Persephone

 

Persephone

By Shawn C. Harris

 

1. Don’t
 
 
All the stories say the same thing: Don’t.
 
Don’t eat the food, no matter how tasty it looks or how hungry you are, for if you eat the food, you will die, or you will have to stay in the underworld forever, or you will sprout hair and snout and claws as you turn into some ugly and gluttonous thing, or you will choke on a bite of poisoned apple and fall into a deathlike sleep, or you will grow and grow and never stop growing while your tears drown the world, or you will shrink and shrink until you become so small that you disappear, or a witch may feed you to her oven.
 
Don’t talk to strangers, no matter how kind their smile or how lonely you are, for if you talk to strangers, you will go to your bubbe’s house and find a wolf sleeping in bed where she should be, or the witch who raised you will cut off your beautiful hair and cast you out of the lonely tower that is the only home you have ever known, or your evil stepmother in disguise will lace up your corset so tight that you can’t breathe and you slip into the dark bosom of enchanted sleep, or you will wind up a prisoner in a house made of sweets.
 
Don’t stray from the path, no matter how much faster it seems or how much you crave the sight of something new, for if you stray from the path, you will get lost and have to wander in the wilderness for a year or forty or a hundred, or the wolves will sniff you out and hunt you down and gobble you up, or the robbers in the woods will snatch you up and make you their bride for a day then eat you when they’re done with you, or the Others will find you and take you away to their twilight realm beneath the hills and force you to dance and dance and dance until your feet are bloody ribbons and the music makes you want to scream, or you will stumble and fall off the edge of the earth.
 
Don’t open the locked door, no matter how harmless it looks or how curious you are, for if you open it, you will find the rotting and half-eaten corpses of cattle and goats and deer, and you will see the kind and gentle beast you have come to adore is no lamb but a lion, or you will find the mutilated corpses of your predecessors floating in pools of blood, and your honey your sweetheart your darling will grab that bright, gleaming ax hanging on the wall and hack you to bits, or you will unleash chaos and sorrow and death upon the world.
 
All the stories say the same thing. Stay home, stay safe, stay where nothing strange or unexpected happens, stay where you meet nothing and no one unknown. But without those fearless girls who didn’t heed the warnings and didn’t do what they were told, without those wayward women who ate the food, talked to strangers, strayed from the path, and looked behind the locked door, where would all the stories be?
 
 
2. Dust and Ashes
 
 
A flurry of fat, feathery snowflakes floats onto the half-frozen soil. A sprinkling lands on a grave marked with an arched stone slab crowned with a Magen David. Etched into the stone in Hebrew and Latin letters is the name Judah Ben Natan, beloved husband and father, zikhrono livrakha. Cushioned in the womb of the earth, Dad slumbers in his plain pine box of a bed. There he will sleep until the World to Come along with his father and his mother, his older brother and his old army buddies from Vietnam.
 
In this quiet, soft moment, Terry can almost hear the dead speaking to each other beneath the earth, whispering in strange tongues secrets from beyond the grave. One day she will dwell here in her own wooden box, wrapped in a shawl of white linen. Her mother and her brothers, too. Then they too will whisper to one another in the language of the dead those secrets that only the dead know.
 
We are but dust and ashes.
 
One by one, cars pull up along the paved lane next to the part of the cemetery set aside for Jews. People pour out of their cars and flock around the freshly dug grave. Greetings and condolences trickle into Terry’s ears, but when she looks into the eyes of those who speak to her, she sees two coins there, and when she watches the movements of their mouths, worms and moths spill out.
An army of aunts swarms Terry and her brothers, rumpling their clothes and wetting their cheeks with kisses and buzzing their ears with questions and advice, but when Terry looks into the eyes of Miriam Deborah Rachel Cheryl Sarah Judith Esther Sylvia, she sees the hollow sockets of bleached skulls, and in their mouths she sees the macabre grins of skeletons buried in black soil.
 
Rabbi Aaron arrives in a ten-year-old Prius and leads the service. His words are gentle and beautiful, but Terry can’t hear them. Mom dabs her eyes on one of Dad's old handkerchiefs. Makeup smudges the monogrammed square of silk. A few sniffles ripple through the crowd gathered around the grave. Terry doesn’t cry. She can’t. The hollow place inside her has already swallowed up all her tears.
 
Her mouth moves on its own to say Kaddish, but the hole in her heart shaped like her father weighs a ton, and it drags the sounds back into her throat. Her words come out in a soft, ghostly whisper. When it is time to complete the burial, she squats beside Dad’s new home and fills her fist with cool, damp earth. She tosses it onto the coffin. Dirt splays across the wood.
 
We are but dust and ashes.
 
 
3. Comings and Goings
 
 
The angel of the border floats above Ben Gurion International Airport, the Book of Comings and Goings open upon its lap. In each of its many hands it holds a quill plucked from its own feathers. With its right hands it inscribes the names of those children of Israel who arrive in the land of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and with its left hands it inscribes the names of the children of Israel who depart. Around it, passenger jets ascend to and descend from the stratosphere like giant metal birds. Inside, newborn babies, stare at the angel, smile and coo. Their mothers pick them up and cuddle them, seeing nothing.
 
Below, among the river of people flowing out of Delta Airlines flight 8648, a woman enters Eretz Yisrael for the first time. Her nut-brown face is the face of a youngish woman gracefully skating past her prime, her roaring teens and twenties at least a decade behind her. Lines of laughter and lines of tears are starting to crinkle the skin at corners of her mouth and eyes. Her right eye is the eye of a little girl as new to the world as a butterfly newly hatched from its cocoon, and her left eye is the eye of a wrinkled crone as old as the sands that blow across the Negev. Once upon a time, those deep brown eyes shone clear and bright, receiving the light around them and reflecting it outward in shimmering sparks, like the flames of Shabbos candles.
 
If you have ears to hear, you may pick up how she asks the locals in labored Hebrew to slow down as they give her directions to the train station. To casual onlookers, this youngish woman with warm, brown skin and a dense mop of crinkled hair clearly comes from Ethiopia or Sudan. To the seasoned, sophisticated traveler, her modern clothes and command of English means she must be from Jamaica or Nigeria (there are Jews in Nigeria, nachon?). But this old-young woman, Black as the queen of Sheba, with her halting Hebrew and fluent English, is American, straight from the nation’s capital.
 
“American, riiiiiight! Of course she is,” they would say with a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head. “Shtuyot! What nonsense. How can that woman be American when she looks nothing like Michelle Obama? Or Oprah? Or Serena? Or Beyoncé?”
 
What name shall the angel record in its great book for this traveler, this mysterious “she,” who makes her way to the baggage claim as your eyes read these words? The angel scrawls Tirzah Persephone Horowitz in bold letters of black fire. What a pleasant name. The syllables are sweet, sailing easily from the tongue. Tirzah, like the youngest of the daughters of Zelophehad. A nice Jewish name for a nice Jewish girl. Why don’t we call her Terry for short? Terry, like terra, the earth that is her home and the clay from which Elohim sculpted the first human being. Terry like a terrier, that fierce and cunning hunter who dives into the darkness and shadows in pursuit of its quarry. Terry, like Saint Teresa of Avila, blessed by an angel’s touch that left her sprawled out, breathless, lips parted in an ecstatic moan, her body on fire as divine love flowed through her vessel of flesh. Terry, like terror. Yes, Terry is a good name for this one.
 
 
4. Persephone
 
 
Her mother named her Persephone.
 
She shouldn’t have been able to have more children at all, not after Isaac. There had been so much pain, so much blood, way more than when David came into the world. There had been a trip to the emergency room, where she lay on the operating table as men in white coats and rubber gloves cut her open and pulled Isaac out while the Angel of Death floated above her, black wings spread open, blocking out the light in the operating room.
 
“There have been complications,” said the men in white coats and rubber gloves. They spoke and wrote in a strange, arcane tongue that sounded almost like English. Bacterial infection, possibly resulting from the rupture in the uterine lining. Emergency caesarean delivery. Critical but stable condition. Extensive damage to the uterus. Further pregnancies extremely unlikely.
 
For the next three years, it was just Damita and Judah and the boys, and most of the time it was enough. But there were moments when, alone with her thoughts, sadness would wash over her, as if mourning someone lost, though she did not know who it was.
 
Then, on a balmy August night, she started dreaming about schools of silvery fish, and the next day her breasts were sore, and the day after that, she started puking.
 
“You knocked up,” Damita’s mama said.
 
White men in white coats took pee and blood samples, told her there was no way she could be pregnant, but Dr. Leonard Greenstein, who looked like a pale raisin with frizzy white hair, took one look at Damita’s cervix and said, “Mrs. Horowitz, I believe there’s something in the oven.”
 
Through summer and autumn, an angel whispered the secrets of life and death to the baby growing inside Damita’s swelling belly, then tapped it on the philtrum.
 
The due date crept closer.
 
Behind the solid wood of their bedroom door, Damita and her husband tasted different names for the baby, voices hushed so that the Angel of Death wouldn’t hear and take the baby away. The Angel of Death still heard them, of course, for all living things dwell in the shadow of its wings. Quietly, quietly, they settled on names. If the baby was a boy, they’d name him Jacob, after the brother of Judah’s mother, who was killed in Dachau. If a girl, Tirzah, after the sister of Judah’s father, who perished in Buchenwald.
 
“Tirzah,” Damita whispered to herself, caressing the bump where the baby slept and waited to be born.
 
For the baby’s middle name, she’d always liked Penelope, but the sounds didn’t feel quite right in her mouth, like biting into what should be a sweet, crisp apple and getting a mouthful of sour, squishy grapefruit. She combed through baby name books for the answer to the riddle of the baby’s middle name: What is like Penelope but not Penelope? Penninah? Penrose? Guadalupe? Millicent?
 
Then, at the bookstore, browsing for more baby name books, Damita’s eyes alighted on a book of crossword puzzles sitting out of place on the magazine rack, as if it was put there just for her. Flipping through it, she noticed they were grouped by theme: nature and animals, states and their capitals, famous books and authors, and so on. She paused on the crossword, and there, right in the middle of the page, as though it was put there just for her, a clue: queen of the underworld, wife of Hades. In her head, she filled in the boxes with the letters P-E-R-S-E-P-H-O-N-E, and it fit.
 
 
5. The Real Tsfat
 
 
There are two Tsfats.
 
One is the Tsfat for tourists and expats. It’s the Tsfat profiled in articles listing the top ten places to go in Israel. It’s the Tsfat of travel guides that name the same five, seven, or ten things to do during a brief trip to the city. Stay at the same five, seven, or ten hotels. Eat expensive dinners at the same three, five, or seven upscale restaurants. Sip sweet, creamy coffee in the same cafés all the other tourists go to. Buy souvenirs from the same art galleries. Get primped and pampered at the same handful of luxury spas. Learn watered-down Kabbalah from the same old men in their big, gray beards and big, black hats. Snap selfies from the mountaintop against the same backdrop of quaint limestone buildings and tree-covered hills.
 
That is the Tsfat that most people know. Another Tsfat dwells beneath and beside it. It’s the Tsfat that lives in old stones and old bones. Its blood is myth and legend, superstition and old wives’ tales. Its breath is the words of sages and mystics, spoken and written in the holy tongue of angels and men. See that chamsa spray-painted on the wall, warding off the Evil Eye? Hear the rusty jangle of iron keys and iron nails that dangle from doors and windows, keeping away malevolent spirits that enter through the gaps? See that inverted pyramid of letters etched into the wood of a park bench, the same word over and over, but letter by letter, shorter and shorter, as if being unwritten from existence? Hear that chorus of, “Ptuh ptuh ptuh!” coming from that cluster of frum women who imitate the sound of spitting three times as they share the news about poor Chava who’s in the hospital with a mysterious growth in her chest?
 
This is the real Tsfat. It’s the Tsfat where shedim fly between the fronds of palm trees in bodies made of air, and mazzikim hide in the shadows of ruins, loosening the stones above the heads of those who pass by. Unclean spirits, unseen by mortal eyes, lurk by the stagnant waters of filthy bathroom stalls and cling to the hands that do not wash or rinse after using the toilet.
 
In an unnamed alleyway in the Old Jewish Quarter, a stray cat, fluffy and gray, arches its back and hisses at nothing, then bolts to its hiding place behind a garbage bin. Behind the closed doors of a house off Shprinzak Street, a platoon of middle-aged and elderly women swarm around a young bride-to-be, fussing over her dress, makeup, and hair. A dybbuk slips inside the young woman and settles in the space between a heart split in two. One half for a sweet, high-earning husband and a big house full of light and children and beautiful things, and the other half for soft, womanly moans between deep kisses stolen in the dark.
 
There are many such things to be found in Tsfat, if you know where to look.
 
 
6. Assiyah
 
 
Imagine a Friday afternoon on the busiest street in the city. See buses and scooters and cars cram into the street like wheeled sardines. Hear tires skid and horns honk and drivers curse at the top of their lungs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, while the objects of their ire yap on their smartphones. Smell burnt rubber and car exhaust clogging the air, choking the demons that inhabit the wind.
 
On a certain curb, let there stand a Haredi man. Let him have a suitably biblical name like Avraham or Moshe. Let him have a grown man's beard, full and dark, perhaps with the distinction of a few streaks of gray. Hear the brakes of a taxi or a bus squeak to a stop next to him. Hear him sigh, relieved, as he enters and folds his beanpole frame into a seat. Feel the tightness in his back, neck and shoulders lift away as he breathes out the burdens of the work week.
 
Picture in the seat next to him a book filled with the words you are reading right now. He is a man who values knowledge, so such things always catch his eye. Perhaps some poor soul has forgotten it in their hurry to get to where they were going. He peeks inside the front and back cover for a way to contact the owner. There is none. He flips the book over, skims the blurb on the back, and peeks inside. Then his brow furrows. Women kissing women? With tongues? Women touching women Down There? Is this pornography?
 
He should shut the book and throw it in the trash where it belongs, then wash his hands of the filth he just touched but, like Adam and Chava, he cannot resist the forbidden fruit, so he reads and reads, nibbling his lip in concentration as he turns page after page.
 
 
7. Sleepwalk
 
 
When Terry was a little girl, she used to walk in her sleep. It started when she was a toddler, maybe three or four.
 
The first time was a humid night in late July. It was one of those nights when Damita’s body wouldn’t let her get a wink of sleep, even as the hours crawled past ten, eleven, midnight, and one in the morning. Judah slept like the dead next to her. An old black-and-white movie played on the television. Then, between the lines spoken by the gray apparitions on the screen, she heard the soft creak of a bedroom door opening. Turning down the volume as low as it could go, Damita listened for the sound of feet shuffling down the hall, or a toilet flushing. No such sound came. At first, she was certain one of the kids was sneaking into the kitchen for a sugary snack that would have had them bouncing off the walls in the middle of the night and shambling like zombies during the day. Damita slid out of bed, a stern talking-to on the tip of her tongue, and yanked her bedroom door open.
 
But instead of catching one of the kids red-handed, she found Terry padding down the hall in her pajamas, carrying her favorite sleeping companion, a fluffy stuffed horse with button eyes and a mane and tail of yarn. Damita called out to her once, twice, thrice, but Terry didn’t answer. When she got a good look at the bleary, spaced-out look on Terry’s face, she put two and two together. Careful not to wake her, Damita picked her up, bones aching in protest (Terry was getting bigger, and Damita wasn’t getting younger) and carried her back to bed.
 
She took Terry to the pediatrician first thing in the morning. Dr. Greenstein assured her there was nothing to worry about, but Judah, leaving nothing to chance, built a little baby gate for the hallway to keep Terry from wandering into the kitchen or falling down the stairs. Usually, whoever found her during one of her episodes would gently wake her, then usher her back to bed, and that would be the end of it.
 
Over time, Terry’s walking spells became just another one of her little quirks, like her stuffed horse thing. But every now and then, on a night when her baby girl had one of her episodes, things happened that seemed to Damita just a bit . . . off. Like the time shortly after Terry started kindergarten. Damita woke up one night from a steamy dream (Was it about Richard Gere or Harrison Ford?), all sweaty and jittery, as if she’d drunk a whole pot of strong black coffee. Judah slept like a warm rock on his side of the bed.
 
Deep in the part of her brain that housed her maternal instincts, an urgent whisper sent her to check on the children. The boys were still at camp, so she tiptoed down the hall to Terry’s room, where she was greeted by a wooden plaque of a horse with Terry’s name carved into it, a present Judah had made for her birthday. On the other side of the door, she heard Terry chatting away. It wasn’t the normal childish babbling that came with learning how to put thoughts into words. Terry talked as though she were having a conversation with someone in the room. Her pulse shooting through the roof, Damita stormed into the room, ready to rip apart whoever was there who didn’t belong.
 
The amber glow of the nightlight showed Terry sitting up in bed, her face slack.  A cool draft swept through the open window, billowing the gauzy pink curtain. It reminded Damita of a ghost’s see-through garments. She shuddered and shut the window. Then she locked it to be on the safe side. Gently, gently, she tucked Terry back in and put her stuffed horse in her arms for her to snuggle. Her heart swelled at the sight of her, so peaceful, so precious. Damita planted a soft kiss on her plump cheek and crept back to her room but didn’t sleep the rest of the night. The sleepwalking went away when Terry was around eight or nine, just as Dr. Greenstein had said it would.
 
Those weird and wonderful years come back to Damita when she thinks about Terry, all grown up and gone to Israel to “find herself,” Damita’s heart sore from missing her brave, brilliant, beautiful baby girl.
 
 
8. Midnight’s Child
 
 
Terry loves the night.
 
Loves the cool, distant light of the moon and stars in the black satin sky. Shadows growing bigger, deeper, darker, transforming human beings into giants like the mighty nephilim who lived before the Flood and cars into chariots that tower over buildings. Jeweled shimmer of cats’ eyes shining in the dark.
 
She loves the sounds that come alive after daylight dies. Soft breath of whispering wind. Night song of nocturnal creatures. Muffled voices behind thin plaster walls.
 
Her great-aunt Helen used to say it’s because Terry was born at midnight, and midnight’s children are born with one foot in each world. Growing up, Terry wasn’t sure what Aunt Helen meant. Now, grown up, she’s still not quite sure what Aunt Helen meant, but there is something special about nighttime, something beyond the darkness, the stillness, the silence, that makes her feel as though she’s dancing at the edge of a world wondrous and strange.
 
On restless nights when sleep eludes her (most nights now), or when she needs fresh air to declutter the thoughts that press up against the inside of her skull, she puts on her iPod and goes for a stroll.
 
Her mother worries and warns her that if she keeps it up, she’ll get mugged or worse. Every other day it’s on the news: something terrible befalling a woman walking or jogging alone at night. Her mother is right, of course. There are things that come out at night, things that lurk in the shadows for tender morsels like Terry. Ghosts and demons and unclean spirits, wild animals and, yes, humans too. But Terry doesn’t heed the warnings, couldn’t heed them even if she wanted to, for the night calls to her as the moon calls to the tides, drawing her outside beneath the moon and stars and the dark, dark sky.
 
 
9. Monster
 
 
Tsfat is another world after dark.
 
While the sun sleeps beneath the horizon, the night comes alive. Insects scuttle across the streets and crawl into the crevices between cobblestones and bricks and slabs of concrete. Feral cats haunt the darkened alleyways. Floating across the stained glass windows of their eyes are the shapes of humans and angels and other things unseen in the light of day. The souls of dead mystics and sages, stuck in Sheol with nothing better to do, argue the finer points of halacha and Kabbalah while they await the World to Come. Mazzikim arise out of the deepening shadows of buildings and people. They bring plagues with names like Addiction, Abuse, Depression, and Self-Hatred.
 
On this night in Tsfat, two men bumble drunkenly through the narrow, tangled back streets of the Old Jewish Quarter. One is a tall, thin man with red hair and gold-rimmed spectacles. The other is a short man with dark hair and built like a wrestler. Their heads are filled with a fuzzy feeling, as if someone has stuffed cotton inside their skulls. The aftertaste of beer and thickly sweet licorice flavor of the arak they drank clings to their mouths.
 
They trip on a gap in the street formed from missing cobblestones and nearly topple over something round and hard protruding from the tiny hole. Embedded in the dusty soil, beneath a handful of loose pebbles, is a clay bowl turned upside down. It sits there as if it has been waiting in this precise spot, for this exact moment, for someone to stumble upon it.
 
Bracing himself against the side of a building, the tall man brushes aside the pebbles and digs the bowl out with his fingers. He turns the bowl over and blows off the bits of dirt that cling to its surface. At the bottom of the bowl, in the center of a spiral of ancient text, is the image of a creature that resembles a child’s drawing of the monster that haunts the shadows within a closet or under a bed. It has the head and torso of a human being and it has horns, hindquarters, and a tail culled from different beasts.
 
Long ago, centuries by the mortal measurement of time, bowls such as these were used to trap demons, protecting homes and families from harm. These men, thoroughly modern and secular, have no need for such silly superstitions, but a deep sense of unease takes root within them. It’s as though this bowl has been waiting to be pried from the dirt and picked up. Just as their instinct to leave well enough alone emerges from the alcoholic fog in their brains, the bowl slips and falls. Time slows as it dashes to pieces on the cobblestones.  Cold dread creeps down the men’s spines.
 
A gray blur dashes out of the shadows. The short man yelps, but a glimpse of a furry rear end reveals it’s not a ghost or a demon, but one of Tsfat’s many stray cats. With nothing to fear, the mortals exhale the air they’ve been holding and break into ripples of uneasy laughter.
 
Behind them, shadows start to move. Strange dark shapes slide along the sides of buildings and sink into the ground, merging with others into a pool of darkness darker than black. An amorphous shape starts to rise from the pool of shadow.
 
The two men turn around. At first, they simply stand there and blink, certain it’s the beer and booze making the shadows look like they move. Then the shape grows horns, a tail, arms, and legs, like the image at the bottom of the bowl, but this is no drawing, safely two-dimensional. The monstrous silhouette gets denser and darker, taking on weight and volume, becoming solid, becoming real.
 
They run.
 
They sprint down the street, turning left and turning right. The shadow creature gets closer, closer.
 
Still more drunk than sober, the tall man stumbles over his own feet, twists his ankle, and careens to the ground. The fall knocks the wind out of him, so the short man grabs his hands to haul him to his feet, but the thing in the shadows yanks the tall man out of the short man’s grip and drags him into the darkness. There is a curdled scream followed by the sound of bones snapping and the heavy, wet squish of meat hitting stone.
 
The short man races through the narrow back streets of the Old City, panic pushing him to go faster, faster, faster. Wind whistles in his ears as he spurs himself harder, harder, trying to outrun the shadow of death closing in behind him.
 
He doesn’t see the woman straight ahead of him until he bowls her over. An iPod flies out her hand and skids on the ground, earning a handful of battle scars on its face of metal and plastic. The woman scrambles to her feet with a grunt and brushes bits of gravel from her dark brown limbs. Wheezing, breathless, the short man tries to tell her, “Run!” but before the word comes out, a bloody gash opens his throat, and he falls, twitching, at her feet.
 
 
10. After
 
 
Terry tells herself it was just a dream, but she still remembers the look on the man’s face. Dark eyes wide in mad terror. Hot, red life pouring out his throat and oozing into the crevices between cobblestones. Face frozen in mute shock and horror. Deep red cleft in his neck and the grotesque angle of his nearly severed head. The light in his eyes going out as he died.
 
She sees him all the time. He never moves. He never speaks. He just stands there with that awful expression on his face, watching her. His neck a deep red slash, he bleeds and bleeds.
 
She’s sitting on a park bench picking her way through her Hebrew phrasebook, and there he is under the shade of a huge old tree. She’s browsing for fresh fruits and vegetables at the shuk, and he’s in the middle of the walkway. No one else seems to see him, yet people somehow flow around him like a stream flows around a rock. One harried mother pushing a baby stroller herds her five other children through the market and brushes against the dead man. She turns white as a sheet and shudders.
 
Terry tells herself that she’s seeing things, but she still remembers cowering against the wall, curled into a tight ball, as the shadow monster towered over her. Eyes squeezing shut as she waited for the red flash of pain that would end her life. A waterfall of words gushing from her mouth as she recited the Shema for the first time since her bat mitzvah. Tongue tripping over the rusty Hebrew that flows through her blood and is carved into her bones.
 
In her dreams, the monster gets her. After the man’s corpse hits the ground, the monster sinks those deadly claws into her chest. The bones snap and splinter, and the monster pulls out her still-beating heart. Blood rushes from the cavity and spills all over her body. The pain is indescribable. She screams. Through her screams, the sound of the monster’s soft, satisfied grunts as it devours her heart, piece by piece.
 
When she wakes up, she’s soaked in so much sweat her Wonder Woman night shirt clings to her chest. Frantic, her hands fly to her chest, checking that her heart still beats inside her rib cage. She exhales, relieved, at the familiar thump-thump, thump-thump against her sternum.
 
She tells herself that she has nothing to fear because there are no such things as monsters, but she still remembers what she saw when she peeled her eyes open and looked into the darkness. The shape of the shadow creature coming into focus. The silhouette of its horns, torso, legs, and tail. Her mind wrestling with itself to accommodate the sheer impossibility of the thing that breathed and moved right in front of her eyes. The soft clop-clop of its cloven hooves as it vanished into the darkness.
 
When night comes, and she’s alone, the monster lurks in every shadow. Once, during a middle-of-the-night trip to the toilet, she passes what should be the coat rack that stands behind the front door and almost pisses herself. For that brief instant, the pronged hooks of the coat rack are horns, and the jackets hanging on the rack are arms and torso, and the scarf dangling from a hook is a tail, and the base of the coat rack are split hooves.

 

She dashes to the bathroom and flicks on the light switch. Light spills from the bathroom into the rest of the apartment. Now the coat rack is just a coat rack. The jackets are just jackets. The scarf is just a scarf. With no monster in sight, she switches off the light and stumbles back to bed, but she still feels eyes on her, watching, waiting.

         

 

Copyright © Shawn C. Harris 2020

Shawn C. Harris is an author from Richmond, Virginia. Before beginning her debut novel, Persephone, she wrote, developed and produced plays for New York City's indie theatre scene. A passionate advocate for improving diversity in theatre, her plays consistently featured meaty roles for women, people of color, and LGBT people. In 2010, she founded Crossroads Theatre Project to create theatrical works that challenge assumptions about stories by and about people of African descent. When she’s not toiling away on her current work in progress, Shawn is an avid moviegoer and tabletop role-playing game enthusiast.

 



 

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