From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Where Shadows Meet Light

Princess Diana’s ghost emerges at night. There are other ghosts, presumably, but she doesn’t see them. She only sees the living.

At first she haunted Charles and Harry and William, but eventually it grew too painful to think about her life. She even grew tired of the longtime pleasure she’d taken from blowing into Elizabeth’s ear while she slept, making the old woman’s dreams as disturbed and uncomfortable as she had made Diana’s life.

She went overseas to America where she’d once visited the White House and danced with John Travolta in a midnight blue velvet gown that sold at auction for a hundred thousand pounds. This time, she traveled between ordinary houses, some white and others beige and mint and yellow. It was easy to find people she could haunt there, people who owned memorabilia with her face on it, but whose distance from the British Isles meant they didn’t know every detail of her reported life, giving her enough room to dwell and still keep her secrets.

After all these years, the memorabilia remained strange. Coins commemorating her marriage to Charles. Serving bowls and sugar jugs and butter dishes. Rhinestone-rimmed plates. Dolls with plastic distortions of her smile, signed photographs, mint tins, magazine clippings. One family even owned Princess Diana paper dolls with all her famous dresses carefully cut out in miniature, abandoned in the toy box of some grown child who no longer played at being royalty.

In a Florida condominium, she came upon a man whose dearest wish was to be her. She felt his desire hot in his mind when she drew forth from the shadows in his bedroom while he slept. It burned clearly through his dreams, a fervent call: to be Diana.

She lingered.

At first she assumed he was one of those men who want to be women, but after a few nights, she realized she was wrong. He wanted froth and silk and glamour, things that were feminine, but not necessarily female.

He wanted the kind of dazzle that drew the heir to the throne. He wanted to wear spangled red silk chiffon and emerald georgette and white lace embroidered with silk flowers and sequins. He wanted photographers to capture his every angle. He wanted crowds to sigh when he crossed to the other side of the street. He wanted a wedding with thirty-five hundred guests and seven hundred and fifty million more people watching. He even owned the paper dolls—not cut out, but displayed in a cabinet above the dishes, along with a hundred other images of Diana’s face.

Diana couldn’t observe him during the day—in the morning, she evaporated with the sunlight—but Jeffrey was a restless sleeper. When he woke at night, Diana followed him through the dark hallways as he paced the house. He was a fragile-looking man with white hair interspersed among the blond. He wore black silk pajamas with red and gold faux-Chinese embroidery, the jacket done up with frogging. White tabi socks warmed his feet. He was too chic for slippers.

Jeffrey sat at the wicker table in the atrium and rested his head in his hands, staring morosely at the shadows that the palm fronds cast on the wall. Diana settled behind him, integrating with the shadows he cast on the chair, imagining she was tangible enough to comfort him.

She’d comforted homeless children, landmine victims, lepers. She’d shaken hands with an AIDS patient, skin on skin, even when her advisers told her to wear rubber gloves. Now there was no skin on skin, no way to pat Jeffrey’s shoulder and say in the language of touch, whatever’s wrong, you’ll be all right.

His sad blue eyes looked dusky beneath his pale brows. Easy lines folded around his frown, but she’d seen other lines shape themselves around his smile, suggesting that he spent most of his life doing one or the other. His face was easy to decipher, but his mind was a mystery–everything but the core of need that called her name.

Why do you want to be me? she wanted to ask. Don’t you see what happened when I was me?

After dark one night, Jeffrey’s husband came home late with a box wrapped in glittering paper. “Ooh!” Jeffrey exclaimed, coming to accept it. “Ray! You shouldn’t have!” Something in his high-pitched excitement sounded false, but Diana couldn’t discern what.

“Happy birthday,” Ray said, extending the box. Jeffrey pushed his hands away with a gesture that was a touch too hard to be playful.

“Sit,” said Jeffrey, pointing to the couch. “I’ll make drinks.”

Ray settled, shifting a bamboo-print cushion out of his way. Diana wasn’t sure whether he was actually older than Jeffrey, but he looked older, fine wrinkles etching the bags under his eyes. He looked a little fat and a little tired in a pull-over and grey wool slacks. The latter were wrinkled, black and blue ink stains marring the pockets.

Bustling behind the curve of the bar, Jeffrey was immaculate in white pants and a crisply ironed button-down patterned with navy diamonds. He held the bottle almost horizontally as he poured. He looked up at Ray over the stream of alcohol and flashed him a strained smile.

He returned with two shot glasses, one with ice and one without. He handed the first to Ray and stood aside while he drank. He held out his hand for the empty glass.

“Let me get you another one.”

“I’m good,” said Ray, pushing past him to set the glass on a coaster. “Open, open.”

The edges of Jeffrey’s smile vanished. He set his full glass next to Ray’s empty one and took the present. Beneath the glittering green paper, there was a plum velvet box. Inside the velvet box, there were two tickets.

“To the national tour of Forty-Second Street,” said Ray. “Front row, center. Look at the date.”

Stiffly, Jeffrey held up one of the tickets to the light. “Day after tomorrow.”

“You can turn forty-nine at Forty-Second Street.”

“Clever,” murmured Jeffrey, staring at the ticket. He turned it back and forth in the light, glossy paper shining, and then replaced it beside its twin. He traded the box for his drink and knocked it back.

Ray frowned. “I thought you liked Forty-Second Street.”

“I do.”

“Would you rather go to another show? The college is doing Secret Garden.”

“I like Forty-Second Street.”

“I don’t get what’s wrong.”

Jeffrey ran his fingers through his hair, ruining his careful styling. When he looked up at Ray again, he was smiling gently. “I’m just tired.”

Diana watched while they sat, chatting, for another hour. Ray detailed an office farce centering on conflicting operating systems while Jeffrey poured himself another shot and then a third. Afterward, they ate stir-fried vegetables over brown rice, Jeffrey keeping their glasses full of citrus wine.

Was that how other peoples’ marriages fell apart? Marriages that were between two people, without involving press and protocol and a mother-in-law who wields a sceptre?

Afterward, Jeffrey went into the bathroom for a long time. Diana hid in the wall, listening to him weep. When he emerged at last, he went into the bedroom, checking to make sure Ray was asleep before he slipped between the sheets.

Diana had come because she was intrigued by his desire. Now she found herself drawn by his sadness.

Voyeurism diverted her from the griefs of her own life. These had only magnified after death. Sometimes she thought ghosts weren’t whole souls, only the saddest pieces.

People had asked so much of her. She’d tried to give them what they wanted. She prayed, and paced, and purged. Still there were always more needy hands, more photographers, more commemorative plates rimmed with rhinestones.

The next night, Jeffrey feigned illness and went to bed early, switching off the lamp to lie in pitch dark. He pretended to be asleep when Ray came in, lying still while he changed into his pajamas and slipped into bed.

The second night, they dressed in single-breasted black wool tuxedos with handkerchiefs in the pockets. Jeffrey sighed over Ray, who continued to look disheveled no matter how many times Jeffrey straightened his jacket.

They rode to the theater in a limousine. Diana coalesced in the leather seats. Ray poured champagne. They clinked, twining their arms to sip from each other’s glasses.

At first Jeffrey looked anxious, but soon the bubbly began working. He laughed loudly and kept extending his empty glass.

“What the hell,” said Ray, opening a second bottle. “This is what we got a chauffeur for.”

Jeffrey was flushed when they arrived. Ray stopped to tip the driver while Jeffrey grinned at the crowd of smokers grabbing their last cigarettes before the performance. They went through gold-edged doors into the sweeping lobby where more theatergoers lingered, most dressed as if attending church, in floral-print dresses and polo shirts and slacks. Heads turned at tuxedos.

Ray took his arm and led Jeffrey, regally, down to the usher who took their ticket.

Inside the theater, Jeffrey squeezed Ray’s hand as his eyes darted between gold cornices. They made their way down a row of red velvet seats, Diana hiding in the shadows between arm rests. The theater thrummed with voices. Ray flipped through his program, glossy sheets rustling. Jeffrey sat on the edge of his seat, staring at the curtain.

The theater went dark. The audience fell silent as the overture began, brasses taking up a merry beat.

“Happy forty-nine,” Ray whispered in Jeffrey’s ear. Jeffrey batted him away, leaning toward the music.

Silently, Diana counted years. Yes, she’d have been forty-nine, too. Her ethereal form thrummed with jealousy.

The play began. Diana watched Jeffrey’s face instead of the show. His enraptured expression was more compelling than any performance Diana remembered. Still tipsy, he leaned in at the dramatic moments, laughing more loudly than he should when someone told a joke, and gasping when something went wrong. He tapped his hand silently against his armrest in time with the dancers’ heels clicking across the stage. He applauded with all his strength, almost propelling himself out of his seat.

When Diana’s curiosity grew overpowering, she flickered into the shadows cast by the actors to watch the show up close. It seemed ordinary—ersatz glitz on over-worked actors, bright paint on well-worn sets.

Afterward, as Jeffrey and Ray stood outside waiting for the limo to return, their tuxedo jackets draped over their arms, Jeffrey began to weep. Passersby turned to look, without interrupting their strides.

Ray took Jeffrey by the shoulders and turned him so they faced each other squarely. “What is it?” he asked. “Can you tell me?”

“I just wish I,” Jeffrey began. A sob caught in his throat. “I could have been, if I’d been someone else, I could have—” He stopped, sobs coming harder.

“The world just wasn’t made for you,” Ray said, wrapping his arms around his husband.

The world had made Diana think it was made for her once. Seven hundred and fifty million people watched her walk down the aisle in her puff ball meringue dress with its romantically ruffled neckline and twenty-five foot train. She’d been adorned by lace and sequins, hand-stitched embroidery and ten thousand pearls.

The night before, she’d been crying, too. Was the world made for anyone?

She followed them back into the shadows of their room. They switched on their bedside lamps and she swam under the bed to respect their privacy.

It sounded like love.

When the lamps were off again, Diana lifted back into the shadowed drapery of their quilt. Ray was asleep. Jeffrey stared at the ceiling, his eyes dry, his face sallow.

“I’m happy,” he whispered into the nothing.

You should be, Diana couldn’t say.

“I have a good life. A good house. Good health. A good husband. I’m lucky and loved.”

You are, Diana couldn’t say.

“I’m forty-nine years old.”

Diana could not say that she would never be forty-nine years old.

“I’m never going to be the duck that turns into the swan. My foot will never fit the slipper. It’s never going to be all lights and cameras. It’s never going to be all action. No one is ever going to care who I am. It’s never going to happen. Not for me.”

It had happened for her. The swan, the dress, the lights, and oh yes, the cameras. It wasn’t what she wanted. It wasn’t what anyone wanted, not really.

She wished she could trade him—a forty-ninth birthday and a husband who wasn’t Charles—it seemed appealing. But then would she want that either? A life of wanting to be wanted and never being seen? Of desiring glamour and receiving anonymity?

A little of each then. If only they could mingle, the way shadows bleed into one another, the way ghosts bleed into shadows.

But he is neither ghost nor shadow. Not yet.

He stares at the ceiling. His eyelids drift down. A blink, and then a second. He will fall asleep soon.

Diana swims away.

Rachel Swirsky’s short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and the Sturgeon Award. Her first collection, a slim volume of feminist poetry and stories called Through the Drowsy Dark, is available through Aqueduct Press. Visit her website, rachelswirsky.com