The Man Who Lost His Shadow

Stuart Lau

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

In the dark of night, the shadow sought once more the gaiety of the stage, for only in the play of parts may it find the courage to exist.

The shadow’s head ruffled and turned into crows. Finally, to open those beady black eyes in the midst of the day and see the alleyways heaped with trash; it was instinct to claim every hill, to caw at pedestrians, warning them to keep out. I may hail from the shadow, said the murder of crows, but breaking from its limbs, I sever my tendency to follow the larger mass. Eyes shut, I soar across the sky along the trajectory of my own flight path, but not high enough. All that remains of me are bloodstains that dye the glass windows, every bit as thick-skinned as their owner.

The shadow’s chest exhaled and became a deep well, dug out from scoops and handfuls of the sands of time, a mellow place for memories to land unscathed. At first you thought it was a shallow way to the spring, and that the water—as clear as the shadow was dark—would show the reflections of those looking down. With a frazzled mind you dug, dug ceaselessly at the same spot, like a child yearning for the lull of the womb in its dreams, and seeing no change in the water, you said it was not as though you had the face of Narcissus. As soon as that was said, water gushed out and filled you like a deep well, and from then on you wished for the small light of a shooting star to illuminate the dark.

The shadow’s legs were formed by colonies of black ants, occupying humble streets in their search for winter’s sustenance. They were often squashed by fingertips acting as some irreproachable judge passing the same sentence with top-down oppression. All this time the shadow had been shackled to the ankles of the man, and rather than having its desire for freedom extinguished, the shadow yearned ever more, day by day, for the agency legs were supposed to bestow. When all the black ants came together, they had the strength to hoist up even death, the stench of which they assuaged with sweet sustenance. Are they to overlook their dreadful habitat with worse happenings? Does getting through winter mean strapping freedom to the pillars of support? Feeble is a single wish, but the mass of wishes that gathered had the might of ants to resist annihilation. The singularity of the spark and the cohesive mass—it was ironic that their strength hailed from the pair of ankles they fought to defy.

The devil said to the man, “Now that you’ve given me your shadow and can only live in obscurity, you may as well sell me your soul.” The man said, “Certainly, the soul is in a precarious state without the shadow’s support, but with this I feel more strongly my own existence. I know you are in fact my shadow; all these years I have only cared for the light and neglected to see the darkness behind it. How I’ve forsaken you!” The devil shed his tears, scarce and brilliant. The man continued, “Thank you for showing me the way thus far; you may now withdraw the darkness you have cast.”

They, you, I, the people of the shadow: as we coalesced we cried, silently, like a fish that found fortuitous escape from the net.

translated from the Chinese by Jacqueline Leung