The Shadowcatcher

Shadowcatcher1

Illustrated by J. Andrew World

by Johnny Eponymous

 

Kiely Van Der Rotte walked the streets of San Jose in her riding clothes on Thursday night, June the 13th, 1916. She could hear the fights, the loud crashes from bars that closed when the last man passed out. Kiely rarely came into town, preferring her small barn and instruments among the orchards in Santa Clara to the bustle and brawls. For her plan, she needed the downtown emotions: energies that all could feel, but only she understood. The nearly full moon provided her safety as she continued, passing more drinkers and theatres, to the area surrounding the University where she could set her tripod looking down San Fernando Street. She could see a bloody fistfight in front of an Irish pub, just the sort of negative energies that would bring the images forward. She removed the Magic Lantern from her carpetbag, gently placed it atop the tripod. Kiely pointed it toward the square where fights and knifings were the rule and order came from the blunt swing of a truncheon. Kiely installed the small metal box, full of Audion tubes and wires, forming the machine she called the Shadowcatcher. Her hair fell into her eyes, causing her to pause and take a gathering of those on the street; no one paying any attention to her at all. She took the Comptometer from the bag and put the wire into the small metal box, turning it to complete the connection. Kiely turned the handle on the side of the controller for nearly thirty seconds, her arm hurting as it strained against the stiff handle’s movement. Kiely paused, thinking she had turned it long enough so the machine would have a full charge when she hit the proper keys.

Kiely looked down the street once more as she flipped the bar on the side of the Comptometer and pressed the nine numbers to bring the machine to its slow whir. She took a long step back, before flipping the bar once again, resetting the numbers to zeros and bringing the machine to life. A loud whistle began to echo on the inside of the wooden projector box. As the whistle built, she could see the gathering of light twelve feet in front of her, a faint but solid gathering lit from within. The glow gained form, took shape: a man’s shape. The man had a distant stare that Kiely could note, even though she could still see through it to the moonlit buildings on the other side of the street. The figure took more form, the torso dressed in the styles of twenty years earlier; the hat on the head a stiff bowler with a small feather, the pants long-striped and tattered at the top of expensive shoes. On his sleeve she could see a rip, and beneath that, dark runs of liquid. Kiely set the controller down, walking to the vision, her hair again falling, though she did not even blink.

“Can you hear me? Are you here?”

The image turned to her, the same stare going beyond her, beyond the small patch of grass behind, beyond the tower at the far end of the quad. Slowly, the image nodded, focused more, with a stronger glow coming from within his coat. Kiely took a step back, giving the stare full view of the battle of San Fernando.

“You’ll walk to the end of the street, turn around and come back to me.”

Without acknowledgement, the image moved, his expensive shoes disturbing the dust as he walked, but only in small traces that the wind would clear in moments. The figure took seven steps, began to fade, and went transparent. Kiely walked his path, noting the slight impressions on the street. She reached the point where the impressions stopped, the point where the image returned to cold chills and whispers in unbelieving ears. Kiely paced off the distance: seventy-seven feet across, more or less. The distance was far less important than the fact that she had done it, done what mystics and philosophers had failed to realize: she had touched the plane of the past and brought it to the present.

# # #

Kiely gathered the pieces, looked over the schematics on the table, and went about connecting the Audion tube to the innards of the camera she had traded for with Dr. Warburton. The system worked on incredibly simple premises: the wires create a field of energy captured from the environment around it and the Audion amplifies that energy before sending it through the projector, creating a field approximately one hundred feet across, though this test delivered a far smaller field than the design should have supported. The whole thing just needed the proper amount of energies from the environment to gain the power to bring those Away to the field.

Kiely heard the wheels of an automobile grinding walnuts into the packed dirt that led to the barn. Kiely walked to the window, looked out into the rainy night on Jason, the driver, and her youngest sister, Marcy. She had seen neither in several weeks, mostly because they chose to sleep during the night; the time when Kiely could get days worth of work done in hours. She wiped her hands and shouldered open the swinging door, allowing Jason to drive the car in, leaving only a foot between the table and the front bumper. Kiely steeled herself up to deliver the final sell.

“You know, you could try living in the house again, sis.”

Kiely tossed the rag into the bucket at the far end of the bar, waiting to be washed. She hadn’t slept in the house for almost a year, preferring to use her small cot or just pass out at the table in the barn. The large bags under each eye spoke to this tradition. Jason stepped down from the driver’s side, walked behind, and opened Marcy’s door. Kiely and Marcy could be no more different: Marcy’s eyes glowed green from under the red hair she spent an hour perfecting each morning, while Kiely’s simple brown hair fell about her shoulders and nearly constantly needed to be moved from in front of her grey eyes. Kiely stood a fair five inches taller as well, a fact that became apparent with the great bend whenever the two of them embraced in hellos.

“You know I can’t stand the quiet up there, much more texture out in the barn. Besides, the house has other problems.”

Marcy smiled lightly in dismissal, small runs of water dripping off the curls that framed her face. Marcy went to the table, looking at the boxes her sister had created.

“Are these them? The machines you told me about?”

Kiely pulled the nearest Shadowcatcher to her, turning it around so Marcy could see the tubes and coils. Kiely knew her amazement with things scientific and she knew the machine would confuse her. Marcy leaned in, as if in a museum of oddities where the barkers will send their cane to any foot over the line. She studied every wire line, every tube connection, every component, though she knew nothing of their operation. Kiely would have explained them all, though she did not, since she wanted the mystery to remain. Jason spoke first, after drying his head with the towel on the hook next to Kiely’s hanging saws and hammers.

“So, you’ve completed it, but why such urgency to get us to see it?”

Kiely opened the lid of the projector and pushed it toward Marcy while she spoke.

“Remember when you and Jason would bring people over to the house for séances? You’d invite the wealthy folks over and Jason would shill and then you’d bring out the gigs. Well, I think we should start it up again, only this time these will bring the greatest gigs of all time.”

Jason shrugged unhappily and Marcy pulled herself back upright. The look on Marcy’s face had touches of theatre and future money. Jason had a look of last resort in his eyes. Jason had been short of funds for nearly two years and the Shadowcatcher Project represented the only option for cash that he could see.

“Don’t worry, the Shadowcatcher is like that old Magic Lantern Papa had and I can control the picture with the box over there. I can make the images turn and even walk. All you have to do is provide the scene, I’ll take care of the rest.”

Marcy smiled. She had wanted to get back into the game as Madame Van Der Rotte, but Jason didn’t have the money to buy their way back in with the traditional ooohs and ahhs. Marcy spoke as if signing on to the project.

“Who will we invite, Kiely? When?”

Two more successful tests would follow. The men trapped in a mine walked past Kiely’s view on a small hill marked with seven weathered crosses. A young boy looking for his ball paused for a moment in front of the Shadowcatcher, turned and ran away out of the field. The tests brought her closer, allowed her to tune the specificity, clean the images brought out, widen the field. She had not yet tried the three in union but knew the result: each tuned to the same frequency, stronger coverage. Each machine bringing more energy forward, allowing for the perfect vision she had promised herself. Marcy could know nothing of the reality of the device. She had played the Spiritualist too long to find truth in the Unknown.

The day had come quickly for Kiely, though Jason and Marcy were always milling around, waiting as if the hours were days spent on a rack. Kiely made all the alterations in slow turns and gentle pulls, all adding up to time running away from her. As Marcy returned to the house to dress and Jason swept clean the path for the visiting autos, Kiely finished her adjustments, placed the Shadowcatchers on a small cart. One last look at her barn and Kiely wheeled the machines out the back of the building, onto the small packed path leading to the house. Marcy took a small fright as Kiely threw open the door. The house had been distant for the week spent in cleaning and preparations, lulling Marcy into expectations of fluid silence.

Kiely set the Shadowcatchers in an equilateral triangle, the table in the exact center of the machines, the focus of three energy projectors. While each was fully capable of bringing the Away forward to the field, combined the once translucent images would gain form, strength from the focusing. Kiely could hear the first auto pulling up the drive, crushing walnuts and throwing dirt. She went up the stairs to where her mother would sit and watch them play between cooking and cleaning and picking fruits. Kiely took a concealed seat, watching in a mirror, where all the guests and Shadowcatchers could be seen and the cord to the Comptometer would not pull taught as it ran up the stairs. The first footsteps fell on the front porch and Marcy opened the door on Ken Cooler and his wife, Narla. Sweet old folks who had lived in the valley, on the orchards, since birth. Each walked with a simple cane, his of hand-carved oak, hers of white fir, stained dark with painted bird’s-eye grain.

“Welcome, Mr. Cooler, Mrs. Cooler. Please, give me your coats and have a seat.

“You’ll find a few small treats and a bottle of red wine in the front parlor. Please, help yourself.”

The small pair made their way into the parlor as the thin couple called Barcells walked in, receiving the same greeting. Others arrived, invitees to make the marks feel comfortable. Kiely recognized a couple of them, dressed well but obviously in borrowed suits. Jason entered and closed the door, his hair full of kicked up dust. Marcy made her way to the chair closest to the stairs.

“Welcome to the séance, my friends. Each of you were invited for the purpose of contact, a contact you wish to make with a world beyond. I am surrounded by a great energy, the concentrators are increasing my awareness of the Away, the other side of our world. If you will all take hands, we can begin.”

Kiely turned the handle on the controller until the charge had been achieved. She then flipped the bar and held the keys. Instantly, those holding hands could feel something that Kiely had never experienced in her tests: the breeze. A stiff breeze, not of air, but energy: colder than any wind off an icy lake. The cold kept each of the séance participants in their seat. Marcy had been through this, typically a window would be opened, sending the chill through those in the room. This time, no shill had opened a window, the energies bringing the cold were real.

“Feel them enter, the powers flowing from the coldest realm. Close your eyes, feel the surge, resist the cold and find your inner strength.”

Madame Van Der Rotte’s experiences on the road came into play. The eye-closing usually allowed Jason to put ectoplasmic cheesecloth on her, or brush a kerchief across a ladies neck for a cheap shiver. But now, a real image began to take form on the table. All the eyes were closed, save for Kiely’s, who saw the dream reflected. The woman stood tall and proud but all she could see was a back with an apron tied, a familiar double bow holding the strings. She had none of the gauziness the other visions had shown. Just a solid light giving birth to something far.

“Open your eyes, my friends, see what our energies have brought forth.”

The eyes opened and all were pushed harder into their seats. No one heard a breath escape from the circle. Marcy could feel the effect of whatever Kiely projected, the grip on either side too fear-frozen to break. She kept her eyes closed as she spoke, adding to the image of her power over other worlds.

“Now, spirit, turn to me. Show me the face you wore in life. Show the circle who you are.”

The spirit turned counter-clockwise and Mrs. Barcells gave a slow, low gasp when it faced her. As soon as the spirit had gone fully to Marcy, Kiely could make out the vision she had wished to call. Many times had Kiely seen it, seen it from the corner of her eye in the days when she still lived in the house. Kiely had confirmed what she had always believed: the spirit of her mother still watched over them.

Marcy opened her eyes, took a moment to focus them on the solid light on the table. Her mother, dead nine years, stood there in front of her, the stare going beyond her, her once warm eyes lost. Marcy could not move, always having dismissed Kiely’s stories of ghosts and feeling mother’s presence. These eyes were not warm, these eyes were cold, beyond the world. Marcy spoke, an airy note coming from her throat.

“Mother?”

The image of their mother looked down. Kiely had lied: this was no Magic Lantern show. Her eyes lost all appearances of Madame Van Der Rotte, instead becoming the young girl scared of thunder. Marcy stood, shock belting her to her feet. A scream came to her lips, but no voice could be given. This image was not a faded photograph in time, but a spirit she would never wish to see again.

She reached back, the Shadowcatcher whistling under the padding Kiely had added to silence it. Marcy took it by the tripod and pushed it down, the crash of glass and splintering of wood echoing through the house. Kiely stood, pushing tears and hair from her eyes. She ran down the stairs as the others were gripped down by what they had witnessed. Marcy ran across, breaking the circle. She reached the second Shadowcatcher as Kiely made the bottom of the stairs, noticing the fading of the image. Marcy pushed it hard into the wall, the crash even more damaging than the first.

“Marcy, don’t! It’s all I have left of mother! How can you…”

Marcy had already set herself upon the final device, pulling the tubes and projector apart and throwing the metal to the ground as Kiely reached her. Kiely turned and looked at where her mother had been.

Nothing.

Not a trace of the once solid glow of the woman Kiely had needed to contact. Marcy fell to the ground, tears now flowing from her eyes. The chill wind rushed away as suddenly as it had appeared. Jason had thrown open the curtains, the sound tearing through each viewer. Kiely went to the first machine Marcy had attacked.

Destroyed. The tubes shattered, the projector unrepairable.

She quickly pushed her way through the lot, scrambling for the door.

The second, destroyed though the coils were probably still useable.

Marcy had thrown herself on the floor, tearing at the remaining pieces of the third Shadowcatcher. Her eyes throwing water down on the dark wood, sizzling on the tubes.

Kiely fell back against the wall. After less than a minute, only the three of them remained; Marcy still breaking the pieces with now bloody hands and Jason holding the stairpost for support. No one said anything. Each had been destroyed. Jason’s dreams of money, broken with crying fists. Marcy’s hopes of respect, dead by suicide. Kiely’s wish for her mother to return, in broken glass and wood around the parlor. No one would speak for almost an hour, though the silent tears were soon replaced with heavy sobs. Jason helped Marcy up, took her to the auto in the barn and then away, away from Kiely. As soon as she could stand on her own, Kiely gathered the pieces, tried to reassemble what she could, stayed up all night, rebuilding and failing, and trying again.

That year, Kiely only saw the outside once every day, when picking nuts or fruits. She stopped trading for milk, instead drinking water. She spent most of her days on the step, staring at the makeshift Shadowcatcher standing in front of the door. Sitting next to her, the faint image of her mother, staring beyond the hallway, looking back on days when she would watch her daughters play on the porch.

Shadowcatcher2

Illustrated by J. Andrew World

 

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