art by Jason Stirret
by Liz Argall
Every time the shadow puppets play, someone is saying, goodbye. Someone is saying, please don't go. Someone is saying, if only, please. Someone is saying, I remember when, and laughing.
Every shadow play is a memory.
I am an old shape-shifter. I cannot transform the way I once did, but I still need you. Without your desires to tell me who I am I get lost and confused. Young shifters become the people you want them to be, whole, mobile, human, but I do not have that clarity. I am lucky; many of my kind do not live this long, and not many theaters still host shifters that have become shadow puppets.
You come to the playhouse at 4 a.m., the time of melancholic song. The neighborhood scares you--too many broken dreams, bare syringes, and 24-hour skin shops. You've been walking for hours, spinning thoughts like a dj that only knows how to loop, and it is here your feet have taken you.
You miss him. You are killed by the hole he has made. You are numb. You are sharp spikes of pain too intimate to feel. Separated by a membrane as thin as skin you will come to me and remember him.
The Emperor Wu, so the legend says, fell into despair when his favorite concubine died. The health and righteousness of the Emperor is the health and righteousness of a country, and so his officials were filled with fear. The Emperor is the empire and what war, famine, floods, or pestilence would come of his lingering grief?
"Bring her back, bring her back from the dead!" cried the Emperor, but none had that power.
Every shadow play is a memory. Every play is a promise.
You buy your tokens and walk into the faded theater. Red velvet gathers dust. You walk up to my booth. A darkened screen, my hand, shoved through a narrow slot, rests on the table before you. You find it shocking, my palm looks so pale and small--like a sad child's, like the hand of a chimpanzee.
You press your hand against mine. Your pulse surges, afraid I'll draw blood or drag you behind the screen. My hand is cold, it will be the last part to grow warm.