The Shadow People
By Tony Rauch
I was asleep as a stone, snug tight in the middle of a comfortable night when a faint rustling jostled me awake. Slowly I ascended from the heavy depths of my warm sleep to be greeted by a strange, distant scratching. Was it a slight twitter? Perhaps a dripping? Maybe a lingering hush? Gradually, it stretched to form a long, slow, deep, moan.
At first it seemed so far away, perhaps a steamer churning down the narrow, winding alleys, or workers lost out in the fields or off in the thick forest, or up amongst the dark hills. But eventually, as I spiraled from the murky depths of slumber, various layers of fog clearing in my mind, it felt like that unusual noise was all around me. As I listened closer, it seemed as if it might’ve been a strong gust of wind blowing outside, covering the house. And then the whistling whine returned as if a deep sigh caught in the walls.
As I opened my eyes to look around, suddenly it sounded distant again, as if retracting down a tunnel or well - like the muffled groan of a voice. But it was also immediate and focused to a point, as if specifically signaling directly to me. This I didn’t care for at all. A late night caller was wholly unacceptable behavior. As I became more aware, slowly dropping off the fuzzy veil of sleep to reveal the clarity of a shining black mirror of night, a night so clear and clean it was as if all the old nights had been washed away, leaving only a new, clean, crisp indigo lake of time. As I became more and more aware, growing more and more awake, climbing from the distant depths of sleep, I just figured it was someone at the window. Some visitor scratching, tapping, breathing, moaning to wake me and get my attention. A gentlemen caller, perhaps. So I rolled over, drawing up the piles of blankets, folding them back so I could sit up and gain a good view of the window. I figured the caller would at least be carrying a candle or small lantern, lighting a soft golden glow in the depths of night. Perhaps it was Nimphius, or maybe even Gunderson, those merry pranksters.
But there was no gentleman caller at the window. No warm shadow. No spark of soft glow. And that’s when I saw it. After concentrating intently on the strange wheezing breath, I noticed a large shadow in the corner of my room appearing as a great, distorted face on the ceiling. This was where the wheezing sounds were escaping from.
The window was dotted with droplets from a great rain that had passed through while I fell deeper into that shadowy land of sleep. The storm had slipped overhead, blowing hard and heaving down tons of water, power washing everything clear and clean, rinsing all the old nights away. Perhaps this strange apparition up in the corner of my ceiling was only a wet spot from the rain? Maybe this was a water droplet stain from a leak in the roof? But then that murky, golden stain began shifting. It was just a fluttering on the surface of the stain, just a rippling at first. But then the shadowy spot began sloshing and shifting to form a distinct shape. It looked like a face of some type - stretched and distorted in that watery shadow of the dark corner of my room late at night - but a face just the same.
As my eyes adjusted to waking, to the velvety indigo night, to the dim, grainy light of the room, I could tell it was indeed a being or entity folding and undulating and oozing itself in the pool of watery shadow. The shape was about two feet wide and three feet long. It was a wondrous liquidy something, just rippling in a stain of water from the storm.
And you know, the really strange thing was that I felt relieved - refreshed and revived - as if I were the only one who had ever been witness to such a peculiar curiosity, folding in on itself like a slight jellyfish just caught on that thin layer of ceiling paint. It felt as if I were the only one in all the world who had ever witnessed such an event, something so fresh and new. I was in awe with a deep, dropping, astonishing, breathless hope. It was as if this wondrous beast lived on the surface of the shadow of water stain. Anyway, I’m lying there looking at him, thinking that I must just be dreaming or something. And suddenly that twittering wisp of breath returned as if a whisper on a windy breeze: “We are the shadow people, . . .” that breathy wind gathered to announce in a long, low groan of a thin exhale.
Now even though I must admit to being curious, transfixed even by the unexpected events, I was still rather taken aback by the intentional lack of manners. I mean, first off, the thing came unannounced at all hours of the night, and then it had the gumption to not even address me with a proper introduction. So I said, “Hey, look Mr. Sass-pants, I don’t care who or what you are. Who do you think you are to be barging in here at all hours of the night? And without so much as an invitation whatsoever?”
“. . . the shadow people,” the thin veil of whisper struggled to continue.
“Yeah, well good for you. Whadda ya expect me ta do about it?” I grumbled. “I’ll tell you, what with this poor display of manners, suddenly I am definitely not in the mood for all of this. Not at this hour anyway. No way, no how.”
“We are the shadow people,” the breathy exhale announced again, his great googily eyes rolling around, trying to adjust to the dim light in here. “We have come a long way, riding on the storm. We come bearing gifts to share.”
It had indeed rained that night - an odd, green and yellow storm which must have forced some rain water under the slate tiles of the roof from its mighty winds. The moisture must’ve dripped down to form the puddle on the ceiling, eventually becoming that golden stain the size of a pillow case.
As my eyes adjusted further to the dim light, I could just make out the outline of its mighty chin, large ears, and wrinkled nose on its broad, round face as it sloshed around, getting comfortable, trying to take shape or inflate himself or something. He looked like something out of a fairy tale - as if from under a bridge in a deep, dark forest. The thin wafer of paint bubbled and fluttered as if he were struggling to push through the ceiling to get to me.
Now I was very suspicious of this. First, the unannounced visit. Second, the improper introduction. And now this thing’s questionable offering of gifts, as if that’s supposed to make up for the intrusion. I mean, good golly, you don’t just barge in and wake just anybody up in the center of the night. I mean, that’s the best part of the night, the part with the deepest, most comfortable sleep. Anyway, I’m lying there waiting for that thing to say something clever, maybe apologize or something. I watched it sort of wheeze and struggle, watched it pulsate and throb as if slowly trying to breathe, the surface of the ceiling fluttering, rippling. Well, wouldn’t you know, it didn’t say anything for a while, so I just rolled over and listened for it to gather the strength to breathe. As I listened, I heard a water droplet slowly form and eventually drop to the wood floor. This happened a few times before the gentle rhythm of it all lulled me back into a nice, comfortable sleep.
When I got up the next morning, I was worried the shadow creature would return and wake me again that night. The curious puddle was still there, still a murky golden swirl, but there was no otherworldly face stretching inside of it. The slow dripping was still going on, each tiny drop going down to the floor with a soft “pew-p” sound. And looking down at that clear little puddle the size of a dinner plate, that’s when I noticed - I saw my reflection in it, but I could also pick up a dim kind of other face, as if just faintly that shadow figure was slowly dripping down from the ceiling - as if somehow leaking in here from outside, from the wind, from the storm, from the atmosphere, from out of the stratosphere, from as if out of the outer reaches of the wind and shadows and time and whatever else could be found swirling on out there.
I could just barely make out the faint outline of its features in the clear little puddle, as if some of him were in the puddle, some of him were still stuck in the stain up in the ceiling, and most of him were trying to push through from the roof or from outside, or from out of nowhere or something. Anyway, after some other much needed household chores, I got around to mopping up the puddle and repainting the watermark on the ceiling.
I believe I had made my feelings very clear on this last night, I just don’t care to be waken in the middle of the night. I mean, I don’t care who or what you are, if you ask me that was a very poor display of manners and common sense on their part. If they’re going to be treating me that way, well then who knows what they’re capable of? I mean, what am I going to have to do here? Maybe I should lock up the good china or something. I mean, that shadow thing should’ve known better than to come calling at all hours and wake me like that.
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Tony Rauch has three books of short stories published – “I’m right here” (spout press), “Laredo” (Eraserhead Press), “Eyeballs growing all over me . . . again” (Eraserhead Press). He has additional titles forthcoming in the next few months.
Labels: Tony Rauch