I Am Girl | by Jennifer Todhunter

     I am Sadie’s original shadow. She keeps me stitched to her being, calls me Girl and whispers, I’m scared, when her brother staggers down the hall on the prowl, sour smelling and angry. I won’t leave you, I say, wishing she’d turn on a light to let me loose but knowing she won’t reveal herself. Not until he’s gone. Instead, I lie flat against the soles of her feet while she hides underneath her bed and says her prayers, all those words she doesn’t believe in but says just in case they curry some favour. I’m not afraid of the dark or of death like she is. I will do whatever I can to keep her safe.

     Sadie waits until her brother is asleep and snoring on her ragged comforter. She turns on her bedside lamp and I come to life, spreading my mass against the wall she’s plastered with pictures and stories of great warriors—Joan of Arc, Trieu Thi Trinh, Queen Boudica. I’m so glad you’re here, she says, casting a look my way, and I can tell she’s comforted by my appearance.

     I zip back and forth as she darts around her room, as she stuffs her lucky penny into her pocket, the penny her mother kept in her pocket before the hunter shot her dead by the falls. The penny Sadie keeps close when her brother’s around, the one she makes the same wish on every time.

     Please come back, mama.

     She pauses for a second before pushing her window open and pulling me through. Silent as a snake we slip into the night and I melt into the darkness, attached to Sadie’s heels.

     Are you there, Girl?

     I’m right behind you.

     Sadie’s spent countless hours in the forest around her house. Her brother’s kept her isolated and uneducated since her dad took up work in the city, but she’s managed to teach herself to hunt local game, start a fire with sticks, build shelter using her surroundings. She is curious and intuitive, but does not think of herself as a survivor. Even with her strong hands and calloused feet. So she stalls when we’re fifty yards away and looks back at the dim light shining through her bedroom window.

     I can’t do this.

     You can.

     I’m not so sure.

     Just keep going.

     The clouds shift and the moonlight catches my edges, splaying me across the needled floor. I look like a giant. Thick and tough. Sadie sees me, but becomes timid and unsure, thinking maybe she deserves to live in that house with that brother of hers. So I gently nudge her along, knowing she can’t go back.

     We walk westward along the river, find shelter in the branches of a pine. Sadie’s shivering in the cool air, so I wrap myself around her to keep her warm, knowing this isn’t the first time she’s had to sleep outside. I’m small up here in our resting place, dwarfed by the mammoth shadows of the many trees that keep us hidden. She rubs her lucky penny between her fingers, its definition worn off months ago.

     Do you think he’ll find us?

    Hush, child. It’s time for sleep.

     I listen to the nighttime creatures after Sadie nods off— keep an eye on their movements, the way their shadows crisscross like lattice as they bustle about.

     We carry on the next morning, stumble across a black bear cub with a bullet hole in her chest and only a few breaths left in her lungs. Sadie cries as she watches her struggle to hang on, holds her giant paw in her dirt-smeared hand, and whispers a soldier’s song into her ear until she’s gone. They’re tears I haven’t seen since her mother died.

     She fought a hard life, she says. She was fierce.

     She’s not the only one.

     Sadie circles the cub’s carcass with stones, covering her matted fur with ostrich ferns and bluebells, preparing the death bed as if it were her own. She sings Golden Slumbers while she moves, the same lullaby her mother used to sing to her, and I sense her mother’s spirit nearby. She was a fighter, like Sadie, and like this black bear. Sadie seems to sense it too.

     I reach down and pull up the black bear’s shadow, its bulk as dark as oil, and unpick it from its seam. The shape is substantial in my hands, smooth and leaden, and I sew its circumference to Sadie, her abdomen tensing under the additional weight.

     Do I deserve this, Girl?

     You do. You most definitely do.

     Sadie walks differently after that, stands taller as she continues west. She stops at times, her head cocked to the side, twisting her nose to the wind. She grows fond of Black Bear, holds her paw when she’s sleeping, touches her ears when she’s speaking. We move stacked on top of each other, never vying for space or attention, quiet and listening. In some ways, it is a relief to share my shadow space. It has been tiring always watching Sadie’s back. But I can’t help feeling I’m being outgrown.

     Food sources are plentiful. Black Bear helps Sadie forage for berries, larvae, and sedges. Sometimes, she wades into the river and bats at salmon with her hand, catching them as they rest in pools after swimming upstream. Sadie starts a small fire on the bank, grilling the fish on a stick over the flames. She debones her catch, gnawing the flesh off the speckled, gray skin with her teeth.

     Where are we going? I ask.

     Toward the falls, she says.

     I’m spread out behind her, the sun directly ahead, and can’t see her eyes. There’s an edge to her voice though, an edge that makes her sound stronger. Like she’s ready to face whatever she might find.

     She hears him first, while we’re still in the forest. I can tell in the way she stops moving, the way her breathing shallows. Then comes the click of branches breaking underneath his boots. Sadie sees him next, running toward her with his jacket unbuttoned and a toque pulled over his unruly hair.

     “Sadie!”

     He doesn’t sound angry, just worried—like he was when she pulled the pot of boiling water off the stove, or the time she tried to chop wood out back with the axe. She stands in a puddle of fatigue, watches as her brother nears. He looks thin, like she used to feel, the wild cut into his features.

     “You need to come home,” he says.

     “I don’t want to.”

     “I don’t care. Dad said you’re not allowed out on your own while he’s gone.”

     She shakes her head. “I’m leaving.”

     “Don’t be crazy. Who’s gonna look after you?”

     “I can look after myself.”

     “The hell you can,” he says, a familiar sneer finding his lips. “You do as I say.”

     He crosses underneath a jagged overhang, against a wall of rock just a few yards away. That’s when the sun pours Black Bear out, painting the forest floor in shade and smothering Sadie’s brother with her weight. He struggles to unpin himself, unable to move underneath the shadow.

     “You’re going to let me go,” Sadie says.

     Her brother’s face turns red with anger, the veins in his neck popping out, but he’s immobile. Silent and stuck. Sadie stares at him the way someone might stare at a stranger, like she’s seeing who he really is for the first time. She rubs her lucky penny between her fingers, then tosses it on the ground next to him. She doesn’t need it to help protect her anymore. Black Bear uses her claws to detach her brother’s shadow, and he
cries out in pain as she passes it to me with her meaty paw.

     I don’t want that one, Sadie says.

     Then let’s burn it so he can never bother you again.

     We leave and he does not follow. He searches the pile of ash for bits of his shadow and finds only fish bones. There is no strength to his being without a shadow, nobody to watch his back anymore. Soon, he will be gone.

     The summer air is full of electricity. It snaps and catapults into the tinder-dry ground, the smoke and heat driving woodland creatures from the forest. We pick up the shadow of a bluejay that’s fallen from her nest. Sadie likes the way its wings feel over her shoulders, the way she twitters into her ear as we walk. The shadows of two garter snakes join us, their shadows coiling around Sadie’s calves like pieces of armour. She stops to free another shadow as she moves half-coughing, half stumbling through the edge of the blaze, but I push her on, my edges singeing in the heat, the stench of burning hair and scorching hair all around us. We shrink into the soles of
Sadie’s blistered feet when we reach safety, drinking up the fresh air. Sadie falls asleep under the wing of Bluejay, and we take turns watching over her.

     We’ve become a unit.

     A family.

     Sadie talks to me less as we carry on, starts up conversation with her other shadows, and I don’t mind it at all. She is making her own decisions now, heading in her own
direction.

     The falls are miles from Sadie’s home, and I hear their roar before they appear before us. The sound is monstrous, the spray misting us as we approach. She strips on the edge of the pool, her body a maze of bruises and cuts, scrapes and burns. We splay out in front of her, dip ourselves into the cool water. Bluejay remains on Sadie’s shoulder the whole time, her singing filling the gaps in our conversation, as Sadie cleanses herself of the grief she’s felt since her mother died.

     Once Sadie’s clean and cool, she climbs the rocks leading to the top of the falls, wanting to see how much farther it is to the coast—to where she will start her new life. I’m eager to see what lies beyond the canopy of trees and brush as well, never having left the rickety house or outlying area that Sadie’s called home since birth.

     Sadie’s toes slip halfway up, and her body plummets toward the ground, weighted down by her shadows. Bluejay flaps her wings in an effort to stop Sadie’s descent, but we’re too heavy for her. She’s taken on too many of us. Halfway down I manage to snag an outstretched branch with my torso and we come to a jerking stop, suspended in midair. Sadie’s shaking where she hangs, the Snakes circling up her legs in fear. She manages to grab onto the branch before I lose my grip, but we’re still slipping, still too much for her to hold. She sees me bend, sees me start picking out my stitches one by one.

     What are you doing, Girl?

     You don’t need me anymore.

     I do need you. Don’t leave me.

     You are stronger now. You are no longer a little girl.

     The water is hard when I hit and pass out.

 

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     Sadie is asleep on the shore when I am dragged from the lake by an eagle. Her body taut and muscular, her chest rising and falling with each breath. The eagle places me beside Sadie, and I pull Black Bear’s shadow over her shoulders and kiss her on the cheek. Then the eagle lifts me into the sky, and I watch Sadie get smaller and smaller until I can’t see her any longer.

 

wolffff

 

Jennifer is a number nerd, backyard beekeeper, and writer based in Canada. Her stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

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