Everyone has a childhood memory of entering their room and seeing the silhouette of a murderer or a monster on the wall. The normal reaction is to run screaming down the hall and return with a parent and a torch to discover that it was just an unfortunate bundling of clothes, or something similar. My reaction was to hide under my blankets and then torture myself for hours with the many things the shadow could be, and the many reasons there could be that it hadn’t eaten me yet. It’s waiting for it’s friends to get there, maybe. Or it’s waiting for my fear to tenderize my meat. Combine that with my lifelong hatred of those suspicious, overly cheerful winged nymphs, and you have a story.
Shadows in the Wall
By Ben Pienaar
Caroline did not like moving houses, which was unfortunate because that was all her father seemed to want to do. There was nothing Mr. Turner liked more than walking into a shipwreck of a house, breathing deep of the asbestos and rat droppings, and breaking out the tools. Granted, after a year or two the houses they stayed in were pristine million dollar mansions, but it was then, just when Caroline felt like she could live in a place, that they moved to the next dump.
43 Varron Street was no different, and while her mother went to unpack and her father revelled in the dust, she headed straight upstairs without so much as a glance left or right. Her bedroom was always somewhere on the top floor. It would, as usual, be a rotted wooden box fit for worms and termites and little else. At least the movers had already put in most of the furniture so she’d have her bed.
She dropped her bags inside and closed the door behind her. She felt like slamming it but she was afraid it would fall off completely, like last time, and then she’d been stuck without one for two months.
Her new bedroom was everything she feared and expected, except for one amazing thing: The walls had wallpaper! Well, a little. The corners and edges were rotted boards, and there were some stripped sections here and there, and what paper there was was plain old boring white, but it was still there, and that was more than she’d got last time. That last house, she could hardly get to sleep for fear of the things that might crawl out of the rotted wood to get her.
The rest of it was uninteresting. Her bed was here, and so was her bedside table and clothes drawer. The light hung from the ceiling by a wire, and she had her doubts as to whether it would actually turn on. Everything was here that should be here, so why did she feel like something was missing? She put her hands on her hips and thought for a moment, and then she had it: there was no window. Well, there was, but it was a pitiful tiny square of light in the top right hand corner. It might as well not be there at all.
She reached for the light switch and, as if she could see her, her mother called from another room: ‘Don’t bother with electricity, Caroline, the guys aren’t coming till Tuesday to put the wiring in.’
She took her hand away. ‘Mooooom!’
‘You’ll just have to do without, honey.’
She sighed and fell back onto her bed, staring at the ceiling. She was disappointed to note that it was almost completely lacking paper as well. Ordinarily, she might have worried about insects dropping onto her from above, but this day she was exhausted, and when her mother turned on the shower in the next room she drifted off quickly to the sound of falling water.
When she woke, it was like waking in a dream. When she’d fallen asleep the room had been plane and pale and dim, with some light fighting its way through thick dust. Now it was night, but she was surrounded by the light of flickering candles. Her mother must have checked in and seen her sleeping, and left the candles for her. She’d left one on the bedside table and two on her chest of drawers. When Caroline sat up and rubbed her eyes she saw that her bags were open and completely unpacked. She fell back onto her pillow, staring at the wall, and considered going to sleep again, and that was when she saw the fairy.
At first she thought it was nothing more than a conveniently shaped shadow, something created by chance, perhaps by the angle of the hanging light. Then she saw that it did not seem to move with the flickering of the candlelight, and besides that its shape was too well defined. It was the silhouette of a fairy, the same ones she’d seen in storybooks a hundred times.
It moved, but not much, and she realised it was trapped in the little diamond of wallpaper that stuck like an island on the bare wall. She could see it’s – her – slender hands pressing up against the sides, and her head looking around as if searching for a way out.
Caroline turned and stared at the opposite side of the wall, her first thought being that a shadow was a shadow, and there must surely be something making it. But the furniture in her room was bare save the candles, and now she was beginning to see more of them. One fluttered up a strip of wallpaper near the ceiling. Another two seemed to be watching her from a square above the door. They were everywhere.
She felt dizzy for a moment, and closed her eyes. Was she dreaming? No, definitely not: she could feel the warmth of the candle by her bedside, and smell the familiar mustiness of old wood. And she could hear… Whispers.
They were soft, so soft, and she was certain it was the fairies making them. She was not surprised that they were still there when she opened her eyes again. They were real.
Her heart was beating hard now, and she sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the floor to gather herself. She could see them moving in the corners of the vision. One of them was trying to get to another by crawling along a narrow stretch of wallpaper like a two dimensional tunnel.
She looked up at the one she’d seen first, and saw that she was cupping her hands to her mouth, as if shouting something. When she saw that Caroline was watching, she beckoned forward with one hand.
Weak at the knees, Caroline stood up and approached the wall. When she was close enough, she knelt in front of the diamond shaped bit of wallpaper and brought her ears as close to it as she dared. She didn’t think these shadow fairies were dangerous, but she couldn’t be sure, just yet.
‘My name is Fara,’ the fairy whispered. Her voice was so tiny that Caroline could barely hear it. The slightest noise would have drowned it out.
‘I’m Caroline,’ she whispered back.
The shadow fairy seemed to come forward, her hands pressing against the wallpaper as if it was a window. ‘You have to help us, Caroline. We’re trapped.’
‘Where are you?’
‘We live as shadows on the walls. We need light, but it makes us disappear, too. Most of all, we need the wallpaper.’
‘Why can’t you go on the wood?’
‘Look at it.’ Caroline looked, and in an instant she realised the problem. The wood was splintery and full of holes and dents. In the dim light it was covered in tiny shadows.
‘We can’t walk there. We would drown in the shadows.’
‘Oh. But how do you survive in the day and night? And without candles?’ she said.
‘In the light we disappear. In the pitch dark we are free to roam, but with the slightest light the shadows deepen and sometimes we drown.’ Caroline saw her head flick up towards the tiny window in the top of the room, and when she next spoke her voice was harsh with anger.
‘The window lets it in. The man who built it meant to trap us in the walls, and keep us from being free in the dark night. In the day, we always need the walls.’
‘Oh. Oh, you poor things.’ Caroline ran a finger down the wall and the fairy fluttered back. Or, it looked like she was doing that, but it was hard to tell since she was only a shadow. The paper was incredibly soft, softer than cotton. She felt almost as though she could push her hand right through the wall, but that was surely just the rotted wood beneath.
‘Don’t worry, Fara. I’ll help you,’ she said.
In her small diamond, Fara flapped her wings and twirled a neat circle in the air. ‘Thankyou, young Caroline. All we need is the paper. I haven’t seen my own sister in years, and I’m sure the others want so badly to find each other again. You must restore the paper and cover the window, please!’
‘Okay,’ Caroline whispered. ‘I’ll do my best.’
*** *** ***
The following day, Caroline’s father came downstairs to find her reading at the table. Her mother had already made them bacon and eggs and was now washing the dishes. When he entered, Caroline dropped her book immediately and stood up, as if she’d been waiting for him all morning.
‘Dad! Can you get wallpaper for my room?’
Mr. Turner stopped at the head of the table. ‘Wallpaper? Sure honey, don’t I always?’
‘I mean today, though. Or like, really soon.’
He scratched his head and stared at her. ‘Really soon, huh?’
‘Yes. I… It’s just because I’m scared of all the bugs and things living in the wood. And it’s gross and dusty and I get splinters and…’
‘Alright! Okay, how about this weekend we’ll go and you can pick out your favourite –’
‘No, I just want white. Just plain white, that’s all.’
‘Oh.’ He gave her an odd look. ‘That’s very unlike you.’
‘She’s been waiting for you all morning to ask that,’ her mother said.
‘Is that so? Hey, maybe someone’s getting the old renovation bug, huh?’
Caroline shrugged and half smiled.
‘Would you like to help Daddy do the light fixtures after that?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Dad. I’m not five anymore. I’m thirteen.’
‘Okay, geez. Give a guy a break. I’ll go pick some up for you today, okay? We can put it in together.’
She smiled and nodded, and without another word headed out the door. He heard her feet pounding up the stairs, and then the sound of her bedroom door closing. He looked at Mrs. Turner and raised his eyebrows, but all she could do was shrug back at him and shake her head.
*** *** ***
Caroline told the fairies, and they were overjoyed, but hungry. They hadn’t had food in years, they said. Couldn’t she bring them something to eat? So, when her parents were gone from the kitchen, Caroline went down to find some leftover bacon in the fridge. She brought it up to her room, and then realised the insanity of it. How could they eat real food? They were shadows! But what could they eat, then? She turned to leave with the plate of bacon and then she heard a voice whisper, almost in her ear: ‘Wait!’ It was one of the two that lived in the patch of wallpaper above the door.
‘Pretend there is no wall,’ the fairy whispered.
Still unsure of herself, Caroline lifted a piece of bacon and held it up to the paper. She began to press on it, feeling that softness, and then the meat went into the wall, until the tips of her fingers were holding a scrap and most of it was a shadow. The two fairies peeled bits of it and shoved it into their mouths until there was nothing left at all.
‘Take some to the others,’ the fairy said, rubbing her belly. She couldn’t tell, but Caroline was certain she was smiling.
By the time she’d gone around the whole room, all the bacon was finished and some of the fairies were still calling for more.
‘It’s alright, for now’ Fara told her. ‘Thank you, miss. But please, we need the window covered better than it is.’ The night before, she’d sticky taped a sheet over paper over the window. ‘You’ve done a good job, but if the paper falls or tears, it could hurt one of us.’
So Caroline went to the garage and found a roll of thick black duct tape, and she used it to tape over the paper, and again and again three layers deep. When she was done, the room was so dark that she needed the candles just to see anything.
‘Make sure your mother gives you more candles,’ Fara reminded her.
That night, her father brought home the wallpaper. ‘Got it extra thick, too, so we don’t have to sand the walls down.’ Caroline hugged him and thanked him and, when he was about to get to work setting up the television, she put on her cutest face and said: ‘hey, daddy, can we do my wallpaper now?’
He winced and forced a smile. ‘Sure. Race ya there.’
She beat him by a mile, and when she entered her room she warned the fairies to hide. Then she went back out into the hallway and stopped her father halfway up the stairs. ‘We’d better use a torch, dad. We’ll see better, right?’
She’d been terrified that her father might see the fairies, but when they returned with the flashlight, rolls of wallpaper and glue, the place was pitch black. Her father shone the torch around the walls, but even when the light passed over the paper there wasn’t so much as a flicker of shadow. Caroline breathed a sigh of relief.
He handed her the torch, and they set to work. She helped him roll the glue and then align the paper, and all the while she kept the light shining where he was. Once or twice, when he rolled over one of the patches, she cringed inwardly, but then she heard something flutter nearby and whisper ‘thank you,’ and she knew it was okay.
When they’d finished two walls, he stopped. ‘Alright, missy, I think we’ll call it a night, huh?’
‘What? But dad, we’re halfway done!’
‘I know, and it’s…’ He looked at his wrist, ‘Just about your bedtime.’
‘You don’t even have a watch. You just don’t want to move the furniture!’
He gasped. ‘What? I would never be that lazy!’
She tried her best to convince him, but he was packing up and in the end he left her with a half done room. Before he left, she made him promise to buy more candles tomorrow, and then he helped her light the ones she had and kissed her goodnight.
When he was gone, she locked the door and turned to face the walls. At first, she thought they were hiding, but then she saw them in the flickering light. To her frustration, most of them were still trapped in the patches of paper in the undone part of the room.
Then she turned to the new wallpaper and her mouth fell open. There were more – far more than she’d imagined there could be, flitting about in the wall. There were so many that if they’d all tried to land at once they wouldn’t be able to fit shoulder to shoulder. Some of them, though, were able to cling to the corner of the wall, and Caroline quickly realised it was not the corner they were clinging to, but the shadows there.
She approached the walls, and amidst the small crowd she saw one fairy fly up to eye level with her, and she recognized the silhouette to be Fara. ‘Hello, sweet girl,’ the fairy said.
‘Hi, Fara. Is it okay? I wasn’t sure if it was alright to cover over the paper that was already there. It makes lumps, and I thought it might… bury you or something.’
Fara laughed, and it was an odd sound, like the chirrup of a cricket. ‘No, it’s okay, Caroline. And soon the work will be done!’ She hovered, for a minute, as if unsure what to say. Then she held out a hand.
‘Please, miss. I’d like to touch you. It’s been so long since we’ve even seen a human being. Would you?’
She hesitated, but not for long. Part of it was Fara, who was so nice to her, but most of it was that she was unbearably curious about what it would be like to stick her finger, or her whole hand into the wall the same as she’d done with the bacon.
She lifted her hand to the wallpaper and touched it with her index finger. She hesitated, and a moment later felt Fara touch the spot where her finger was. It was such a strange feeling that she couldn’t resist. She pushed forwards and her hand went into the wall.
For a moment, she was horrified at what she’d done. Her wrist stopped at the wallpaper and she could see the silhouette of her hand. It was a bizarre sight, but it was an even stranger feeling. It was like pins and needles, but it also felt like dipping her hand into a hot bath. When Fara stroked her finger it sent tingles all down her arm. She gasped, and withdrew, and her hand came out of the wall. She was almost surprised to see it in one piece.
Fara giggled. ‘It’s alright, Caroline. You can come in all the way, if you want. You aren’t a shadow, so you’re not stuck. But beware, if your whole body enters the wall, you cannot leave and you’ll become like us. Leave one arm on the outside.’
The idea of becoming trapped in the wall was terrifying, but Caroline was excited. She couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to experience that tingling over her body, and she decided then and there that if her father ever wanted to leave this house she’d refuse.
The fairies parted to the edges of the wallpaper as she stepped through. It was breathtaking. The tingling feeling, that warmth, spread over her whole body and she stood so that only her head and part of her arm was sticking out of the wall. She wanted badly to close her eyes and go all the way in, but she didn’t dare.
When she looked down, her whole body was a shadow. The fairies flew and landed on her and touched her with long fingers as though she were some mystical goddess. They whispered in her ears, and thanked her and told her they’d be friends forever. Caroline closed her eyes, and if she hadn’t been standing up she might have fallen asleep. But eventually she had to leave the wall, and when she lay down in bed that night she swore to Fara and the fairies that she’d never leave them.
In the day, Caroline brought them bacon and chicken (they even ate the bones) and, because they loved the sweetness, apples. She spent most of the following morning throwing apple after apple into the wall and watching them catch it and fight over it in the most friendly way, and she laughed out loud. Her parents heard her, and saw the flickering candlelight even in the middle of the day, but they never said a word. ‘Just let her be,’ Mrs. Turner said once. ‘She’s a girl. We’re weird, okay?’
Caroline took the candles her mother bought her and set them up all over her room, so that come day or night there was always darkness and shadows. Her father came home late and told her he was too tired to finish the wallpaper, but that was alright: She spent the night talking to the fairies, and sneaking the trapped ones more food. They whispered about all the things they’d seen in the room, and Caroline was fascinated. They wished she could come into the wall and play with them when it was done, and they told her that if only she was a fairy she might live forever and never fear anything.
‘What if the wallpaper gets stripped again?’ Caroline asked.
‘Maybe, but we live in the dark, and there will always be darkness,’ Fara told her. ‘And we’ve been in this house a hundred years already, and only ten of us have ever died from bright light. If you stay here, you could live forever and be happy.’
And they were happy, Caroline saw, and she knew how it felt in the wall. She was tempted, but she knew the wall had to be finished first.
*** *** ***
Her father helped her finish the wall the next day. He noticed the duct taped window, but when he asked she said only that she liked candlelight better, and thought it was relaxing.
First they moved the furniture to the other side of the room, and then they began. Even though it was midday, and the door was wide open, they needed a flashlight to see what they were doing, and Mr. Turner decided that Caroline must be going through her ‘Goth’ phase. And then she surprised him by asking whether he thought fairies were real. Not, whether they were real, he noted, but whether he thought they were.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Sorry, sugar, just one of those things. Like Santa.’
‘Oh,’ she said, and smiled in a way he wasn’t sure he particularly liked. It was smug.
After he left, shooting her another of those cryptic looks as he went, she moved all of her furniture back into the middle of the room, and laid out all of her candles. She took a breath, barely able to contain her excitement, and lit them.
With the door closed and the window taped up, the room was made up only of shadows. The fairies even sat and clung to the shadows made by her chest of drawers and bedside table. She went from one wall to the next, whispering to them, asking them about their lives and telling them about hers.
It was around midnight when Fara beckoned her from one of the walls and asked her to join them. ‘I know there are a lot of us,’ she said, ‘but now that you’ve fixed the wallpaper, everything’s alright. We can go forever without food, if we must, and we never get sick or sad. We are always happy in the wall.’
‘But who would feed us?’ Caroline asked.
Fara laughed. ‘There’s always someone! Anyway, even if you decide you hate it here, there is a way out.’
‘There is? Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Oh. It’s difficult, I’m afraid. If you want to leave the wall, you’ll have to leave us something. A finger, perhaps. It is one of the rules. I’m sorry. It wouldn’t be painful.’
But Caroline only shook her head, and decided she needed time to think.
The walls were now covered with the fairies, flying and twirling and dancing in their new space. There were hundreds of them, and they flew across the walls of the room, ecstatic that it was at last complete. She watched the walls and saw families reuniting, long lost siblings meeting and friends seeing each other for the first time in years. They were all so happy.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ Caroline said. She lay down in her bed and watched the fairies frolicking on the wall until her eyes grew heavy and she fell asleep.
*** *** ***
Danielle Turner made pancakes for breakfast. It was the meal usually guaranteed to get Caroline downstairs in a matter of seconds, but not today. She called her name and her husband came down the stairs, but not Caroline. They thought she must be asleep, and ate without her, but when the last of the coffee was gone and Mr. Turner kissed her goodbye and went to sell his houses, Caroline still wasn’t downstairs.
Feeling the first twinge of uneasiness, Danielle called Caroline. There was no answer. She called again, and then went upstairs and stopped outside her door. She knocked loudly. ‘Caroline? It’s breakfast! Better wake up soon. You know you start school in a week, you might as well get used to it!’
Carefully, knowing the girl would probably hate her for it, she forced open the door.
The whole place was dark: although it was still early morning it could just as easily have been midnight in here. Except, of course, for the candles. They were assembled everywhere, dripping wax onto the old wood.
She caught movement in the corner of her eye and that was when she saw the shadows. For a moment, she didn’t believe her eyes: she was sure she was seeing an artwork. Some kind of incredible mural her daughter had created using the careful placing of furniture and shadows on the wall, and then she realised that the shadows were moving.
There was her daughter, in the middle of the wall. She knew it was her – the silhouette was that perfect. All around her were strange creatures that looked a lot like the fairies from, well, fairy tales. They landed on her arms and flew around her head. It was an incredible scene. Mrs. Turner could only stare at it, and in the back of her mind she thought that her daughter must be an incredible prodigy of art. This couldn’t have been easy to create. And what, what could possibly be making these shapes?
As she watched, the fairies surrounded the silhouette of her daughter, and began to caress and stroke her. Or, that’s what it looked like at first. But then, their long fingers extended into claws and the shadow of the girl in the wall seemed to be struggling, almost pressing up against the wall paper as if she was trying to escape.
The fairies scooped coin sized lumps of her into their hands and pushed them into their mouths. The shadow girl flailed hopelessly and diminished with each second until, when the fairies crowded around, she disappeared completely. Reduced into thousands of small portions and consumed.
Danielle watched the show with her hands on her hips and her mouth agape. When there was nothing left, the fairies flew to the far corners and the shadows on the wall and clung to them, as if they were trying to hide.
Mrs. Turner backed out of the room and closed the door behind her. She was shocked by what she’d seen, but she couldn’t say why. It was art, really – nothing real, but shadows on the wall. Nevertheless, she didn’t like it. When she found Caroline, she thought she’d do her best to discourage the girl from it. Someone with that kind of genius – to make a show like that (grisly as it seemed) had too much potential to waste it on childish pranks. She’d sign her up for every art and drama class she could lay her hands on.
But Mrs. Turner didn’t get the chance, for Caroline wasn’t anywhere to be found, and still wasn’t when her father returned home. They filed a missing persons report the following morning, but even then Danielle was recalling the fairies in the wall and wondering.
She didn’t know what she believed, but she told no one about the shadows in the room, or the little play that had been acted out for her. She told no one.
Sometimes, she sees faces in the shadows, and in the flickering firelight she thinks she sees little long fingered fairies fluttering in the corners of the room. She doesn’t know it, but they whisper to her in her sleep, and that winter she is the one to suggest redoing the wallpaper in the rest of the house.
She tells no one, but sometimes she thinks she hears her daughter’s voice among the whispers, and it calls to her. Soon, she thinks, she will see Caroline again.