This Land of Shadow
“Well, that’s done it.”
The tall man who had spent so much of his life confined and chained kicked out with his boot, connecting with the flat. It was something that for ordinary folks could have been a mild inconvenience, a problem solved by a jack and tyre-wrench. But this boat didn’t carry a spare. You opened the trunk and there was nothing but a mocking emptiness, like the grin of a toothless idiot mugged for a wallet containing only a library card.
“No,” Glitter said, wanting to cry. “It’s not over yet. It can’t be. Not like this.”
“Right,” the tall man said. He slammed the trunk lid back into place as he walked around the car toward her. He put his face in hers, darkening the view. Even now, in his fury, he held a check on his voice. “So you’ve got a repair kit tucked down the front of your blouse, huh? We just patch it over, like with a couple of sticking plasters, then blow it up. Using our breath maybe, 'cos we don’t got nothing else. When we run out of gas, how about I unzip and top it up instead of taking a break for the restroom? Anything else you imagine I can do?… Jesus, Glitter.”
A warm breeze lifted a wisp of her hair as he took a step back. But the tempest she half expected didn’t engulf her.
He blamed her and maybe he was right to. She’d chosen the car, after all. Had been responsible for that and got it wrong. If it was anyone’s fault then it was hers.
“Goddamn it,” he muttered, and shook his head again.
She watched him turn in a slow circle, like he couldn’t believe their dumb luck and the automobile she’d picked to aid their escape: a lemon that was all fins and hood ornaments, shiny paintwork and an engine that made the car wallow like a warthog when you pressed all the way down on the gas. He’d complained as soon as he saw it, but there wasn’t time to find anything else, not then. It was too late. They had to be away.
He lifted his face to the sky, breathed out heavily. The few clouds overhead caught and swirled.
“Don’t believe this,” he said.
Glitter couldn’t unfasten her eyes from him. It was still a novelty seeing him out in the open. He was free and unshackled because of her. Something pinched her heart at that. She felt he owed her something, if only a little courtesy. But she did not dare say so, not in this sudden squall of frustration that was upon him. She knew what he was capable of.
The sun sent his shadow across the incline of the patched and pitted road surface. When he lowered his head he put a hand to his brow. Ahead, climbing further up around the mountain, heat-snakes rose from the blacktop. Glitter and Shadow should be driving through them, putting distance between themselves and danger, riding down the other side of this no-name peak and heading for another state, not standing here marooned halfway to the summit in the baking heat. Her fault. All her fault. Because she’d chosen the wrong damn car.
“I mean, come on. A flat tyre.” He laughed without a trace of humour. “Jesus.”
“Shadow,” Glitter said, a tremble in her voice. “Just hush it, all right. Stay calm. For me.”
He flared an eyebrow her way. “Hush it?”
She told herself she didn’t need to know his real name, not yet. That’d come, in time, when he knew he could trust her. Until then she had to go gentle with him. But tall and dark, slim with wide-shoulders, a triangle standing on a point, “Shadow” suited him. Only he was an angry Shadow right now, boiling and fizzing under the hot sun, turning the few thin stitches of cloud with his mood, holding his hands in fists to try and contain the smoke rising from them.
“Shadow,” she pleaded.
It was scary what this man could do.
Still, it excited her, she couldn’t deny that. Her own life had been a sequence of foster homes, each one more drab and disgusting than the one before. There’d never been anything exotic in her upbringing. Damp sheets hanging listlessly on lines and dull empty faces lacking love, the constant fear of what happened when night fell and those inappropriate touches landed on her, that was her experience of growing up.
Now here was Shadow and the prospect of something better.
A scent of otherness came off him, foreign to this latitude’s dry and dusty smells. Something not threatening but kind of wonderful, and part of the reason she was drawn to him: the aroma of a distant land, a sweeter place than this for sure.
With the suddenness of a passing bird, rainbow shimmers blurred the edge of his features and then were gone, as was the smoke that had been rising from his hands, leaving Glitter to look not at some otherworldly prism of light but into his engagingly well-constructed face again.
A face not so handsome as it might be, because it was twisted in distress at their current predicament.
“Sure, I’ll hush it,” he said as he sighed out a breath, trying to make himself calmer.
Apple wood burning, Glitter thought. That’s what he smells like this time. Apple wood and something else, something richer. Something from deep within a forest, a pine forest, needles on trees like at Christmas time.
“After all, what else am I gonna do? I can’t drive out of here, can I?”
But he dismissed her with a wave, strode away from the car to the ragged strip of roadside that was free of vegetation at this altitude. From there he looked out over the side of the mountain, down the sheer cliff and across the hazed scrubland below, from where pursuit would inevitably come.
“They’re on their way,” Shadow said a short time later.
“You can see them? From here?” When Glitter peered out across the parched land, all she could see was a featureless plain dotted with indiscernible lumps that she figured for ranches and maybe ancient derricks. In the far, far distance were the stacked forms of geometric shapes, the ones that made her spine shiver. The town they’d fled. It was nowhere near as far away as she’d like it to be: the other side of the world would be too close.
“Don’t need to see them,” Shadow said, “to know they’re coming.”
“Well, okay. If you say.”
“They’ll be here in a half-hour maybe.”
“That long?” It had taken under forty-five minutes for the pair of them to drive this far at full speed… before the tyre deflated and the car listed to one side and, after crawling along for a minute, they had to stop. “Not sooner?”
“A half-hour out of smoke,” he said, which was the crazy kind of an answer she’d begun to expect from him, even after he’d seemingly been normal for a while. “We got anything to eat while we wait?”
“Eat?” she said, panicked. “We have to get out of here. If you’re right and they’re coming.”
“They’re coming. I already said so, didn’t I? There some food in that bag on the back seat?”
He brushed by her to find out.
Exasperated, she looked out over the mountainside, hunting glints of sun on automobiles. She wasn’t going to ask how he could be so sure; if they were coming then he’d know about it. He hadn’t told her his real name, so she hardly expected him to expound on how he had knowledge of these things, or what the deal was with the strange stuff that happened to him, the way his body changed and echoed with the calls of another world. All the same, she said, “So what’s next?”
“I don’t know.” He looked at the flat tyre, sucking on an orange and spitting seeds. “Nothing, I guess. We wait. It didn’t work out for us but we tried.”
“Can’t you do something?”
“I don’t know. What you said. Blow it up with your breath, why not? You’re, like, magical, right? You must have something. Anything.”
“Doesn’t work that way.”
“Oh great. So all of this smoke stuff, those strange lights, it’s no use at all. You’re just some freak, after all.”
For a moment she thought he was going to get angry again, expected a gale to hit upon them, shards of ice and hailstones streaming out of the crazy humidity that was present, even here, halfway up the mountain. But he spoke evenly when he said, “Don’t call me a freak. It’s not nice.”
“I’m sorry,” she said at once, meaning it, and cursed her insensitivity. She’d seen the way they’d treated him in town, and she’d experienced anger at the injustice, felt a kinship with him after her own hard upbringing. She’d asked around, learned how he was caged and some of the rumours about what he could do. And now she’d gone and said something like that. “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“That kind of makes it worse.”
“What will they do, when they catch up with us?”
Steeling his eyes, he looked down the road, as if the ghosts of their pursuers had preceded them and he could see the shape of their faces, the barrels of their guns pointed at him. He’d be picturing the nets and cuffs, the ropes and chains, imagining that stripped down room in which they kept him locked up, where he couldn’t so much as see the sky and the only light was artificial. He’d be thinking about the hot iron they used to brand him.
“They’ll take me back,” he said.
But he shook his head and took another bite of his orange, looked away, a response that made her shiver.
Glitter took to the car, sat drinking bottled water and wiping sweat from her eyes. She punched buttons on the dashboard stereo, catching different tones of static or occasional loud whines that had her reaching for the volume control. Now and again she’d hear a snatch of Latino music, but it was gone as quickly as she caught it.
She could walk away. Just walk right off and leave him. He was the one they wanted, right, and not her? She was worthless to them. There wasn’t anything special about her. Another girl with a hard luck story, they’d be better off with her out of town. She could just go, never trouble herself with a thought about Shadow again, scrub everything from her memory. They may not even think it worth their while hunting for her if she had enough of a start and could stay out of their way long enough. What could she do to harm them? No one would believe the story she had to tell.
But she knew that when those loons from the town came up here and tried to take him back, she’d still be by his side.
“I can hide you,” he said suddenly close to her ear.
“Goddamn it, Shadow! Making me start like that.” The stealth of his approach had startled her. She cut off the radio, wiped spilled water off her tied up blouse and the denim lap of her cut-down jeans.
“I’m sorry.” He laid a calming hand on her shoulder. As her heartbeat slowed back to something like normal she smelled that sweet burn of apple wood again and looked into his deep brown eyes. He had eyes you could lose yourself in. She’d seen that from the first, when he’d dared to glance a look up at her as she passed him in the street, saw those eyes and more beyond the terrible chains in which they’d bound him. So much potential waiting to break free. How could she not react to him, find out more, and set about trying to fee him?
“There’s a way they’ll never be able to touch you.”
“Maybe they won’t anyway,” she said, trying again to persuade him to run. “If the wheel rim’s bust like you say and we can’t drive on it, we can always walk, head off from here. We don’t have to be so defeatist as to just sit around and wait for them all.”
“It’s too hot, we’d never get far. And they’d follow. Track us down. You too. Even if we went different ways.”
“But why? I’ve done nothing to them.”
“Yes you have.”
“I clunked some guy on the head and stole a car. Big deal. Look at the damn thing, they’re getting it back. And headaches go away.”
“That’s not it, though they’d hurt you happily enough for the car and for hitting a man. It’s because you helped me, that’s what they really want to hurt you for. Do that and probably return you to those people brought you up, and I know you wouldn’t want that.” When she didn’t reply, he said, “Listen to me properly now. I can hide you. Hide you where no one ever gonna find you. You’ll be safe, always. That’s a promise. I’ve done it for others who’ve tried to help me.”
“Others have helped? Where are they?” She paused a second, thinking when he didn’t answer her. “I’m not sure I like what you’re offering. It sounds too weird.”
It was enough to make him laugh properly, something she realised she’d never heard him do before. It came out in barks of delight. “Weird. Yes. A lot weird. There’s so much weird in my life.” His humour vanished and he quickly turned serious, tapping her on the shoulder with two fingers. “But think about it. It’ll go better if you let me hide you.”
The way he looked at her, those big eyes, she almost said yes right then: Anything, anything you say. But she didn’t.
Running in this weather wasn’t good, she could accept that, but it surely must be better than being taken back to a stark, windowless cell. Still, if he wasn’t going to run, she had her own reasons for wanting to stay with the car, so she didn’t complain. As she watched him pacing around devouring orange after orange, she realised he was enjoying himself. After all the confinement he’d suffered, this immensity of unbound air was a delight to him. But it was a tempered delight: one eye was always turned down the road, watching, expectant as he counted out his time under the freedom of the sky.
“Who are you?” she said the next time he passed by. She was sitting on the wide front seat, legs up, door open, feet bare. Her fingers idly stroked the latch to the glove compartment. “I mean really. Who are you? Why are you the way you are?”
He stopped, turned his head to her, and then glanced back to the road. Just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer, he finally spoke.
“I don’t know. That’s the truth. I was always like this, growing up, the way I am, what I can do. I can’t remember much about being young. Only that people used to come along and look at me, take photographs, put wires on me, ask me dumb questions I’d no idea how to answer. I got a fever. Something happened. Then the woman who looked after me, my mother I guess, wasn’t there one day. Some men from the town, in suits, they told me she was gone, though I heard her still and told them this, said they were lying. Was only later I understood what had happened to her – that she was somewhere safe, where they couldn’t press on her no more. After she went, there was a storm, the first big one that came out of me. After that I was kept in dark rooms, branded to stop the … violence, they kept calling it. Branded and burned until I learned to control myself. And chained when they moved me around town. Suffered years of that, the chains and closed rooms, pulled out for freak shows when someone got curious about me all over again. Like the time you first saw me, being taken to entertain some white guy with money. On and on, except sometimes people tried to help and got hurt and I had to hide them. And then you came, little scrap of a girl, and bust me free.”
It was the most he’d ever said to her, the longest speech she’d heard him make.
“Then…” she said.
But he was gone again. She watched it happen. Her heart leaped in wonder like a salmon when it dances through clear water. His face blurred and prisms sparkled like sweat catching sunlight, turning him into a pattern of stardust. The rush of scents followed, exotic and different, another world. She heard running, a stampede, a clash of animal sounds and the shaking of thunder. She reached out to touch him, spreading fingers.
Yet before she made contact it was over. He was Shadow again, and dull wisps of smoke rose in curls from his exposed skin. He wiped them off, as if they were grass clippings he’d picked up mowing a lawn, and they thinned to invisibility.
She said, “When that happens, when you… go away. What does it feel like?”
He considered. “Like I’ve found my way home,” he said. “Somewhere nice and comfortable. I’m sun. I’m rain. I’m the land too, I guess. Or the way to it all.” As if changing the subject he said, “Think about it, there’s somewhere I can hide you. It’ll be better for you. A half-hour out of smoke.”
Eating up the last orange, he set to pacing again, waiting for them to come.
The whine of engines under strain was the first Glitter knew they were near. She figured Shadow had known it long before now. He’d walked a little way from the rear of the car, was standing in the middle of the road, arms braced across his chest like he was expecting them. They had fifteen seconds, maybe more, before the first car – a dented pickup – rounded the bend on squealing tyres and came to a screeching halt, figures visible only as dark outlines behind the dusty patina of the windshield. From the back of the truck came barking.
Dogs, Glitter thought. Oh God, not dogs. She hadn’t bargained on dogs too.
Other cars pulled up behind and alongside the pickup as she fumbled to get ready. They were mostly old and in need of a clean, but a couple were newer models, Cadillacs and Lincolns. It was from the newer models that men in suits stepped out, including the grey-haired guy Glitter had cold-cocked with the pistol when she’d broken Shadow out of the holding room. The older cars and pickups disgorged your regular cowboys and cowgals and assorted typical out-county assholes, guys Glitter guessed would have names like Cooter and Duh-wayne and would treat her like she was somebody’s help soon as they set eyes on her.
The grey-haired man raised a handkerchief to his brow, where a ripening bruise was visible, then settled a peaked hat on his head. The way he set the brim made his eyes seem bright in its shade.
He stepped in front of the cars and the folks there, who were forming a nervous, shuffling, semi-circle across the road, weapons cocked and aimed at Shadow. The dogs they’d brought were restrained on leather and chain leashes for the moment. The grey-haired guy stopped a couple of steps in front of the others, didn’t come any closer. He paced from left to right and then back again, making a show of it, before coming to a halt and addressing Shadow.
“Seems to me,” he said raising his voice, and Glitter thought he was putting on a performance for the people with him as much as he was talking to his former captive, “we can do this the easy way, without any trouble. Or we can do it the hard way, with a lot of trouble. Outcome’s going to be much the same. Just a question of how we get there. What say you, boy? You and your bitch want to surrender like civilised people, or else be taught a lesson in decency first?”
For a moment Glitter, still in the car, hitching her sandals back on and fumbling the buckles, thought Shadow wasn’t going to say anything and that she’d have to answer for him. But he spoke up, his soft voice carrying easily to the gathered crowd.
“There’s nothing about decency you can teach me, Clem. I know that and I guess most other people here know it too, even if they’re too scared to say so out loud.”
The grey-haired man gave a low laugh. “Well now, I don’t recollect inviting you to call me Clem, boy. Seems you were always happy calling me Mister Woodrow up to now. Your, uh, your what-have-you there –” he waved at Glitter, saying “Miss” to her as she got out of the car and walked awkwardly to stand beside Shadow – “she been giving you ideas, making you think you’re something you’re not? Dangerous course you’ve set out on, young lady, dangerous course. But that’s okay, we can fix that. Here’s how we’re gonna do it. We got some chains along with us, you know how they work, boy. And Sepp Long here, he’s going to come out and put them on you. Just so you know you don’t have to worry about anything, he’ll do it by himself.”
A tall and lean man in his fifties, with leathery skin and a droopy silver moustache, breathed out an affirmation through one nostril, shook out the manacles he was holding, and stepped forward. He got about halfway across from the posse when Shadow spoke.
“No,” he said.
Sepp Long paused. He looked good and lost, his cowboy boots rucking up the only noise as he turned around seeking instructions from Woodrow. He must know the kind of things Shadow could summon out here in the open, and was understandably wary of it happening now. They all would be if they had any sense.
But Clem Woodrow waved him on, sounding more confident than his body language would have you believe.
“There’s no problem, Sepp. Go ahead. Our boy, he knows all these guns will tear him to pieces if he tries anything funny.”
Glitter hadn’t said anything as yet, not even to the patronising “Miss” that Woodrow had tossed her way, but she stepped forward now. She’d the pistol from the glove compartment in her hand, holding it behind her back. She’d kept it even though Shadow had told her earlier that she should throw it away, he didn’t want anyone getting hurt. She lifted it now, aiming as steadily as she could at the grey-haired man she’d already raised a bruise on, the one called Clem Woodrow.
“There’s only this one gun on you, mister,” she called. “But I figure it’ll be enough to do the job I started back in that prison house of yours. Anyone hurts Shadow here, then you’re gonna be hurting a lot worse a second later.”
Clem seemed to take a moment to think on this as Sepp Long once again looked to him for instructions. Eventually, ignoring Sepp, Clem said to Glitter, “ ‘Shadow’? You’ve given our boy a name?” He shook his head, released a stream of spit to puddle between his boots. “Of all the things.”
Glitter held her aim. Sepp Long stood uncomfortably, not in one camp or the other, probably feeling exposed and a great deal of itching where he could intuit a stray bullet or shell round tearing into his checked shirt, either from the crowd or from Glitter if her shooting wasn’t to scratch and she missed Clem Woodrow.
Silence hung, suspended in the air.
The standoff couldn’t last.
Glitter just didn’t expect it to break down the way it did. Shadow had turned his attention away from the group. He frowned at her. “I thought I told you no more violence.”
She glanced at his eyes, not believing she was hearing him right. “It’s the only thing stopping them chaining you up. Are you crazy?”
“It’s the only thing delaying them from trying to chain me up,” he corrected. “You hush, all right,” he said and slowly reached out and curled his fingers around the pistol.
“No,” Glitter said.
But she let him take the gun.
“Somewhere safe,” Shadow told her, voice little more than breath. “The offer’s there if you want it.”
He turned back to face the crowd, Glitter’s weapon held safely by the barrel. He tossed it over toward Clem Woodrow. It clunked to the blacktop, near his feet. The grey-haired man sneered at Glitter as he nodded at one of his lackeys to pick it up.
“Wasn’t loaded anyway,” Glitter told him.
“Dumb bitch,” Clem said, and called over to Sepp. “Get on with it, heave those shackles on good and tight. Then bring me his smart-ass whore.”
Shadow turned to Glitter. “Somewhere safe, now,” he said. “Yes?”
She nodded, not liking the look of the men and women (and especially not the dogs) who were edging forward after Sepp Long, weapons pointed with intent at her and Shadow now it seemed this was going to be easy work. “I’m sorry,” she said to Shadow. “Sorry it—”
“You’ve given me more freedom than I’ve had in years in this world. Now watch, and make sure you take your moment.”
So saying, he peeled off his sackcloth vest, lifting it over his head rather than unbuttoning it. He dropped it to the ground, his naked torso exposed to the sweltering afternoon air. Clem was shouting something, but Glitter didn’t register the meaning of what he was trying to communicate. Her attention was elsewhere.
She couldn’t help it, she reached out and touched the ripples, the well-defined muscles and the cruel welts of lacerations long healed, newer ones still looking raw and painful. And those awful brands, deep in the skin – marks that were phrases from the Bible, others that were more like the crude imagery of witchcraft, runes and the like. But there was something else too, she saw a fast eddying smoke rise from Shadow’s flesh, a dark shimmer like oil on water crossing the planes of his body, the first pinpricks of the stardust she’d seen before, glimmering like exquisite powder.
“You see your chance,” Shadow said raising his arms wide to summon great forces from the sky even as voices from the crowd protested and told him to stop it, “you be sure to take it. And thank you for all you’ve done.”
She felt a tugging, something pulling on her fingers where they made contact with him – and then it was an altogether different experience, like tripping forward and stepping into a cloud. Smoke rose with disorienting swiftness, fuddling her senses. She was straining to press through a membrane to somewhere else. She couldn’t turn around; a different gravity pulled her on. For a moment she felt herself struggle against it, but then realised she wanted this, maybe even needed it.
An embrace of stark and irreversible strangeness enveloped her: its touch moved across her feet and hands, legs and arms, even her head, undoing her in some way and transporting her, taking her somewhere else.
Sounds came to her, but from a different place, the place she knew she had just left, hollow and echoing, muffled: “My God, did you see that?” “The hell’s he doing to her?” “Where’d she go?” and then a heavy sizzling rush she knew to be the sound of lightning streaking through the air, followed by thunder and then gunshots: loud and terrible, tearing explosions.
But that world was waning, passing further distant by the second.
Glitter was going somewhere else.
As she tore forward, gathering speed and hurtling like someone thrown from a cannon, she realised the implications of the gunshots, the explosions she’d heard from way back behind her.
She shouted, “Shadow, no!” Wanting to fight against this, to go back and help him, but it was already too late. She didn’t know where “back” was, felt dizzy as something more than air and cloud streamed by her, and then realised all motion had stopped and she’d arrived at her destination, was back to herself, her body restored, and was lying on the ground.
The clouds that had swirled around her were clearing, leaving her solid and intact. When she looked up, she found herself sprawled in a land of peaceful dawn, with dew on long grasses, swathes of forests and towering cliffs of white chalk. A waterfall dived in spectacular motion to a blue lake that widened beyond reedy marshland, and white swans floated contentedly in and out of the hanging spray. Birdsong hung in the air. Pink clouds seeped into a pleasurably blue sky. A moon smiled down on her.
“Shadow?” She was confused. Where was she?
“Somewhere safe,” she remembered him promising.
For a moment, she felt him as she lay there, his presence below the grass steady as a heartbeat. Felt Shadow, here, there, now in this place, now in that place, in the land. And then in the air. In the new sun edging over the roof of the forest and splintering through the branches of the trees. Everywhere. But then all too soon that sense of him receded, as if having watched her arrive he’d gone back to wherever he was before.
To guns, she thought. To violence and captivity.
Time passed and she lay there, gathering her senses and accepting this new world. It took some time, but she eventually collected her thoughts together enough so that she could make a guess at what had happened.
This was where he came when he shimmered and smoked. This was where the sound of running animals and atmospheric crashes issued from. When he was shackled and branded, when the pain was too much for him to endure without breaking, this was where Shadow escaped to, this vast land he had built in his head and of his body.
“This land of Shadow,” she said.
Her nose twitched and she smelled something new on the wind. Burning apple wood.
She supposed that if she followed the scent there’d be people at its source who could tell her more about where she was, and what, if anything, she was expected to do now she was here. They’d be others like her, she thought, kind-hearted souls who’d tried to help Shadow and who he had made safe, by keeping them out of harm’s way.
But she wouldn’t seek them out just yet.
Glitter rose to her feet, licked the dew from the grass off her fingers and imagined she could taste Shadow in it. After a while, she walked down to the water’s edge, and there, her nose lifted to the fragrance of the distant fire, she decided to wait. Wait for a sign in the sky, wait for him to come to her, for something to happen and his presence to make itself known in person.
Because she knew that somehow, and in some way, he would find his way here.
And when he came, she’d be waiting.