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Phaëthon is the story of drought, of the desert. Of weather.
A youth wants to know with certainty that he shares the same blood as the sun god, Helios. That he is the son of that very god who rides a chariot of fire across the sky, bringing light to the day. He wants to know that what his mortal mother has told him is true, that her lover is the light. But most of all, Phaëthon wants to know that the mortal boys, his peers, will be impressed, that they will drop to their knees before his pedigree. So, he pays visit to the sky.
“You are my son,” the sun god assures the visitor to his sun palace, a place of diamond radiance and splendor, of scintillating light, sparkling. But the boy has a lump in his throat; the god’s word is not enough. All the mortal world needs to know who I am, Phaëthon thinks. Acting rashly, he takes advantage of his father’s oath to grant him a single wish, as proof of paternity.
“I wish to ride your chariot”—Phaëthon announces—“and birth this day.”
“Not that,” remonstrates the sun god. “No one dares but me. It is a thing beyond mortals and gods alike. It is for the sun god alone.”
I wish to ride your chariot and birth this day
Reason is lost on the boy, however, and argument is no use. Sworn to the river Styx, the sun god cannot refuse what he has pledged, and though the boy’s wish is as sorry as the boy’s inability, the sun god concedes. Phaëthon, thrilled, wastes no time and leaps aboard the golden carriage, as the gates to the east swing open onto a magisterial sky. The last thing the sun god sees of the boy is his backside whipping out through the gates.
The chariot shoots into the blue.
Phaëthon sails across the sky like a god, laughing. Glancing down at the earth far below, which lights beneath the chariot’s glow, he pulls on the reins, up, up, up. Yet something is wrong. The horses at the reins’ end, agents of the heavens, recognize in this morning rider his mortality, his corporeality, his lack of divine substance: no god-like master is he. Even in the empyrean, a horse is still a horse and will fathom a rider from an amateur. The horses buck. And they run amuck, soaring up and diving down, darting left and right, they bounce off the dirt and they nick the stars. The crab nebula scuttles after the crazed chariot, which flees, plummeting straight down. Flying too close to the ground, the chariot sets fire to the earth. Rivers steam, trees flame, wildfires rage. The very mountains smoke and glow. The earth turns to desert. Humans raise their hands to the sky, pleading. The gods cry out.
The earth is a drought.
Jove, god of sky and thunder, hears their wails and comes to, a storm on the horizon. Clouds swell into great towers of billowing black, pushed by the wind, and the air crackles with electricity. Lightening bolt held aloft, Jove reigns down upon the boy and smites him with single strike; so accurate is the god’s anger. From the dark clouds, Phaëthon falls to the earth, fizzing out, dead. He lands in a heap. Upon the soil his limp and burnt body cools near an emerging stream. His sisters are weeping, their tears becoming a stream that grows into a river. Their tears are stones of amber upon the riverbed, golden like distant suns, cooling, their tears are the rain. The fire put out.
The drought over.
HOT TO COLD
Air, cool, silent, and damp, drifting through the window, roiling in the moonlight. White clouds streaking across a blue sky. Sunshine glinting off a face. Wind trashing an umbrella. Gray moisture painting the daylight in a monochrome ennui. Men bright like the sun.
…Weather is a feeling.
We tend toward the clinical when grappling with weather. It’s how modern people cope. Pointing all manner of apparatus and machine at phenomena, out of which spews prediction, pronouncement, and number. Thermometers, barometers, and the weatherman to crunch the data. The resulting divination and their sums posted and printed and explained in every possible media. The woman on television gesticulates excitedly before a map of the state. Behind her the screen is tacky colors with icons of yellow suns and blue storm clouds and digits overlapping city names, the weatherman’s version of an oversized have-a-nice day button. The sheer volume of technology and science aimed at the weather belies our peculiar anxiety. We track the daily and weekly and monthly forecasts, eyeballing the weather askance as any animal might keep tabs on a neighboring predator.
The tools are useful. Eighty-two degrees Fahrenheit does a nice job of recommending an afternoon tee shirt. Fifty degrees advocates for the light jacket. Tornado warnings consign those who value their lives to get underground—and quick. Flood alerts suggest higher ground. All practical concerns. Yet, even with the abundance of scrutiny, the volumes of documentation, weather is still slippery and enigmatic. It is still more.
Meteorology. Satellites. Radar. All complex science that grows tongue-tied when it comes to a late night in bed of listening to rain patterns upon the roof, the impact of an arresting autumnal shadow, or the kiss of a keyhole of sun on the back of your neck. These are an ancient measure of weather, whose dial points along a radius of feeling: from hot to cold, cold to hot, and every station in between. The weather is sunshine or tempest, growth or destruction, erratic or sublime. And so are we.
BLACK HEARTED WIND
Weather is a feeling—though not always a good one.
I was waiting for something—but wasn’t sure what. A boy of maybe eight years of age, growing up in the weather arena of the Southern California desert, with its punishing sun and crystal cool moonlight, I found myself, one afternoon, standing on the front lawn of the family’s cookie cutter suburban tract home. The surrounding air was swiftly drying, as if fired in an oven. The atmosphere had grown stagnant, unmoving, an inexplicable stalemate between unseen forces. I was alone, the street empty. Minutes ticked by. Something was happening. Stock still, I waited.
The stalemate was broken by a gust of air, a warning shot. There was a pause. Then came the full onslaught of wind, dashing in from the east. A wind hotter than the day itself, which had been considerable, a curious sensation, the parching wind buffeting my skin and whipping my hair, the wind’s fragrance scented of ozone and dust, the sky flaming to ochre, a punitive red, a seething god. Terrified yet enthralled, I was overcome by a sense of something wicked and primeval on the wing.
Weather is a feeling—though not always a good one
Tumbleweeds skittered down the street, end over end. Tree branches bent. Dust kicked up from rooftops and sidewalks and between homes. The wind blew through everything. I daresay it blew through my mind.
Years later, as an adult and relocated to the cool and damp of the Pacific Northwest, I reencountered the Santa Ana wind, only this time on paper, its acid heat and bone dry gusts written about as a kind of cautionary tale. The Santa Ana, Joan Didion wrote, “comes down through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves… Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, whenever the wind blows.” Those words I read breathlessly, remembering. And understanding. Another person—possibly others—felt a numinous Santa Ana, the wind a waking dream filled with dread. The wind something more than just hot air.
That black-hearted wind swept in as breaking news to a young boy. Not the kind of factoid gotten from news programs nor the weatherman. It was more of an education, one absent the classroom. And it was delivered unabridged, unelided, naked. Apparatus free.
There are weather patterns we all know and they have names. But there are other weather patterns, specific to individuals and moments, which have gone unnamed. In part 2 of Black Hearted Wind, we name them! Stay tuned for that feature in Folks Press, #14, our next issue: the first of November.
Some people imagine that the life I lead, the life of an internationally successful author, frequently traveling to foreign countries, meeting with members of the cultural elite, accepting countless literary awards, my laptop always close at hand, ready to effortlessly jot down a few more pages of the latest bestseller or groundbreaking American fiction…… some people imagine that this is a glamorous existence and that I am lucky to be leading such a life. I have to commend these individuals, because their vicarious projections are at the very heart of all that I do, even if they are entirely untrue. It is their ability to imagine this life for me, to fantasize a world that is full of little else but sybaritic pleasures, in essence, to suppose that my existence actually does resemble the frequent tabloid articles that one sees written about me on display at the checkout stand of the local supermarket; it is this gift of imagination that I share with these speculative types: the gift to make up stories and imagine them so vividly that they become believable. That is really how most of my time is spent, not jaunting around the globe in the perpetual glow of love and adoration. No, my work comes about only through the isolation that I find necessary for my imagination to stumble upon a compelling idea for a story, a story that yearns to be told so much that I become enslaved to its creation; as I create it, it creates me. My solitary routine is far from glamorous, but it is the way that I have found to keep nourishing the creative well within. Of course, I use to get out of the house more often, and it was on one such occasion that I died in an airplane crash.
♠ ♦ ♥ ♣
My final journey happened a number of years ago, before I had embarked on this posthumous career as a writer. My employ at that time was as a musician. Within the mosaic of musical endeavors that made up my career, one was to compose and perform music for a theatrical acrobatic troupe. The performers referred to themselves as “actor-bats,” and their pieces were a combination of feats of physical strength and prowess married to the dramatic arc of a story line. Occasionally we would get a booking out of town and would travel to a distant location, set up our tent for a few weeks and present our show of fantastical tales. These trips were always fun. As the reader might well imagine, people employed in the “entertainment” industry are, by their very nature, entertaining. Frequently, we would find ourselves waiting in the departure lounge of an airport and pass the time by engaging in elaborate juggling tricks or various forms of inverted physical hand balances, creating an impromptu sideshow, a distraction to the unpleasant humdrum routine that traveling had sadly become, and to this day still is.
The trip in question was to Palm Desert, where we were booked to perform at a beautiful theater in the center of town. This was a return booking, so we knew what to expect: the summer heat would be scorching, with temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees quite common; when not performing much of our time would be spent in the expansive hotel pool creating spontaneous water ballets and some of our troupe would be inspired to rise early, before the temperature became insufferable, and take morning hikes along the slopes of the southern cove of hilly terrain and up to the ridge line that overlooks the town.
We had noted on earlier trips, peering out the airplane window as we approached Palm Springs International Airport, and later, as we were driving to our hotel, that there were large wind farms in the area, covering many tracts of hilly scrub land just off of the roadway, their tall white frames towering with smoothly rotating giant blades atop. When observed in an ordered array from the distance of an airplane, it is hard to gauge their true size, but from the roadside, it is easy to marvel at man's ability to both craft such a large object and then to harness the power of this windy terrain and turn it into the electricity that flows directly into our homes. It is one of the many marvels of modern day living.
Our troupe of performers awaited our boarding in the energetic manner described above. Within our cadre, there was an informal division between the “actor-bats” and the musicians, who, in addition to myself, included my good friends and creative associates, Ralph Huntley and Joe Janiga. In the interests of full veracity, I have not changed the names of these gentlemen, so that should you encounter them on the street you can loudly beckon to them and inquire further of the details that led to our demise.
You're asking for it, you son of a bitch
Upon boarding the plane, Joe, Ralph and I were seated side by side in a row towards the back of the mid sized jet-prop plane. In the excitement of embarking on this adventure, coupled with our ever-present curiosity about music, we began to animatedly discuss polyrhythms, demonstrating to each other the less common but pleasingly driving pulses of 4 against 3, and 5 against 4. Slapping our knees in these rhythms, we each took turns adding another layer on top, creating an intricate and fluid rhythmic weave. After a short while, the fellow sitting directly in front of us stood up and glared at Joe, who, being the drummer, was the most active in our discussion/demonstration.
“You had better stop that fucking racket! I'm telling you! Or else!”
We could see that this gentleman had not spent any time with his comb or razor before leaving home that morning, and as he spoke, his breath, heavy with the smell of alcohol, hit us hard.
“Or else what? Sit down buddy and relax!” Joe is not naturally given to backing down, and although his response was not delivered in a threatening manner, his choice of words only further agitated our new travel companion.
“You're asking for it, you son of a bitch,” he said, his voice rising in a gritty crescendo.
Overhearing this commotion, one of the stewardesses quickly arrived on the scene. She was sturdily built and when she addressed this gentleman, her question was not posed as a question at all. “Would you like to be seated in another row, sir? I have an available seat for you midway up the plane. Let me show you to your new seat, now.” With some unintelligible muttering, the gentleman got up and started to exit his row. The stewardess had positioned herself solidly between our row and the aggravated passenger, and as soon as he was standing in the aisle she started to move, her bulk acting as a subtle bulldozer that left our unhappy friend with no choice but to move up the aisle to row 16, and his new seat, 16 B.
This may all seem like a small infraction. Were we in the wrong here? Did something about the overly exuberant bonhomie of our group karmically seed the disaster that was to follow? These are easier questions to ask than answer, and as a participant in this drama, I believe I can plead the Fifth and refrain from answering at the present time. I will leave that up to you, dear reader.
Our plane took off without incident and the entire journey was filled with the bubbly energy of a troupe of performers who enjoy each other's company, excitedly en route to a big performance. Some of us played a game that had been invented on an earlier trip. The game begins when someone volunteers a first word, and then the next person adds a word that is in some way related to that word. The following players then do the same sequentially and an evolving chain of words is built and continually passed around in this manner. Finally, someone brings the chain of words back to the very first word and that is the end of the round. The freedom within this game is a great catalyst for fun when played with a group of creative friends. Our camaraderie and collective creative energy were running high that morning. 'Life doesn't get much better than this,' I thought to myself as our plane started to cross the San Bernardino Mountains, seventy miles north of the Palm Springs airport.
Many things in life unfold in a gradual gradated manner - one thing leads to the next. Often times we may not notice this linear nature until we are able to take a retrospective look. An airplane crash is not one of them. It happens so suddenly and without warning that it seems random. The captain had requested that we fasten our seat belts for the final leg of the journey and we soon realized why. The strong air currents blowing through these mountain ranges remind one that the feeling of stability, the sense of reality that we are relaxing, as if on a bus with the firm road underneath us, is a calming thought that we hold in our minds as we are suspended thousands of feet above the ground in a tin can. The mathematics behind the Bernoulli principle are quite sound, and as a result airplanes have been held aloft now for over a hundred years. But for all of the great human engineering and manufacturing skills that go into airplanes, nature, when it wants, is the King Kong to our Fay Wray-like existence.
When we hit the first air pocket, it felt like we were coming over the crest of a high ascent on a roller coaster. The plane suddenly dropped fifteen feet as we remained suspended, our seat belts being the only thing that kept us on the same trajectory as the plane. Encountering the non-gravitational force of an air pocket is something that anyone who flies has experienced, but this air pocket was unlike any that I had felt before. We collectively let out a gasp and some passengers began to grab at the armrests. The next air pocket not only dropped the plane noticeably further but also caused it to catapult 30 degrees to the right. Conversation had ceased inside the airplane and everyone listened intently to the roaring wind outside.
I'm not sure why, but I felt fairly calm. I recall wondering how much wind force would be needed to cause a wing to shear off. It seemed like the answer might be quite relevant at that point in time.
The pilots were trying to bring the plane back to level, but before they could, we hit a volley of turbulence that violently buffeted the plane to and fro. I had the aisle seat and Joe was to my right with Ralph beyond him seated by the window. I looked over at Joe who returned my look with a “holy shit!” We were all wondering what was going to happen next and, despite my agnostic tendencies, I mentally started to reach out to god, praying that the pilots would find a way through this savage wind. The plane seemed to shudder and ahead of us, towards the front of the cabin, some of the overhead bins had opened and their contents came plummeting out. People were beginning to scream and others could be heard praying. As a jumble of overhead luggage cascaded down the aisle towards us, Joe shouted “get into that position! Now!” Ralph and I followed his lead and brought our heads to our knees and covered the back of our heads with our hands. In all of my years of flying, since first seeing this pose on the plastic safety cards in the seat back pockets, I had wondered what good this posture would do in a crash? Now it seemed like it was our best protection against the careening overhead luggage.
The plane was veering further to the right and with a quick glance I could see the jagged mountain crags out of Ralph's window, coming ever closer.
At the age of thirty-three, I formed a new music ensemble to realize the compositions I had been working on. The music was unusual, a coupling of modern chamber music and free improvisations, and my band mates and I were working hard to fine tune our sound, practicing five days a week, three hours a day, paying attention to the smallest nuance and creating some fine music. We worked hard and we could hear the synergy of our efforts coming together. The band was still in its infancy but I was very excited and felt a rare confidence in the future. I knew that we were going to do well. We were going to create innovative meaningful music, soulful music, that people were going to be moved by and enjoy. I had been working hard most of my life to be able to realize a goal like this, and it always existed just beyond my grasp. At thirty-three, as I realized we were going to be able to pull this off, I suddenly felt at peace with life and subsequently at peace with the notion that I might die at any moment. As our plane got closer and closer to the ground, even though I had high hopes for the future, I also felt at peace, knowing that I had been able to achieve some elements of my life's work.
But for all of the great human engineering and manufacturing skills that go into airplanes, nature, when it wants, is the King Kong to our Fay Wray-like existence
Until the moment of impact there is always a hope, however small, that we hold onto. A hope that the pilot and the machine will find a way to unite and overcome the willful forces of nature. People were praying hard for this to happen. They were praying to live; praying to see their children again; praying to hold their spouses; praying to get the chance to be thankful that they had survived the unsurvivable; praying as the plane repeatedly convulsed under the battering forces of the monumental winds.
Are children inherently hopeful?
As a result of growing up overseas, my family would fly back to America every year to visit our friends and relatives. Before each flight, I expected that the plane would go down and there would only be one survivor. That would be me. I would say goodbye to my sisters before we took off, just in case my premonition became true. Thankfully, none of the planes went down and the only thing I had to survive was the odd smelling and synthetic tasting airplane meals of the time. Now, with chaos ensuing in the cabin, bags flying, a chorus of crying and screaming mixed with prayer filling the sarcophagus of our airplane, I did not have the hopeful trust of my youth. I was not going to be the one to survive. No one was going to survive.
The final few seconds before the crash, the pilots had lost total control of the plane. It spiraled downward in an uncontrolled chaotic spin. I had been on many adventures with Joe and Ralph, and now, gripping the armrests with all of our strength, we were about to go on one more. I managed a quick glance to my right and briefly locked eyes with Joe and then Ralph. In that moment, there was nothing to say. We were not alone. These were the friends that I had experienced so many highs and lows of life with. One more to come. My hope was for an instantaneous death. Let it be quick. I suspected that this might be the one redeeming quality of an airplane crash.
Here we go .....three... two..... . . .
♤ ♢ ♡ ♧
Years later, after my death, as I was doing research about the crash and my transition from one state to the next, I discovered that one person on the flight had not made it. He had survived the crash. The passenger in seat 16 B was thrown clear of the plane and was found with a broken rib and ankle and badly bruised, but otherwise unhurt. With the large insurance settlement that he received from the airline he had been able to quit his janitorial job and pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a drummer.
One thing, leads to the next.
I am convinced my houseplant is trying to take over my apartment. From its high perch on top of the refrigerator, this enterprising green thing, the imperial Hoya Carnosa, has vined, spread, wrapped, and entangled itself and its fleshy leaves around light fixtures, stove burners: it has crawled behind the backside of kitchen appliances in places that have never seen the light of day. It’s entirely possible I could wake one morning, restrained in a vegetal mat, vanquished by the vine. The shapes of furniture and other household objects, subsumed in its shadowy green dominion. This can’t end well.
On some level, the Hoya appears to be recreating its native South Indian rainforest habitat, rejecting the drab biosphere of an urban apartment in the northern temperate zone in which it finds itself. My place might become its own private jungle. Make yourself at home!
This all started, much like the project of Dr. Frankenstein, as a kind of homemade science experiment in my kitchen. The Hoya was a gift, a cutting passed to me from a long-line of green-thumbed aunts and great-aunts. I decided to see what this inter-generational transplant would do, where it would go, if given free reign. Botanists now believe vining plants might attach to things—or not—using a form of echolocation, like bats. My experiment seems to confirm that this plant echo-locates its particular choices—refusing perfectly en-wrapable door handles in favor of tackling a print hanging on the wall—in the manner of a being that knows itself and its preferences well. Hoya sapiens.
Fortunately for me, I am in no immediate danger of colonization just yet. Its pace is the pace of most plants, exceedingly slow. Except when it’s not. After five years of a solid procession of handsome leaves, it erupted overnight into a violent burst of floral waxworks. Strange blooms, all rococo artifice, appeared, looking like they’d been carefully hand-crafted in a French confectioner’s shop. Pollinator’s candy, so to speak. For days they oozed a clear and sugary nectar all over my stove, in the hopes of coaxing insects from the tropics. The insects have yet to make an appearance.
I was once in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the law of unchecked growth, my science experiment on a grand scale, was in full swing. I spied evidence of my normally diminutive houseplants gone rogue in their native, lush rainforest climate, gaining seemingly impossible circumference in the heavy rains. I was shocked at what grandeur and flourish these plants, so quietly and reasonably contained in small pots scattered about my house, were capable of, given the right conditions. But my Hoya and I, we have an understanding.
To truly know a plant, is to set it free.
It appeared a trustworthy day. Blue sky. White clouds. Yellow sun. What could be seen of it, that is, when staring up a valley of skyscrapers. The sky a narrow band floating high above the chasm, in late morning, New York City. People were everywhere, crowds of simmering pedestrians and restless traffic.
Somewhere around the lunch hour, runnels of hard driven air blew through the rows of buildings. Dark, ominous clouds swept in, grazing the rooftops far overhead. The somnambulant crowds took note, waking from a collective dream, their sinuses filling with the scent of moisture, the odor branching out in the sinuses, behind faces, alerting souls to a drastic change. The day had betrayed them.
Sidewalk denizens glanced up anxiously. A few black suited men scuttled about, a lost race against time. The first drops that fell hit the ground with an emphatic splat! Splat. Splat, splat, splat. A testimony to the juicy volume of every droplet, marking the sidewalk with spatters. Splat. Splat. And then bam! Water exploded from the sky. People scrambled. A frantic downpour. A city rain. A pelting.
One by one the umbrellas were drawn out. City slickers who read the daily weather report and came prepared, unfurling cover. Others darted. Buckets of rain pelted the buildings and sidewalks and awnings and streets and cars. A roaring waterfall. Puddles rose up. Plashing feet. Car tires spanking the wet. A cacophony. Wandering the sidewalks, an out-of-towner in short sleeve shirt, caught off guard, yanked at his rain-soaked clothes. This was going to be a drenching. With few options, the man ditched into a caf&ecaute;. Passing swiftly through the front door and into the vestibule, he fled.
Safe inside, the man turned back to contemplate what he had escaped, the pandemonium seen through the caf&ecaute;’s glass wall. Waves of umbrellas, recently deployed, rushed passed from opposing directions, glancing off one another, dodging, colliding. Wind gusted, ripping umbrellas from white-knuckled grips, turning umbrellas inside out, breaking umbrella arms, tearing their fabric. Stripping umbrellas from their owners, men and women, bullied by the wind, who teetered sideways. Denuded, bareheaded pedestrians dashed in between the umbrella holders, fish skirting among fluted sea mammals.
The café door opened.
Moist air rushed in. The door closed. The door opened again, a flurry of air. Over and over, the alcove filling with refugees. Dripping. Feet stamping. Puddles gathering about the tile. Everyone, thus secured, turned to stare though the window glass. Patrons at tables stopped their meals to observe and remark. The squall, the sole conversation topic. Outside the window was theater. Inside the window was box seating. In the alcove stood recently retired actors, defecting from the stage, players quitting their vignettes, exiting directly the street proscenium. The play unfolding still.
Umbrellas—broken and busted and torn and mangled and lost—littered the sidewalks and streets
Yellow cabs pulled up and collected sidewalk passengers whose destination was no further than to get dry. The wind blasted. Cars congested, huddling together at the intersection. Water splashed from feet and wheels alike, splaying mud. Haircuts blew apart, caroming this way and that, slapping faces. Solo umbrellas sped by, tumbling end over end, ownerless. Concrete and stone facades darkened. Streaks of rain dotted and slid across the cafe window glass, pushed and smeared by the wind. The mood in the caf&ecaute;, rapt. Reverent.
The rain stopped. Pulling out as suddenly as it had arrived.
All of ten minutes had transpired since the first drop. The caf&ecaute; buzzed with chatter. Everyone saying the same: it’s over. The out-of-towner stepped out the caf&ecaute; door. Water dripped audibly from everything, up and down the streets, up and down the skyscrapers. The sun burst through. Its light came down in rays. White-hot glare shone from sidewalk and street, rivulets and pools. Black clouds showed their fat tails as they ran to the east—and away. The air smelled of sunshine. Warm. Bright. Clear.
Strolling into the sunlight, the out-of-towner stopped before a wire mesh trashcan. The can stuffed with destroyed umbrellas, hastily jammed into its cylinder. The man looked around.
Umbrellas—broken and busted and torn and mangled and lost—littered the sidewalks and streets. Canted against walls. Turned upside down. Trampled. Grouped into twos and threes. Fallen alone, one here. Another there. Far up the street, trashcans at several corners, just as full. Umbrellas hanging from the lips, spiking out the tops. The man smiled and thought. Had there ever been a display like this of forfeited umbrellas? Never. Strolling between towering commerce and industry, buildings rising to skirt the clouds—an international city, center of the financial universe—the man turned a corner, walking block after block. It was the same everywhere.
This decidedly urbane monster resides in the city, and can be found on weekdays wandering about single-family dwellings belonging to the middle class, and on weekends roaming any number of downtown condos with dedicated lawn care. The creature, while creepy, is often turned out in a grey suit and leather oxfords.
Though possessed of blue eyes and a witless stare, it can be seen in a manner that suggests that it is always thinking. About what—is anybody’s guess. Its infamy results from a penchant for theft and chicanery. Regularly lifting wallets, stealing credit card numbers, et cetera, et cetera, the beast is attracted to any interaction resembling a money transfer. Likely the selfsame subject of its enigmatic thought and vexing gaze.
Its reputation is for theft. Anytime. Anywhere. In a room full of people, in broad daylight, over the Internet, under the naked clarity of florescent lights. Anywhere. Anytime. A kind of day and night twenty-four hour shopmart. And it does so with a demonstrably hackneyed technique, galling to its victims.
The creature might simply rip cash straight from one’s fingers. Or violently stuff its hand down one’s pocket, fishing for a wallet. It has been observed during a credit card transaction leaning over a person’s shoulder, scribbling the card numbers with a pen into an open notepad, the pages already replete with ill-gotten numbers. The obviousness of its illicit behavior provides something akin to the element of surprise.
“Hey,” the unbelieving victim shouts, “that’s, ah, mine… You’re a thief!”
To which the creature bleats its fabled reply:
“No I’m not.”
Its voice petulant. Indignant. Nasal. Argument exists over the putative cleverness of the creature’s stock reply, since the creature has both denied the accusation while in the same breath introduced itself. The No I’m Not.
A baffled victim typically reacts in shock, glancing around with a look of did-you-see-that?, suddenly uncertain of their lived experience and seeking, from peers and the authorities alike, verification of their senses. The moment is existential. Reams of scholarship, charts and graphs, equations and algorithms, are devoted to teasing out whether said beast is a genius, inspired on the order of the proverbial trickster, or singularly potty. One analyst observed that Ivy League economists tended to ascribe genius; whereas, to the contrary, victims decried the experience as ham-fisted.
Regardless, it is in this critical moment of the victim’s doubt that the No I’m Not typically puts on display its teeth, lips slowly peeling back, unsheathing an extraordinarily well-manicured bite. Victim and onlookers alike are bewildered by its meaning. It could be the smile belonging to a cheerful neighbor; it could be the smile belonging to an alarmed canine. This ambiguity is often described by survivors as treading somewhere between vaudeville and menace, vainglorious camp and deadly quicksand.
Indeed, ambiguity is the No I’m Not’s sole claim to craft. Camp and quicksand are its modus operandi.
The outcome is the same, in any case. It comes down to the onlookers. As always, with the victim staring wide-eyed at them, the onlookers grow silent. They turn away from each other and the victim, muddled-headed, their gazes averted, refusing to meet eyes. They look at their shoes. They shrug. They shuffle their feet. And they mumble:
“No he’s not.”
The creature, however, is rarely satisfied in a given situation with only a successful transfer of funds. There’s still icing for this creature’s cake. The theft thus accomplished, it is habitual practice for the No I’m Not to square off with its victim and address any onlookers or interlocutors or authorities. While continuing to advertise its gleaming teeth, the creature hisses, pointing a finger at the victim and calling out:
“Here’s that little thief! Get ‘em!”
They arrive on certain days. None other.
Disciples of the sun god, the creator of these shadow people and their shadow life, etched stridently upon the earth on afternoons of radiant sunshine, they see the world in black and white. And somewhere in between. When the light is weak they are so stenciled: dissolute, unresolved, gray. They can be weak. They can be strong. We live with them either way, just as we live with their absence. An entire population of doppelgangers, our doubles in shadow life, they are a mirror image.
But they are not us.
Shadows are a solid presence, it’s in their nature to simply be. Unlike us, they do not reflect. Especially not light. This may explain their popularity as ink blots on a Rorschach. They reflect so little that one naturally projects onto them feelings culled from inner shadows. Shadows do not explain themselves, but at moments they may explain us.
Trees and power lines, cats and dogs: they come along too, in shadow life. They dance beneath our feet. They point away from the sun, growing and shrinking. They wait for our arrival, stoic. Shadows creep along the footprint of our structures and follow our architecture through the day, clinging about the foundations, slow yet steady, much like their friend the sundial and his time telling. Shadows intercede between us and an angry sun, shading. It’s a small favor. For our part, we jump-rope over their power lines, kick the leaves of their trees, contemplate their black corners, play hide-and-go-seek with their silent figures.
Shadows are, for the most part, friendly. Yet they mock us. Strolling. Jumping. Driving. Shadows are not just along for the ride; they go cause they must; it’s in their nature. So they get their kicks where they can, the cheaper the better. They’re broke and do not care. Yet, in the end, shadows do add up. The individual parts become a larger thing: a flat city upon the ground, like an otherworldly map, published underneath our footsteps.
But that’s all about the daytime—which is but half of the ride. As ever was, shadows blanket every inch of the night.
…And could care less about us.