The scrying glass glints. Light, half caught, dances across. Moon on black water. Shapes emerge within. Do they come from her or it? She does not know yet. But she must look.
The shroud clung to his body, unmoving. She stood at the doorway looking on, in quantum flux between stepping forward and running away. Her breath fogged in front of her as she exhaled heavily. Then, on the next inhale, she approached. Through the arched doorway, the temperature dropped by degrees and the pressure of the air squeezed at her eardrums. Knowing this was a controlled atmosphere to help delay decay didn’t help. Death had a presence. But she didn’t feel death, just the absence of life. She knew it was cool to slow decomposition. Rotting flesh. This was real, material decay. A brilliant, complicated, beautiful man. Now empty. Broken down to empty flesh, and breaking down even more than that second by second, despite the controls in place. She could see the outline of his naked body under the muslin cloth, his profile draped in white. She reached out, half-expecting to feel warmth of contact from him in this cold room. She touched him. It was the same temperature as everything else. It gave under her hand like raw chicken, skin and all.
What does a shadow look like in the dark? I know there’s something there. Occasionally I convince myself I can see its outline flickering. But without light to define it, how can I be sure?
She ran away, darting under his outstretched arms. He was draped in muslin cloth and lumbered theatrically towards her. She laughed without restraint as his lumbering broke out to a run to try and keep up with her and the shroud was swept away, falling to the ground, forgotten. Running, she felt heat from inside and out. The sun on the backs of her calves. The tightening burn of her lungs working. The first pinpricks of sweat spreading out across her back like wings. Then, as he reached her, the heat of contact. Of another body.
I saw it again last night, like the ebb of a still sea. The suggestion of turbulence deeper than can be perceived.
This stone’s perfect, she said. It fits just in my palm. My finger stretch to wrap round it, not too much. Just enough to feel my hand expanding a little. I love it. What’s so special about a stone, he said. The beach is full of them. You could take your pick. It’s full of them, she said. But this is the only stone like this. They’ve been thrown around by the wash, battered and ground and jostled and smoothed. And I’ve got this one in my hand now, when it fits so snuggly. Think of all the shapes and sizes that they could be. To find a stone that fits so well is a rare thing. They’re all special, but this one’s perfect for me.
I can feel it watching me, its eyes slowly boring a hole in the back of my neck. Every night, I have to look. And what I see is beautiful. But I know that behind me the shadow is moving closer and its touch makes me pale and weak.
When I was a child, fever felt like death and moments felt like eternity. Time travel has always existed in perception, paradox in memory. We reshape reality every time we look back. I remember a childhood fever once where I hallucinated, sweating in the dark as a shadow figure stood over me. I was at once frozen in terror and trapped in perpetual movement, limbs twitching as the heat rose in me. This time we share that fever together. Sticky hot, inches apart but unable to touch. I know death isn’t coming yet. I wish this was eternity.
On the sixth night, the strange couple arrived. A man and a woman wearing bleached white bone masks. I could feel the shadow creature shiver with excitement and fear as they approached.
I had so many questions I wanted answered. But I also just wanted to be left to look into the scrying glass, without them interfering. And I felt so weak.
“They’re experiments with time, dear,” the woman spoke gently. “Peering across the vortex into might have been’s, never were’s and could be stills.”
The man’s tone was harsher, more judgemental. “When you start playing around with time, even just a peek, you draw attention to yourself. The movement in the shadows? You’ve got yourself a little pet. And she’s hungry.”
Despite myself, I was crying now. “What do I do? Please, help me. I can’t stop looking.”
The woman took off her bone mask, lowering it to reveal a warm smile. “Join us and you can do more than look. We walk the timestreams that you can just peer into.”
“What about the thing in the shadows?”
The man too lowered his mask. His face was cold as steel. “Leave it, and let it find peace.”
–As Recounted by Greg Maughan