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The Shadow and the Light

By Su-Yee Lin | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/su-yee-lin/ | Su-Yee Lin
Edited by Aleksandra Hill || Narrated by William Lin-Yee || Produced by Jenelle DeCosta and Lian Xia Rose
3300 words

In the city of K—, every building is a mountain; stairs of stone lead up their facades to steel-gated doors. It rains often, so the steps are furred with moss. Like monks in caves, like bee larvae in honeycomb, we live in our apartments, light only coming in through arrow-slit windows and the balconies secreted in rock. I know mountains, and these do not pass muster. But it’s true, I chose these mountains over other ones.

My view overlooks a twisted pine tree that sometimes holds pigeons and, far below, an intersection hiding a subway station underneath. It is a city of peaks and roads and stairs. Even the shops and restaurants are set within mountains, are lucky enough to get the first or second floor. In my building, there is a noodle soup shop and that is all they sell. I live on the fourteenth floor. 

I don’t know anyone in this city. I don’t care to. Each shop is run by one person. Each apartment holds one person. We are one and one, always separate, and I like it that way. Every man an island. I assume we are all running away from something—our criminal pasts, our problems, our husbands and wives and families—so we chose a place where we could be without being anything other than a human-shaped body. A respite from society. A respite from all the problems other people bring. But these are just assumptions.

The sky is often gray with cloud; we slide past each other in the damp of the streets, pass each other on the steps without greeting. I don’t recognize my neighbors, my eyes shifting past their faces as theirs shift past mine. In the square where I sweep, no one looks at me and I don’t look at them. In the noodle shop, a bowl of noodles is placed before me. No money changes hands; I get what I get. 

I sweep the square no matter the weather. My broom of rushes gets damp from rain, grows moldy and musty sometimes, but there are always twigs to make more. There isn’t so much garbage around; sometimes someone will leave a cup on the ground or an empty foil bag.  There are often leaves dropped from the trees on the mountain buildings surrounding the square; sunlight, on a clear day, only comes between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The pigeons congregate in the trees around the square, make their homes on the ledges of the mountains. Three benches sit around the square, next to the snaking paths between the mountains. Few people ever stop to sit on them. In the middle of the square, there is a platform with a signboard on it—it rarely holds a sign. 

Today, it rains. The wind rushes through the paths between mountains. Sweeping is useless, but it is my job, so I sweep. At lunch, I duck into the nearest shop, a convenience store. I eat a triangle of rice stuffed with tuna and watch the wind blowing the leaves around in funnels. The winter isn’t so cold here, but the mountains create canyons of whirling air. If you watch closely enough, the wind can create scenes. Today I see: a net, a blooming tree, three birds. It means nothing, of course.

There is no sunlight with the rain, just the gloomy gray pall of sky and shadow. The air smells faintly, surprisingly, of grassy fields beyond our city. Our mountains stretch quite far and beyond our mountains are fields that lead to other cities. I don’t know how far, though; it has been a long time since I left my usual routes, gone to the edges of this city where the rest of the world begins. There is nothing for me out there.

Others walk home the same time that I do; we keep our distance from one another on the streets. The noodle shop in my building is oddly full so I go to the curry shop next door. Curry is set before me. After, I climb my stairs as the wind tries its hardest to knock me off the mountain. My apartment is dark, one bare light bulb in each room. The setting sun’s light manages to creep into my thin windows and I watch the sky change hue until I can’t see anything anymore. I am rereading a book I brought with me years ago. I go to sleep.

The next day dawns bright. A blue sky. In the square, a large sign on the signboard says A NEW VIEW. As I sweep, I think about this sign. The signs on the signboard tend to be rote, dry messages having to do with whatever edicts the government—like the gods—hands down from above, yet usually have nothing to do with our city. Signs like DO NOT LITTER—YOU WILL BE CAUGHT AND FINED, or TAXES WILL GO UP 20 PERCENT BEGINNING ON THE FIRST OF THE NEW YEAR, or DUE TO MISMANAGEMENT, THE FIRM X WILL NOW BE UNDER THE CONTROL OF THE MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT. I read them and move on—they have no impact on the society here in this city. Our rules are different from the rules of other places; our crimes, if we have them, different as well. I never see where the signs come from, if it is one particular person’s task to put up signs during the dead of night or if they appear through some other means. The shadows of the mountains darken the square; I sweep the corners where the dry leaves accumulate. There’s something about this sign that gives me a feeling of unease. As I sweep, I see others read the sign, pause, walk away. I don’t watch them too closely because that isn’t how this city works. I don’t remember their faces; they don’t remember mine. I don’t know what they think.

The sun appears again the next day and the next. But the air stays dry and cold, wind howling so that the leaves and dried seedpods on the trees rattle and moan. The sweeping is neverending; I take long breaks to relieve the monotony. The sun between 11 and 1 is blinding, so I lay newspaper over my face and sleep on the bench. At one thirty, there is still sun where shadow should be. I look up at the mountain buildings around me. Have they grown shorter? Impossible, and impossible to tell.

A few people walk through the square. They eat their lunches. They leave. The sign shines bright on the signboard, reflecting all that daylight. I try to ignore it but it beckons me as though it has something more to say. A NEW VIEW. What could that mean? This city has been the same for years now, maybe decades. It’d sprung up fully formed—a successful experiment. Perhaps it’s a joke from someone somewhere. I wonder if the other squares have their own signs, if they say the same things. I’d always assumed they did, but now I feel unsure. I don’t like it, this uncertainty, this doubt.

A shadow creeps across the square, its borders indistinct, tall and thin at times, short and squat at others. It’s strange to have so much sun, sun enough for shadows rather than the even gray of rainy days, that it takes me a moment to realize it’s my own shadow. It occasionally seems to have a life of its own, blending in with trees and benches, brandishing my broom’s shadow as though it wants to draw my attention to it. The shadow of a leaf moves, and I find myself startled, anxious. What kinds of trees are these that keep their dried husks of leaves in the winter, I find myself wondering. Where does a shadow go when the sun is not around?

I almost think I see the shadow peel itself from the bench for a second but I cannot be sure. It is probably the skittering of dried leaves across the pavement or someone else’s shadow as they cross to an adjacent street. The day continues and the square grows dark. Directly above, a star winks on, the moon not having cleared the mountains so early. Even this, a star, is something new, the sky clear enough to see the light from something so far away.

• • •

The next day, there is a new sign. It says: A NEW YOU. It feels more forbidding than the previous. Weren’t we all made anew when we came here? Who would need a newer version? Again, a bright day, so that the shadow of the surrounding mountains cut the square into segments of light and dark. A man pauses at the sign for a long time. The pigeons keep cooing. 

Later, clouds move in. By the time I go home, the stairs up to my apartment hold puddles of water, dark water against dark stone. Overnight, it freezes. In our mountain apartments, our stairs intersect at certain points; with all the apartments, we cannot each have our own staircase. But I rarely even see others on my own; our schedules do not often coincide. Everyone is the same to me anyway, another dark figure on the stairs.

The ice is already cracked on the stairs outside my door, a spiderweb instead of a pane of glass. Strange to imagine a stranger outside my apartment, their boots heavy on the ice, their ear pressed against the door. The air cold as knives. I lock my door behind me, although there is nothing to take from my apartment. Nothing that those around me don’t already have as well, except perhaps for sentimental tchotchkes, which I have few of. 

• • •

When I arrive at the square, there is a man looking at the sign. I begin to sweep—from this distance, it does not look as though the sign has changed. The ground is frosted with ice; my broom like a brush making semicircular patterns. The man keeps looking at the sign, as though it will suddenly change as he watches. I look at him out of the corner of my eye while sweeping; he looks at me and opens his mouth but I look away. He is none of my concern. 

He is gone by the time I take a break. My breath comes out white in the cold air. The ground loses its frost, my art dissolving as people walk through it, but the day continues cold. The wind begins to pick up, and so too the percussion of the seedpods, the rustle of the leaves. Condensation gathers on my eyelashes. Clouds move in. The square is empty; I imagine everyone else shivering indoors. 

When night falls, I go to the noodle shop in my building. I am the only one there. The proprietor sets a bowl of beef noodle soup before me, says, “Here you go.” I am surprised by their voice—I’d never heard them speak before—but when I look up, they have gone back to the kitchen. The door opens and two men come in, murmuring in low voices that break the quiet of the shop. Do they know one another? I tell myself not to listen. It’s unusual but nothing to do with me. Although things feel off here, like a painting slightly tilted.

When I climb up to my apartment, someone else is on their way down. “Excuse me,” he says, and we step past each other. His voice rings oddly familiar but I’m not sure how. Two voices in one day. It’s disconcerting, this interruption of the silence, like a thread protruding from a perfect spool, a dropped stitch in the weft.

The next day there is no rain, only cold sun barely warming the pavement. As though we’d moved into a different weather zone, somewhere more continental. The mountain I live on is still icy; I slip down the last few steps at the end and the jolt startles me more than the pain. Someone says, “Are you alright?” and I nod my head without looking at the person. My body moves stiffly, an ache deep in my muscle, skin raw where my back had met the steps. A pigeon flies past.

• • •

In the square, my broom requires new rushes. I gather some, glad for the unusually dry weather. The wind again brings the scent of grass, though it suits neither the season nor the place. The pigeons gather around one corner of the square, pecking at the mountain’s shadow. I make my broom; people come and go through the square but seem to linger longer than usual. One person reads a newspaper on a bench for most of the morning despite the cold. The sunshine is dull and only illuminates the tops of the mountains, barely making it into the square during the usual hours.

In the afternoon, I hear what sounds like a voice saying my name. No one in the square but the birds and the trees and I. Later, a man comes to the square, says, “What’s this?” and kicks at a napkin I’d failed to sweep up. His tone is angry; he looks at me and I look at him. I don’t reply and he walks away. I sweep the napkin into the garbage but I feel violated, angry, annoyed. Feelings I haven’t had for a long time. It wrecks the tranquility of my mind, stones thrown into still water. 

• • •

A different person stands staring at a tree as though she’s never seen one before. I almost say something to her before I catch myself. It is unlike me, this turmoil, this urge to connect. I don’t like this new sense—I don’t want it. This is why I left the place I came from and came to this city. Is this what is meant by A NEW YOU? This doesn’t seem logical to me—a return to the past when the past was what pushed us toward the present. There is something in the air now; we need the rain to wash it away. I can’t think about what it all means. I turn away from the woman and eventually she leaves.

When I’m alone again, I go over to the signboard and see that the YOU is now gone. All it says is A NEW. Or perhaps ANEW. 

Then I hear it. Sounds like words on the wind, from other places floating to ours. So much language that there’s no need for. I’m not sure if it’s in me or outside of me, but the noise aches just as much as the muscles in my leg where I fell. I look to the mountains and it almost seems as though they are the ones singing.

• • •

The noodle shop changes overnight to become something else. The lights are now dim and there are gauzy curtains hung over the windows. Shapes drift behind them, each carrying a glass. I don’t go in. This, too, something from the past, not the present. I eat at the curry shop next door. It offers me a view of the subway entrance and I see people pouring out, each seemingly going their own way. But then they link up sometimes, talk to one another. I don’t understand this change—the comfortable, orderly silence turned to disruption. The curry shop owner asks my name. I hurry away and up the stairs. I won’t eat there again.

There is a man coming down the stairs as I walk up. He murmurs something as I pass and there is something familiar in his gait and in his voice, something recognizable. Do I know him from a past life? He continues down, more confident than I. My door is not locked when I come to it. Perhaps I’d forgotten—the ice in the entry distracting me. My shadow stretches long before me in the glow of the light bulb—nothing is out of place. I feel tired from this day, from all this sound, from all this looking done to me. It is as though everyone were catching a disease of attention, one that we had eradicated before. My shadow withers away. This feels unbearable—to watch, to be watched. Is this how things will always be? There is cold within my head, a cold that leaves me gasping. I can’t return to that way of being.

It is a long time before I sleep.

• • •

The next day a return to form—clouds cover the sky, a light drizzle falling. The ice dissolved. The pine no longer drooping but sparkling with dew.

But there are two men in the square and their faces are the same. When I look again, they resolve into one man who looks at me, who says, “Have you heard what is going on in the city of Z—?” I turn away but he continues talking as though an unleashing is happening, a flood no longer hindered. He has no shadow, but I do. 

The trees, the mountains, they are singing, voices without words, brought to me by wind. The man keeps talking—I cannot look at his face; if it’s double or single, I do not know. There are others in the square now, a hum of sound all around. 

In my dreams, I have seen this before. I feel as though I know what will happen, what is happening. 

I move away. I bring my broom past the square, into one of the streets between mountains farther away from where I live, past another square where there is another sweeper and a woman engaged in conversation, into another small street, past a convenience store, past a clothing store, past more mountains and more squares and more streets, sweeping relaxedly as I go, the rain catching on my jacket and my broom and my skin, until suddenly, sooner than I would have ever expected it, I am at the edge of the mountains and of our city. Before me are long fields of dead grass rustling in the wind that stretch out to the horizon. On the horizon, a distant shadow of buildings that blend in with the gray of the sky. The sky is light, sun coming through clouds even with the drizzle. My shadow stretches by my side. We are no longer connected. The other city in the distance grows clearer. My shadow takes a step away. I wonder, Is it the fields that will swallow our city? Is everything inevitable? I take my broom; I walk onto the trail to the field. My shadow goes the opposite direction, coalescing into a person more solid as he heads back to the city. Am I the shadow now? Will he take my place, perform my functions better than I ever did? He, I have no doubt, will fit into the new society, but I want no part of it.

I push the grasses before me on the path, my broom and my shoes bending their brittle stems. I can hear the wind rushing past but the grasses protect me. A tiny field mouse runs across the path, pauses by the side. The grass around me started out the height of my chest, but as I move farther down the trail, they grow taller and taller, almost a tunnel forming around me. Behind me, my city farther and farther away, crowned by sunlight. Ahead of me, that other city. Which is the old and which is the new? I grow tired; I use my broom as a walking stick. At least here there will be no attention. Here there is no one to ask anything of me. Only the gold of dead grass around me, a fortress rather than a prison. 

I sit in the middle of this path. I cannot go any farther. I sit and I wait for the world to come.

Su-Yee Lin is a Pushcart Prize–winning writer from New York. Her work has been published in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, The Offing, Electric Literature, Quarterly West, Bennington Review, and other journals. She was a Fulbright fellow to China and has received grants and residencies from NYFA, Jentel, Storyknife, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Speculative Literature Foundation, the Center for Fiction, and others. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.
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