Mary cracks the door and peeks inside. The light is on—the light is always on in her father’s office—but of course he is not there now. Neither is her mother nor the maid, who only comes on Tuesday mornings. She slips inside and shuts the door quickly so that it doesn’t creak but stops just before it slams.
The office is not big. One side is covered in books on shelves that touch the ceiling. The other has a darkened window and a row of pictures marking the places her father has visited. A low set of drawers lies on the floor with more books and papers stacked beside them. Paintings of all sizes and styles, more treasures of his travels, fill the remaining spaces, high and low, down to the ground, a few leaning against the wall. Mary’s own work, a portrait of the family dog, hangs prominently by the door. Her father’s desk, thick and wooden, is in the center near the back. In her socks, she slides across the hardwood without a sound, the tail of her long nightgown sweeping the floor behind her, and climbs into her father’s imprint on the cushy, spinning chair. She has to reach her arms up to feel the smooth leather mat and run her fingers along the studded brass lining. Cords, color-coded black and blue and yellow and white, lie stranded on the desk, reaching for a laptop that is no longer there.
Mary puts her feet up on the desk, the way she imagines her father does when she isn’t in the room. He is far away in Austria, which is only a pink place in the middle of the map to her, and won’t be back until the weekend. She can picture his face if he were to come through the door right now and find her, looking all stern. He would pick her up and say, in a way that makes the desire impossible for Mary to resist, that she must never come into his office without asking. Then he would put her on his lap and tell her about his adventures. He flies around and has official meetings with important people. His pictures are of big cities, tall mountains, long bridges, vast oceans, and the tops of clouds.
She thinks she hears a sound, a rumbling that might be the footsteps of her mother coming up the stairs, and ducks under the desk. But it stops without coming any closer.
In the chair once again, she kicks her feet against the desk and twirls in circles, trying to see how many times she can go around before she has to push again. Drawing her knees up into her chest is the way to go the fastest. One, two…three…..four…….five……..Her feet can’t touch the ground, so even when the chair stops spinning the room doesn’t, though it moves in a different direction now. She’s ended up the opposite way she started.
A painting hangs on the wall in front of her. Within the wooden frame lies a dense forest lit only by streaks of pale, misty light filtering between the trees. Very old and valuable, it is her father’s favorite painting, his most cherished thing (for he has told her many times, while showing her, never ever to touch), but she sees only a dark and gloomy place. Her own paintings are bright and bold, using every tube in the paint kit and other colors from combining them, and if she were the painter, this painting would have an open sky above the trees with a big sun and more colors. What would her father think of it then? He would come home and see it, his face smiling, and he would say well done, and they could both love it together.
The frame rocks gently on the wall with the swaying of the room. The light seems to pulse slowly in and out, like waves of mist (the breath of some monster) are rolling through the wood, and a shadow dashes across the clearing, first to the right, then back to the left, moving from tree to tree. Mary slides down off the chair and shakes her head to clear the dizziness. The room and the painting become still. She stares, waiting to see if anything will move. She steps forward until she is close enough to touch it. From here, the clear shapes and solid colors of the painting have become a storm of small strokes and shades, all muted tones of green and brown and grey with tiny streaks of white, and she can see the texture of the paint, laid on in tiny ridges by the brush and piled up at the end of the marks. She reaches out.
A long growl. The door! She spins to see it cracking open. Oh no! Her mother will see her, and with her fingers on the painting, too. She readies her excuse: she was walking by on the way to get some water from the kitchen and she saw that the door to the office was open and that the painting was crooked and she was worried it would fall and just came in to straighten it.
But the door handle does not turn and her mother’s face does not appear in the gap. Instead, Odin, her bulldog, nudges the door open with his head and walks in, growling, sniffing, and grunting as he always does when he exerts himself to walk.
“Odi!” she whispers. “Odi, no, bad boy. Go. Go!” She waves him off, but Odin continues to plod across the room toward her. His tongue flops happily from his huffing, slobbering jowls. He stops in the middle of the room, looks up at her, and barks, a deep, raspy huff.
“Odi, stop!” she says. He’ll alert her mother so she has to leave immediately. And now she’ll never find out what was happening in the painting. “Odi, sit!” she tries, but he won’t. She moves toward the door. Odin keeps barking and growling at the same spot.
Mary turns back to see the painting, which is glowing brighter than she has ever seen, and the shadow is still there, darting back and forth between the trees. Fear and excitement rush over her. She grabs a golf club leaning in the corner and holds it up with both hands in front of her. Odin barks louder. The forest is shaking. The shadows are all moving, gathering, combining, gaping like a great black maw. Her heel smacks against the wheels of the chair. The shadow opens wider. She feels herself falling forward. Now it covers the whole frame. Now everything.
Mary lands in a little patch of light. All around her are faint outlines, the borders of rough shapes she can’t quite make out, in gradations of darkness, seemingly close enough to touch until she reaches out her hand and feels the empty air. Where am I? she wonders. The light catches her outstretched arm, which is a bright swathe of pinkish-brown. She stares at the beautiful strangeness of it. She pulls her hand close to her face and can see the intertwining, overlapping streaks of brown and pink and tan and white of her skin, shifting like ocean waves as the perspective changes or the light ebbs.
In her other hand she feels the club. Now it is a sword. The hilt is fashioned in swirls of brass. The blade, a long sweep of luminous silver tainted green and black by the reflection of the forest, is buried upright in the earth. When Mary lets go of the handle, the sword casts a thin beam of light, and with her eyes she follows the pale column upward into the leafless treetops, a tangle of black lines except in the small circle where the light has brought out a touch of color from the wood. And beyond the branches she sees the broad brush of the sky, speckled with dots of white and flecks of twinkling red and blue and gold. An enormous figure cuts across the pattern high above, dark as the sky itself, followed by the quiet whoosh of chasing wind and the low rumble of its cry.
So this is the world of the painting, Mary thinks. Or rather, the world that was painted. For she knows from her own drawings that only a small part of any world can be captured in a single painting. But she never would have imagined that she could ever come to that world beyond the frame.
Mary looks down at herself, to see if she is real. Her gown has become a flowing dress, painted in white with countless lines of cream and gold twisting with the folds. It glows with soft light, illuminating her skin and her hair and the ground at her feet. She twirls around, and the dress flares outward, and patches of leaves, kicked up, float in and out of her dancing ring of light. How beautiful she is. How beautiful is the tiny patch of woods, which from the outside looked so sad and dull. Yet something is still missing, she feels. It is not as beautiful as it once was or might be. If only I had my paintbrush, she whispers, looking up to the sky, I would paint a big, bright moon right there.
The forest stirs at her voice. Leaves rustle with the sound of little feet skittering through the brush and scaling up the trees. With her eyes adjusted to the night, she can just see the first row of dark trunks. The forest has settled back into the rhythm of the crickets and the frogs and the unknown things. She strains but still cannot see anything else.
Mary looks down at the sword. Its beam of light still rises through the trees. Her own dress shines too, drawing out the autumn hues. The world has color, only it is hidden. Though small, perhaps these new sources of light could make a difference. She grabs the handle of the sword. It is smooth and cold and solid in her hands. She pulls on it, but it is so heavy she cannot lift it. Or maybe it is stuck in the ground. She wiggles it a bit, but it only seems to dig deeper into the earth.
A howl rolls across the woods. A different light, pale and diffuse as if traveling through a mist, follows after it. This is the light from the painting. Mary traces its lines back through the trees until they converge into a distant rift, looking like the bright end of a tunnel. And standing against the rift is a black figure, little more than a careless splotch, and she remembers the shadow from the office. The shape begins to shift, unfurling from its crouch and stretching into the air. Mary can see the outline of two thin legs and long cloak with a slender tail flicking out from under it.
Mary reaches again for the sword, half trying to lift it, half cowering behind it, shrinking down a little more each time the shadow moves closer, grows a little bigger. She tugs and tugs. Little drops of sweat form on her forehead. But it will not budge.
Then the silhouette raises a hand, moving it back and forth slightly.
Is it waving to me? Mary wonders. Or swinging it claws? Her breaths are quick. Her fingers tremble on the hilt. She lets go of the sword and steps toward the shadow. She doesn’t know what the shadow is, but there is nowhere else to go except toward to the light.
The forest crackles behind her, something running toward her in the night. A bark, loud and deep, startles her, but it sounds familiar, too. By the time Odin lumbers from the brush, she is halfway to him.
“Odi!” she screams. “You’re here!” She hugs him. His features are boxy, in sharp angles that make him appear tougher than he actually is, but he feels as cuddly as ever in her arms, which she can’t quite wrap around him. His spotted belly, never far off the ground, rakes the leaves as he walks. His mouth is a gaping, huffing, black pit with a red tongue trying to escape and lines of milky drool succeeding. He licks her face. His breath still smells like the bottom of a trashcan, but that’s probably from back home, and Mary does not mind.
“Where have you been?” she says. Odin whines and cocks his head, barks one more time, and then returns to panting heavily.
Mary remembers what happened, but when she turns back around the shadow figure is gone. “Shh,” she says to Odin with a finger over her lips. Nothing happens. The light pulses gently, stretching out and pulling back in a slow rhythm, like calm breaths. She waits, but the shadow does not return.
“You scared it away,” she scolds him. “Scared me, too.”
Odin whines and nuzzles up to her chest. “Okay, okay,” she says, pushing him away and wiping the slobber from her dress and cheeks. “You’re a good boy. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine together.”
The light behind the trees no longer seems so far in the distance. Still no shadow, but something must be over there. She stands and brushes off her dress. Princess Mary and her trusty steed set off on another adventure, she thinks as she has often pretended in her own back yard among the world of towering pines and the caves beneath the trampoline and the castle of the swing set, to find the mysterious stranger and save her father’s kingdom.
Odin springs up and points at the sound of little feet scurrying into the wood. Then he bounds off after, barking his gruff delight at the chase.
“Odi, stop! Come back!” Mary calls to no effect as he blends into the night and disappears, though his voice still echoes faintly through the trees. She runs after him for a few steps, but there is no way to find him, and he is much faster than she when he wants to be. “Odi?” she tries again, not hearing even the rustling of leaves. She holds out her hand in a fist, pretending to have something in it. “You want a treat? Here, boy. I’ve got a treat.”
She sits down to wait for him, but the shadow is lodged in her imagination, and before long her curiosity wins out. “Fine, I’m leaving, then,” she says to the empty forest. The path is still dark in front of her, but her own light is bright enough to find her way.
The forest gradually brightens, but every tree she passes looks the same, only each casts a longer shade and the light bleeds a little further around its edge than the one before it. When Mary set out she thought she would be able to walk in a straight line toward the light, but that wasn’t true. The light wove through the trees and enveloped some of them completely. Trees she could not at first see kept blocking her path, and the thickets were often too dense for her to pass. More forest always appeared in the background, and the light seemed to twist and move every time she was forced to change perspectives.
The night is just bright enough now that she can see a thin trail ahead of her, winding through the woods, where the ground is trampled and clear. Someone has come this way before. She follows the trail forward with her eyes as far as it goes, disappearing into the haze, and then backward until it turns a corner and fades away. She does not know how long she has been walking on it or whether it would lead her all the way back. She worries for Odin.
Mary walks with a stick, a thin branch she found along the way with a two-pronged point. The texture of the bark is smooth and spirals up the length of the branch, the fine grooves of brown and black and grey bending around one side until they vanish and reappear on the other side, so that when she spins it in her hands the whole branch looks like it is moving upward. Sometimes she sticks it into the ground as a crutch, sometimes swings it around like a sword to fight imaginary monsters in the road, and sometimes waves it like a wand to turn them into toads, always vigilant for what might really be lurking in the brush.
A huge fallen tree leans across the path. The gap under the right side is too small for her to fit through, so she puts her hands up on the trunk and jumps as high as she can, just getting her stomach up on top with her hands and feet dangling over opposite sides. She rolls enough to throw one leg over and then the other, sliding down the other side backwards. She brushes her dress off, turns, and then steps back in shock, bumping up against the fallen tree.
The shadow stands at the end of the path, larger than it has ever been. The light presses against its back and bends around it. For the first time, Mary can see the curve of its shoulders and faint tones of deep blue on the edge of its cloak, which touches the ground and flows up over her head in a hood. Its face is still impenetrably black. It moves closer in long strides, silent in the leaves, its whole body swaying with each step.
Mary tries to step backwards, but the tree still blocks her way. She won’t have time to climb over again. She remembers the howls she has heard and tries not to think of what kind of teeth it might have. She raises her hand, carrying her stick.
The figure stops, hesitates, and then dashes off, getting smaller as it moves from tree to tree.
“Stop!” Mary yells. She runs after it along the path without thinking. The shadow is also heading toward the light. She runs as fast as she can, but her dress is too long and her feet slip in the leaves. The trees are getting farther apart. The forest is thinning. Something large is growing in the background. She keeps her eyes on the shadow, tracking it back and forth across the path. Then it flashes in front of her, far ahead, and is gone. “Wait!” she calls after it one last time, out of breath. She breaks the final line of trees, bursting into a clearing. Her hands fall onto her knees.
She is in a wide field. The edge of the forest on the other side is a thick black band below the dark sky. A thousand tall wisps of grass roll in the waves of the breeze, tickling her legs. A glow like that of the moon dyes the field a shade of blue, but the light of her dress reveals its true green. She wants to lie down and roll around in it, like Odin would. But she picks the sticky strands of hair off her cheeks and keeps going.
At first Mary had not noticed the enormous building to her right; now she can see nothing else as the walls spread out across the clearing and the spires rise even higher than the treetops, composed of every size of stone, marbled darkness in the thin light, with bands of mortar cutting through them. It is a ruin. A full corner is missing, as if it had been bitten off by a giant, exposing the interior structure, jagged rows of stone sloping down toward a pile of rubble at the ground. Elsewhere it is crumbling on its own. Stray pillars and walkways to nowhere litter the field in front of it.
The second-highest remaining tower, the one nearer to her, is missing its top. The moonlight burns in the windows and pours forth from the breach. Mary knows that is where she’s going. She looks around but doesn’t see the shadow. There are other shadows everywhere, short and sharp, falling off every wall and column, but they are unmoving.
Mary walks along a series of broken paths, hopping from stone to stone to avoid stepping on the grass overflowing from the cracks between them, until they lead to a tall wooden door trimmed with iron studs on the side of the main structure. The door is freestanding in the path, outlined in stone but with the rest of the room it belonged to scattered all around it. She knocks on the door first and then, when no one answers, peeks around the corner to see whether anyone is home.
At the end of what must have been a grand hallway once, an enormous hole opens into an even larger chamber. Another light flicks along the edges of the gap and across the back wall in tails of orange and peach and white. A fire, Mary thinks. So someone is home.
She knocks again on the door, waits, and then pushes. Though very heavy, it moves against the force of her shoulder. Halfway through the maze of rubble one piece of the wall remains, elevated by a few stone steps. Mary knows she should keep going, but she is drawn to it. The wall bears the image of a woman, painted in shards of darkened glass that light up into a dozen translucent shades as Mary approaches in her dress.
How beautiful, she thinks. I wonder who she is. And why does she look so sad?
And Mary is becoming sad, too, almost to the point of tears, seeing what the woman sees, what she has always seen in part within the frame in her father’s office. She reaches out, touches the pieces of her feet, half-expecting her to move, but feels only the concave curvature of cold glass.
A whisper flutters through the ruins. Mary looks up to the woman. Her pale face is still, her eyes long and looking down, her mouth an enduring crease. Did she say something? Could it be that there is another world inside the window?
The whisper calls out again, too softly to decipher, but this time Mary can tell it came from the hole with fire on its edges. She steels herself for whatever is there. She holds the stick in her hands as she crosses the rubble, more determined than ever to find her way home and not become the woman in the window.
Creatures like rats skitter across the floor as she enters the chamber, only they have long, fleshy wings and some fly up into the hidden places in the vaulted rafters high above. At the head of the chamber, not a hundred feet away, the small fire burns atop a pile of sticks, just enough to light the outlines of pillars and carvings on the wall, of the frames of fallen art and of statues without faces. There are many places here for a shadow to hide.
As she crosses into the little dome of light, Mary can see the tendrils of the flame, twists of orange and red and white, lashing out and springing back. It is warm in a way that makes her shiver, like dipping into a hot bath in the winter. A mat lies on the floor nearby with a crumpled blanket pushed to one side. A table holds a few dusty books and scraps of paper with many lines written in pencil that Mary cannot read and is accompanied by a chair pulled out at an angle. A wooden chest is the only other item she can see, except for a few iron utensils strewn about.
“Hello,” Mary says. “Anyone home?” Countless figures sway along the back wall, roused to life by the dancing flame, but one of them is solid and coming toward her. A hooded creature with a cavernous shadow of a face, getting bigger, closer.
She raises her weapon, shrinking behind it, but instead the shadow darts to her right, crossing the gaps between pillars and dark corners and broken statues with only the patter of light footsteps and the swoosh of a cape. Mary tries to follow it around the chamber, but every shape blends into the next.
“I’m sorry,” she says, realizing that it might be scared of her. Mary is scared, too, but this does not look like the home of a monster, and she is the one invading. She lowers the stick to the ground and lets it go. “See? It’s okay. You can come back.”
The shadow steps forward. Its form and color gradually sharpen until suddenly catching the light. Underneath its dark cloak, the shadow is a girl.
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