The Shadow Hand

The Shadow Hand

By Hilary Hargis
© 2018 by the author

 

In the valley of the mountain, in the village near the sound, from the gates to the lake lived the trees. Their branches hung like a garland over the Avenue, draped in one great long limb to the hinges and shore. From this thatch of twig, each trunk took its place near the Avenue and pushed its root underground.

The men of the village had come to the Avenue, shingling their own gables to make a hearth and find a home. Fires were stoked, windows were shuttered, and porches were swept on the Avenue.

The strand of trees grew strong, despite the gables and paint and trusses along the Avenue. They were stronger, in fact, because of it. The villagers knew they lived under the roof of a fickle master. But villagers passed under the trees, and roots passed under the villagers, without any disruption to their unspoken truce. And so it would remain, until the child grew up on the Avenue.

Her first view of the Avenue was from a carriage, the blurs of green and brown swirling above her unfocused eyes. Then she felt the smooth, worn roots under her unsteady feet, then the rough bark in hand as she darted between the trees in play.

She had been to the lake one day watching the fish swim their circles. Dragging her feet through the mounding piles of leaves, she followed the tree line home. Dusk was falling quickly now and the yellow glow of homelight began to flood the windows on the Avenue. As the window lights grew brighter, and the day around her fell to gray, she was surprised to see a streak of darkness spread out from each trunk--a shadow cast by the indoor lights. She jumped over each shadow at first, a new game to play, until she neared a streak that seemed darker than the rest. She slowed down and paused, then lowered her knees to the black vein. It was like no other black she had ever seen, palpable and rich like velvet, yet gaping and hollow like an echo. She leaned in, her short hair swinging around her ears.

“Away! Magda. Do not. The dark!”

Magda spun toward the sound of her mother’s choked voice. Pressing her fingers to the ground, she steadied herself and pushed off toward home. Or at least she had willed herself to push, and had willed her knees to stand, had willed herself home. Why was she still kneeling in the earth? Then she felt it: a thin grasp, as firm as iron around her ankle. She turned her head slowly and saw the arm of black root rising out of the shadow, coiling its tendrils over her foot.

She flung herself at the earthen hand, clawing at each finger, stomping on its powerful arm. Dirt crumbled under her nails and dissolved with each kick, but the tendrils held strong. Weeping now, hair clinging to her hot cheeks, Magda heaved herself away from the tree.

The rough ground hit her hard. Gasping for air that seemed to forsake her, Magda scrambled backwards. The leaves were brittle between her toes, and she saw the glint of her shoe buckle as the hand dragged it into the obliterating dark.

For a moment she stared. Finally she pushed off the ground; finally her quaking knees stood. With limping, uneven strides, Magda stumbled to the porch steps and through the light-filled door.

Mother slammed the door behind her. With a glance at Magda’s mud and tear-streaked face, her dress spewed with soil, her foot stripped of stocking and shoe, Mother scooped her into the light of the kitchen. Soup appeared before Magda, and a cloth to smooth her face and hair, but all Magda noticed were the lines deepening on Mother’s forehead. The broom in Mother’s hands pounded more than swept the floor, her knuckles turning white on the broom handle.

“You will need another shoe,” she said at length, wielding the broom.

Magda’s eyes refocused on the crust of bread on the table. Mother was talking about shoes? But she was right. Soon it would snow, and there were no spares to be had on the Avenue.

“We’ll go to the cobbler tomorrow.” Reaching over the hearth, Mother grasped the black and gold tin and weighed it in her hands. “We have enough.”

Magda pushed her bowl away and started to rise.

“No objections,” Mother cut in, lowering herself to the table with an aching sigh.

#

They went at high noon, clasping hands as they rushed along the Avenue.

“Good day,” chimed the cobbler when they stepped into the workshop. Glimpsing Magda’s foot wrapped in rags, the cobbler donned a disapproving grin. “Miss Magda, How does a good girl like you lose a shoe in weather like this?”

The two stood before him, looking at the floor, at each other, at the foot forms on the wall.

As the silence lengthened, the merriment drained from the cobbler’s face. He leaned forward over his workbench and pushed aside his awl.

“One shoe is never enough,” he said simply.

Mother was quick to reply. “That’s precisely why we’re here. I can’t think how hard the winter will be for Magda unless the shoe is replaced. The cold will just--” Her voice faded as the cobbler met Magda’s gaze. The cobbler’s eyes were kind but grim; her daughter’s were suddenly knowing.

Mother pressed against the workbench. The floor had been firm a moment ago, but now she fumbled to find the black and gold tin in the folds of her cloak.

“Then we’ll take two shoes,” she whispered. The cobbler began to shake his head at this new scheme, but Mother’s alarm had hardened into cunning. “We must have a second. We must.” A door slammed in the alley, and the cobbler lowered his eyes in crumpled resignation. She was too resolved on the attempt.

“Two shoes, one for the girl and one for--,” he trailed off, his reply heavy. The cobbler returned Mother’s blank smile and took Magda’s hand as they turned to go. It was a fleeting touch, an earnest gesture, a tender parting.

#

The day the shoes were ready, a chill wind whipped across the Avenue. The web of branches arching across the path was completely bare, and the leaf mounds had scattered away in every direction.

Magda’s new shoe was perfect, and Mother urged her on down the Avenue to give it a good first running. She skipped ahead and leaped from root to root, looking back for Mother’s approving nod, but the games felt counterfeit. Deep in Mother’s cloak was the second shoe. Mother had said nothing when she’d taken it from the solemn cobbler, and she carried it with studied gladness, as if it were a ribbon or a pack of sugar. When Magda turned to her, Mother pinched her nose and glibly sent her on to play.

The house at least was bright and warm. Clambering inside, Mother hung her cloak--shoe and all--on the peg beside the door. It was time to stoke the fire, shutter the windows, and stir the soup, which Mother did in exaggerated spirits. Even the broom in her hands was an instrument of good cheer. Magda settled uneasily at the kitchen table to watch Mother’s preparations. Her eyes darted between the cloak and the soup pot, between the cloak and the bowls. Magda was not hungry, but Mother made such a show of eating that Magda spooned up her potatoes and played along.

At last, when the kitchen was tidy and the snarls had been combed out of her hair, Magda took off her shoes and placed them beside the bureau. Mother helped her into her nightdress and lifted the quilt on the bed, waiting for Magda to crawl inside. With the covers to her chin, Magda searched her mother’s careful face until unbidden tears clouded her eyes.

Mother’s artifice fell away. She swiftly drew a chair beside the bed, stroking Magda’s hair and breaking into a faltering lullaby. Though the song wavered, Mother’s hand was strong, and Magda’s wet eyes closed in sleep.

#

It was the sound of a muffled cry that woke her in the night. The chair beside the bed was empty, and the steady rhythm of Mother’s familiar breathing had died away.
Magda threw back the covers and scrambled to the floor, stumbling blindly to Mother’s bed across the room. Its quilt was smooth, still tucked and tidied from the morning’s chores.

Had Mother not yet slept? Flying down the stairs, Magda squinted in the growing light. The fire in the vacant kitchen was in full blaze, and three glowing lanterns lined the sill of the open front window. Mother’s cloak still hung beside the door, and Magda rallied as she reached toward the peg. The cloak’s wool weighed heavily in her hands. She opened it wide and shook it, but the shoe was gone.

A fierce crack from the fire stirred Magda from her unmoving pose. The cloak draped around her as she spread its wing-like folds across the back of the kitchen chair. Tracing the cloak’s hem with her finger, she turned again to face the door. The knob was in her hand, and suddenly she was squinting again, this time in the dark.

The first thing to hit her was the whirling wind, battering her nightdress like old sailcloth. Then her bare feet registered the cold and the grainy damp of the porch floor. The snow was circling her now, catching on her nose and hair. Magda looked out from the shelter of the porch, across the dim expanse of snow to the shrouded trees of the Avenue.

Up and down the Avenue, trees dissolved in the unbroken dark of the night. The homelights had long since been put out, and shutters closed in safekeeping. It was only from the house behind her that the light poured out, a determined stream toward the Avenue. From its nearest trees, a streak of darkness stained the snow.

Magda stepped off the porch and followed the footprints, fresh and ragged in the spotless snow, until she found the streak that seemed darker than the rest. Here the snow was firmly pressed, in the shape of a knee, in the shape of a shoe. In the hollow, she lowered herself to the black vein and waited for the shadow hand.

 

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