The Rivals
Ken Poyner

There was a long line of us there to burn our old shadows. One huge flame, and all of us single file trailing out for as far as anyone could see. At least in the dark. Since each individual seemed to want to stand in front of the flame once he or she had tossed her or his shadow in — watching it bubble and fill with holes and curl furiously up before shifting into a sour smoke and winging away so small it could not disturb even the late night star excesses – the line barely shuffled, seeming to simply shake itself and edge but a foot or two closer.

I am sure those at the back of the line knew only a rumor of fire. They could see perhaps ten, maybe fifteen bodies ahead, and without a spot of light, could only believe that soon they would shuffle near enough that they would imagine a point. Soon they would come close enough to actually see a point. Hours later, that point might begin to shimmy, to act like a flame. Hours and hours and hours away they might see differing heats in the flame, reflected as differing colors, and a dance of heat up and down the slide of the flame. And they would shift their unattached shadow hand to hand in anticipation of eventually feeling the flame’s warmth, of hearing the sizzle and imaging the steam of shadows, even though the shadows popped more than sizzled, and produced no steam at all.

Another shadow gone and the one who surrendered it – in this case, a man, a thick set unimpressive man, perhaps of the middle class and surely having much better things to do, with a hat set properly and his jacket off-the-rack but fitting very well, indeed – stepping first in short chops away from the light, then his stride growing as he goes gray in the closing dark, then loping. We would all think of him running, running in the dark, each half pace more joy in his gravity than in the last half pace, and the whole of him shadowless and the man that he remained beginning to breathe as awkwardly and as simply as a running man breathes.

Forgive me, but it was I who first suggested we might use two fires. There were so many of us, I assumed. I could not see the end of the line. But I could feel it pressing on me. I could feel my own desperation at the length of the wait: and I could see the fire! I could see the shadows quivering their last; I was near the point of tossing mine in. Another fire. It was only a suggestion, an idea that might help my saddled and summarized fellow citizens. That doleful and inaccurate long line wearied me. So many of my station and belief, so many of my purpose and collection, so many seemingly stretched endlessly, waiting endlessly, eager endlessly, to complete this one task.

A second fire would enrich the pace. A second fire would expand our success. The fact had nothing to do with me: it was physics, chemistry, geometry, the unburdened science that makes for a world. It was not my fault.

I immediately had allies. The thought was so crisp and untroubled that it clattered decoratively in the wind and was near sex with announcing the utility of itself. The woman behind me placed a hand seductively on my shoulder and said, “What a prickly, marvelous idea!” The nails of her soft fingers were painted an enamel red that seemed to have no whirls or streaks but looked as though a natural part of her thrilling anatomy. But the man ahead turned about to face me fully and put a seditious palm to my chest, saying “Wait a moment. We have almost made it. I can taste the fire; my shadow is curing from the heat of the nearby flame. It will not be long for us now.”

I marveled at his short-sightedness.

I was prepared to note that I meant no offense, but that the mathematics would be compelling: yet, before I could screw my teeth into place, a man slightly back actually stepped out of line to look – it seemed at the time – for kindling, and the line gratefully closed the space he had left. Now a second line was imperative, for there was no way for the man to get back into the one line. He stopped, his shadow listlessly draped over one arm, staring back at the place where he had been, apparently recognizing the person whose back he had for so long been following. Or thinking he recognized it, for it did not matter: he could have been looking at any smoke of a gap, for he was not getting back into the line. There was no opening and his only option would be to go to the end – an end that was but a rumor and might be forever away and in any direction as long as it was the direction away from this end.

Another shadow boiled and rose in pockets of gas and stretched itself on the fire momentarily, then drifted in diaphanous duty into the air, and the rest of us shuffled a half step forward: everyone, absolutely everyone, even those who knew only the rumor of the fire, inched closer to the fire. All of us, except for the man who had stepped out of line.

I was sure the woman who had lauded my idea, the woman with the punctuation of her reddened fingernails, would emerge from the line to join the man; but she slid up behind me, her shoes barely leaving the ground as she glided, her fiercely enameled fingers back at her side, as silent as the distance of contrary planets. I could feel the hope within her. Hope. All that hope and nothing to do with it. Hope like ballast left when cargo replaces it for the journey home.

The man was but ten feet out of line, and all of us close enough to the flame could see that he was more than simply a blur of limbs and features. Someone one day might recognize him. There was enough light leaking from the fire to transfix him. Someone might make a mental note of him and store some special feature, some identifying mark — just as someone who had heard me might yet be storing a snippet of my voice. Many might be thinking that, again – on a subway, or at the back of a restaurant, or mounting a fire engine – they might catch a flog of this voice and know what meaning it once had been filled with, how full and finely laced it was, and how many brother echoes it ensured.

I could not for the stuffing within me look long at him. He was but a point of distance.
The man then reached into his pocket and brought out a simple cigarette lighter. One of those not meant to be refilled, but which, once gone lame, is tossed into the ashbin and forgotten. I think it had a light green case, for I could see it reflected in the flame. He held it initially in thumb and forefinger, his elbow yet bent, with eyes that I could not see probably regarding the artifact, eyes perhaps already tearful with his intent.

Another shadow was successfully consumed, and we moved forward. The sound of shuffling shimmied down the line, to eventually die out far back in the fallow dark. I could feel the heat now, and I knew I was less than a cohort removed from the flame. In but a while, the man and his lighter would be well behind me, and turning back to view him too uncomfortable to do often enough to keep his narrative alive.

When the man rolled the metal ignition cylinder and an elfin spark growled, we all took in the breath we did not know we were holding. We had been autonomically holding it since the lighter was first brought out, our thoughts racing ahead action to action to action to result to mitigation. Flame! Flame!

He dropped his shadow to the ground and raised the small flame. It was similar to the larger one we were moving to, but nearly free of soot and the ashes of shadow, and we turned to see him: the man out of line with the flame over his head. The shadow lay bunched at his feet and the flame flickered flickered flickered, flickering at arm’s length.

He could have put the two together.

A woman, blessedly simple and focused, stepped suddenly out of line; a small heap of a woman who must have been drilled in duty; a woman knowing I suppose what needed to be done. She folded her shadow over her shoulder as the line cleverly closed in, eliminating the pearly blankness she had left. Wisely bent like an expression of grief, she began with her dim and unkempt fingers to rummage around mutely within the dark left at ground. Thankfully, it seemed she was looking for kindling. It was all I think she could do. I am sure she is doing it still.

Others will join her. I know they will. And every blinding inch of it will be my fault.

There is a half-step forward, the line shrugging and the noise of its dragging feet hurled off into the challenging dark, changing its timber as it slips unbidden away from the heat and the light and the consummation of mission: sidling crab-like away into the recesses of hope and the salting saliva of doing what can be done. Away. Away.

Ken Poyner’s collection of fiction, Constant Animals, and poetry collections, Victims of a Failed Civics and The Book of Robot, were published by Barking Moose Press, which will also publish his flash collection, Avenging Cartography, this year. He often serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s powerlifting affairs. You may find his website here.