Online Exclusive: “Shoulders” by Jay Caselberg

It started in an airport car park. Thiruvananthapuram International, to be exact. Or Trivandrum, or simply TRV, because it was easier to say.  A lot of the Indian names were like that, a shorter version, simpler to get the tongue around. Elsa was waiting for a plane to come in, and it was delayed.  Not an unusual event, so, with a sigh of resignation as she digested flight status from the display board, she’d gone for a wander through the parking lot just to kill time until Marge landed.  There, standing beneath a sparsely leaved tree, she spent a little while watching one of the numerous crows that inhabited the region.  The dark bird with its dusky grey-brown collar had managed to snag a piece of orange peel from somewhere, had it pinned to the ground with both feet and was tearing at what remained of the flesh.  Elsa narrowed her eyes as something nagging at her came to the surface.  With each wrench at the captive fruit, the crow’s shoulders rose and fell in a very human shrug.  Again and again it went through the action. Elsa shook her head, briefly, as if to dispel what she was seeing. It was uncanny.  With a swallow, she turned away and headed back to the arrivals area, looking back over her shoulder once and then shaking her head again on the way.

Marge arrived eventually, looking somewhat bedraggled from her long, overdue flight and more than sweaty in the unaccustomed heat. After the requisite hugging and kissing, their hotel driver assisted them with the luggage and steered them to the waiting air-conditioned comfort of their car.  The crow and its strangely moving shoulders slipped away from her thoughts as Marge, fanning herself still, despite the aircon, settled back into her seat and started bombarding Elsa with questions.  Marge, masses of curly red hair (no way possible it was natural any more) and Elsa had been friends since school.  The Indian Adventure had been their first opportunity to see each other for a couple of years, and it had grown more as a whim from a chance remark when they’d been talking together on the phone, but here they were now, on their way to the beach hotel with every intention of doing little else for the next couple of weeks but laze about in the sun, sip cocktails, read trashy novels and relive old memories. There was a thing about time and memory, something they could do together to refresh those shared times and repaint them with more vivid hues.

Elsa forgot completely about the crow, forgot about her unease, till she saw another at breakfast the next morning.  It was perched on the edge of a table and trying to steal the butter from the small white bowl in the table’s center. Its beak speared downward and with each motion came that peculiar shrugging motion.

“Will you look at that?” said Elsa.

“Cheeky thing,” said Marge in return.

The bird seemed to notice their attention and it turned its head to one side, fixing Elsa with a one-eyed gaze.

“No,” she said.  “Did you see that thing with the shoulders?”

Marge shook her head.  The bird turned its attention back to its intended prize, and there came the motion again.

“Oh yes,” said Marge.  “I see it.  Strange.”

At that moment, one of the restaurant staff noticed the bird and raced over flapping a napkin and shooed it away.  He stood guard for a few more moments, napkin held at the ready like a toreador. It seemed that the crow had lost interest and so, mission accomplished, he retreated back to the shadowed interior.

The next few days proceeded pretty much as planned, lazing by the pool, working on their tans, eating and drinking in vast quantities.  Everywhere she looked, Elsa seemed to see the ubiquitous crows, shrugging their way through existence.  She did a quick online search in the hotel’s business center, and discovered that this particular variant was the House Crow or Corvus splendens. Nowhere in the articles, however, was any mention of the peculiar shrugging motion. She resolved to put it from her mind.

Of course, during those days, they also performed a number of the requisite tourist activities that such a stay demanded. Jointly, they booked into the hotel spa for lengthy massages; they went on an excursion to the famous temple in town, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple where people had discovered all the hidden gold, and to the small black temple dedicated to Ganesha where people offered coconuts to encourage wealth and prosperity.  And naturally, there was shopping, shopping and shopping.  Like true tourists, they also indulged in henna tattoos.  Marge went for the legs, a floral design snaking up from her ankles in a deep brown-red.  Elsa finally decided on an intricate design in black that covered the backs of her hands and ran all the way up her forearms.

It was the third day, during breakfast, the mixed smell of chlorine from the pool and the ever-present latent humid vegetation scent mixing with their coffees, that Elsa noticed something strange about her native body art.

“Look at this,” she said to Marge, turning her hand first one way, then the other.  “It’s as if this stuff’s running.  That’s not very good.”

Marge leaned closer to look.  “Yes, I see it.  All of the edges seem to be blurring.  Nice.  Well we won’t go back there again.” She stretched over the side of her chair and frowned down at her leg.  “Mine seem to be okay.  Maybe it’s because you went with the black.”

“Hmm,” said Elsa.  “It’s starting to look as if I stuck my hands in a bucket of paint.  Not very artistic.”  She sighed and went back to her coffee. “Well, it will start to fade in a few days anyway.  Wash it off with all my old skin.”

“So, what do you want to do today?” asked Marge.

“Nothing really.  Just laze around I guess,” said Elsa.  And to be honest, she didn’t feel like doing much.  There was a growing ache in both of her shoulders.  More of a twinge than an ache.  She rotated one shoulder and grimaced.

“What is it?”

“I dunno.  Just a twinge.  It’s on both sides.  It’s not as if I’ve been doing anything.”

Just at that moment, a crow flew down and alighted on a chair back at the nearest table.  It peered at them for a moment, assessing the threat level, and then hopped onto the table proper.  There it went again, pecking at the prepared jam and butter laid out at the table’s center and shrugging all the while.

Else laughed out loud.  “There you go; I’m turning into a crow!”  She shrugged her shoulders in illustration.  “Ow!” she said, cutting short the amusement.

“It’s probably just a reaction to all this relaxation,” said Marge.  “Your body’s not used to it.  Too much tension and now you’re suddenly unwinding and that’s the result.  What you need to do is book yourself in for another massage.  That’ll fix you up.”

“Yes, maybe. That’s not such a bad idea.” She rotated the other shoulder. “Mmm, good plan.  That’s me sorted out for most of the afternoon.”

Shortly after breakfast, Elsa told Marge she’d meet her back in their room, and made her way to the spa to make her booking, passing the hotel gift shop on the way. Outside the small shop, stood an array of bronze statues, clearly made for the tourist market, but each representing one of the many-armed deities populating the local pantheon.  She paused, one hand holding her other shoulder, and slowly walked up and down in front of the display, inspecting them.

What is it with this place and shoulders? she thought.  What sort of shoulders would you need to accommodate so many arms?  She leaned over, tilting her head to one side, trying to catch all the angles of one the statues.  She wasn’t sure what goddess it was, but it had about ten arms.  Okay, you could take some liberties in the construction of a statue, but practically, how would that work?  How could you get so many arms attached to a single shoulder?  She shook her head and turned away.  She was better off thinking about her own afflicted parts at the moment than the intricacies of a goddess’s body construction. She walked across the lobby, entered the spa, and proceeded to make an appointment for later that day.  A good full, one-hour massage.  Marge was right; that would do the job.

On the way back to their room, Elsa felt a little strange, more than just the ache in her shoulders.  Weird.  Perhaps it was the humidity clinging to her like a hot, damp towel.  She hoped she hadn’t eaten something.  It was India after all, and…well, but no.  They were in a relatively contained environment.  That was unlikely.  She looked down at her hands.  If anything, they looked blacker. She turned them this way and that as she walked. Perhaps a shower would make things feel better….

As soon as she got back in, she mumbled something to Marge and headed straight for the bathroom and stripped off her clothes.  Have a shower, take it easy till her appointment with the masseur, everything would be fine.  As she stood below the tepid water, she looked at her hands and her arms, giving them extra attention, but the pigment didn’t fade at all.  If anything, it almost appeared as if it had crept further up her arms.  No, that was ridiculous.  She was simply imagining it.

“You okay in there?” called Marge.

“Yes, I’m fine.  Just feeling a little bit off color,” she said back.  She glanced at her arms and gave herself a wry chuckle.  Nice.  “I’ll be out soon,” she called back.

“Good, I want to go and read by the pool.  You up for that?”

Why not? she thought.

A few hours later, Elsa was not feeling better.  It was as if she was somehow disconnected from her environment, her thoughts working through a fog.  She returned to the room, barely registering Marge’s words that she’d see her later.  She quickly changed, trying to ignore the continuing sharp twinges in her shoulders.

She arrived at the spa a few minutes before her appointment, was welcomed into the reception area with all of the white fittings and the shiny pale wood floor, the smell of incense and scented oils filling the air.  She was directed to one of the plush couches and a few moments later, a glass mug of steaming herbal, lemony tea appeared on a tray.  Magazines were scattered about on the table in front of her, but she didn’t really have the headspace to concentrate on even such a simple act as flipping through the pages, let alone actually reading something.  She cupped the mug between her hands, letting her face swim in the fragrant vapors, slowly sipping at the contents.  She was only half done by the time her girl, Priti, appeared.

“You can bring that with you, Ma’am,” she said.

“No, that’s fine,” said Elsa, placing the mug carefully down upon the small bronze tray it had arrived on.

Priti was standing there patiently, her hands folded in front of her, her plain white uniform spotless and crisp.

“This way, Ma’am,” she said.

Elsa turned and followed into another, smaller room with the same white walls and pale floor.  To one side, there was a cupboard arrangement with bottles filled with various colored liquids and oils, some towels, a shiny silver bowl and some other things.  Above the cabinet, affixed to the wall sat a large, wide mirror.  In the room’s center sat a massage couch.  A clothes rack stood in one corner away from the door, with a pair of white robes hanging ready.  In another corner sat a chair and Priti directed her to take a seat.  The air was full of the scent of lemon and sage.  There was a hint of sandalwood creeping in from outside as well.

“You are having the full one-hour deep massage, Ma’am?” said Priti.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Elsa.  “I seem to be having a bit of trouble with my shoulders.  Perhaps you could look at them.”

The little girl looked at Elsa’s hands, looked at her arms, and then looked away.  Something troubled walked across her brow.

“What is it?” said Elsa.

“It is nothing, ma’am,” she said, still not meeting her eyes.  She turned away and started fiddling with bottles and cloths and other things.  “If you will just remove your clothing and put on the robe, we can get started.  I will be sure to pay special attention to your shoulders.”

As she stepped out of her clothes, and donned the robe, she caught Priti looking at her again, over her shoulder, subjecting Elsa’s hands and arms to scrutiny once more.  When Priti met her gaze, she looked quickly away and returned her attention to her preparations.

“Please drop the robe and climb up on the table.  If you would lie on your stomach please.”

The next hour passed in a herbal perfumed haze, Elsa’s consciousness floating as Priti worked at her muscles and body with oiled and scented hands.  Once or twice, she nearly drifted off, only to be brought back by the occasional discomfort as Priti prodded and pressed at a particularly sensitive spot.  She was almost asleep when Priti finally cleared her throat.

“We are done, Ma’am,” she said.  “If you would like to take your time sitting up.  I hope you are feeling good.”

Elsa slowly levered herself upright, swinging her legs from the table and gripping the edges with the heels of her hands, her eyes still closed.  She did feel good.  Better than good.  The pain was gone, the discomfort.  Her head still felt a little strange, but it was more a disconnectedness than anything else.  It was not a physical thing, however.  Slowly, she opened her eyelids.  Priti took a step back from the table, her own eyes growing wide.  There was an expression of what?  Fear?  Horror? Surprise?

“Priti, what is it?” she said.  Her voice seemed to come from far away.

“Ma’am, your eyes…”

Elsa jumped from the table and stalked over to the mirror.

“What?” she said.  The whites of her eyes we no longer white.  They were red, the deepest red, the color of blood.  But there was more.  The black markings upon her hands had spread.  They reached all the way to her shoulders now, one solid block of darkness covering her skin.

She swung on the little masseur.

“What the hell did you use on me?” Something in the oil, one of the fragrances, what was this?  An allergic reaction or something else?

“N-nothing, Ma’am.  Only the best preparations.  I do not understand.”

There was definite fear on the woman’s face now.

Whatever had been in the oil, or maybe the oil itself had spread her ersatz tattoo and now it was covering her.  She looked back at the mirror.  Red eyes stared back at her.  It didn’t make any sense. There was no discomfort.  She felt great.  She flexed her shoulders.  There was no pain, no hurt.  If anything, she felt powerful.

Elsa turned back to the little woman who took another step back.  Priti was cowering; there was no other word for it.

“What do you suggest I do?” she said.  “I can’t go around looking like this.”

“I-I do not know, Ma’am.  I am so sorry.  I do not know.”  She was trembling now.  “Perhaps if you return to your room. I can call the doctor.”

Elsa strode over to her clothes and grabbed them from where they were hanging, then pulled each piece on, one by one.  She stepped back over to the mirror.

Something slipped.


There was something else.

Something slipped again.

She was watching herself in the mirror, but she was watching Priti at the same time. The blackness was creeping, crawling up her neck, sliding across her shoulders, but she could see something else. She was sure of it now.  There were two images superimposed on each other—one with the creeping blackness and one without.  Before and after at the same time.  She was white and she was black and she was red.

She took a step towards Priti. She stood in place watching herself in the mirror.

She took hold of the moment, the second, the instant and shaped it.

Elsa was Elsa, but at the same time she was not.

She understood.

She was darkness and she was time and she had ownership of both.  She grinned at the knowledge and looked back at the mirror.

Priti, who Elsa/Not-Elsa was watching at the same time had fallen to her knees, her tiny hands clasped together in front of her.

Raising her own hand to reassure the woman, she grinned back at her own reflection, her red eyes filling with further knowledge and understanding.  There was her image from a few moments ago, her position the same, with hands resting upon the small cabinet as she stared into the mirror.

Elsa/Not-Elsa lowered her arm.  There were three of her now, superimposed one upon the other.  Each figure, each individual had two arms.  Three images, three pairs of arms, one black, one white, one half and half.

What was left of Elsa suddenly understood.

Shoulders were not important.  What was important was time.

If you could move freely through the time stream, if you had power over it, one could become two could become three, could become ten.

Humanity was so narrow.  They could only see so far.

As she passed the kneeling Priti, she tenderly let the fingers of one hand trace across the top of the woman’s hair.  Poor, sweet, mortal child.

Shoulders were unimportant.  Not when you owned time.

Elsa/Not-Elsa, strode firmly from the spa and into the surrounding forest, her necklace of skulls rattling with each step, laughing out loud at the splendid joke she had played upon herself.


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