“A Solace of Shadows” by Suzanne J. Willis is a 2020 Aurealis Awards finalist for best fantasy short story.
I was the first puppet the Marionette Master had ever made – the most imperfect, with one foot a little bigger than the other and a creaky right elbow – and, so, the one closest to her heart. My auburn hair was upswept, dark eyes fringed with real lashes. I was not glorious, but I was hers. “Mereen, my little shadow,” she would say.
It is an old tradition of the marionette masters – women, without exception, for centuries – to anoint their first creation with a drop of blood from their finger-tip. It is an older tradition still to push boundaries and break the rules. So should it be such a surprise that she fed me with blood from her wrist? Or that she continued to do so, month after month as the moon waned and a frost of stars rimed the night sky?
I loved her as I would a mother. Like any child, I had my own secrets, my own broken rules. Although she sometimes wondered aloud at how her marionettes almost seemed to have minds of their own, she did not know that I fed them shadows, each and every night. I began because I wanted a family of my own, someone to provide for. But with those imitations of life inside them, their performances became riveting and feeding them also became my way of repaying her.
So lifelike, the audience cried. So inspiring, the dowagers wept.
So creepy, the children whispered to one another.
Knights in metal armour, coloured feathers flowing from their filigreed helmets. Jaguars whose legs were permanently ready to pounce. Aristocrats in buckled shoes, raggedy hobos, plague doctors, dwarves heavy-pocketed with treasure. Moorish warriors with sharpened swords, angels and demons, and one enormous Cyclops. The more I fed them, the more marvellous the performances became. And the more feted the Marionette Master.
She lived at the theatre, on the upper floors, in a room draped with scarves, piled high with books, and an old, ornate mirror almost covering one wall. Outside was a garden in which she grew all she needed. Vegetables and fruit trees sprouting from the rich, dark earth. Herbs for flavouring and memory and to keep away bad luck. Chickens for eggs.
For my wooden family, each night a feast.
I waited until the crowd had filed into the theatre on the second floor, and the first notes of the old piano and the mournful violin began. Clack, clack, clack, my wooden feet on wooden floors, a snick of the lock, then out into the evening.
The garden shears lay on the potting table, the sun reflecting off them and onto the sandy-coloured brick wall, a replica in light. I reached up and carefully took down the light-shears that weighed no more than a feather. Nothing cuts umbrae so well as a sparkle of brightness. First, the shadows of sunset, long and rich, like a stew that has been simmering all day. Elongated tomatoes, thin crescents of eggplant, sheaves of rumpled cavolo nero, cut, cut, cut, then laid carefully in my basket of paper-reed. A bee had landed on the flowering thyme and, as the last of the sun slipped away, I gently scraped the subtle silhouette of the pollen clinging to his back legs, for a touch of sweetness.
Perhaps that little change was just what they needed. The jaguars and the warriors, in particular, had been restless of late, hard to fill, making me wonder if what I gave them was enough. The gentle harvesting calmed me. Darkness, then the bright, just-waning moon. Onto the moonlight-cast shapes – deeper, more substantial, limned in cold silver. The rosemary, like an oil stain, dark and strong-scented. Huge field mushrooms that grew in the loam near the back door, fresh-sprung from—
Something rustled through the fennel and parsley that grew wild behind the henhouse. Inside, the chickens cackled and cooed, undisturbed. I crept forward. A creak, a stealthy movement but not a sleek one, then a paw darted out, almost experimentally.
“Jasmine!” I hissed. The jaguar shook herself clear of the fennel and parsley patch, and at least had the good grace to look ashamed as she slunk over to me.
“I’m hungry, Mereen” she said, whiskers twitching.
“Well, I’m not out here for my health, you know! You’ll get fed along with all the others after the show.”
She shifted, her eyes darting across to the coop then back to me. “But they smell so tasty. Fresh meat. Blood…” Jasmine’s eyes were fearful. “I’m not sure how I even know that’s what I smell, but it’s…irresistible.”
I felt like a marionette whose strings had been suddenly cut. “Shhh, now, you go back inside and after dinner, you’ll feel as good as new. I’ll take just a suggestion of some of the ham-hock and blood sausage that’s hanging in the pantry, what do you say?”
Jasmine nodded and turned back to the theatre. I finished collecting my ingredients in silence, all joy gone. Shadow-food should have been all that Jasmine – all that any of them – needed. But these days, even with the most elaborate meals, they remained hungry. As a last thought, I pinched some leaves of blueberry, basil and rosemary from their stems and took them with me. If we were dealing with real desires, best have the means for an ancient protection.
For what if the silhouette-flavour of blood-sausage and cured meat wasn’t enough for her? Or, worse, for any of them?
The single globe hanging from the pantry ceiling swung, the shadows it cast swelling and contracting. I didn’t often use meat in my dishes, mainly because their shapes, against the pantry shelves and the jars and bottles sitting there, were so difficult to harvest. They were also unpredictable in the dishes, once having sent the Cyclops into a fortnight’s slumber, another time causing the dwarves to run naked through the garden.
Waiting for the bulb to still, the scents of the food almost overcame me. Salt and sugar, the richness of passata in its jars and the earth clinging to the potatoes in their basket. They had never smelt so strong. But each time I fed on the blood of the Marionette Master, my senses sharpened. Where at first I could hear only her voice, now the voices of the hymn singers in the church two miles away woke me each Sunday. Where before had been the blurred shapes of patrons filing into the audience was now the detail of fabric and colour and movement.
I understood why Jasmine was creeping toward the henhouse and why there had been murmurs of dissatisfaction among the rest of my family. They had had the merest taste of what was possible and it had made them hungrier, still.
Against the dark of night, there was a perfect reflection in the pantry window of the ham hock, salted and cured over many months, hanging above the jars of olives and preserved lemons. The blood sausage hung next to it, dark and rich, curled over and over on itself. Was this my answer? Reflections. More than shadow, less than reality. More than they are used to, I thought. Caught in glass, these smaller, less substantial versions of the food could be perfect for what I needed.
I took my sharpest knife, bladed by morning sun on the kitchen wall and kept safe by lamplight, pressing it against the window. It didn’t make a dint. I pressed harder this time, careful not to scratch the glass, digging the point into the reflected flesh of the ham. It yielded, just a touch, but it was for nought. My best knife, the one I kept for the most sharply defined, most stubborn penumbra, could not lift even the tiniest corner of the meat.
But reflection is morethan shadow, less than reality. So, I needed a tool that was more substantial than light, less than the crudity of a real knife. The reflection of a knife, perhaps? It would take me days to make one, to allow it to properly develop and blade. Then I remembered that earlier in the day, I had heard the tinkling of breaking glass. I went to the kitchen bin and carefully rummaged through it. A package wrapped in newspaper that crunched under my touch held the glass that I was after. I removed a shard and took it with me back to the pantry.
Again, I dragged the sharp point along the reflected ham. Nothing. Frustrated, I pressed harder. The shard slipped from my hand, my thumb nail running along the glass in its wake. Or, rather, through it. It had taken a tiny nick out of the reflection. I lifted my thumb again, tentatively carving first along the image of the ham, taking off a long sliver of fat and meat. Then along the blood sausage, gouging away a chunk. Afterwards, I licked my fingers, relishing the taste of flesh and blood and sustenance.
Newly-acquired treasures tucked into my apron, I skipped back into the kitchen and began to cook. With my shining, insubstantial knives, I chopped the vegetables and herbs, popping them into the iron pot that had been warming on the hearth, the water inside bubbling gently. I had long ago discovered that trying to cook directly over the fire resulted only in a charred saucepan and ash, which does not a satisfying meal make. The warmth from the flames and their smoke was enough – that night, I used branches of applewood and pecan in the fire to flavour the soup. I stirred the shadows in and they drifted through the water like ink, releasing the colours trapped inside. Dark green of the cavolo reminiscent of spring forests; tomatoes the red of ocean sunrise; eggplant the shade of distant mountains shearing into the sky like knives. They held the memories of light as is travelled across the world. It carried more stories than we could ever tell, but we would feast on the world held in darkness and sunshine, giving life to our wooden limbs, our wooden hearts.
As the broth simmered, I tore the ham and sausage into small chunks. They were strange to the touch; not as fragile as the mere ghosts of food I was used to working with. My mouth watered and I could have happily stuffed myself with all those little pieces, leaving nothing for anyone else. I lifted a piece of the sausage to my nose, breathed in its earthy, coppery smell. Just one piece, I said to myself, opening my mouth.
A low growl from the corner stopped me. Jasmine’s yellow eyes stared at me accusingly, as I put the piece down.
“I think I know how you felt at the henhouse,” I said to her.
She nodded, then resumed her corner pose, watching me as I tipped the meat into the pot. The soup bubbled and spat and sheened with colour as the fat grew warm. One more stir, before leaving it to simmer and reduce for the next hour or two.
I left Jasmine purring in the kitchen, licking her chops, blissful in the warmth. In the pantry, I replaced my knives and spoon on the wall, dulled now from use, where they would catch the morning light. But something wasn’t quite right. I sniffed. There was a whiff of something off, that hadn’t been there earlier. Nothing seemed out of place, none of the jars were broken. I sniffed again, then looked up.
The sausage, before beautifully dark and plump, was covered with a thin skin of sickly green mould, and the ham was wrinkled and desiccated at the edges. I tasted the sourness of the mould and it flooded me with shame. It was my fault, messing with something that I didn’t fully understand. From the kitchen, the soft crackle of the flames reminded me of the simmering soup. I turned and ran out, intending to dash the pot to the floor. I grabbed the tea towel, ready to heave it off the hearth, when the smell wafted upwards. It was like nothing I had ever cooked before, earthy and salty and so close to real food, the kind that the Marionette Master ate. How could that be bad? Jasmine looked at me, curious. How could I deprive the others of a meal such as this?
Shaking, I returned the tea towel to its place and quietly shut the pantry door.
Through the windows of the marionette storeroom, the stars shone like sugar spilled on indigo silk. Ours was a small theatre, but we still took up the whole of the third floor, stored in rows and sitting against set pieces, the angels and skeletons and Death hanging from the rafters. That night’s performance had been Hansel and Gretel, and applause rang through the theatre as Jasmine and I hoisted the soup up via the dumb-waiter.
Moving slowly in the starlight, my marionette family seemed from another time, another world. I was like them, yet not; I was the only one with the Master’s blood in me. The only one somewhere between human and poppet. They stopped their chatter as steam from the soup snaked through the air. It made curious shapes, curling and wisping into the night.
“This is different, no?” Cyclops asked.
I nodded, ladling his share into a little wooden bowl. The others lined up behind him, shuffling impatiently. The more I ladled, the more soup there seemed to be. I pushed away the memory of the destroyed meats, hanging limp and straggly. I was just doing for my family what the Marionette Master did for me. I had no blood of my own to give, but I would still give them the best that I could.
Ladle, ladle, steaming broth
Like a candle, to a moth
Hanging on its heart’s desire
Too close, dear moth, your wing’s afire!
The skeleton marionette, Teo, stood back, plunking a tune on her ribcage and singing the words in time. She was the oldest of us all, having been left to the Master by her mother before her. I offered Teo a bowl, but she shook her head and walked away. Eccentric though she was, her tune unsettled me.
The rest of them slurped their soup, murmured to one another, to me, to the star points in the sky, that they had never tasted its like before. That it made the darkness seem darker and the memory of audience applause seem sweet and bitter, all at once. Their words blurred together, turned to a sibilant rhythm that sounded like joy. In the corner, the angel Aurora beat her wings and lifted a few feet off the ground. The rest of them laughed and someone put the old phonograph on, a snaking blues tune the Marionette Master would often listen to late at night.
I sighed, my uneasiness forgotten as my family revelled in their meal. I had given them more than they had had before and sated a hunger they didn’t even know was buried inside them. But now I was hungry, too, and I left them running their fingers around their bowls, licking the last of the juice from their fingers and dancing with one another to yesterday music.
The Marionette Master was waiting for me in her rooms above the theatre, curtains open to the night, as always. Outside, the landscape was silver and shade and patches of fog lying in wait in the valleys. She smiled at me, beckoned me over. “Mereen. My little shadow,” she said.
I climbed up to where she sat on her bed, glass of wine in hand, and leaned against her, exhausted. She stroked my hair. “How I envy you sometimes, my little one. No past to reflect on, no future to worry about. Just right now…”
There is never just a right now, I wanted to say. Not once you’ve been fed. Not with the knowledge that comes from having the blood of another run through you, or from the need to feed others no matter the cost. I loved the Master, but at that moment, a snake-strike of hatred flared within me.
But I let her stroke my hair and murmur to me. What else was there for me? She put down the empty wineglass and opened the small silver case that held a pearl-handled straight razor. Pressing the blade to the soft flesh of her forearm she drew first a thin line of blood, and then pressed harder, crimson welling and running down her skin. I leaned forward, clamped my mouth over the cut and fed.
Under the initial spice of copper, her blood was sharp. It made me feel as though, but for that one night per month, I was indeed just a shadow, a vessel for delivering the desires of others. The audience, the Master, the marionettes. If I had teeth, I would have bitten down and sought the vein.
“Careful, now,” she said, pulling me away from her. “This is enough, no? We are creatures of tradition, you and I, but we are not savages.”
The Master wrapped her arm in a soft bandage. Before she had the chance to wipe my mouth, I used the back of my hand, then sucked the last drops from it. She picked me up, put me in the wicker chair by the window, so I had a view of the sleeping world outside and of her, reflected in the huge mirror propped up against the opposite wall.
The feed acted on me like the wine on her. From downstairs, there was a muffled shuffling as my family settled themselves to sleep. Beyond the window, the landscape and the streets were a thousand hues of black and the sky above a raven’s wing, feathers tipped with diamonds.
I drifted off to sleep, my Master already dreaming under her red quilt.
The nights I fed were the only nights I dreamed and that night, they were filled with creaking doors and huge cauldrons of steaming broth and my family whispering hungry, hungry, hungry.
I woke suddenly. In her sleep, my Master moaned. A movement in the mirror caught my eye – the corner of the red quilt moved once, twice, then was still. Hungry, hungry, hungry… the cry taunted me. It was a nasty sound and I wanted to curl up, put my hands over my ears. The door to the room, closed earlier, was now ajar. Jasmine’s yellow eyes peered through. “We tried to stop them,” she said, limping into the room. Her front leg was splintered, as though she had been in a fight.
The bottom right hand corner of the mirror was cracked, opened as though someone had slipped through a break in an old fence. The reflection of the quilt rippled and twitched, but the actual quilt was still, undisturbed. I ran to the bed and ripped it to the floor, then turned back to the mirror. Marionettes – my family – swarmed over the Master’s reflection. Aurora, Cyclops, the warriors and faeries and noblemen and women, all of them, feasting on it. They stripped the flesh away, plucked out her hair, scrabbled and fought over each of her limbs and the ripe roundness of her belly. Aurora tore the left hand clean away and, baring her teeth, flew into the corner of the mirror to eat. A soldier used his sword to cut away her cheek. And all the while, they all growled hungry, hungry. Jasmine whimpered and I was utterly paralysed. I could never have imagined there was such viciousness inside them. But I was the one who had fed them ghost-meat. I had awoken their need. I had failed.
Then I remembered the real meat, after I had taken only some of its likeness from the window. The mould. The decay. In the bed, the Master moaned and cried in pain. They will never stop, I thought. For there was no skeleton or viscera under the flesh they stripped away. Only the ghostly outline of our sleeping Master. Next, they would come for real muscle, real blood.
I pushed Jasmine behind me, angled us so we were not reflected, and grabbed the matches the Master kept by her bedside for her candles. Shaking, I tried to strike one, knowing that a mistake would see us all dead. Matches and wooden hands do not mix. Then Cyclops looked out at me, saw the matches and his face filled with rage. He started to crawl back towards the crack in the mirror, to slip back into the room. To come for me, for Jasmine for my sleeping Master.
I struck the match again, held it aloft. Its image in the silvered surface touched Cyclops first. Aurora swooped down, beating her wings in fear, but they only fanned the flames. It caught the soldiers and the delicate beauties in their fancy gowns. As I dropped the match in the empty wine glass and it sizzled out, they screamed and howled, the flames peeling away their painted faces, licking their bodies to charcoal and ash. Smoke wafted from the crack in the mirror, bringing the smell of death with it. I ran over and pulled the cord to drop the black cloth over the mirror, like a curtain over a window, hoping to smother the flames and stop the fire from spreading out into the room.
Soon, but not soon enough, the screaming stopped. As Jasmine and I huddled together, a soft tap-tapping of footsteps approached. Teo walked slowly in.
“Too close, dear moth, your wing’s afire!” she said softly. “Terrible things happen when we try to be more than what we are. You see?”
I shook my head. I didn’t see at all. We were more than just playthings, someone’s little pet. The Marionette Master was so still, I couldn’t quite tell if she was alive or… At that moment, I wasn’t sure whether I hated her or myself more. She was the one who gave me life, who gave me a taste a family with whom I could share this life. But I was the one who had needed to sate greed instead of control it.
Teo put her skeletal hand on my shoulder, the wooden bones clacking softly against my hinged shoulder joint. A reminder of what we actually were, not what we wanted to be. “It happened to my Master, too, and the Master before her. Once it begins to burn within us, it consumes us…”
Dawn began to pearl the sky, illuminating my master’s body, no longer flesh but petrified wood. If I had a human heart, that is when it would have broken. All was still and quiet, then Jasmine pricked her ears, limped across to the mirror. She sniffed the corner of the black cloth, then caught the cord between her sharp teeth and pulled.
There, in the mirror, were reflections of me, of Teo and of Jasmine. But nothing of the Master or my family, only piles of ashes from the fire that had consumed the marionettes. The morning sun caught on the smoke swirling and twisting from the rubble. It looked like a sigh. The different spires merged and grew, feeding on the sun’s rays, coalesced into an amorphous shape that was smoothed and moulded by unseen hands.
Of smoke and fresh morning light, the last of the Marionette Master looked out at me. She smiled sadly, the ash lifting and dancing around her, then faded into the ebbing gloom as sunlight pierced the room.
I reached into my apron pocket, drew out the blueberry, basil and rosemary leaves. I wasn’t sure where we would end up, but new dangers need ancient protection. We would need to damp down the desires that flared within us. Sprinkling the leaves over the shadow that the master’s wooden body cast, Teo, Jasmine and I sat, scooping handfuls of it into our mouths. A last meal that tasted of sadness and hope, before an unknown future. A consolation of love and shade for little shadows in a world of light.
The story first appeared in TCM 7/2020