R E J E C T I O N A N T H O L O G Y
J A S M I N A K U E N Z L I
My Aunt Carrie always warned me about the shadows.
Everyone has them—they flit at the edges of your vision, just beyond your peripheral gaze. When you turn, they’re gone, but you can still feel them. They lift your eyes when you’re about to look away, jolt you out of bed in the middle of the night, a presence pressing on your chest, your lungs clawing for air.
They’re the whisper of longing, of knowing, of deep-dark secrets buried too far down to even be secrets. They’re the potential that breathes in the heart of the kindest person, the promise of evil and depravity and unfettered violence, the soft, sure pride of I won’t get caught, the chill that goes down your spine when the serial killer whispers as if to a lover.
The shadows let you know that you’re hanging on the edge of a cliff. They coat your palms, worm their way into your calluses, begging you to release just a finger, give up a nail’s breadth of space. They promise that you aren’t any better than the rest of them. That, given the right set of circumstances, you’d bring all that peripheral depth into terrifying reality. Most people dismiss them—chalk it up to tricks of the light or slips of the tongue, the howling of wind in the trees or the creaks and groans of an old house. The shadows like that—like to be nothing more than bad dreams and worse appetites. They worm their way in, and by the time you realize they’re real, it’s too late. By the time you acknowledge their existence, they’ve already loosened your grip.
And all you can do is fall.
The shadows are strongest in the woods at the edge of our property. Over the perimeter fence, across the tiny creek that runs dry in the summer months, just above the short, crumbling cliffs that are as much dirt and leaves as rock, the woods wait. Their thin, dry branches claw at you if you get too close, if you try to pull yourself over the edge.
My aunt Carrie says that the shadows don’t like us, because we can see them. They don’t like to be remembered and thought about in concrete detail. Don’t like the circles of salt around our beds or the soft words my aunt whispers over the fields. If they had their way, my aunt says, she and I would be dead, our skulls split open by a stray tree branch or a treacherous ledge. So we stay out of the woods. We don’t go further than the perimeter fence, don’t let the shadows know we can see them, keep our eyes down when they creep between the grazing cattle or hide in the dim light of the barn. Aunt Carrie says that the shadows would take me out, if they could. They’d worm their way into my throat and ears and eyes, until I choked from the inside out.
The shadows are the strongest in the liminal spaces. The held breath of twilight. The sharp stillness before dawn. They find me most often at dusk, creeping up on me before I realize it. When I see them, flitting at the edge of the fields, slithering onto the rocks at the corner of my vision, flickering in the steadily weakening sunlight, a shudder goes up my spine. My hands shake, and I freeze until they disappear. My heart pounding for minutes afterward. And yet they beckon, in my dreams. Call me, the shadows dancing and diving between the branches, shifting into mist as they dissolve through the branches, only to coalesce on the opposite side.
In my dreams, I dance with the shadows, and a locked box inside my mind opens. The tree branches are a lover’s kisses. The shadows are soft, silken ribbons woven through my hair, and I breathe in the scent of cedar and smoke and decay.
I wake up screaming, the stench of dead things thick enough to taste.
My aunt says that the shadows lie. They’re the mark of the darkest creatures of the world, the ones who retreated beneath its crust when the light came to banish it. They are monsters under your bed and little devils in your closet—more scared of you than you are of them. She whispers words in an unfamiliar language when I wake in the middle of the night, my chest squeezed as if in a vise, a shadow hovering on the edge of my bed, offering a sinister, gray grin. She whispers, and she sprinkles pine and salt around my bed, over my comforter. The pressure recedes; the shadows dissipate. The sunlight breaks through my blinds, and I am safe.
When I was seven, I didn’t look away fast enough.
I was wading in the pond, throwing bread at the ducks. One of them dove toward me, flipping around in the water, showing off. I laughed, and that’s when I saw the shadow. She stepped carefully through the water in a long, old-fashioned dress, her skirts in her hands. She wore a black hat with a lace veil over it, and her skin was a sickly gray color.
Her eyes glowed amber, smiling through the veil. Her lips were on the cusp of pink. She opened her mouth to speak — There was a sharp gurgle, a sucking noise like a drain being unblocked. I jumped, and she was gone. Nothing but a ripple of pond water. Nothing but the flock of ducks who bathed and chattered to one another in the murk, ruffling their feathers. I felt a soft, oily substance on my hands, and I looked down.
The duck that had dived floated facedown in the water, its feathers sticking up at odd angles. My shoulders seized up, and my hands trembled as a sudden awe overtook me. I looked around carefully to make sure no one was watching, and then I turned the duck over.
I snatched my hand away.
It remained upright for just a moment before capsizing again, but not before I caught a glimpse of its face. Caught in a squawk of fright, its bill open, its eyes bulging in alarm.
My heart stuttered. My aunt found me like that, knee-deep in the water, staring at the body of the duck as it bobbed up and down. She wrapped an arm around me, murmuring about having a proper funeral. Burying it beside the pond that it loved so much, where its brothers and sisters could pay their respects. And as she spoke, the shadow appeared again. This time, she was more insubstantial, a shadow of darker mist that seemed to anticipate the onset of darkness. Her gloved hand brushed against my cheeks, warm and wet and sticky, like tears. My aunt stiffened, and in a moment, I was in her arms, rushing toward the house, the shadow receding. The stickiness evaporated, and warmth followed it.
Inside, still holding me in her arms, my aunt flipped on every light in the house, turned the air conditioning to blasting. She deposited me on the edge of the bathtub, undressing me hastily before thrusting me into the scalding-hot water. I shrieked, and I finally burst into tears as the water took me in. She came back moments later with a jar of some red, sweet smelling flower. She scattered it atop the tub and scrubbed it into my skin, snarling it in the strands of my hair. I can still feel her calloused hands, using the flower to rub out the tangles. Perfuming me until I emerged, red from the scrubbing and the stain of the juices. But that night, I dreamt of the shadow, standing just inside the pond. Her amber eyes gleamed, as she held out a gloved hand and beckoned.
After that, my Aunt Carrie kept me inside most of the day. I read or watched television, ensconced in circles of salt, my hair woven through with flower petals.
I was allowed outside only near noon, when the Sun was its highest point in the sky. I made a game of it, racing to the fence and back as many times as I could, loving the way the wind stole my breath. But as I got older, I made less and less trips outside. Asthma squeezed my chest like a vise, and it became a colossal feat to get to the fence and back just once. My aunt said it was the air, clouded with the dust from the drought. The pollen lingered in the spring and summer with nothing to wash it away, and my lungs couldn’t take it.
So I spent even more time inside.
I may have stayed that way forever, but when I was twelve, Luke came to stay with us over the summer. His parents filmed ghost documentaries, and he was too young to travel with them.
“Too young not to get in the way,” Luke said, his eyes wide and inquisitive behind his glasses. “I like to explore.”
“Well, you can go anywhere you please.” Aunt Carrie smoothed his hair off his forehead. “But Helena is too sickly to go outside much.”
I glared at her, suddenly resentful of the tightness in my chest and the vise squeezing my lungs. Suddenly all-too-aware of the golden color of Luke’s hair and the depth of his eyes.
“I can go outside as long as she doesn’t know,” I whispered to Luke later that night, creeping into his bedroom after my aunt had fallen asleep. “I’m not really that sick.”
Luke promised to invite me if he found something interesting, but there wasn’t much to see. Most of the wildlife had fled when the rain refused to come, holding on stubbornly to the occasional clouds that swept over the ranch, blowing deliberately anywhere but our tiny patch of land. Dust and prickly, dead grass spread across the ranch like a disease. Deer snuck into the fields for water, and my Aunt Carrie spent nights sleeping outside with her shotgun, waiting for the mountain lions to come looking for them. The air was dry and sharp, like knives dragging across the inside of your throat.
The call of the woods had gotten louder, drowning out even the dull roar of the cicadas. I awoke every night gasping, with the feeling of a hand around my throat. I could smell the rot, creeping in beneath the floorboards, racing toward me across the fields.
My aunt wove fresh red flowers in my hair every morning, the perfume drowning out my other senses. Heady, intoxicating, I spent most days inside breathing it in, too weak to venture into the fields even at midday. My dreams were vague and murky. That sudden gleam of amber.
A snatch of longing.
A whisper just before I woke. “See.”
But one day, Luke and I snuck into the woods.
He never told me if he could hear the call. But I think he could. His eyes got all wide behind his glasses when he spoke of the woods, like it was a secret that he had to tell. Like if I didn’t go with him, keep him safe, he might not come back.
The flowers in my hair were all I smelled when I took in the hot, dry air of dusk. The temperature had only dropped a few degrees as the sun descended, and Aunt Carrie was busy fixing the air conditioner. We chose the tree line just behind the pond. I breathed in deeply, but my lungs stopped short. I coughed. The woods were silent, the shadows faded. I was exhausted, my lungs barely keeping pace, when we finally made it to the fence. Luke knelt, and at first I thought he’d found some interesting species of bug to inspect. But then he went still. Still like a rabbit, just when a dog catches its scent. Praying that he hadn’t been seen. Terrified to move. I was still wheezing, my breath rattling in and out, when I saw it. My lungs expanded gratefully.
A deer had become trapped beneath the fence and died. The body had been picked clean by scavengers, most of the bones already missing. But the skull and spine remained, a few ribs jutting out like handles, the antlers still hooked in the fence, where the deer had tried to wrench itself free. Luke trembled. But I felt—joy. My lungs full of air. The perfume of the flowers dampened, the scent of rot a whisper in the breeze. The bones shone like a beacon in the growing darkness, the sharp mandible and jaw broken by a jagged, ridged line down the middle, like the deer had suffered some terrible injury.
I reached for it.
“I just wanna look at it,” I wiggled the skull, trying to unhook the antlers from the fence.
“Don’t touch it!”
My fingers curled around the mandible. I pulled, and it cracked in my hand, a piece of the jaw, along with two teeth, crumbling to the ground.
“Don’t be such a baby.” I pulled the remainder of the skull out from under the fence, and at the same time, a sudden blast of light pulsed behind my eyelids.
I yelped, dropping the skull. A piece of the antlers broke off, rendering the magnificent specimen lopsided. “Stop it.” I dug my hands into my ears as a sharp, high-pitched noise resounded. “Stop!” I closed my eyes.
“Leave it alone,” Luke’s voice was sharper now, less afraid. Deeper.
And I felt it again.
The soft, wet comfort.
The caress of tears on my cheeks.
I opened my eyes, and the woman knelt before the deer. Her skirts spread out around her like a fan. She shook her head, stroking along the remainder of its skeleton. “Come see,” she looked up at me, her eyes as glowing as I remembered. “Come see.”
“Helena,” Luke sounded twelve again. “You’re scaring me.”
I tried to kneel next to the woman, but there was something holding me up. That vise , constricting around my chest. The heady, intoxicating perfume.
I gasped, my hand clawing at my throat.
The woman tipped her head to the side. The spine snapped. “Can’t, or don’t want to?”
A burst of light seared through my head, and I reached for it, ripping at its source.
With a twist of my wrist, the light fled, and the shadows came back. They surrounded me, and I breathed them in, their sweet smoke filling my lungs. I picked up the skull again, turning it over in my hands. As I did so, a silver shadow snaked around the eyes and mouth, flickering in and out of the blackness. I stuck my finger through the eye socket, impressed at the depth of space where vital organs had rested.
“See,” the woman whispered. “See.”
The eye socket caved in, as though hit with an invisible hammer.
Luke was backing against a tree, a shadow reaching its clawed hands. Luke’s eyes glowed golden beneath his glasses, like liquid sunshine. The shadow reached for his eyes, its hands pincers, and I whipped my arm out like a shot, hurling the skull at the shape.
As soon as the skull hit the shadow, they both disappeared, and normal twilight descended, the cicadas loud and insistent and reassuring. I rushed to Luke, my arm going around his shoulders. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head. His eyes were their normal blue color, and tears leaked from them.
“Your hair—” he pointed at my head, and I put my hand up to my scalp. It came away covered in blood.
I looked behind me, at the flowers scattered all over the ground. Something glistened wetly beneath them. Blood dripping from my head, tears falling from Luke’s cheeks, air filling my lungs, I felt more alive than I ever had.
After that, my aunt kept me close. She followed me around if I went outside, watched as I drank a concoction smelling of the flowers every morning. I tried to resist. Tried to vomit up the concoction, fake it, at first. But eventually, those shadows fell back again. Blurriness at the edge of my vision. A tree that wasn’t a tree at the edge of the woods. They called, but they were the soft buzz of a speaker turned down with a blanket thrown over it. So much background noise. Luke was gone a week later, hustled into a waiting car in the dead of night. I waited at the top of the stairs when they came to get him, my aunt’s hushed voice soft and reassuring. “More time…contain…alone…safe…”
But Luke had never learned to whisper. “They want her back.” He said. “They’re taking her home.”
Lying in bed that night, my eyes shut tight as my aunt breathed a new spell over me, as the shadows receded into the plain night, was the first time I realized: My aunt wasn’t trying to keep the shadows out.
She was trying to keep me in.
I didn’t see Luke again until the summer I turned eighteen. He had gotten a job interning for the local veterinarian, and our place was the closest to the office. His room was just down the hall from mine, and I could feel him breathe. Each exhale expanded the walls, sent the shadows scurrying for cover. I barely remembered the night with the skull. Like the shadows, it had constantly receded until it was nothing more than a simmering sense of déjà vu, another confusing aspect of the woods and the way they called to me, the hazy and insubstantial dreams that left me exhausted even when I slept.
Luke’s presence was a rock in a still pond. The entire ranch rippled, a breeze across the dead grass that hadn’t been green since before the drought, since before I remembered.
And even though I could barely remember what had happened between us, my aunt made sure that I knew to avoid him. I didn’t need to be told. Being near Luke was like keeping your finger a breath away from a hot stove. One night, I got up to get a glass of water. The red flower petals were still wound through my hair, and I tiptoed through the rings of salt that lined the way to the staircase. Just before I walked down, Luke emerged from his doorway. His hair was tousled, and his eyes were still big and wild beneath his glasses. He was breathing hard, like he’d been running, and I could practically feel the house breathing with him, the floor’s sighs and the wall’s creaks.
When his eyes met mine, he squinted like he was trying to remember something.
And then, before I could move, he’d crossed the floor, plowing through the circles. He was a breath away from me, and that feeling of being too close, of being on the verge of burning, rippled through me. I caught at the wall for balance, but I couldn’t look away.
Luke took a deep breath, an act of restraint. The wall tilted inward, and I gasped.
I didn’t mean to ask it. Didn’t even know that it was what I wanted to know, what had been haunting me all these years, what kept those shadows dancing at the edge of my vision, instead of within reach. What kept me swallowing the concoction my aunt made for me every morning, even though it felt like tightening a vise around my ribcage.
“Are you afraid of me?”
His hands landed on the wall above me, caging me in. I felt his breath ghost across my cheek. And the shadows emerged again, racing behind him. One leaned down to whisper into his ear, and he stiffened. His eyes flashed gold, and the shadow recoiled.
He pushed his glasses up on his forehead so I could get the full blast of him. “No.” his voice rang like a bell, the light springing from the sound waves and radiating all over my face.
The floor rushed up to meet me.
The next morning, delicately, strand by strand, I unwound the flowers from my hair. When my aunt saw me without the flowers at breakfast, her mouth went into a flat, firm line.
“Take your medicine. That’s the most important thing.” My aunt planted the concoction on the table before me, but I waited until she turned around, then emptied it into a vase.
After a few days, I could feel the shadows returning. And the woods beckoned more harshly than ever. The joyful, dark feelings swirled around me, emerging even when I tried to quiet them. The duck in the pond. The deer’s skull that crackled inward like a dry corn husk in the night. See, the woman whispered. See.
One twilight, I sat on the porch, listening to the cicadas light up the night with their incessant noise. A shadow slithered up to me, and without thinking, I laid my hand down next to it. It twined around my fingers, its dry, scaly head lingering in my palm. I closed my eyes, letting it wind farther up my arm. A tendril twirled before my nose, the scent of rot so comforting. “See—”
Luke’s voice was a blast of scalding heat, and it knocked the shadow from my neck. It fell, hissing, in the grass. Beside me, Luke raised his foot to stomp it out.
“No!” I flung out an arm, and the shadow curled in on itself, hissing once more before it dissolved.
“What are you doing out here! You know you can’t be outside!”
Luke looked down at me, suddenly still. He dropped to his knees, his hands roving over my mouth, my cheeks, my eyelids. Everywhere he touched, all that darkness seared away, burnt out by his light. I choked, coughing and retching, and he pulled me into his chest.
“It’s okay. I won’t let it get you.”
I breathed him in, even as my lungs went short and stunted.
My aunt didn’t let me forget about my concoction the next morning. She watched as I swallowed it, drop by drop. I was no longer allowed even on the porch. I couldn’t leave the living room and my bedroom. When I refused to let her weave the flowers back in my hair, she placed them in vases all over the house, their cloying scent mingling with the trails of light Luke left behind him. I writhed on the couch, caught in the grip of nightmares. The woman swam in and out of them, whispering the same word. Luke pressed his lips to my throat, and there were burns where his mouth had been. My aunt stood over me, stuffing my face into a trough of water over and over.
In one particular dream, I sat next to the pond, my hand in Luke’s. His eyes were closed, sunlight a soft sheen beneath his eyelids. The woman appeared at the edge of the pond, and I called out to her.
“Are you real? Are you alive?”
/ “What limited questions. Are you so certain of the world?”
I looked at Luke, and his light was dimming, his skin growing pale and blue. I let go of his hand, and color surged across his features.
I looked back at her. “Am I alive?”
The woman smiled. “A much more interesting question, but equally as limited.”
“I am alive.” I whispered. “But I do not live.”
The woman tipped her head to the side. “Well done,” she said, and her hair turned to snakes, which slithered down her body and across the grass, swarming Luke, sinking their fangs into his body.
When I opened my eyes, my hand had drawn a scratch down the table, a trail that ended in stunted cliffs and scraggly trees. The woods. I looked out the window. Luke was nowhere to be seen, and my aunt was watering the garden. And the entire world was cast in gray, and the shadows were dancing around them, linking hands and twirling, beckoning and twisting, breathing. “See. See.”
The dry grass crunched beneath my feet, and the land opened around me. I floated through it, whispering to the grass and the stunted trees, desperate for water. I know what you’re feeling. I thought. I am shriveled up, and closed off to rain. I am alive, but I do not live.
The pond was nothing but a few foul-smelling puddles and mud, the ducks long-since died out or taken to a neighbouring ranch, one that could afford a man-made pond in this drought. I didn’t see the woman, but I knew she was close.
The shadows rippled in the heat, a mirage that I couldn’t blink away. Sweat swam down the back of my neck and my legs, drenching my skin as I slogged on. Luke waited for me at the hole in the fence, his clothes steaming with light.
“Helena.” His hand brushed mine, and I pulled it away. A shadow snapped at his fingers, and he pulled back just in time. The creek bed had been dry for years, so it was easy to stumble through it to the cliff face before me. It was only ten feet high, and the woods crept up right to the top. Stark, barren. Unwelcoming. But I could read the smiles in the cliff faces. The joy that crumbled with every handhold.
They wanted me.
“Helena, please.” Luke kept whispering to me, but his words bounced off, deflecting into the trees, creating only more shadows. The woman leaned over the edge, holding out a gloved hand. She pulled me atop the cliff and drew me through the trees, like a mother taking her child through her first steps. They bit and clawed, but under her tutelage, each harsh whip became a caress, each claw a kiss. I emerged into the clearing unscathed.
“You’ve been living with one hand tied behind your back.” The woman let go of my hand, gesturing into the clearing. I stepped forward, and the decaying earth shifted and moved beneath me, until a decorated, decaying throne emerged.
Death rose up out of the Earth next, and my feet crunched over tiny bones and skulls as I walked to the throne.
“They are afraid of you,” the woman knelt before me, her eyes still fixed on mine. “Like they are afraid of everything they don’t understand, everything that comes from the silent and the unknown, everything in the liminal spaces”
She gestured toward a tree, and without thinking, I clenched my fist. There was a crack, and the tree split down the middle, its sap leaking like blood.
“They care only for creation, and you have destruction. You have wrath and ghosts and death. You always come for them in the end, so they are afraid.”
“When I left you in these woods, I hoped that you would be safe. That your aunt would teach you of the woods, so that you could return to them one day.” The woman brushed her hat and veil off, so that hair as thick and curly as mine tumbled around her shoulders. “But she has only tried to quiet that which is your birthright. She has tried to turn you into—” she gestured, and the trees opened. Luke fell out of them, covered in scratches. Shadow tendrils snaked around his wrists. His glasses had been knocked askew, and dirt marked his face. “Helena.” He shouted, a hint of that depth coloring his voice. “Stop.”
“Stop?” The woman laughed, but I held up a hand.
“Are you afraid of me?”
Luke looked up at me, his eyes narrowed in pain. Gold swirled in them, straining to break free. “Hurts—”
“Are you afraid of me?”
Another crack, and a tree fell to the ground, severed in half at the trunk. Birds tumbled from its branches, their feathers dull and lifeless, worms crawling out of their eyes.
Luke stretched out a hand, and the worms exploded: Colour leeching into the birds. A wing twitched.
“Are you afraid of me?” The bird flew away, but I stepped off the throne, kneeling in front of Luke. I grabbed at Luke’s chin, even as searing pain shot through me. It felt like I was being branded with a hot iron. I screamed.
Luke screamed. He tried to wrench himself away, but my nails bit into his face. The concoction was smoked out, the flowers were gone, and the clearing was a mess of decay.
“I’m not afraid!” The words rang out through the clearing, music wrenched from his screams, his eyes beacons. My fingers burned, and I let go.
Luke fell, gasping.
“He lies.” The woman said. “If he weren’t afraid, then why did he come here? Why did he help your aunt? He wants to put you back in your cage.”
“I will not be caged! I will not let you take me!”
“I will not—let them—take you.” Luke spoke through gritted teeth, and for a moment the glow left his eyes. They shone a brilliant blue. “I am not afraid of you.”
And to prove it, he wrapped both arms around my waist. Our chests pressed against each other, and we tasted each other’s breath.
Shadows and light wrestled around us, twisting and crashing into each other. The world built, the woman’s screams mingling with our own, the wind whipping the leaves, the woods howling as if to egg us on, the living and the dead, colliding into one explosion, until…
I opened my eyes.
Luke lay sprawled across from me, glowing like a match about to go out. I sat up. The shadows were tattered and blurred, but still twisting. The woman lay in a heap in the corner, her arm flung over her eyes. Burns stood out all along her skin, and I could smell sweet, charred flesh. A hole had been blasted right through her chest. I leaned over Luke, whose chest rose and fell with each breath. Around us, the clearing was a crater, but I could hear the chirrup of the birds as night gave way to dawn. Feel the worms digging in the Earth, breaking down the corpses. I felt Luke, flickering beneath me. He wanted to consume me, dissolve me into energy and light, unmake me. And I wanted to bring him down with me. Bury him in the Earth and smother him with shadows, until he was nothing but rot and decay. But I had been smothered. I had been squeezed and constricted until I couldn’t breathe. And he wasn’t afraid of me. I leaned to touch his cheek, and I felt—nothing. Just the cool, moist contact of skin on skin. And the accompanying, resounding drum of my heart. The shadows twined around me, whispering, beckoning.
“Until we meet again,” I whispered, and the shadows hissed it along with me, reverberating through the woods. “Again and again and again and again…”
At the edge of the woods, just beneath the cliffs, Aunt Carrie rested, a branch cracked in two atop her head. Her eyes stared sightlessly upward, her face flooded with blood, her chest still and waiting. A shadow curled over her, then turned its head back to me. Calculating. Questioning. I shook my head. That night, the creek bed flooded, carrying her down with it.
Luke is always a step behind me, gold shining out of his skin. Sometimes I let him catch up. Sometimes I hold the shadows back, let him help people slip away, rise up, move on.
Sometimes I let the opportunity flash by like a storm that blows over, stirring the woods for a few minutes before disappearing, leaving nothing behind to tell of narrowly missed destruction. Sometimes Luke and I hold each other, and the clash engulfs us. We press ourselves together in the middle of it, resisting the battle that we know will tear us both apart. Resisting the demands of light and darkness, the ever-present warfare.
And sometimes, when the call of the woods is too strong, when death and decay coat my skin, when I am knee-deep in the water as a corpse stares up at me in terror, when I am tired of holding myself back…
The shadows win.
Headline image credit : by Kevin Soo. Teluk Intan, Perak, Malaysia.