Shadows of the Hungry, the Broken, the Transformed
By Izzy Wasserstein- 45 minutes read - 9495 words
Justine’s shadow watches her. It stands under the lamp post across from her flat, her smoky semblance, flickering and shifting under the gaslight. She’s at her window, tea cooling in her hands. Though the shadow has no eyes, Justine is certain that it stares at her, just as she is certain it is hers. She would know it anywhere.
When she finally turns from the window to dump her cold tea into the sink, she looks down out of old habit, as though she’ll find her shadow once again attached. As though what has been torn apart could ever be reassembled.
Four months now since she lost her shadow. How many nights has it been out there, waiting for her, keeping vigil? And what does it want? She picks up a book, Faulen’s On the Joyous Uselessness of Heartweaving: A Reflection on Craft and Purpose, and flips a few pages before she admits she’s absorbing nothing, sets it aside.
She could confront her shadow, ask what it wants. Demand it go away. Beg, threaten. To what end? She doesn’t know. It is still there when she closes the drapes. She lies sleepless on the sofa, unable to face the vastness of her bed.
— # —
When Justine steps onto the street the next morning, she’s met with the smell of smoke, of ash. The food riots must have resumed, though the Watch had just last week assured the university they had everything under control. Whenever she thinks of the riots, the agony of grief washes over her anew, and it is all she can do to push those thoughts away, unable to bear them.
It’s an uncharacteristically sunny day for autumn, with shadows everywhere, thrown by the old stone buildings in the student district, the stately ivy-lined walls of the university, the trees shedding leaves, even the undergraduates going about their days, their shadows trailing from them as though it were the most natural thing in the world. She keeps looking behind her, half-expecting to see her shadow following her, but there is no sign of it.
She has a meeting with Professor Morinth, one she has been putting off until sensing she could no longer reschedule it. She must face him.
“I have sympathy for your situation,” Morinth tells her, sitting behind his oiled oak desk, “but there are deadlines to consider.” The youngest member of the department of visual art, his face is unlined under a thin beard that does little to make him look older. He won’t look directly at her, as though losing one’s shadow is catching. At least he still speaks to her. When strangers notice her lack, they either force smiles through gritted teeth or ignore her entirely.
She knows what he’s going to say before he says it. She must make progress if she wishes to remain a part of the program. The small stipend she receives is dependent upon making progress. But the work won’t come. She lacks the focus even to read, can’t handle the analytical side at which she’s always excelled, much less the practicum, the heartweaving itself, which is to be the core of her dissertation.
“I will have work to show you, Professor,” she says, her own voice sounding distant to her. It seems for a moment she is looking over her own shoulder, observing herself from a distance, though there is no such vantage point in this cramped office. “Soon.”
Morinth doesn’t believe her and she can’t blame him. She’s only telling him what she’s expected to. There’s no conviction in her voice, nor panic, nor even pain. Beaten flat. Not even the knowledge that, without her stipend, the funds she inherited from her mother won’t last long.
“See that you do,” Morinth says. She is almost at the door when he speaks again. “Ms. Revel.” He still won’t look at her. “I will not be able to hold a loom for you forever.”
There it is, her years of studies nearing an ignominious end. No degree, no more heartweaving. Nothing. She feels as if she should cry, as if another person who finds herself in such a position would cry. She leaves his office without a word.
— # —
Doctoral Candidates in Heartweaving are allotted one of the tertiary looms. Only those craftspeople who have attained the rank of Doctor of the Holy Arts and maintained an official relationship with the university have use of the Grand Loom. For years, Justine has dreamed of someday working with it, will never forget the first time she saw it, large as a room, its brass filigree almost glowing against the dim, recessed lighting that allowed the threads’ own light to illuminate the project. She’d lain awake nights planning what she could accomplish on a machine like that, one that was capable of working with the finest threads of one’s essence. She’d been so sure, then, of her talent, the trajectory of her career.
And Zara had been her eager audience through it all, her belief in Justine’s greatness outstripping even the artist’s own. Even at their lowest, when Justine had let herself fall back into an ex’s destructive orbit and Zara had nearly left her, that faith in Justine’s skill had never wavered.
And now Zara was gone. Just a few wrong steps, a moment’s inattention on an errand, and she’d been caught between the Watch and the food rioters. And that had been that.
The tertiary looms are much less impressive than the Grand Loom, but even so they are valuable beyond words, for only at such a true heartloom can one weave from their own essence. Perhaps a handful are in private ownership, and rumors place one at the Lord Mayor’s residence. Aside from those, there are no heartlooms in the city but those at the university. Standing before her assigned loom, its functional but uninspiring lines taking almost every available inch of space in the cramped studio, Justine can’t imagine how she ever had the confidence to use it, the control and technique to draw from herself what was needed, to pull threads from her mind as easily as singers draw melodies from their lungs. She prepares the loom with what remains of the thread she pulled from herself when Zara was still alive. A simple pattern, one she’s long used as an exercise.
Traditional weaving requires precision and planning, intricately preparing the warp in advance. Heartweaving, pulling as it does from oneself, is a very different skill. It allows one to create the warp’s essence as one works, allowing for greater control and improvisation, while also requiring great focus and precision. Such is the price of creating a weave out of nothing but oneself. Or perhaps the heartloom’s function is very different. Some theorists claim it simply holds space onto which the True Warp is created.
There are many debates about heartweaving, including over the best way to induce the desired threads to emerge, but Justine has never found a better technique than to weave a pattern that’s as easy to her as breathing, pulling in more complex elements as threads emerge from her chest as they sprout like spring flowers, which are then guided by the arcane harness down her arms and then fed into the loom that incorporates them into the warp.
Her hands and feet move on without the need for thought. The threads are thin as spiderweb, reds and purples, blues so dark they are almost black, bluewhites like lightning that hurt to stare at directly, ochre and pearl and a green like the last flash of daylight, all laid down in a geometric pattern, one of the first she mastered, its shape and rules better known to her than her own body. A weave she can produce without thought, an elegant expression of the perfect, glorious uselessness of her art, conveying no meaning, only beauty, a pattern she can weave without the constant need to intellectualize, to explain, to develop grand theories about how to produce from her own essence the colors and textures of thread she seeks.
But the thread she has on hand runs low, and no more emerges from within her. The loom whirs on with the comforting sounds of the thread unspooling, the shuttles passing through the shed. The pattern unfolds itself as though she is unnecessary to the process, but the spools waiting to be filled with her essence remain empty. The weave comes to a stop, half-finished, its resources depleted, its creator barren.
— # —
Justine doesn’t notice the stranger approach. No surprise, since she sits with her head in her hands, staring at the manicured lawn, shining green under the sunlight. In mid-afternoon, the quad is too busy, and she’s not ready to return to her empty flat. She’s chosen instead the stillness of the grounds around the reflecting pool, which are rarely crowded, and even when others are present their voices don’t rise above whispers.
A gentle cough startles her. Above her stands a young woman, wearing the unadorned robes of an undergraduate. It is a minor violation of etiquette for her to approach a doctoral candidate unbidden, but Justine has no use for such rules.
“Can I help you?” Justine whispers.
The woman pulls a thread of red hair from a freckle-dusted face. “I hope we can help each other,” she says and glances around, as if worried she will be sanctioned for disturbing Justine’s stillness. She holds out a sliver of paper, which Justine studies for a moment, then takes from her. She expects the woman to say something, to clarify, or perhaps even to apologize. But the undergraduate just nods and walks away without looking back.
When she is out of sight, Justine unfolds the paper.
Facing It Together, the paper reads, along with an address on the edge of the student district, near the mills. Every Thirdday evening, seven bells.
It makes no sense. It is as if she’s been invited to a secret society in the most awkward possible way. And there is something else, something wrong with interaction, that she struggles to identify.
She retreats to the library, unwilling to walk home while the sun sinks low in the sky, and only then does she realize why she hadn’t noticed the woman’s approach: she too had cast no shadow.
— # —
Justine waits for full dark to return home, looking through the library’s stacks for information on detached shadows, but there is next to nothing. Unsurprising. Those with shadows typically want nothing to do with those whose have been severed, and what shadowless person would wish to draw attention to their condition, to lay open their wound for all to see? The thought is stomach-turning. Horrific.
When she heads back to her flat, night’s veil is drawn over the world, and she can almost forget about shadows. Until each pool of lamplight reminds her, every bench and garbage bin throwing their own darkness, until Justine feels as though she’s a soap bubble about to pop.
The night is unnaturally still. The Watch have announced another round of curfews. It hurts too much to focus on such things, and she has no need to. She has special dispensation, documents from the university that state she is a doctoral candidate and so allowed to be on the street after curfew, such is the university’s clout and wealth. Even so, most candidates won’t venture out after dark. The consensus is that it is safer that way.
ot safe enough. Zara bled out on the pavement in broad daylight, as did the others who had been felled by the barrage of musket fire.
Lost in those thoughts, she has almost forgotten about what awaits her until she turns the corner onto her block, and there it stands, a dark translucence in the light. No eyes, no mouth, nothing but the outline of Justine, yet she is certain it sensed her coming, has turned its full attention to her.
She reaches the doorway to her building, fumbles with the keys. It is coming for her. She can sense it, its weightless bulk closing on her until—
And then she is inside. She slams the heavy door, the building’s foyer echoing with its sound. She can’t resist looking through the peephole. Her shadow stands where she left it, waiting.
Later, awake on the couch, in the unnatural stillness of the curfew-silenced night, she wonders if it will ever stop waiting, and if she will ever be able to weave again. And then a terrible thought: is it even possible to heartweave without one’s shadow? No one has told her otherwise, but then, who would?
In her grief after Zara’s death, she lost her shadow. If she has lost her craft, too, there is nothing left.
— # —
Whatever Justine expected from ‘Facing It Together’, it was not this vast, low-ceilinged cellar with dirt floors and rock walls. People sit in a circle in the center of the room. She knows none of their names, though she recognizes the freckled woman and one or two others, perhaps from passing them on the street, sharing a classroom with them, or some other tenuous connection.
The room is clearly used for storage most of the time, with sagging boxes and haphazardly stacked clutter making vague outlines against the dark walls. Around the gathered group, braziers burn, a dozen of them, their flame-light directed inward by curving brass backdrops. The room is dark, but the circle is bright as day. Brighter. Taking her position amidst the others, Justine sees the reason for the arrangement: with so many light sources, there are no true shadows. No temptation to see if everyone here was truly shadowless, or if some merely have wounded shadows or are con artists.
Justine half expects a con. Why else would the shadowless gather? Why would anyone volunteer their own incompleteness? It feels like picking at a scab, only much worse. Why, then, is she here? Because it is something other than being home, she tells herself, but knows that is not the full truth.
There are eight of them in the circle, the youngest an adolescent still in their school clothes, the oldest a man whose weather-beaten face looks as ancient and hostile as a blighted mountainside. Some are students, a couple have the calloused hands and hungry frames of millworkers. One bears herself like an aristocrat, and the silk clothes she wears suggest it is no affectation.
“We are gathered to create a space of honesty and mutual support.” Justine notices the silence only when words break it. The speaker is one of the mill workers, maybe a decade older than Justine. “Even when those goals are in tension, we must honor both of them as best we can.” There are nods from the group, murmurs of agreement. Justine suspects she is the only newcomer.
“All are welcome to share or stay silent, as they wish,” the woman says. She does not give her name, nor do any of the others who speak after her.
“In my dreams, my shadow is still attached,” a young man in student robes says. “I used to have dreams where I was falling or flying. Now I have just this one. It’s sunset. I’m walking down a quiet lane. I look back, and there it is.”
A murmur of sympathy, then a silence. “Would you share with us how the dreams make you feel?” the woman asks. Justine sees her as their de facto leader. She is younger than Justine had first thought, but her back is bent, her forehead creased with worry.
“Joyous,” the man says. “Like I was whole again. And then I wake up, it hits me all over again.”
“If we aren’t what we once were, that doesn’t mean we aren’t whole,” Freckles says, and Justine feels a tension in the room, a site of dispute.
The sharing moves on slowly. At first it seems others are reluctant to speak, but it isn’t that. They carefully wait until whoever is speaking has truly finished, and Justine is certain some of them won’t utter a word until they figure out exactly what they wish to say.
There is something perverse in hearing others talk about their missing shadows. One of Justine’s earliest memories is of playing with another child on a stoop. As it grew dark, she realized the other child didn’t have a shadow. She asked about it with the directness of childhood, and her mother immediately apologized to the other girl and pulled Justine away. We don’t ask such questions, her mother said, and would say no more.
As an adolescent she’d heard people whispering about it, snickering behind the backs of fellow students unlucky enough to have parents without shadows, and she even joined in occasionally, the breaking of the taboo the point in itself. Everyone knows about the shadowless, but most have the good grace not to speak of it.
This, though—it makes her skin crawl. When someone speaks, all eyes turn toward them. Everyone knows what sort of things happen to someone to strip them of their shadow, that only the worst emotional wounds can cause it. To be known for it, to have everyone wondering about the source, certain only that it was terrible—
Justine realizes she is shaking. She pulls her legs up under her chin, grits her teeth. No, no, this is the last thing she needs. The others’ voices are far away as if they echo from far down a tunnel.
“…I just want to know it is okay,” someone says. “The thought of it out there, alone, hurting…”
Justine climbs to her feet, her body like a distant automaton, out of her control. “I’m sorry,” she hears herself stammer, and then she is up the cellar stairs, on her knees, emptying her stomach onto the alleyway. She retches long after there is anything to lose, and only then does she realize someone is holding her hair back from her face.
Justine wipes her lips on the back of her hand and turns to see Freckles crouching beside her, her face pinched with worry.
“Are you all right?” she asks, one arm around Justine as though she might collapse, even though the weaver is on her knees and has one hand bracing herself, even though there isn’t much further to fall.
“Yes,” Justine manages. “I just needed air…”
“Let me help you home.”
“No, I can…” Justine doesn’t finish the sentence. The struggle to get to her feet requires intense focus. When she finally manages it, she realizes the other woman is supporting nearly all her weight.
“I have these episodes too,” Freckles says, and adds firmly, “Now, point me in the right direction.”
She is insistent and Justine’s legs feel like their bones have deserted them, so she does not object.
“I’m sorry,” Freckles says after a while. “I wish I’d warned you it can be… intense. I’ve never figured out what to say. How to say it.” She sighs.
“Not your fault. I can’t…” Justine lets the sentence trail away. She cannot even talk about not talking about it.
“If your episodes are anything like mine, it will pass soon,” the younger woman says. They still have not given each other their names, and Justine has no desire to. “I’m studying physiology. It’s your body’s reaction to stress. Like when you’re already nervous and then a cat jumps out of the alleyway.”
“I’ve been feeling like that since—” Justine stops herself, furious that she’s nearly volunteered something no one else has a right to know.
They walk on in the unnatural stillness of the evening. “Yes,” Freckles says. “Me too. Maybe—”
“Present your curfew passes,” demands a voice from behind them. Both women tense and turn. A warden of the Watch, though he looks barely old enough to be out of his parents’ house. Justine fishes her pass from her robe’s pocket. She has not heard the nine bells, is almost certain they have not chimed. They are not out after curfew. A year ago, she might have made a fuss, but a year ago there had been no curfew, no riots, no Zara dead.
“Here you are, sir,” she says, glad for once that her voice sounds tired, flat, not angry or despairing or any of a hundred other things. It sounds like nothing.
He examines it as though it is in code. Freckles still hasn’t produced any documents. Belatedly, Justine realizes why. The other woman is an undergraduate and wouldn’t have them. Tension radiates from her, but Justine does not understand it. She might face a fine, but has nothing more to fear—
The warden looks up, first to Justine, then the other woman. “Curfew pass,” he demands. Freckles’ body is drawn taut as a warp. She stutters, reaching for words she doesn’t have.
“She doesn’t have them,” Justine offers, though she has never been quick on her feet. Her escort’s nails dig into her shoulder. “It’s my fault, sir. I grew ill on campus, and she offered to help me get home. If she hadn’t helped me out, she’d be home by now.” Justine knows she should be afraid, lying to a warden, getting mixed up in who-knows-what. Her heart doesn’t flutter. Earlier the flatness deserted her, and now here it is, returned for no reason she can name.
The warden’s eyes move between them, then down to the sick on the front of Justine’s robes. He sniffs the air, twists his face up like she is a refuse pile. “Where do you live?” he demands, and Justine gives him her address, two blocks away.
“And you?” Justine is certain Freckles will stumble again under his question, but she has gathered herself and gives him an address roughly halfway between Uni and Justine’s flat.
“Get her home,” he huffs. “And don’t let me catch you out after curfew again.” Justine feels him watching as they walk on.
She’s been dreading her street, meaning to send her escort away before they near the lamp across from her flat. But now there is nothing to do but go forward. If wishing made things so, the shadow would be gone, but it stands as it has the previous nights, silent and unflinching. She forces herself not to stare at it. “Come up,” Justine says, half offer, half insistence. She can feel the other demurring. “The warden will be on the lookout for you.”
That convinces her, and they stumble up the stairs to Justine’s second storey flat. Freckles guides her to the sofa, and both sit heavily, their ragged breaths not enough to fill the silence.
Finally, Justine gets up to make tea, and when she returns, Freckles is shaking. Justine sits beside her, wraps her arm around the younger woman.
“I’ll be all right,” the other woman says, clasping her shaking hands together. She rests her head on Justine’s shoulder, takes deep, shuddering breaths.
Then it is over. Not all at once, but like a spring shower. You could not say when it stopped raining, precisely, but there comes a point when it clearly has. Freckles sits up, takes up the cup of tea Justine had placed before her.
“I’m sorry,” Freckles says, breaking another silence after nursing her tea for some time. Justine turns back from the window, from her shadow.
“Twice you’ve apologized to me, twice it wasn’t your fault. It’s nothing.”
“You saved me. You don’t even realize—”
The walls are thin enough that Justine drops her voice. “You’re one of them. The rioters.”
The other woman stares at her like she’s just sprouted wings. “Rioters? You mean the protestors?”
Justine does not understand. She sits beside Freckles, leaving space. She does not want to impose.
“But yes, I am,” the younger woman continues, very quietly. “Part of them, I mean. Trying to support them. Most of the workers have much more at risk than I do.”
Justine had felt the tightness in her acquaintance’s body with the warden, felt her episode shake the sofa. She was already risking so much.
When the riots—the protests—started, Justine paid them little mind. Though they spilled out occasionally from the mill district, though there were curfews and further spikes in food prices that strained her and Zara’s modest means, she knows little about them. No, that is not it. She has seen the hungry and homeless on the streets begging for scraps, read about the great machines in the mills that required fewer hands, heard whispers of the diseases that ran rife among the crowded flats of the millworkers. She knows people are desperate, but at first she had been too immersed in her studies to give it much thought. And later, there was nothing but grief.
She tries to avoid thinking about that day, but it was not the protestors who killed Zara. It was the Watch. The Watch who formed the line, who fired their muskets.
A surge of nausea hits her. She cannot speak of that, nor think of it. An ugly thought rises in its place. “And Facing It Together is, what? Recruitment?”
The other woman stands suddenly as if the seat—or Justine—has burned her. “What? No. Absolutely not.” Her eyes are wide, her jaw tight. “It’s for people who’ve lost their shadows. I can be passionate about more than one thing.”
Is there nothing Justine can do well? She buries her head in her hands. After a few moments she feels weight beside her, a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m so—” Freckles pauses. “I shouldn’t snap at you. It wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion. Just an incorrect one. I invited you to the group only because I thought…I thought it might be of use. Like it has been for me.”
Justine cannot look at her. “I don’t know how to be passionate, not anymore.”
Silence. Freckles stands, moves to the opposite wall, its dull stone face covered by a weave, just a simple thing, a two-color fractal in crimson and silver. Nothing more than an exercise, really, but Zara liked it.
“This is breathtaking,” Freckles leans in to admire the detail. “I don’t get to see many heartweaves up close. Your work?”
“Thank you for saving me back there,” Freckles says. “Passion or not, without you I would have been doomed.”
“If you hadn’t helped me, you wouldn’t have needed it.”
“I had a twin, once.” Freckles is framed by the weave, the dim lighting of the flat making her face an unreadable mask. “For a long time after, I couldn’t…wouldn’t reach out to anyone. I was terrified. Until I had to admit there were things I couldn’t do alone.”
Justine feels her awaiting a response, giving Justine space to form thoughts. But thoughts are the last thing she wants right now.
“I’ll leave you be,” her guest says. “Thank you for the tea.”
Justine jumps up. In the tiny flat it only takes her a few steps to get to the door. “No,” she says. “Don’t go. Please.” She is afraid she will be misunderstood, and more words rush out of her. “You can have the bed. I’ll take the sofa. Too big a risk—to leave now.”
She steps away, realizing she is blushing. She is just as inept at trying to signal that this isn’t an approach as she ever was when actually trying to express interest.
The other woman looks at her curiously, as if trying to suss out what strings might be attached to the offer. “All right. But I’ll take the sofa. I’m not going to kick you out of your own bed.”
Justine winces. “I’d rather have the sofa,” she says, and then, despite everything, it spills out. “I haven’t been able to face the bed since, since…”
“I understand,” Freckles says. “I’ll take the bed. And be out of your way in the morning.”
True to her word, she is up before dawn. Justine pretends to sleep as she slips out the door with first light.
— # —
Justine walks for hours. Down the narrow streets of the student district, as residents hurry to their classes, or congregate around carts selling pastries redolent of cardamom and squash. Here and there are shattered windows, iron gates slammed shut when before they would have opened to invite customers. Beggars, the ones willing to risk the Watch, ask for coin. She has none to give. Here and there, the Watch make their patrols, but without the urgency she saw last night. It is as though everyone has mutually agreed that during the day, things will carry on as if all is well.
But that is a fiction, a veneer. It is the artist’s job to observe keenly, to see past the surface. As a Heartweaver, she learned to look beneath her own surface, until that well went dry, and when she attempted to pull raw material from her depths, not even dregs emerged.
What is beneath this surface? Lowered heads and few offered greetings. Windows shuttered when they should be thrown open, ready to catch the harbor breeze that will disperse the fog. Everything is gray, the color leached from the world. The people in the distance, mere shadows. Appalled, she looks away, anywhere but at the people. Above her, the familiar face of the neighborhood, her home for years now. Few people even put out their laundry these days, as if it would be stolen or used for torches or—she does not know what. The few pieces that remain hang limp in the damp air, yellow towels and sheets the only splash of color in the near-monochrome morning.
The blocks pass under her feet. She moves with neither urgency nor direction, but when she realizes where her legs are taking her, it feels inevitable. The stone fronts of the student district give way to the newer neighborhoods abutting the mills—rickety timber buildings, occasionally reinforced with brick, that were thrown up when the mills opened, as people flooded in from the country for the jobs they offered. Now there are few jobs, worse wages, more hunger. Now there are burned-out buildings and violent confrontations with the Watch. Now there are loved ones dead in the streets.
She arrives at a block like any other, some of its buildings standing, many partially burned and collapsed. One might miss it entirely, save for the twine with which the Watch cordoned it, the signs demanding everyone keep out. No one seems to be on guard, though, and the four small shrines are evidence people have been ignoring the command. Justine glances around, then slips under the barrier. Not really a barrier, just a line that is easy to cross, once you know you can.
The shrines are arranged in a semicircle. Artists’ likenesses of the four victims stand in each shrine’s center. Piles of tiny objects cluster around them: candles; small gifts; tear-stained notes; a series of small, smooth rocks stacked into piles; bundles of yellow wildflowers.
Justine cannot bring herself to look at Zara’s picture and does not need to. She can bring Zara’s face to mind as easy as breathing, but is not eager to invite that pain into herself. The others, though, she stares at. Strangers, all of them, two younger and one older. All protesters. She found she could no longer think of them as rioters. And even if they had been, it was the Watch who struck them down. Who murdered them, she at last let herself admit. The Watch, who left Zara bleeding on the street, when all she’d been trying to do was take food to her cousin. Yes, it was the Watch who did it. Not the protesters. Not the millworkers and the jobless, not students like Freckles.
That’s when she notices: these shrines are new, as yet untouched by rain. They’re piled atop ash, the same ash that darkens the brick wall behind them, effacing, what? She steps closer. A chalk-drawn mural, its details lost now, charred beyond recognition.
So that was why the protests had gained renewed strength. Someone had tried to destroy this memorial. Very recently. Someone wished to erase the dead. Justine staggers, kneels before the shrines. The hollowness in her chest remains, but now it is not alone. It shares space with rage.
Some time later she finally forces herself to rise, feeling eyes on her from the dark facings of the buildings across the way. She turns to see movement around a small bonfire inside one of the damaged structures, its front wall collapsed, its beams charred and bent. There are people in its depths, watching her, their shadows—
—no, not only their shadows. Severed shadows are there too, moving on their own, with no people to cast them. Humans and independent shadows both, living in the wreckage. She has never seen anything like it, had no idea shadows gathered, or that there were people who might share space with them. Lives, even.
She yearns to go speak to them, to understand, to ask why her shadow is haunting her. But she hesitates. This is their home, and she is an outsider here. They have not approached her and have allowed her to pay her respects. She will not intrude. She wants to leave an offering at the shrine, but her pockets are empty save for her curfew pass. She has nothing to offer.
Justine wanders on. The fog turns to drizzle as she drifts among streets, through alleyways and unfamiliar districts. Desperate times make for desperate people, and it is unwise to walk alone through neighborhoods she does not know. She does not care, cannot imagine going to campus and her loom, and is not ready yet to turn towards home. When she realizes what she is waiting for, her fists clench, her spine tightens like a thread stretched too far, ready to snap.
She walks until it is full dark and raining in earnest. The wind has at last arrived, a gale blowing in from the harbor, pelting the streets with a nearly-horizontal downpour that brings in the autumn cold for the first time this season. Her teeth chatter. She pulls her arms around herself. Cold does not matter. Nothing does.
Time to face her shadow.
It waits for her, its body made somehow even less substantial by the wind passing through it in gusts. It shimmers like a reflection on a lake’s surface. Justine thinks it turns to her as she approaches, but it is hard to be certain.
She trudges toward it. She can neither make herself hurry the confrontation nor run from it. When she reaches the edge of the pool of lamplight, she hesitates, her momentum at last failing her.
“You are mine,” she says at last. There is no doubting it, the shape, the posture, even the blurred edges atop its head where her hair will never truly cooperate, will frizz up at every opportunity. She realizes she’s been hoping to be wrong, that it would be someone else’s shadow, someone else’s problem. No such luck.
The shadow, being a shadow, says nothing.
“I’m here,” she says. “I know you’ve been waiting for me, and I’m here. What do you want?”
No sound but the rain, no movement save for a slight tilt of its head, a mannerism Zara teased her about, one that always meant she was struggling with a puzzle, a challenging weave or a difficult exam question.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Justine says, hating its silence, the staccato of her heart’s pumping, the rain’s drumbeat. “I never wanted to be without you, but I can’t change things. They killed her, and you tore away and now…” Justine trails off. Now what? She cannot put things right. She once saw another student, furious with his own weave, take a pair of scissors to it. The heartweave had torn easily, as if in rebuke of the effort that had created it. All that remained were frayed threads on the ground. No going back.
“I can’t do anything for you!” She realizes her voice is rising, becoming a scream. It feels like the sound comes from someone else’s lips. She has found her rage, but still she is nothing but a passenger to it. “I don’t know what you want, and I have nothing to give. It’s over. Don’t you understand?”
The shadow folds its arms across its chest.
“I can’t help you! I can’t help either of us!” She shouts and the shadow wavers, though whether through reluctance or under a gust of wind-blown rain, she cannot say. “If you won’t show me what you want, then go. Just go. Please.”
The shadow tilts its head, and that is all. So much time bracing herself to confront it, and she is no better off than she was before. No, that is not quite true. She is not afraid of it anymore, just bone-tired.
She turns her back on the shadow, rapidly crosses the street, her shoes sloshing with water. Her shaking hands struggle with the lock. When she finally opens the door, she hesitates, turns around.
“If you’re not going to leave,” she shouts across the street, “then I suppose you’d better come inside.”
The shadow doesn’t move, but by the time she ignites the lamps in her flat, it is there, standing in the corner by the sagging bookshelf. It does not move while she strips out of her wet robes, starts her kettle boiling, and waits to stop shivering. It is there when she goes to sleep, and still there in the morning.
— # —
For the next few days, Justine worries she will wake with the shadow’s hands around her throat, or with it trying to stitch itself to her skin, or some other horror. But it stays in the corner, makes no effort to approach her, to communicate. It only stands.
She goes onto campus repeatedly but can draw no essence for her work. Finally, she abandons her geometric exercise and begins sketching a new project.
The threads come fitfully, sometimes flowing like they once had, other times drying up completely, and most often a trickle that Justine hopes is more akin to priming a pump than a well on its dregs. She can think of nothing to do but keep at it, for at least she is working again. Nothing is repaired, but at least she is weaving again.
She is several days into her new project and not quite halfway through when Professor Morinth enters unannounced. He stares at her work on the loom, woven in gleaming yellow, with two somewhat abstracted faces. She doubts he has been to the shrine, doubts he knows these faces, but the meaning of the yellow weave is clear. It’s the color hung from windows, left to dangle from clotheslines, the color adopted by the protesters. There is no mistaking her intent.
Of all the arts faculty, Morinth is the one who might have been sympathetic to this new direction, this rejection of the meaninglessness of art, and she can see in his eyes that he is. For all the good it does her.
“I have no choice but to report this,” he says after a long silence. “You know it will bring an end to your studies here.”
Pain flares through her, white-hot, the kind she has not felt since her early days of mourning. This is all she has left and now he is taking it away too.
“You do have a choice,” she says, more sharply than she intends. “We all do.”
He stares at the loom. Even half-finished, there is no denying the work’s politics, and she wouldn’t do so even if she could.
“It’s lovely,” he says, as though the aesthetics are what is at issue. “But the university will never allow it. It can’t seem to be taking sides.”
She should fight this, demand to finish her project unmolested. Champion her rights as an academic. But she suspects that he will put neither the university nor himself at risk. And without his support, she can never hope to finish, never hope to pursue a career here or at any other university. Even if she wins the argument, she loses everything.
“If you won’t stand up for your students’ right to make the art that calls to them—” she says, and hates herself for the generality. “If you won’t defend me, then what use is any of this?”
He has never looked younger, standing with his mouth agape. “We can forget about this,” he says at last. “Finish a more…practicum-appropriate project, earn your doctorate, and then you’re free to pursue whatever projects you wish.”
Such a tempting offer. How she craves continued access to a loom, the credential she’s worked so hard to earn, the comfort and security of life behind a university’s walls. The loss of her stipend means even her frugal lifestyle will exhaust her remaining funds before long, and then where will she be? Out on the streets? Begging her mother’s estranged family for a place to sleep? Another jobless worker, and one without useful skills?
She stares at the vivid yellows pulled from her essence, the intricate images she has never previously managed. Of what use is the promise of someday completing her work if it can’t serve its purpose now, when people are grieving? What use is her art if it cannot offer them even this small thing?
“If I can’t do the work I need to do,” she says, “then what’s the use of this place?” She begins removing her work from the loom, carefully tying off ends, even though she knows she will never be able to finish it.
“The university does so much good,” he says, even now unwilling to look at her. “It provides safety, stability, and essential funding to the city. There’s no need to get…irrational. No need to burn everything down.” A terrible choice of words: she is not interested in destruction, but in creating something new. And now she is certain that, whatever he once was, he is a functionary, a cog, driven to defend that thing which molded him to its needs. He has allowed himself to see his highest goal as protecting it. As though the ivy-bound walls were going anywhere, with or without his protection.
She carefully folds away her project and tucks it under her arm. “Goodbye, Professor,” she says.
Justine is almost out the door when he calls out to her. “Don’t throw this all away, Justine,” he says, breaking decorum by referring to her by her given name. When she turns back to him, incredulous, he meets her eyes for just a moment, then looks down. “Don’t take this so personally.”
“It’s not personal at all. I see that now.” She leaves him standing there. At the edge of campus, she hurls away her robe. It catches briefly in the wind, tumbles and snags on a hedgerow that marks the place where the university ends and the streets begin. She walks home in loose trousers and overshirt, only the half-finished wall hanging under her arm and the slip of paper in her pocket remaining as markers of the dream she leaves behind.
— # —
Justine returns to the cellar, to Freckles and the others. If the group finds it odd that she has returned after her rushed exit from the last meeting, no one says so. Only Freckles raises an eyebrow, studying Justine’s face for a moment, then looking behind her to the stairway, as if she expects someone else to enter. But Justine is the last, and they begin as they had before with the invocation of their rules.
Others speak occasionally in that room bound by silences, by absence. Justine does her best to listen, but her heart is beating loudly in her ears. When she finally summons the courage to speak, her voice sounds strange. It isn’t, as before, as if she is looking at herself over her shoulder, but still she feels she does not fully know this person whose words she hears.
“My shadow stands in the corner of my flat.” She pauses, expecting, what? Shock or surprise or disbelief. And she finds something like that on some faces, but by no means all. The leader—no, she realizes, the facilitator—only nods. “It had been watching my flat from across the street. I invited it in.”
She falls silent, glad to have unburdened herself but not feeling the relief she hoped for.
“How do you feel about it?” the facilitator says after a few moments.
“I want to know what it wants.” Justine hears in her own words something like petulance. There are a couple of nods, but the facilitator only quirks an eyebrow, as if waiting. Justine hasn’t answered her question.
“I don’t know how I feel. I was afraid of it, but now I just…wish it would tell me why it is here. Or go away and leave me in peace.”
“Where would it go?” Freckles asks. The facilitator looks in her direction but doesn’t interject.
“I don’t know,” Justine says. “Wherever it wants. To live with other shadows, maybe.” She feels some of the air leave the room. One of the others, a younger man, flushes. The facilitator lifts her hands, palms down, as if doing so will calm everyone.
“They do what they will,” she says. “Some do go join communities with other shadows, or stay with their people, if we’ll let them. My own shadow visits me once, maybe twice a year.”
Justine blinks, trying to make sense of this. “What does it want?” she asks at last, and the woman shrugs.
“They keep their own counsel. But I like to think it just wants to see how I am getting on.” When Justine has nothing more to say, she continues. “They are no different than we are, getting by without us as best they can.” She smiles at the young man who reacted so strongly to Justine’s words. “Would you like to tell us about how it goes with your shadow?”
He nods, takes a deep breath. “It’s splitting. Becoming two shadows.” He pauses for a long time before continuing. “It’s strange to feel it moving on without me. Like if I’d shed a limb, and it had grown a body, started its own family.”
Justine came here hoping for answers, for reasons. Theorizing, as always. As though reasoning could change the fact that she’d lost Zara, then been sundered by grief. As though answers could heal her. Foolish.
After the meeting, she approaches Freckles, worried she is violating some unspoken taboo. But she needs to do this.
“Would you…would you be willing to stop by my flat sometime?” she asks. “I have something I’d like you to see.”
To her surprise, Freckles nods at once. “Of course. I’ll come tonight, if that’s okay.” Seeing Justine’s worry, she adds quickly, “I, uh, acquired some papers after last time.”
They make it to the flat without incident. Only when Justine brings up the lights does she realize her shadow isn’t in the corner. She gasps. “It’s gone.”
“More likely it’s still on its way. It followed you to our meeting. Did you know that?”
Surprised, Justine shakes her head. “It never has before, that I know of.”
Freckles takes a seat on the couch, and sure enough the shadow passes through the wall and takes up its spot in the corner. “I visit mine occasionally,” she says. “It’s hard to communicate with them, but from what I can tell it works with new shadows, helps them get…situated, I suppose.” She smiles. “They have their own places, their own means of mutual support.”
Justine had never seen anything like that before the shrine. Then again, why would she? People with shadows would rather talk about anything than those without, and she had never walked those neighborhoods, never taken herself down streets where those who aren’t welcome find means to survive.
She sets about making them tea again.
“My name is Mina.”
“Justine.” She responds without a thought, surprised at herself. Well, it would be ridiculous to carry on without names, and she couldn’t very well share her project with a stranger. “I should have asked before, but I wasn’t ready.”
“It’s nothing,” Mina says, smiling. “There’s no rush. Only what you’re ready for.” Justine feels suddenly warm.
They drink their tea and speak softly. Justine tells Mina a little about Zara, about the errand of kindness she was on when she died. She isn’t ready to share the details, but she sees Mina understands. It’s a comfort to have someone to share experiences with, but also tense, as though any wrong move could pressure an exposed nerve.
“Well,” she says at last. “I meant to finish this, then figure out what to do with it. But now I know it won’t be finished, and, um, it seemed right to show it to you.”
She unfurls the half-completed weave, lays it down on the floor in front of Mina. The pair of faces, the victims of the Watch’s weapons, are impressionistic; Justine’s memory and technique weren’t up to the challenge of composing realistic portraits from memory, but she thinks she captured something of their essences as displayed in the shrines, some sense of them. She’s refrained from making visual reference to the futures they would never have. No one needs such reminders. This was to be a tribute, not a funeral shroud.
She was saving Zara for last, but that will never come to pass, now.
“It’s gorgeous,” Mina says, very softly, wiping at her eyes.
“I’d meant to leave it near the shrines, for people to do with what they wanted,” Justine says. “But then I thought it wasn’t my right…and now it doesn’t matter. I’ve lost access to my loom.”
Mina pulls a tissue from her robes, blows her nose. “They kicked you out for this, didn’t they?”
“Yes. I just thought…maybe you would know someone who might have some use for it.” She rolls it back up carefully, and when she looks up, Mina pats the sofa beside her.
“I can do better than that,” she says and reaches out to take Justine’s hand.
— # —
They slip through a series of narrow alleyways, switching back and watching for any sign they are being followed. When Mina is certain they are not, she stands before a nondescript door, knocks twice, then thrice more. An older woman admits them and bolts the door before she turns to greet them, and shakes Justine’s hand. Her grip is firm, her hands calloused, her smile inviting as cool water.
“Mina told me what they did to your project,” she says. “I’m so sorry. My name’s Raye.”
“Justine. It was going to happen sooner or later. Thank you for having me.”
Raye clicks her tongue. “There’s no need to thank me. This space is for mutual aid.”
As Justine’s eyes adjust to the darkness of the expansive room, she can see what Raye means. It must have been a warehouse, once, its high ceiling lost in darkness, pools of lamplight marking various stations. In a nearby one, a pair of adolescents work to lay out a newspaper. Other stations seem to hold murals or images in progress. At one, an elderly person, stooped and alert, cuts lengths of cloth into bandages.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Never even imagined it.
“You haven’t seen anything, yet,” Raye says, and takes her to the loom.
It is set off behind walls, unlike most of the other stations, to allow for the indirect lighting that is best for weaving. It has none of the majesty of the Grand Loom, nor even the straightforward functionality of the tertiaries. It is stranger than either and to Justine’s eyes far more impressive. The word that springs to mind is wild. It seems to have been assembled out of scavenged pieces of broken looms, supplemented with parts reclaimed from other projects. Where the looms she has seen before were clearly purpose-built, this one is a kludge, a monument to tenacity. Someone, or many someones, who were never meant to heartweave, have found a way.
“It’s glorious,” Justine says softly, reaching out to touch it as she would a holy relic.
“My child is our expert,” Raye says. “But the Watch have them locked up, who knows where. It’s only right that it be used.”
“Thank you,” Justine wipes at her eyes. “I will do my best to honor them in their absence.”
Raye smiles, clasps a hand to Justine’s shoulder. “Everyone who works for the cause honors it.”
It takes time to secure the weave to the loom, which lacks the extreme precision of the tertiary looms. On anything but a heartloom, resuming the project in this way would have been impossible, and even on a heartloom it requires many hours and great care. For once, Justine does not theorize about the arcane forces that govern the heartloom. Theory does not matter. What matters is the work, the patterns of her feet on the treadles, the shuttles gliding across the shed. The harness Justine wears is a bit small for her, uncomfortable, and even now the thread will not always come. When it will not, she wanders, taking in other projects, speaking to their crafters, to Raye, or to Mina, when she is present.
When the thread does emerge, she works ceaselessly, afraid of the next dry spell. Some nights she sleeps on the floor of the shared workspace, others she returns to her apartment, knowing she can no longer afford it, but not yet prepared to leave behind its absences. Her shadow joins her in neither location, though she watches for it. It has gone as inexplicably as it had returned.
The weave is nearing completion when Raye stops by to admire it. Her smile is still kind, but there is something else in her face, something determined.
“What do you plan for this when it is finished?” she asks.
Justine tells her what she hoped, and why she hesitated. It is not her place, not her right.
“Don’t you have as much a right as any of us to mourn the dead?” Raye says.
“But I wasn’t involved. I didn’t join when I should have. I was lost in my own dreams, and then my grief.” Justine turns away, fighting back sobs.
“You’re here now,” Raye’s voice is gentle. “Are you ready to do the work?”
“Good,” Raye says. “Then I know a way you can help.”
— # —
The protestors choose Royal Way, one of the widest streets in the city, for the march, and Raye has made it clear to Justine that she should keep an eye on side roads. Sooner or later, the Watch will move to close them off, and then it will be time to get clear as quickly as possible. Justine is terrified, and Mina has repeatedly assured her she doesn’t have to participate. But Justine has spent weeks in the craft space, finishing her project, helping others with theirs, sharing meals and stories, wine and regrets.
Marching with the protesters won’t put back together what was severed, will never mend the hole in her life where Zara had been. It is no cure. But it is a small thing she can do to help. Like her heartweave, now draped from a long pole, carried aloft by Mina, by Justine, by friends and strangers.
She is terrified, even as the crowd fills in, even as their combined presence ensures that whatever fate awaits them, they won’t face it alone. There is no certainty, no easy answers. Nothing left but to put one foot in front of the other.
The Watch are still assembling themselves as the protesters begin their procession, more joining their number all the time. Up the Royal Way they march, shouting slogans demanding food, justice for the fallen, an end to the Watch’s violence. Justine’s voice is fragile as cracked glass, but it rises with the others.
A collective gasp goes up the marchers, a sudden movement in the crowd. Justine tenses, expecting the furious report of musket fire. And then she sees them, joining as a group: shadows. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds, slip into the crowd, take up positions among the other marchers. Ripples of nervous energy shiver through the protestors, through Justine. Her own shadow is there, not beside her, but not far away, either, one among many. She nods to it, and it inclines its head, then nods in return. There are so many shadows, each one the result of a pain so great it ruptured someone’s life. Yet here they are.
Amidst the throng, it’s hard to tell the severed shadows from those still attached. Under the yellow tribute banner Justine wove, the protesters advance. Shoulder to shoulder, they march into their uncertain future.
© 2022 Izzy Wasserstein
From: Issue 7
About the Author
Izzy Wasserstein is a queer, trans woman. She teaches writing and literature, writes poetry and fiction, and shares a home with a variety of animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Fantasy, and elsewhere. Her most recent poetry collection is When Creation Falls (Meadowlark Books, 2018).