I was a kid—five or six—and I remember the house we lived in had this big tree right outside my bedroom window. In the summertime, it was still light out when I went to bed and the sun was low in the sky and would shine through the tree and through my window and decorate my walls with movement and branches and leaves and wind. I’d watch the shadows—hold my arm in front of the window and let the shadow of my hand and fingers mingle with the tree branches. I’d sway my arm gently and slowly wave my fingers to mimic the movement of the branches in the wind and I’d fall asleep.
That’s around the time I started to notice people were uneasy around my mother. I didn’t know why at first. Why is such a big question when you’re a kid and the answers are slow coming because knowing why means figuring out the world and how it works and your place in it and how people are like you and how they’re different.
My mom had no shadow.
Even as a kid, she said, she didn’t have a shadow. She didn’t know the reason. Her parents. Her doctor. Specialists. No one knew, and by the time she was in junior high, it didn’t seem to matter. Other than a lack of shadow, she was perfectly healthy.
When people talked to her—people who didn’t know about her condition—especially outside, they became nervous. I watched them. They couldn’t figure out why. Their eyes would dart from one side of us to the other—over our heads. They’d look over their shoulders as if expecting someone. They wouldn’t look directly at us—at her, because there was something not right that they couldn’t put their fingers on. At me because I was studying their faces, and I think that this, too, made them uncomfortable. I don’t think they noticed she didn’t have a shadow. Or maybe their minds didn’t let them see that she didn’t—it’s so impossible. I started to stand close to her when I was with her—right up against her, touching her—so that my shadow might look like both of our shadows.When I was six, I made her a shadow for Mother’s Day. I spread out newspaper on the kitchen floor and taped the pieces together with masking tape. I lay down on it and traced my outline with a marker. It was hard to do. The legs and feet weren’t too bad, but the arms and head gave me a lot of trouble. I cut out the silhouette. It was lumpy and off, but it was OK because that just made it look more shadow-y. I poured black paint onto a paper plate and painted the paper. When it was dry, I rolled it onto a tube and tied it in a red ribbon.
“Happy mother’s Day!” I was so excited. She slid the ribbon off the rolled up shadow and opened it.
“Is this a shadow?” she asked. “For me?”
She opened her arms and I walked into her embrace. “I love it,” she whispered.
She went and got our camera—one of those Kodak Instamatics. She spread the shadow out on the floor and stood with her feet on the feet of the shadow—which were really my feet—and told me to take the picture. After it was developed, she put it on the refrigerator with a magnet. The picture is a little grainy and it looks like a regular picture. It looks like she has a shadow. I still have it around here somewhere.
Summers when I would drift to sleep as leaves drifted across my bedroom walls, I would dream of finding her shadow. I remember dreaming I found it in a bowl I made in art. We molded the bowls out of clay and painted them with glaze. I remember the color of the glaze when it went on was not the same as the color after it was fired in the kiln. Mine was blue—after it was fired. Deep blue like the night sky and there were these white spots that looked like stars. I dreamed her shadow was in this bowl and I never noticed because the bowl was like night and the shadow was so hard to see. I thought I saw something in the bowl—in the dream. Not really in the bowl, but in the sky if the bowl was the sky. I picked it up and tilted it and my mother’s shadow poured out. It danced across the floor the way the treeshadows danced across my walls and it settled in under my mother. My shadow! she sang. Where did you find it?
In the night, I said, meaning the bowl, but it was a dream. She knew what I meant.
She used to read to me—my mother. At night. She’d lie in my bed and I’d lie next to her and she’d read a chapter a night of Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows. That summer she read Peter Pan. I lay against her, listening to the whispersong of her voice—I still hear her voice in my head when I read—and I’d watch the shadows. Sometimes I’d take her arm and hold it up in front of the window and wave it like the branches, but only the shadow of my arm—my hand curled like a C, holding nothing—would show up among the leaves. After she read about Peter’s shadow being caught in a window by Mrs. Darling and coming off and being put in a drawer, for days I would go through every drawer in the house. One day she came in while I was looking. I was making a mess of it. Take-out menus, pens, rubber bands, a deck of cards, a roll of green wire—all of it was all over the floor. She yelled. When I told her I was looking for her shadow, she laughed and kissed the top of my head. You’re my shadow, she said.
Since she died, I like to think of my shadow as her shadow. It’s like she’s still with me. And when my daughter asks, when I grow up—and what she means is when I die, but she doesn’t know it yet—can I have grandma’s shadow? I say sure, and we watch our shadows mingle with the branches and the wind.
Ethan Tinkler teaches Creative Writing and English at Atlantic City High School in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickenson’s MFA program in Creative Writing and was a reader for The Literary Review for three years. Some of my work has appeared in Rosebud, Spittoon, Storyteller, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Reverb, White Pelican Review, and Main Channel Voices.
Artwork: Rob Woodcox, Falling Shadows