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The Mermaid’s Shadow Lamp

by Nora B. Peevy

part 1 of 4

Miriam Manchester is a bitter spinster and so rude that she is known as the Witch of Shorewood and is suspected of having sinister powers. One day she espies and purchases a musical shadow lamp in an antique store. Its beauty and music comfort her. It also has powers that surprise even a witch.

Miriam Manchester paused before the streaked store window, admiring the glassware, the porcelain doll, and the child’s rocking chair. A flash of color caught her eye as she turned away, a green so alive, so vibrant, it hummed. Curious, she shifted her shawl over the shoulder of her blue silk blouse, peering closer, her face reflected in the dirty display glass, the sunken flesh around her eyes, her hair streaked with pewter, and persistent frown wrinkles crowding her lips. A hint of a smile cracked her face — a shadow lamp. She hadn’t seen one since her father’s death thirty years ago, the day she cleaned out the attic and her shadow lamp shattered.

Her hand hovered on the tarnished handle of the shop door. Should she go in? Oh, what difference did it make? So much time had passed, and yet, people talked about the layoffs and her father’s involvement in the embezzlement scam at Murray’s Meat Plant and the mysterious car crash ripping Miriam’s parents from her life.

It wasn’t enough that she lived alone in the house on Sleepy Hollow Hill. And that she’d never married or had children, that her house was an empty husk, filled with memories of happier times in her youth, when she was loved and desired by her suitor, Alan Manning.

Alan Manning who left her side during the meat plant scandal after the crash. Alan Manning who married her best friend, Frieda, and spawned three horrid children; later all attended Ivy League schools and graduated summa cum laude. No, it wasn’t enough humiliation, enough gossip.

The town sniggered behind her back, spreading their black lies of witchcraft and satanic worship, until she dreaded every Halloween, the toilet paper streaming from the tangled branches of the maples her father planted, the eggs sullying the windows her father always kept so clean.

The gossip became unbearable when she entered a store, but the shadow lamp brought a girlish gleam to her eye, and Miriam remembered lying in her bedroom with the sweet scent of lilacs and the buzz of the cicadas in the sultry heat of summer. She used to sprawl in her beige calf-length slip, her hair carefully pinned in curls for tomorrow’s luncheon, resting her head on the monogrammed pillowcase her grandmother embroidered with baby pink and yellow daisies, green vines sprouting like tentacles from her head as she watched Pan caper with his nymphs, the gleeful figures reflected on the yellow wallpaper as the shadow lamp turned, Beethoven’s lilting Für Elise drifting over her in calming waves.

Miriam gripped the worn brass handle, grimacing as if it were a hot iron searing her palm, as she read the gold gilt script on the door: Enchanted Endings. There were no enchanted endings for an old spinster like herself, but perhaps, she could find an enchanted childhood memory to ease her lonely nights spent with Whitman and Yeats. She wanted that shadow lamp.

The floor groaned beneath Miriam’s sensible black loafers and she smelled strong acidic vinegar and orange dusting polish. How ironic. They kept their display counters clean, but not their display windows. Her father would have been appalled. Their windows always shone at home. With a sniff of disdain at the busy counter attendant bending over behind the register in her wide khaki pants, Miriam marched towards the window display.

Her hand had just reached for the shadow lamp, when a stern voice from behind asked, “May I help you with something?”

Miriam turned about with a feral sneer, licking the cracked red of her lipsticked lips. “Why, yes, you can now that you’ve acknowledged there’s another living human being in this store besides you. Didn’t you hear the bell when I came in?”

The woman, fortyish or so, bristled. How dare this old hag come in here with her Chanel purse and her Ralph Lauren blouse and order her around. Who did she think she was? Biting back the snarcastic retort she wished to utter, instead, she offered in a polite monotone, “What would you like to see?”

“The shadow lamp in the window.”

“The shadow lamp?”

“Yes. Don’t just stand there like a cow with your mouth open, my dear child — the green shadow lamp in the window.” Miriam pointed a well-groomed fingernail. “I wish to purchase it, if it’s in working order.”

“Oh, the light.”

“Yes, the light,” spat Miriam with impatience. The incompetence of store help. What kind of people were they hiring to work in a collectibles store these days, if they couldn’t even begin to recognize a shadow lamp? There was no hope for younger society.

The woman leaned into the display window, giving Miriam a good view of her ample backside. Miriam grimaced and turned her head, focusing on the bright wall of paintings hanging above the checkout counter — much better to look at in her opinion.

She snatched the prized shadow lamp out of the woman’s hands when the clerk emerged from the display, enjoying the smooth, cool feel of the glass. Tranquil waves soothed her nervous blood as she stroked the shadow lamp like a cat, turning it over to inspect the bottom for a price. It was unmarked.

“Would you like to plug it in and see if it works?”

“Of course I would. What kind of an imbecile do you take me for?”

Scowling, her pretty red hair a raging thunderstorm as she stalked, the clerk carried the shadow lamp to the counter. “It’s a mermaid scene with sea horses.”

“Well, thank you for telling me something I already know. Why don’t you tell me something I don’t know, like why it’s not priced? If it were my store, it would have a price on it.”

Sandra wanted to kill the old woman and all forty cats she imagined lived with the nasty old hag. She smelled like old lady’s rose water and stale books, and her teeth could use a very good whitening, but Sandra swallowed her bitter opinions and in her sweetest sales clerk voice cooed, “Let me run the barcode in our computer.” She plugged in the shadow lamp and the mermaids’ shadows frolicked in circles around the store, the sea horses bobbing up and down while Für Elise played.

Miriam sighed and Sandra almost saw a hint of heart on the bitch’s face as she typed in brisk keystrokes, pulling up the file on the shadow lamp. “It’s forty-five dollars.” She adjusted the tortoise shell rims slipping down her narrow nose.

“I’ll take it. And please wrap it well. I wouldn’t want it to break on the drive home.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sandra watched the woman take an ancient, battered checkbook from her Liz Claiborne purse. “If you’re paying by check, we need a valid driver’s license.”

“Why, that’s absurd. I’ve lived here in town all my life and no one’s ever asked me for my driver’s license before. Do you know who I am?” Miriam leaned over the counter with the meaty hunger of a crow reflected in her faded green eyes.

“No, ma’am. I don’t.” There was an awkward pause as Miriam fished her driver’s license out of the protective plastic in her burgundy leather wallet, which she promptly snapped shut with great gusto and a feverously maniacal grin, upon seeing the shocked look on the clerk’s face.

She was Miriam Manchester. The Miriam Manchester — the witch. It was only her first week in Shorewood and already she’d managed to run into the infamous woman. How lucky for her. And maybe it would rain frogs and blood on her way home and The Three Horsemen of The Apocalypse would come over for tea next Tuesday.

With a quivering, sweaty hand, she wrapped the green glass lamp in tissue and brown paper, tying it with a piece of white twine and then depositing it in a white plastic grocery sack. She handed the bag to Miriam as if it were a three-headed viper ready to bite. Silent, Miriam stalked out of the store, the rubber soles of her loafers squeaking on the worn wooden floorboards.

The shadow lamp made it safely home to rest on Miriam’s bedside table next to her copy of Leaves of Grass and a squat wine goblet she used as a water glass. Her bedroom had the original yellow rose wallpaper, the same dark mahogany furniture, and even the same quilt her grandmother made, everything left exactly like it was when Miriam was still daddy’s dearest daughter.

Sliding the wicker wastebasket out of the way with one pointed shoe, Miriam plugged in the shadow lamp, admiring the liquid glass. It reminded her of an emerald green tropical beetle she’d sent away for in the mail when she was seven. Für Elise soothed Miriam as she slipped out of her shoes, lining their toes up beside the left side of her bed.

How lucky she was to find another shadow lamp with her favorite piece of beloved childhood music. She vowed to just stay a little while, just to close her eyes and rest after her wretched shopping experience with that imbecilic clerk, just to refresh her spirits, just a for a moment.

She lay on top of the quilt so as not to mess up her bed, watching the mermaids and sea horses dance in shadows over the yellow rose wallpaper. Lovely. Just lovely. A smile brought a hint of blush to her waxen cheeks, almost warming her dull eyes.

Miriam must have been more tired than she thought, because when she awoke, it was darker than a panther’s tail outside. The clock by her bedside blinked 9:00 pm in angry red numbers, and she sat up, smoothing the wrinkles out of her blue silk blouse and patting her hair. Yawning, she smiled at the shadow lamp’s music and bent to unplug it, before shuffling down the threadbare hallway runner to the grand staircase.

At the top of the staircase she froze, her right foot poised in midair over the first step. Her father had hung mirrors all over the house. They’d been his passion and pride, and she stared now at the mirror opposite the grand balcony, a heavy gold gilded mirror with baroque embellishments, quite dramatic really in the large, airy, vaulted foyer.

Father had someone come to clean the mirrors once a month, as did Miriam. They lined the foyer walls from floor to ceiling in all shapes and sizes, each as rich and gallant as the next. Her reflection had drawn her attention. Someone had taken a key and wound back Miriam’s life to her early forties. Why, her distinguished silver streaks were gone, and in their place, her hair, a dark chestnut brown, flowed with a healthy radiance it had not exuded in over thirty years. Her lips were full, supple, and kissable again.

How could this be? Her skin. She patted her face with cautious trembling fingers, as if expecting them to be caught in a mouse trap. It was smooth. She marveled, enjoying the silky feel on the back of her hands. Her hands. She spread her shaking fingers out before her. The liver spots and the pronounced weedy patches of thick blue veins, and the sagging wrinkles, they had all disappeared. She balled them into fists, not experiencing any of the dull aches plaguing her within the past decade. She felt invincible, more alive than this morning.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Nora B. Peevy

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