Advertisement

The Kaleidoscopic Visitor

It wasn’t the first time I’d found the stranger in the red coat somewhere no one was supposed to be, but it was certainly the first time I’d found the stranger somewhere it should’ve been physically impossible to enter. The attic had been locked for over a year. When I found the key and opened the door, the dust coating the padlock was clear evidence that it had lain untouched for months and months. But the stranger was sitting on the floor between two storage crates, their knees tucked under their chin, waiting for me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

The stranger didn’t answer for a long moment. Like I always did, I tried to discern their expression, but looking at them was no easy task. At first all I saw was the red silk of their coat, flaring like an ember, and then I blinked and was able to see the glint of rubies and topaz at their wrists and neck. When I tried to focus on their face, individual features pressed themselves against my mind like a dried flower in a dusty book, each one remaining for an instant before vanishing into shadow and being replaced with another. I saw a carnelian earring, then the hint of a solemn frown, then a curl of dark hair.

None of it was particularly masculine or feminine, or at least it didn’t seem that way when presented in fractures rather than as a graspable whole. I’d never been able to figure out the stranger’s gender, although I was fairly sure they were no older than sixteen. It was hard to put my finger on why, but it seemed like they were my age, if such a thing as “age” could be applied to whatever the hell they were.

When the stranger spoke, their words were shaped from the gentle sounds around me: floorboards creaking, cloth rasping, rain pattering gently against the slanted roof. “What do you want?” they asked.

“What do I want? You’re the one in my house.”

“Oh,” they said, soft as a sigh. “I’ll go.”

Then they were gone. There were no marks in the dust to indicate they’d ever been here.

“That’s a really annoying trick, you know,” I said sternly to the empty air. “It’s rude to leave without explaining yourself.”

No response, of course. Now that I was alone again, the attic felt oddly lackluster. The world was bright and electric where it touched them, and after they left, standing in the wake of their absence was close to painful in its staleness.

By now they’d appeared without explanation enough times for me to be fairly sure about who they were. When the Kaleidoscopic Visitor came by, made of shards of loveliness, people went wrong. It was just a rumor, but it was the kind of rumor you heard all the time. The gossip was everywhere, around dinner tables and at sleepovers and in break rooms. It was hard to not hear stories about the bad things that happened to people who confessed to seeing the glint of gems or the flash of red.

Wives packed their bags and left without a word, taking the next train into the city, never to return. Good kids turned rebellious overnight, adopting outlandish hairstyles and unsavory friends, throwing away whatever decent future had been waiting for them. Sordid tendencies revealed themselves, sowing ruin for each household unfortunate enough to be blighted by the Visitor’s appearance. Sometimes it would happen over and over again in the same place until an entire town was upturned, peace and order gone forever, like a field swallowed by weeds, never to yield a harvest again. The changes came out of nowhere, heralded by nothing, save for that the people gone wrong all reported seeing a figure dressed in scarlet and jewels in the corner of their eyes.

I left the attic and locked the door behind me. I went downstairs in a haze. I’d gone up there to fetch something or the other, I was sure of it, but I was too restless with nerves to remember what it was. I hoped desperately that my expression looked normal on the outside.

It was imperative that no one find out that the Kaleidoscopic Visitor had been here. When everyone talked about the people who did insane things after the Visitor came to see them, they always said, well, there’s always been something not quite right about them, hasn’t there? They were all wrong from the start. The Kaleidoscopic Visitor was the catalyst, but if they came to visit you, it was probably your fault.

That all added up, as far as I was concerned. I had no idea what the Visitor was going to drive me to do, but I did know that there was something not quite right with me. It twisted away deep inside. It was an unease that started between my lungs and my ribs and spread all throughout my body, wriggling like a pinned insect at the mention of the nicest, most innocuous things, like the fact that I was almost done growing up. It wasn’t that I was especially attached to childhood—mine had never been all that great. It was more that all throughout my life, I’d known I wasn’t yet an adult, and that knowledge had felt like a stay of execution. Why it was that way, I had no clue, but it had something to do with how being an adult meant being an adult woman. Just thinking about it was like standing on the edge of a tall building: the fear of my falling more a nausea in my stomach than a thought in my head.

Sometimes I would talk to myself when I was alone, just saying I’m going to be a woman to the hollow air. It was difficult. I realized I needed to do it over and over again if I ever wanted to get used to it. I needed to shape my mouth around the words the same way I whittled wood, with steady dedication, movement by movement, cut by cut. I tried to do the same with the sentence I’m a woman now, which was truer, but much harder to say. My teeth wanted to bite down, to stop it from escaping. The rational parts of my mind had trouble understanding what the problem was; it was a perfectly factual, perfectly normal sentence.

The terrible dread worming its way through my body’s viscera begged to differ.

After the Kaleidoscopic Visitor disappeared from my attic, it was days before they found me again. I was chatting with a neighbor on the street who’d been congratulating me on my upcoming birthday. I said all the right things and smiled at all the right moments, and when I walked away from him at first I was walking calmly. But a creeping horror began to itch at my palms and the soles of my feet, and suddenly I found myself running, just running with no direction, nothing but a feverish need to escape.

Before I knew it I was standing in a field, having left the town behind, out of breath and out of road to run down. The smell of burning was in the air. There was ash on the wind, carried from wildfires many miles away. I realized that in my haste I’d dropped my mask somewhere between the town and the edge of the field. That wasn’t good—it was never a great idea to inhale whatever dangerous substances the fires had swallowed up and spat out in its cinders. The sensible thing to do was to return. I should retrace my steps, find my mask and whatever else I’d left behind on accident, go home.

And then I saw the Visitor.

They stood where field gave way to forest, distant enough that they were nothing but a smudge of scarlet to my eye, shifting like a candle.

It would have made sense for me to be frightened. I’d never dealt with so much as a spider without recruiting help, and according to everything I’d heard, the appearance of the Kaleidoscopic Visitor was supposed to be far more frightening than a spider. But the thrill in my gut was not fear, but something else entirely. I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to come closer.

I walked forward.

Their back was to me. They didn’t turn as I approached. As if I were looking with the sight of a dizzied drunk, my gaze slid between their gold-embroidered cuffs and their sorrowed mouth and the tiny sapphires spangled about their hair. I asked the question that had been tugging at my tongue. “Why do you talk to me? I’ve never heard anyone mention you talking. Everyone says you just show up in the distance and disappear before people get close. But I could—”

I made myself stop talking before I said, But I could reach out and touch you.

When they spoke, their words were drawn from the wind-rattle of dead leaves and the distant cicada song. “I didn’t need to talk to them. I didn’t want to. I want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

I saw a flicker of a furrowed brow, a hand fiddling with a ruby-encrusted ring. “You’re not scared.”

“What do—”

“What do you want?”

Last time they asked me that, I took it as an accusation—another way of saying what are you doing here, to demand I defend my presence or my existence. But this time I was too tired, too raw, to be wary, and so I heard the quiet entreaty in their voice and knew it for what it was: an invitation.

“I don’t know,” I said. It was hard to talk, surrounded as we were by hazy, polluted air. A flake of ash landed on my lower lip. “Lots of things, really. Doesn’t everyone want lots of things?”

“Your wanting is different.”

“But all I want is, I don’t know, normal things. Money. Fun. Health. To get a day off from school. For it to rain. For the air to be clear.”

“For the air to be clear,” they said. “You could have that.”

“I mean, if the weather decides to hand us a miracle, I guess.”

“You could have that. That, and anything else you wanted, if you wanted it enough. There’s something else, isn’t there? Something else you desire?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Liar,” they said gently.

“I’m not—”

“I think I need to give you something. Is that alright? If I give you something? You can throw it away if you don’t want to keep it.”

“What is it?”

They reached into their coat and retrieved an object. The thing resisted sight in the same way that the Kaleidoscopic Visitor did, but I could tell that it gleamed both in the manner of metal and in the manner of jewels. Maybe I should’ve hesitated longer before I reached out to take it, but for the first time that I could remember, I let my curiosity get the better of me.

Once I held it, it solidified into something I could see properly: a pair of scissors with a handle studded with garnets, each stone dark enough to rival obsidian.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s what you want.”

“Um,” I said. “Am I…supposed to sell it? For money?”

It was hard to tell, considering their expression came to me in shadowed fractures rather than as a whole, but I got the strong impression that they thought I was very, very stupid. “No. It’s for using, not selling.”

“No offense, but I don’t really need scissors? I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, I just…I have a pair at home?”

“No,” they said again. “It’s what you want. It’s yours. It was always yours. I just made your wanting into something you could hold.”

Walking back into town, I was twitchy and paranoid, shoulders stiff and gaze shifty. I was hiding the Visitor’s gift in the folds of my dress, but I was convinced that people would see it anyway. The scissors were too real. Too present. The scissor blades were warm as a living creature in my hand. I could swear I felt the metal throb like it had a pulse. The gems set into the handle didn’t want to hide in the cloth. They wanted to be seen. Acknowledged. The knowledge of their longing was clear to me, sharp and crystalline in my thoughts, and I made it all the way back to my doorstep before it occurred to me that those thoughts were coming from outside of my skull, not inside it.

The moment that realization hit me, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I dashed around to the back of the house, drew my arm back, and threw the scissors as hard as I could. They spun through the air, catching the sunlight in its afternoon slant, glowing like a spark or a star. They vanished into the snarl of greenery that lay beyond the border of our backyard. There was another house there, but it had been abandoned for years, its garden left to grow wild until the rosebushes and hydrangeas were tall enough to rival trees. Not even the roof was visible behind the leaves. No one would stumble across the scissors there.

I spent the rest of the day carefully doing normal, unexceptional things. Chores, dinner table conversation. Said all the right things, smiled in the right places. My thoughts were a frantic chorus: No one must know. Hide it. Hide. No one must know.

The chorus only quieted once I was lying in bed with the lights snuffed, eyes open into the darkness. Then it was the Kaleidoscopic Visitor’s words that echoed in my skull. For the air to be clear. You could have that. Did they really mean that I could bring rain to my town or brush the pollution out of the air? That didn’t sound like a bad thing. There had to be a catch I couldn’t see.

Maybe it was my imagination, but my pillow seemed lumpier and harder than usual. Restless, I turned over.

The Visitor was lying in bed beside me.

A scream made it all the way up my throat to the back of my teeth before my jaw snapped shut—the nameless wriggling unease in my guts taking control of my muscles, remembering the meetings between the Visitor and I were a secret I needed to keep. I lay there, heartbeat wild, muscles tensed to run or fight, my face inches away from the Visitor’s. They were curled up under the covers like they were trying to make themselves small. Here in the dark the shadows swallowed the red of their coat and the glitter of their gems, but I saw a flash of closed eyelids, then a flash of the dark, exhausted smudges beneath them.

“Why are you here?” I said in the quietest rasp of a whisper.

“Shh,” they said. Their words were shaped from the muffled sounds that came from outside, the distant rustling of dry leaves from the plants that were steadily devouring the empty house that neighbored ours. “I’m sleeping.”

Slowly, I sat up. I ran a hand over my pillow and felt something hard and angular stuck inside my pillowcase. I glared at the Visitor. “Why do I have a feeling I know what this is?”

They shifted minutely, trying to burrow deeper into the blankets. “I don’t know. I don’t know why you feel things. Why would I know why you feel things?”

I unbuttoned the pillowcase and retrieved the scissors. They pulsed in my hand. “You said I could throw it away.”

“I said you could throw it away if you didn’t want to keep it.”

“You didn’t say it would come back.”

“I didn’t know it would.”

“So, what, this thing going to follow me until I do something with it?”

“It’s following you because you still wanted the things you want, even though you threw their shape away. Why won’t you use it?” Their eyes were still closed. Their voice was now so soft I could barely hear them at all. “Is it really that bad, what you want? Is it so horrible, wanting?”

It was now clear to me that ignoring the Visitor or their gift wouldn’t stop them from springing up in the dusty corners of my life, erratic and persistent as dandelions taking root. That should’ve incited fear or helplessness, but a strange relief was descending upon me instead. Once the Visitor began to visit you, your ruin was a foregone conclusion. If I couldn’t help but end up where I was going to end up, I didn’t have to blame myself for what was about to happen.

I reached inside my pillowcase and retrieved the scissors. “You said I could get rid of the ash in the air,” I said. “How?”

I followed them out of my bedroom and down the hall and out to the backyard, careful not to wake my parents. I stood with bare feet on yellowed grass speckled with ash. A red glow crowned the horizon, heralding the wildfires crawling up the other side of the mountains. The Kaleidoscopic Visitor whispered quiet suggestions, but I was the one who reached up with the scissors, up and up and up, until the blades caught against something I couldn’t see. The unseen connection sent a shiver down my arm, rattling my bones like a struck tuning fork. I breathed in the burning on the breeze. A raw and exhausted longing welled up in my mouth. One day of clean air, that was what I wanted. Just one day. I was just so tired—

“Now,” said the Visitor.

I cut.

The wind roared. The clouds tore like paper, peeling back to reveal a swathe of clear starry night. The shifting of the clouds directly above me set off a cascade of swirling motion that spiraled out across the whole of the sky. I saw a storm gather itself together in the distance; a process that would ordinarily take hours but now was taking only seconds.

I cut again.

A crack of thunder. On the horizon, over the mountains, rain began to fall.

I focused as hard as I could, summoning the heart of my weariness, and cut again. I felt, rather than saw, the separation of the pollution from the air. It was a bright silent singing. Now moving by instinct, I made a dozen more cuts, opening up a dozen tiny apertures in the fabric of the sky for the pollution to vanish into.

When that was done, I hesitated, uncertain, but before I could ask, the Kaleidoscopic Visitor swept their arm and the apertures sewed themselves shut. The Visitor’s fragmented form twinkled as they moved; my perception of their body was overrun with the dazzle of their jewels, washing like a stained-glass wave across my eyes.

I lowered the scissors. There was a sweet cleanness in the air.

No words I could muster would ever be anywhere near sufficient to talk about what had just happened, so I settled for saying quietly, “Wow.”

“It won’t be forever,” the Visitor said. “All storms run out of rain.”

I was about to say but I can just do this again, can’t I, but then I realized the scissors had changed with every cut I made, going from overbearingly, burningly present to mere beautiful object to a glassy, translucent simulacrum of the scissors’ former self, barely visible in the nighttime. At the same time, my longing had steadily quieted. It was still there, but it was easier to carry. The Visitor’s gift, raw overflow of desire that it was, was being used up.

“What should I do with the rest of it?” I said, looking down at the scissors. Now that I knew it could do the impossible—that it could banish the smoke, that it could let me breathe without struggle, at ease and at home under the sky—I knew I had to use the scissors’ last remnant for something that mattered.

The Kaleidoscopic Visitor didn’t answer. I looked up, wondering why, and found that they had already left.

It was weeks before I saw the Kaleidoscopic Visitor again. I kept the scissors next to me all through those days. The object was almost entirely vanished now, nothing but an outline in the air, the faint suggestion of a gleam. I seemed to be the only one capable of noticing it in this diminished form. I took to taking long strolls among the eucalyptus groves that grew outside of town, carrying it in both hands while I walked. I was learning to let it accompany me without flinching away from it. I was getting better at understanding its wordless suggestions. We were fast becoming friends, the Visitor’s gift and I.

Today I was wandering farther than I usually did, searching for paths I hadn’t found before and ready to make my own if I could find none. I came across a clearing with a creek winding through it. The creeks and ponds near my house had all dried up during the drought, but the storms had brought rain, and now for the first time in years the water was flowing.

Somehow I was less surprised to see the Visitor sitting by the water’s side. Their scarlet coat was puddled around them like flame licking across underbrush. I smiled and came closer.

Instead of a greeting, they asked, “Are you content?” Their voice was made of the trickle-sounds of the water and the low hum of the breeze.

“No,” I said, but right now it wasn’t an unhappy thought. The wriggling discontent in my body didn’t feel like an enemy anymore. I’d been becoming better acquainted with it. I was ready to let it be my ally, and so I put the first of its desires into words.

I held the scissors out to the Visitor. “Will you cut my hair for me?”

A flash of a smile emerged from the muddled shards of their form. “How short?”

“Short,” I said.

They gestured for me to sit beside them. I faced my reflection in the water, noting that the Visitor had no reflection at all. They were only a shimmer on the water’s surface.

They began to cut my hair. As they tipped each severed lock of hair into the water and let the current take it away, I thought of whittling wood—moving cut by cut, steady and sure, until what was left had that certain loveliness that can only be forged by one’s own hand.

I said, “So, uh, do you have a name? Sorry, I’m just not sure how to refer to you.”

“Do not refer to me.”

“Okay,” I said quickly. “Sure.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m still not really sure what you—I mean, who you are.”

“I am…other. I am…what you are not. For some, for those who are like you, I am what you are not yet.

By now they’d sheared away enough hair for me to feel the lightness of its absence. “Are you going to leave now?” I asked.

“If I were to leave, it would mean that I was here. To be here, to have a location, I would have to be a thing at a point in space. Space and I don’t sit easy in each other’s presence. We keep poking at each other ’til one of us breaks.”

“Okay, but will you keep showing up around me?”

“Is that what you want?”

They weren’t touching me, but they were close enough that I felt the prickle-warmth of them, the heat of their disjointed, radiant skin reaching me from across the empty air. “I’d like you to visit again,” I said. “If you felt like it.”

“I will,” they said.

When they finished, they cupped what remained of the scissors in their hand—a few glimmerings in the air, emptied of substance—and poured it into the water. The glimmerings transformed into ripples and dissipated. I tilted my head this way and that, memorizing my wavering reflection in the water. My hair was short enough that a stranger might look at me and think man instead of woman.

“Thank you,” I said.

They put their hands on my shoulders and pressed a kiss into the back of my neck. The sensation was fractal, prismatic, bright.

“Good luck,” they said.

When I turned around, there were no gems to trick the light and slide in and out of shadow, nor red to flow and flicker and burn. There was nothing but me and the creek and the trees, struggling toward greenness despite the drought.

 

Advertisement

Shaoni C. White

Shaoni C. White writes and researches speculative fiction and poetry. Their work has appeared in PodCastle, Fantasy Magazine, Augur Magazine, and elsewhere. Raised in Southern California, they hold a BA in English Literature and Linguistics from Swarthmore College. They spend their free time swing dancing and embroidering. Find them on Twitter at @shaonicwhite.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.