Update: The Shadow Field

It’s always exciting to be paid for writing something, especially when you’re trying to get a good start in the field.

Fortunately for me, a short story of mine got picked up for publication on a dating website, LoveMe.eu. The web master is looking for paranormal and other romance authors to contribute content to his site so that romance fans can get their daily fix. “The Shadow Field” can be read in its entirety here.

Anyone who might have been directed here from the LoveMe site, welcome!

Wingbeats, Part III

Click here to read from the beginning.

The next day Arianne can hardly move. Two sleepless nights have taken their toll. She ignores calls from her mother, her friends, her husband’s publisher. She wants to rip the phone cable out of the wall and throw it into the ocean. Around noon, unable to hold herself up any longer, she collapses on the couch. His book sits on the glass coffee table, bookmarked to page five. She hates looking at it but lacks the strength to throw it away.

Black and white, she thinks. A black and white living room, with white walls and a black couch, black bookcases crammed with volumes, a black and white grand piano. Alan loved the way she tinkered on the piano. The simple harmony of two notes together, he said, was more beautiful prose than he could ever write.

Her mother said she should try to play, after he died. She said it might help with the pain. But the notes fall in single file, discordant and rhythmless. She hasn’t touched the piano in weeks.

There, on the couch, she slips into sleep. Her dreams return, strong and angry and brutal, and she cannot escape them. When she finally wakes, thrashing and shouting, she’s covered in sweat and the afternoon has come and gone. She’s shaking.

She manages to eat. It makes her feel sick.

When night falls (mercifully late, with high summer approaching) she goes up to the bedroom with its dark furniture and its crisp white sheets and lies down. She does not move, and she does not sleep. The sky turns purple as night blooms and the world outside goes to sleep.

When the tapping comes, she is not startled. She is not surprised. It is 4:32. She slides out of bed, fetches the glass of water, and opens the window. Tonight it is a dove that alights on her wrist. It is lighter than the touch of a child, she thinks. And it is not afraid of her touch.

“Why have you come?” she asks. “Why don’t you sleep?”

The dove watches her, and waits. When she sets the water on the table, it steps down delicately and drinks. Its head bobs back and forth in a nodding motion.

She wants to speak to it but she doesn’t know what to say. It’s just a bird, but why is it visiting her? Why now? She and Alan never got birds like this, stepping through their windows, drinking from their kitchenware.

Alan. Even thinking his name brings tears to her eyes. “It’s not fair,” she chokes out as the water rolls down her cheeks. The dove pauses. It watches her with one bright eye.

She still feels somehow at fault.

They were walking along the edge of the river, one of the many paved paths in the tourist district. Alan loved walking beside the river. He took her every day, pointing out the new shoots that edged their way out along silver-brown branches, daffodils poking up sunny faces, all the sights and smells and sounds of life emerging after the winter’s sleep. The river was swollen from spring rains and the current poured over stones, creating rapids and little whirlpools in its haste to reach the ocean.

She recalls his smile, vibrant and infectious. It was a smile she couldn’t see without smiling herself. It grew wider as he pointed out the robin building her nest, or bent down to pick her one of the season’s first wildflowers. It faded when he saw the woman on the bridge, tremulously putting one foot on the rail. He started shouting when she stood, balanced like a dancer. When she dove, he broke into a run.

He leapt into the icy water. He was an excellent swimmer, and the current carried him down to her. She was fighting the water, bobbing up and down like a cork in her panic. When he reached her he picked her up and struggled to the river bank. She was able to grab hold of a tree root that had been exposed by erosion. He was not.

The last thing Arianne saw of him was his hand, reaching up as if in farewell. Sunlight flashed off the golden wedding band.

His body was never recovered.

“Sometimes, after the dark dreams, I have another. I’m floating down that river. The current swirls like a storm but I’m moving so slowly. It’s a warm day and the sky above is blue, bluer than the ocean, without a single cloud. I know I’m following him because I can hear his voice. He’s singing for me. And his voice gets nearer and nearer, but all I see is the sky, and before I reach him – ” She breaks off. Before she reaches him, she wakes. And every time she wakes she fears she’ll never have the dream again, and he’ll disappear forever. “I want to join him so desperately,” she whispers.

The dove hops into her hand. As she brings it up to her face, it leans forward, pressing its forehead against her own. Then it flaps away, through the window into the gray night.

Birds that act like men. Men that loved birds. Her hand comes up to her mouth.


Click here to read the conclusion.

Wingbeats, Part I

The night is stifling, as it always is in the summer. Humid air rolls in through the window and makes everything clammy and sticky. She had to buy a special nightgown for the summertime. In the wintertime Oregon is cold and rainy, and drops fall from the sky like liquid ice. But from late May till August the rain falls just the same, but it is tepid and whenever she reaches her destination she feels like she needs to take a shower. Hot or cold – she needs the temperature change.

In the summertime her sleep is filled with nightmares. She wakes with the sheets tangled round her legs, like giant hands ready to pull her under. She wakes with his name on her lips.

He had to beg her to get the house. But he always got his way, especially where she was concerned.

“It’s too big,” she laughed as he nuzzled her neck in the little hotel room.

“It’s just the right size,” he whispered. “A perfect house for us and our kids.”

She hates and loves remembering that night. Just as she hates and loves him.

When she wakes on these wet summer Oregon nights, her face streaked with water (tears or sweat? Even she cannot tell), she lies, near catatonic, full of rage and hurt. How dare he, she tells herself. How dare he leave her in an empty shell of dreams and futures that can never come about? No children, no husband, no long journeys around the world. Just this great big west coast house, an empty chrysalis, a place in which something living was harbored. But nothing emerged come springtime.

Arianne rips the sheets from her and staggers out of bed. In the bathroom she pours herself a glass of water, then splashes some more onto her face. Its coolness is refreshing and helps her push the nightmare away. He died by drowning, but in all her dreams it’s something from his novel that kills him. Shadows like the ones his villains lurk in reach out with hands as dark as midnight to pull him down. He drifts away from her and even though she screams his name and tries to pull him back, he fades.

As she goes back into the master bedroom she checks the bedside clock. 4:32. She’ll get no more sleep tonight. Instead of going back to the bed, that hated place, she takes a seat at the old cherry-wood writing table. The wood is dark and flawless. She loves running her hands over its surface. The motion soothes her.

A sudden rustle at the window causes her to look up. Outside the trees are black silhouettes, paper cutouts in the gloom of the pre-dawn. The moon has slipped below the horizon and the stars are fading. And standing on her windowsill, watching her with one black eye, is a crow.

Crow and woman stare at one another. Arianne opens her mouth to shoo it off, but her voice doesn’t come. She feels as though her throat is a sheer mountain that the voice can’t climb. The crow, for its part, cocks its head. It lets out no caw or screech. Unnatural silence and stillness stretch between them. When at last she puts out her hand to undo the latch on the screen, the crow waits patiently for her and then hops onto the writing table when the way is clear.

It fluffs its glossy black feathers and lifts one black leg experimentally.

Water. Alan would give it water. She rises hurriedly and goes to  refill her glass at the bathroom sink. When she returns and sets it before the bird, it dips its beak in gratefully. It still says nothing.

“My husband would like you,” she murmurs.

At the sound of her voice, the head comes up from the water glass. The eye stares, unblinking.

“He always had a soft spot for animals,” she continues. “When his book became a bestseller he promised me he’d get a kitten. After everything in the house was settled.” A kitten. One of the things she hasn’t bothered to think about since his death.

She gets the funny sense the bird is listening.

“We even met over a bird. Not a crow. A pigeon. A dead pigeon. I think he hit it – I was walking on the sidewalk when his car swerved up on the curb in front of me and nearly knocked me down. I was so mad, when he jumped out of the car. I was ready to give him a slap on the face. But I saw him pick something up from the edge of the road. He stroked the pigeon and murmured to it, and a couple of moments later it flew off. I knew right then I couldn’t yell at him for that. So I let him take me to lunch instead.”

Tentatively, she slides her hand, wrist up, along the table toward the crow. “His novel was even about flight,” she whispers. The novel. She never finished reading it. Alan was reading it aloud to her and they were halfway through when he died. She tried to pick it up a few times. When others said how proud they were of the legacy he left in the world. But every word on the page, every syllable was pronounced in his stark Midwest accent, his measured baritone voice. The weight of that voice crushed her. She’s never been able to finish a page.

The crow suddenly sticks out one black scaly foot and presses it into her outstretched palm. It presses down lightly, then its wings emerge and it flaps once, twice, three times. The breeze it makes is refreshing; the steady thump is like the beat of a heart. The crow lifts away from the writing table, turns, and flies through the open screen back out to the gray world. It left no mark on her palm – it didn’t even scratch the surface of the writing desk.

Arianne stares after it for a long time.

Continue to Part II

This lengthy story came as the result of listening, over and over, to the incredible song “Meadows of Heaven” by the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. Its original name was also “Meadows of Heaven,” but I don’t have permission from the band to use it as the name of my story so I don’t wish to put it in the public domain under that name.

A lot of my poetry is untitled, but an untitled short story feels as though it’s lacking in a home. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a name that feels appropriate. Any ideas on what this story should be called? 

As always, I am open to suggestions and constructive criticism.

No Elysian fields are these pillared halls. The greyness expands in a mass, the walls define a space large enough to contain earth a thousand times. Yet everything has been sapped of colour, and her underworld is neither a paradise nor a dark hell-hole. It is a waiting place. And to her mind, it is also nothing. The halls are neither light nor dark, they have no beginning and no end, they are devoid of life and they lack real substance. When she wanders them, she dreams of her lover and his sweet voice, chanting her name as though it would absolve him. She remembers as well as she can the thick smell of honey and high summer, the warmth and vibrance of the Mediterranean, the life that lent a kind of urgency to the whole world—and she is filled with such a longing that she cannot remember having felt anything else.

It used to be that she was awaiting her rescue, at the hands of her love. The memory of her wedding is still so clear to her—she can recall the grass with its sharp blades, pricking her feet, its pungent scent, the poppies and thistles that were first her bouquet and then her funeral garland. Her love had played the lyre for her until the wedding guests had wept from passion or longing or despair. The music he pulled from his lyre was legendary even in his own lifetime. But it was not his fingers that were so skilled, nor his voice, which was pure and full, but as human as anyone else’s. He seemed to know the internal rhythm of things, the beat to which the tide came in, the pauses every bird took note of—and his fingers plucked out a melody that harmonized with the cadence of the world.  Sometimes she thinks that he could have made anyone love him.  Sometimes she wonders why he had to pick her.

In the underworld there is no rhythm.  Nothing breathes, for there are no bodies—the form she wears is just a vessel, a temporary state that was supposed to hold her until her soul met her earthly body again.  When she walks through the cavernous hallways, she can feel the contact her feet make with the floor, but no sound emits.  If she concentrates enough, she can recreate the sound in her mind, but she understands that it’s only a memory of another world.  When she converses with other denizens of this bleak kingdom, the words roll into her brain without passing through the air first.  Even the river, which is deep and wide, engorged with the souls of the damned, trickles in silence past the rock banks and the ferryman’s oar dips soundlessly into the water.

She emerged into the afterlife in wailing agony, drenched in sweat and river-water. When she had taken that first gasp of stale air around her, she had thought she was dying. It was only after she had recovered from her delirium that she realized she was already dead.  The bite marks were sewing themselves shut, and the poison leaked away from her pale, wasting form.  With her memories still fresh and aching as her wound, he came to her and said that her love would come for her and lead her back to the meadows and mountains of her birthplace.  It’s in the story, he said.

When? she asked, shivering from her imagined fever.  Now?

Soon.  After you are better.

Better was a term to be considered highly relative.  For her, better was her transference from corpse to image, and along with it the loss of each sense.  The way she sees things now, the smells she catches drifting on the ghost of the wind, they’re all pulled from memory and used as tricks to convince her new body that it exists.  She can still see, still hear, still feel in technical terms, but this is the underworld—there is nothing to sensually experience.  She finds it hard to believe that this is better than anything.

But the day her lover came for her, there was a change.  Music rippled through the hallways like the smooth flow of molten glass.  He sang the summer down into the underworld with him, and the scent of honey and wild clover filled her.  She shivered as, for the first time, her substitute body experienced warmth.  The noise of the river was a crashing turbulence on her senses.  With his clear voice he began to lament for her, defining her beauty and sweetness as the underworld bloomed around her.  Even though she could not see him, his music travelled through the passageways and pleaded to everyone who heard it.  He walked steadily, providing his own percussion, and he called for her with every chord, every pluck of his fingers upon the lyre, every footstep until the very walls of the underworld were crying for her, begging her to return with him to the heaven they had lived in.  Her own face was wet with its first tears; they tasted sweet, and a little sticky, as though her new self had tried so hard to make them, but had erred somehow.  Every limb shook in an agony of longing, crying to be reunited with him.

After a time the last chord fell into the air, and there it hung for long, impossible minutes as the world below clung desperately to the one above.  Finally a voice resonated in the mind of every lost soul that wandered the halls, the voice that had greeted her when she first woke, assuring her that a day like this would come.  The voice’s owner seemed bemused, curious at this interruption that had put the realm of his existence into an uproar. It inquired:

Who are you?

I am Orpheus, her lover replied.  Even in a place where his voice did not truly touch the air, it had a lilt and rhythm to it that kept it in line with the music he had brought down with him.  I can make the music of the gods, he said.  And I will play for you.  She imagined him lifting his slender fingers to the lyre’s strings, opening his red, red mouth, tapping his right foot as he concentrated.  In this place, where time is so immaterial, she could not have said for how long he sang.  She can only remember that he sang about everything—the formation of the bare earth, the violence of the gods and the giants, the beginnings of men, the development of her own race as they tamed the fire, the mountain and the sea.  And then he went on to speak about love, that overriding force which made even the gods act like fools and turned a man into a hero worth singing about.  He spoke of her, the unequalled beauties and perfections that she has never seen in herself, her myriads of virtues, her boundless love for a creature such as him.  Such a misery pervaded the hallways when he sang of his loss and his despair that she was sure she would have killed herself, if only she had not already been dead.

Who could say how much time passed between when he started and when he was finished?  After hours—or perhaps minutes—his voice, just as lovely and strong as when he had started, died away.

Everything was silent in reflection of his outpourings.  The birdsong that had drifted down from the world had stopped.  The breeze that, laden with summer, had wafted through the halls, left only the seasonal heat as a mark that it had ever been.  Even the river had stagnated and turned into a murky pool on which the ferryman’s small boat drifted.  The ferryman himself was lost in tearful contemplation.  The Kindly Ones set aside their vengeful ruminations.  After a period of silence that lasted nearly as long as the music had, she felt something lodge between her breasts, an insistent and invisible hook that pulled her makeshift form away from where she stood, through the endless hallways that had been her labyrinth and prison.  As she was navigated through the twists and turns, she heard the soft voice of her queen.

You have performed a great service for us today, she said.  To experience such passion and feeling is an accommodation not afforded to the lost wanderers who must find solace and companionship within this realm, and we are grateful for the brief moments you have brought to us.

Surely the bringer of such a service deserves a small reward, her lover said.

That reward which you desire, you shall have.  It was the Lord of the underworld who spoke now.  He had known this would happen, from the moment she had awoken in his care.  And with the final turn, she found herself in the company of the three of them—the king, the queen, the bard.  He stood in a large, open space, without much definition, like the halls she is used to wandering through.  In here, though, were two tall, sparse thrones, the only furniture she has ever seen in the realm of the dead.  They were of the same grey material as the rest of this world, and in them sat her lord and lady.   The lord was a gaunt man, with pale and clammy skin and a feeling of thinness, as though most of him wasted away from some sickness.  His consort looked ill as well, with large pouches under her eyes as though she had not slept, and her hair lacked luster.  From the time she spent visiting the world above she still retained some of her curve and color, but it appeared to be fading fast.

And Orpheus—even though she could not see his face, she knew that a toll had been taken on him.  His hands shook when they were not playing his lyre.  His unkempt clothes hung on him, more like dyed rags than the finery in which she had last seen him.  He had not troubled to trim his hair, and it was tied back in a knotted, greasy ponytail.  There were scabbed lines that ran across his shoulders and continued under his shirt, as though he had carelessly scratched himself somehow.  The sight of him seemed to open up her breast like a birdcage and push her heart out through the gap.  The pain of it was physical enough to take her by surprise, and she let out a cry—but the air around her was suddenly thick and humid, and the sound she made was swallowed up before it reached his ears.  When she stretched out her hands, they met with that same thickness and it seemed that the more she pushed, the more solid it became.  She could not even touch him.

The Lord of the underworld turned and with his hands made a strange, complicated motion— a spider weaving his web— and in front of Orpheus a hole appeared and began to worm its way outward until it was a ragged, unfinished passage, with slick grey steps and an unholy gleam to its walls.

At the end of this passage is the light of the world above, said the lord.  Reach the earthly realm and you will be able to renew your life with your love.  Turn back and she will be lost to you.  Orpheus nodded and began, haltingly, to walk, as though the journey had made him old before his time.  And she followed, forever kept back by that invisible barrier that had imposed itself between her and her love.

She wonders now if she had expected him to fail—Orpheus the perfect, Orpheus the tragic.  Or perhaps she wanted him to fail, this selfless, obsessive prodigy.  When she was alive she never did anything extraordinary except fall in love with an extraordinary man.  Sometimes it was difficult to be loved by him, for everyone else to whisper how lucky she was, with never a thought to how it might go the other way.  No one ever thought of Eurydice without thinking of Orpheus first.

They walked and walked, ever upward.  At first he went quickly and eagerly, taking two or three steps at a time, even counting them under his breath.  In the solemn and silent passageway, every sound he made was echoed and echoed again.  But she made no noises.  Her feet had no weight to press upon the ground, her nose and mouth did not breathe.  She had died, after all.  She could hear the creeping doubt in him when he first called her name.  When she tried to answer the barrier between them absorbed her words like a wall of water.  With each hopeful inquiry his voice seemed less and less certain, and the resolution faded from him.  Soon he was trudging onward, one slow step at a time, up a staircase with no end.

She smelled the world above before she saw it.  The newness of it, the delicacy of its scent that could only come from the mixture of a million elements—she remembers it as the perfect perfume.  And that first sweet smell was accompanied by a sharp pain, in its own way just as sweet, as the simulacrum of her body began to be replaced by flesh.  When at long last the first pinpoint of light appeared, Orpheus sprang forward with renewed jubilance.  The brightness of it was excruciating on her renewing eyes, turning her blind so that she tripped on the next step and fell, hitting her palms and knees on the sharp stair corners.  Her skin was almost immediately scraped raw, and she cried out more in frustration than pain.  But her lover could hear none of this, and left her to blunder behind him a blind cripple.  Still, she stumbled on, no more able to resist the call of her homeland than she had been able to resist the invisible hook that had pulled her toward Orpheus.

Next came the aches in her feet and legs as they tried to remember how one used muscles in the physical realm.  Her steps became slow and shuffling, although the blindness was beginning to recede so that she could make out dim shapes in the hazy whiteness around her.  A stabbing, throbbing sensation made her right leg buckle as her ankle remembered the bite of the serpent.  He seemed so far away now, calling back for her, real worry in his voice.   She drew in breath to shout, but her voice came out as a hoarse exhale devoid of power.  Tears stung her face as she pulled herself onward, her insides and outsides reforming themselves into a neglected and wasted form.  But the light of the world grew ever brighter, and she pushed ahead.  Soon she could hear the birdsong, the gentle buzzing of insects, the rustle of the wind, a symphony almost as perfect as the music of her lover.

Sometimes she wonders whether she was in more in love with Orpheus or with Orpheus’ world. Sometimes she wonders if this is why he failed.

The hallway opened as a gash on the face of the earth, revealing to any who looked in a rocky blandness.  But to those who looked out, the world was an explosion of colour, yellows and greens and blues and browns and shades that she had never even noticed before she had lost them.  The verdant grass of the meadow outside was host to reds and yellows and blues and whites, lifting their petaled arms in homage to the sun who, nestled in his cloudy chariot, graced the summer earth with warmth.  She could see olive trees with their fat fruits hanging off of silver-green branches, sweetening the air.  And the blue above them was so full and deep that for a moment she could not tell whether she was looking at the sky or the sea.  The world hummed, danced to a rhythm that its counterpart lacked, with such a fundamental power that she felt one final, excruciating lurch in her chest as her heart began to beat.  She would need no afterlife at all, if only she could be privy to such experience again.

He was standing at the entrance to the underworld, pleading for her to answer, to take him by the hand.  But she could no more touch him or speak to him than she had at the beginning of their journey.  All she could do was struggle onward.  And although she screamed for him, cried and shouted and begged, she saw the profile turn in the bright, hazy light, away from the world and toward her.  Her screams died within her as she saw what being a widower had done to him.

His eyes were sunk deep into their sockets and lacked the spark of his spirit.  There were two red lines descending from his eyes to the tip of his chin, tear-tracks that had been fed so often they had created scars.  His cheeks were hollowed as well, revealing the sharp outline of his skull.  The excess flesh hung on his neck like the sagging wax of a candle that had just been lit.  His lips, once full and proud, had become a pigmentless gash, a bare opening from which his teeth emerged.  For one brief instant, those eyes lit as he recognized her, still far behind but beginning to run, trying to reach the top of the underworld before the curse of her lord could be enacted upon them.  He held out both his arms and cried for her again and again, in elation and desperation and despair as he realized what he had done.

She ran faster as the pain began to leave her body, piece by piece, and for a few moments it looked as though she would reach the top of the steps, but even as she saw the world above receding she understood why she no longer hurt.  Her body, made real for a little while, was reverting to its underworld form.  The feeling in her chest, in her legs, her breasts and arms and lungs began to fade and when she screamed it was loud without power, full without force.  The brightness vanished and so did he, and although she ran and ran she soon found that it was only through those endless, pillared halls into which she had first awoken.

How much time has passed since then, she cannot say.  Her memory of the event is as vivid as it ever was and will be—the sight, the smell, the feel, the last experience she ever tasted of the life she should have had.  She wanders now, without purpose.  This is a temporary abode, she has been told, and she has seen people come and go, but she missed her chance to escape and her place has forever been uncertain.

She saw her love one more time, coming down the river.  But he did not pay the ferryman, he did not sit proudly in the boat as he was poled across to begin his afterlife.  He made his journey in pieces, limbs, torso, hands, feet—asunder and swollen in the water.  She had fished out his head, wondering if it would still sing for her, if she could bring back any of the feeling of summer in a world above.  But it was as lacking and lifeless as the rest of this place, and after a day or two she threw it back in the river.

The fault is his, she sometimes thinks, that she has been trapped eternally in this limbo.  But she no longer has the energy to be angry with him for looking back, or with her lord and lady for keeping her trapped, or for her mother and father for bringing her into the world and its cruel fates.  She roams and she thinks, but she no longer cares.  The only emotion she is privy to is a fierce longing for all those summers that have escaped her, the feel of a warm breeze upon her back and fresh honey on the tip of her tongue.  She wishes that he had played for her, once more before he was lost, that tune to which the world turned.  But music belongs to other realms: the perfect harmonies of the Elysian Fields, the mortal dance of the natural world, the atonal cries of the lost.  But here no one has need of music, or summer, or half a love.  This is a waiting place.