Increasingly translucent grow the leaves on the shade trees with each passing harvest. By the time they drop in the fall, they are but empty husks, like insects drained of their lives by the hungry suckling of spiders. And in the spring, when new buds appear, they are fewer in number and lighter in color. The great dark flowers which once bloomed beneath them, unfurling from the trunks and covering the grass in vast umbrellas of shade, are shot through with holes, pale and hot, incapable of sheltering any living thing come summertime.
The shade has been drawn out of them, again and again, more shade than any tree can offer. After the long decades trees are given to reach the mature harvesting age, they are worn out in a matter of years. By their ninth harvest, most trees are felled, their wood found use for, and new trees planted in their stead; the shade they once offered having been bottled and sold, spent quick in the sands of the desert or uselessly on a walk across town where a large-brimmed hat would have sufficed.
Clive inspects a leaf from a tree in the depths of his father’s plantation. It snaps off at his touch. He holds it in his palm and can see his skin straight through. He imagines a jellyfish caught and stretched into a sheet, left to dry in the sun, and then cut into leafshapes by a careful X-ACTO knife and pasted on the trees. Such is the ill shade these leaves
He marks the tree with his can of red spray paint and moves on to the next.
The plantation runs for hundreds of acres. It is the largest in the valley. His great-grandfather had planted the first saplings over a century ago. Clive proceeds down the rows of trees, relieved each time he can leave the paint holstered at his hip. Behind him, his brothers’ chainsaws make quick work of the marked trees. It’s not a sound he cares for, despite what they say about his people, for who among the protestors who so often gather near the entrance had spent more time up amongst the branches than he? Not one of them. What joy do they think this brings him, walking the long rows with his can of spray paint, like the angel of death? His brothers might love the chainsaw, true, but that does not mean they don’t care for the trees. They were as a troop of monkeys as children, learning to climb even before they could walk, but a man must make a living.
Entering the willow grove, he finds himself among the only trees that have survived since his great-grandfather’s days. Few can afford the high price of willow shade, so they are tapped only rarely and thus have enjoyed nearly the run of their natural lives, but as he parts the hanging willow curtains and walks toward the center, it is with a heavy heart he notes the sun beating through, here in what should be the eternal night of the plantation.
He approaches one of the old willows, lays his hand on her wrinkled bark, and unholsters the can of paint, marking her for death. They all knew it was coming. If not this year, then next. New projects out in the desert are making men rich. The barons of such projects have acquired a taste for shade, and the rest of the story writes itself. They have been straining the willows more than ever in the last few years.
Clive stains several trunks red before radioing his brothers. Then he moves for his truck and flies down the rooty path, trying to get out of the area before he hears the sound of the saws revving to life.
“Methinks all that shade has cast its darkness upon your pallor, my boy,” greets the familiar barman. The long oaken bar had come from his family’s plantation, along with nearly all the furniture, and the framing of the tavern itself. This whole town was built on shady money and his family’s lumber. Clive moves through it like some sort of dark prince—tall, slender, and distant, with eyes as hollow as tree cavities, thoughts burrowed within like elf owls.
“It’s the new desert folk. That place is as impossible to shade as the sun’s own surface, yet they cart it out there by the truckload. Whiskey, please. P’ah, you know what I like.” Clive manages a half-smile as he starts to order, the barman already lowering a glass before him.
“Son, I’ve been serving your kin for as long as there has been shadow in the valley. I surely ought to know what it is you like.”
The tavern is mostly empty. Beyond Clive and the barman, there is but one other. He slides down the long bar as Clive nurses his third whiskey, coming to a stop with one empty stool between them. The barman is at his glasses with a polishing rag, back turned on his patrons as he prepares for the approaching evening, but with one ear tuned to the least of wanting.
“You’d be Clive, then, is that so?” the man asks in way of greeting. He is older than Clive, of average height and stout build. His face is rough, unshaven for a handful of days, with large purple bags beneath his eyes, but other than that he appears rather well kept, the bags being of the sort that are natural on some men’s faces and the five-o’clock shadow being high-fashion in this particular town.
“That’s right,” Clive answers.
“They told me I’d find one of you here. If not you, then your brothers, or even the old man, but I was secretly hoping it would be you. Of course, you can’t put much stock in what you read in the tabloids, but I’ve always felt most akin to you, if I may be so bold. The others, they’re all a bit too boisterous for my nature. You, though, you appear sensitive, open to quiet reason.”
“Out with it,” Clive snaps. “Can’t a man have even one drink without being propositioned?”
“But, my good man, you have had three,” the stranger smiles sheepishly. He’s been found out, but he has too much charm for that to throw him. He was always going to be found out. It’s how to recover from the initial ousting that separates a good salesman from the rest, and he can see that his barbarous joke has hooked his client. Clive laughs and his shoulder melts. He turns toward him just a bit as the barman’s ear swivels.
“My name is Neil. I’ve traveled a long way to meet with you. I think I have something that will interest you greatly. But please, no rush. Finish your drink. Have another, by all means, if that is your inclination. I think I’ll have another myself. You see, I could sit here and drink all afternoon. It is nothing to me to spend money in such an idle fashion. I am not a desperate man. I have not come to grovel before you with some foolish idea of tricking you into signing me a check. I have come to you as an unknown, yes, but also as an equal. In my heart, I feel the equal of any man, for you see, I am an accomplished and satisfied individual. What I have to propose to you would simply be in both of our best interests. Neither of us would be put at a disadvantage by going into business with the other, but instead we would act as two trees, casting a double shadow: the shade made twice as rich by the overlapping thatchwork of our united canopy.”
“Mixed shade is for the masses,” Clive says into his glass, preparing to turn his shoulder once again. “It is the pure, single-origin shade that goes for the highest mark. Everyone knows that.”
“Yes, that is what is widely believed. But, my good man, we both know that is your family’s greatest swindle. Tell me, honestly, is shade not shade? If I were to pour two pools here before you, could you tell me which is of superior cast?”
Once again, this stranger has turned Clive back toward him, and, with his family’s dark secret exposed there at the bar, he has lost patience with this stranger’s games.
“Enough foolery. Reveal your purpose here,” Clive growls.
“Not here. Come with me,” Neil instructs.
The town’s center is of Clive’s father’s design. There is a broad street running through parallel lines of storefronts where motor vehicles are prohibited. The buildings are constructed of wood, simple in their design but aesthetically pleasing for that reason. The street most resembles a frontier town as portrayed in any number of westerns. It is a huge tourist draw, although just beyond the strip the rest of town sprawls with traffic, gas stations, and chain eateries—same as any other.
Neil leads the way through the district. The main street is growing dense with evening life, and many vie for Clive’s attention, but he passes them by, following this stranger out of the lights of downtown and to his car, parked in the public lot hidden behind the row of buildings.
They drive in relative silence to an industrial area across town, shut down for the night, continuing all the way out to the train yard where Neil parks on the street and kills the engine. They duck through a cut fence and eventually come to a line of cars parked dead on the rails.
“What is this?” Clive asks as Neil removes a key from around his neck, undoes a mighty padlock on one of the cars, and rolls the door open. Inside is a machine that Clive recognizes right away as a shade harvester.
“You have brought me all this way for a look at a shade harvester? Believe me, my family has top-of-the-line equipment. We have no need for your inventions.”
“Have you listened to nothing I have told you? You think I’d waste your time? This shade harvester, which I have indeed invented with my own two hands, does not graze in the meager shadows beneath trees like a family of deer. No, it feasts on the boundless darkness cast by mountains. It can handle even that of caverns which have seen no light since the cooling of the planet. My good fellow, it can eat the night!”
“Nonsense. If the machine could do such as you say, why come to me at all?”
“Your family’s distribution is unparalleled. Your brand name is among the most respected in the world. Who am I? I am no one. I could build myself up, perhaps, but why waste the time? The profits latent within are infinite, and what is infinity divided by two? Still infinite! I am willing to cut you in, to go in as equal partners with your family. You would never have to fell a tree again. Your family would grow rich beyond reckoning.”
Clive takes a moment to peer into the car. The machine does not look much different from any he has seen, but there is something about it that makes him feel faint. He ignores the feeling and hoists himself up for a closer look.
Kneeling beside it, he looks down at the mysterious inventor: “And what of the effects this machine of yours has on the mountain, on the caves, on the night?”
“A single tree can sustain nearly a decade of harvesting, and how many thousand times greater is a mountain?” Neil walks up to the lip of the car and places his palms down flat. He smiles proudly. “The effects would be infinitesimal, practically beside the point. And the caves, their reservoirs of darkness are deeper than hell itself. We’d but have to tap the surface to sustain all of humanity for a generation.”
“As for the night?”
Neil laughs. “I am honored you’d even think to fear I could have an effect on that. I assure you, I am but a man. The night is limitless. With what are we contending for that darkness but time? And with each turn of the planet, it is replenished anew. We could turn this machine up all the way from sundown to sunrise every night and never put a dent in that endless dark.”
Clive and his father board one truck while Neil and Clive’s two brothers take the second. Setting the path, the first truck cuts across the great orchard at a steady clip. The road is bumpy, but the machine is strapped tight in the bed of the truck. It does not move. There are a few workers out in the trees but not many. The work has been largely automated in recent years. The two trucks slide by, heading out to the edge of the plantation, where the trees butt up against the sheer valley walls.
By the time they reach the perimeter, the sun has dipped behind the high cliffs, and the mountains are throwing long shadows across the orchard. Clive’s younger brothers, a strapping set of twins, climb into the bed and bring the machine down and set it in the grass. There are stumps all around them. These two had been out here just weeks earlier, clear-cutting the entire area.
“Alright,” Clive’s father says to Neil. “Let’s see it.”
“Very well. If you all will, please, take a few steps back.”
The patriarch takes two big steps back. He is an elderly man but still fit and straight. He stands strong in his cowboy hat and boots, his three grown sons reaching only his shoulders. Neil readies a remote control. He twists a few knobs and then cranks the machine on. It inhales sharply before a sudden concussive drop emits, like a massive bolt has been driven into the earth. Its reverberations are felt in their feet. The trees bordering the clearing shake loose a few leaves, and birds leap into the sky by the hundreds as the machine settles into a buzzing drone.
“Is it working?”
Clive looks around him. The level ground appears somehow bowled in, with the machine at the bottom like the center of a funnel. The block of shadow oozes slowly toward it, hardly perceptible as it is constantly replenished by the mountain. It moves very slowly, like tar, but it does indeed move. Clive and his family watch in awe for a few long moments.
“Hot damn!” Clive’s father shouts. He removes his hat and holds it in both hands over his crotch. The twins do a little dance as Neil shuts the machine off. The ground seems to grow level again. The whining stops. Birdsong returns in a rush.
“Boys, load it up. Take the second truck and stash it in the barn. Then head to the house and have the kitchen prepare a feast. This calls for a celebration! Mister Neil, ride with me. We have much to discuss.”
So the long elusive shadows cast by the mountains bordering the valley become a bottleable substance. Clive’s father is ecstatic. He signs a deal that night. The next day, he brings in his most trusted team of marketers and instructs them to begin a campaign for rolling out their new line of shade: Mountain Cast, Cavern Pool, and Nightshade. Even the cheapest of the new line was to outprice Willow Grove by an incredible margin.
Over the next few months, the vast demands of the desert projects are lifted from the trees as the barons are swayed by the new campaign and begin ordering Mountain Cast and Cavern Pool in great quantities.
Nightshade is bottled in small batches and sold only to their wealthiest clientele. Even the desert barons cannot afford to splurge on the night.
Business booms. Clive’s family find themselves propelled into the elite of the world. In a span of only a few years, they buy up nearly all their competition. Neil is granted a large tract of land on the old plantation, and there he builds his joint residence-laboratory and is given everything he needs to pursue his work. Before long, thanks to further inventions, they are able to offer shade from the sunless regions of the deep ocean trenches, as well as start a novelty line with shade from such locales as the Parisian catacombs, the pyramids of Egypt, and the Great Wall of China.
Clive’s father pours his portion of the new earnings into his Old West project, buying up the surrounding land and demolishing any modern structures, converting the whole area into his faux-frontier town. It proves to be a huge hit with the tourists, and he goes so far as to terraform his grandfather’s orchard, re-creating in its place vast grasslands and importing a herd of buffalo. The shade trees, no longer necessary for business, are sold as lumber.
Clive fears the influx of money has made his father delusional. He tries to talk him out of clear-cutting the orchard but fails. Only a few acres of trees are set aside. The sight of the new prairie depresses him horribly, and no amount of money seems to help. The twins, on the other hand, take to their new lifestyle right away. First, they upgrade their sportscars. Then, as their wealth increases, they go in on a private jet. For their father’s birthday one year, they gift him a yacht christened Shady Orchard, which he ignores completely, as no such thing could exist in the world he has built for himself. Finally, they buy a pair of neighboring islands on a faraway archipelago and come and go as they please.
Neil believes he is close to a breakthrough and will soon be able to revive expired shade, which, according to him, can be stored in concrete for decades. He sends Clive to New York to acquire the rights to excavate the stored shade from the former site of the twin towers; this will join the company’s new patriotic line, slotted to hit the market by the Fourth of July.
Finding such wondrous new sources has become his role in the family business. Hoping it will bring him the fulfilment he is growing desperate for, he takes to it and, for a long while, is rarely seen in town.
In Mexico and Guatemala, he works toward securing rights to several Mayan temples, while in Israel, he establishes a semi-reliable contact—a man who claims to know the location of the very tomb of Jesus Christ. In Los Angeles, he proposes a deal with a major film studio to harvest shade from the sets of their big blockbusters, which could then be sold to movie theater executives, who, in turn, could darken their theaters with shadows from the very films they are showing.
“Where will you go next?” a Canadian backpacker asks of him in Transylvania. They are in a tourist-friendly wine bar in which the servers are dressed like vampires. Clive fits in better than he’d like to admit. All the traveling has left him ragged, thinner than ever, and bone-tired. He’d met the young woman while touring Bran Castle. She recognized him and asked for an interview for her travel blog. Lonely after such a long time on the road, he agreed.
“Reykjavik,” he sighs.
“Another bottle?” their high-collared server asks. Clive looks to his drinking mate, who shrugs happily. She’s a college student, not going to say no to more free wine but too polite to presume.
With a flick of his black cape, the server disappears into the cellar. A few minutes later, he returns. They are probably ripping him off, Clive realizes, as the server gives the bottle’s supposed biography before pouring two glasses and taking his leave. He doesn’t find the energy to care.
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” the backpacker asks, watching a pair of vampires leaning together behind the bar, taking advantage of a brief interlude between duties to joke around. “How they whore out their national mythos for the likes of us: the billionaire and the backpacker,” she says, and Clive can see the kid has just come up with the title for her blog post. She leans forward, fishes a battered Moleskine out of an interior jacket pocket, and jots something down before returning it to its rightful place, looking pleased with herself.
“Anything’s sad from the right angle,” Clive mutters. He sips the wine, but no. That does not do the trick either. He’d been expecting a release that the first bottle did not offer. His stomach has been all tied up for weeks now. He feels empty. The wine does nothing to warm him. It slides down into his stomach and bubbles uneasily. There is a pocket of air behind his eyes. His mind is like an empty room, an oscillating fan at its center, turning one way and then the other, and then back.
“Good luck with your piece,” he says, suddenly standing up and dropping enough leu to cover the bill on the table. “The rest is yours,” indicating the bottle, before trudging off to his room.
“It can’t have been the machine,” Neil says in a panic over the phone. “It can’t have been. We can’t have exhausted it so quickly. The mountain, the mountain, it must have…”
“Slow down,” Clive says, sitting up and reaching for the lamp. Neil is frantic. Out the window, Reykjavik is dark. “What happened?”
“Your brother,” the inventor stammers. “There’s been a rockslide.”
The French ban shadow-gathering in the catacombs, and the Egyptians follow suit. Talks in Mexico die away, and the mysterious Israelite stops returning Clive’s calls. After the funeral, he takes to the sea, to international waters with a new device of Neil’s creation. Before the accident, they had been doing good business with some powerful evangelicals from Alabama, and they were one of the few groups not to drop them, so Clive’s father is intent on keeping the new Biblical line rolling out.
Clive and the surviving twin take the family yacht. His father comes along, too, although the death of his son has driven him further into his delusions. The dead twin’s ashes are in an urn, carried by the living one, ready to be sprinkled into the ocean, which takes Clive by surprise. Wouldn’t he rather be laid to rest in what is left of the orchard? What connection does he have to the sea? But the living twin is insistent.
“This is what he always wanted.”
Clive tries to imagine the two discussing this. When had it come up? They’d certainly never approached him over such matters. It occurs to him that he’d hardly known the dead twin. Every exchange they’d had was a series of parries, joking, deflecting, laughing. All rather unsatisfying in the end. And that, perhaps, is why even Neil’s phone call had not returned him to the land of the living.
“Why Neil?” he asks his father one night as all three are on the deck together. It is a clear night, calm, and land has been out of sight for days. The Milky Way stretches visibly across the dome overhead. They are lounging in deck chairs, faces situated so they are looking straight up, while the living twin is near the railing, peering into the plane of water with a bottle of rum in hand.
“How could I have reached you, son? You were on the other side of the world.”
“A phone call would have sufficed. Just, why did I have to hear it from Neil?”
“A what now?”
“I was distraught, son. We were out there in the rubble, looking for your brother. And you know I’m no good at handling such contraptions. I’m a simple ranch hand.”
“No, Dad, you’re not. You are one of the richest men in the world.”
“Don’t,” the twin says, walking over to join them. “Don’t bother. If Dad says he’s a ranch hand, then he’s a ranch hand. And I’m Captain Ahab. And those crazy-ass Baptists want the darkness from inside of a fish, so we are going to give it to them!” the living twin declares. “What else they want? I’ll pry open Davy Jones’s Locker and take the infernal dark within! I’ll give them the very black hidden within the clam of a mermaid! I’ll fetch the haunted shade of the drowned kingdom of Atlantis! I’ll snuff out the flame of Prometheus and pitch all of humanity back into the void! Let there be darkness! I will eclipse the sun and radiate shadow! I—” he shouts into the wind before stumbling backward and sprawling into the empty deck chair.
The machine is small. The whale will swallow it without even realizing it. Then it will sit in the belly and gather darkness. It will be done in one mighty withdrawal so that the machine can be recovered before the whale dives again. That is the plan, and that is what they set out to do in the morning when the pod appears on radar.
Clive, his father, and his brother board the small boat, leaving the crew to man the yacht. The living twin flings the boat across the waves as their father stands at the front with his arms out, whooping wildly into the spray. In no time, they are floating in marvelously clear water. From over the side of the boat, Clive watches as the whales’ vacuum mouths suck at their tiny food source. For a moment, the scene almost releases that yawning pocket clouding Clive’s mind, but then his brother drops the machine. It plunges into the water, and without thinking, so does Clive. He dives down to it and clings to the machine, trying to prevent its fate; in an instant both are swallowed up.
Together, man and machine pass into a large chamber—dark, but hollow and roomy. The exact sort of room he always imagined for Jonah. Knee-deep water sloshing around, a single beam of light pouring in through the blowhole, lighting up the chamber a bodily red. I could live here, he thinks, even if that means I live only for a short while. For the first time in as long as he can remember, he is at peace. He wills the whale to dive, to fill his impossible bubble with water, so that he might die with this feeling etched upon him. The air hisses out from behind his eyes and he smiles.
From the boat, the living twin flicks the machine on remotely. Clive is still clutching it, but as it erupts in sound, he drops it to the tonguey floor, where it greedily gulps down the darkness, eliminating in an instant that which was producing it. The exterior of the whale flashes white before crumbling into a husk that disintegrates in the water.
The boat circles once, the living twin at the wheel, his father palming his cowboy hat in the wind as Clive is propelled to the surface in the release of air. They come to a stop in the choppy water and toss a rope toward him. He is pulled into the boat easily, as if he weighs nothing at all. The gray ashes of the whale mix with those of his brother in that vast and briny soup. Clive coughs some of it up. He leans over the side of the boat and spits a glob into the ocean, where it floats on the surface. Underneath, through his reflection, he sees something hanging in the current, sodden as Ophelia’s dress, lost as Pip, dancing in the water, easy as a jellyfish, down into the abyss.
Jacob Austin moves boxes in a supermarket distribution center. His writing has appeared in elsewhere and Every Day Fiction.