Winner of the 2007 NH High School Fiction Contest
We Are Dust and Shadows
by Tara Isabella Burton
I left her behind – I left her behind in Ancient Rome, in fin de siècle Paris, in Gatsby’s New York City, in a dream world that I had tied and tangled with imaginary gossamer. I left behind my shifting shadow: the girl I used to know, the girl I used to be. I left her and I kissed her forehead, and I told her I’d return for her in the morning. And so, slowly, I began my metamorphosis, and my descent: a kind of reverse mythological transformation in which the fantastic creature I used to be shuddered and shook and shrunk and became meek and mortal.
I used to be something – something suckled on stories, someone living between the lines of poems and the pages of books. At six, I thought I was a changeling brought in from fairyland; at fifteen, I dreamed of dancing on the riverbanks of the Seine. I dreamed of traveling in time, of living romantically, of searching poetically. At fifteen, I lived exhaustingly; I steamrollered my way through life with the kind of intensity that bubbles and boils and explodes like a witch’s cauldron.
And then once upon a time in Winter Term at a boarding school in New Hampshire, I met him; once upon a time in Winter Term at a boarding school in New Hampshire, he was a senior and he was blond and he was cold and, somehow, he loved me. Winter Term I met Virgil Bryce, and he was tall and frail like a nineteenth century dandy must have been (and for years I had been madly in love with Dorian Gray). He was effete and sneering the way a courtier at Versailles must have been (and for years I had been bitingly in love with the Vicomte de Valmont), and in the flytraps he set up, we somehow fell into the roles of romance, and from there we tumbled, like rebellious angels out of paradise.
The first thing I said to him after he kissed me (after dinner in town, behind my dormitory) – I remember the first thing I said to him after he kissed me, because I said it like a character like Isabel Archer would have said it, like a Henry James heroine, at once coquettish and Quaker-honest: “You know, Virgil, I can never fall in love with anything but books and stories.”
I did not mean it. I meant it fully.
And from there we spiraled, and we rotted on the vine.
“You know, Sophie,” he said to me many times, over the course of two and a half months, in a voice so low and trickling-treacle that I did not yet know to fear it. “This whole…living-in-your-head thing…you’re young and lost…let me show you the real world” and “Grow up some, Sophie; grow up some. I can teach you – I can be your guide” and in the brilliant naiveté of being fifteen I nodded my head and wondered if my temples were all erected to false gods, and so I allowed them to crumble into funereal dust.
“You’re not as crazy as you think you are, Sophie. Love, oh my love, get out of your own head.” And he began to pick out the little things, the little remnants of the girl I used to be, like dog-hairs, like lice. (“You know dear, you really shouldn’t wear that to Republican Club – and oh, Sophie, you make me cringe enough as it is – and, darling, how much acting experience do you haveanyway, because you have a lot of room to grow – and dear, you’re a good writer, just unpolished – and dear, you need to learn that there are people smarter than you are – and my love, you need to stop reading so many books.”) He smiled when I told him he was right, and so I began to crave his smiles, and he became addicted to his own withering vanity.
But, of course, he was beautiful. Temptations often are.
And so in the ice of Winter Term I bowed my head. I smeared on a smile and I followed him to Republican Club; and beneath the blowing of a blizzard we’d stand under the library walkway. And instead of seeing it as a Victorian alleyway, as I once had – all alive in color and fantasy – I’d see the brick in it, the matter, and he would applaud me: toss me a kiss or a biscuit/ And he would tell me what progress I’d made and how mature I’d gotten and how invaluable he was to me.
“I’ve given you the ability to live, love,” he said, on the day we were most in love. He stroked my shoulder, played his part. “You can trust people now – not books.” He laughed and his laugh was almost bitter. “What would you do without me?” He feared what I could do without him. He feared me without him. “And I do hope you don’t revert to your old ways when I graduate.”
He spoke then of my old ways, my little wicked ways, and I thought of them, too, steeped in the ancient magic of myths and temples, and I stopped being my own secret shadow then: then, when I simply nodded when he said that Joan of Arc was probably schizophrenic, probably a lesbian too, and that Kerouac was a fool for getting high.
I left him for spring break, went home to Italy for the last time before we were to move back to the city, and he gave me only this as a parting gift.
“Oh, Virgil – I can’t wait to go back to Rome. It’s beautiful, this time of year. It’ll be a Renaissance.”
“As long as you don’t undo the reformation I’ve done on you.”
He slipped a needle beneath my skin, always; he told me he loved me. He choked the life from me in his spare time.
And for once I replied. “Really, Virgil (you silly thing, you darling boy) – don’t you think going from the Reformation all the way back to the Renaissance would be a bit counterintuitive – you know, to begin with?”
He was stung; I’d stood too hard against him. “Your wit – though biting, dear – is completely unnecessary.” Without me, he was only a beautiful boy, blazing with dreams of redemption too great for him. Virgil Bryce was born to be an orator; he feared my Rome.
So we kissed goodbye and he told me how many good things were around the corner; a day later I was home without him.
I saw the Borgia streets, the Michelangelo skies, and he was not at my side to call them stones and clouds and so they were mine – brilliantly mine – and I was on my own, and at my best, and ecstatic. But my shadow followed me, rippling on the cobblestones, whispering through the walls; wherever I went, she followed, the sylvan sylph-shadow of the girl I used to be, who had never denied her dreams, never spoken against her Word in any Gethsemane, and I could no longer transcend that reality to meet her.
And I lived happily ever after, to a point – two weeks later I returned to Exeter and I broke up with him on the first day of the term. Two weeks later I lied, and I told him I loved him when I only loved literature, and tried to explain that I didn’t want to be reformed, to have my viscera aligned in the way he wanted; I wanted no more of his emotional lobotomies.
“You’re young – Sophie – and you’re lost. You need me. You’re young and you are lost and I’m not going to let you be the same person you were at the start of Winter Term. You’d changed, Sophie – you’d grown up some.”
And I was Peter Pan when I said no to growing up, and I was Antigone when I said no to his lukewarm compromise, but I was Sophie when I said goodbye.
Without him, I slept less soundly, and dreamt more fervidly. Without him, I remembered the times I had bowed my head like an Arabian concubine and said “Yes,” and those are the sins, those tiny, infinitesimal sins against myself, for which I must atone, for the sake of Joan of Arc, for my books, for my dreams – and for the sake of that shadow on my wall.
And so in the end the only lesson I’ve learned from him, from my thin and puppet-wielding teacher, is this: I cannot be his disciple.
And so I am an apostle, shouting for the stars to hear the stories of the shadow on my wall.