Chapter One Excerpt from…
by Rose Guildenstern
Anything we cannot quite see is the Penumbra—the shrouded, the pernicious, the nebulous, the subtle, the uncomfortable, the shunned and despised.
That bothersome truth implied beneath and throughout all our sensible order.
The Penumbra is that part of ourselves that we hate, that part of our past we regret, that part of our future we fear, that part of our world we cannot abide. We think that death is the ultimate Penumbra, but it’s only a threshold that we all will one day cross from the Penumbra created by light to the Penumbra created by darkness.
Both sun and moon cast an eclipse.
Love is the Penumbra between life and death, that shadowy, mysterious, addictive connection that makes it all worth doing and yet brings greater harm, pain, and misery than anything else.
The Penumbra is the Thing we don’t wish to be but have a sneaking suspicion is really the point of it all.
“Hang there like fruit, my soul, Till the tree die.”
–Cymbeline, attributed to William Shakespeare
My death was a catharsis, not a calamity. More an edge than an ending. Fuzzy, sure, but also refining. Like being thrown into one of those Monet paintings with all the water lilies. Only as my head dipped beneath the surface of the fragmented pond, the world flipped, and I swam upward into the mottled waters rather than down. The light beneath, the darkness above, squirming pigments shifting everywhere, squelching and oozing, until the colors ran together and at last, I lost track of my own color in the exquisite beauty of it all.
I’ve been told people don’t really get that Monet’s art is all about shattering the light—can’t appreciate chaotic impressions too far removed from how humans generally make sense of reality. In order for anyone to read on, they must find my story personal, relatable somehow.
But how can the living relate to the dead?
Allow me to draw back from the nameless truth of dis-embodiment, then, and instead begin my story a little smaller—a bit more singular. To when I was merely a teenage girl whose cells had turned against her.
Before I died, everyone was so afraid for me. Frightened of the darkness I would face before they did. The minister assured me that I’d soon meet the “Light of the World” and my dad told me that I’d lived such a “bright life” for someone so young (this, of course, as his eyes were blinded by tears). My mom didn’t say much—she never could tell me all those small, light lies that other mothers tell their daughters to help them face the brokenness of this world.
They were all speaking for themselves, of course, not for me. I’ve always felt more at home in the shadows. Maybe I’ve known the darkness too well—but I will let you be the judge of that.
Cancer killed my body, but it was the Light that annihilated me. And surrendering to the Darkness is what saved me.
I’m no longer strictly human—never really liked my humanity for the most part even when I was alive—but I will begin this tale with what is left of my human memories. At least, the few I can recall. They’re choppy, unclear, sort of like watching an HD movie streamed on dial-up internet with buffering issues. You probably won’t like them very much, probably won’t like me very much either, for that matter—my brother simply loathed me. But out of these frail memories I hope to share a story worth far more than its meager parts.
Come with me into the ghost of my past to better understand what I dreaded to admit…even to myself.
I remember being in a hospital room, dying of cancer, hopped up on morphine and sundry other drugs. My mom and dad were there by my bed, as well as my jack-ass of an older brother, Tom, who is probably the only person for whom I wish hell existed. There was a searing pain and the biggest, smelliest hot flash of my life.
Then, all of a sudden, the pain stopped.
All of it.
I don’t just mean the physical pain of dying—which, if you’re scared of it, I’m here to tell you is worse than you can imagine.
I mean the pain of being alive.
You don’t realize you’re in constant pain: the closest you see to the pain of existence is an infant’s blinded cries of protest when it has the life literally squeezed into it.
All my vivid—and most painful—recollections resolve around Tom. I’m not sure how old I was in my first memory with him, but I know I couldn’t walk yet. I woke up in my brother’s arms and he promptly dropped me. On my head.
Thus began the short, tragical history of my hospital-filled life.
When we first found out I had cancer, Tom complained ad nauseum about the time we spent in the hospital. He whinged so much that my parents finally bought him one of those huge iPads with its own cellphone service so he could stream movies whenever he wanted. I think it actually meant a lot to him, though to hear him you’d never know it. But I could tell it helped assuage just the tiniest bit the tremendous resentment he felt toward me for taking so much attention away from him during my illness. I mean, come on: nothing upstages like the death of a kid. From the day I was born premature to the night I died of cancer, most of the time all I ever did was take our parents away from him. I’m not sure what life was like for him before he was cursed with my existence, but I know my arrival made it much worse. We all owed him. So he wouldn’t let me touch his iPad, even to watch my favorite movie the morning I died.
My mom’s and my favorite movie was The Princess Bride, which early on Tom declared he hated as he hated all things sacred to me, but every Saturday morning after my diagnosis, while Tom and my dad went off on their various sporting wastes-of-manhood together, my mom and I would toast everything bagels in our pajamas and afterward pile them high with cream cheese and smoked salmon. My mom added sliced raw red onions that made my eyes water and her breath reek in a way that I absolutely love-hated, and then we’d cover the entire mess with copious amounts of lemon pepper and dig in. We’d snuggle onto the old turquoise couch that had sat in the same place as long as I could remember—the one she told me once in the hospital she’d never throw away because it smelled so much like me—cuddle up under a fluffy comforter together, and watch Wesley tell Buttercup that life is pain. My mom would start laughing, and then she’d look at me and start crying, and then she’d trace my cheek with her hand, and I’d start crying, and then we’d both start laughing until one of us got a raging case of the hiccups and nearly choked on our everything bagels.
The Princess Bride is the best cancer therapy I’ve ever known.
Out of everyone from my life, I miss my mom most. She understood all my misty and twisty places, the darkness that made my father so awkward around me and my brother want me gone. She taught me that laughter and tears come from the same place, and to dig in deep and experience each without reservation.
The morning I died was a particularly painful one, and I was really struggling with the tears side of breathing. Tom watched some martial arts movie he’d seen over and over on his iPad, huddled in the corner of my hospital room just waiting for me to kick off already, when I asked if I could watch The Princess Bride one…last…time. He looked at me, the manipulative bitch who stole his childhood, and said, “Movies are for the living.”
He was right, of course. Movies are for the living. The dead don’t sit in darkened theaters staring at a giant screen and eating popcorn or stay up into the wee hours of the morning finishing the final pages of a novel. The dead don’t tell each other stories in hushed voices around the campfire. We have no need to use our words or images to order the light into buttresses of meaning to dam the impending darkness of chaos in the hope that life is anything more than pain and suffering with an expiration date, for the chaos has already taken us, stripped away the civilizing forces of light and life so that only the monster remains.
We know firsthand how the story ends.
From day one, my brother recognized the monster within me, that I harbored eVil with a capital Vee in every atom and particle of my being. Most people believe that babies are born a blank slate a lá John Locke, but that’s just another story the adults tell themselves so they can sleep at night. Human bodies arose from water-saturated stardust and to the stars our dust shall all eventually disperse, but the collective tale of humanity is a cosmic horror story that began long before anybody alive today.
And I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion it was my unwelcome job to tell it.
Although our parents christened me “Silvia”, and my father called me “Silly” for as long as I can remember, they originally intended my nickname to be “Sil” or even “Lily.”
L can be such a lovely letter, full of Light and Longing. I could never have been a light-hearted Lily.
Lily is the sort of girl who’s born laughing and sacrifices her life to save Harry Potter. My dad, on the other hand, said I came out with a scrunched-up frown, refusing to cry. While everyone else in my family had the most beautiful brown eyes, like maple syrup on Sunday-morning pancakes, mine were almost black, as though my pupils had kidnapped my defunct irises and hidden them in an everlasting Monday.
My brother let it slip once that I made the other babies cry in daycare. I’m not sure if there’s any truth to this, of course—he was always making extreme statements where I was concerned. But I do think he was a little scared of me. Horrible nightmares tormented him when I was little, though no one ever spoke to me about them. He’d wake up, screaming in the middle of the night, and my mother would sit by his bedside stroking his forehead until he fell back asleep. If I tried to toddle into the room, she’d silently shake her head with a worried expression and gently close the door in my face.
Even the books I read bothered my brother. I suppose any older sibling might have been irritated that I was reading by age three and had already finished Grimm’s Fairy Tales and One Thousand and One Arabian Nights by my sixth birthday, but it was when I started religiously reading Poe, Shelley, and Lovecraft that he started sleeping with the light on.
You all think light is good, but I’m here to tell you that you have it ass-backward.
Light is where all the problems begin for the living.
So many of your religions worship the light: you think darkness is evil and the light will save you. Monsters hide in the darkness to get you, and your crooks use cover of darkness to perpetrate their wicked acts.
It’s the ultimate lie you tell yourselves to live with the unending pain of individuation.
Light separates the darkness, and life results, and “God saw that the light was good.”
At least that’s what it says in Genesis, but everyone seems to conveniently forget God’s next insidious act was to “separate the light from the darkness.”
I don’t get why so many of you want to worship that dude.
Tom had a little leather-covered Bible on his nightstand that he read from time to time. My dad was an atheist and my mom an agnostic, so I don’t know where he got it. He threw it at me once, but other than that he never let me near it.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why Tom reviled me so, about this supposed evil that I brought into the world just by being. In truth, it wasn’t until much later in this tale—almost the end, to be frank—that I began to understand it myself, but the signs were there throughout my brief life:
In my eyes brimming with darkness.
When I spoke my first words: “Watch out.”
When I scribbled my first poem in the third grade that made Poe look like an optimist.
Perhaps my affinity with what disturbs irreversibly rigor-mortised within me the night Tom locked me in the bedroom closet. I was eleven, he was fifteen, and our parents were out on a much-needed date. They had let us (translation: my brother) pick out a new movie to stream and we each had our favorite food for dinner: fish sticks for me and pizza for he-who-shall-not-be-named.
Fast forward to when, as I contentedly read Sophie’s World in the corner while my brother watched the war movie he’d chosen, he ordered me to bring him his pizza from the kitchen. I’ve always had the tendency to lose track of myself, especially when immersed in reading the history of philosophy, and so as I dropped his pizza, face down, on the kitchen floor, it didn’t matter that it was an accident, or that I had been bringing it to him in the living room so he could continue watching his movie uninterrupted, for when I spied the murderous wrath in his eyes, I bounded up the stairs and into my bedroom closet to hide, wondering if he had finally decided to end me.
I heard Tom’s familiar menacing laugh outside the door, and then a shuffling and strange scraping sound, followed by a crash and profuse cussing.
Then black silence.
Complete and utter darkness is rarely experienced in the modern human world. From electric lights to media screens to even starlight, humans are constantly being lulled into stupored complacency by ubiquitous light.
I grappled with the door, trapped. After grabbing a couple of warmer jackets from above me, I formed one into a pillow and one into a blanket and proceeded to nestle down for the wait. I felt my senses sharpen with each passing moment, as the absence of light made me notice a host of sounds, smells, and feelings I’d never perceived before. The down jacket under my scalp was soft and warm, but also seemed to jab me as though to remind me that nothing is truly safe. I noticed that wooden doors actually have a distinct odor—sort of like what would come of wax crayons gang banging a number two pencil. I swear the house was breathing all around me, great deep groans of inevitable settling decay. With so much irritation, violence, and expiring around me—and my persecutor pitilessly outside—my pitch-black cell began to feel like my refuge from the vindictive day, and I embraced my darkness, grateful for its womb-like safety.
That’s when a loud banging on my closet door whacked the camping flashlight off the top shelf, causing it to click on and then continue its descent toward my cave-blind eyes, separating my forehead soundly between said eyes and knocking me unconscious and into yet another hospital visit.
Falling light is overrated.
What you call light is really fallen light. Lucifer incarnate. Only when light annihilates itself can you see anything. Your philosophies take the corpse of light and resurrect it.
The truth is each of you is a rebel darkness seeking to absorb the light.
You fallen smudges, enmeshed in the living world of matter, can only experience light’s drug through the opposition of darkness, and so you demonize the dominance of darkness as you seek your next hit of the ecstasy of light.
Speaking of ecstasy, my older brother eventually started using. His behavior was so erratic—usually mean, sporadically depressed, but every now and then eerily affectionate—and he had this annoying habit of sucking on ring pops all the time. He used to steal my pain meds after I was diagnosed, which I didn’t mind because I preferred the pain to the zombie-like haze they immersed me in anyway. The combination of his dirty fingernails and sticky ring-pop fingerprints left tell-tale smudges on my prescription bottles.
That’s why I call you smudges.
When I see one of you, you look like a sad schmear on a master’s painting. As though some little shit vandalized Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring right across her celebrated cheek.
It’s not that you’re ugly, per se. Each smudge is quite lovely and unique, like the photographic negative of a dingy snowflake. I find myself watching you to preoccupation, and I’ve learned so much about Being because of you.
You’re born a perfect blank smudge, a black hole, and from that moment onward commence to fill your void with every piece of light you can cram inside in the desperate attempt to return to the beautiful oneness you feel you’ve lost.
Come to think of it, consider your synonyms for “beautiful”—stunning, dazzling, radiant, resplendent. The worship of the light is built into the way you organize and describe good and bad themselves. It’s no wonder you’re so mixed up about what happens after you die: You haven’t figured out what it means to live.
Of course, I didn’t die yesterday. There’s no time Here, so it’s difficult to explain with the words of the living, but if it bothers you to be schooled about the secrets of life and death by a dead seventeen-year old girl, don’t get stuck on the age of my deceased body.
I am not, and never really was, my body. Neither are you, for that matter. But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with a smudge anyway.
Hard and dirty.
So back to my body’s end (or my own unending, depending upon your vantage point):
The pain stopped.