On the Origin of Shadows

Nina Chyll


There are two things I have always wanted you to know about the house. Ever since you picked it out, in the middle of a recession, at a heavy discount, as you put it. As if it was a carton of milk about to go out of date. For us, you said, finally away from the hustle. And there are two things I have wanted to tell you. But I didn’t know how.


1. I hate the glass door to the back garden. It’s like a wound barely held by shaggy stitches. One measly screwdriver stuck into the lock would suffice to split it open, exposing the house’s organs viable to sell on the black market. The hall like intestines, dark and humid, slapped with some nonsensical paintings you were certain would triple in value sometime. The bathroom like a liver, maroon and old-fashioned, an old bonsai fig ruling over the windowsill. You always prayed it wouldn’t just drop dead, except trees don’t do that, you know, they die standing. ‘It will be worth a fortune one day.’ At night, it cast a shadow like a mad broom that developed an evil mind of its own and wanted to sweep us under the rug when we came in for a midnight pee.

I wonder what our bedroom would be if it were a body part. The spleen comes to mind, an organ so forgotten nobody can remember what it does. I looked it up and the spleen filters bad blood as it turns out. That’s about right, more often than not, we argued in bed instead of, and then you bought the big TV. ‘Who puts a screen in their bedroom?’ I asked you. ‘Couples with,’ you replied, ‘You know.’ Or couples without. Prepositions were often missing their nouns in our relationship.

So many people turned up for the housewarming party, old neighbours and new, and your colleagues from work, remember? You were a popular man, the best of. I was carrying a big pitcher of margaritas to the back garden. I wonder if anyone actually likes those, the snot-like mixture that smells vaguely of poison, acidic dreams and delirium. 

Through the glass door, I saw the backyard, plated gold by the setting sun, and your long shadow. ‘Oh, really?’ you said and it sounded so seductive I thought you had to be talking to me. How did you know I was there? Was it that smell of tequila?

And then, a different shadow stepped into yours, and I couldn’t tell them apart anymore. I stared at the blinding concrete tiles until the shapes separated again, yours straight and simple, hers like an hourglass. No words were said. Your favourite co-worker came through and stood next to me until you split in two again as if by the hand of an invisible shadow puppeteer. No words were said.

‘Why were you hugging her?’ I asked you later that night, one of our first nights in the new bed, with lights off. 

‘She’s going through,’ you trailed off. A dreadful divorce, I know. If I’d had a nickel for every time you said that, I could have probably been able to afford a packet of condoms for you.

The sheets rustled as you turned away to sleep, and your outline became a shadow of a mountainous landscape. I guess you could only ever be straight with her, and I recalled your outline in the blinding sun, imagining stepping on it and bashing its head in.

Time seemed to flow differently in the new house, leaking into all the new rooms which didn’t quite understand their purpose, and weeks were punctuated by new purchases like semicolons, separating one arbitrary chunk of life from the other.

You brought another painting home that day and told me it would hang on the top of the stairs, and I nodded. You unwrapped it and stepped back to join me, but I wasn’t looking. There was a gold smudge on the lapel of your shirt. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. You turned your head to examine it, which gave you a double chin. ‘It’s eye shadow,’ I added, you looked away to the glass door, and your eyes drowned in light, extricating all expression I could have guessed from the size of your pupils. 

‘Yes. She was crying today. Her ex is trying to take away,’ you explained and the missing part was substituted for a vague hand wave of a prestidigitator. What? The house? The kids? The chicken pad thai?

If I’d said something then, it would have been the beginning of the end. But I didn’t, and some invisible line shifted closer towards me and I couldn’t inch away again. The shadows took on new colours every time and appeared on different parts of your wardrobe, cuffs, collars, and once, even your boxer shorts. She’d always worn a lot of makeup. I called your favourite co-worker, the one who stood by me and watched you intertwine once. ‘She is going through that divorce,’ he said, his voice flattened by the small speaker on the phone, and I didn’t cry to him. ‘Would you like me to come over?’ he asked, but his pitch didn’t rise at the end of the question, and he clicked off.

I told you I’d be working late that day, but I ended up coming home for lunch. It’d turned out, you know what, never mind. It doesn’t matter. I saw her car in the driveway, so I entered through the back door, turning the almost symbolic, meaningless key in the lock. All I really needed was a hairpin to pick it. Did you secretly want someone to break in and steal all your paintings and your hag tree, so there would be nothing left but the two of us, pumping air instead of blood in the house’s hardened veins?

I sat in the living room and waited on the desolate corner chair we couldn’t think of putting anywhere useful. You didn’t even spot me when you finally came in. I still like to think it was only because I was covered in a shadow so deep it felt like a blanket. But I know really that you couldn’t see me anymore, no more than you could see the works of art you so thoughtfully procured not for our viewing pleasure, but as a colourful investment.

We didn’t argue and you only took half the things and I didn’t argue. I wanted to keep the painting at the top of the stairs, and you didn’t argue, and you instructed me to wait for a couple more years before selling and I didn’t argue. You asked about the tree and I told you to feel free to it and I didn’t argue at all. I was relieved it wouldn’t try to get me at night anymore.

I’ve got rid of the glass door right after you’d moved out. It wasn’t cheap, but now, I can’t ever recreate that scene, the pitcher radiating cold, the concrete sparkling gold, the merging shadows staining my perfect garden floor. There’s now a wall where the door was, and the wound has closed, leaving no scar at all.

I often think about the useless rooms now, and what they are, and I think the house is one big brain, mine only to think and feel as I please. I gave the living room chair away to charity. I never wanted to sit in it again. Each room is like a lobe of my mind, and I have no photos of you up on the walls. The wallpapers underneath where they used to hang are a little lighter and fresher, and I ask people to take pictures of me when we go out, when I holiday with friends, at family events, dates. I get given new frames for Christmas and the bald wall patches disappear one by one.


2. The second thing I’ve always wanted to tell you about this house is that I’d slept with your favourite co-worker in our new bed before we ever did, and when you said it smelled used and considered returning it, that was just his sweat and mine. And when you pointed out the rash I had on my neck and breasts, that was just scratches from his five o’clock shadow.




Nina Chyll


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