The new city was tall, loud, and smelled strange. Not the way home did, where the streets were thick with the smell of baking bread and roasting meat. But sour, like an open bathroom or rust or wet clothes left outside too long. And the streets were loud, so loud that it hurt his ears just to try to listen. Metallic sounds and hisses and people shouting for no reason in a hundred different languages. So he clung to Mama instead, pressing his face into the quiet, sweetly sharp smell of her dress.
He had never seen buildings so tall. So tall that they seemed to shrink and disappear right up into the too-blue sky. From his place close to the ground, the only thing he could do was look up until he was dizzy. And when that began to hurt his neck and bring tears to his eyes, he looked down instead. Watching as the shapes of things moved and melted into one another like dark, deep water.
For the first week, he held Mama’s hand tight. Afraid that if he let go, he might get swept away and lost in the black sea that spilled over sidewalks and splashed up walls. But slowly, her fingers slipped out of his, and the black sea nipped only slightly at his ankles.
The new house was small, but it was better for them. Everyone was closer together that way, and in the first week, close was good. Hassan even let him sleep in his bed, something he had not let him do in years. And there was no better feeling than a crowded kitchen, stuffed tight with smells and bodies and laughter that was still just a little nervous and uncertain. The first night, he dreamed of home, thinking of it so hard that it almost shattered in his grip. But then, like seawater, it slipped through his fingers, and he was left with nothing again.
Home was not home, he thought. Not yet.
The first time he saw it, he thought he was just imagining things. It had the shape of a black cat, flat as a shadow and just as dark. He felt eyes that ran their gaze like cold fingers up his neck and turned, shivering.
It was the first day of school, and he looked at a cat-thing that peeked its head out from around a corner of the building. Its eyes were white, without pupils, and the rest of it was as dark as the darkness of deep sleep. It looked at him for a long time, and he looked back without blinking. Then Mama told him to pay attention, and it was gone like a trick of the light. He shivered again, still feeling its cold eyes on the back of his neck for the rest of the day.
The other children were nice to him. Nice to the odd, quiet child who came from a faraway land, spoke with an accent full of spices, and who wore strange colored cloth for hair.
English was hard at first. His tongue felt heavy and stupid in his mouth as he felt the words fumble and fall clumsily from his lips. He would cry hot tears into his pillow at night, biting down so hard it made his jaw hurt so that Hassan could not hear. He spent his free time watching Netflix. Mouthing the words that the perfect men and perfect women said on the screen until his tongue was not so heavy. Soon, the rest of it grew lighter as well. The days were quicker, and the nights shorter. He wondered when it had changed.
Then the dreams started.
He was careful not too hold it too tightly when it first came, dark and empty and as quiet in his head as glass. It was home again, and it was not home. The streets were hollow and echoed more than they should, on and on like footsteps. There was no baking bread, no roasting meat, no spiced laughter or honeyed voices that dripped gold. He walked through buildings that were the same but not the same. The buildings were not themselves without the people in them.
He could not see the water at first. Did not notice it, not even when it had bled through his shoes and into his socks. It was up to his ankles before he realized it was there at all. It licked at the hems of his dress with a wet tongue, hungry and heavy. After two more weeks, it was up to his knees, and he began to fear the wet darkness of sleep and dreams.
It was up to his waist before he saw the cat again. He was out with Mama in the loud city, wading through the sea of warm bodies when something cold brushed up against his leg. He looked down, and there, among his shadow, was another. Hollow white eyes looked back up at him with an empty, blank interest. Then they blinked and were gone.
Mama. He tugged at his mother’s dress.
What is it, alsghyr?
That night, there was a cat in the sky. It sat high on a branch, hunched until it was no more than a dark shape against the bare tree. It watched him with flat white eyes as he struggled against the restless water. He pushed his way through, but the water was cold, and it pulled the warmth from his body with each exhale.
The cat flicked its tail, and he woke suddenly, pushingheavy blankets off onto the floor.
It was summer before he knew it. The days stretched on, pulled thin and long by the sunset. The nights were shorter, but the dreams kept coming, crashing over him like waves until he was drowning. The water was up past his chest now, and he kicked madly to stay afloat when it swept him off his feet. Kicked until his legs were burning and then kicked more.
Every night, the cat watched him as he struggled to keep his head above the black water. It was still high up in the tree, safe from the water that crashed and broke like glass. Its tail flicked back and forth lazily as he kicked desperately.
He wanted to ask for help, but the water took the place of his breath. It swelled around him like the coming darkness, pressing against his skin like a cloud of angry bees. Panic rose in him but could not escape, held down tight by the crashing waves. The water was in his mouth now, and it tasted of salt. He stretched a hand up above his head, reaching for the shape in the tree.
You’re afraid, said a voice from everywhere, speaking in the tongue of home. Don’t be. Let go.
He let go. Let the water rise up over his head and shut around him like sleep. The world grew blurred and dark, and he closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he was on a beach. The sun was shining, but it did not hurt on his skin or against his eyes. His clothes were warm and dry, and clear waves brushed up against the shore, harmless. The white sand felt like a blanket on his bare skin. Soft and welcoming, it pushed up between his toes like flowers in the springtime.
There was movement beside him, and he turned. The cat was there, resting sleepily in the tender sunlight. It dragged its claws along the sand, stretching like a long shadow.
You saved me, he said, watching as it sat up straight.
Hardly. It licked a paw self-consciously. You saved yourself. I just told you what you had to do next.
How did you know?
How did you know to trust me?
I don’t know.
Then we’re even.
With that, it curled up into a dark ball and slept.
The next night, he was on the beach again. The cat was there as well, waiting. This time, it watched him with the same blank white eyes, but with a curious tilt to its head. They sat together in silence for a long time, neither one daring to blink.
Are you the same cat as before? he asked finally.
The cat blinked at last. He thought it looked offended but could not tell. It had no face but its eyes.
Do you get many cats in your dreams?
Don’t be. Bad habit to get into.
He was silent, unsure of what to say next. Before he could decide, the cat spoke again.
What’s your name, little one?
The sound of it rang untrue in his head and in the dream. It echoed like bells, loud and hard.
The cat rolled its eyes. Or at least, he thought it did.
Not that one. Your real name.
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. It was breathlessness like drowning all over again. He closed it and looked down at his thin legs beneath the fluttering cloth of his dress.
I don’t know.
The cat looked out across the white sea, unbothered.
Hmm. Well, I’m sure you’ll find it eventually.
He plucked at the sand between his ankles, suddenly feeling both hot and hollow.
What about you? What’s your name?
What do you think? The question was almost a laugh.
He scrunched up his face as he thought. The whole while, the cat watched him with white eyes, its tail swishing hypnotically. Back and forth like the grandfather clock in the living room. Then he realized that he knew the name all along, and it rose easily to his lips.
If the cat could smile, he thought it would have.
Shadow came back every night, it seemed. Sometimes they would talk, and other times, they would just sit together and look out across the gently brushing sea. When he finally gathered the courage to ask to pet Shadow, he did not expect it to say yes. Its fur was cold between his fingers, but not unpleasant. It was like touching rocks that had been in the shade. Or resting in the cool heart of a river. He drew his hand back, surprised and slightly happy.
He did not know how the other children found out. He had not told anyone, not even Hassan. Had only ever whispered it to himself like a secret at night, when the shadows lay like blankets over him. He did know if Mama knew or not, but there was no hiding when he came back with a dark bruise like a shadow on his face. Mama drowned him in questions, and it was like she was pressing hard against the bruise. The tears felt hot on his face, but Mama’s eyes hurt more than anything.
He locked himself in his room, ignoring the shouting that he could hear banging against the wooden door. His back was to the door, and he cried into the dress bunched around his knees. When he looked up at last, he could see a shape through his blurred eyes. It was a black cat, sitting on the windowsill and watching him curiously through hard, bright blue eyes like ice.
The tears stopped in his chest, and he looked at the cat without blinking.
I’m insulted that you would confuse that mangy fleabag with me.
The voice came from the darkness in the room, and the cat ran away suddenly, afraid. He saw Shadow’s eyes first, bright white stars in the shadows that were pushed up like blankets in a corner of the room. Shadow pulled itself free, shaking as though wet. Then it walked with silent steps over to him. It lay its small head on his knees, and he felt cold like the shade.
Right. Bad habit. I forgot.
See? You’re learning.
The silence was the longest it had ever been. He ran his fingers down the back of Shadow’s head. Behind the door, he could still hear the shouts, and knew that they would knock soon. The bruise on his face stung, hot on his skin.
Yes, little one?
Do you ever… feel weird?
He felt Shadow pause under his fingertips.
Like… like your body isn’t yours. Like it’s someone else’s… and you’re just renting it.
Shadow was a statue, cold and unmoving. Then it shifted like a shadow does when the sun sets and moved away from him.
Can’t say that I have. I can choose how I want to look. And it just so happens that today, I decided on this.
He swallowed, feeling hollow again.
I wish I could do that.
Who says you can’t? Have you ever tried? This is your dream, after all, little one. You can be whatever you like.
Like this. Watch.
And then Shadow was not a cat, but a bird, as dark and as flat as the darkness spilled on the floor. It cocked its sharp head, looking at him with the same white eyes and clicking its beak. He stared at the bird, wondering.
How did you do that?
It’s easy. Just give it a try and don’t be afraid.
That evening, when the door finally opened, and Mama stepped quietly through, the room was full of shadows like dark leaves fallen. She looked around in confusion before she saw the shapes moving. And then she looked at the wall, watching as the dark little boy played with a bird as flat as a shadow.