My shadow went missing last night.
I woke up to find that it simply wasn’t there. Sunlight streamed through my apartment window, but no shadow appeared on my bed on the second floor. Where had I left my shadow? We came home late last night. I think we did. I wasn’t paying much attention to him. Our walk took us downtown, around the Loop although not really in it – Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, Monroe Harbor – all the places you go when you just want to forget things.
I had mixed feelings about him. The first time I really noticed him was when I was a teen, walking home at night beneath the light of the streetlamps. There he was, a proud reflection of me, his broad shoulders strutting forward as I walked quicker to get underneath each next lightpost. I was young and strong with a full life ahead of me. My shadow recognized that, and he was happy to accompany me wherever I went. I pictured the two of us accomplishing so much together – noble, lofty goals, doing things that would benefit mankind to the point where praise would be heaped upon us. I even pictured a postage stamp being commemorated in our honor for service to our country. At one time I had a stamp from Hungary with a portrait of a proud oak. It stretched its boughs heavenward, yearning for what was out of its reach. It stood fronting a majestic woodland. I never forgot that stamp.
He was alongside me at Buckingham Fountain. Then I took Columbus Drive up to Randolph Street and on to Michigan Avenue, where I caught the Outer Drive bus on home to Uptown. I don’t remember seeing him after that. So today I decided to backtrack. I had nothing going on anyway. It was a bright day, full of that sun that streamed through my window, so there would be shadows everywhere. He’d stand out.
I took exactly the same route I had taken home, only in reverse, all the way to Buckingham Fountain. On a summer day like this Grant Park was packed. There were children, tourists, dog walkers, bicyclists, sellers of ice-cold water, everyone eager to watch the three-tiered fountain on a bright morning. The park benches were full, full of girls in flowery dresses with ample-skirted shadows at their side. I crossed the plaza, eyes glued to the ground, scanning for any unattached shadow.
Then I saw him. He was at a park bench by the hedge where the plaza’s paving bricks stopped. He wasn’t alone. Another shadow, a girl shadow, was with him, wearing the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat. I hid in a crowd of people so I would not be noticed. The two of them were holding hands, their foreheads nearly touching, bobbing up and down slightly, engaged in conversation. It was the sort of talk I had long imagined having with a girl, a talk that would reveal our secrets, our deepest longings, an itinerary of our journey in a large city, full of streetlights and buses and loneliness. How jealous I was! My shadow was in love. He had found what had eluded me for years. My shadow was more real than I was. I was composed of flesh, blood, neurons, consciousness, atoms, all those things that make a person alive. He was just a two-dimensional shroud I drug around from place to place. And he had succeeded where I had failed.
I decided to be broad-minded and congratulate him. I strolled, full of purpose, up to the pair of them snuggling on the bench.
“Where the hell were you last night?” I asked.
He looked up coolly. The thing I found out about shadows is they can’t talk. And their faces are just as you see them – two-dimensional images, devoid of depth. But their actions speak out loud. He stood up. The palms of his hands were thrust out in plea. He wanted me to understand something. Then his arm encircled the girl shadow. I understood immediately.
Since speaking was useless, I mimed my feelings as well. I pleaded. I wrung my hands in sorrow to show him I missed him. Then I extended an open hand for him to take so he could follow me back across Grant Park, up Columbus Drive, over to the Michigan Avenue bus.
But he refused and tightened his embrace on the girl, his girl. This is why he had left. The plaza was full of life. The fountain showered the air with its spray as children laughed, ran and chased each other. Kites flew above us. It could have been so cheerful.
That’s when I saw her. She strolled across the rose-colored plaza in a ground-grazing dress and a wide-brimmed hat. Her figure was trim, her bearing erect, exuding confidence.
She cast no shadow, like me.
She had spotted them from far off and approached out of curiosity, not anger or to even a score. Her face was open, free of preconceptions. She was probably like me in that she’d never seen a shadow out on its own before, interacting with the world. Her brow was knit. She didn’t notice me. She was focused on them, as I was.
Her shadow stood up as she approached. Two shapes in wind-swept skirts faced each other. She must have sensed that her shadow could not speak. She silently asked for an explanation by extending her hands, as I had. It wasn’t the same kind of supplication I had desperately offered. It was straightforward and to the point. It simply asked, “Why?”
And her shadow responded. It put her arm around my shadow in a simple gesture of communion. As the two of them intertwined, or blended, or coalesced, or whatever it is shadows do when they like each other, my counterpart nodded slowly. The wind off the lake whipped up, whipping her summery hat off her head. It sailed my way, and it would have made its way into the fountain had I not acted. I retrieved her hat and brought it to her. My counterpart and I stood facing each other in the fierce Midwest sun, each of us shadowless, naked, vulnerable, dumb. My hand went to hers, grazing her fingers as she retrieved her hat. Her fingers were long and firm. I hesitated as they touched mine, not wanting to appear too eager. She put on her hat, and something unexpected happened. The shadow from its broad brim covered her face and made it disappear. There was nothing in the shadow, no face, no features. The hat’s shadow had made her invisible. This was a new world, a world where shadows were free of us. I decided to experiment. I took the hat off her head and put it
She put on her hat, and something unexpected happened: the shadow from its broad brim covered her face and made it disappear. There was nothing in the shadow– no face, no features. The hat’s shadow had made her invisible. This was a new world, a world where shadows were free of us. I decided to experiment. I took the hat off her head and put it over my arm. My arm disappeared as well. Maybe in this new world, shadows walked free of us and could also reduce us to nothing. I couldn’t explain it. I’m not a metaphysicist. I’m more a misogynist or a stamp collector. What would happen if we both, she and I, found a shadow big enough to encompass us? Her face, now hidden, had been open and forthright. Could it be lonely as well? I spotted something far off, past the rose-colored bricks of the plaza, a vibrant and full-bodied tree.
I also watched the pair of our shadows embracing on the park bench. They were off in a world of their own, oblivious to us now. I gestured to my counterpart, pointing to a bell-shaped tree far away, halfway to the retaining wall overlooking the South Shore railroad tracks. The tree cast an enormous shadow. It wavered in the south wind. Sometimes trees rustle, sometimes they shake. This one wavered. We walked across the plaza, careful not to touch until we got to the tree’s base. We stood just outside its shadow. It continued to waver, like a candle’s flame devouring that last bit of its wax. We looked up into it and felt its roots, its steadfastness, its emptiness. In the distance our shadows rose up from the park bench by the hedge and waved goodbye to us. We waved back.
I removed her hat. Her now-visible face was collected and serene. Then, staring at the grass where our shadows had once stood with us on this tract of our brief existence, she lifted her eyes so they met mine. We entered its shadow. The tree limbs stopped reaching up and bent down to us instead. Our hands touched, then our torsos, then our insides and the rest of us. The massive tree’s shadow swept us up together and we were suddenly gone to a place I once saw on a postage stamp and had never forgotten.