Robin Smith

GMH 12

Shadows

We all have our own little idiosyncrasies, don't we? I once knew a man who would check the accuracy of his pocket watch once every two hours, precisely on the hour; to make sure he would never be late for an appointment. My own sister insisted on tugging the tablecloth before her exactly straight and smooth before eating; if it wasn't perfect, she would be unable to eat. Dear Winifred infuriated Mother at times. I myself am prone to straighten my tie whenever nervous, excited or agitated.

All of these derived from our personalities; the man was anal in the extreme, my sister quite the perfectionist, and I have always been possessed of something of an uncertain disposition.

Yet it was the habit of an aunt of ours – one Aunt Theodosia, if my memory serves me correctly – that was the most bizarre. Of course, I never failed to be amused by the man glancing worriedly at his watch or by my sister's frantic little tugs, but it was Auntie's that was truly fascinating.

She was the embodiment of all that was peculiar, extraordinary and abnormal. That is not to say she herself was peculiar, extraordinary or abnormal herself, but she seemed to draw all that was to herself without the intention to do so. She resembled our father: tall, upright, perpetually amused expression gracing her small thing lips. Her pale hair was always either pulled too far back, giving her eyes a startlingly blue, hawk-like sharpness, or left to dangle distractingly in front of her eyes, creating a withdrawn, languid presence behind the blue of the iris. Aunt Theodosia had a real presence, and she knew it. I could not take my eyes off her.

Her fingers would tap perpetually. Whether she was aware of this I never knew. Tap, tap, tap, a constant rhythm, drummed out on the scrolled wood of the chaise longue.

"The water lilies shall not bloom this year," she supposed quietly. It is the first thing I remember her saying, before I was removed from her presence by a housemaid I had never seen before, and would never see again.

However, it was not the tap that would fascinate me. As a child, the nursery maid was given permission to take me down to the sizeable lake in the grounds of her home. I never paid the house itself much attention; it was just one of a number of grotesquely large country manor houses, with sweeping wings and stained grey walls. My sister found the windows quite enchanting, but I never took much notice.

No, it was Aunt Theodosia's lake that held my interest. Broad and deep, the omnipresent wind would draw the surface up into uncomfortable ripples, forcing the ever-petrified ducks to bob with it or take flight. Willow trees, gnarled into beauty, fringed the dark water. Bull rushes and weeds encroached on the far bank, but they were never cleared away. Birch trees clung to each other, silvery bark the single pure thing beside that lake. Even as a child I recognised how out of place the birch was. I almost pitied it. Though I asked the shivering nursemaid many a time how deep the lake was, she refused to answer no matter how much or how sharply I needled her.

My interest kindled, and being the petulant child I was, I pestered my aunt into telling me everything. She merely watched me, her dark gaze lazy, tapping out some inane and infuriating rhythm on the back of her closed book. When she refused, I pouted, stamped my foot in perfect imitation of my sister, and fled the room.

I was whisked away from Aunt Theodosia all too soon. Mother refused to explain, so I asked Father. In response, I received a new nursemaid. Not once did I question why. I only recalled the tap, tap, tap that was suddenly achingly missing from my existence.

I returned to the house by the lake almost a man. I had outgrown imitating my sister and pouting, but I had not outgrown the lake. The ducks still huddled nervously on the other bank or among the rushes. The water seemed darker, the willows depositing their shed leaves into its already murky darkness, further polluting its waters with rot. Now older and more attentive, my eyes traced intricate trails worked themselves into the mud as the water lapped at the muddy shores.

Walking a circuit around the lake, my hand shifted to my throat, groping for a tie to shift.

Aunt Theodosia knelt beneath the shadow of the birch trees as if in prayer. Except it wasn't Auntie anymore. It appeared she had given herself to her idiosyncrasy; eyes, no longer defined by her inconvenient hair, found mine immediately. I was wrong; they were not hawk-like, they were reptilian. Entrapped by those dark, dark eyes, she and I grew scales and tails and claws and took to the water, two beings composed of dense muscle and blackened plates of armour along our backs. Silvery teeth sprouted like the birch trees from our mouths, growing upwards, though no longer out of place; the white was quickly reddened.

I understood why the ducks quaked whenever I approached.

Ambivalence claimed me. I no longer had a tie to shift, nor did I have a watch to check or a tablecloth to tug. The tap, tap, tap never once paused. The murky water gave nothing away; I thrashed, confused yet excited. It was a call to something, but I couldn't comprehend exactly what. Only that it was important.

Did you know, Aunt Theodosia, that alligators prefer nursemaids?

I awoke on the bank with a sodden handkerchief clutched in my hand. I stood carefully on two human feet, walking steadily and carefully back to the manor. The nerves had left me. I had no desire to fondle my tie in the obscene, childish, embarrassing habit. The mere thought of my sister straightening a tablecloth created a contained rage within my body, and I wished it was her handkerchief in my hand. But it was too common to be hers; Winnie much preferred silk to cheap cotton, and Mother would have it no other way.

Aunt Theodosia truly possessed the most fascinating idiosyncrasy of all.