In the endless prairie, the tall grasses nestle a town whose inhabitants last only in the sliver of space between the dying sun and the ascending horizon. A town that lives and dies in the space of an hour each day, only to be reborn and die again the next. A town inhabited by shadow people, living their hour of life unaware of the repetition of their days, and of their fate at nightfall. Missing from maps and census counts alike, the town has been written of only once, in a small journal, yellowed with age and fraying at the spine.
In the town of shadow people who lived their shadow lives, there was a little shadow girl, who would come to be an anomaly for three reasons. First, she was born with a pair of smoky wings, though they were far too small to fly with.
Second, none but she ever saw the cage that sat upon her parents’ mantelpiece, a baroque nest of iron bars. Within it lived a silently roaring conflagration, burning in the shape of a bird. She alone stared at the flames it contained every evening; her parents never spared it a passing glance.
Every day as the prairie grasses swayed in the guttering wind, she would lay her fingers across the iron of the cage and watch as the bird’s feathers and beak pressed back, etching ochre and sienna lines of light into her shadow skin. They always faded slowly, but not as slowly as she would have liked.
The third difference was less apparent. She thought. Thought and wanted. Each night, facing death, she stared at the horizon and wanted so strongly she had no idea how to express it. And each night, the burning bird watched.
On a nondescript day like any other, a day none of the townspeople would have remarked upon or recalled, the girl took a breath, clenched her fist, and for the first time, broke the unwritten pattern of her days. The sky was fading into lonely blue at the edges of the horizon as she slipped the cage from the mantel and lashed it to the back of her rusty bicycle. She rode through the town, ignoring the faces of those she passed, knowing she was alone in her endeavor. Then the path crumbled and the asphalt was chewed apart by rocks and swathed in dust until even the dirt hid beneath a host of wild barley stalks. She dismounted, and walked the bike through the weeds, up the slope, until the town was less than a mote of dusky smoke in the distance. With careful fingers, she unloaded the cage. The girl stared at the burning bird for a long moment, and could have sworn it stared back, for all it had nothing but glowing embers with which to see.
“Perhaps,” she mused, “you took our bodies once, and left us with nothing but shadows. Perhaps that’s why you can fly and I can’t, why you have so much more to fly with. And that’s why they keep you locked up.” She tilted her head. “Or perhaps it’s spite. If we can’t feel the sun on our faces, perhaps neither should you.”
The bird was silent, save for the whispery crackling of its flames.
“You have wings large enough to carry you. How could I ever escape with these?” She cast a hand at her own back, at the stubs that could never hold her weight.
The bird did not reply.
On the cage there were three locks. One of pitted iron, one of smoking embers, and one of darkest, deepest ebon shadow.
She was prepared for the first. Around her neck she had slung an old iron key on old leather cord, pilfered from the bottom drawer of her mother’s armoire. The metal scraped and rattled as she worked it into the lock, and for a moment her heart seized with the fear that perhaps it was the wrong key. But she rattled it once more and the lock sprang open.
The second she had pondered for a long time, over many days; many lifetimes. She hissed as she covered the embers with her left hand, and almost drew away as the coals charred the edges of her shadow skin. But fire needs air and the second lock died in her grip, smothered.
The third eluded her, had eluded her since she first saw the cage on the mantel. She had thought perhaps the truth would come to her here, on the ridge, once the others had been dealt with. It did not. She shifted her feet, nervous. The light was ebbing slowly, like wax dripping away from a flame. Only moments stood between her and the nightly death.
She stared again at the bird, silent and unmoving. Why? it seemed to ask.
“I want to be able to live,” she stammered. “To live for a lifetime, not only an hour before death comes cutting back. Like you can.”
The light in the west slipped like fingers clinging to the sky, hopeless and feeble.
“Liberty,” she whispered. “I want to be free.”
The bird tilted its head. Suddenly, it shivered from burning plume to flaming wingtips to blazing tail feathers, and a small puff of down, smaller than her little finger, dislodged itself from the bird’s breast. It fluttered down to rest in the grasses by her knee, not burning but shining like a star. She picked it up with shaking fingers, and gently placed it in the hole of the final lock.
It melted, and the bird shrieked exultant. It burst from the cage like a dreamer from a deep sleep, water from a breaking dam, poetry from the lips of an artist. Defiance and savage joy were etched in the sky with each beat of its furious wings, and the girl stared in awe as it flew.
Perhaps this final act spelled freedom for the bird but death for the girl, who died and woke up the next evening living the same shadow life as the townspeople, never to dream of escape or freedom ever again.
Or perchance the feather the bird had given her glowed brilliantly through the darkness, and gave the shadow girl twelve more hours of life, until the new sun rose and the feather and the girl both died with the night.
But handwritten in a small journal, yellowed with age and fraying at the spine, the ending is neither. Spidery, faded handwriting relates how the girl, her spirit more stubborn and substantial than any shadow had a right to be, took the feather from the lock and saw that it cast a shadow, a shadow so bright that it itself cast a shadow, and so on, until she held enough shadow-feathers to fashion herself wings that fanned out and kissed the sky.
Perhaps for the first time in her life she flew, twisting in the air like liquid twilight, winging away from the prairie to a place where there grew tall trees that cast shadows even in the height of the day, a place where a shadow could last forever. And perhaps she found the bird again, and he told her the truth of his imprisonment, why her town was always doomed to die, and why no one but she could have broken the third lock on his iron cage. Perhaps she wrote down her revelations in a notebook, marveling at how every day was suddenly different and inexplicably new. But that is a story for another time.