Lindsay Stern is the author of the recently published Town of Shadows, available from Scrambler Books and soon to be available at a variety of book vendors. A native of New York City, Stern is currently working on a B.A. in English and Philosophy at Amherst College, where she’s already at work on her follow-up novel. Town of Shadows is her debut publication. You can find more information about Stern at her website.
The following is an extended selection from Town of Shadows, picked from the larger work to give readers a taste of the novella as a whole. These vignettes introduce readers to characters they will encounter and reacquaint themselves with over the course of the story, such as the Mayor and Pierre, and also show glimpses of the patterns of theme and imagery that scaffold the story as a whole. – The Editors
For a long time the mayor required all citizens to wear small wooden cages on their heads. The idea was to trap their thoughts before they wafted behind another’s eyes, between another’s ears. At first the results were satisfactory. Then came the complications: the cages filled until the mayor could no longer distinguish one face from the next. Through the bars he discerned only light—red for politicians, for philosophers bright blue, and for children the glint of candleflame. They were happily blind, watching their thoughts unfold before them as the objects of the world ticked on.
Soon the mayor tired of the cages. Bureaucrats sawed off the bars until the ground was laced with splintered wood.
“It’s for the best,” said the mayor through his black cigar.
They watched the ash descend into his empty sleeves. They watched him with one face.
Lately, Pierre has felt his brain expanding. Growing lighter, as if swollen with air. This morning, a thrust against the roof of his skull. Last night, a pressure in his jaw. Before long, he suspects, the whole machine will burst. Words will trickle through his ears, scamper back into the world. So as not to forget them, he has built a lexicon:
Mirror, n. A palindrome.
Loneliness, n. Wordlessness.
Indigestion, n. Swallowed noise.
THE EVAPORATION OF WORDS
Every third month, the bureaucrats emptied the library. They carted books out by the dozens, spreading them open across the town green, for the sun to drink. Gradually the chapters would fade, line by line, until all that remained were the dots on the i’s. When those vanished, the bureaucrats would cart the books back onto the shelves.
Felix was knotting his tie when he noticed that he’d left himself in the mirror. He checked his watch: forty past. He’d be late for work, without question. Anxiously he paced the glass from end to end, thrusting his palms against the wooden frame. Nothing budged. He swung his head into the glass, but cracked his vision instead, collapsing beneath a swarm of yellow gnats. When they dimmed, he examined his room. Nothing seemed to have changed. His sheets lay wrinkled, his shoes untied. By the window his coffee still steamed.
Felix considered. The best way out is the way in, he thought. In his mind he retraced the morning, miming every gesture, every frown. He paid special attention to the memory of the tie. Standing before the mirror, he had looped it round his neck. As he knotted, he had noticed something curious: his pupils were dilating at great speed, consuming his irises and the surrounding whites. Soon they had let in so much light that he could hardly see. It must have happened then, Felix thought, when the bedroom vanished. A flash of light and I became my reflection. Nothing to do now but wait.
Only then did Felix realize that he was not alone. Something brushed against his shoulders, caught the end of his tie. He wheeled around. A man was walking away from him, deeper into the glass. Felix caught the scent of a familiar cologne. He called out, but the man did not turn. Warily Felix set out after him. He was inches away when he felt around his ankles a pair of tiny hands. He started, nearly crushing the figure below. Blinking up at him was an infant, a boy with almond eyes and a single tooth.
“Hello there,” said Felix. “Have we met?”
The infant frowned. He was studying the glass beside Felix.
“Aye!” said the infant, “Eye, I!”
The air thickened. On his neck Felix discerned a new warmth. He turned to find a stranger before him, a young man with almond eyes and a mouthful of teeth. The man was looking past him, but Felix did not notice. His mind had drained. Every thought had bled through the sieve of his brain, around his lungs, along his arms, out his fingertips. The thoughts piled on the ground, intact, like bulb upon bulb of mercury.
The young man was Felix. Around his neck was a tie Felix had lost long ago, on his finger a bronze wedding ring. He was looking beyond the mirror, into the bedroom. Felix followed his gaze.
The room was filled with mourners. They moved from wall to wall, murmuring, sipping glasses of Scotch. Felix watched them dwindle and depart, nodding gravely, still sipping. One woman remained. She closed the door and stood alone. Felix did not allow himself to recognize the woman as his wife.
“Ella,” he mouthed, “Ella, please.”
It was useless, he knew. He watched her tip her chin back and inhale deeply. A sob loomed in her throat, then dissolved. She smoothed her blouse, ran a palm over her hair. She left the room.
Felix felt his muscles transform into broth. He slid to the ground, breathing in knots. The yellow gnats returned, lancing the weight of her absence, of his. Felix did not smell the lemon of evening tea, nor watch the last guests filter from the lawn. He did not hear, as it loped by, the engine of the now empty hearse.
Self, n. A hidden crowd.
For breakfast he ate stewed eggs and a slice of pear. He read the newspaper. He rinsed his plate. He tossed the pear skins in the wastebasket. He read the newspaper again.
The newspaper contained a new edict, signed by the mayor. It read:
BEYOND ADMINISTRATIVE PURPOSES,
THE USE OF VOWELS IS HEREBY FORBIDDEN.
Beside the newspaper were a pen and a sheet of paper. The logician began to write.
The logician sealed the letter, opened the front door, and counted his steps to the mailbox. The number was always the same. The logician did not notice. He never strayed from the present, even in thought. Memory was dislocation, and no person could occupy two places at once.
The logician counted fifty steps. He did not notice the wind, nor the melting sun. He did not notice the bureaucrat striding across the road, toward the graveyard. The bureaucrat was no taller than a broom. In one hand she held a brush, in the other a jar of black paint. The logician was climbing his front steps as she knelt beside the first grave. She crossed out one vowel, then another. By lunchtime she was finished. The next morning, the gravestones would stand as they always had. The logician would not notice the drops of paint on the road, nor the host of dismembered names.
BY THE WINDOW
Pierre awoke to find he had lost his shadow. He is still sitting by the window, whistling hymns through two teeth. Beside him are a crinkled slip of paper, a flute, and a little tin cyclist painted red. He is naked. Selma will not notice because she is blind. She is also mute, as she lost her voice cheering in the war. Even so, he can tell she is ashamed of him. He is always losing things.
Leopold was a collector of butterflies. Swallowtails, clearwings, monarchs, whites. He kept them in the pantry. In the evenings, they hung from the drinking straws, asleep, leaving a pulsing sound in their wake. Leopold would run a flashlight over the pantry shelves, across the boxes and jars. Now and then he’d rouse a butterfly, and turn the pantry into a box of wind.
In the schoolhouse, Leopold had learned the Law of Non-Contradiction:
“Opposites cannot occur simultaneously.”
Across the blackboard the teacher had chalked the following symbols:
~(P Λ ~P)
In his notebook Leopold had written:
That afternoon Leopold had caught his first butterfly, a monarch. He had spent all night on the pantry floor, watching it weave in and out of his flashlight’s beam. When it settled on a drinking straw, he was overwhelmed by the desire to weep. Instead, he laughed. He laughed and wept, wept and laughed, until he lost track of which was which.
The next morning, Leopold began to toy with opposites. He plucked the monarch from its drinking straw. On each of its wings, he wrote a word:
As the monarch fluttered back into the shelves, he watched the wingwords fuse and clash, clash and fuse. He repeated the experiment with each butterfly he caught:
By fall, he would open the pantry door to find a blizzard of words and wings.
Flight, n. The dance of antonyms.
THE PLAGUE OF DREAMS
Within a week, half the town had contracted the dream. It was highly contagious. Quarantine signs sprang up like dandelions.
“Plagues strike for a reason,” said the mayor. He was miles away. His voice came from the mouth of an enormous gramophone. Flecks of ash descended from its lips. The bureaucrats held the gramophone as they would a vase of endangered birds.
“That’s right,” a girl whispered. “It was aiming for you.”
One of the bureaucrats heard the girl. He had her deleted.
In the dream, the sleeper encountered a wooden box. The box was full of Nothing. The townspeople knew no words with which to express the dream, because words were nothing without things, which were nothing without words. The Nothing hung between words and things like a mirror.
Once a person saw the Nothing, she became it. Suddenly there was nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to be. Nothings roamed the town like silent noise.
The deleted girl had not been infected. She had woken the previous night to find her father clutching the air.
THE LOST YEAR
Weeks later, the plague emerged in a different form. It swept the town into a thick sleep. For twelve months it climbed through the drawers of each mind, sorting, rearranging, and leaving everyone, at last, as he had been. The next morning, no one realized he had slept for more than a night. The seasons had spun without residue. What little evidence there was escaped attention—soft tires, skins of dust on windowsills. Lamps left on had sputtered out, but still the sun roared. No one remembered his dreams.
Shortly after the second plague, the physicist was deleted for violating Newton’s laws. The bureaucrats found her on the town green, converting objects into light. She would toss a stone into the air, watch it climb and vanish. On the evening of her death, it rained in color.
Lita knew from age twelve that no person was entirely human. Most were several degrees off, while others were unrecognizable. Lita’s mother, for instance, was down to 94%. She had lost 1% in childbirth, and 5% on an afternoon in May, when she returned from an errand to find her swimming pool filled with drowned hens. From the morning she wrote her first line, Lita knew that poets were not human at all, but a breed of arachnid.
The first line Lita wrote was the following:
1 VERB VERB VERB PRONOUN VERB VERB VERB
The possibilities were limitless:
2 TO DROWN IS TO BREATHE WHAT SHOULD BE SWALLOWED.
3 TO LIVE IS TO KNOW WHAT CANNOT BE SAVED.
Lita preferred line 1, in which the pronoun was a mirror. In lines 2 and 3 the words weren’t words anymore, but the limbs of sentences. She liked them well enough, for their meaning. But in meaning their symmetry was lost.
Outside of poems, Lita didn’t care for words. The schoolhouse had taught her only that the things worth learning were impossible to teach. Lita knew that the things worth learning lived in pens, and typewriters. The things worth learning were allergic to chalk.
Before the morning of lines 1, 2 and 3, Lita had other ideas. A poet was not an arachnid, she had thought, but an engineer. A poet’s job was to build a real human, 100%. 100% humans were only possible on a page. For months Lita wrote, only to find that her characters were reflections of herself. Lita’s percentage was approaching zero. Her best characters were at least 90% short.
Lita hit zero on the morning of lines 1, 2 and 3, the day after the drowning of the hens. She had returned home to find her mother face down, flapping across the pool. On her back were three limp hens. The rest were underwater, drifting down like grenades. Now and then Lita’s mother would suck a mouthful of air, her swollen face bright against the blue. Mother looks exactly like a hen, Lita thought. It was her first simile.
The rest came easily. Metaphors, too, slipping from her mind into her pen. They were invisible threads, Lita knew, tying one object to the next—dew to tears, sand to time, parents to poultry. She smiled at the memory of her younger poems, at each flawed version of herself. A good poem, she thought, contained no humans at all. A good line was the strand of a web.
When her mother emerged from the pool, caked in feathers, Lita could see that the 5% was irretrievable. She helped dispose of the casualties, and towel-dried one stammering survivor. On her mother’s desk she left line 3.
THE DELETION OF ARTISTS
Only several townspeople could recall the deletion of artists. Most replaced the memory with another. The evidence lay about the town, untouched—shredded wreaths, buried clocks, dismembered poems. Within days, the shards were more familiar than earth.
Every morning at dawn, Elijah knelt beside his globe. He saw the continents as the features of a second face, an ally to watch him as he slept. The oceans were yellow with age, the poles dusty. Indonesia was peeling. Japan was half-demolished, its yellow peaks wafting to the rug. With his thumb Elijah traced the remains of France. Paris had melded with Évreux, Fréjus with Cannes. Every city in Europe had fused with its neighbor, smudges wrought by years of fingerplay. Decay was inevitable, Elijah knew. His globe was no less mortal than his skull.
Inside Elijah’s globe was a colony of ants. Months ago a pair had entered through a gap in the equator, a crack just below Guatemala. Since then they’d multiplied beyond count. Elijah watched them trundle along the seam of the world, shouldering crumbs like beige moons. Little Atlases, he thought. He pictured them inside, piled at the south pole, chewing galaxies of toast.
Now and then Elijah left a drop of honey beside the crack, or smeared it across South America. The first time the ants had gone mad with elation, dropping their crumbs into space. They’d rippled across one another, forming an island off the coast of Brazil. Their footsteps had reduced every capital city to a grayish smear.
Before bed, Elijah knelt again beside his globe. He watched the ants make their nightly rounds, and smiled once more at the ruins. Hours later, as he slept, a wasp would mount the globe’s wooden stand. With a force no weaker than gravitation, the scent of dried honey would draw it up, past Chile, along the membrane of Peru. The air inside the globe was as black as the ants, and through it the wasp would buzz, beating like a neuron against the cardboard bone, toward one narrowed eye of light.
The next morning in school, Elijah wrote the following equation on the board:
Mind / Brain = x
The teacher blinked. She picked up the telephone.
Within an hour, a bureaucrat had led Elijah away.
Answer, n. A question disguised.