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A Certain Slant of Lightby Laura Whitcomb
Chapter One Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if youre dead. I was with my teacher, Mr. Brown. As usual, we were in our classroom, that safe and wooden-walled box — the windows opening onto the grassy field to the west, the fading flag standing in the chalk dust corner, the television mounted above the bulletin board like a sleeping eye, and Mr. Browns princely table keeping watch over a regiment of student desks. At that moment I was scribbling invisible comments in the margins of a paper left in Mr. Browns tray, though my words were never read by the students. Sometimes Mr. Brown quoted me, all the same, while writing his own comments. Perhaps I couldnt tickle the inside of his ear, but I could reach the mysterious curves of his mind.
Although I could not feel paper between my fingers, smell ink, or taste the tip of a pencil, I could see and hear the world with all the clarity of the Living. They, on the other hand, did not see me as a shadow or a floating vapor. To the Quick, I was empty air. Or so I thought. As an apathetic girl read aloud from Nicholas Nickleby, as Mr. Brown began to daydream about how he had kept his wife awake the night before, as my spectral pen hovered over a misspelled word, I felt someone watching me. Not even my beloved Mr. Brown could see me with his eyes. I had been dead so long, hovering at the side of my hosts, seeing and hearing the world but never being heard by anyone and never, in all these long years, never being seen by human eyes. I held stone still while the room folded in around me like a closing hand. When I looked up, it was not in fear but in wonder. My vision telescoped so that there was only a small hole in the darkness to see through. And thats where I found it, the face that was turned up to me. Like a child playing at hide-and-seek, I did not move, in case I had been mistaken about being spotted. And childishly I felt both the desire to stay hidden and a thrill of anticipation about being caught. For this face, turned squarely to me, had eyes set directly on mine. I was standing in front of the blackboard. That must be it, I thought. Hes reading something Mr. Brown wrote there — the chapter hes to study at home that night or the date of the next quiz. The eyes belonged to an unremarkable young man, like most of the others at this school. Since this group of students was in the eleventh grade, he could be no more than seventeen. Id seen him before and thought nothing of him. He had always been vacant, pale, and dull. If anyone were to somehow manage to see me with his eyes, it would not be this sort of lad — this mere ashes-on-the-inside kind. To really see me, someone would have to be extraordinary. I moved slowly, crossing behind Mr. Browns chair, to stand in the corner of the classroom beside the flag stand. The eyes did not follow me. The lids blinked slowly.
But, the next moment, the eyes flicked to mine again, and a shock went through me. I gasped and the flag behind me stirred. Yet this boys expression never changed, and next moment, he was staring at the blackboard again. His features were so blank, I decided I had imagined it. He had looked to the corner because I had disturbed the flag a little. This happened frequently. If I were to move too quickly too near an object, it might tremble or rock, but not much, and never when I wanted it to. When you are Light, it is not the breeze of your rushing past a flower that makes it tremble. Nor is it the brush of your skirts that starts a drape fluttering. When you are Light, it is only your emotions that can send a ripple into the tangible world. A flash of frustration when your host closes a novel he is reading too soon might stir his hair and cause him to check the window for a draft. A sigh of mourning at the beauty of a rose you cannot smell might startle a bee away. Or a silent laugh at a misused word might cause a students arm to prickle with an inexplicable chill.
The bell rang, and every student, including this pale young man, slapped books closed and stood, with a scrape of chair feet, shuffling toward the door. Mr. Brown snapped immediately from his bed dream. “Ill bring a video tomorrow,” he said. “And dont fall asleep during it, or Ill make you act it out yourselves.” Two or three of his students groaned at this threat, but most were already gone, mentally if not physically.
So this was how it began. When you are Light, day and night have less meaning. The night is not needed for rest — its merely an annoying darkness for several hours. But a chain of days and nights is the way in which the Quick measure their journeys. This is the story of my journey back through the Quick. I would climb into flesh aagain for a chain of six days.
I stayed shamefully close to my Mr. Brown for the rest of the day. When you cleave to a host, it is nnnnnot necessary to shadow the person from room to room. I would never follow a male host into the bath, for instance, or into the marriage bed, man or woman. I learned from the beginning how to survive. From the moment I found my first host, I had been devoted to the rules that kept my punishment at bay.
I remembered all my hauntings clearly, but only a few images stayed with me from the time before I was Light. I remembered a mans head on the pillow beside me. He had straw-colored hair, and when he opened his eyes, he was looking not at me but toward the window, where wind was rattling the pane. A handsome face that brought no comfort. I remembered catching a glimpse of my own eyes in the window reflection as I watched this man ride away on a black horse through the farm gate, the horizon heavy with clouds. And I remembered seeing a pair of frightened eyes looking up at me, full of tears. I could remember my name, my age, that I was a woman, but death swallowed the rest. The pain, once I was dead, was very memorable. I was deep inside the cold, smothering belly of a grave when my first haunting began. I heard her voice in the darkness reading Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale.” Icy water was burning down my throat, splintering my ribs, and my ears were filled with a sound like a demon howling, but I could hear her voice and reached for her. One desperate hand burst from the flood and caught the hem of her gown. I dragged myself, hand over hand, out of the earth and quaked at her feet, clutching her skirts, weeping muddy tears. All I knew was that I had been tortured in the blackness, and then I had escaped. Perhaps I hadnt reached the brightness of heaven, but at least I was here, in her lamplight, safe. It took me a long time to realize that she was not reading to me; nor were her shoes spotted with mud. I held her, yet my arms did not wrinkle the folds of her dress. I cried at her feet like a wretch about to be stoned, kissing the hem of Christs garment, but she didnt see me, couldnt hear my sobs. I looked at her — a fragile face, pale but rosy at the cheeks and nose as if it were always winter around her. She had gray duck-down hair piled on her head like a birds nest and sharp green eyes, clever as a cats. She was solid and warm with a fluttering pulse. She wore a black dress with mismatched buttons, the elbows worn thin. Tiny spots of ink dotted her butter- colored shawl. The cover of the little book in her hands was embossed with the figure of a running stag. It was all real and blazing with detail. But I was shadow, light as mist, mute as the wallpaper. “Please help me,” I said to her. But deaf to me, she turned the page. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird . . .” As she read aloud the familiar words, I knew what I was. I stayed by her side for hours, afraid that if I looked away from her or tried to remember too hard how I had come to be in hell, I would be thrown back there. After a score of pages, my host closed her book. I was frightened by the idea that she might put out the light when she went to her bed, and this panic made me fall on her again. I threw my head into her lap like a heartbroken child. The book fell from her hands and dropped through me onto the floor. I was startled at the painless flick of sensation. My host bent to retrieve the book of poems, and as her body passed through me, I felt myself dropping down and then soaring up again as if I were on a childs swing. A most peculiar expression came over her face. She placed the volume carefully under the lamp on the desk beside her and took up pen and paper. She dipped at the ink and began to write:
A suitor bent upon one knee Death asked me for my hand
I could tell by the black stains on her fingertips that, most likely, these were not the first lines she had ever written. I couldnt tell whether I had inspired her, but I prayed that I had. If I could do some scrap of good, perhaps I would be granted entrance into heaven. All I knew was that this saint was my salvation from pain and that I would be hers until the day she died. And thats what I called her, my Saint. She was as poised as a queen and as kind as an angel.
I was confined to her world but was not her equal. I could fantasize that we were sisters or the best of friends, but I was still only her visiting ghost. I was a prisoner on leave from the dungeon — I knew nothing of my crime or the length of my sentence, but I knew I would do whatever I could to avoid being tortured. Alone in the lilac air of her country garden, I glided round her while she wrote hundreds of poems, her hair and her eyes slowly growing white. One evening, when I had been moving with her along the road to the woods and back, we stopped to observe a fly struggling in a web while a spider waited on a leaf and watched. I could feel my Saint devising a poem about the possibility of spider amnesty, but what I didnt realize was that she had stopped watching them and had marched home and was already dipping in ink before I turned to find her gone. At first I thought she must be just a few yards ahead, hidden by the hedges at the curve of the road. I rushed toward our home, but it was too late. The old pain returned, first to my feet, like ice slippers, then up my legs, slowing me to a crawl. I could still see the road in front of me, but as I fell forward, I heard a splash and cold rods shot up my arms and into my heart. I called to her until my mouth was full of water. The evening had gone black as my grave. I was back in the hell Id known before Id found her. I tried to do what I had done the first time Id heard her voice. I thrust out my hands, feeling blindly for her skirts, but I felt only wet wooden boards. Clawing at them, I felt a corner and then a flat shelf, then another shelf. I dug into the boards and pulled myself up. When I reached out this time, I felt a shoe. The darkness swam into warm light. I looked up to see my Saint standing on the wooden steps of her pantry, a pen in one hand and a half-written poem in the other. She gazed out at the dusk garden as if shed heard an intruder in her rose bushes. I was lying on her steps, one hand gripping her shoe, thanking God for letting me come back to her. After that I was ever so careful about staying close to my hosts. On my Saints final day, I hoped so passionately that she would take me with her into heaven that I lay in bed beside her, listening to her breathe. She had no nurse, no housekeeper. We were completely alone. I didnt understand how much I would miss her until she lay still as the earth under my head. My Saint. My only voice on the air, singing or testing a metered line aloud. My only companion on autumn walks. My page-turner by the fireside. I prayed for God to let me go with her. I couldnt recall my past sin, that deed I had done before my death that had banished me from heaven, but I prayed now for God to let me work off my debt beside my Saint. Remember how I had tried to comfort her when she was lonely, I prayed, and how I inspired her when her pen began to scratch out line after line of verse.
But God neither answered my prayer nor explained Himself. There was not even a moment when her green eyes turned to me in recognition. My friend, my Saint, had simply gone. The familiar cold began to tug at my feet, blistering up my legs, twisting ice into me. I was saved only by the insistent knocking at the door below. I swam down the air, through the bedroom floor, the hall ceiling, the wooden door, and, desperate not to be thrown to the darkness again, embraced the body that stood there. A young man who had been corresponding with her for a year, praising her verse, had chosen that day to call on her for the first time. He stood with a bouquet of violets in one hand, looking up at her curtained windows with disappointment. I shut my eyes, pressed my face upon his hand, and prayed to God to let me have him.
Eventually my prayers were rattled by the sound of horses hooves. I found myself sitting in the safety of his carriage at my new hosts feet beside the violets he had discarded. And so I was delivered again by a rescuer unaware. I called him my Knight because he had come to my aid when I was in distress. He was a writer, widowed and childless. He wrote stories of knights and princesses, monsters and spells, tales he would have told his dear ones at bedtime. His publishers would print only his books on Scripture, not these enchanting stories. This made him angry and caused him to walk about stiffly, like one who can never take off his armor. I tried to be his friend, and I believe I softened his words more than once so that his books would be accepted and keep his cupboards in bread. I had another close call with hell while at the theater with my Knight. He had gone with two friends to see a production of Much Ado About Nothing. As I stood in the box beside his chair, I fell in love with the costumes and fun of the players. I was as close to my Knight as two posts on the same fence, yet in the moment when I made a wish, I broke a mysterious rule of haunting. I watched the lovers in the pool of light below and wished one of them were my host. A chill beat through my heart. I slid down through the floor and half into my old grave before I could stop myself. I gripped my Knights hand and dangled there. “I take it back,” I prayed. “I want my Knight.” I struggled halfway in and out the window of hell for the rest of the act. An icy pain pulled at me from below as if I were standing on the floundering ship of my own floating coffin, the winter sea up to my hips. “Please let me have him,” I begged. Finally, as the curtain fell, I was washed up onto the warm, dry carpet beside my Knights feet. After that I was careful what I wished for. At the end, as my Knight slipped away in a dim corner of a hospital room, I found that again I was losing my only friend. I prayed again to God to let me go with my host, but no answer came. What saved me this time was quite a different voice from those of my first hosts. A playwright who had broken his arm was laughing with a comrade in the next hospital room, repeating the adventure that had caused his injury. I left my Knights bedside, pulled out of the coldness that was already sucking at me, and tilted through the adjoining wall, folding my arms around this silly youth. I held him hard until I knew I was with him. This lad, my Playwright, was nothing like my first two hosts. He had parties in his rooms almost every night until dawn, slept until noon, wrote in bed until four, dressed and went to the theater to work, then dined out and started the whole celebration again. I dont think he was at all aware of me. He and his friends seemed to do little else than make light of their talents. His plays made people laugh, but the only time I seemed to be influential was on certain dark mornings when he would wake after only an hours sleep, frightened by a nightmare. I would sit at the foot of his bed and recite poems written by my Saint until he fell back into dreams. He drank too much, ate too little, and died too young and quite suddenly at one of his own parties. A sweet gentleman poet, who was a guest at the event, caught my Playwright as he fell, like Horatio cupping Hamlets head in his large hand. I chose him instantly. My new host — I called him my Poet — was more susceptible to my whisperings than the previous one. When his mind would dry before a poem was complete, I would take great pleasure in speaking ideas into his sleeping ear. Like Coleridge with his vision of paradise restored, he would wake the next morning and turn my straw ideas into golden lines. He fell in love unrequitedly with several other gentlemen, some inclined toward men and some not, but he never found a mate. My Poet became a lecturer in his later years and mentored a seventeen-year-old named Brown. My Mr. Brown was a devoted student and wrote such passionate stories and listened so purely to all advice, I chose him in advance. I could tell months beforehand that my host was going to heaven without me. I cleaved to Mr. Brown when he came to say goodbye to my Poet. Mr. Brown was moving west to enter a university three thousand miles away. I chose him partly because he loved literature so very much, but I also chose him because he had a kind heart, an honest tongue, and a clear honor and yet seemed totally unaware of the fact that he was virtuous. This made him especially appealing. I had a half memory of being fooled by a handsome smile, but Mr. Browns face seemed a true mirror of his spirit. I felt even more attached to him than I had to the others. Perhaps thats why I called him by his name.
I had learned the rules of my survival well during those decades — stay close to your host or risk returning to the dungeon, take what small pleasure you can from a vicarious existence, and try to be helpful. And I do believe that I was helpful to Mr. Brown when he was writing his novel. From the time he was eighteen, he would spend at least an hour a day working on his book. He kept it in a box that once held blank paper. He would sit in a park or at a table in the library, composing one paragraph each day. He had more than two hundred carefully handwritten pages but was still on chapter five. I would sit beside him or pace around him, watching him think. Each page was as precious as a poem. When doubts or thoughts of mundane life staid his hand, I would try grasping his pen to urge him on, but my fingers would only pass through. I discovered that the best way I could help him become unstuck in his writing was to place my finger on the last word he had written. This always brought his pen back to paper and a smile back to his lips. It was a tale of brothers fighting for opposing kings in a medieval setting as rich and mysterious as Xanadu. I longed so to talk to him about this characters name or that characters motives, about a phrase here that described a river and a word there that described a dying mans eyes. I would fantasize, as he slept, long conversations we would have if he could see and hear me — the two of us sipping tea or walking in the country, laughing together over brilliant ideas. But that would never happen, of course. And so it went, my favorite hour of each day spent with him and his book, until the writing stopped the day he met his bride.
They saw each other across a lecture hall and met in the doorway as they left. There was an uncomfortable familiarity about it all. The way she smiled at him, the way he was thrilled when she laughed at his joke, the little excuses each had for touching the other. Her hand on his arm as she asked a question, his knee touching hers as they drank coffee at a tiny table in a pub so noisy they left to take a walk. None of my hosts had lived with a lover. And Im ashamed to say I felt jealous when this girl moved into his life. At first I pretended I disapproved because hed stopped working on his novel, but I knew that wasnt the only reason. An instability clutched me, and I found myself afraid of shadows and loud noises. I wanted to stop him, but although she had inadvertently halted his writing, she was undoubtedly making him happy. I wanted to warn her that a man might seem ideal and then turn cold and distant with no cause, but after all, it was Mr. Brown she was falling in love with. It would be a lie to argue that he wasnt worth the risk. And so because I loved him, I let her be, and because I feared pain, I learned to follow at a distance when they were together. I felt lonelier than I had ever been with any host, but I tried to love her as if she were my daughter. She had no quality I could easily complain about. It would be a sin to whisper discouragement in his ear. And so they were wed when he was twenty-three and she twenty-one. I taught myself to ignore the pangs I felt when he would tickle her while driving in the car or when she would rest her feet in his lap during breakfast. The intimacy hurt because it wasnt for me. I was Mr. Browns and he was mine, but not the way she was his. Not the way he was hers.
I taught myself the new rules to survive. Move out of the room when they kiss, enter the bedroom only when it is silent, cherish my time with Mr. Brown when he is at work. I obeyed these rules, and one day I was rewarded. Mr. Brown brought out his old tattered box, put it in his briefcase, and drove us to work an hour early. For more than a year now, Mr. Brown had been spending an hour each day, before his first students arrived, working on his novel with me beside him. Feeling inspired by this gift, I had tried to warm myself to his bride by whispering recipes in her ear while she was baking cookies or a cake. I thought I was being as gracious as her own mother might be, until a package arrived from her grandfather, an album of photographs of Mrs. Brown as a baby. The cub-ear curls of her hair and the dimpled backs of her tender hands bit at me like sleet. I couldnt look at them, coward that I was. I wasnt her mother. I had chosen Mr. Brown. And he had chosen her.
Now I was afraid that the rules of my world were changing again. I had been seen by a human. Sitting on the sloped roof of Mr. Browns small house while he and his wife slept and dreamed below, I studied a crescent moon hung crooked in a plum purple sky and thought about what it would be like to truly be seen. I imagined standing before the young man who seemed to see me and letting him look as long as he wished. How was he doing this? Had he somehow chosen me? I had two strong and seemingly contradictory sensations. One was a fear of being seen by a mortal — as if beheld naked when you know you are clothed. The other was an almost indescribable sensation of attraction — the vine curling toward the suns light in slow but single-minded longing. I wanted to see him again, to see whether he really was that rare human who saw what others could not. Nothing was more disturbing to me, and yet nothing compelled me more. By the next school day, when the same group of students entered Mr. Browns classroom, I deliberately stood in the back corner of the room. I wanted to know whether the boy could see me and not have to wonder whether he was looking through me at a map of the world or a grammar lesson. I stood still as marble in the far corner between the window frame and the cupboard door. I remained calm so that nothing, not even a speck of dust on the floor, would shift from my presence. And I watched the students enter, one by one, dragging their feet, pushing each other and laughing, listening to private music with wires in their ears, and then, finally, the boy with the pale face, moving, almost gliding to the desk he always sat in, near the back, in the middle.
I moved not an inch and waited. The shuffling died down, the murmurs ceased as Mr. Brown began to speak. The boy sat leaning back, his long legs in denim stuck out in the aisle, his white shirt rolled up at the sleeves, shirttails out, his dark green bag of books lying under the chair. I waited. And then he moved. He let the paper that had just been passed back to him slip off the desktop on purpose; I was sure it was on purpose. And when he sat up and bent to retrieve it from the floor, he turned his head and looked back into the corner of the room where I stood. His eyes met mine for one moment, and he smiled. I was shocked, shocked again though I had longed for it. He sat back up and pretended to read the page, just as the others were doing. How is this happening? I thought. He couldnt be as I was, Light. I had never seen another like myself. I felt that it was impossible — an instinct told me so. I had never truly believed in mediums, but perhaps this strange boy was some sort of seer. He seemed to have no interest at all in sharing his knowledge of my presence with his fellow classmates or Mr. Brown. It made no sense, and although I was still nervous and full of longing about him, now I was also angry. How dare this chimney sweep of a boy shatter my privacy so matter-of-factly and so completely? What made it worse was that in that moment when he smiled at me, his face flushed. He looked alive and healthy for the first time. It was as if hed stolen something from me. I felt humiliated, for some reason, and I stormed straight out of the room, without looking back, making a flock of papers flutter off the front row of desks.
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