“Under the Shadows” by EJ Colen

Mossy rocks and water reflecting foggy sky.
Unititled Rocks, EJ Colen

If they made a movie of this, opening shot: the two of us on the waterfront, the wind wrecking our hair.


If they made a movie of this, opening shot: me looking at images of trees.


Opening shot: me composing a tiny block of text inside a tiny screen.

A personal ad. No image, only text.

The truth is, I don’t know how to start this didn’t know how to start this.

“I’m new to this,” I say.

“What’s this?”

“This being human.”

“What do you mean?”

“All these feelings.”


I walk along the water and remember the place she showed me a picture of her ex-boyfriend and I thought, that’s good that he’s still in there.

I remember her shoes. Her hands. The precise articulation of her scrolling through her photos.

Her hands.

If they made a movie of this, opening shot of her in a clawfoot tub reading Alice Notley.

I see her with a candle lit, her kitchen chair a table for her things. I see her with her hair pulled up, her face flushed with heat. I see her turning the faucet on with her big toe.

She is as if lit from within.

The camera pans to the tree outside.

you see all night in your dreams. And the blue of my voice can’t help but see you.

The hornbeam lit up by the streetlights, glowing a deep green. The wet sound of tires on pavement. And a memory of church bells.

Last night I dreamed her in a teal tulle tutu, a complex affair all layers from chest to knee. We were a presidential debate, the two of us and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It was clear to me I was out of my league. And that the two of them would destroy me.

I got up to get some water. Woke parched. The cameras all around.

When I met her, she was specter. Haunting a room, she had me turning circles in the expanse of the crowded venue. I was reading that night for the launch of an anthology. The wood stage creaked and the mic was too low. I could feel her heat. I traveled too quickly over my words. She carried a grey bicycle bag as she moved through the crowd. An expensive kind, I could tell. Was this who she was? Her hair was pulled into a bun, held loosely by a pencil. Was this?

And who was I that night, embracing her three times, not wanting to let go.

Me who at one point could not stand to be touched by strangers or even by people I knew. Handshakes were hard, hugs impossible. Even now I sometimes have to tell myself, a hug is okay a hug is normal. And here I was wanting her arms around me again.

“Let’s go,” I wanted to say into the warmth of her hair, into the depth of her grey bicycle bag. “Let’s just find a place where you can tell me everything.”

I looked into a void of love. And I fell down. There was nothing else there.

If they made a movie of this, opening shot me at a café with another girl. I didn’t know what I was doing. And she on her bike headed not towards me, but to some other overcrowded room, to some other girl. Or guy.

And for our second meeting, if they made a movie of this would she in her borrowed car have kept on driving?

If they made a movie of this am I still walking her to her borrowed car? Am I still kissing her there?

“That kiss—“ she said once.

It was all emotion all at once and I didn’t let on because what would that be.

In the movie version do I get it right and how would that one start?

I looked into a void and I fell.

I watch a film about a woman and her child in Tehran, during the war, possessed, in a sense, by jinn. A mute boy in the building, a boy thought mute, whispers of them, these supernatural creatures of Islamic mythology neither innately good nor evil. When the missile penetrates the apartment above, there is a rip in the ceiling where, we learn later, the jinn come through.

Just weeks before the start of first grade for me, third for my brother, we drove from Kansas to eastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia suburbs, my mother my brother and I. We all knew we were running from something, but nothing was talked about. We all knew the something we were running from, but no one said anything.

And of a photo taken of me and a few other readers that first night: “That’s me in the crowd behind you,” she tells me a few months later. I look closely, I zoom in. Blurred out of focus, still—it is unmistakably her.

Our first photo taken together, a haunting.

No where, where I was no one.

And she was one.

I am waiting for my things to show up.

Not a tear in the ceiling, but we lay on the bed in a rented room on Orcas Island pointing out animals to each other in the woodgrain there. So many deer. A turtle, some dogs, a couple of otters. Eyes are knots in the wood. Features emerge from the grain.

I am waiting for my things.

Not a tear in the ceiling, but we lay on the bed in her apartment with the woodstove and the high ceilings pointing out animals to each other in the woodgrain there. Pointing out stars through the high windows.

I woke sometimes to the moon. I woke sometimes and took the dog outside and stood in the knee-high grass in the blue-white light of the moon.

Dogging the dog, she called it.

And I would stand far out in the grass, in the dark of the trees overhanging. With my back to her rooms I would feel the warmth still, and think: yes, this is it. What love is. The knowledge that I would retrace my wet steps, take off my layers, and crawl in next to her.

I am waiting for my things to show up. My “items,” she called them. A box packed neat (I’m sure) and smelling of her apartment, of her. I spend some time wondering if she will allow for this, to give me back my things with the scent of her, to give me back the scent of her. To give me back anything of her.

I decide that she won’t. That nothing in the box will be of her. No note. No scent if she can help it. Depersonalized as much as possible. Just these. Things. What I was to her.

Who I would be would be to add to the pang of missing, whatever feeling’s there.

If I had a scent I would put it in the box. If I had a scent I would send it to her.

The jinn sometimes take animal form.

Who she has been is to cut ties so that there is the sense that not only does she not want to feel or see anything of me, but she wants to cut that longing in me too.

But I have to sing this song. I’m still here.

Even then she did not say she was coming to the reading to see me that first night. That she was planning to go anyway. Though later she said of course she was coming to see me.

Always this receding and drawing forward, nothing clear.

In the movie, the woman wants to be a doctor but can’t because she was an activist during the revolution. When the missile falls and the old man in the apartment above needs medical care she shows up and is not able to save him. It wasn’t the missile, his wife thinks, he was fine after that.

Once that first night in the crowd I looked up and saw the back of her head. I watched so long until she half-turned as though feeling some heat too.

If the jinni has anything of yours, it can find and follow you forever. So the mythology goes.

And then she turned and smiled, seeing me there.

She will not cut that longing in me. Only time will.

If the longing is cut at all.

In the car the whole way to Pennsylvania I sat with my small hands in my lap, pushing the nail of one finger under the nail of another, pushing, pushing. I sat with my hands in my lap forcing the crescent moons of my fingernails to eclipse each other over and over. And the map stayed on my lap. And my mother drove and drove. I was tiny in the passenger seat. I was the “navigator” because I knew east from west north from south by looking at what the sun was doing.

As we drove south of Chicago in a construction zone my mother got flustered in heavy traffic and hit a barrel. We dragged it several miles at a very slow speed. My brother and I laughed inside our palms. And then I thought of the dog my father had hit when I was younger. How he got out of the car and wept over the animal and emptied his wallet into another man’s hands.

Serpents are most common in jinni who appear as animals, also scorpions, cats, owls. Dogs too, black dogs specifically.

The dog in the road lay still, like a small black island, its legs and feet a wide shore.

We arrived in Pennsylvania at my grandparents’ house two weeks before the start of school. My mother’s sisters were living there too, still home from college. I don’t remember interacting with them much, only the shape of them, the cut of their jeans, the style of their shoes. I had a hard time looking at anyone.

In the film, the jinni has taken the little girl’s doll. The girl looks for the doll in its red and white dress everywhere. The girl falls weak with fever.

I put the last shirt of mine she wore, a blue t-shirt, into a canvas bag in my drawer, wrapped tightly. Holding.

When I pull it out she is still there. I bury my face and I draw her in. I know she is gone, but she is here, just for a moment.

My dog nudges my legs, snaps her jaws to go out. Her quiet solution to my not liking the bark.

We go out onto that same trail. I note the spot where she showed me her ex-boyfriend, the spot where I first regarded her hands. We move quickly through that space and the wind picks up, white caps on the water down below.

What is this in me, not to trust, but to want to preserve even what’s clearly gone?

The first she recognized tenderness in me, she told me, was in The Green Condition, where I say, “When she leaves I put her toothbrush in my mouth. I hold it there two hours.”

A common characteristic of the jinni is their lack of individuality. They may gain individuality by materializing in human form. But they always stay part animal.

She was forever misreading me.

Some may have the paws of cats, the head of birds, or wings that rise from their shoulders.

Sometimes, when she would go away inside herself, she would emerge for a moment and look at me, stunned.

As though trying to articulate for herself who or what I was.

Sometimes they may be mist-like, dissoluble.

Her misreading was a response older than our knowing each other. It was a response that didn’t belong to me or to the space between us.

There was never any trust.

She didn’t trust that I was who I was. I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t leave without warning.

In a text to a friend, months after the last time I see her I say, “She still has my heart.”

“You’ll want to get that back,” he says.

But then, perhaps, our entire time together was a warning.

Am I a fool?

But I’m learning not to question my emotions. To simply accept them as they are.

And so—

I have to sing—I’m here.

And in the movie the girl gets sicker and the mother looks for the doll, even though she doesn’t believe.

In some places it is believed that madness is caused by a person being possessed by jinn.

And maybe not even then after years and others will I be broken of my wanting. To bury my face in her hair. To climb into her hair and nest. To put my nose to her neck. To put my nose to the olive scent of her favorite soap wherever I find it, the crook of her neck, soup cup of her clavicle, the soft of below her breast, below her rib cage, soft, her bush.

She sent me a picture once of this under water, thousands of tiny air bubbles clinging.

Had we remained together we could have become a silence.

The boy wasn’t mute, it was only that his parents had both died in the war and speaking no longer seemed important.

The mother asked the boy’s aunt that he stop scaring the little girl with what isn’t real. The jinni, his aunt said, are real.

But that he is a spooky child.

In the effort to stop time travel, to achieve the sense that what has happened before (the traumatic event) is not happening now—what my therapist reminds me to do—I don’t know how to make sense of her silence.

How to make sense of my returned things but no conversation.

What is most surprising about life, really, is how many things are unspoken. Though she is not unique in her inability to discuss difficulty, I still find it surprising.

My mother called me spooky for sleeping with my eyes open. My mother felt judged by me she told me some time later.

My mother chose new shirts for me out of the JCPenney catalogue. She sat on the sofa and flipped through its pages, silently folding over pages before making the call. I got a new pair of jeans, a few new shirts, some shoes. But she wouldn’t talk about what had happened.

I sat in the backyard and looked at my shoes and pet the legs of my new jeans.

My brother was allergic to something in the house and sneezed dozens of times upon waking each morning.

In a photo he is uncharacteristically shirtless, the new light coming in a large window behind him. He is sitting up on the side of his borrowed bed, his hair a mess, his face scrunched up in the aftermath of sneeze.

Every time I look at this photo I think thank you, thank you.

“How long did you date?” I’m talking to a stranger at a party who has also gone through a recent breakup.

“A year and a half.”

“And no conversation to end things.”


“That’s cold.”

“That’s just where she is.”

“Or who she is.”

“That’s just where she is.”

As the opposite of al-Ins (meaning something that has shape) and from the Semitic root JNN (Arabic jann), meaning “to hide” or “to conceal,” some interpret jinni to mean, literally, “beings that are concealed from the senses.”

“Doesn’t that kind of make it feel like it never happened?”


Gezondheid, my grandfather would say.

I find the hat she traded with me for hers. Breathe in. Imagine I find her there.

I return to the shirt in the canvas bag. It is losing her scent.

As a child I traveled outside myself. Always in the car. It was there, floating alongside, sans body watching body through the cloudy window. I got perspective. I learned to see myself.

It’s how I knew I was real. That I existed at all.

She lay on the beach, stretched out in the sun, arms behind her head, her shirt tucked into her grey jeans, her feet crossed, boots and socks off, feet white in the sun. I take this picture and she opens one eye at me, sensing. I lie down in the sand and she leans over me. We kiss deeply and then fall asleep for a time, her head in the crook of my arm.

In the car that late summer, running, I looked at my mother’s hands. We were running from something and I looked at her hands, thin cigarette burning there. I looked at her mouth. We were running and in the motel at night I looked at her mouth while she slept, wondering when the right words would come out of there.

In motel rooms the blocky TVs were on all night. My mother sat up all night, L-shaped on the other bed, smoking cigarette after cigarette all night, flipping channels and hardly pausing on anything, only to open another can of Diet Pepsi. I thought about the air trapped inside the cans, and then released. I thought about holding my breath when any door opened.

I wanted to be on the road forever, between places. Where I thought for sure she would speak.

I carried a tiny red dog wherever I went. Her name was Tiffy. I pressed on her red belly and pulled on her white ears. She had black plastic eyes I tapped my fingernails on.

Though the mother does not believe, she begins to suspect. She wakes to a specter, thinking it a dream. Jinni in the form of her husband, who slips the sheets and the window flies open. She presses her hands to her eyes.

My mother sewed and resewed with different colored threads the tiny red dog I carried around who would, between her front legs, start to tear and lose stuffing.

One Hadith divides the jinni into three groups, with one type flying through the air, another that are snakes and dogs, and a third that move from place to place like humans.

And any time I wanted to, any time I needed to leave, I could be there outside.

“A year and a half and no conversation?”


“Dude, she basically broke up with you by text.”

“By email.”


That first winter in Pennsylvania my brother punched a teacher and ran away from the school. The principal came to find me. Asked where my brother might have gone. I pointed out the window to the trees.

The jinni are also related to the wind.

But it was in me. And so I watched from outside.

There isn’t any way to be.
I will meet you where you’ve gone.

My mother used to boast to anyone who listened that I never cried as a child.

Well—that nothing is found within that quiet is not a surprise.

It is not an absence, it is a vacuum.

But not without emotion.

There is no space in there.

Nowhere to put it.

I will meet you

And when I held out my hands, I found nothing in them.

Did you know you can send an axe through the mail?

I swing the weight of it, all twelve pounds, back and forth after I take it out of the box.

Additionally, jinn fear iron, generally appear in desolate or abandoned places, and are stronger and faster than humans.

There was no scent of her anywhere inside the box. Except, I imagine, in the shirt she had sewn the snap on for me. I hold it to my face and inhale and I know it is imagined but I find her there.

I hold the handle of the axe and think of her hands on it, chopping wood in the snowy dark.

In the film the mother bargains for her fevered child. Take me instead, she yells at the ceiling. An important book goes missing from the woman’s shelf and the doll is found in her locked drawer, in pieces. Torso, head, limbs.

I remember the night she started to mend the shirt as a difficult one. Which difficulty, I don’t remember. Only that she started to mend it and then left it in the other room when she started to disappear. Eventually I put it away.

I read that perhaps some spirits can be bargained with. I file that away.

Who she has been is to cut ties so that there is the sense that not only does she not want to feel or see anything of me, but she wants to cut that longing in me too.

You’re not going to erase it for me, I tell her in the last message I send.

The child will blame her mother. That it’s her mother’s secret drawer.

You hide things in there.

I try to imagine the space in which she finished mending that shirt. That there was care there. Not just that it was a thing she did not want to leave unfinished.

The mother “doctors” the doll while the child lies on the bed with closed eyes.

The same masking tape the mother used the day before to patch the ceiling’s Xs, the cracks from the missile’s force of impact in the apartment above.

Around and around the neck of the doll. We see this, but not how the legs get on. And then the doll is “fixed.”

My mother on the sofa with a needle and green thread.

Tight and tiny nests of pencil marks dot my apartment walls. From where the pencil in her hair met the wall repeatedly where she sat.

The first time she notices that she has done this she starts to erase. I hold her hand and kiss her. “Leave it,” I say.

There is a constellation I won’t yet examine the form of, but it’s there.

Evidence of a kind of life.

Dispended points with so much space between them.

My grandparents didn’t really seem to like children most of the time. My grandmother wasn’t the baking kind, smoked and went out with her friends, and most of the time my grandfather sat silently in a chair, reading or doing crossword puzzles, and listening to classical music on the hi-fi.

If we were loud, he would simply turn the music up.

It was never clear to me whether she and I were dating. Except the last six months, when everything flew apart.

When I think about that, I find meaning in it. That the named thing especially could not be held.

Cognates include the Arabic majnūn (“possessed,” or generally “insane”), jannah (“garden,” also “heaven”), and janīn (“embryo”).

We were only ever beginning.

Sometimes when I walked by, my grandfather would reach out quickly and grab ahold of my arm, pull me onto his lap, say Hebbes! and not let go. Bounce me around on his knee.

In thinking about this now, I know that my grandparents knew nothing of what we were running from.

It wasn’t that the center wouldn’t hold. It was that the structure never got started.

There was never any center to hold.

In my grandfather’s lap sometimes I laughed and sometimes I froze. But usually I froze and the game stopped being fun and so he let go.

At one point in the first year she talks about “when we were dating” and I ask “when was that?”

She was always saying she couldn’t date me, couldn’t take seriously what we were doing. But then we kept doing what we were doing and it felt like a lot.

Some scholars say the term jinn relates to the Latin genius.

It shouldn’t matter now.

We read books on the beach and she pauses to line my legs with small stones, one after the other, evenly set apart.

Slow and sweet was the time between us

I never stopped holding space.

slow and sweet were the nights
when my hands did not touch one another in despair but in the love
of your body which came
between them.

Or The way I kept dancing when the song was over, because it freed me.

I smell her green winter hat. Though I have worn it dozens of times since she wore it last, and even washed it after it fell in early spring mud, she’s still strongly there.

The hat hangs on the top branch of the hat rack. Even now, as I’m sitting in the other room, I can see it.

Even now I can imagine the warm and smell of it.

I’m not sure we were ever in the same room at the same time. Or ever building or trying to build the same thing.

The stage with its creaks, her grey bicycle bag, the penciled-on walls, the hat, and my mended shirt.

And does it gather dust? I want to keep it, though I can’t wear it. She sent me back mine.

In the movie we finally see the jinni, but never long enough to get a sense of what it really looks like.

The jinni wears a patterned hijab, which takes over the basement where the woman and daughter have been hiding, takes over the screen. In a few moments we see a face, but it is gone quickly, as though never really there. The hijab is black and white, patterned. It fills the screen.

That winter in Pennsylvania I turned seven. That winter, I was trapped inside myself, trapped in my mind because my body was another thing for a while.

Not mine.

The woman gets lost in the black and white cloth and the basement floor turns to muck, a black quicksand that pulls at her legs.

That winter I was trapped at six, given a party at seven.

I was seven years old in a new home, a new town, new state, to take away the thing my mother wouldn’t talk about, move me instead the states away, the half the country away.

The child is gone.

She wouldn’t talk to me but threw me a party for the new friends I should make. I didn’t know any of them, wanted them out of this this-is-not-my-home.

Everything was tense with my grandparents, my grandfather in his chair. My grandmother standing on the porch to get away from the noise.

I hid in a tree. Not hidden, really. But unmoving.

My mother beckoned. It wasn’t right. Or I wasn’t.

No, I definitely wasn’t.

The child comes to the top of the stairs, comes down the stairs. Pulls the mother.

I could feel my mother from across the room when either of them said anything to her. Even before she spoke.

And they let her back and why did she do this and did she do this for me.

I didn’t want the party.

I hid in a tree.

Pulls her out of the black and up the stairs. The child saving.

I watched the other first graders move through the yard, finding lollipops that would lead them to prizes. I sat in a tree and I watched them.

They got in the car and they drove.

were running from something, why wouldn’t anyone say?

I put the hat in a box and a book she had lent and the bobby pins that had littered my apartment, littered the bedside table, the chair on “her” side of the bed, the bookshelf in the living room, the windowsill in the shower, having rusted there. I collected them and dropped them in the box. And underwear she had left or had given me.

We were running from something.

Took the shirt out of the bag. Took the fixed shirt and buried it in the back of my closet.

I didn’t know how to end this until I saw her again.

Two weeks after I got my axe back in a box. And my hat. And the borrowed book. The dog blanket.

I stop in Seattle on my way to Oregon, my dog in the car. The car full of camping things for a few weeks on the beach, the last weeks of the summer.

I stop on the way in Seattle. To go to a reading.

I think about her a lot, try not to think of her as the lost beloved, try to think of her as just another girl. I wonder if I will see her, this just another girl.

I walk the dog through the park near the venue and the katsuras are just starting to get that smell, their sweet decay.

In the large room, a kind of gymnasium, a dozen rows of seats line the center, face a makeshift stage.

There’s room in the front and I start making my way there when I see a few friends of hers. I stop. Then I see her, the back of her head.

Her hair held loosely with a pencil.

The small nests on my wall.

The day that I met her.

The smell of her neck.

Her head tilts as she listens to the person next to her.

What if you could hear the world between your heartbeats?

And all the rest of it.

Her going away. So many times.

And then her return.

The fear that wasn’t ours.

I sit in the back. In a row filled with other queers and I strike up conversation to have someplace else to put my eyes.

An older man in an ACT-UP t-shirt and leather jacket, his blue eyes, but I feel the back of her head burning into me. I want to turn. I want to look at her or run out of the room. I am pulled in all directions.

The girl in the movie gets what she wants and the mother gets what she wants, which is not what she wanted at the start of things.

And in the end, it isn’t just the jinn that moves on. They all do. The building left half-destroyed behind them.

When the author comes to the stage, I realize that she (the lost beloved) sits in a direct line between the podium and me. I can see back of her head, her neck, the tendrils of hair that have slipped the knot.

What if you could hear the world between your heartbeats? the author reads. Slow down enough to deepen into trust.

She who had kissed me deeply that last time on the street. Her hand on the back of my head, pulling me into her.

Who had asked me to move in and had said she needed not to speak to me for a while a few days later.

Whose absence had been the biggest thing in the room most days the past three months.

Who had kissed me deeply on the street that last time.

Who had asked me to stay and asked me to stay and asked me to stay and then asked that we be nothing to each other with no in between.

In my sightline the back of her head. I knew that hair, that hand that held that pencil.

I knew the notebook on her lap without seeing it. When she bowed her head to write, I knew what it was the author had said that she would likely be taking down.

How can I learn the skill to tell my heart slow down.

And I realized that if I took a picture of the author, I would take a picture of her. I took a picture and I put my camera away.

The pressure is coming. Slow down

And when on the beach the next night in my tent, sand sliding around in my sleeping bag, the dog snoring at my side, the waves turning over out in the darkness, I looked at the photo and there she was.

Blurred, out of focus, still. Changing, still—

Slow down

and we will have the
air we need.                            

unmistakably her.

I know you, I said. I know you.

But perhaps only insomuch as I knew her the first night, when what felt like recognition opened something for me, in me. It’s possible I never knew her at all.

That the biggest thing in the room wasn’t her, but my heart breaking open.



I looked into a void of love. And I fell down. There was nothing else there. No where, where I was no one.
But I have to sing this song. I’m still here.


There isn’t any way to be.
I will meet you where you’ve gone.

are from Alice Notley’s “In the Pines”

Had we remained together we could have become a silence.


Slow and sweet was the time between us


slow and sweet were the nights
when my hands did not touch one another in despair but in the love
of your body which came
between them.

are from Yehuda Amichai’s “Quick and Bitter”

Or The way I kept dancing when the song was over, because it freed me.

is from Ocean Vuong’s “Not Even This”

What if you could hear the world between your heartbeats? Slow down enough to deepen into trust.


How can I learn the skill to tell my heart slow down.


The pressure is coming. Slow down


Slow down and we will have the air we need.

are from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned

The film referenced and titled borrowed from Babak Anvari’s 2016 film Under the Shadow.

Queer artist/teacher/editor/writer EJ Colen’s books include What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems, poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award and Audre Lorde Award finalist) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, book-length lyric essay The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration True Ash. She earned a BA from Georgia State University and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Washington, where she was the recipient of the Nelson Bentley and Frederick Ingham Fellowships. Nonfiction editor at Tupelo Press and freelance editor/manuscript consultant, EJ teaches at Western Washington University.

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