Issue 59 – August 2011

3660 words, short story

Conservation of Shadows


There is no such thing as conservation of shadows. When light destroys shadows, darkness does not gain in density elsewhere. When shadows steal over earth and across the sky, darkness is not diluted.

Hello, Inanna. You have seven inventory slots, all full. The seventh contains your heart, which cannot be removed. We will do our best to remedy this.

A feast awaits you at the end, sister. I am keeping it warm for you. You will be cold by the time you reach my hall beneath the floors of the world. Meadow honey on barley cakes, cheese and the tender flesh of goats; plums and pears brighter than the jewels in your hair; wine less sweet than birdsong and more bitter than tears. Taken together they form a nutritionally complete diet.

You think that all we eat in the underworld is dust and all we drink is the dregs of rain, but that is not the case. Come and share the feast.

You hesitate over the shadow-gun at your waist. Notice the holster, leather stamped with a lioness on each side. The leather comes from a lioness's hide. She is dead, sister. She cannot aid you here.

I can't tell you how to pass through the first gate. More accurately, I could, but I won't. We live by different laws in the underworld, we who live at all. Now you must respect those laws as well.

The gate lies there. Your fingers move toward it, then draw back. How wise of you. Gates are hungry. They demand propitiation. Once a woman put her hand in a gate and it ate her fingers. A five-legged spider with red eyes crawled out. That woman put in three fingers from her other hand, so that the spider might be complete. Do you have that integrity of purpose, sister?

No, what you feed the gate is other. It is easy for gates to be dark, maws opening to the earth's own secrets. They wonder what light is like. So you tempt it with the jewels in your hair. Poor gate: it knows nothing about symbolism. It knows only that the tinted diamonds and emeralds and lapis lazuli glint with the evening star's passion. Down you draw the golden pins from your dark hair and let that torrent free.

Eagerly, the gate lips at the diamonds' fire, the emeralds' intimation of bounty, the lapis lazuli's memory of the sky that cannot be seen. The color leaches from the diamonds, leaving them ashen. The other stones, less hardy, crumble into dust, their virtue vanished.

Sated, the gate eats no more of you as you pass through, divested of glory yet more beautiful than ever.

The fires won't hurt you unless you let them, sister. Hungry already? You'll be hungrier still. Don't roast the flesh off your bones. It's not time yet.

Did you think the underworld moved in ignorance of summer? The season that scours the earth and fills the stomachs of those aboveground while leaving us below-ground with the rotting chaff? At least we know that we are the chaff of days, the dust of time.

It is summer because you've scarcely left the world above. Just think, sister: the longer you linger here, the more the leaves shrivel gold and brown on the branches; the more the last grapes wither on the vines.

Now you are hungry again, and thirsty as well. I know. I know you so well that you could flense yourself bare of face and fingerprints and still I would recognize you. After all, I recognized you the first seventy-four times you came my way.

Does it surprise you that your inventory comes up in the shape of an eight-pointed star? Blink once and it appears; twice, and it folds out of your field of vision. It reports nothing you can't find upon you.

One slot is empty now, black as a gate, as the absence of day; black as your hair. Pick up something else if you like. Yes, that pencil will do. The graphite's luster is dark. It grows darker yet in your grasp.

I don't recognize the words you are writing on my walls, sister: graffiti, in scratchy bird-claw marks. Maybe you mean it to be illegible. That would be unkind.

Consider this. The seventy-four earlier iterations of you left no guide-star tags upon the walls, no cheat sheets, no maps tattooed upon their skins. Underneath your armor there is skin, the organ on which your boundaries are written. You'll know the instant it dissolves and opens your secrets to the air.

Nothing's left of your pencil but a stub. One point of the eight-pointed star flares diamond-bright as the inventory slot empties itself in response.

Did I speak to you of skin? The walls are my skin, the gold-painted pillars my bones. Do what you will with them. You always did.

You are silent. I don't know whether this is an improvement or not. Do you think your words will inscribe themselves upon the air like the coming frost upon fallen leaves? Twenty degrees Celsius, room temperature. You are in a room.

There is no way out of the room, except now there is. Like a hundred mutilated lips the letters—are they letters or logograms?—crack wide, wider. Gap to gap, they gape until they dissolve into a single opening.

A wind rushes through the gate. The wind chill factor is 14 degrees Celsius. You may feel that is excessive. From that number you can calculate the speed of the wind. Unfortunately, your pencil's stub will write no more for you. Perhaps you can do the figures in your head.

If you came to the feast, you would soon sate yourself with warm food. You would watch as dancers clad in feathers reenacted the descent of your first self, or the eighth, or the forty-ninth. How many gates do you think your sad, brave clones survived? Do not worry. You are different, you are special, more clever and greater of heart. I will make sure you reach the barley cakes brimming with dark honey.

Now you are singing. Your formants are rich with despair. Some languages can be recorded without stylus or pencil.

The gate swallows the holy sweetness of your voice. It cancels the waveform, replacing it with silence beyond imagining. Sister, you have not known silence until you have sat in the dark among the dead for generations.

You don't know, yet you do. These are the things you sing of: the embryos of mice, stillborn, albinos that have never known light; the needle's prick drawing blood directly from the betrayed artery; curling strands of fossil DNA, a language more legible than yours. Memory is not inherited, memory is no mirror to times past, yet you divine the experiments that I oversee here.

The gate is as still as matter ever is. Even you cannot cancel that lowest level of vibration, absolute zero thrumming. It will have to do.

Assured of the gate's momentary toothlessness, you step through, and it lets you. Silence drifts in your wake like leaves and petals, like all things ephemeral.

This time it's not so easy to ignore the fire, is it? Go deep enough and you'll meet the mantle's heat. You think of the underworld as cold and dank, inhabited by pale, eyeless creatures whose circulatory systems are written within them with ink redder than spinels. That is not the whole of us. We can kill you by fire, too.

Are you worried about dying? You shy from the fires, watch your balance on the narrow walkways. It helps to have good reflexes in death as well as life. It's good that you practice. Of course I support your efforts.

Traverse the spiraling maze and who do you find at the center? Imagine peeling the layers of yourself away. What's left when you reach your hallowed heart, when the hollows admit no shadows but what you carry with you? I forgot: with no voice, you can't answer me.

Walk and walk as you may, you only knot yourself further into the maze's pattern. Isn't this the way of the world? From the moment you first draw breath, you're woven into the world's overbearing warp.

Look: the necklace at your throat responds to the fire, capturing and releasing that warm light with its own golden gleam. In this surfeit of light I can read the inscription on your eight-pointed pendant, spider-scratch marks deep in the metal. No cipher hides you from me. I have mapped you down to your mitochondria. I can read your rate of respiration, the flush of your skin. Surely the heat isn't unbearable yet.

You unclasp the bright unknot from around your neck. Which lover gave you that necklace? Was it before or after he pressed you against the flowering earth, the leafing tree? Through the floor of the earth, I heard your demands. You were never easy to please, no matter how many lovers you dragged from bars, drugged by the honey of your voice and the heat of your mouth. Nevertheless the mares and does swelled, and the boughs curved under the weight of tender fruit.

Did the lionesses nuzzle each other, wondering over cubs to come?

Like a sleepy snake the necklace ripples over your hands, throwing bright glints across knuckles and prominent bones. I will listen when you explain to your beloved that his gift was worth nothing except as a talisman against one more nexus of shadow and insatiable envy. That's the problem, surely: not that you discarded the gift, but that it was discarded in such small cause.

There are people who would kill for fire: fire to stoke youth in the furnace beneath their skins, fire to brighten the faded cloth of their lives. Better to die burning than chilled by slow moments into the silvered dark. No? Tell that to all those whose bones embrace beneath the worm-furrowed loam.

A narrow opal flares open in the air at the maze's heart, narrow like a woman before she grows great with child. Were this gate a woman you could dance with her, span her with your hands—no. Instead, you fasten the necklace around the gate, adorning it as you once adorned yourself.

The gold shines with the warmth of the surrounding fires. The gate does not drain away the reflected light. Instead, darkness seeps into the inscription. You can't turn away from the words, sister, the seething shapes of summer, hope, health inverted.

The gate offers you its embrace. Without hesitation or tenderness, you accept, ducking your head so that you are briefly crowned in gold.

Do you know how deep in the earth you are, sister? You squint in the near-dark. There is only a single lantern to comfort you. Imagine: maybe that lantern is the only thing between you and utter darkness. Shall I snuff it out? Don't shiver so; it doesn't become you.

The stalactites and stalagmites grip the light in their jaws, returning only washed-out, variegated colors: poor exchange for that faint gold.

You shouldn't have sold your voice so cheaply. It makes conversation difficult. Would you like to borrow the voices that whisper in the underworld for your own? You never know who might wander here. They might remember the world's oldest hymns. They might be praising the serpentine coils of your hair, the silent cunning of your hands. They might not know who you are at all, now that you're stripped of your war-chariot, far from the morning star. For all the storms you dragged in your wake, all the rain-tossed days and nights, you craved light as your nourishment: star or moon, lightning scarring the shrouded sky. You always were one for fanfare.

Here are no drums to shake the stone columns and threaten you with the slow death of suffocation. Don't worry about the air, dear sister. You breathe as darkness does, without need of oxygen or any element but your very self. Light travels through the void without a mediating aether; why should darkness be any different?

Come to my halls, sister, and there will be no more talk of light or dark or the permutations in between. We will sit side by side on our thrones, drinking young wine and old rather than the dark, dank water that trickles just beneath the world's skin. We will bestow treasures upon those who please us, luminous cabochons and spiral emblems of gold, chains sometimes of silver and sometimes of bronze.

In the earth's hidden hoards you can taste treasure as though it were a nectar beyond price. Underground, so deep that even fungi find no nourishment, the earth fruits metal and precious stones. It is of no concern to us that living creatures starve contemplating such fruit.

You unfasten your belt, such a short, blunt length to encircle your waist. Jewels of varying cuts are set in the leather, all polished to the brilliance of river water beneath a fecund moon. They fling colored sparks across the floor and walls. Did you ever spare a thought for the underground spirits that had to be disturbed by the digging for your treasures?

With the belt you whip the largest geode in the wall, already cracked half-open to reveal its jagged amethyst heart. The jewels fall out of your belt and scatter to the floor, uncracked yet dimmer, duller. You should be more patient, sister. After all, when you reach the final gate there will be no returning. Doesn't the thought distress you even a little?

Heedless, you bunch up the belt in your fist, then thrust it into the gate that is growing from the crack in the geode. Is that how you regard the underworld's gleaming treasures? Obstacles to be destroyed?

I suppose I haven't learned anything that I didn't already know. You are all the same, all of you.

The geode's teeth scratch your skin as you enter, even through the stiff curves of your armor.

This deep in the earth, you can't hear the seasons breathing even in your dreams. Tell me true: when you close your eyes, can you smell the earthy sweetness of rotting leaves, or taste the last fruits of fall? If I set before you a feast of the finest wines and hearty porridge and roast boar, would it taste like the dust that surrounds you?

Come to me before it's too late, before you lose all ability to see color or to taste salt or sweet.

You tilt your head, listening to the laments of the dead. Their voices sound very like your own, don't they? Maybe they always have. There is no use for fertility without death, you know.

All your faces are mine. You can verify that with a mirror when we meet, except that mirrors are liars when there is no light, claiming that everything is equal to everything. Perhaps that's the sort of lie you like to tell yourself.

Here's the thing about shadows. Even at their most distorted, shadows are mathematically precise. They show you what is given to them to show. If a shadow portrays you as larger as you are, it's no fault of the shadow's. It's all a matter of light, of angles and intensity and color.

If I loom so large in your experience here, sister, you might consider what it is about you that has made me who I am.

Don't worry about the candles here, or the supply of oxygen. The ventilation is quite adequate for our purposes.

Your shadows flicker and jump in perfect time to the candles' flames, like dancers yearning after each other. Which one most truly represents your face? Or mine?

When you close your eyes, just before sleep bears you beneath the surface of the world, do you have a face at all? Can you differentiate yourself from the shadows at all?

Furiously, you pull open your jacket, unfasten your tunic. I know all the scars you bear, sister. The abrupt cuneiform shapes of scars embellish your skin. Scars from battle or love or all the jagged shapes in between, cicatrices and burn scars, round and pale and lightning-shaped.

Of course: no shadow living ever bore a scar.

You feed the shadows your scars, erasing all record of those past triumphs and defeats. As the scars smooth out, becoming invisible against the brown canvas of your body, the shadows gain in depth and form, braiding themselves together until they are a cold, tangible presence on the floor.

Unhesitating, you refasten your tunic and step through, falling without falling.

You're shielding your eyes. Surprised at how bright it is? I thought you could use a reminder. The spectrum produced by each lamp imitates that of a sun you or one of your clone-sisters has visited. Sadly, no matter how faithful a lamp is, it can never rival the real thing.

Don't look for their remnants here. Seasons in human time are one thing, but seasons in the lives of starfarers—what is a human winter to people like you or me? You've been breathing their dust, treading on their fossilized despair.

Nevertheless, you crouch, heedless of the gray grit that clings to your clothes, and draw figures on the cave's floor. If you think your calculus will save you, you are sorely mistaken. In your formula the infinitesimals come to a positive sum. Here, the sum of iterated emptiness will only be more emptiness.

Let me tell you a story to distract you from the useless fable you are telling yourself. Long ago, the people of a great and fertile land resolved to explore worlds that circled the god-stars that they had watched and worshiped since their people first set brick upon brick to build cities. But for all their ambitions, they were loyal, and did not forget their gods. They knew they would need their gods to guard them from the dangers that lie deep in space.

So they made sure that their gods would follow them into that shining darkness, a pantheon of gods for each world. They made you, all of you, and they made me.

If you must console yourself over your journey here, tell yourself that those who made you achieved their purpose, and that you are perfectly recapitulating that old story so that your world will pass into its winter rest. You will not live to see your world's renewal, but another of you will.

Don't bother scratching out a message to her. She won't read the same languages you do, won't take the same twisting path. I will tell her the same things that I have told you. You may be sure of it.

You've removed the shadow-gun from its holster and are cradling it in your hands. You knew it would come to this. We both did.

It's a beautiful weapon. It has the same coiled intensity that you do when you are intent on war, sister. And it has killed people in your hands. You are not the kind to beg forgiveness; you were made for bloodshed. I don't understand why you regard the gun with such loathing, then.

Steadily, you raise the shadow-gun and squeeze the trigger. The room explodes into utter darkness, the kind of darkness that swallows sound and stifles thought. Even the spangled otherspace behind your eyelids is brighter than this.

A moment later, your fingers close around empty air as the gun dissolves. It has served its purpose. All but one of your inventory slots is empty as well.

The entire room is a gate now. It remains only for you to take a step. It speaks well of you that you listen for a long, careful moment before moving in the direction leading downward, toward me.

Your heart thuds one-two, one-two, one-two like a march without an army. There is only you, alone before the last gate. What did you hope to accomplish when you set out, sister? Did you have some brave notion of unseating me from my dark throne, or tearing asunder all the underworld gates so the dead would roam free and outnumber the living?

I have always admired your purity of purpose, mistaken as it is. We are not so different, you and I. We play the roles that are given to us. Yours is to die, and mine is to kill you. Don't spoil the symmetry of the story.

The only reason you can see anything here, where the darkness is thicker than honey, is that you still have a heart. It shines red-bright in the final inventory slot, last remaining illumination. If I cared to, I could grow you a new, more compliant heart. But that is not my duty. Would you deny Number Seventy-Six her chance at this journey?

There is a small, angular object in your hand like a dead star. Your inventory system needs to be debugged. Why was I not informed?

You kneel again. I can hear the painful harshness of your breathing. More important is what you are scratching into the dust on the floor with your pointed fingernail. This time it is in a language I understand:

I have always known I am not the only one. You are not the only one of your kind, either. My clone-sisters and I have planned for this moment, a coordinated strike. It is the only way we can be free. I am s—

How can it be that I feel the touch of rain so deep beneath the earth, blotting out the last word you would have written?

You timed it to your traitor heart. And now that I know to look, I see it: a mass inside your heart, tangled inextricably into it.

In the end you give up your heart after all, but I am the one who loses everything, in a springtime effusion of light.

for Sonya Taaffe

Author profile

Yoon Ha Lee's works have appeared in Lightspeed,, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His collection Conservation of Shadows came out in 2013 from Prime Books. Currently he lives in Louisiana with his family and has not yet been eaten by gators.

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