THE EVOLUTION OF SHADOWS
By Jason Quinn Malott
UNBRIDLED BOOKS Copyright © 2009 Jason Quinn Malott
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-932961-84-3
Chapter One Shadows
Lian hears the wind in the trees outside and the creak of the house as its timbers contract in the cool night. The sound fades and comes back like the false sound of the ocean in a seashell. She lies in the small bed the same way she did as a child, her arms crossed over her chest and the arches of her feet pressed together. It's the position of a corpse, and she once thought it would fool the ghosts into believing she was already dead.
She tries not to think of Emil downstairs. He has told her he is sometimes unable to sleep and she shouldn't be concerned by the sound of him pacing the house, but she can't hear anything that sounds human. Only the wind and the creaking house. She tries to think of Gray, the man she has come to find. The way his voice sounded in the morning. The smell of his body, like a warm orange. Even in the dark she can see the small box in the corner of the room that holds Gray's belongings, which Emil has given to her. The journal. The binder full of photos of her. Some clothes she had held to her face the first night, searching for the ghost of his scent. This is how she pulls back from the sounds of the house and drifts to sleep, her hands turning cold against herchest.
Downstairs, Emil prowls, a prisoner of his memories. At night, with the silent accusation of her presence in the house, he feels as if he is constantly breaking the surface of water, exploding air out of his lungs and sliding underneath again. He counts his steps as he paces. It's nine steps across the main room as he moves around the furniture and past the green-painted wall where his uncle was shot. He steps into the kitchen, over the place where his father's blood had collected in the low spot by the entry, and takes another nine steps to the door that opens onto the small, dark garden behind the house. Beyond the garden are five grave markers, the dark silhouettes rising up from the ground. Sometimes he dreams there is a sixth. The one for Mira.
He turns, goes back nine steps across the kitchen to the main room. Nine steps to the front door, which he opens as if expecting the dead. There is only the night air. The smell of dry grass and the faint, old smell of death.
Lian squints against the morning sunlight and looks out the kitchen window and watches Emil in the garden as he uses a piece of twine to tie the limp stem of a tomato plant to a stick he has pushed into the ground. He bends over and pulls weeds from around the plants, then throws them onto a compost heap next to the small garden. At times he will stop, look up past the plum trees and toward the hills to the east. She wonders what he is looking for.
When he reaches the end of the tiny garden he stands, looks at the house, and waves to her. He returns along the row of plants and picks two ripe tomatoes, carries them to the house and up the steps to the kitchen door. She turns to him as he comes in and places the tomatoes on the counter in front of her.
"I am sorry that we must keep waiting," he says. "I had hoped Jack would arrive the same day as you."
"It's fine," she says and looks out the window again at the green markers, the white writing on them. "Emil, why are there graves there?"
"There was no more room in the cemetery."
She looks at her hands where they rest on the counter. They seem connected to some other body.
"It must have been horrible," she says, but he is already moving away and into the main room. She hears the front door open and close softly. After waiting a moment, she leaves the kitchen and climbs the stairs to her room. She closes the door and sits on the bed, takes the photographs from her suitcase. A few months ago these photographs were hidden in binders that were packed in boxes, like secrets in exile, in the basement of her home back in America. She had no need to bring them with her, but they found their way into her suitcase, and she is glad of it. She shuffles them until she finds her favorite. It shows a man, his hair the color of mahogany, asleep on his back with the bed sheets pushed down to his bare hips. One hand rests on his stomach between his navel and the sparse patch of dark hair across his chest. His other hand near his face.
She had stood over Gray on the bed, naked, with his camera in her hands. The loud click of the shutter startled her. He looked up at her then, his eyes wet, and she wanted to dip her tongue in them to see if they tasted like chocolate.
That'll be a good picture, he said.
You're beautiful, she said and eased down to her knees so that she straddled him and pinned him down. Don't you dare hide this picture from me.
If you want that picture developed, it's going to cost you.
Yeah? How much?
She felt his hands slip along her thighs to her waist. So little pressure to make her lean down over him. The camera dropped on the pillow beside them. He kissed her while she moved her hands down his stomach and pushed away the sheet.
She hears Emil call her name from the hallway and she presses her hands to her face, rubs the memory from her eyes before finally getting up from the bed to open the door.
"A messenger has come from the village. I will need to go back to Sarajevo to get Jack."
"How long will you be gone?"
"The rest of today, part of tomorrow."
"I'll wait here then, if that's all right."
He nods, then turns and walks down the short hall to the stairs. Lian follows him down, her arms folded across her chest. From the open front door she watches him climb into the old Land Rover and hears the engine start. There is someone in the truck with him she doesn't know. It must be the person who brought the message that Jack had called. Maybe he is the same person who took her call the other day. She realizes she's never been anywhere without a phone before coming here.
Emil backs the truck around and starts down the narrow dirt track to the road that leads to the village. When the truck reaches the road, Lian closes the door to the silent house and stands in the main room staring at the bullet holes in the green wall.
Even though she had not been Ms. Jiang for nearly four years, the letter began:
Dear Ms Jiang:
I am Emil Todorovic. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I was an interpreter and friend to Gray Banick. I have some of his possessions and know that he wrote to you from time to time. I am trying to locate him, but have not seen him since July 1995. If he is not alive, do you know where I might send his belongings?
The letter arrived at her office, like the letters Gray had sent. She kept it in her purse for nearly a week until she finally decided to respond. Several attempts ended in the trash before she settled on something simple and direct, something that would not betray the panic caused by the possibility of Gray's death.
Dear Mr. Todorovic;
I have not heard that Gray is back in the area, nor that he is dead. I never knew his family. Perhaps he has decided to live elsewhere.
Sincerely, Lian Zhao
The gap in her memory she'd created in order to forget Gray filled, and she couldn't stop thinking about him, about what might have happened to him. As his presence began to nest itself in the shadows at night, it became difficult to lie next to her husband. The lazy way Daniel dropped his arm over her made her feel no better than a pillow. His soft skin and faint hospital smell irritated her. She began to slip out of bed at night and drift down the hallway in the dark to the living room. She would curl up on the couch, a blanket pulled over her shoulders, and fall asleep there only to wake up thinking of Gray. All the ways he could have died.
When Daniel asked, she told him that she was restless and didn't want to wake him.
After the second week of sleeping on the couch, she told him: I have to go to England.
I've always wanted to see England, he said.
You don't need to come. It's business.
He set down his coffee mug, looked at her. She watched his eyes move.
It wouldn't be that difficult for me to get time off.
It's for work. I won't have any time to spend with you.
We can take a few extra days, can't we?
She frowned and looked away from him, out past the kitchen doorway to the darkness of the living room.
Daniel, I just want to go to London and do what I have to do and come back.
Why not make it into a vacation for us?
I just want to do business and leave. Can't I do this alone?
You do everything alone, Lian. He got up from the table and walked out of the kitchen.
She thinks of that as she lies awake in Emil's house and waits for the sounds she heard the previous night. There is the wind in the trees outside. The wind racing under the eaves of the house. Nothing else but her breathing.
It is too difficult to sleep, so Lian gets out of bed, goes downstairs in the dark. There are only the sounds of her feet pressing the floor. The wind outside. She feels a tingle, like soft cotton slipping over her skin, as she steps into the kitchen and reaches for the light switch. The feeling stops her. She stares into the darkness trying to discern a shape, not yet afraid. The tingle moves along her arm to her shoulder and tightens the muscles along her back. She turns on the light, expecting to see what had brushed against her in the dark. Nothing.
She crosses the kitchen and takes a glass from the cupboard, fills it with water from the faucet. She leaves the light on in the kitchen as she goes out and climbs the stairs. On her way, she turns on more lights. In her room, she leaves the glass on the old chair by the bed and starts back along her trail of light to the kitchen. She pauses in the main room and looks at the green wall. Then, slowly, she begins to turn out the lights, stepping from empty blackness into the safety of other lights.
If this were her house, she might give in to the superstitions her mother still clung to and which she herself had dismissed long ago. She would burn oil and lard in bowls and fan the smoke into every corner, chasing off the ghosts and spirits that seem to haunt these rooms.
Again, in the dark, there are no sounds outside her room and the tension will not leave her body. In bed, she presses the arches of her feet together and holds her arms tightly across her chest.
Don't you believe in something, Gray?
I believe in a lot of things, just not religion or ghosts.
So what is it that you do believe in?
Do you want my real answer or my flip answer?
Real, you jerk.
The only intangible thing I try to believe in is love, but it doesn't always work.
What do you mean it doesn't always work?
It's never permanent, he said.
I think it can be.
Emil drives out of the night and into the lighted streets of Sarajevo. Life has come back to the city, but he doesn't think it will ever completely recover. Something was amputated, both out there in the streets and somewhere within himself. As he guides the truck through the city, he passes intersections he once knew for their exposure to the hills. The number of people killed trying to cross. There seem to be no other memories but these.
Emil steers the vehicle into the small parking lot of the Holiday Inn, then down the ramp to the underground garage. There are not many cars inside. He parks near the entrance, shuts off the engine, and sits for a moment looking at the door leading to the stairs.
Twice now in the last week he has been here, and both times the place has seemed empty despite the hundreds of people staying in the rooms above. During the war, there had been a kind of desperate, panicked existence here. The manic coming and going of reporters and photographers. The U.N. officials in their blue helmets and flak jackets who gave their briefings as if there weren't explosions going off outside. Some of them seemed like children playing at war, excited by the mortuary playground Sarajevo had become.
He climbs out of the truck and walks across the hollow cavern to the door. He pushes it open and enters the stairwell. As he climbs to the ground floor, his footsteps echo off the walls. When he comes out of the stairwell, he pauses for a moment in the repaired lobby, then heads across the cavernous space to the lounge. All of it still familiar, but now muted in unfamiliar silence.
Jack sits at a table in the back of the lounge, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Emil had been certain he would find Jack here. During the war, drinking was a necessity. Like smoking, it was a small act of self-destruction that seemed somehow sane compared to the destruction around them.
To Emil it seems Jack has shrunk since the war. The angles of his face are sharper, as if he has been starving himself, and his hair is thinner. Gray as old snow. There is a cane hooked on the edge of the table, and Emil is glad there will be no wheelchair to deal with.
He sits down and tries to avoid staring at the cane by Jack's elbow. The gunshot memories. He concentrates on the pack of Marlboros.
"Long time since I saw you, Jack."
The old man laughs, holds up the pack of Marlboros. Emil takes one and lights it with the lighter Jack slides across the table.
"I can't believe I got up the nerve to come back." He holds his cigarette and glass in the same hand, drinks, then sets the empty glass near the edge of the table. "Did she really come?"
"Yes. She is at the farm now, waiting."
"Why didn't you wait for me here?"
"She arrived two days ago. It costs her no money to stay with me."
Jack shifts his weight around in his chair, clears his throat. "I guess you'll be taking me to the farm then."
"Is that a problem?"
He clears his throat again and looks around the room. "No, I suppose not."
"The bodies are buried."
Jack nods, looks around again, and finally makes eye contact with Emil. "Gray's probably dead, you know."
"Maybe. Maybe not. He was alive when I left him. I heard there is a reporter from Athens who got married to a Bosnian woman and is living here in Sarajevo now."
"What does that have to do with Gray?"
"I have to look. So do you. He would have looked for us."
"He wouldn't have left us."
The waitress brings another drink and takes away the empty glass. Emil feels pinned to his seat, trapped by the memory of that final look over his shoulder. A body falling among trees.
"Can finally get good whiskey in this hotel," Jack says.
"I know. I'm sorry. When are we leaving?"
"Tomorrow morning, if we can," Emil says.
"Good. Gives me a chance to sleep off this drunk I'm working on."
"It will almost be like old times." "In that case I'll be sure to drink a lot more."
"Fine." Emil crushes out the cigarette, takes the pack of Marlboros, and stands. "Tomorrow."
"You didn't get fundamental on me, did you?"
"No. I must see Katja. Good-night, Jack."
Jack raises his glass and drinks.
Emil waits with his hands in the pockets of his jeans as Katja unlocks the bolts. She opens the door and stands squeezed between the door and the frame.
"You should have let me know you were coming," she says.
"I am sorry. I was not thinking."
She steps aside to let him in, then closes the door. The apartment is dark, with the blinds closed tightly over the windows.
"How long are you staying?"
"Then do not touch me."
"I am tired, Katja."
"Yes, of course."
He follows her through the small apartment to her bedroom. Slowly he takes off his shirt and jeans in the dark, then gets into bed with her. She turns away, a body of ice next to him.
Excerpted from THE EVOLUTION OF SHADOWS by Jason Quinn Malott Copyright © 2009 by Jason Quinn Malott . Excerpted by permission.
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