story: The Somnambulist Party
The moon is full and bathing. Light laps each house in this quiet village, casting silver squares through windows with undrawn curtains.
In one such bedroom, a cat bathes too, pale fur illuminated against the floorboards. A clock chimes deep within the house and his eyes flash open. He stretches, unfurling his length, and leaps on the mistress’s bed, pawing at her cheek once, twice, waiting.
The mistress is between dreams. Within them, a dark ocean crashes into itself. She is expecting an arrival in the foam but is uncertain what form it will take. A vast scattering of shells and flint line the shore but she can’t move quickly enough to search through the piles. When she moves her hands, they leave ghostly echoes of themselves. The sound of waves melts into chiming. It is almost the hour, she knows, and she hasn’t found a thing.
From the bed, the mistress’s inner eye opens. Gently, a shadow unhooks itself and rises from her sleeping body. Shaking each limb out, it steals towards the window and silently giggles, ‘At last, at last!’
The clear night hums with promise and the shadow opens her arms to invite it in. The moon’s light drapes a gossamer gown across her nude form. She preens in the armoire’s mirror. The little cat trills below, nudging her calves towards the luminescence of the garden.
‘Hush! I’m almost done,’ she chides and scratches his chin. ‘I want to look nice for my first party.’
She looks over at the mistress lying in stillness, her chest lightly rising and falling beneath the sheets. The shadow smirks and lifts the window frame to step out.
Bells tinkle when she passes through faint silver veils, announcing her arrival. The silence of the garden has given way to a great hall filled with glasses clinking, ripples of conversation and a harp cascading its song over the party-goers. The cat slinks away between their flowing gowns, leaving the shadow to take in the vibrant scene.
In the middle of the hall, dancers with iridescent fins sway in a large fountain and sing a deep choral note. Below her bare feet, moss creeps through the cracked tiles reaching up to wind vines around marble pillars. A star-flecked sky looks down on the guests and the open ceiling lets an occasional breeze ruffle their capes and dresses. Long tables sigh under the weight of shining mountains of cakes, fruits, cheeses and punch bowls. The shadow plays with her gown; unsure where to begin.
‘Perhaps I should find the hostess and greet her. That’s the polite thing to do, after all,’ she mumbles.
Out of the crowd, another shadow with a dahlia head embraces her and presses a glass of pearly liquid into her hand
‘There you are!’ She exclaims. ‘To you and your timely escape. Now go and enjoy the festivities, soon they will be over.’
The dahlia raises the glass in celebration then leaves, waving to another guest. The shadow furtively sips and soon feels her limbs loosen. A smile spills over her face, so she picks up another glass and drifts towards the fountain.
Beings with great wings, flaming hair and feathered faces move as one body beneath the moon. They waltz close then far, spinning in synchronicity, led by the whirling fins from the fountain.
The shadow finishes her drink and steps into the line of dancers to begin an ancient step she suddenly remembers. As she twirls and changes partners, an older shadow-woman in a frothy white robe glides through the hall.
The guests shower her with glitter as she nods serenely, holding onto their hands before disappearing through the velvet curtains at the side of the hall. She feels a flutter in her chest – is this who she’s been looking for?
‘Please excuse me,’ she says and hurridly bows to her partner, a great stag, to pursue the foaming trail the dress has left.
A loud clatter is swallowed by the rising music. The shadow almost trips over a clutch of gleaming cutlery that has skittered in her path.
She sees the little cat is chasing a peacock, much to the amusement of the guests. It dives under a tablecloth as a chime sounds.
The revelry is transformed. Several creatures flock towards the stacked tables and stuff morsels into each other’s mouths, laughing as they drop crumbs on their finery. The band plays on, falling in and out of time, as the dancers spill into each other, their movements increasingly frenetic.
As the shadow tries to make her way to the curtains, the stag appears and pulls her into another box step.
‘I must go!’ She repeats, pushing away through the surging crowd.
It is a squeeze between their hot bodies, a throng of fur, scales and rich fabrics that meld together in deep reds and purples and blues like the inside of a wide, hungry mouth.
At last, the shadow reaches the edge of the hall and stops to catch her breath. It is dark behind the velvet. The pearly liquid sloshes against a prickling fear in her stomach.
She reaches out and feels one hand, then another, and another from behind the velvet. They guide her along in a spiral until she is released in a small room.
The older shadow-woman sits mending a hem on her robe. A needle clacks against the shells in steady repetition. Without raising her head, the older shadow beckons the younger to sit at her feet. She bites the thread and inspects her work, satisfied.
‘So you finally came to one of my parties,’ her lightly wrinkled face creases in a regal smile. When she speaks, no sound emanates but the younger shadow hears a far-off voice in her head and the dull roar of an ocean.
‘You are a little late this evening,’ she does and doesn’t say, ‘but never mind, you are here now.’
The hostess presses something small and hard into her palm. It looks like a miniature forked spear and is just as sharp, as the younger shadow finds when she pricks her finger at its tip.
‘Careful, child. This is a seam ripper,’ the older shadow-woman intones. ‘Keep it hidden from the mistress and ensure that you are well-rested in the evenings prior to using it. These gatherings become more tiring as one ages.’
The younger shadow lifts her bright face, ‘But how will I know when it’s time to use it?’
The reel of wet cotton is tugged off the hostess’s lap before she can reply. They both turn their heads to see the cat, who has emerged wearing a peacock feather, batting the reel back and forth sleepily.
‘Ah!’ The older shadow cries, ‘So this is your guide. Such a spirited little thing.’
The velvet curtains slowly open as stars drop from the sky in a light rain. A hush falls over the revellers as they start to gather their possessions, slipping between their own silvered veils back to other worlds.
‘I suppose that means we must draw to a close,’ the hostess says and rises from the stool, patting down her shelled dress.
‘But, how –’ The younger shadow begins to ask.
‘Look for a pearl on the beach,’ the hostess replies with a wink. ‘Now, until next time, adieu little one.’
The shadow-women rise and kiss each other’s cheeks, the younger mouthing gratitude as she goes to follow the cat, who has already scampered back towards the window.
When she reaches the veils, she looks over her shoulder to see the hall fade in the pale dawn. Closing the window softly, the shadow catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her gown has vanished, but her skin still gleams.
She hides the seam picker and sneaks back into bed to rejoin with her mistress. The cat settles at the foot of the bed and falls promptly back to sleep. As sleep stitches them both down, the shadow’s mind bubbles at the thought of the next soiree.
Jennifer Brough is a writer, editor and avid reader. Outside of these wordy pursuits, she is learning Spanish and dreaming of Mexico. Her poems have recently been published in Mookychick, Blanket Sea, Crooked Arrow Press and RIC Journal. She tweets often @Jennifer_Brough and blogs rarely at jenniferbrough.wordpress.com.