The Shadow Merchant
Lights and set: Table: stage right; Podium: stage left; Table Lamp (a table lamp the storyteller controls with a foot switch). There is one soundscape used to open the show and at its climax.
Sound Cue, decrease volume at storyteller’s entrance
(The first passage is recited in blackout)
The five August brothers stand in their uniforms on the rooftop of the enflamed Bending Switch Orphanage for Boys. The moon diffuses through a landscape of clouds as grand as an Appalachian vista. Taut, flickering rainbows depend from those clouds noosing hanged unicorns whose legs extend forward like hoofed arrows. They are beatific objects in a chandelier over a burning crib. The August Brothers hook their hands into the quick of the equine thighs as they pass over. Away to safety? Well, away from Miss Andry and the hateful things she did to them at Bending Switch. Oh, and yes, wizardry was involved.
Sound cue out
Alquist Crude ran a shady business; more directly he was a shadow merchant. The Township of Harpyton indulged a long tradition of foundation sacrifice involving a human participant. It was custom that the sacrificee be paid well and enjoy high living before their blood was shed on the construction site. Mr. Crude’s job was to find these participants for a fee. When coal was discovered in nearby Mt Harpyton the elders decided that bodies of the poor were worth more in mines and altered the practice by substituting a person’s shadow in place of the person themselves. Alquist Crude then became a shadow merchant. The sacrificee still got paid and Mr. Crude his commission, but although no bureaucratic harm came to the new breed of participant, they still died after delivering their shadow. This did not dissuade many a desperate soul from attempting to cheat the outcome by outliving the contract. Alquist’s business bloomed like a field of nightshade. However, he believed it could be better. He derived his confidence in professional expansion from an article in the Harpyton Review. It was a comical piece on local oddballs. He chuckled at what a bent mind could arrive at until he came to a transcribed lecture given by a local schoolmaster in Harpyton’s oldest days. Here I dramatically reenact the lecture:
On Cryptozoological Morphology
There are impostors in the animal kingdom. It is not at all uncommon for a goat, upon discovering a deceased stork, to affix the wings unto his back with pitch. When this is done he refers to himself as a phenomenon, that of being a flying goat, and proceeds to speak in riddles he declines to supply the solutions for. The vocation of prophecy is adopted by the impostor, prophesies which inevitably come to pass. For example: The baker shall let fall his butter and blaspheme the Lord. When a baker’s competent hand slips, drops a lump of butter to the floor and he exclaims “For Christ’s Sake!” the goat’s prediction takes on sacred import. What do you imagine is the benefit of this behavior? The goat enjoys importance and idiots are given the opportunity to take pride in their beliefs, which they incontrovertibly appreciate.
The farce does not end there. Rabbits are wont to fashion hooves for their paws (I sincerely do not understand to what end); privilege may meet a snail which glues rubies onto his shell and bounty to a squirrel who shaves his tail to infiltrate a thieving gang of rats. Not in every instance, however, are these exercises of appropriation for gain. Jealousy, covetousness and envy also play their roles. For example, I once encountered a lion and an eagle engaged in contest when, nearby, a mischievous griffin perched with intent to stir jealousy among the two. Upon seeing the griffin the eagle came to desire the lion’s body and the lion the eagle’s wings. Because both are highly egotistical animals the conflict devolved into one between charismatics; the lion out-danced the eagle and, in retaliation, the eagle dove into the lion’s mane sheering there, with his beak, a fine relief of a raptor.
Two far distant relatives of the equine species, the mule and unicorn, have a long running rivalry. It is a one sided rivalry, of course, and the mule’s invention. Horses do not participate because they trust in their innate nobility. Mules are inordinately envious of unicorns, to the degree that the excessive energy contributed to that envy, at times, will manifest itself in bony growths upon the former’s head. An event that confuses yet empowers the mule. The growths are amorphic, often taking the shape of a clumsy wasp’s nest and will appear in inappropriate locations such as below the eye or extending from the side of the snout. Following such a manifestation the mule, through envy- informed self-delusion, becomes convinced that he is, ultimately a unicorn. If you make the error of suggesting to the mule that this cannot be the case he will patiently, yet irrationally, attempt to re-educate you.
A true unicorn has very specific characteristics that are unmistakable. For instance, at the very tip of its’ horn there exists an anomaly of gravity into which objects will disappear. It is held that this is vestigial of their celestial origin. Furthermore, unicorns cast rainbows where their shadows should be. Somehow, in them, nature has combined the properties of the prism with opaque, animal flesh. They have the ability to tread their multi-hued shadows as though solid earth, even into the sky as far as the cloud stratum. Match this with their famously magical disposition and it becomes evident that a unicorn could never be mistaken for a mule unless, of course, the winged goat proclaims him to be so and you are inclined to believe that.
-Delivered by Professor Wingate to the fine children of Harpyton Schoolhouse
How unique, thought Mr. Crude. How unparalleled! He must find these unicorns and get their shadows. This is how he would make his fortune.
An elderly man stumbled out of the Mt. Harpyton coal mine. Unlike the miners, he was not soot-smeared and also, unlike the men who labored there, he was wearing a bathrobe. If this doesn’t tilt your eyebrow, no one saw him enter the mine that morning. Foreman and digger alike recoiled from the old fellow, with his navel length beard and cataracted eyes. With all the grace of a seaman upon two wooden legs, he jigsawed to the road which corkscrewed the elevation of the mountain to Harpyton. If you haven’t guessed, this is our wizard.
The August brothers came from a dark place of inherited poverty, of windowless wooden rooms redolent of toil and submission. For generations the Augusts cleaved wizened slices off of life’s shank and lied to each other about liking it. On a day of surrender the brothers’ parents signed a contract with the Shadow Merchant. Over the following months the brothers shuddered at what the elder Augusts considered having wealth meant: liquor, public sex, buying animals to shoot them, embarrassing clothes, food with too much salt and butter and arguments into the night over which one was going to Hell. Before their shadows were called for the elder Augusts hid the rest of the money under their carriage’s floorboards and plotted to leave town.
All shadow sacrificees died. Mr. Gallup fell from his horse; Mrs. Catcher caught the fever; Mr. Wheeler was struck by a steam-train…. Others disappeared. Those were the participants the elder Augusts believed lived beyond the curse of the contract. Mr. and Mrs. Olive for instance (who, in fact, fell into a canyon and whose bodies remain undiscovered); then there was Miss Fayhe (she fled in a rainstorm during which the river flooded washing her away to sea). The night before they were to surrender their shadows the elder Augusts packed their money burdened carriage and ran at night – without the brothers. Into the woods they joyously rode and camped at the mouth of a mother bear’s cave. At least the elder Augusts were drunk when mother bear ate their faces first. The brothers woke up parentless soon to be admitted to Bending Switch Orphanage for Boys under the stewardship of Miss Andry whose vindictiveness made them long for their rich, fucked up parents.
Bending Switch was four floors of furious, despondent children. They were issued uniforms uniformly two sizes too small. The bread was stale, the beds had lice and the toys… there were no toys. The playground was a mud pit that attracted stray dogs that bit. One would think the inmates of Bending Switch could find solidarity in trauma but they didn’t. Each tiny bug stung worse than the last. The August brothers formed a gang. Each morning they struggled into their ill-fitting uniforms and closed ranks like legionnaires deflecting insults, degradations and abuse from the other boys. As strategies go it was mildly successful but no one was a match for Miss Andry.
There was no curriculum as you would recognize it at Bending Switch. Miss Andry started her class by berating the children, afterward she explained why everything in the world was wrong that day, and then the lesson began. Miss Andry’s idea of instructing young boys was to have them copy her amateur self-portraits. If an unflattering effort was produced the pupil was corrected with a switch. To their misfortune, the August brothers were terrible painters, and so, left class with stripes on their backs, tears in their eyes and not one thing learned.
VI Table Lamp Only
Professor Wingate began well. After university he travelled, working as he went; on a merchant ship in the Indian Ocean; delivering mail in Africa; the cabaret in Brazil…. Wanderlust placed him in exotic circumstances, one of which was a Serengeti of fabled animals. This is where he encountered sphinxes, chimeras, griffins and unicorns. Inquisitiveness also put him in the company of sages, politicians and sorcerers. He learned to charm a stick to produce spells and memorized special words given by little people from beyond the moon that could part seas, repair burnt toast etcetera. Wingate also enjoyed some bizarre friendships. He played heated matches of backgammon with an ogre; leap frog with a theropod and had a fling with a long legged centauress. When he decided he’d seen what he needed to he returned to his hometown of Harpyton and taught at its’ schoolhouse. He wasn’t the same however; wisdom demented him.
He instructed his pupils in useless subjects such as nail biting, how to make war paint by squeezing lightening bugs and how to tell if there was a troll in your well. Parents alerted the aldermen who intervened on their behalf; this infuriated the professor. After he gave his final lecture on Cryptozoological Morphology he was run out of town. No one in Harpyton saw him again… until he wandered out of the coal mine ancient, hardly recognizable and wearing a bathrobe.
Wingate and Miss Andry knew each other in Ceylon – or Zanzibar, it depends which one you asked. Both were young, very close and apprenticing magic together, When Miss Andry learned how to return the dead to life it changed her in ways Wingate couldn’t follow. Her first critic of resurrection was a nameless old woman who was furious when her eyes opened again. The woman woke just long enough to yell excoriating slang to Miss Andry then left this world once more. She could have stopped there, but didn’t. When she progressed to dead children she discovered her talent. Miss Andry became skilled in pinching a deceased child’s toe in the perfect way so it resuscitated, although it was mean and wouldn’t recognize anyone. The perfect child in her opinion. Bending Switch Orphanage for Boys became inevitable at that point and she parted ways with Wingate. However, an unrequited infatuation for him matured into bitterness. When she learned he was the schoolmaster in Harpyton she knew she’d found a home for her orphanage of little zombies. What a satisfying act of spite to charm his former pupils to death then revive the poor things and abuse them? It didn’t change her mind when she found out he’d left Harpyton. That’s just how cruel she is.
When he was driven out of town Wingate gathered a few belongings and walked right into the shear rock face of Mt Harpyton to settle a cave that wouldn’t be accessible until the miners found it much later. He grew old there, very old. Eventually his brain, body and vision began to fail and he summoned a glass eye out of his cauldron to watch the world through, so he knew what Miss Andry was up to but wasn’t impelled to stop her until he stared into his glass eye and saw five familiar faces in her classroom. The August brothers were his great, great, great grand nephews and the only children not yet turned into zombies at the orphanage. Something had to be done. But how could he in his condition? It occurred to him that flesh was the problem. If his brain was meat then it must be degenerating too like his eyesight. Detaching what he knew was him from what no longer should be was the answer. He drew a hot bath in his cauldron, made a stew of rare, magical substances and drowned himself in the concoction. This might seem stupid, but it wasn’t. Once the body died Wingate’s intelligence separated from his meat that remained functioning like a man puppet, controllable and immune from mortal deterioration -a golem. He stepped from the cauldron into his bathrobe, popped out a real eye and replaced it with a glass one. He left the coal mine to rescue the August brothers from the miscare of Miss Andry.
How was Alquist Crude going to find a unicorn, dispossess it of its’ rainbow and become rich? Among the astonishing things Wingate addressed in his lecture, locating the creatures was not one of them. If, however, Wingate knew so much about these animals then he certainly saw them in their habitat. A discussion with him would solve some of the challenges set before Mr. Crude, so he endeavored to track down the truant schoolmaster… That proved impossible. Wingate vanished after reactions to his unusual ideas fermented into a sauerkraut of ridicule and professional ruin. Mr. Crude accepted that Wingate was licked by the dreary, fractaled tongue of insanity. There are no unicorns. Shadows kept being cast, structures erected – business was good. Alquist would have to be satisfied with that.
Mr. Crude went to deposit a grand commission in the bank. As he gleefully scribbled on the deposit slip the clerk, in gossiping tones, shared that crazy old Professor Wingate had returned. Mr. Crude dropped his pen, gave his most interrogating glare to the clerk and asked where. The clerk mumbled that Wingate was walking toward the orphanage and Mr. Crude tsunamied out of the door leaving his precious slip unfinished.
Wingate and his golem approached the woods that ensconced Bending Switch when Mr. Alquist Crude apprehended them. In his most ingratiating, businessman like affectation, Alquist introduced himself and praised the Professor’s lecture, then implored him to share the whereabouts of a unicorn. Before Wingate could reply that he had no time a strange thing occurred, his golem spoke up that he had the power to summon them. How did that happen? The golem swished his charmed stick and clouds formed overhead; they ascended into the sky. Greed overshadowed any fears Mr. Crude may have had. He was about to become rich, a fact which dispelled all anxieties.
They settled on a ridge of vapor. The cogent Wingate was finding it infuriatingly difficult to control his golem who swished the charmed stick again despite his command against it. Across the hills came a blessing of unicorns treading their radiant shadows and mesmerizing Alquist speechless. The unicorns stopped near the pair and grazed on vapor like angels eat ice cream. Once collected, Mr. Crude stuttered to the golem his order of business, that being to purchase a unicorn’s rainbow to which the Golem replied he didn’t think that was possible. The cogent Wingate winced. Rejected, Mr. Crude found his voice and forcefully repeated himself. Alquist, sensing his ambitions being thwarted grew impatient and forcefully repeated himself.
He would not accept resistance. Alquist commanded Wingate’s golem to tell the unicorns that he wanted their rainbows. The cogent Wingate thought the Shadow Merchant was an idiot. A rainbow can’t be stuffed in a bag a carried off! How does a fellow like this tie his shoes in the morning? Presumably the rabbits that live between his ears pop out and manage it for him. Wingate imagined waving his charmed stick to teach Mr. Crude unicorn language so he could ask them himself and get a good laughing at. But Wingate understood now that, since the detachment, he had little if any rule over his golem. He was locked away in his own skull peering through the glass eye. The Golem sought a way to cooperate with the Shadow Merchant. He was confused about who he took his orders from.
Alquist had a nasty idea: if the unicorns wouldn’t sell their rainbows to him then the golem would wave his charmed stick to make them, even if that meant murder. He said so to the golem, but the golem was hesitant. The Shadow Merchant lost his temper, terrifyingly so. The cogent Wingate yelled through his glass eye to ignore Mr. Crude’s horrible idea. Which voice was most convincing to the golem?, the voice of the man that drowned him, or the furiously determined man beating his own black coat – a certain threat with wetlands of rosacea growing on his cheeks. Wingate’s golem lifted the charmed stick and battered a unicorn over her head until she fell unconscious then looped her rainbow about her neck and rolled her off the edge. He moved toward the next one and lifted the charmed stick; only instead of striking her he waved it. She rolled onto her back, tangling the rainbow around her throat and plummeted into the sky to her death. It had begun.
Wingate wasn’t completely helpless inside his golem, his magic was very powerful. One way he could stop this atrocity was to summon the rain to dissolve the cloud they stood on. With immense intention he willed magic words to broadcast from his golem’s mouth. Lightening immediately connected the cloud to the ground and set the woods below on fire. That first bolt startled Mr. Crude who fell backward into a steep, cumulous ravine where he remained until the rain began and he precipitated to his death with the torrent. Stunning fissures divided the sky as unicorns fell one at a time, hanging from their disfunctioning, varicolored shadows that strobed like faulty neon signs.
Bending Switch Orphanage disrupted a clearing in the woodland skirting Harpyton. The fire ignited by Wingate’s storm encircled the building and forced the August brothers to the roof where they hoped to escape the smoke re-killing the rest of the boys inside. Miss Andry, disappointingly, as many a murderous autocrat does, died peacefully, asphyxiating in bed. Like a naughty fox seducing a hare from its’ hole, the fire caressed the eaves of the orphanage and cooked the brothers’ faces. The rain came, a brutalizing sideways rain that needled their cheeks. Then they saw the blessing of hanged unicorns approaching, their tails low enough to graze the crenellations of fire peaking above the treetops. A brother yelled to the others to grab onto one when they passed over; it was their only chance to not die on the rooftop. They did and let go once clear of the flames, dropping through foliage to the ground – bruised but unbroken. The rain stopped.
Sound cue out
In a very unexpected way Uncle Wingate had rescued them.
In the morning they came to Mt. Harpyton and there, sprinkled over the mountainside like white and red berries, were dozens of mutilated unicorns. Also an elderly dead man in a bathrobe clutching a stick. None of the August brothers will ever understand what happened or why. The end.