Hello. Before I introduce myself, I have something strange to tell you.
You see, I have no shadow. It detached from me and did terrible things, and then faded away.
You don’t believe me, of course. Ridiculous, you say. Impossible!
You might proceed to explain to me the rules and logic of light, how its beams and waves and packets work, and tell me of umbras, penumbras, antumbras. Shadow is a lack of a thing, you explain, not a thing. A void, a nothing, its edges grey and blurred.
But a thing is never whole without its no-thing.
I am a person just like you. My name is Thomas White, and I have no shadow.
It all began at the end of March, with a fountain and a woman.
The fountain was in my local town centre, newly put there by the council to make the square look less vacant. A big, round stone fountain with benches around the edge facing out. The sun was out when I first saw it, glistening off the churning surface and the coins that had been thrown in. I went over and looked, mesmerised by the water, feeling its spray on my skin. The ripples made such strange patterns out of their shadows all along the bottom, and there looming over them all was my own, twisted and reshaped by the restless water. For a moment, it even looked as if it were leaning, trying to slip away slowly enough that I wouldn’t notice, but as soon as it caught my eye it seemed to move back.
Must be the water, I told myself, but deep down something felt odd.
I turned and sat on the edge of the fountain, but now my shadow was cast behind me. I knew it was stupid, but I felt a strange distrust of it, and I moved around to the other side where I sat and looked down intently at the point on the pavement where it met my body. It did not budge a millimetre.
Definitely the water, I thought, relieved. Or lack of sleep.
I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them, then quickly realised there was another shadow moving next to mine. I sat up, embarrassed. A woman with dark hair and large sunglasses had sat next to me on the fountain’s edge. She turned to me and smiled.
“The benches not good enough?” she asked.
I laughed sheepishly and shrugged. “I just like being near the water.”
“Me too,” she said, taking off her shades and tossing them carelessly into her bag. “What were you staring at?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “Just… my shadow.”
She looked at me and smiled. Her eyes were too dark to tell their colour, and she frowned quizzically, her body turning toward me just slightly. Her sudden interest in me made me excited but very nervous.
“Yes, I…” I wondered what to tell her. “I was just imagining how strange it would be if it just… detached. Became separate.”
She laughed, but it was a laugh that made me feel relieved rather than ashamed.
“I have to admit,” she said, still locking eyes with me, “I’ve never really wondered about that before.” She held out her hand. “I’m Elizabeth.”
“Thomas,” I smiled, shaking her hand.
And that’s how it started.
When we told each other our names, we both laughed and said it was a sign. Thomas White and Elizabeth Black. We were the yin-yang tai-chi symbol, one little inyo swimming through the world. We had coffee, effortlessly got along, and exchanged numbers, walking away from each other light-headed and breathless and trying to play it cool. I’d forgotten all about my shadow, but on the way home I started to feet it like another presence, and noticed it again.
I could see it at the edge of my vision, the slight gap between us, just a few millimetres wide, but whenever I stopped and looked closer the gap would disappear. Sometimes, as I stooped down and squinted, I began to feel as if it were staring back.
I saw Elizabeth again just a few days later, the two of us walking through the park to a restaurant I’d never been to before. I decided not to worry about my shadow, or to bother her with it. I simply put it aside as being some strange paranoia, a new but passing neurosis that I’d forget about and then suddenly remember one day, laughing back at how utterly absurd it was. Perhaps I’d tell her about it then, and she could laugh and tell me how ridiculous I am sometimes, and then she’d confess something equally weird.
Over time, the more I saw of her, the easier it was to forget about it all. The summer soon arrived, and it quickly became difficult to remember life without her. We’d be walking in the sun and I’d watch her as she talked, fascinated by her, how she always had a light about her that I both adored and envied.
“What?” she’d ask me whenever she noticed. “You’re so quiet sometimes.”
“Nothing,” I’d say with a smile. “Just looking.”
She often called me secretive and asked what I was hiding.
“You’re quite mysterious sometimes, Tom,” she said once. “I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve ended up with a serial killer.”
We laughed, and after that she started calling me serial killer names. Thomas Bundy, Thomas Dahmer, Thomas Gacy. Believe it or not, I didn’t get tired of it.
When August ends though, it stretches people’s shadows. It pulls them taut, and bends the corners of buildings until the long and disfigured shade is all we notice, looming in cool alleys and dancing across the paving, dousing the sun.
I started to see things in the corner of my eye.
My shadow, clear-cut and perfect on the wall next to me, slowly turning to look at me.
The unshakeable impression that it hurried to catch up with me whenever I looked to see where it had gone.
I became convinced that Elizabeth was seeing it too, despite her never mentioning it. Perhaps she thought the same as me, that it was just a trick of her eyes or her mind. Perhaps she too was trying to dismiss what she could not really deny, cutting of its head to leave its root growing deep. I felt a dread in my stomach every time she glanced down at the ground with a frown. Surely she’d stop and point, her face a picture of horror.
My shadow next to hers, leaning ever so slightly in the wrong direction, frozen in just the wrong shape.
But she never said a word.
Now, whenever I think about her, I know I should have told her what she had so quickly come to mean to me, before it all came stealing back.
The cool of the creeping shade, the chill of something dark.
But it’s too late.
It ended one night, when we were sitting in front of the television, watching some old film. The colour was faded and the voices tinny, and the dialogue terrible – everything about it was so hopelessly old that we laughed as we watched it. I leaned against her, my head on her shoulder, and there was something safe and womblike in her warmth, in the sound of her breath and heartbeat carried through her bones. I felt myself drifting off to sleep, with the film trying to come with me and make itself a dream.
I woke with a start to Elizabeth screaming. I sat bolt upright and saw it – my shadow on the wrong wall, looming, creeping across it like a nightmare.
I looked around at the wall behind me, but the pale light from the screen seemed to be shining straight through me. I looked back and swore my shadow turned to look at me as it slowly moved toward Elizabeth.
I leaped up and switched on the lights, driving the shadows from the walls, and when I looked down at the floor there was mine, attached to me as if it had never left. Elizabeth was curled on the sofa, staring at me, and for the first time ever I saw her terrified.
“What are you hiding?” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” I replied, my hands trembling, my heart pounding, my head caught in a fog of sleep and adrenaline.
She got up and left, and I didn’t see her again for several weeks.
There was no reply to my phone calls or voicemails or texts, and I didn’t want to turn up unannounced at her place and bring my shadow with me.
After all it was back now, and showed no more signs of moving away from me. In the mornings, when the sun came up early, I would stand and stare at the blank wall in my bedroom, the one opposite my window, and watch my shadow. It did nothing. Whenever I looked down there was no gap. It remained as still as me, blank and silent. Perhaps its job was done now.
I said nothing, but my belly felt full of anger and loss, and I was sure it could feel it. Perhaps that’s why it did nothing for all of those weeks.
Then, one day, I simply resolved to find her, to win her back. None of this was my fault, and whatever had happened, I wasn’t in on the joke. I was no wiser than she was, and I hadn’t hurt her. How can a shadow hurt someone anyway?
I would find her and talk to her, explain everything. We had momentum, the two of us, and I knew it must still be there. It couldn’t simply stop, just in a matter of seconds on one night. I was decided, and I was determined.
Perhaps that’s why it left me.
I woke the next morning and stood in front of the wall, but when the sun came up the wall was blank. I looked down at myself, as if I had stopped existing, become intangible, had died or was dreaming, but I was as real as I ever could be. I walked over to the window, the sun in my eyes, and when I opened it and looked out, my shadow had fallen. It was cast across the grass below my window, pausing as if looking back up at me before moving away.
For a few moments I tried to climb out and chase it, but it was no good.
I sat back down on the edge of the bed, and suddenly felt an overwhelming sorrow. My shadow was gone. With all that it had done, it was mine, and now it was gone, like a man cut in half.
I went back into the town that day, back to the fountain, but the world looked different somehow, flatter maybe. People seemed to notice something wrong with me without knowing what it was. I sat down and looked around for my shadow, but it never came. No-one sat next to me. I was a half-man, bereaved and outcast.
With each passing day the world became a strange place of sunlight and shade, black and white. Colours were faded like old films, shapes less solid, things less real. I felt light, delirious, unshackled but dearly missing substance, a balloon escaping it moorings with nowhere to go but float. My ballast was elsewhere, heavy, dark, unfathomable.
The next time I saw it was when I saw Elizabeth. It was autumn by then, and I saw her back by the fountain, sitting in the exact same spot where I had first met her. The sun was small but bright, and I saw a shadow behind her in the water, menacing and unmoving but attached to her like a parasite, taking something from her. I walked toward her and recognised it as my own, and it turned to me slowly and deliberately before quickly flitting away across the paving. I ran over to her but something about her looked wrong, and she glanced up at me, confused and terrified.
“Thomas,” she whispered, and I couldn’t tell whether she was begging for my help or accusing me.
“Elizabeth!” I said. “Get away, quick!”
But without saying another word she went limp and collapsed forwards onto the hard ground in front of me.
No-one knew what was wrong with her when I took her to the hospital. She lay there on the bed, her skin painfully pale with wires coming off into the machines. Her breaths were slow and soft, a steady tide for hours and hours, until they simply stopped. I held her hand, and as her heart soundlessly wound down there was something bottomless falling inside me, something shifting that I knew was forever.
I only remembered my shadow when I stood and saw it on the wall above her bed, staring down at her. It seemed to see me, and it began to move, spiderlike, gliding along the walls, slinking into the corners.
When it passed the window I stopped following it and simply looked out. There was a sapling out there, all on its own, shedding bright leaves all over the grass. I stood and stared at it until the nurses came rushing in to revive Elizabeth, but I couldn’t watch. I knew it was hopeless. Whatever it is that keeps your heart going was gone from her. I just stared at the tree instead.
The next day, just like back in the summer, I woke and stood in front of my wall, and when the sun came up there was my shadow. Now, I knew, its job was truly done.
The dreams came, of course. Dreams of her. The ones so real you wonder if they really did come back and visit you somewhere. Vivid with colour at first, with sunlight and her smile, and the things she used to say to me. Then, slowly, they faded, cracked and dimmed.
Every day I stood at the wall and carefully watched, but my shadow never moved. Sometimes, as the leaves fell outside, their smaller blurry shadows swooped and drifted past it, but it never moved. The longer I stared at it, bereft, the more I began to feel a kinship, and I began to welcome it. I slowly felt its darkness, its loneliness, its agony, and let it in. It seeped into me, that cold, damp weight, a heavy stone from deep underground that never warms up. I welcomed it, embraced it, and felt it intensely enough to tear a hole through the sea bed.
Gradually, so slowly you’d never notice if you didn’t look, it became like those other drifting shadows, slowly blurring, becoming fainter, fading away. Day after day I stood and watched as it soaked into the wall with the patience of an oak, drifting into the air, evaporating into the other gone shadows of winter.
Now it’s December. The trees are dead, and even when the full moon comes out my shadow never comes back. Somehow I know it’s never coming back. It passed all that it had over to me, all of its lifeblood, and now it’s never coming back.
A shadow is not a void, a lack of a thing. It’s a thing in itself, a no-thing but still a thing, and it’s only now its shape lives inside me that I can see the real Void. That hole in the earth, that chasm underwater, that infinity still left to go underground.
My name is Thomas White, and I am a man, and I am a shadow.
Taken from the book of short stories, The Moon in Our Houses.