The Price of Bright
by Mia Brech
My farmhouse is strangely dark when I enter it and shut the front door behind me. Oh, it’s the sunglasses. The eye doctor gave them to me to shield my pupils after he’d dilated them with stinging drops. The pupils will normalize before long, he said.
Driving home under a “full sun,” I was glad for the eye-protection but don’t need it indoors. My house is well shaded, from most angles, by ancient maples and evergreens. I take the sunglasses off and walk through the hallway, into the dining room.
I set my pocketbook on the table, as usual. The age-yellowed tablecloth, crocheted by my great-grandmother, blazes white in one corner where the sun strikes it. I shut my eyes, scared the whiteness will blind me, and fumble in my pocketbook for the sunglasses. Can’t find them. Must have left them in the hall.
But, wait: the whiteness can’t be as fierce as it seemed. I just wasn’t ready for it. I open my eyelids a crack. A white sun burns between my lashes. It tempts me, like an eclipse, to look at it. One glance won’t hurt. I open my eyes.
The brightness is so intense, it’s haloed in white mist: transfigured. It separates from the rest of the tablecloth and rises like an angel. On crocheted wings, it drifts farther into the room. Don’t look at it! I beg myself but keep staring.
Other sunbeams whiten the belly of a vase, a slice of the marble-top cabinet, potted fern leaves. These dazzling fragments detach from their unlit parts and float around the room, as graceful as jellyfishes in water.
It’s a miracle! If I look away, I’m a coward, unworthy.
But my knees tremble. I sink to the floor, my head bowing naturally. Glowing imprints mar my vision. No miracle is worth my sight. I keep my head down.
Through the fading imprints, I see a shadow move under the buffet. I try to blink away the illusion, but it glides toward me. It’s blacker than any shadow in the room. My nerves judder as it comes closer and spills like ink through the shadow of the dining table with my pocketbook on it. The merged shadow rises a few inches.
I bumble to my feet. “Get back!” I yell.
The blackness spreads through the shadow of the “queen chair,” near my feet. It shoots up, taller than I, a silhouette of table legs, the chair’s back, the buffet’s scalloped trim, my pocketbook. My heart barrels around my chest. I can hardly breathe.
The shadow waves its disjointed arm at the radiances. “If you see angels,” it snickers, “you get me.”
“What are you?” I stammer.
Sunglasses! They’ll stop this craziness. I step toward the hallway.
The shadow lunges and wraps around me. My skin sticks to it like a tongue to frozen metal. I thrash and try to yank and scratch the shadow off me. Skin rips from my forearm as it breaks free. Blackness engulfs my arm again.
“Help!” I scream. “Help!”
The angels undulate around me and bob at the shadow. It shrivels like a hair before flame. A burning smell rasps my nostrils and throat. The shadow peels off me and falls onto the floor. I lurch backward and grasp my skinned forearm. The angels close in on the shadow. It withers into a long black line and whisks through a knothole in the floor, into the cellar.
I dart past the angels to the hallway, snatch the sunglasses off the bookcase and put them on. Cautiously, I return to the dining room. No angels. The patches of sunlight lie peacefully where they belong. No black shadow, either.
My eyes soon return to normal, and my forearm scabs over, but I don’t dare do laundry because the washing machine and dryer are in the cellar. Maybe that rope of shadow is still there, waiting to hang me.
After three days, I rake up my courage and carry a basket of clothes down the steps to the cellar. My ears ringing with stress, I search for any unusually dark shadow as I wind through the shelves, cabinets and boxes of junk.
At the washing machine, I set the laundry basket down and glimpse motion across the cellar. The shadow of mops and brooms leaning against the boulder wall moves toward me. I hyperventilate, imagining the shadow Velcroing its iciness to my skin.
It takes the shape of a stack of boxes it passes. I whip the sunglasses from my pocket and jam them onto my nose. The cellar goes dark; black shapes everywhere. But one is like a hole in the blackness: the shadow of boxes dragging mops and brooms closer to me. It blends into the dryer’s shadow.
“Stop!” I throw the sunglasses aside, pull out a flashlight I’d stowed in the laundry basket and flick it on. The shadow dodges its beam. I slash the beam left and right, up and down. The shadow ducks and veers but keeps leaping toward me. I back through the maze of junk and dash up the stairs.
In the kitchen, I slam and lock the cellar door. Panting, I step away from it and shine the light around its crooked edges, in case the shadow seeps through them. After a time — I don’t know how long, I’m too frantic to judge — I turn the flashlight off.
Should I leave the house? My beloved farmhouse where I’ve lived my whole life? Full of my family’s antiques? No. I have to defeat this thing. But I’m teetering and need to lie down. I tiptoe upstairs, hoping it won’t hear where I go, and lock myself in my bedroom.
I collapse onto the bed and curl into a fetal position, hugging the flashlight. Can a flaming torch destroy the shadow? The farmhouse might catch fire and me with it. Can I get the doctor to dilate my pupils again so I can revive the angels? Won’t work: Only one of the cellar’s small windows catches direct sun, and it’s caked with lint and dust. The shadow might attack while I’m cleaning the window or block its light afterward.
Should I ask friends for help? I don’t want to risk their lives; besides, they’ve all moved away.
My mind skims images of exorcisms, spiritual cleansings, tales of defeating dragons and darkness. Light versus Dark. But what kind of light and how?
I turn onto my back, my thoughts repeating in loops. The sun sets, and the sky outside my window turns gray.
I get an idea. Dark and light are extremes. The enemy of extremes is the gray middle. Grayness, with its infinite shades, is broader, more complex, subtle and alive than black and white. Gray is reality; black and white are simplifications.
I hurry to the attic, dig out a box and bring it downstairs. As I open it on the kitchen counter, the box falls apart, revealing a gray machine and a container half-full of fuel. I pour the fuel into the machine. Will it run after all these years? Can’t test it; don’t want to warn the shadow. I take a breath and carry the machine to the cellar.
Near the fuse box, I set it on the floor and plug it into a socket. The shadow of the boiler, blacker than the oil inside it, slinks toward me. My stiff fingers switch on the machine. It belches only a few droplets. My flashlight! How could I forget it? I have no defense if this doesn’t work.
Blackness subsumes the tool table’s shadow and rises.
I bend over; pound my fist on the machine. It coughs and buzzes to life. Mist sprays from it.
The shadow, a scarecrow of boiler parts, tools and a hanging scale, stretches almost to the ceiling and tilts toward me. Fog billows between us and grows thicker. My pulse goes haywire. I retreat to the boulder wall.
Lured on, the shadow strides into the fog and reaches out its many arms. It stops and seems to look down at itself. It shrieks, torturing my ears.
The grayness dissolves the shadow into hundreds of black specks. They fly apart and wink out like negatives of stars at sunrise.
I let the machine, which created fog for my Halloween party ten years ago, run till it’s empty. I walk around the cellar. No too-dark shadow anywhere.
At my next eye appointment, the doctor is surprised to find I’m developing cataracts.
I nod. “I thought everything looked a little grayer.”
Copyright © 2018 by Mia Brech