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art by Jason Stirret

Shadow Play

Liz's work has been published in a range of journals and anthologies including Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Pseudopod, and Strange Horizons. Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, and extensive work in the not-for-profit sector. As Betsy Nails she is a Non-Skating Official for the Rat City Roller Girls.

Every time the shadow puppets play, someone is saying, goodbye. Someone is saying, please don't go. Someone is saying, if only, please. Someone is saying, I remember when, and laughing.
Every shadow play is a memory.
I am an old shape-shifter. I cannot transform the way I once did, but I still need you. Without your desires to tell me who I am I get lost and confused. Young shifters become the people you want them to be, whole, mobile, human, but I do not have that clarity. I am lucky; many of my kind do not live this long, and not many theaters still host shifters that have become shadow puppets.
You come to the playhouse at 4 a.m., the time of melancholic song. The neighborhood scares you--too many broken dreams, bare syringes, and 24-hour skin shops. You've been walking for hours, spinning thoughts like a dj that only knows how to loop, and it is here your feet have taken you.
You miss him. You are killed by the hole he has made. You are numb. You are sharp spikes of pain too intimate to feel. Separated by a membrane as thin as skin you will come to me and remember him.
The Emperor Wu, so the legend says, fell into despair when his favorite concubine died. The health and righteousness of the Emperor is the health and righteousness of a country, and so his officials were filled with fear. The Emperor is the empire and what war, famine, floods, or pestilence would come of his lingering grief?
"Bring her back, bring her back from the dead!" cried the Emperor, but none had that power.
Every shadow play is a memory. Every play is a promise.
You buy your tokens and walk into the faded theater. Red velvet gathers dust. You walk up to my booth. A darkened screen, my hand, shoved through a narrow slot, rests on the table before you. You find it shocking, my palm looks so pale and small--like a sad child's, like the hand of a chimpanzee.
You press your hand against mine. Your pulse surges, afraid I'll draw blood or drag you behind the screen. My hand is cold, it will be the last part to grow warm.
Every shadow puppet has memories, but none of them are mine. I hold onto the snippets I can. I need your hard edges.
Amidst the Emperor's gloom and the officials' fear, there was a wise minister who never forgot to breathe and never forgot to play. He searched the sky and the sea and the land for a cure to the Emperor's distress. Mechanicals, kites large enough to hold a man, exotic beasts from the west--none of these delighted the Emperor. Foot-weary the minister returned home, but on his way he noticed two children playing with dolls.
Being a wise minister who never forgot to breathe and never forgot to play, even in this darkest hour, he paused to watch the children. As he watched, his eyes drifted from the small dolls at play to the shadows they cast upon the wall, and there he saw two shadow people dancing as if full of life.
The wise minister hurried home and through the night he built the first shadow puppet screen, made of stretched mulberry paper. He built puppets made of leather, intricately painted and beautifully cut. He cut up his wife's copper hairpins to make the joints. At dawn he roused the Emperor from his slumber with song, dance, and the life of the concubine celebrated in shadowy movement.
The Emperor wept with joy to see his beloved, revived in story and song. "Show me the way she danced and oh her wrists were so slender, just so!" "Tell of the time she pushed me in the fish pond," he commanded. Show me. Show me. Show me, show me, commanded the Emperor until tears and laughter played themselves in full measure. He touched the screen with his hand as her shadow flickered this way and that. And knowing her stories would never fully die, knowing he could always dance in the halls of memory, he found joy once more.
I am concubine and shadow. Returned from the grave, dancing on the screen. I am cheaper, safer than my young hungry kin.
Your skin warms my hand. "I miss him," you whisper. "I miss him so much."
You drop the token in the slot and the screen shines with soft light. I make your shadow play; it is best you don't know how. I am no actor, I am the show. My ribs form the bridge, fingers become the trembling clouds that threatened rain. My face is his face, turning to smile, that tender awakening. My toes are the ducks you fed, although you scarcely saw them, only felt the touch of his shoulder leaning against yours.
You think the trees and bridge, ducks and cloud are set dressings, marvelously fabbered from the shadows of memory. You think I am just him, just your beloved, as we dance from memory to memory. The light grows dim and you put another token in the slot. You touch my distended hand, press new memories into it. I gasp as I mutilate into silhouettes. Become him, become the land, become the apartment, become that crazy road trip that never should have worked, become the shadow on the scan, become those last lucid moments.
You drop another token into the machine, press your hand against mine. I become dream not memories. I reach for you one last time and you tell me all the things you wanted to say, all the things you've learned and seen and done since then. And I am proud of you, just the way you want me to be. And you talk to my shadow as if words can stop dying, as if a flood will wash away tears, as if our story will never end.
And you touch the screen, my bulletproof screen that ripples like mulberry, that yields like skin. Your forehead touches the screen and you want to reach beyond, push through and hold me, your beautiful shadow.
You do not see my fragmented form. The lumps of tissue rearranged and contorted--see my bones shrink and grow to give substance to your dream, skin draw back and become punctured like lace. My eyes are milky pools, pressed along my side, watching you--your beloved's eyes are shadows cast by twitching flesh. My being longs for you, I am him, I am those dreams. I think I am your desires made flesh. I could ripple through, follow my hand through the slot and hold you. But parts of me remember, sharp punishment and a brittling shock. I remember enough to know you would scream if you saw me.
The light grows dim and you have no more tokens. You kiss the screen and whisper goodbye. I say, "I love you, I always will, I have no regrets," in a voice that is his voice. You kiss the screen again. And the light dies.
I hold the memory of him, the memory of you, spinning shadow plays without light to show my dance. I remember you, as much as I can. It is a dark place, I am malleable flesh, and I do not know when another will come.
You go out into the street. Smell the tang of a new day. Determine a new course of action. I love you. I am proud of you. I have no regrets.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Author Comments

It's funny how things turn out. I wrote this story and within days a friend died, a strange sensation to say the least. We are who we remember, who we love, and how we carry those parts forward. Death is intimate and raw, strange and disassociating. In memory and love for all who came before.

- Liz Argall
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