That first summer before college started my mother let me stay home and go to the library every day, just as I wanted. I planned to work my way alphabetically through the library’s three rooms. I’d start in Non-Fiction, move my way to Adult, and finish in Reference. If there was still time before September, I’d redo Juvenile, which I’d finished by the time I was thirteen. Secretly, I hoped to make my way down to the basement, where Juveniles were kept. How I missed the stories and pictures-the blue, green, and brown fairy books!
In the backyard, at a rotting picnic table, I would read. Around noon, I would go inside and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and wrap it in a blue bandana; I’d pour some water and drop some ice into an empty jelly jar. I’d carry the picnic out to the yard like a girl I’d read about in a children’s book. For the very first time in my life since before the pink and purple pant-suited girl at Happy Acres scowled at me, I experienced bliss.
At night, my shadow visited me. She’d drop from the ceiling in her tank top and undies —what I slept in too — and hovered just over my pillow, her face close to mine. Into her ear, I’d whisper tales I had read. I told her about science, how the earth was heating up slowly. About novels, like the one about the girl whose half-brother named Ram, "overtaken with lust," had impregnated her. Picture books —a baby chicken who lost its mother. "Are you my mother?" it asked a log.
Meg-Anne had already gone to college two years before so my shadow and I had the bedroom to ourselves. I’d fall asleep reading in bed — I’d covered Meg-Anne’s bed with books, and sometimes I’d fall asleep lying on top of volumes and volumes —and then with a whoosh she’d appear. She was as big as I was then — five feet four — and had grown her hair long, just like me. We both had hair past our shoulders, and it was glorious shades of blonde, brown and pink. We wore matching white undershirts, underwear embroidered with the days of the week, and both of us had the same necklace on: I had found two teeny dead frogs in the yard, and shellacked them, tying them onto string. She could not believe I’d made her a present — her face lit up the room with its smile. She’d never smiled before, and the light that came from it was like sunrise, or sunset. I had began to smoke cigarettes, a kind that came from over the ocean in a pale blue box, with their name all in squiggles. They made me sick to my stomach, but I liked it. My girl smoked cigarettes too, as she dangled from the ceiling
Yes, we’d really changed. You could almost say flowered.
Yet even though I had started to feel free —I mean not really free, but somewhat free, or at least left alone — my shadow seemed more severe as days went on. While I felt happier and happier as summer progressed, she began to emit an intensity I hardly could stand. She’d suck in the smoke so hard, her cheeks caved in . . . she’d drop from the ceiling so fast the weight of her almost stopped me from breathing. (Your shadow can do that.)
Her evening appearances remained a comfort for me, however, because she was the only constant friend that I had. Sometimes the shadow girl would tire of my tales, and read me stories out of books that she favored, but I’d shudder and ask her to stop. The stories she read me were from magazines and had titles like "Man-Eating Flower Devours Schoolchildren!" or "Demon Faerie Explodes!" That I disliked the stories she chose aggrieved her very much, and soon her shadow wings had become completely ragged and torn and her flying went haywire. She’d drop down from the ceiling dramatically fast, then she’d make herself scarce.
But I still enjoyed my trips to the library, my new outfits and hair. I began to wear my grandmother’s old clothes. I wore her fur stole, and petticoats onto which I had sewn dried flowers and (very carefully) butterfly cocoons. They would hatch in the fall and I could not wait to see the creatures take wing off of me!
One night in August, my shadow appeared, and without a word dropped a box right at me. I’d waved my arms in the air. It is difficult to convey, but it was very scary, that black box floating above my bed in the black room, falling down toward me. My shadow was angry at me.
By the end of the summer, when I was finally down in Juvenile, having devoured Adult and Reference, I started then to take the long way home from the library, through the woods, and pretend I was in a book I had always loved so much about a girl who had to carry her tin cup through the woods to a creek to get a drink of water. I would daydream about this storybook I loved, the first book I’d checked out of Juvenile, as I walked down the path of pine needles.
One day, from behind an oak tree, he simply appeared. "I like your outfit," Hans said. Hans Peters, just a boy from Meg-Anne’s class who worked at the gas station at Four Corners, about a mile away from the library and near the entrance to the woods. Hans. Hans! What a name. Who would name a kid something like that? I don’t even know if it’s short for anything. Cathy is short for Catherine; I’m named for a saint. I had on a long white petticoat, under a ratty fur coat of my Nana’s. The coat had come with her all the way from Russia, on a boat, and it smelled like the sea, and like honey and roses. "Thank you," I answered, and began to walk faster. Books fell from my arms. Hans touched my shoulder. "What are you so scared of, Weinberg?" he said. "Nothing;" I answered. And it was true.
"So sit down," he suggested, gesturing to a tree trunk. I sat on the tree trunk and folded my arms. I crossed my legs too, for good measure. I knew what happened to girls in the woods when they encountered man-strangers. Hans stood in front of me. "Excuse me," he said, with a blush. He always was strange, as much of a social reject at school as I had been. He disappeared behind the oak. Silence, and then I heard him peeing. This made me smile — I don’t know why.
But my smile was no sooner on my face than it was covered with a giant shadow — something flapping in the air — a horrific sound. I leapt up and ran home. I looked over my shoulder once, and saw Hans rushing out from the tree, zipping his fly. "Weinberg!" I heard him cry.
The next day, Hans was waiting for me on the tree trunk. In one hand, he held a bunch of fading hydrangea, and in the other, a little black leather notebook. He thrust both toward me. "These are for you, Weinberg," he said. I thanked him, took the flower and notebook, and continued walking. I know this all sounds very mysterious and strange, but it wasn’t. He was just a guy, a hoodlum, really, and I was a girl who had been invisible for years. It was a nice sort of idiotic friendship.
We met daily at the tree trunk after that, him on his break from the gas station and me on my way home to read. I’d smoke my foreign cigarettes and he’d compliment my outfits. He’d ask what I was reading, and I’d show him my fairytale books. He even liked me to read them to him. Seems he loved to be read to, just like a child.
In all honesty, I didn’t even notice that my shadow was gone. She’d been my only friend for so long; thinking back to those days in the woods, I can’t quite wrap my brain around how I didn’t notice her absence.
Well, before I knew what was happening, one day I was lying on my back and he was inside me. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t cry. When it was over, we both heard that flap-flapping again, and everything went dark.
A sudden shadow, a sound just like wind but nothing was moving.
After that I could do nothing but sleep, and my head felt heavy and shrouded. Even when I was awake, it was like I was sleeping, or like I was dreaming of sleep, aching for it. I had no thoughts of the library or the woods. All I wanted was sleep, and my mother. She was so kind — constantly bringing me trays of food, quietly placing them on my night table. And then, one day as she set the tray down, I saw a tiny body scramble from beneath it. It rolled onto the floor with a thud. Then it zipped up through the air like a bee, and flew into a crack in the ceiling.
When I next opened my eyes, the clock read midnight exactly. I turned on the lamp that my Aunt Sadie had left me when she died. The lamp has a round base that lights up like a moon. It gives off a comforting glow. Sometimes I turn it on and off just to watch the light happen. That night, my mother had left the tray of toast and chicken alphabet soup. I reached for a piece of buttered white toast. I thought about how things had been getting better, around the time I met Hans in the woods, but I was starting to feel funny again — exactly the way I’d felt at Happy Acres when the girl had said "I hate you," and my shadow girl first appeared . . . I nibbled a corner of toast, and sipped some cold sugary tea, and drifted back to sleep with an old song in my head: "I won’t grow up, don’t want to go to school, won’t learn the golden rule . . ."
When I woke up, my room was all in a haze. I squinted my eyes to all the familiar things: in one corner sat a model of a castle, with a water-filled moat that often leaked; on my desk was a long row of little dolls that were popular then. They came in glass jars, they had name cards attached to them with strings; they looked like teeny beauty queens with wings. (I didn’t much like them, now that I think about it.) On the shelves sat my collection of fairy tales from the library. I pulled them all down and pored over their pages. I was looking for a story about a baby in water, a water baby? "The Water Babies"? It reminded me of my dream, or my dream reminded me of the story?
But soon, I came across another tale I never had seen in all of my reading. It featured a girl who smiled at everything, but nothing ever smiled back. She was a quiet girl who buried her nose in the books. Sometime after she "came into maturity" (as the storybook said), a boy did smile at her. She ran home to tell her father and he promptly sent her off to a bad fairy, who locked her in the basement without any books or heating. The bad fairy would slide plates of food under the door. Perhaps the food was magic; her clothes got smaller and smaller upon her, though the meals were meager. And something else: though it was freezing in the basement, she always was warm. One night, when she was so big her clothes had stretched right over her stomach, revealing it to look like a beautiful moon, a light — which I understood to be the bad fairy in the form of light — slid through a crack in the only window down there, and slid right down the wall and into the girl. And the next day, her clothes started to get bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Soon the bad fairy let her go home, where she was greeted with trumpets and dancing. But she never smiled again.
When I finished reading I fainted.
When I woke up I was in bed (as usual) and my mother was bringing me dinner. This time it was crackers and jelly, a tall glass of ginger ale. I ate a few bites of Saltines. "Is the bad fairy on duty?" I asked. My mother gave me a strange and unpleasant glance, and left the room in a hurry. As I came out of the fog of deep sleep, my body began to have a bad feeling. The shadow girl, the sliver of light, a bad fairy. Getting bigger, getting smaller. The black box, the coffin. I was covered in sweat. I fell back asleep, and woke much later again, still sweating. Above me hovered that box. It had wings jutting out of its edges. I batted my arms and heard a small whisper: I won’t grow up.
When I fell back asleep I had the most beautiful dream: me in a meadow, in a gilded storybook frame. Sitting there, I held out my hand. On my palm sat a tiny infant, gazing into my eyes. It stopped my breath-or I passed out or something, because when my mother came to fetch my dinner tray, I had turned blue — just like when I was born.
They took me to the hospital, and from there, to a special home for pregnant girls. But my daughter, she came out too soon. Months early, tiny and blue — just like me when I came into the world. Yet she never managed to breathe on her own. On her birthday the sky was covered in clouds. No light to spread into a window and fill her with air.
Now I’m back home with my parents. I spend all my time lying in bed in Nana’s petticoats; the butterflies have hatched and flown. I lie here and think of my daughter. My shadow hangs out wordlessly on the ceiling.
I find some consolation when my mother brings me a new fairy book from the library or a tray of food for my supper; last night, she made teeny pancakes that spelled out my name,
C A T H Y. Tonight she has promised me alphabet soup. Of course, my sister Meg-Anne complains that I’m freeloading. Poor girl just doesn’t realize. Nothing ever is free.