Short Stories

Imaginary Friends
 

“Stands a God Within the Shadows”
Imaginary Friends, edited by John Marco and Martin H. Greenberg
DAW, September 2008


 
EXCERPT

Copyright © 2008 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.


Hesitant to leave the safety of my bedroom, where the windows were shuttered on the outside and let in nothing except a little light and the illusion of fresh air, I hovered in the doorway that opened onto the main chamber of my prison. It was a large, well-furnished room with comfortable chairs, a sofa, and tables of various shapes and sizes. The overlapping carpets were thick enough to challenge the cold that rose from the stone floor. The center of the room was clear of furniture and provided enough space to serve as a little dance floor or exercise area.

Not that I was diligent about exercise--or anything else for that matter. What difference did it make if I was sloppy fat and smelled or if I was trim and freshly bathed? He wasn’t going to care.

As I crossed the room, I kept my eyes averted from the one large window that had shutters on the inside--the one window that looked out on the land beyond my prison. The shutters were safely closed, but I still kept my eyes focused on the chair…and the mirror on the wall that matched the window’s size exactly.

I was forbidden to look at the world directly. My jailer wouldn’t tell me what the penalty would be if I disobeyed. He simply insisted that I would be cursed, and  the implied threat was that I would not survive the punishment.

Some days I wondered if not surviving would be such a bad thing. Would that really be worse than a lifetime of solitary confinement?

No. My confinement was not quite solitary.

I sat in the chair and closed my eyes. A moment later, as some device registered my weight in the chair, I heard the shutters pull back from the window. I opened my eyes, focused on the mirror, and breathed a sigh of relief as I looked upon the world.

I couldn’t figure out if I was on the bottom floor of this gray tower or the top, but I suspected that, if viewed scientifically, the mirror shouldn’t be able to reflect what I saw regardless of the room’s position. Since I was a writer, a storyteller, and a dreamer, I ignored science and accepted the view.

A piece of the river, flowing clean and clear. Lilies growing near the bank, their buds swelling as they waited for their turn to bloom. A bright fuzz of green that indicated new grass. Then the section of dirt road framed by mirror and window. Beyond that, there was a scattering of trees and a lane that divided two fields, but they looked vague and out of focus.

“Fields of barley and rye?” I asked the mirror, thinking of the old poem.

“Is that what they should be?”

My pulse raced at the sound of his voice. Not because it was him, but because I was glad to hear anyone’s voice.

Steeling myself for whatever would be lurking in the deep alcove that hid the entrance to this prison, I turned my head and looked at the male figure half hidden in the shadows.

The horned god today, bare-chested and barefoot, but wearing jeans that had the softness of long wear.

Oddly enough, the incongruity of his looks and his choice of clothing made it less easy to deny that he was what he seemed--one of the old gods who, for whatever reason, had decided to keep me as a pet.

“Good morning, Eleanor,” he said with the same quiet, courteous respect his voice always held when he spoke to me.

When I woke and found myself here and he asked me my name, I had told him I was Eleanor of Aquitaine, a small act of defiance and a shot of courage on my part to claim to be an imprisoned queen who was centuries gone.

He had accepted the name without question, which was when I began wondering a few things about him.

My keeper. My jailer. My only companion. He never came into the room. I had never felt the touch of his hand. Sometimes I wished he would try to touch me, just so I’d know that he was real and not an illusion created by a broken mind.

“I’m not Eleanor,” I said, fixing my eyes on the mirror and the world beyond the stone walls.

A silence that asked a question.

“I’m the lily maid.”

A different kind of silence before he said, “Ah. The Lady of Shalott.”

I struggled not to smile, pleased that he understood the reference since he understood so few of them. Then I got down to the business of watching the world reflected in the mirror.

Blue sky and some white, puffy clouds. No sign of rain.

Maybe tonight, I thought. That would make the spring flowers bloom.

Birds flashed in and out of the mirror. A man on horseback trotted down the road, heading for the village. Then a young woman on a bicycle rode by.

After that moment of distraction, I saw Peggy coming down the lane. Plump and solid, her quick walk covered the distance and brought her to the spot where the lane met the road. She crossed the road, looked up, and positioned herself dead center in the mirror. Then she set down the satchel she was carrying in one hand and held up the bouquet filling her other hand.

She was smiling, but even at this distance I could see a weight of sadness in that smile. She knew I was imprisoned in this tower. That was why she came and stood there every morning on her way to the village’s school. Maybe, unlike me, she even knew why I was imprisoned. But regardless of why I was there, Peggy would support a friend and do whatever she could to help--even if that meant standing on the edge of the road in all kinds of weather, waving to someone imprisoned in a tower that was set on an island in the middle of a river.

Peggy held up one flower at a time so that I could see them clearly. Daffodils, hyacinths, tulips. Crocus. Wild iris. But…

“They’re all white,” I murmured, trying to hold on to the pleasure of seeing flowers.

“Shouldn’t they be?” came the question from the shadows.

I shook my head. “They’re a celebration of spring. They should be yellow and orange and red and purple and pink. Even striped. And some,” I conceded, “should be white. But not all.”

I ignored his thoughtful silence and focused on the scene.

Robert rode up on his bicycle and stopped to chat with Peggy. He pointed to her satchel. She made a dismissive “it’s no trouble” wave of her hand that was so typical of Peggy it made me smile.

Robert pointed again, insistent. After going back and forth a couple more times, Peggy put the satchel in the empty carry basket attached to the back of his bicycle. The satchel would be on her desk at the school when she arrived, but she’ll have been spared the trouble of lugging…whatever she was lugging to the school that day to show her students.

Another minute went by. Then Peggy waved to me and headed down the road to the village.

I spent the morning watching the shadow world reflected in the mirror. Birds. The sparkle of sunlight on the river. Clouds. A few people on the road, but anyone who worked in the village had already reported to their jobs.

Finally tired of staring at fields of grain, I stood up. In the moment before I closed my eyes and the lack of weight on the chair triggered the device that closed the shutters, the mirror reflected something else, something dark.

Something terrible.


Marked in FleshMarked in Flesh, in paperback February 2017