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The King of Shadows by Maria Alexander

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“Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook.”
— Puck to Oberon,
A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Act III, ii

The funeral was today.

I wrote a film some years back about morgue workers. I watched tape after tape of interviews, the mortician’s assistants telling frightful tales about bodies unrecognizable from their wounds, which they dressed and coated with layers of cosmetics. They had learned to make Death rosy-cheeked and peaceful.

My father’s death was far from peaceful. A heart attack ripped life from him in a single spasm of rage.

This morning before the funeral, I performed my ablutions numbly. As I washed my face, I scarcely felt anything for the man who’d slapped it repeatedly. Every morning for many mornings in my life, I tried to wash away those splattered red streaks, war paint not applied in any ceremony but in an explosion of fury. When I finished drying my face with a soft towel, I stood in that little room, amongst the porcelain and steel and glass, and I cried. Not for his death, but for his life…

I remembered being a child, hiding in the bathroom. It was the safest room in the house because it had a lock. I could lock out the violence during my father’s rampages, to keep him from taking out his wrath on me. I’ll never forget the day when he almost broke down the door because I had locked him out. Like a flailing ape, he’d put his foot through the door. I screamed. I remember thinking, I might as well let him in, and I did. Because if I didn’t, there would be no door left. No safety in the future. Let him in, for Christ’s sake. And he hurt me that day…

As I dressed, I pulled black stockings over my long smooth legs, remembering the bruises that once purpled my thin, white skin. Now, little spidery veins crawl over small patches of that skin. Not too noticeable yet, but soon. Very soon. I pulled my long cinnamon hair into a bun and fastened the black woolen cap on the crown of my head. He’d forced me to cut it as a child, despite begging and pleading.

That hair. Mousy brown roots hedged my scalp. Cinnamon, I tell my friends, is my “natural” color because it’s the color I want. A color untouched by him or time.

I last spoke to him ten years ago. Then distance and hatred and my refusal to subject myself to his abuse, even over the phone, swallowed his voice. In his old age, he grew more acrid, more intensely disgusting in his language and bearing. My mother grew senile, deaf, and blind. Because she was too powerless to leave him, her body desperately outbid her good sense for escape. I last spoke to her in that same conversation with my father. Her blindness and deafness, in my mind, manifested from her denial, which betrayed me by ignoring my pain.

I pulled the veil over my face and examined myself in the mirror. The black lace cast vague shadows over my features – features that did not, in any way, resemble my father. And if they did, I would deny it with my heart and soul and lips. I did not resemble him, inside or out. He was a creature. A monster. An ogre.

Something inhuman. Yet something ironically, darkly magical.

He would sit by my bed at night, telling me stories. Fairytales. Ghost stories. Tales of sorcery and horror. He’d motion toward the shadows, demanding that they stop their movement toward my bed. And they would, too. Like children with gentle fathers, I did not fear monsters at night when my father commanded them to be still. My father was the King of Shadows. They – like me – fled from his outstretched hand.

And when I awoke the next morning, he’d want to know if I’d had any dreams. He could interpret dreams. He’d go to his two-hundred-year-old Chickering piano, on top of which he kept the large book of “oneiromancy” with its flaking antique pages and dusty, threading olive cover. I remember the angel inked on that cover, carrying a scroll. With wonder and majesty, he’d withdraw that book and open it reverently, reading descriptions of the places and things in my nightly reveries. The book was written in Old Greek, so the words slipped between his dry, doleful lips in an ancient language of thee’s and thou’s I could not understand…

Like my dreams. Like him.


My Uncle Andrew arrived soon at the door. He wore a dark brown suit, his hair slightly mussed as it always was. The only relative I spoke to any more, he was affable, superstitious, and drank like a fish. He was my Scottish mother’s youngest brother, and he shared her large, hazel eyes and creamy skin, although paler than she. Uncle Andrew never disparaged me for not speaking to my parents. He and his wife, Mary, had no children. Mary herself was a delight, plump and sensual, with perfumes and powders in her purse. She had a high voice and all the girlishness of the world painted on her sweet lips.

“Did you see your lawn?” Uncle Andrew asked anxiously, as soon as I opened the door. “It’s a bad omen on a day like this.”

“Uncle Andrew,” I said, pulling on my gloves, “what could be a worse omen than a funeral?”

He hugged me tightly. His sharp aftershave and the starch on his collar stung my nostrils. Unusual smells on my carpenter uncle, who rarely shaved.

“I’m sorry, Lindsay,” he whispered into my ear. “But you must really come look.”

When I walked outside, Mary stood on the lawn, hands on her wide hips draped in black rayon. “Andrew, what have y’been telling her?”

“It’s an omen, Mary. Now, get away from it!” he said, shooing her with his hands. Mary rolled her blue eyes and, leaning forward slightly in her gait, stomped off to the sidewalk.

I stepped carefully over the freshly mown grass. There, despite the gardener’s visit that morning, sprawled a large ring of mushrooms, some five feet in diameter. The mushrooms themselves sprouted four to five inches tall.

“It’s a fairy gate…”

“It’s a fungus.”

And so they argued. I crouched in the dew, unmindful of my stockings and pumps, examining the pulpy, offending stumps. Bluish and porous, their pallid flecks of dust coated the thin, freshly cut blades of grass beneath. I removed a glove and tentatively reached out to touch one of the caps –

“DON’T!” Uncle Andrew said, grasping my wrist, my fingertips centimeters from the soft cap. Something of my father leapt to life in me that moment, and my fingers recoiled into my palm. He wouldn’t have touched it. He would have pointed it out, admonished me about its wicked magic, then later that night pluck them from the ground, telling me the next morning how the dark fairies had gone and taken them with. That is, if I survived the morning without a visit from his ire.

A tear burned on my cheek. “Let’s go,” Uncle Andrew said softly. I let him help me up.


Phantoms chased us as we drove. Phantoms of doubt and fear. Why was I leaving my sanctuary today? My quiet home, my hideaway. I needed the closure, I told myself. I needed to see that, indeed, the monster was dead. That is why I went.

We arrived at the church early, the sky almost white, the way it gets on Easter mornings. Impossibly thin and cool, the air seeped through my veil and raised tiny bumps on my arms. I hated mornings like this. Too ethereal. Too light. What could anyone grasp on a morning like this? Perhaps that was the point.

As I slammed the door closed of Uncle Andrew’s sedan, I fell to gazing at the church, a large Greek Orthodox cathedral. Golden saints stared from stony windows, two fingers of one hand raised, pressed together in the gesture of biblical teachers, the other hand grasping a book. Domed, squarish, and Byzantinely beautiful, the church gaped at passersby with its large, round rosette window, heralding to the lost that within it guarded knowledge.

“Greek?” Mary asked, confused.

I shook my head. He wasn’t Greek. At least, we didn’t think so. We never knew his nationality. His parents adopted him in the ‘20s, when records were scarce. But he did speak Greek, as well as Latin and Spanish and French. Even German and Russian. Although unfathomable to me, his belief system was nothing as well organized as this bastard branch of Catholicism. Perhaps he’d converted recently? I couldn’t tell from the will.

“It was what he wanted,” I said quietly. Uncle Andrew nodded.

We entered the church, the small, warm vestibule heavy with the smell of burning candles and frankincense. To our right stretched a bed of sand, strewn with lit candles. Despite the candles and the sunlight from the doors, the inner dusk contrasted sharply with the weather outside. Two more doorways lead into the church, the archways gilded, the walls red and soft. Rich, dun oil paintings of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus flanked each doorway.

An old woman stood at one of the paintings. Bundled in a thick, olive woolen coat, she wore a black scarf on her head. I did not recognize her. Then again, I wasn’t surprised. What did I know about this man now? What could I have guessed about his life and his friends, if he indeed ever had either? She blinked at me, her olive skin like wrinkled vellum around her unreadable eyes, and she muttered something in Greek, motioning to us with her aging hand. Silently, we watched her as she kissed the picture, reached into a small basin of water, and then crossed herself with her wet fingers before entering.

Unquestioning, we did the same.

She entered the almost empty nave. The old woman knelt at the base of the aisle between the pews on the red carpet, crossing herself. She then rose and moved into one of the back pews, her head down, and she knelt again.

Her movements distracted me from the shining, open black coffin before the altar. My stomach rose into my throat as I fought seven different emotions from overwhelming me. Uncle Andrew took me by the hand and Mary patted my back. “S’all right now, Lindsay,” he said gently. “S’all right.”

Beyond the coffin stood the heavily gilded altar wall, with doors leading to the back of the church. Two saints depicted on those doors held staves, fingers raised. They reminded me of the fairies in my father’s books, painted in brilliant jeweled tones, like those delicate pictures carefully guarded by tissue pages.

Father John entered the nave in his black and gold vestments. A big man with round hands, he spoke with a deep voice and a thick tongue. His beard, massive and grayish, wreathed a broad face, a priestly Santa. Thirty years ago, I would have reached for that beard and pulled it.

“Ms. Bryant,” he intoned. He lead us to the front of the nave, sensitive to my distance from the coffin, and seated us. He reminded us what to expect (we’d discussed this before on the phone) and assured us that everything would be fine. I believed him. His silky, watery eyes conveyed measureless compassion. I lost myself in his eyes to avoid accidentally gazing upon the contents of the coffin.

Women began singing in the choir loft – “Kyrie Eleison” – and soon people arrived. Faces I hadn’t seen for years appeared in the sunlit nave, swimming in stained glass waters. Uncles, aunts, old family friends, their suits pressed and black, they each approached first the casket then me, sadly extending their clammy hands. They solemnly murmured their condolences, as if I still had his last rage roaring in my ears. I allowed them their charade and accepted their sorrow. Mary’s perfume mingled with the burning incense, faintly reminding me people were there who knew the truth.

Eventually, my older half-brother, Eric, arrived. He was as tall – and as late – as ever, his bright red hair faded to deep auburn with grayish threads, the lids of his green eyes heavy and tired. He pushed a wheelchair down the aisle toward the front pew.

The chair cradled my mother.

I had been dwelling so much on my father and his earthly sins that I’d forgotten my mother. Now here she approached me, her waist-length silver hair braided into one ropy plait, her once-blue eyes webbed with cataracts and masked with angular, smoky black sunglasses. Frail. Crippled. Deaf. My heart thudded weakly to see her. My betrayer.

My mother.

Eric stopped the chair before me, her gnarled feet inches from mine. She wore black tea slippers sewn with little pearl beads. Her pale, dry skin stretched over her arms and hands, like the twisted birch that rapped against my bedroom window in the wind. She didn’t seem to know where she was, her lips quivering.

She held a package in her lap. Her fingers worked feebly at the brown paper.

“Good to see you, Sis,” Eric said, nodding to me, his voice all gravel from cigarettes.

“Good to see you, too,” I said, unsure if that was true. He didn’t believe me when I told him about Father’s abuse. He had his own kids, his stock business, his house wife. His own father had been a saint, God-rest-his-soul. How could such things happen? Over the years, Eric espoused several, very condescending theories about my sanity, and many quite cruel reasons for why I wasn’t married. He briefly exchanged greetings with Uncle Andrew and Mary. They’d all seen each other earlier.

Mother opened her mouth and a faint sound escaped her throat. For some reason her tongue could not form words. I realized, with horror, that she’d suffered a stroke. Eric bent down and retrieved the package from her lap. “This is for you,” he said.

I took it from his hands. Heavy. A book. He immediately wheeled Mother away to the opposite end of the front pew. And there we sat, divided as always.

I touched the package cover and trembled. Ghostly cold hands seized me beneath my sleeves, running their invisible fingers along my skin. I thought maybe this was the oneiromancy book, but then I peeled back the paper.

The Red Fairy Book.

This Lang classic was my father’s favorite. As a child, I’d read it thousands of times (or, it seemed that way). My fingers lovingly brushed the smooth paper picture of the Pink Princess riding her elaborate steed and I eagerly felt underneath for the deep red cloth cover. When I was little, I did not know that there were other colored fairy books. I later saw them in paperback, lined up in a New Age bookstore. I thought, I could buy all of them now, but realized they had no magic. They were cheap, thin copies of this magnificent ancient tome heavy with dust and age and imagination. I thought they called it “The Red Fairy Book” because of all the brutality in it, all the blood. Or because of the color of Rose Red’s lips. It didn’t matter. It was mine. It was his. It was magic.

I opened the cover. Immediately childhood bloomed in my nose. Paper, dust, ink…my childhood with this book and others. A drawing inside in sepia inks depicted an ogre carrying a large spiked club over one shoulder, dragging a young girl by the hair with his other hand…

I had tried to scribble it out with a brown crayon. The paper was wrinkled there by my seven-year-old self’s tears.

I heaved a long, hoarse sob. Uncle Andrew put his arm around me. The funeral rites had begun. I cried through them, harder and harder, the pain driving up from my torn, little girl heart through my stinging eyes. Through my soul. I noticed through my pain why my father had requested these Greek rites. Like the fairy book, they were dramatic, mythic, and colorful, yet dark in their obscure, occultic movements and ululations. Father John’s sooty incense was to drive away demons, but for my father it surely drew them.

He was The King of Shadows. And he was dead.

Uncle Andrew held my hand tightly. He tried to move the valuable book from harm’s briny way, but I clutched it tighter in my hand. I only let go of it long enough to occasionally dab my eyes with a soaked handkerchief.

Then, as the rites drew to a close, Uncle Andrew hesitantly whispered in my ear. “Are you going to look in the casket?” Father John had stopped the final rite – The Closing of The Coffin – and looked at me directly, waiting. He stood aside.

I would do it. I would go forward and see him, put The King of Shadows to rest. I stood, my knees weak and my heart thumping, The Red Fairy Book – the only fairy book – under my arm. Yes, I would go.

Then I heard a voice. Voices, actually. They fluttered over the pews carelessly, people thinking they were not heard, but were. “She made that shocking film for PBS last year,” said the first. A woman. Then, a man. “Yes, and they kicked her off the set…for her violent temper.”

I died. And died. And died again. Uncle Andrew rose, supporting me with his arms. Shaking and lamenting, I moved toward the coffin and pushed Uncle Andrew away. I had to do this alone.

I could see my father from far off. My hand found the edge of the casket and I pulled myself toward the opening.

There he lay, sleeping, a short man wearing a blue suit he’d loved. Those terrible black brows that were always driven together in frowns now rested separate, still, smooth. His skin had always been slightly tan. As always, I wondered where he came from. Perhaps he was Spanish. Or Mediterranean. Or Italian. No one knew. The topic now rested, no longer merely forbidden, but unreachable.

I expected to see an ogre, with large yawning, warty hands and a hulking nose, arms thick as tree trunks, dirt caked in his hair, that spiked club by his side, piercing the satin sheets. But he was so very human. I thought that if I touched him he would turn to dust. I wanted to feel the skin of his hands, those hands that drove away shadows and trust. Those hands I never understood. How could a man teach a child things so magical, so profound, yet turn and hurt her in the same aching breath?

Tentatively, I placed my fingertips on his. Created to creator.

Instantly, his skin flushed ebon. Starting from his fingertips, shadows ran over his hands and up his neck. Like scorched bark, his skin flaked and his lids shriveled from his closed eyes, lips retreating from sharpened teeth. His forehead bulged, troll-like, and his fingers curled, the nails dropping off, as his arms twisted and hardened. I screamed – I must have – locked in witness of his transformation.

He was no longer human, but a creature of pitch and craft. Antediluvian. Legerdemain of the foulest fairy wood.

The King of Shadows.

And that’s when I heard them. Wild things, deep things, dark things. Squeaking and howling, cursing the light. They strutted, pranced, and gyred in their abysmal procession toward the sarcophagus.

I turned to meet the seething mass as it made its way from the vestibule, doors held open by the old woman, and fell on my knees before them, skinning my legs on the thin red carpet. Surely they came for me, to punish me for some unrealized trespass.

They lurched forward, hissing and gabbling, until they reached the coffin. The largest – an ogre who stank of shit and bile and dirt – reached toward me. I thought he would grasp me by my cinnamon hair and hoist me into his hairy arms. Instead, he reached over me into the box with his filthy hands and carefully extracted the withered body, holding it high above his head. A feral chatter swelled triumphantly, and monstrous, papery flapping things swarmed through the watery, stained-glass light. The ogre’s voice bellowed hollowly above the others, a cry of conquer.

Then, they left as they came, those things of shadow and secret and fear, carrying the body of their king.

And I watched them, my knees burning, my heart grieving. Not for his death. Not for his life…

…but for how much of him was in me.

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Posted by on Thursday, December 15th, 2005. Filed under Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry