S. Stirling Davenport is a writer who lives in
Norwalk, CT. Her story
"Engineering Beauty" won fifth prize in the Technology Fiction contest at
Eternity On-Line. Her story "Abba's Mark" appears in The Darkest Thirst, a
vampire anthology published in 1998.
is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments,
please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective
creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be
posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
Dancing with the Shadow
by S. Stirling Davenport
A graceful silhouette flickered momentarily along the iridescent wall of the shaping-room. D'bray looked up from his palette. When no one entered, the artist refocused on the intricate drawing taking shape on his mesh-screen. He dabbed with a tiny brush and a pinpoint of deep orange glowed from the edge of the design. He sat back and regarded his work, his chiseled, almost ugly face warmed by the reflection.
The tilted silvertone surface before him was lit with a thousand colors, their hues entwined into a twisting, serpentine knot of abstract forms. To an informed viewer, it was unmistakable D'bray, a deep-world into which one might project oneself and marvel at the complexity of the universe. In a time and culture where even a child could make a reasonably interesting work of art with a computer program and a light-stick, it took uncommon genius to produce a piece like this. Exquisitely balanced and harmonious, on closer view, it evoked disturbing clarity and elusive yearning.
Perhaps it was the mask behind which the artist crouched, to hide his form. And yet, he withheld nothing of himself. Without his art, D'Bray could not exist. He wasn't happy with this piece yet. Something felt wrong.
He finished brushing a line of vermilion ice that faded into the center of the design, and this small addition created the effect of a figure barely discernible in the mist. It could have been a ghost. He gave a deep sigh and dried the end of the brush with a mottled cloth. He turned at the quick knock at the door.
In came a willowy, indigo-eyed woman whose pale hair hung down until it brushed the backs of her knees. The dancer was wearing a floor-length sheath of golden material that moved like a reptilian skin when she walked. Her studio was on the top of the seven-storey building, and it took up the whole floor. All polished boards and mirrors, it was a testimony to her physical prowess and her unique talent for expressing emotion through movement.
She paused while her eyes adjusted to the artificial light. D'bray saw her through his mind's eyes as the scent of her sweet almond perfume filled his nostrils. He leaned back and smiled, his weathered face a map of delight. "Alerra!"
"Another self-portrait?" she said, her face arrogant, though her arms were folded over her chest in a somewhat defensive posture.
The small man raised his eyebrows and looked for a moment like a startled monkey. D'bray was famous for his temper, but he turned to the drawing, animated. "The intensity of the colors in that end of the spectrum rouse me to the edge of something, a fire that is red, but almost purple. It came to me in a dream last night. Remember the poem Inferno by Serendata?"
"Who?" Alerra frowned, searching her memory, while D'bray watched her face with the artist's fascination. "I don't know how you can tell one poet from another," she said at last. "They all seem obsessed with death. Or unrequited love."
He gave a wistful smile. "'My sweet deliverer in flames of crimson light.'" He examined his small, childlike hands, as if looking for something that might have once been there -- then again, maybe not.
She stared. "My sweet deliverer. Yes. Well. I thought I'd go up to the roof and take a look at the meteor showers. We're supposed to have a lot of them tonight."
D'bray was never in the know about these things. His long face blanched and he turned away. She had forgotten the poem, which had once captivated her. Or so she'd said that summer a year ago. It hurt him more than he wanted to admit. They'd often speculated about the mysterious poet Serendata, whom no one had ever seen. With such poems, D'Bray had once hoped to persuade Alerra to choose him for her bed -- this magnificent creature that could have had any man she wanted. Three years now he had tried to win her heart, and failed. He sighed. Of course, she'd forgotten. She was Alerra.
With a liquid smile, she bent down and kissed his cheek, and the neckline of her sheath exposed the hollow between her breasts, releasing a cloud of sweet-almond.
He sat electrified for several moments after her departure, staring at the mesh-screen. Finally, he flicked a switch, and the colors disappeared in a field of black. He pulled down the plexiglass lid over the palette and brushes, and ran a hand through his undisciplined black hair.
On the work table, he glanced at the pile of books and papers that accompanied his creative process. One page caught his eye, and Serendata's poem about suicide floated up into his mind as if by magic: "Flight the longest drop she knows, into our finite space, the sound of pain." One line evoked so many feelings in him, even out of context like this. He liked to use that in his work. He could ascribe a color to the words and fill the page with them, as one led to another. Sometimes this gave him weird insights into the poet's spirit, or so he believed.
He assumed Serendata was a woman, or secretly hoped she was, but either way, the one that could write such lines was sublime. He burned to know the poet's mind, to hold a moment's conversation with such a being. Even his infatuation with Alerra paled in comparison.
D'bray grabbed his peacoat and his car keys, left the studio and clattered down the stairs in his work boots. In jeans and a black turtleneck, he looked more like a student than the foremost shaping-master of the decade. His mode of transportation was as archaic as his wardrobe, but he didn't care. He was frugal and practical to the point of obsession. The Saab had cost him $125.17, including registration. It was a fraction of the money he could make in an hour. But it was a matter of principle. Besides, he enjoyed driving, a thing almost no one bothered to do anymore.
On the street, he closed and padlocked the door, and turned toward his car, hands in his pockets. Behind him, the arts building faded into anonymity on the once-industrial street. It was getting cold, and the wind whipped his hair, stirring up trash along the gutters. Here in Brooklyn, the wind did a better cleaning than the street sweepers. Above his head, the evening traffic had begun, shuttles and private cars carrying people home from work. The distant whoosh of the subway could be heard from an entrance a few yards away.
Just as he was about to unlock his car, he noticed a bundle of rags that appeared to have been dumped in the doorway of the neighboring building. It was moving, and the sound of mumbled speech issued forth.
He felt a sinking in his stomach. It was a beggar, not a bundle, and its hand was out. Male or female, he couldn't tell from the brown, quilted coat, dirty face and straggly hair, and age was equally impossible to decipher. But D'bray pulled out a five dollar bill and stuffed it into the outstretched hand, caught for a moment by the beggar's bright, tuberculin eyes and surprisingly even teeth. The beggar held his hand for a long moment.
"Thanks," it rattled.
D'bray said, "Sure," with a curt nod, and then shoved his hands back into his pockets. Once in the car, he was soon immersed in a rendition of Mozart sonatas and within a few blocks, the incident was forgotten.
When he reached his apartment in the Village, he took off his coat, and hung it on a peg by the door. A piece of paper floated out to the floor. He squatted down and unfolded the paper.
On it was written in a long, graceful script, "Tell me the color of the wind, into whose mouth you've scattered pieces of desire. Drinking from its mystery, true sleep brings memories too old for dreaming." He had an image long forgotten of his mother bending over his bed. Suddenly her smell was in his nostrils. His hands shook and he dropped the paper.
Serendata. The style was obvious. But it was more. Who else could write those lines -- evoke those memories? It wasn't the words. It was something magical that happened when he read them. With a start, he reviewed all of Alerra's actions while she had been in his studio. Had she touched him? He was thrilled with the possibilities that flooded his mind.
He closed his eyes, and conjured an image -- its contents as familiar as a favorite ribbon of film. He would hold her so lightly, so deftly. She would bend like a brush tip in his hands. But instead of the dancer, an image appeared of a shrouded figure huddled in a doorway, its features vague except for the moment their eyes had met, their fingers touching
D'bray almost dropped his keys getting back out the door. In moments, he was back in his car, racing down the deserted streets toward the studio. He pulled to a stop outside the door, peering at the now darkened sidewalk. A lump of clothing sat in the doorway, as before. His heart raced as he dashed out of the car and over to the figure. Its contours suggested it was a woman.
He raised the hood of the beggar's coat -- the same, brown, quilted coat and saw a tousled head of dark hair streaked with gray, a withered face. The eyes that lifted to his were unseeing, milky with cataracts. He froze for a moment. What had happened? He had both a fascination and distaste for the supernatural. Yet here he was involved in a series of events like some gigantic work of art. He knew from long practice that the only escape was to stay with the process.
The woman didn't speak, was barely breathing. With a sense of surreal dread, D'bray gathered the bundle into his strong arms and carried her to the car. It took him fifteen minutes to reach the emergency entrance of Memorial Hospital. He parked in a spot reserved for an ambulance, ignoring the recording that warned of the fine for this offense.
As he carried her through the automatic doors and into the lighted emergency room, he asked himself, "Why am I doing this?" He felt a little crazy, but he was in the grip of some obsession he could neither fathom nor deny. The waiting room was a conspiracy of chrome and white light that hurt his eyes. He had not been here before. The scene of human misery was somehow dwarfed and put to shame by the spotlessness and perfection of the architecture. Ironically, one of his own art-works was displayed prominently on one wall, its shimmering figures moving as he moved, its enigmatic expression following his progress like a passive parent.
As usual, he felt displaced by seeing his work in a public place -- distanced, yet enthralled that it had once been in him.
In the waiting room, he arranged the woman in a white contour chair, and tightened the strap across her lap. Her breathing was shallow, but her eyes were open as she leaned her head against the headrest. D'bray spent the next fifteen minutes filling out the necessary paperwork to have her admitted. He avoided bureaucracy at all opportunities. Nothing so strained his patience, and he felt his stomach tighten. His health card had expired, and the admitting officer made two phone calls before she even filled in the date on the form, despite the fact that she knew perfectly well who he was.
It was all he could do to contain his temper. "Please. Can't you see we're in a hurry?" he pleaded. He glanced behind him two or three times, to be sure the woman hadn't fallen over. When he was finished at last, he got up and returned to the chair.
She was gone. Somehow he was not surprised. He looked everywhere, even prevailing upon a nurse to check the women's bathroom. Then he dashed outside and peered around the parking lot and up and down the dimly lit street beyond. There was no woman, no beggar, nor even a bundle that might be a beggar. He had lost Serendata.
He slept poorly that night. His dreams were filled with luminous shapes that ebbed and flowed like one of his paintings, but the colors were terrifying. Black was a squid's poisonous ink, and red the fresh blood of a child. Mocking laughter chased him from one scene to another. Just before waking, one shape resolved itself into a vermilion flame forming the lines of a beautiful woman. The flames around her body held the image of a beggar's rags, but she moved with ineffable grace.
The next morning, he made himself some strong jasmine tea. His stomach felt too delicate for food. Afterward, he made his way out to his car, and back to the arts building, alert for any sign of a beggar along the way. He parked and lingered on the sidewalk, reluctant to go in. Still haunted by the dream, he half expected to find someone laughing at him from every doorway.
Nervously, he ascended the stairs, unlocked and entered his studio on the third floor. His presence activated the wall lights and a circle of rose surrounded his workstation. He felt a strange compulsion to arrange his room before he began, and put on a recording by Glenn Gould. The sensitive tones of the Goldberg Variations bathed his senses. Next, he brewed himself another cup of jasmine tea, enjoying the aroma of the needles as they steeped.
At last, he opened his palette, and activated his screen. He gasped. The figure he had painted yesterday was still there. But in the center of his painting was a face, a moving, breathing shadow of soft ambiguity. It shifted in a half circle, mottled with shades of dark green, black and purple. A smile worked its way throughout his body. He sank down in his chair, hardly daring to breathe.
At that moment, Alerra burst in the door. "D'bray," she said, her voice such an intrusion that he snapped off the mesh-screen. She was in mid-sentence, but the look on his face stopped her. "Never mind," she said and backed around the corner of the door, letting it close behind her.
D'bray half rose out of his chair, staring at the door, his nerves surging with adrenaline. His legs felt encased in stone.
"Wait --" he croaked. He frowned at the door, his mouth open, listening. Instead of the light tap of her returning footsteps, he imagined a familiar laugh. It was a mocking, mean-spirited laugh, the laugh of his dream. And he realized he'd heard it before, many times. Over wine in the coffeehouses, in these very corridors, at the many openings he'd shared with her. It was the sound of a dancer who would never have a poet's soul.
He lowered himself in the chair, and turned on the screen again. He took a sip of the aromatic tea, letting the rise and fall of the music enter his pores. They were all shape-shifters. All the people, all the animals, even the trees and rocks. Only the spirit was consistent, moving from form to form. That alone could be trusted. He chose a brush, wet it with a drop of silver, and turned his attention to the pulsating design before him.
Long after the others had gone home, D'bray left the building, and looked up and down the street. In a doorway nearby, a lone figure huddled in a quilted, brown coat. D'bray's excitement made his steps light as he hurried closer. To his surprise, it was a dwarf. Like the beggars of the night before, this face was unfamiliar to D'bray. The dwarf held out his hand, and his tilted moon-face gleamed with an inscrutable expression.
D'bray dug in his pocket and pulled two bills from his wallet, stuffing them into the dwarf's hand. He waited a few moments, but the beggar huddled back into his coat and closed his eyes, effectively shutting out the world.
The artist returned to his car, started the engine, and sat while the old Saab warmed up. He turned on the radio, and a slip of folded paper dropped from the cuff of his sleeve.
Holding his breath, he picked it up. It was a note in the now distinctive script, which read, "Oh, fierce believer, what face do you seek? In soft light swirls, in sheets of evanescent fog and portals of the ever-evolving dream, with trembling heart I yearn for your release."
He peered up the street, but as he had expected, it was empty. The strains of Schubert's Sonata in E-minor filled the car. D'bray wondered if it was too late to see the meteor showers from the roof of his apartment. He eased away from the curb, and headed the car toward the lime-washed moon at the end of the street.