Fiction: American Shadow

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by Beth Cato

american-shadowBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 finalist for Locus Award First Novel) and The Clockwork Crown from Harper Voyager. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

If that banshee wailed one more time, Penny was going to scream.

The noise was awful, worse than the time her street had four cats in heat at once, that’s for sure. Worst of all, the banshee’s presence meant that Nana was about to die and there wasn’t a thing the doctors could do to stop it.

Penny couldn’t take it anymore. She had to get out of that house.

She wiggled through her blackout curtains and onto the crunchy grass.Darkness lay thickly over the dirt street. Cloth and paper smothered the windows of every house, preventing any leakage of light. A nearby radio blared the heavy horn instrumentals of Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” The summer wind carried the mustiness of dust and the sweet and sour perfume of the cannery and packing house upwind. Depending on the sourness, sometimes the stench of nearby dairies was preferable. That said a lot, considering Kings County probably had more cows than people.

Somewhere overhead, an airplane buzzed. The fellows at the listening post would recognize the sound well enough to identify the plane. Penny couldn’t imagine Japan actually attacking Armona—what would they do, steal all the peaches, apricots, and walnuts? But then, she never imagined Susan would be sent away, either.

Susan Miyamoto’s little house was dark behind a haphazard fence made of planks from citrus crates. Tears brimmed in Penny’s eyes. Two months had passed since Susan and her family walked down the street, suitcases in hand. It wasn’t right. Susan was born here—as American as Penny and everyone else in town. The other accents in Armona ranged from thick Portuguese to tongue-flicking fast Spanish to the long, slow drawls of transplanted Okies and Arkies. Almost everyone came from somewhere else. Out in the camp by the cannery, a thousand folks lived in cabins just for the packing season, tripling the town’s population.

Penny rounded the backside of Susan’s house and hopped over the rotting hay bales that bordered the canal. A length of string lay on the dirt. She picked it up, twining it between her fingers. She couldn’t hear the banshee, but she didn’t feel any better. Now, all she could think about was Susan. Her best friend through all her ten years of life, gone.

The pale soil of the canal glowed beneath the moon. Penny twiddled the string until it unraveled between her fingers. Powder-soft dust fogged her footsteps as she walked along. This late in summer, everything dried out. Walnut trees formed a black wall along the far bank of the ditch.

Something scampered just ahead, a shadow nearly as big as her.

“Susan?” she whispered. It was silly to think her friend had sneaked home, but she couldn’t help a surge of hope.

The shadow leaped to the side, directly into the five-foot gap of the canal. Gasping, Penny rushed to the edge. It was so black down there she could scarcely see a thing.

“Hello?” It must have been a dog or something, but no dogs around were that big. Her heart thudded against her chest. Something shifted in the darkness and crawled towards her. She bit her lip and backed away from the edge as she knotted the string between her fingers.

The creature’s slick body curved forward, its lips wide like a monkey’s. A circle like a crown rested atop its head, and after a moment, she realized it was hair. A gentle slant curved its eyes.

“You’re a kappa,” she whispered.

Susan had an old book of stories her parents brought from Japan, and this looked straight out of a woodblock illustration. A kappa lived in water, like the kelpies that Nana used to call. The kappa’s skin shone grey, but she imagined in good light it would be vivid green like a frog.

Where had it come from? Susan sure hadn’t known a kappa lived close by. Penny turned around and saw the back fence of Mr. Hatsumi’s house. He was an old man who had worked down at Frank’s Market. He’d gone off to the camps just like Susan. The kappa had to be his.

The water sprite returned her scrutiny. Its lips opened, and words slithered out. Susan had taught Penny a few words of Japanese, but not enough to make sense of this. The creature’s slick brow came together in a frown and then the kappa dashed straight at her.

She stepped back with a cry, her fingers parting. The kappa grabbed the string and danced backward, holding it up high, taunting. Penny stared. The kappa frowned and draped it closer.

“Oh,” she said, understanding. Like a cat, she lunged for the string. Cackling, the kappa ran away, the limp string trailing behind. A dark turtle shell gleamed on the kappa’s back. They ran along the bank, dodged the rusting chassis of a tractor, and looped back around.

The water sprite slowed, its thin chest heaving for breath. Granting her a strangely-wide smile, it released the string. She snatched the string and stuffed it into a pocket.

The kappa reached to the top of its head and plucked something from its pate. When Penny leaned closer to see, the kappa flicked the object into her hands. Surprised, she clutched the thing between her fingers. It was a snail’s shell, smoothed by touch. The kappa frowned and gave her a small push, its hands cold on her sweaty shoulder. Oh, it was her turn. Laughing, she ran ahead, the kappa chittering in pursuit. She hadn’t played like this since Susan left. Strange happiness lightened her steps.

They ended their chase behind Mr. Hatsumi’s house. Penny dropped the shell into the kappa’s webbed hands.

“You’re lonely, too, huh?” she asked softly.

The kappa quivered. This close, she could see cracks in its skin, and it just plain looked wrong. Painful. The kappa retreated down the bank. There was a small slosh of water. Penny sucked in a breath. The canal would completely dry out soon.

“You need to come to my house.” She stifled a yawn against her wrist. “Mama has a pond in the backyard, with an oak tree growing nearby. And she has a Victory Garden, too. I bet there’s something there to eat, so long as you don’t eat too much. She complains about the jackrabbits but she doesn’t hate them, not really. Come on!”

She walked about ten feet up the bank and turned around. The kappa hadn’t followed, staying below and almost invisible but for the gleam of moonlight on its carapace.

It didn’t understand. Nana talked about how back in Ireland, fairies lived in certain forests and had been there for years and years. If the canal was the kappa’s home, it wouldn’t want to move, either.

Nana would know what to do. She knew all about the special creatures she carried with her from Ireland, and something from Japan couldn’t be that different.

“I’ll be back!” Lickety-split, Penny dashed towards home.

~~~

Penny wriggled through the curtains and landed head-first on her bed. She kicked to untangle her legs and sat upright.

Mama stood in the doorway, her arms crossed.

“Oh.” Penny gulped.

“Where were you?”

“I just… I went on a walk down to the canal. I need to talk to Nana. It’s urgent!” She stepped towards the door, but Mama didn’t move. That’s when Penny noticed the tears on Mama’s cheeks and the piercing quiet.

“No,” she whispered. “Nana?”

“Just a few minutes ago.”

Suddenly boneless, Penny collapsed to sit on the bed.

The old floor creaked like Mama’s voice. Almost hidden behind Mama, Penny’s other grandmother stared from the shadows. In the thin light, Tati’s raisin-wrinkled face appeared eye-less, her chin jutting out like a puppet’s distended jaw.

All her life, Penny had shared the household with her two grandmothers. Nana had made friends with every child, grown-up, and cat in Armona. Then there was Tati, who hadn’t said a word since she came to America over twenty years ago. The Turks killed her husband, her friends and family. Papa was the only one left.

If Tati had been the one who died, few would have noticed.

Penny absorbed the silence for a long minute. “I needed Nana’s help. I found a creature. And she, she would know what to…” Withheld tears burned in her eyes and throat.

“No one knew such things like her.” Mama’s dull voice offered little comfort.

Nana’s gentle lilt could evoke kelpies and pookas, leprechauns and fairies. With a sinuous tug of her hands, she pulled spirits from her shadow and set them free. And when Bing Crosby played on the radio! Oh, she’d get up and dance, body jiggling beneath a tent of cotton, and reach behind her to find her partners. The fairies emerged, iridescent and bright with joy, and joined in until Nana collapsed in a chair, her face ruddy and grin wide.

The knack had been so distinctly Nana that Penny had never thought about how she did it.

“How do I learn?” asked Penny.

The floor creaked as Tati shifted in the hallway. The shriveled old woman blended into the house like another piece of furniture. Quiet. Listening. Penny looked towards Mama instead, swallowing down her disgust. Tati never said anything, though if she kicked a chair leg, she’d mutter strange syllables as dark as coffee.

“I don’t know.” Mama shrugged her thin shoulders. “I never connected with things the way she did. Your Nana loved Ireland, and she loved what she brought with her, even that banshee. We each carry different things with us in life.” Mama straightened and took in a rattling breath, brushing herself off as if to sweep away words. “Enough of this. None of us have gotten sleep. I have to be at the packing house by six.”

“What about Nana?” asked Penny.

“We leave her be. We’ll tend to her in the morning. Get yourself ready for bed.” Mama left, the floor creaks fading with each footstep.

Tati lingered, staring at Penny. Penny stared back. Tati cocked her head like a bird and then sighed. The action seemed to deflate her bowed shoulders, and she waddled away.

Penny fell back onto the bed with a slight bounce. Above her face, the curtains waved with a gentle summer breeze. It would be awfully hot tomorrow. The canal would dry up in no time. Susan was gone. Nana was dead. How could Penny save the kappa?

~~~

Because Tati was mute and about as huggable as an electric pole, it was Penny’s duty to accept condolences and casseroles from the neighbors all morning long. Tati drifted in the kitchen, cowering whenever someone knocked at the door. Between visitors, the house felt empty without Nana’s presence. Even bed-bound, she had constantly sung and chattered.

Penny finally fled to the canal for a few minutes of peace. Daylight revealed that a mere ribbon of water was all that remained. There was no sign of the kappa. Lots of fairy creatures favored the night, and apparently the kappa was one of them. Penny sat on the bank and stared at the scant water. Who could help? A few folks in town would want the kappa dead. It was a creature of Japan. Penny didn’t mind the anger at Japan, what with all the awful things they’d done, but that wasn’t the kappa’s fault.

It wasn’t Susan’s fault, either.

When she returned home, Papa was awake and pulling on his boots. He didn’t speak much more than Tati, but Penny was desperate for answers.

“How do you make a fairy change its home?” she asked.

Papa frowned, his big mustache curving with his lips. “Nana left something?”

“No, this isn’t Nana’s, it’s…” She hesitated. Papa had been tolerant of her friendship with Susan, but only that. “It’s something I found.”

“Fairies.” He grunted the word. “Worse than riddles. In Armenia, we had p’eris. Same thing.”

Her eyes widened. She had never heard of Armenian fairies before. “Did you ever see them?”

His movements slowed and he raised his head. Tati stood at the table feet away, making their lahvosh. Her beady gaze penetrated Penny. One gnarled hand reached into the bin of flour beside her. She lifted high a palm of flour and then released it in a cloud of white dust.

Papa shuddered. “We are in America. We have no need for such thoughts.” He stood and walked away, his steps heavy.

Penny turned to Tati. “Why did you do that? What did it mean?”

The old woman’s body seemed to shrivel as she sidestepped to tend to her bread. Penny clenched her teeth and looked away. She ached to scream at Tati, as if to compensate for the old woman’s silence.

Supper was much the same. Mama, exhausted, slowly chewed each bite of food like cud. Tati hunkered in her chair, barely present at all. Penny stared at her water glass and wondered if she could carry buckets to the canal to save the kappa. With the earth so dry and the walk so far, she feared it wouldn’t be enough.

The dreadful meal over, Penny sat on the front stoop while the stars pried their way into the pink and purple sky. The kappa would be waking up about now. Her hands shoved in her dress pockets, she headed towards the canal, ignoring Susan’s house and the tears that threatened her again.

“Hey,” she called to the ditch. The moon gleamed over the fading violet of the distant foothills. The radio blared some jazzy number from a few houses away.

Chattering, the kappa crept up the bank again. She grinned, relieved to see it, and then saw its skin. Dry lines furrowed its spindly arms like cracks in the parched basin.

“Oh no,” she whispered.

The kappa’s eyes went wider, and it retreated into the canal. Penny turned.

A flashlight beam sliced through the black. She recognized the shuffling walk before she saw Tati’s face. The old woman worked her way along the bank and stopped a few feet away. Papa’s old chrome flashlight in her hand, Tati motioned to the canal and back at Penny. Tati raised a questioning eyebrow.

“It’s called a kappa,” Penny muttered. “It’s a water spirit, and the water’s almost gone. I want to take it home to Mama’s pond, but…”

Tati worked her gums together, her chin bobbing. Her eyes squinted beneath thick pillows of wrinkles. For a long second, Penny stared, wondering if Tati would actually speak.

That’s when the old woman whapped Penny with her cane.

“Ow!” she yelped, jumping on one foot and holding her wounded calf. “Why’d you do that?”

The cane swooped toward her other leg, but Penny managed to hop out of the way. In the background, tinny trumpets from the radio kept a merry beat. As though conducting an orchestra, Tati bobbed her cane and shuffled her feet.

“Do you want me to dance?” Penny shook her head. “I don’t feel like dancing. Nana’s dead.”

Nana would have danced. If Nana had lived another day, she would have swayed from side to side in her sick bed, one hand flicking as it kept time.

Something hardened in Tati’s gaze, and she swung the cane again and again. Penny backed up, keeping an eye on the edge of the canal, and finally waved the old woman back.

“Fine. I’ll dance. I’ll try.”

Penny closed her eyes and inhaled unsettled dust and that underlying fruity tang. It smelled like home. The heat of tears flooded her lashes. Nana loved this place.

For Nana, she could dance.

Penny pivoted, letting the music claim her. She opened her eyes and took in the starry-filled dome of sky and the dark silhouettes of the walnut grove across the ditch, and she swayed. She moved as she imagined Nana moving. Young, full of grace, buoyant music carrying her like a ship on a wave. Her feet shuffled and kicked at the plush dirt. Motes of light waltzed beside her.

Nana’s fairies.

Penny sucked in a breath, hesitating for a second, and then danced on. More fairies joined. Dozens. Hundreds. Her world glowed. There were more than Nana had ever pulled forth. How?! Penny looked at her own arm, how it angled outward, at the beam of light that illuminated her even through the thickness of iridescent wings. Tati had the flashlight angled just so. Penny’s hand, stretched out, mimicked what she had seen Nana do a hundred times, pulling at her shadow.

Penny laughed, surprised at her own joy.

The music faded away and her steps slowed. A commercial blared with sing-song voices. Fairies drifted around her like lazily falling leaves as they blurred into the shadows again.

Penny’s hand dropped to her side. Tati waited, the beam of light trembling in her unsteady hand. Tati had known Nana for years, too, shared the household with her for all of Penny’s life. Tati uplifted her knob of a chin to reveal the unchanged sorrow carved into her face. The pain was there. The pain was always there. Nana’s death was another loss on top of many.

Dust shifted around them, like the cloud of flour released from Tati’s hand.

Maybe Tati had danced with p’eris in a different life, a life of joy and happiness and countless smiling family. Now, Tati possessed a sorrow so deep she couldn’t voice it, perhaps so deep that it had severed that overlap between soul and shadow.

There would be no gift of p’eris, not from Tati. And Penny would never ask that of her.

“There’s still the kappa,” Penny whispered. “It lives in water. It hasn’t danced at all. I don’t think it reacts to music like fairies do. I don’t know what to do. I’m not Japanese like Susan.”

Speaking Susan’s name aloud broke her brave facade. Tears quickly turned into full body-quaking sobs. Nana was dead. Susan was gone. Susan—would she ever come home? Would they ever slip notes to each other in class, or race to pluck peaches the fastest? They used to joke that they were twins, blooded sisters separated at birth.

There was a curious chirp and Penny blinked, looking down. The kappa squatted at her feet and caught Penny’s tears against its face. It smiled, jaw agape with sheer delight.

Her memories of Nana had called the fairies. The kappa was part of Susan’s heritage, part of Susan. Part of her. They were blood sisters, after all. Penny straightened, tears still streaming.

She edged sideways so that her shadow draped over the kappa, and she reached into those depths and tugged, gently. In her mind, she framed Susan’s face—the way she laughed and how her eyes crinkled. How her hair waved like a silken banner that time they went horse-riding, and how her kites always won first place in Kite Day at school. How she and Susan had sat together, reading a book of Japanese fairy tales, and how the thought of a kappa made her dearest friend smile.

She felt the kappa meld with her soul, and it felt right. Cozy. Hot stew on a cold winter night. The connection was there all along. The kappa knew. Now Penny understood as well.

She stepped forward and she knew the kappa came with her along with the lively sparkles of fairies and even the muted beauty of the banshee. Someday, maybe, she would come to understand the p’eris as well.

She reached for Tati’s hand, the skin so loose and wrinkled and unfamiliar. The old woman took a step back, slipping away, her breath an alarmed hiss.

“It’s okay,” said Penny. “You don’t have to.” She smiled to show she meant it.

Tati offered a brusque nod and sidled just close enough so that their knuckles touched. That was enough.

With Glenn Miller playing accompaniment, they walked home, Penny’s shadow a flickering pool around her feet.

Originally published in California Cantata, March 2013.

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