Below is my second round story for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction. I won’t know how this one scored until next weekend, but I found writing in the genre of fairy tale enjoyable and somewhat liberating. I drew inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’.
The Shadow Factory
The old man held his grandson’s hand and the two walked towards the quiet part of the city. Beyond the flashy entertainment and restaurant districts, past the sparkle and glitz of the retail quarter, their steps became slow and hollow on the stones. In the late afternoon, in the fading warmth of the sun, the man’s shadow was far ahead of him, looking through the dusty storefronts of the first few vacant buildings, appearing around corners and on walls before melting through the one-way glass of empty factory windows. The small boy beside him cast no shadow at all. On the boy’s face was the constant visage of disconnected euphoria, lips parted, the beginning of a smile, but a cold faraway look in his eyes.
In the fading light the man almost lost sight of his own shadow, but as he rounded the corner he saw the rectangle grey building that was their destination, and when he came to stand under the neon blue security spotlight, his shadow complied and fell back in under his feet. On the door there was a tarnished brass plaque that read ‘DarkenUp Industries’. The man knocked hard three times and waited for the soft click and low groan as the door inched open.
A stooped elven figure motioned the two inside and offered for them to sit at the walnut reception desk. The room hummed a little, as if somewhere in the bowels of the building, cogs were grinding and pistons were thrumming. When they were seated, the elf took his place again behind the desk. Elves were so often lithe and ethereal, but this one was ruddy with a nose ring and an eyebrow piercing. His hands were square and gnarled at the knuckles and he turned up the oil lamp so that orange light licked the walls. In front of him he had readied a little pot of ink, a quill pen and piece of heavy parchment. ‘Thank-you for meeting with us,’ said the man as he gestured towards the boy. ‘I really had nowhere else to turn and…’ The elf raised a hand in a motion for the man to stop.
‘Am I correct that you wish to make a formal request?’ The man nodded emphatically. The elf considered him sternly, then turned his attention to the child, whose expression had not changed. ‘Then I ask that you proceed in the agreed manner. Once I have documented your preamble, you may sign the form and we can finalise your request.’ The man sighed deeply and began…
‘Once upon a time there was a man who knew both light and dark. He was an honest man who worked hard every day, but he also grappled with the dark side of his nature. And it exhausted him. He would go to work and do his best, but would ignore someone begging on the street. He would gamble, and enjoy it. He would carry in wood for his elderly neighbour, but he would not stop to help a stranger in need. He would drink, and enjoy it. When he and his wife conceived a child he was overjoyed, and his one great desire was for the child to know more of the light and goodness in the world, and less of the dark. He wished for their child to have none of the failings of which he suffered. His wife wished for the same and they would sit up long into the night, hoping and dreaming for a child who was always good and kind and pure of heart. Their baby daughter came, and she flourished. Everyone noted the child’s kind disposition and how her days were filled with good deeds and random acts of kindness. When the golden-haired girl stood in the midday sun, she barely cast a shadow on the earth, such was the lightness of her soul. In time she met another kind-hearted soul and the two started their own family…’
The elf tapped his knuckles against the table, impatient for the man to finish.
‘But when the man became a grandfather and first held his grandson, he knew something was terribly wrong. As the boy grew he never frowned or cried or showed any emotion whatsoever, save for a kind of cold, disaffected euphoria. And he cast no shadow.’
The elf completed his scratchings and slid the page over to the man. ‘I understand you are here to purchase a shadow for the boy. Please read the disclaimer…then sign here.’ As the man signed, his signature seemed to glow with an otherworldly light, and a chill settled on his body. Then the elf stood and motioned for the two to follow him through a small door at the back of the room.
The shadow factory was a series of dark rooms with whirring machines and holding pools. In one room there were a series of tanks, with what looked like sparkly black fish darting about in moon-blue liquid. The elf took up a small net, expertly scooped up a fish and in a fluid motion, grabbed the boy’s arm and drew him close. He deftly pinched the child’s nose and when the boy opened wide to suck in breath, the elf slipped the wriggling black blob into his mouth. The boy gulped, wide-eyed, then stumbled back before doubling over. In that moment two elf factory workers, dressed in grey overalls, ushered the man into a different room so that he could fulfill his side of the agreement.
The two left the factory district. The child held the man’s hand in the dark. As they passed back through the flashy lights of the entertainment district, the child was wide-eyed and his cheeks grew stained with the hot tears he cried for the pain and poverty of his city, for the sorrow of his fellow man. Beside him the old man was not moved by any site he saw, and he cast no shadow.