Clutter Fold by Kyle Winkler



1.

In Brep, every other child was born-paper. Clutter Acyron only ever heard ways to shed his paper shadow and gain a true one. Growing up, he never learned to cultivate the foldable substance. So many lucksters like him experienced crimping, seasonal dampening, and umbral arson. Of course, he suffered violent attacks from true-shadows. And for a long time, he dealt with it. Until one morning, Clutter called out the mythic recluse of Brep, The Fold, after he witnessed three events in quick succession.

The first he saw rounding the corner to work. Clutter stumbled upon a shadowless begging a black-market darkness-dealer to give them another day to scrounge payment for their shadow. It was rented, obviously. Clutter found both ends of this deal horrible because to rent a shadow was foolish and ultimately impermanent, and to loan a shadow on credit was reprehensible. Clutter would remember the poor man on his knees patting his rent-a-shadow and sobbing while the darkness-dealer hushed him with a finger and pulled a blade from his boot.

Not but a few steps further down the Bygone Road, he saw another shadowless. This time, a girl with a symbolic eye. She stood for ceremony duty in front of the spiritual dream-tower, Green Noise Discovery, with a familiar phrase slap-painted down her back: BOMBESIN REV! Her head drooped with exhaustion. Clutter was surprised she hadn’t already been mauled by sundown dogs standing there for what must’ve been days.

A true-shadowed couple, holding hands, climbed the steps to reach her. They bowed, prayed, and donated money into the charity pot. Then they spit on her. Part of the process.

Clutter Acyron was always in danger of falling into forced participation in these spiritual ceremonies; the born-paper tended to represent a pseudo-clerical strata—a stubborn hub in an unwanted orthodoxy. The shadowless girl was tired and beautiful. And the spit would dry, Clutter thought. But she’d still be shadowless.

Clutter arrived at his job and welded shut whatever patience he’d been drawing off of. He labored as an aide to the top lacuna lawyer in Brep, Ginnestra Mayassú. Lacunar law dealt with shadows that had turned interstitial or become flickering remnants. Clutter almost didn’t get the damn job because of his born-paper status. Mayassú would’ve stitched up Clutter and prosecuted the young man himself simply because of his nature. Plenty of the minor functionaries breaking backs for the law firm lived with shadows condensed into even tougher textures than paper—some reaching nearly cardboard-ish densities. Some, alas, even pulled shadows stonier than stone. These poor clods lived strictly administrative lives, weighed down by biology, anchored in the bowels of the business. They withered away into the cabinets and databases of other people’s hopes and doings.

No matter what case he was working, Mayassú demanded that anything about born-papers fucking up should zoom atop the work pile. Clutter conveniently lost these files or forgot to take down names. Owing to this, Mayassú often said that Clutter had been “bounced to Ittra and back,” as if Ittra was a valley of anguish or a vacation spot for the feckless. In reality, Ittra was the Shadow City of Brep, and apparently the major cause of shadow-flickering, despite its attraction. So Mayassú loved this theoretical place. But the shadow of a shadow proved a difficult substance to get hands on. It was, Clutter soon learned, a fiddly substrate. And no one he knew had conjured a way to get there.

But he had no time to dwell on any of this because it was this grim morning’s duty from Mayassú to deliver a packet of documents to a family in the Bygones, the zone where the Bygone Road died: an area of desuetude and exile far from “respectable” civilization. This delivery was the third thing that convinced him to call out The Fold.

On deliveries to the Bygones, Clutter Acyron witnessed shadowless adults and children moving in slumberous time, forever doomed. It was as if without the daytime-double cast by the sun, a shadowless was half a person, and so, without direction. Each person was a sundial, dead. Some said most shadowless migrated to the countryside, contagious victims of witchery. But Clutter had grown up shrilly warned never to touch a shadowless for fear of losing his own shade. Yet still, they were used like statues in true-shadow ceremonies. Beaten, exploited, accursed.

A child ran up to him as he approached. “How does it feel? To have something behind you?” Her voice sounded slow like holding a finger down on a record player.

A man emerged from the tumbledown hut with a flickering shadow. The recipient of the documents. “Let me touch it, my son. I used to have a fulsome shadow, you know. Before Brep, in Ittra.” The word floated like the artifact of an idea in his mind—the indenture of a concept without the thing itself. No way this guy had been Ittran.

A teenage girl stayed the man. She’d cut a black blanket in her outline to follow her around. A mock shadow. It was filthy and sad. Clutter Acyron set the docupacket between them as an offering of sorts.

“You owe me ten leguins,” Clutter said. Under the direct sunlight of day, not seeing a shadow still discomfited him.

“Just a little touch,” the man said. His fingernails were long and in need of tiny scabbards. His frame seemed to enlarge, to tower. “I’ll be sooo delicate. I used to have one, you know!”

The man dropped to his hands and knees and buggishly crawled to the shadow. Clutter jumped back, and another shadowless androgyne gripped the end of his shadow-paper in their bone hands. They looked as if this was the first time they’d touched a shadow. And it was. They already rubbed a tear into the shadow’s crown. They could’ve split it in two like a piece of cloth.

The young woman with the blanket-for-a-shadow leaned toward Clutter Acyron. She said her name was Labrashad. She asked if he’d care to gaze at her shadow. It was a lovely thing, she said. But the blanket was a map of mess. Labrashad could’ve been anyone from his borough. Anyone on the street. In fact, he remembered seeing her do ceremony work for the family next door. This cored him. Dog shit, vomit stains, and clumps of hair stuck to the blanket-for-a-shadow. He spied the same cultic phrase scrawled down her forearm. BOMBESIN REV! BOMBESIN REV! She must’ve recently done her ceremony duty.

“If you have time,” Clutter said, “Would you care to see a trick?”

Labrashad and the old man paused. The androgyne released his shadow.

“What kind?” Labrashad asked.

“One where I fold my shadow into a swan,” Clutter said.

The old man scrabbled in the dirt and Clutter couldn’t tell if the nails were knives or flashes of light. The shadow flickered and strobed behind him in a seizure.

“Uncle loves swans,” Labrashad said. The old man blushed.

All the shadowless huddled together as Clutter faked his way through the beginnings of a swan neck. Just as he worried about ruining his shadow beyond repair, a rustling like the collapse of a forest erupted from behind the hut, and Clutter heard a splintered female voice speak.

Why so rude to these souls?

Long anthracite spindle limbs crept around the hut’s corner, and a massive shadow-jaw with inky teeth made of pure anti-light jerking in fits chomped toward him. One of the uncle’s nails snapped off and fell at Clutter’s feet. The family didn’t react; they merely observed.

Clutter grabbed the nail-knife and fled. Didn’t look back. Or didn’t plan to look back. He knew the shadowless were less predatory than impoverished. So, what manifested the crazy ass death jaw? Was Mayassú right about his lust for prosecuting the flickering, the shadowless? Did they harbor a power, then? Was Ittra some evil generator?

Clutter looked back. Half-visible in the gloaming Labrashad’s family, confused, stared past him. There was no trace of the jaw or the teeth or any gnashing maw.

That morning wasn’t the first time Clutter Acyron was in danger of losing his shadow. But it would be the last.

2.

The Fold, it was said, could rob anyone of their shadow. And yet the same someones said he never stole shadows but instead taught those who flickered or fell awry of the law the infinite art of shadowtucking.

Clutter learned, from persistent eavesdropping of skittish clients, that to rouse The Fold’s attention one had to cut off a piece of your own shadowpaper and post it to him. (Despite the fact it was illegal to send shadows through the mail in Brep.) From this delicate sample, The Fold could divine what borough of Brep you were from by the amount of light it had absorbed.

Or, Clutter heard, maybe The Fold was psychic.

Or maybe he pays spies.

Or maybe he just looks at the return address on the envelope?

It didn’t matter. A day after sending a snippet, The Fold arrived.

Clutter was catching up on old filing for Mayassú and not getting paid. From within Clutter’s own shadow, The Fold broke out as an ashen flower on the side of a living volcano. Clutter felt his guts hanging high inside himself with anxiety. The Fold shook off the puckers of shadowfolds that he used to dis- and reappear. The room gained a mellow fug.

“How now, Acyron?” The Fold said. He sunk to the floor on crossed legs and chewed a fingernail.

Clutter felt just as scared now as he did the day before when face to face with the anthracite spindles and jaw. He was overwhelmed and began to jabber.

“I nearly lost my shadow earlier and my boss will take me to court and give me ceremony duties until I die, and I can’t—”

The Fold held up a hand. “What do you want?”

“I want to learn shadowtucking.”

“Oh, you do? Do you even know what you’re asking?”

The Fold ripped a hangnail off and spat it from across the room into a dustbin. Ting!

“Yes. To hide things inside the shadow by endless folding.”

“Even one’s own self.”

“So I’ve heard.” Clutter was lying.

“Ha. You’ve heard rightly.” The Fold stretched out.

“What do you need from me? How do I pay you?” Clutter asked.

“Don’t worry about money. I don’t use money. It’s as worthless as feet on fish. Just help me with some favors.”

The Fold’s eyes were like bullet holes. His hair like smoke damage crawling up a wall. He wore his clothes like a grandmother’s trunk tamed a tornado. But he smelled safe—like librarians or old leather. Like a great, overgrown garden.

Attempting the first fold, the mempsis, Clutter Acyron cut his palm on The Fold’s shadow. Clutter worked for an hour while The Fold trimmed all his fingernails.

“Damn it all!” Clutter said.

“Quite a narcotizing effort,” The Fold observed.

“I’m learning, aren’t I?”

“More like circling the drain. Here.” The Fold’s hands harmonized in a dance of finger-flexing. “Crannies come before nooks. Then you leaf and folio the corners, as one does books. See?”

Clutter mimicked him, and The Fold silently applauded.

“Wondrous. Let’s move to the second fold: the merismus.”


After learning the tucks euche, orcos, and noema—the last resembling a cramped mouth—Clutter asked The Fold if he was the only artist of shadowtucking in Brep.

“No, not at all. There are many who abide by the art, though I’m partial to seeing them tucked away like old linen. None of them bring the purity needed to the art.”

Working together at night, they took breaks and walked the alleyways and side-tunnels under the spanning bridges of Brep. Two shadowless stood on iron plinths wearing candle crowns to light the path. They stood afraid. Clutter tried not to stare out of respect. A massive swathe of graffiti under an archway hooked Clutter’s eye.

“Have you seen this phrase? ‘Bombesin Rev’? What does it mean?”

The Fold sneered. “It’s not a phrase: It’s a person. A dangerous one at that. Bombesin is not keen on born-papers. She dives deep into her shadow to remove them from Brep.”

“To where?”

The Fold shrugged. “Who’s to say? Probably Ittra.”

This made Clutter peered over his shoulder to check the forgotten corners and dripping overhangs. The hot wax from the candle-crowns dribbled into the eyes of the shadowless. The Fold stared into the dusk with one hand over his brow and idly practiced tucking a non-existent shadow in the air with the other.

Once, The Fold saved a family of five from a pack of sundown dogs by hiding them in his shadow. They assumed he was kidnapping them, so the youngest girl stabbed him between the ribs with a shiv. He never complained.

He recovered in bed for two months. Then, gangsters in Brep blackmailed him to stow away illegal immigrants or the corpses of enemies in his shadow. He did it only in exchange for protection of the shadowless. And the shadowless never found this out. But The Fold wasn’t bitter. He spent all his time practicing, practicing, practicing. He practiced in his sleep, his hands gently twitching, molding, bending. And then, one day, many years ago, The Fold himself became shadowless. All because of Bombesin Rev. He wouldn’t tell Clutter how it happened or why. Just that he waited the six years for his shadow to grow back.

“What did you do for all those years?” Clutter asked.

“Let’s say I spent a good long time rigorously dreaming.”

Hearing the whole story, Clutter felt the urge to find Bombesin Rev and tuck her away. Protect the born-papers. He knew he had the option to be afraid of what his shadow could do to him unprotected. Or he could work within and without his own shadow, manipulate it, read it, and merge with it.

He imagined himself as a candle-crown-wearing shadowless and was stunned by pity and fear.

Clutter could still smell Labrashad’s blanket-as-a-shadow. Rotten and decaying. His memory was still bruised with the stench.

The next morning, after some sleuthing, they found Bombesin Rev had taken over an industrial kitchen in the basement of a former ceremony-processing facility, known as the Roof of Pale Hums. She was teaching to a chiaroscuro’d group of half-moon faces—nervous and uncertain.

Bombesin hunkered down under a flowing mazarine cape that looked as if water was stitched to darkness. She labored over her own shadow. She was performing the ara tuck. Traditionally, a banned tuck. A curse in geometrical form. It was an incredibly dangerous move because she had to tightly crease herself into her own shadow yet leave an escape pleat. The last part was easy to forget amongst the vast procedure of complicated moves. The Fold refused to teach the ara to Clutter Acyron, and Clutter didn’t bother to protest.

“Pay closest mind to these rucks, you sneaks.” Bombesin winked to those who had the courage to look her in the face. “They pile to no good end. You will all need to know every miniscule maneuver in case one of you goes sense-blind in my shadow, or falls into wake-sleep, or, godforbid—Fight the Tightness. I can speak from experience: The ara is like a vicious suffocating hug from a pair of two-storey arms.” She was tall, thin as a curtain, skin like beryl gems. Yet she possessed immense strength in the folding. Some of the unprepared in the crowd blinked or gawped at the pressure she brought to bear on the folds. One frail shadowless man wheezed himself into a stupor at the demonstration.

In a serious tone to herself, Bombesin Rev said: “But this’ll get you where you deserve to go. With Ittra’s help…”

The Fold and Clutter hid behind a shelf of dry goods: oats, rice, spices. The Fold poked a bag of grain in irritation. “She could exile herself instantly,” he said, half-admiringly. “Look at these clueless people. Solemn foolery.”

He poked the bag again. “Acyron, they will die because of the ara.”

Clutter, unprompted, secreted into the kitchen behind Bombesin. The on-lookers stared at him. Bombesin Rev’s shadow outsized her body by three orders, more than anyone else he’d encountered. It was not only a shadow of her outside, he’d heard, but correspondingly her inside, as well. While she grafted hard at the feet, he knelt at the crown of her shadow and began with the noema shadowtuck. It was one The Fold crafted special and is a riddle in fold-form. Clutter worked so fast that he was halfway to finished when Bombesin Rev noticed her students’ gormlessness.

She turned, confused. She froze because moving meant tearing her shadow with Clutter’s weight. And she must backward-memorize the folds he was putting down so she could solve the riddle. She knew that much. But there was no time. Instead she double-tapped her shadow near her foot, and the selfsame feverish jaw with inky teeth from the Bygones leapt up and lunged at Clutter. He dodged the maw as he smarted with recognition.

This didn’t matter. He’d finished. Bombesin Rev was now inside a smoky armoire of her own non-light. The on-lookers could see her inside, trying to parse the folds and follow the paper trail, but couldn’t hear her crying out for help. Or crying out, cursing the stranger. Or maybe she was laughing hysterically. She was fading into gloom. The whole scene proceeded as if Clutter made light solid, like glass, and then simply rearranged it all as one did trinkets on a shelf.

“Don’t worry,” Clutter said, catching his breath. “She can’t harm you anymore.” The rescued were composed of all kinds. True shadows, born-papers, recovering scissor kids, eclipse addicts.

They sat unmoved, stern.

The Fold entered from the kitchen and poked the noema with Bombesin inside. She couldn’t see out. He proclaimed that this pedagogue attempted to teach the most vicious shadowtuck in Brep. Without proper care, they could all have lost themselves.

The shyest and fearful ones escaped out the back. The emotional wept. Only a few scissor kids and eclipse addicts stayed to bask in The Fold’s fame and reclusivity.

Something of the celebrity emanated off The Fold like spoiled fruit.

Clutter elbowed The Fold. “Why were these folks here?”

The Fold shook his head, disappointed. “They had the most to gain, Acyron. They’re trying reach Ittra. Or to defend themselves against the hammer of society.”

“How do they practice tucking?”

“On anything that bends.”

The converted party that stayed behind started to admire Clutter’s quick art. He himself asked The Fold what to do about Bombesin.

“Let her hot rot in her own shade,” The Fold said. “The charlatan. Besides the riddle is fractal. Every answer she could come up with creates a replica pattern.”

“You mean she’ll be in there for years,” Clutter said. He now took in his own folding with a toothed trepidation.

“She won’t last a week.” The Fold picked up the whole shadowy armoire (as light as any shadow) and handed it to a recovering scissor kid who pranced away to dispose of it like a diseased balloon.

3.

For days, Clutter Acyron obsessed over Bombesin Rev while practicing shadowtucks. Each tuck, crease, and corner riskier than the last. Even The Fold cautioned him where they verged on paradoxical and impossible shapes.

“No need to get zealous,” he said.

The Fold and Clutter Acyron again meandered through the markets and unlighted backways of Brep after the latter’s work at the law firm, analyzing and breaking down folds, discussing the intricacies of the noema. Back here, they passed ever more ceremony punks—those true shadows who adoringly aped the shadowless on duty; those who made their suffering a fashion and political statement. Not far behind the punks were the Interstitial Police hoping for a flicker, just a blip. Clutter felt like he was sorting legal briefs at Mayassu’s office watching this junk glide by. They passed under more bridges, with more shadowless heads heavy with burning candle-crowns and more Bombesin graffiti next to large tags that read: “Living the dream in Ittra.”

“How do you get to Ittra?” Clutter said.

“I don’t want to hear that word.” The Fold shook his head as if a bug chewed on his brain. “You say it again, and we’re through.” His mentor walked to the nearest wall and performed some miniscule motions on a shadow. It zipped across the graffiti and silenced it in a trice.

The Fold must’ve been dense in some areas, Clutter thought. Any time you told a person to ignore something, they only wanted to know more.

Not long after this, The Fold started talking strangely about how awful it was that born-papers were encouraged to iron their shade and keep them like true shadows. He’d say it between bites of creamed fish at the food stalls. He’d deride how the shadowless were falsely sold investment in true shadow formulas. These he attacked and destroyed if possible.

The Fold ranted about born-papers wanting anything other than shadowtucking. “Folding is a first art,” he said. “Before Brep was even a settlement between the scarps and before people even knew of Ittra, tucking had pride of place. And now I’m supposed to let Bombesin Rev escort my people to a so-called safe haven? What a farce. Better they stay and work on the noema or opalew tuck. Or the yuopleska tuck.” The last one created light violence. It was a tuck that turned one’s shadow into a serrated blade.

As The Fold was settling down, a scissor kid appeared, out of breath in the door of the stall, saying she’d heard someone was curing shadows.

“Preserving them, like olives, or something, through an alchemical process from paper to true shadow.” The scissor kid huffed. “And then he surgically grafts true shadows to the shadowless.”

“That makes no sense,” Clutter said. “It sounds as if this person wants to help the shadowless not hurt them.”

The Fold turned to his mentee. “What is it with you, Acyron? It’s like you’ve been telegraphed to Ittra and back.”

Clutter started at the mention of the verboten word.

Within the hour the three of them stood diagonal from a workshop in the Eora Borough, not too far from the Bygones. The Fold ordered them to keep watch while he climbed by a self-made shadow-ladder up the side of the edifice. Even with The Fold’s paranoid tendencies, Clutter Acyron couldn’t help admiring the innovation and techniques of his mentor.

They waited. He considered who it was that risked curing shadowless in Brep. Mayassu would have a field day with them.

He nodded to the scissor kid. She was only a kid cause of her height. She came up to Clutter’s waist. But kids like her were at least fifty years old. Blades and handles strapped down her back in a X. She glinted them in the light for bored fun. Her lifestyle was a dying breed.

She complained and kicked the pavement. “Silly, that Bombesin Rev. Smuggling the shadowless into Ittra…ha. I’m glad I didn’t go, obviously. I’ll admit I miss cutting right now.” She side-eyed Clutter’s shadow. “Anyway. Can you imagine? A place where they have two true shadows—two! What’s needed is more paper shadows in Brep, I say. All the more to—” She made scissor-fingers. Snip-snip. “You know? Heh.”

“No, I don’t,” Clutter said.

“Joking,” she said, smiling.

Clutter took a big step away from her.

“Aww, c’mon,” the scissor kid said.

“So, Ittra. You been there?” he asked.

“Wha? Yeah. You have to get smuggled in, though. You can’t just stroll in. The Brepish never find a way there. Though I’ve heard you can get there by having the exact same dream nineteen nights in a row. Most think that’s a story. That’s why Bombesin was showing us how to get out of her ara.”

“She wasn’t trying to kidnap you?”

The scissor kid shook her head, laughed. “You’re an idiot.”

“If there’s a place where I can go and have a true shadow, I very possibly would want to find a way there. Even in a dangerous shadowtuck.”

He now knew what his actions had done. He’d effectively ruined the lives of at least twenty people or more; people who right now likely suffered under the weight and pain of a candle-crown or ceremony duty or harassment from born-papers and trues.

The scissor kid snorted. “Where are people like me supposed to go without paper shadows or the shadowless? What will we do?”

“That’s not the point. The shadowless—or papers like me—shouldn’t have to suffer in Brep if there’s a solution in Ittra. Especially if your well-being relies on it—”

Then an explosion of glass from above. Sailing out twelve storys high was a person riding a shadow shaped into a massive airfoil. The whole contraption swooped downward, and fast. Neither Clutter nor the scissor kid had time to react. The airfoil crashed into the street. But when the shadow crumpled on the pavement, it broke apart and reorganized into a box. Like a coffin.

No—it was a coffin.

Still in shock, Clutter edged up to the coffin. It had been fashioned with the noema tuck. Only three people in Brep knew that tuck. One was trapped in her own shadow somewhere and the other, himself, knew he didn’t make it.

Clutter bent to touch the shape when the scissor kid pulled a pair from behind her back, scissor-mouths open, shiny.

“A tiny piece, for old time’s sake?” she said. Her teeth shined white as fresh wet bone.

She stood out of the light. There was no telling if he could maneuver around her so as to pass through his shadow. He had a defensive tuck in mind for her—the mxmä. Clutter danced back to avoid the scissor kid’s jabs. She was old but lithe. They circled around, and she stepped into his shadow. He took the dark matter between his hands and whipped it like a bedsheet. The shadow doubled in width, and Clutter kicked it like laundry on a line.

Instead of whirling about it hardened like tin. The scissors sprung from her grip. “Shit,” she said.

Then a moan creaked from the shadow coffin. A hand emerged from the wreckage. The scissor kid dove over Clutter’s mxmä and snatched up her blades, and in blinding swipes, writ hundreds of minor cuts on the person’s visible arm. The scissor kid had a charging and intoxicated look on her face.

Out of the noema coffin fell Bombesin Rev, her left hand bloodied—near-ruined. A gastric tang wafted from her and clung to the nostrils.

Too weak to fold with her fingers, Bombesin balletically flung off her shoes and toed her dilapidated coffin into a yuopleska tuck—a swirling whip shape. She swung her legs round, the pain crawling across her face, her short hair weakened with sweat. The scissor kid ducked but got caught in the solar plexus and lost her bandolier.

Clutter Acyron wasn’t waiting for The Fold to return or to witness the inevitable scissor kid sliced in half. Instead, he ran.

He ran into the abyss as a fox chased by mounted mutants. He ran to where there were no shadows. On animal reflex, he ran to where those in Brep need to hide.

4.

He reached the Bygones and collapsed in front of Labrashad’s. The Fold would be after him. Bombesin Rev would be after him. And if the scissor kid survived...well. Labrashad’s family peeked from behind the curtains at him, laying there just a sweaty mess. He heard heavy whispering. His mouth tasted of burnt-out match heads and chalk. He smelled of sour milk.

How’d he get here? A party to murder, deceit, and oppression? He wanted to help the born-papers and the shadowless, not corral them inside Brep forever. The Fold was driven by greed and grief. And Bombesin Rev was clearly something else to behold. Someone of a higher register.

As Clutter mussed around in the dirt, recovering, small black clumps of something snowed down on him. Funereal confetti. He scraped a handful of it. Shadow-stuff. It started to block out his sight. Well-enough for him to call out to Labrashad and her family. “Help!”

Understandably, they demurred.

Bombesin Rev’s voice sounded from the swirl. It was all serpent teeth and candied lemon peel. Clutter blanched. His head, nothing but seething meat. Bombesin wasn’t saying anything, though; she was lilting. Biding her time with song. And when the swirling confetti stopped, there she stood looking the just-barely-winner of a bar fight with sundown dogs. Her shadow was wrinkled like old skin.

“How much can you learn in twenty minutes?” she said. Already bunching her mazarine cloak around her and sitting next to Clutter Acyron. He flinched. Shaken, he said it depended on what he needed to learn.

Asphalia,” she said. “The Substitution Tuck.”

“I’ve not heard of it.”

“No one has. I invented it while I was inside your noema. And it will put a stop to The Fold. But...” She touched his hand. Her skin was freezing. “It will also put a stop to you.”

Clutter hummed with uneasiness. Bombesin squeezed his hand. She wiped the dirt off. “Do you know where I’m from, young man?”

“No.”

“I’m from Ittra, the Shadow City of Brep. You’ve heard of it? I see. It’s not a perfect place, but it does have one redeeming feature: Those who participate in crime are willing to accept the punishment. I cannot leave my custom behind.”

Clutter considered what that meant. He considered how entirely opposite to Brep it was. “Will it hurt? This punishment?” he asked.

Bombesin scratched her head. “I should say it depends on your definition of pain.” She made a flourish with her now-bandaged arm. “But yes, it will. We presently have fifteen minutes. How much can you learn in that time?”

“Enough to pretend expertise?”

“Expertise tends to show-off at the expense of ego anyway. And The Fold’s tucks are all surplusage and snot. Now, see here. This is the initial tuck. Just know that each subsequent one will hurt you exponentially. It’s been designed that way. For you, specifically.”

Clutter Acyron had his own tuck. One with a single purpose: to cloud his abilities. To impress grief and torment. He wished it had a more clarifying name. The Clutter Fold? It sounded ill. He listened and watched Bombesin, and as she neared the end of the series, he apologized under his breath as she finished each one. Each thumbnail pressing down the shadow. Sorry, I’m sorry, Please forgive me.

“What are you saying? Are you paying attention?”

“I am, I am…Just thinking how horribly I acted. How you were locked in your own shadow. All because of me.” He couldn’t forgive himself for the naïve need to practice the art without knowing anything about it. For so desperately wanting not to be shadowless. And what did that bring him now? Here, so close to being shadowless anyway?

Again, she offered a conciliating shrug.

“The good news is that the only one who could’ve undone the noema from the outside was you. So it was solid protection from The Fold until I clawed my way out. His finding me in my curing workshop was my mistake. I didn’t expect the scissor kids to partner with him. But The Fold bends the rules he wants to.”

Bombesin Rev quickly ran through the whole plan one last time.

Labrashad’s windows stayed shut. It was better that way—better not to involve them. Clutter repeated the tuck and pleats in his mind and faked them with his fingers in pretend creases. In an unconscious burst, he reached behind and made a surgical cut in his shadow. Enough shadow-stuff to lay at one’s feet and call it something.

He brought it to Labrashad’s door and slid it under the threshold. He said that it was for her if she wanted it. A single eye peeked through the curtain, but he couldn’t tell whose it was.

Then the scissor kid’s bandolier slid to his feet, and a pair of blades with her right hand still attached along with it. The muscle and gore hung off it like alien sea life.

The Fold stepped into view, chewing his thumbnail. Covered in red.

“You ran off, and you’re a murderer now?” he said.

“Bombesin did this,” Clutter said.

“The same Bombesin Rev who’s stuck in her own shadow. Play me another one, Acyron.”

He’d missed the duel between Bombesin and the scissor kid, Clutter thought.

“Why did you have me tuck the noema?” he asked.

“Because this is a way of life. The true shadows have their ways. The shadowless—” he waved around “—clearly have their ways. And who’s stuck in the middle, holding the whole thing down? Us. The born-papers. Those who can fold. Those who can tuck. The system has to work.”

“Not in Ittra.”

The Fold spat on the ground. “Ittra is only downward! Only by subterfuge can one even get there! There is no redemption in Ittra, Acyron. Everyone laments how pure and lovely Ittra would be! Double-shadows! Egalitarianism!” The Fold scrunched his face. “There is no salvation inside political borders. There is no salvation inside a place. A fence does not a utopia make.”

“I don’t know what you want out of this. Out of me,” Clutter said.

“I want you to come with me. I can forgive this travesty,” he said, pointing to the severed hand. “She was a farrago anyway. A panther at a petting zoo.” The Fold came forward and knelt down, as if to crawl toward Clutter. “Quit pretending like you’re sick with my actions and admit that what you see in me is what you want for yourself. The ability to help those like us in Brep.”

“I did—I do!—want what you have. But I don’t want it the way you want to give it. The way you want to display it. Your methods suck.”

“Okay. Fine.” The Fold stood and reconsidered. He thought about that. A well-placed mask was falling away on the inside of him. “If you don’t come with me, I’ll take your shadow. That’s what I do, right? I’ll take it, and when it comes back in six years, I’ll take that one, too. I’ll haunt you, Acyron. Your friends. Your acquaintances. I’ll take from those you speak to, walk by, or live with. Anyone you dream. Birds you see in the trees will suffer. I’ll go to every ceremony duty you’ll be posted to and every night I’ll stand over and watch you huddle in this squalid shadowless crap-site.”

Clutter believed him. He knew that all of The Fold’s words would come to fruition. And just like a sweet piece of fruit, The Fold would gnaw all of his skin and flesh off and leave nothing but the pit with juice running down his chin. But this was why he reached out to The Fold in the first place: to find a way not to suffer under anyone’s thumb. Why did so many escape plans have a way of cycling back into just utterly unfuckingbelievable crises?

“I want to show you a trick,” Clutter said.

The Fold pressed down on his lips with a finger. “Hmm.”

“A trick where I make a camel with three humps.”

“There are no three-humped camels, Clutter.”

“Not with that attitude there won’t be…”

The Fold chewed this kind of banter like termites eat lumber. It was why he loved—yes, loved—Clutter Acyron. And it was why Clutter probably marveled at The Fold. All of this was why the next six years would be a clotted mix of relief and resentment for the both of them.

“Go on then,” The Fold said, bending his fingers in anticipation of some deleterious crease. “You’ve already moved to sideshow entertainment. Amaze me.”

Clutter Acyron began the camel’s head and the arcing back. Then: the Ultimate Substitution. Each bend and push of the shadowstuff cut his hands, and they became stiff and slick with liquid carmine. The camel grew and cuffed The Fold under a hoof as Clutter was pulled like a bag of bones behind his creation.

He was trading shadow for safety. Like a self-destruct button.

The asphalia engulfed The Fold up under and inside the camel’s belly; it stomped and craned and churned the dirt. Clutter had been lifted into the air and with certain grief, he whipped out the uncle’s nail from his pocket and sliced his own shadow from his self.

A profound weight both fell and lifted.

The camel invaginated into a rhomboid shape then a torus and then what can only be called an impossible shape, something utterly galactic. The whole thing—Clutter’s former shadow now a prison, spun on the ground like a cheap toy.

Bombesin Rev opened Labrashad’s door and stepped out and scooped up the asphalia. All business, she examined the sides for quality, and, once pleased, placed it in a large cloak pocket as one does a random smooth riverstone.

“Why the camel?” she asked. “Why not the swan, as you’d done before?”

It was hard to weave together words now. Clutter felt metaphysically unsquared. “Because,” he said, struggling, “I’ve heard camels can go a long way without much at all in an inhospitable environment.”

She asked what he would do now? Wait for ceremony duty? Hide?

“The sundown dogs are vicious this season,” Bombesin said. “You need to plan ahead.”

Clutter said he’d stay to help rehabilitate scissor kids. Or teach defensive shadow-folding. Something benign.

5.

Before returning home, Bombesin Rev told Clutter that there was another way to reach Ittra if smuggling wasn’t possible or preferred. He declined to hear it and instead said his goodbyes.

He made his way to the sequence of bridges and underways where always some wretched shadowless stood and wore the heavy candle-crowns. Ceremony punks howled somewhere down a raw and bloody alley.

Clutter stood at the foot of an iron plinth. After a moment, he scaled the plinth and gently brought down the shadowless standing at duty. He removed the candle-crown and placed the tortuous device on his own head.

Molten wax fell into his eye sockets, over his ears, down his neck. The contraption was much heavier than he ever anticipated. Already, his shoulders ached. How had these people withstood this?

He and the shadowless put their shoulders into the plinth and toppled it.

The relieved shadowless looked wan and confused, but Clutter pressed a house key with his address on it into their hand and suggested they get some sleep in his bed. Eat his food. Take a bath.

A pack of sundown dogs’ keening broke out below them in the sewers.

The shadowless disappeared into the night.

Clutter Acyron stalked the streets of Brep from dawn well into day, getting up in people’s faces, practicing the ara tuck, trying to feel his shadow grow under the weight of the candlelight.

KYLE WINKLER lives in northeast Ohio. He's the author of the cosmic horror novella, The Nothing That Is (available May 11), and his speculative fiction and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, The Rupture, Scare Street, The Rumpus, and The Millions. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Kent State University - Tuscarawas. Find him on Twitter: @bleakhousing.

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