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 bet