The King of Shadows is Dead

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”

When my mother died, I had recurring nightmares that she had been buried alive. She spoke to me; I heard her voice muffled under the dirt or in empty dream houses, echoing in dark corridors. As I accepted her death, the dreams faded.

And now my father has passed away. Since he had been The King of Shadows, I expected him to haunt my dreams in frightening ways. Instead, I’ve been dreaming about building things. I’ve twice dreamed that I was building a shinkendo dojo with sensei. I’ve also been dreaming that I am an Imagineer building new dining experiences and attractions at Disneyworld. I built things in my dreams last night, too, but I don’t remember what they were. A tent? A skyscraper? It was shelter of some sort.

My father was a diplomat to Greece for the State Department. He went on to become an investigator for the Franchise Tax Board for many tumultuous years until he took an early retirement.I suspect that my subconscious is busy building because of all the damage my father did to my life and those around him. He hurt animals. Children. Everyone close to him. His death brought crises because of his ill planning and even more ill mental state. (I’m still exhausted from dealing with said crises after his death.) More Grendel than Augustus, he raided and destroyed the cities of my life. For years, I tried to rebuild what he had crushed in his meaty hands. Sometimes the cities lasted a while. Many perished. I eventually learned skills that helped me withstand his assaults. But when I stepped into his house after his death, I watched with alarm as my memories tore everything down.

These last two weeks I sometimes sink into despair, wishing that he’d been a different person, wishing he’d been the father who sat beside me, encouraging and loving, instead of the strange, dangerous creature that he was. But as I acknowledged all those years ago in my story “The King of Shadows,” he was the one who opened my imagination.

He would sit by my bed at night, telling me stories. Fairytales. Ghost stories. Tales of sorcery and horror. He’d motion toward the shadows, demanding that they stop their movement toward my bed. And they would, too. Like children with gentle fathers, I did not fear monsters at night when my father commanded them to be still. My father was the King of Shadows. They – like me – fled from his outstretched hand.

Professor Katherine Hohlwein, one of my English professors in college, once said that the way to make a poet was to take a sensitive person and hurt her. I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for my father. I wouldn’t be a musician, either, as he was both a composer and performer. When I was six, my parents bought me one of those baby pianos with a color-coded strip of paper to place over the keys so I could plunk out pieces in a correspondingly coded music book. I very soon tired of it because I hated the high-pitched plink-plink of the keys. I wanted to play Daddy’s piano — the wooden Chickering & Sons cathedral in the living room that made rapturous sounds. Whenever Daddy played, resonant notes would thunder through the apartment: joyous, passionate, sorrowful. So I climbed up onto the enormous, hard piano bench and placed the color-coded strip over the piano keys. The narrow colored strips didn’t match the much bigger keys, but I figured it out soon enough.

I played and wrote music for many years with his help and encouragement, but some cruel streak in him decided that neither music nor writing were to be my future. He took drastic steps to ensure that I couldn’t study music — or anything else — in college, even though I was an honors student and acclaimed musician in high school. If it weren’t for my mother and my own subterfuge, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all.

And that’s when I heard them. Wild things, deep things, dark things. Squeaking and howling, cursing the light. They strutted, pranced, and gyred in their abysmal procession toward the sarcophagus.

As a grownup, I’ve taken the shriveled seeds that he gave me and nurtured them until they flourished into gardens of belladonna blossoms, lily of the valley, nightshades and blood roses. Deadly thorns and fragrant blooms. My creative life thrives in moonlight and monsoons. In heatwaves and sandstorms. I make mirages shimmer and chase clouds across the sky. Mountains lift me on their shoulders and vast ocean waves carry me like a princess on a silvery palanquin.

I am the daughter of The King of Shadows. I have inherited his legerdemain of the foulest fairy wood, the power to command the shadows…

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, 1868

And now I sit on the throne, but I rule with a different heart and hand.

My throne is not twisted and ugly. It glimmers with starlight, ensconced in gnarled tree roots, canopied in jasmine flowers, draped in azure silks. I invite the unholy, the bruised, the bankrupt of spirit, the heartbroken and monstrous to rest at court until I find stories for them so they can sweep into the night skies and commit terrors. Those creatures of pitch and craft are mine now. They are all he left me.

I’m blind with tears. For his death. For his life. For how much of him is in me.

But it’s time to build cities of forever.

It’s going to be beautiful.

Sleeping Beauty Gustave Dore

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9 thoughts on “The King of Shadows is Dead

  1. I hurt for you because of all your pain and suffering due to your father. This piece is beautiful yet troubling to me. Remember many love you and hope you over come all of this. You have a full life a head and you can over come all of this and make a very special life for yourself. We will all sit back and watch you blossom.

  2. Pingback: Farewell, BBC World Have Your Say | Maria Alexander

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