Soot came by that evening, invited to dinner by Fiona. Her clothes were a cataclysm of color. She wore a purple, paisley scarf whose ends reached her knees and a red felt hat that reminded Zoē of a garden gnome’s, but the tip fell to the small of her back. There were colorful patches on her scarf, hat and leggings.
“Why do you dress like that?” Zoē asked, sitting opposite Soot. She had already carefully arranged her knife, fork and spoon.
“So I’m easy to find,” Soot answered.
Zoē gazed at Soot in that way she had, as if she had been told that a bird might recite the alphabet at any moment.
“Do you have any grapes?” Soot asked Fiona, but Fiona was already putting a bowl of grapes on the table. She took one and gave Zoē a confiding smile. “Have you never lost yourself?”
“Do you know,” asked Soot, “what casts your shadow?”
“Is that what you think?” Soot ate another grape.
“What is it then?” Zoē straightened.
“You think you can’t see your soul, but of course you can. Your soul is what casts your shadow,” Soot leaned forward. “And your soul is easiest to see in the light. And everything has a soul, from a tree to the fencepost. If you see the fencepost’s shadow, then that’s because the fencepost and its soul are in agreement. But if the fencepost forgets to be a fencepost then it’s as though it forgets its soul; and one day its shadow will disappear.”
“Do you know anybody who’s lost their shadow?” Millie asked.
“I know a story,” said Soot.
“I wanna hear it.”
“Do you have any wine?” Soot asked Fiona, and a moment later Fiona returned with a glass. Soot liked a glass when the storytelling mood came over her and Fiona knew her Aunt well enough to know. She slipped it across the table, a glass of red wine in a bordeaux.
“Do you remember Ariella Pease?” she asked Fiona. “No, I don’t suppose you would. Sweet as syrup when she was a little girl. Then, a little older and all that changed. There was always a streak of jealousy in Ariella. And as she grew older, her jealousy grew with her.
“She coveted trifles.
“Whenever she had the chance, she would take what wasn’t hers. Little things: a pencil became a hair clip, became a ring, became a pearl necklace. Her soul, because the soul is confused by deceit and dishonesty, forgot how to recognize her and, one day, was gone. And Ariella had no more shadow.
Soot leaned back, glancing first at Millie, then at Zoē. “What happens when your soul can’t find you? Do you know? The world turns gray. Your thoughts turn black and white. You miss the beautiful things of the world because your soul no longer whispers in your ear saying: ‘Look! There! Isn’t that beautiful?’” Soot adjusted her eye patch and sipped a little more of the wine.
“Well?” Millie knelt on her chair now, elbows on the table. “What happened?”
“That’s it,” said Soot, glass lifted beside her, one knee crossed over the other. “Her shadow was gone. Poof!”
“Is not,” said Millie.
“She didn’t notice at first. Whoever checks to make sure their shadow is with them? She went out and at first there were whispers, then pointing, then she saw what wasn’t there. She didn’t dare go out again. Some said she bartered with the devil but in exchange for what? Wealth? Eternal youth?
“At first she was angry.
“She raged at the mailman for being late. She raged at the noisy children. Her tea was too cold, her soup too hot. She would find her shadow and stitch it to her heels. A shadow must be like a long scarf. If it’s not tied round one’s shoulders then perhaps it can blow away.
“She needed a seamstress and so she went looking. She went when others weren’t as likely to see her. She wore a shawl and skirted from house to house, but then she noticed a timid shadow following her. Ariella was on the left side of the road and the shadow was on the right. When she moved, the shadow moved. When she stood still, the shadow stood still.
“Ariella meant to catch her shadow and chased it up the porch-stairs of the nearest house. She almost cried out when she saw a strange girl swinging on a porch-bench. The girl smiled mischievously and put her finger to her lips. ‘Come closer,’ she said, whispering so that only Ariella would hear her, ‘I know why you’re here. Give me the pearl necklace and I’ll give you what you need. Ariella frowned, proud of the necklace she had stolen, but took it off and gave it to the girl.”
“Look on your stoop tomorrow morning.”
“Ariella thought she should recognize the strange girl. The next morning there appeared a short spool of white thread. Surely this wasn’t all that Ariella needed. She went back out late in the evening, hiding from the moon, the lights from the windows and the street lights. Once again she saw her shadow and chased it under a bridge and once again was startled by the strange girl in the shawl. She crouched under the bridge as if hiding there. ‘I know what you want. Give me the ring that you stole and I’ll give you what you need. Ariella frowned but gave it to her.
“Look on your stoop tomorrow morning.”
“The strange girl seemed ever more familiar to Ariella. The next morning there appeared a spool of fine red thread. Each night Ariella gave the giggling girl something she had stolen. Each night Ariella was more sure she recognized the girl. Each morning a spool of thread more valuable and beautiful than the last appeared on Ariella’s stoop. Each day Ariella felt happier and her step was lighter.
“At last there was only the pencil.
“The next evening her shadow led her to a neighboring farmhouse where Ariella found the strange girl swinging under an apple tree. ‘Now,’ she the girl, ‘you must promise never to steal anything again. The girl jumped off the swing and gave Ariella a piece of paper. She turned around so that Ariella could sign the paper on her back. ‘This is your promise to never steal anything again,’ she said, looking over her shoulder. ‘Then give me the pencil and I will return it to who you stole it from.’
“Ariella signed and gave the girl the paper.
“As soon as the girl turned around Ariella saw who she was. It was her soul! Ariella finally recognized herself. She reached but her soul was too quick. ‘No!’ her soul smiled and wagged her finger. ‘You have been very bad.’
“‘Will you come back?’ Ariella begged.
“Look on your stoop tomorrow morning
“The next morning there was a golden needle on Ariella’s stoop and then she saw her shadow, already attached to her heel, and kneeling just like her. But Ariella knew what she needed to do. She took the golden needle and she took all the most beautiful clothes and cut them up. She made patches and sowed her clothes back together so that every time she saw them she would be reminded that the most beautiful thing she had in the world was herself.”
Soot finished her tale, finished her wine, gazed at both girls and then at Sean.
“Wait,” said Millie. “Was that story about you?”
“Millie!” said Soot. “I’m surprised at you!”