in Butler U.—always talking, full of big ideas and pronouncements, super critical of everybody. But that little chapbook's all he ever produced. I remember he used to really be down on me and anyone else who was actually getting stories published."
"So you didn't like him."
Christy laughed. "No. Not much."
"And the story?"
"Well, I liked this one character—Mixie, Marsha..?"
He nodded. "Yeah. She deserved a better writer to tell her story."
"Maybe," I said. "Or maybe she figured out a way to do it herself."
He gave me a funny look, but I didn't elaborate.
* * *
Mumbo's was a sweeter story. Or perhaps I should say it was bittersweet. It was certainly better written.
The only edition was a little hardcover children's picture book called The Midnight Toyroom that I found in the Crowsea Public Library. The author was a man named Thomas Brigley. The watercolours, done in that turn-of-the-century style of children's book illustrators like Rackham or Dulac, were by Mary Lamb.
The book was published in Newford in the late nineteen-twenties to some local success but never really made much of a mark outside of the city. I looked Brigley up in a biographical dictionary, but he didn't even get a mention. I did find him in The Butler University Guide to Literature in Newford, where he got a fairly lengthy entry. He was a life-long bachelor who worked for a printing company, writing and publishing his books in his spare time, which I guess he had a lot of. Of the thirty-seven books that were published under his by-line, only one was for adults—a nonfiction history of the tram system called Cobblestone Jack, named after a fictional conductor he had telling the history.
Mary Lamb, his collaborator on all the books, was a librarian who, like Brigley, worked on the books in her spare time. She never married either, which made me figure there was a story in there somewhere, but I couldn't find anything about them ever having been an item—or what might have stopped them from becoming one—in any of the library's reference books. I did find pictures of them, including one of the two of them together. They made an attractive couple in that shot, and there was an obvious attraction between them from the way they were looking at each other, so it didn't make much sense to me.
I tried tracking Cobblestone Jack down, but unlike Mumbo, he'd faded away a long time ago the way most of Brigley's other characters had.
Mumbo only survived because of her connection to shadows like me, but after reading her story, I didn't understand why she'd needed us.
The Midnight Toyroom is about this girl who loves a boy so much that she has the Toy Fairy change her into a ball so that she can be with him. See, he was from this rich family and her parents were servants, so there was no way they could be together. Weren't things weird in those days?
Anyway, he loved the ball and called it Mumbo. Played with it all the time. Only when he got older, he left it out in the woods one day and never thought about it again and there she would have stayed, except the Toy Fairy had allowed her to come alive when no human was watching, so she was able to make her way back to the house. The trouble was, once she got there, she was found by the housekeeper who was packing up all of the boy's old toys to send to an orphanage, and she put Mumbo in with them. The last picture in the book is of Mumbo sitting on the top of a pile of toys in a cart as it slowly draws away from the boy's house.
It was sweet and sad, really well written, and the pictures were beautiful. So I couldn't understand why it hadn't been more of a success. Maybe it was the downbeat ending, but it's not like Hans Christian Anderson didn't write some downers that were still popular. I mean, have you ever read "The Little Match-Girl" or "The Little Mermaid"?
When I found Mumbo's book in the library, it wasn't even on the shelves anymore. I had to dig it out of the stacks because it hadn't been taken out in years. No surprise, I suppose, hidden in the back the way it was. But it was still listed on the card index, so if anybody had wanted it, they could have requested it.
It's just that nobody did.
* * *
Have I ever had a meaningful relationship? You mean like what you and Christy have? Not really. Like I said, I had a lot of…let's be poetic and call them dalliances, but nothing long-term. Friendships, yes. Lots of them, some I've maintained for years. But to be more intimate…
I've never met anyone in the borderlands or beyond that did it for me, and it's way too complicated for me to even think about it in this world. I mean, I'd either end up being this oddball curiosity—after I've told them what I really am—or I'd have to lie and make up a career, where I live, that kind of thing. It just gets too complicated.
Although I just got a cell phone that even works in the borderlands—works better there, actually, than it does here, since Maxie showed me how to rewire it so that we tap into the essence of the borderlands to make our calls, instead of having to worry about satellites and phone companies. So I suppose I could give out a number now if I wanted to and just be all mysterious about where I live and how I make a living.
Oh, don't smile. So I have this thing about being mysterious. You can blame Christy and his journals for that.
Sure, I can give you the number. But you have to promise not to give it to Christy.
* * *
No, it's not just books. Eadar are created out of the imagination, period. It doesn't have to be words on paper. It can be anything, from a painting to a passing daydream, but they're not like Isabelle's numena. Eadar depend on belief to exist whereas numena are bound to their painting. The less invested in an Eadar's creation, and therefore the less belief in it, the quicker they fade. It's really sad how ephemeral some of them are, no more than ghosts, barely here and then gone. There are parts of the borderlands—those that are closest to the big cities, usually—where Eadar ghosts are as thick as midges on a summer's day.
But while they can be sad little sorry creatures, that's not always the case. Some have so much belief in them that just glow with energy. For me—probably because of Christy's influence—the really interesting ones come from mythologies.
In the borderlands, faerie are making a big comeback. And so are earth spirits—you know, earth mothers and antlered men. On the down side, so are vampires and other less pleasant creatures. And then there are new ones.
You know why you keep hearing about Elvis sightings? So many people that believe he's still alive, that he actually is, except now he exists as a very potent Eadar. As more than one, actually. There's a young, kind of tough one from the early years—though he's still polite as all get-out. But there are also a couple of others: the smoother one from the films and a kind of pudgy one from the Vegas years.
You should see it when the three of them get together. You've never heard such arguments. But then you've never heard such music, either.
* * *
Anyway, you get the picture. Maybe I started my life as the cast-off bits of somebody else, but I've made my own way ever since. I grew. I changed. I became somebody that no one else is, or can be, because they don't have my life. They don't know the things I know. They don't know what I've felt, what I've experienced.
See, that's what I figure being real means. If you're able to adapt, to mature, to become something other than what it seemed you were supposed to be, then you're real. You've got a soul. Because something that's just a fictional construct, it can't do that. It can only be what its maker says it is. That's what's so sad about the Eadar. They can be as fiercely independent as Maxie Rose, but if Hans Wunschmann decided to write another story about her and changed her personality, or her history, or whatever, those changes would reflect on the Eadar that she's become and all her personal history as an Eadar wouldn't matter.
Continuity's another big topic of discussion in the borderlands and the lack of it's why so many Eadar suffer from various personality disorders. If they don't fade away first. Longevity's not exactly a big part of most of their lives.
But that's not something you or I have to worry about. Our origins might have been outside the norm, but we've grown into the skins and souls of real people. We can't be changed by a few brushstrokes, or bits of new description, or keystrokes.
And I'd like to see someone try to tell me what I'm supposed to be. Anyone does, they'd better have quick reflexes. Why? Because I'd smack 'em so hard they'd be sitting flat on their asses before they ever knew what hit them.
Oh yes. I can be fierce when I need to be. That's one of the first things you have to learn if you want to survive in any world.
And Here We Are
the words you use;
they make you see.
- Saskia Madding,
"Poems" (Spirits and Ghosts, 2000)
"So I guess we're both misfits," I say.
It's funny. I can't remember the last time I've talked this much. I guess I'm like Christy in that—I like to sit back and listen, just take things in. Mind you, he's always been quiet. I had to learn to be that way.
Saskia nods. "I suppose we are."
I meant it as a joke, but she seems to take it seriously. I study her for a moment, her gaze going past me, out the window, but she's not looking at anything. She's gone someplace deep inside herself and I'm not here anymore. Not for her. Everything's gone—the café and everybody else in it.
After a moment I get up and get us each another drink—chai tea for her, black coffee for myself. Saskia's back when I return, her gaze focused, tracking me as I approach where we're sitting.
I set her tea on the table in front of her and she smiles her thanks.
"I was reading this science fiction book about A.I.s," Saskia says when I've settled back into my chair. "You know, machines with artificial intelligence?"
"That's what's got me thinking about all of this. Life's not that much different than that book, really. If they knew what we were, humans really would hate us—just the way they do androids and A.I.s in fiction."
I shake my head. "We're as real as humans."
"But they're flesh and blood."
I lean forward and pinch Saskia's arm.
"So are we," I say.
"Maybe now we are, but—"
"When…how—what's the difference? We have spirits. We have souls. How we got them isn't important."
"It is to humans."
I smile. "Screw humans."
But she doesn't smile back.
"And maybe it's important to me, too," she says. "I guess you're okay with what you know about where you came from, but I don't even know that. I start to think back and I've got ahead full of memories, but they only go so far before I hit a wall. Did I come out of nothing? Can I still have a soul?"
"Well, there's an easy way to find out," I say.
She gives me a puzzled look.
"We'll go back to where you came from—you and me. I'll take you back into the Wordwood. The answers might not be here, but they've got to be there."
"I…I don't know."
"What are you worried about?"
"What if once I get there, I can't come back? What if I'm only a piece of whatever the Wordwood is and once I get there, it just absorbs me again? What if it absorbs you, too?"
I shrug. "That's just the chance we'll have to take, I guess. I mean, it all depends on how badly you need to know this thing."
Saskia gives me a considering look.
"Are you really this tough?" she asks.
"Don't forget fierce, too," I say, adding a smile.
"I wish I was. Tough and fierce. Sure of myself."
"It takes work," I tell her. "And it doesn't mean you don't get scared anymore. It just means you don't let the fear stop you from doing what you want, or need, to do. That's where the work part comes in."
She gives me a slow nod.
"And how do you plan for us to get there?" she asks.
"I'll take you by way of the borderlands."
"We can get to the Wordwood through these borderlands?"
"You can get anywhere from the borderlands," I tell her. "And if you're right, if there is some great big voodoo spirit running that Wordwood program, he or she probably lives in the otherworld."
I nod. "Mind you, I can only bring you across—you'll have to figure out where we're going once we're over there. Depending on how good your homing instincts are, it could take awhile, so we should probably go sooner than later. At least that's what I would do. I mean, why wait?" I have a sip of my coffee and raise my eyebrows. "Hell, we can go right now."
"No, I'd have to talk to Christy first. I couldn't just leave him hanging."
"And he so hates change."
"He's not that bad."
"We could bring him with us," I say, though I know that could be problematic. I can't spend too much time with him or who knows what might happen.
Saskia shakes her head.
"Oh, come on," I say. "He's not that stodgy. He'd jump at the chance to visit the otherworld."
"Probably," she says. "But I think this is something I should be doing on my own. For myself. And because…" She hesitates, that far distance filling those blue eyes of hers again for a long moment. "Who knows what I'm going to find."
"Nothing you could find could make him feel any different about you. Those Riddell boys are so true blue loyal they make dogs seem unreliable."
"I know. But still…"
I wait to see if she's going to finish her sentence.
"But still," I agree when she doesn't. "I understand. How about if I come by to pick you up midmorning, then? That'll give you a chance to talk to him and get ready."
She gives me a nervous look.
"It's funny," she says. "This is something I've been thinking about for ages. But now that you're offering me this easy way to actually do it, suddenly I don't feel even remotely ready."
"That's okay, too," I say. "Why don't you think about it, talk it over with Christy, and decide in the morning. I'll come by and you can tell me what you've decided."
Now it's her turn to smile. "And you'll knock on the door like a regular visitor?"
"Maybe. We'll have to see how I'm feeling. I do like the look on Christy's face when I just step out of nowhere."
"You're incorrigible, aren't you?"
"I try to be."
We both have some more of our drinks, silence lying easily between us.
"Why do you want to do this?" Saskia asks after a few moments.
"Maybe I'm just the helpful type," I say.
I can tell she doesn't believe that.
"Or maybe I just like the adventure of doing something new," I add. "I've never been inside a computer program before. It's got all the promise of an interesting experience."
"And the danger doesn't worry you?"
"Tough," I remind her. "Fierce."
"Foolhardy," she adds.
"Probably that, too."
Dust Jacket Art