Arles, France. September, 1888.
Dusk fades, but still some blue clings in the darkening sky in which the first stars seem to boil overhead. I like twilight. It is calming to me. Doctor L’Enfant says I should like calming things. L’Enfant. Ha! What does he know? He is a fool. But the authorities require that I visit him once per week.
I’ve found a wall to sit against next to a small café terrace, not too far from the Place Du Forum. Someone had left a half-full bottle of absinthe on one of the tables, and I managed to grab it before that pesky waiter came and took it. I like absinthe. It calms me. I like that it is green, both the bottle glass and the liquid within, and that it has a naked woman with delicate fairy wings on the label. Naked women get me excited, but that excitement is calming in its own particular way.
The tables at the café terrace are mostly empty, which I do not like. It gives the waiter free time, and there are fewer opportunities to snatch a free drink. There was a time when I once sat proudly at those tables, and had the francs with which to pay for my drinks. But that time has long since passed. C’est la vie. The sidewalk is comfortable.
An artist has set up his easel opposite me and the café. I should think that it would be too dark to paint pictures, but what do I know of art, but that artists are madmen, or geniuses, or both. Many of them paint pictures of naked women, and that’s the genius, if you ask me. It almost seems a scam, and it makes me wish I knew how to paint. Painting naked women would calm me.
I look over the scene, wondering what the artist finds so interesting. There are no naked women about, but there is a rather well-dressed lady crossing the street with her gentleman. As she walks, her booted ankles reveal from beneath the hem of her dress, and my mind’s eye follows the curve of those ankles, tracing an imaginary crawl up firm calves, soft thighs, and into the moist, hirsute warmth between her legs. I grow excited, and take another sip of the absinthe, to calm myself.
I look away from the woman, for Doctor L’Enfant says it is best if I put them out of my mind. There is a carriage approaching from the distant end of the street. It is a hansom with a single white horse. I look at the pesky waiter, and the people at the tables of the café terrace. That’s when I see the shadow man.
He is standing in one of the entrances overlooking the terrace. I can only see him if I do not look directly at him. That is the way it is with shadow people. Dr. L’Enfant says there are no such things as shadow people. But once again, what does he know?
I wonder who this shadow man has come to torment. Could it be the waiter? He surely deserves it. He is snide and cocksure. Could it be that the shadow man waits on whoever comes in that hansom that approaches? Or is it the lovely lady who has just crossed the street with her gentleman and taken a seat at the café? Yes, that is it. I am sure of it. This is who the shadow man seeks.
I feel for her. We have been intimate, if only in an instantaneous image in my mind, but that is enough to make me care for her. She is special to me, and I wish to protect her. It is a hell of a thing to be haunted by ghosts and shadow men, and she deserves better. I decide to protect her.
I stand up, moving toward the café terrace. The world is a brilliant blur now that I am in motion, but I walk toward the golden glow that is the café, and I am reasonably sure that it is the lovely woman that I spill my bottle upon.
“My God!” she says. Her gentleman leaps up, shoves me, and the world spins and the terrace flies up and strikes me on the back. My absinthe bottle shatters.
“Get out of here, you old drunk!” says the waiter. I get to my feet and hurry away. I hear a heated exchange between the lady and her gentleman, and they leave. I glance back toward the entrance to the café, and I can see that the shadow man is still there. He didn’t get to her. She may think me a drunk, but I have saved her. It cost me the balance of my absinthe, but that is all right. It was a worthy exchange for the pleasure she brought to me. Besides, I can get more if I am calm, and wait for the waiter to look away.
As I stand at a distance from the café, I realize that I have walked up beside the artist. He holds a small candle in his palette hand, and by its wan light I can see that he is truly a genius. He has captured everything. The carriage in the distance, the woman and her gentleman, the pesky waiter, and… he has captured the shadow man, standing in the doorway to the café. If only Doctor L’Enfant could see this canvas. Then he would not be so brash in his dismissal of shadow men.
That won’t happen, though, for L’Enfant is a fool, and has no use for art.
I take one last look at the canvas. The artist has captured the heavens quite perfectly as well. I look from the painting to the night sky, and they are identical. In a deep, blue-black sea the stars are immense, seething fires that bubble and boil for all eternity. I like them. They make me calm.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop.