Eli is an imperfect clone of Shuli, but the priests say she is as good as perfect.
Perfect clones are impossible anyway, if you’re copying Shuli’s pure state via unitary time evolution, and if you can’t violate the no-teleportation theorem, and if you’ve got a mind of your own, which Eli has.
Eli likes to grow snow peas on the window sill since she isn’t allowed outside, and this is the only place where she can get the most sun exposure. Shuli says it’s dirty: the bits of soil sprinkling the white vinyl, the tiny rusted spade leaned against a pot, the cup of murky water replenished once a week.
Eli’s natural standing posture has a slight slouch where her elbows angle forward and her spine curves like a flattened S; Shuli stands straight, chest slightly puffed, even when Eli is the only other person in the room.
Shuli is better than Eli at almost everything; even her smile is prettier, more dimple-y, whatever that means.
Why can’t you have what she has? The shadows ask Eli.
Eli doesn’t mind. Clones are not substitutes or replacements; they’re resources. Plus, Eli likes to watch from her small room as Shuli plays outside. She likes to watch Shuli building snow forts and snow sofas that’d hurt your butt instead of cushion it, the white dusting her hair, the chilly air coloring her nose bright red, and when Shuli stomps through fresh patches of snow, Eli imagines snow boots compressing a cloud with a quiet crunch, like crushing tissue into your palm.
When spring comes, Shuli takes walks around the garden, stopping and resuming at different bundles of flowers Eli doesn’t know the names of, and Shuli will sometimes kick her shoes into the grass and prance barefoot beside the fence — although she never runs. She’s always holding back from running, like she might lose something if she moves too fast, like she might burst if she outpaces her breath.
Sometimes nurses have to hold onto Shuli in case she flits away, collapses into the air.
Shuli has stopped doing all of that now. Now, a man accompanies Shuli on the walks, and Shuli wraps her arm around his elbow as they point to tiny birds perched at the center of flowers, and Eli wonders how their elbows interlace so smoothly, like wrapped ribbons rather than angled joints.
In the summer, Shuli sits on a blanket on the grass with a basket of yellow peaches while the child stomps on fallen petals and hollers —although Eli can’t hear anything, only marvel at how wide the child can stretch their mouth and how little of a reaction it provokes from Shuli.
Autumn is when Eli tracks the leaves turning red and it’s also when Shuli dresses in the long, chocolate-colored cardigan which Eli thinks looks so soft and deep, like it’d catch her if she fell from the window, envelop her in a nest of knitted acrylic. But this past autumn, Shuli only showed up a few times, and always with someone else — the man, a priest, a nurse — and Eli was left counting how many different shades of red leaves she can spot from behind a window.
The shadows tell her to escape. They can stretch their particles thin enough to slip through the cracks and unlock the window from the outside. Like fairy dust, Eli thinks. The shadows have the personality of a dog, cuddling up against her back when she sleeps, curling between her feet as wisps of smoke whenever she paces from the window to the door, demanding attention when her gaze fixates on Shuli or the flowers or the man or the child for too long.
Eli doesn’t escape. The priests say clones are cursed and that’s why only she can see the shadows. They installed a wood kneeler bench for her to pray for the curse to be lifted. Her knee caps are blue and purple from the hard surface, but she refuses the shadows’ attempt to cushion the wood. It’s the least she can do for existing.
The priests leave her meals on the ground outside her door. She waits until the footsteps fade before retrieving the tray to sip a tepid bowl of congee and chew through the small bag of pickled cucumbers.
Shuli used to visit Eli’s room once a week. Shuli would brush Eli’s hair with a small jade comb; its teeth felt like icicles skimming her scalp. She’d bring fancy dresses for Eli to model, and clap and cheer as Eli spun and the skirts swooshed around, brushing her legs and the floor. She’d tell Eli they were building memories together, as individuals.
After Shuli met the man, she visited Eli less and less until she stopped coming altogether, and it was just Eli and the shadows and the snow peas.
It’s because I’ve grown up and you haven’t, Shuli explained during her second-to-last visit.
They spent that day leafing through Eli’s prayer books, debating whether Eli was truly cursed if she was only an approximate clone. Did the curse slip through qubit copies, between orthogonal dimensions, before subsequent measurements of state have collapsed from observation? Was she cursed because she was useless?
Is that canceled out by death? Eli had asked.
Maybe, was Shuli’s answer before she spotted the half-eaten plate of rice pudding and a cold cup of honeysuckle tea and chastised Eli for wasting food. For every grain of rice you leave, you gain a pocket on your face.
Shuli’s face had begun to grow pockets, like her skin had been stabbed with bamboo shoots and crumpled like paper while Eli’s face remained smooth as paper. Shuli still had the prettier smile.
When Eli sits by the window, the shadows cradle her head so her cheek doesn’t rub against the dirt-covered sill. Shuli never crosses into the garden again.
The priests say making clones demands equal life in return. It’s not just about making genetic copies, replicating cells, resurrecting pluripotency — the human psyche goes deeper than that, which is where things often go wrong — like why Eli can sit in silence for days entertained by her thoughts while Shuli would start mumbling to herself after a single day’s isolation.
Cloning the soul of a person requires a sliver of the original soul and filler substance: something like styrofoam, silicone, cartilage, or in Eli’s case, the shadows.
The fragmented soul latches onto the substrate and crystallizes out. It’s not a real clone, but mimicry, an artificial growth contaminated by imperfect fillers. These chimera souls don’t evolve or adapt, not like real ones.
Eli knows she’s an abomination. She thinks growing snow peas might balance out the cost of her existence: take a life, coax a life full of pods that can sprout even more lives from the soil. She tells the shadows not to go near the snow peas, afraid they might rot the roots and turn them mushy like tofu brains.
When winter returns, Eli watches the snow accumulating in layers, fluffy and pristine. There’s no one to roll snowballs, pack the snow down into dense seat structures, smooth edges of mounds into igloos. Her snow pea plant has dried and browned. Shuli hasn’t visited in months now.
Eli asks the shadows to unlock the windows. Then she steps on the sill, hands gripping the edges, the wind cutting at her knuckles, her cheeks. The shadows catch her as she jumps, softly lowering her to the ground. Eli steps into the snow, sinking abruptly to her knees.
It’s so light, she tells them as she drags one leg up and then another. She’s out of breath by the third step.
The child runs past, nearly toppling her. The child spins around. Ma?
Eli shakes her head. No, not ma. Eli.
Ma, the child cries again, tossing fistfuls of snow into her face. Eli dodges the snow and the child continues to fling white flurries at her. She was already out of breath, and now her nose is runny and she wonders if you can cough your heart out of your mouth.
Eli wasn’t supposed to have a weak heart. The one part of Shuli that wasn’t supposed to be cloned. Eli knows she’s a resource drain, a machine of organs consuming resources without purpose, a soul warped from the source.
If things had gone right, she might’ve been subsumed as part of Shuli: Eli’s heart pumping blood to Shuli’s limbs, fueling that dimpled smile, as things should’ve been.
Eli, she repeats.
The child laughs and spins, nearly stomping over the shadows that have spread themselves in a thin layer over the untouched surfaces of the snow.
The shadows gather into a dark mass, gliding around the scattering of small and smaller footprints. When they reach Eli, they sink through her pores, and as though her heart might disintegrate into qubits and stem cells, they hug it tightly.