Courtney Ball

Shadow of Hope

I wrote this story a few months ago and recently revised it to enter into a “short, short story” contest. The photo is of my daughter and me, taken several years ago in Keystone, CO, but I used it as a prompt for this experimental piece of fiction.

Shadow of Hope

Before, my heart was his heart, my thoughts his thoughts. I was his constant companion. In light, his playmate; in darkness, his protector. At least that is what he believed. He used to tell me before the lights went out in his bedroom, “I’m not afraid of the dark, Mr. Shadow, because I have you with me, and you know all about it.”

My best guess is that somehow I failed him as both companion and guardian, because one day he disappeared. How it happened is a mystery to me. All I can remember is this sudden, ripping separation, and then absence. The sensation was completely new and absolutely terrifying. It made my consciousness spin, dizzy and blank.

Gradually, the confusing void began to sort itself into strands of recognition. I came to, lying among a scrabble of boulders against the side of a mountain. Looking up, I saw a bright light climbing in the sky. The sun. I had never seen it before. The boy always stood between it and me. Then I realized, There is no boy.

In that moment, a gut-wrenching wail should have given voice to my fear and anguish. But shadows cannot make sound. We cannot cry out or weep.

I lay there waiting, watching for a sign of what to do next. Higher up the mountain, I saw another boy walking along a path. I found that I could move of my own accord—a strange new ability—and I crept up the hillside toward the child.

When I got closer to the path, I recognized it as the same trail on which I had traveled before with the boy. I could remember him running and jumping from stone to stone in the twilight. We were brave adventurers, exploring the heights of this undiscovered, magical mountain realm. It was a beautiful memory, my last of him. And then after…what? What had happened in between? For me it was only confusion and fear and absence.

Maybe, I thought, this other boy or his shadow could help me. As I drew closer, I saw that the human was not a boy, but a fully-grown man. He carried a large backpack and looked like he might have been alone in the woods for quite some time. I cautiously slid onto the path before him and offered a timid wave. As soon as the man saw me, he shouted with surprise. After taking another quick look, he turned and sprinted blindly into the woods. He tripped and fell hard to the ground, then got up with a groan to resume his panicked flight. He kept looking back to see if I pursued him.

Witnessing the trouble I had caused, I quickly hid inside a larger shadow. I had no desire to frighten anyone. I decided to stay hidden until I could think of a better plan.

Later, when I saw a woman hiking along the path, I came up with the idea of approaching her shadow without letting the woman see me. Her shadow won’t be frightened of me, I hoped. But when I greeted the shadow, it was like it couldn’t see me. I stood right next to it, even tried to nudge it. No response. At first, I was confused and a little hurt. Why would it ignore me? Then I understood. It didn’t know absence. It was not separate. It would only notice me if its owner noticed me. It could not act on its own.

I have to find my boy! I thought. He’s my only hope. But how could I find him? I knew the mountain pass was not his home, but I had only a small boy’s memory of how he got from his home to that place. If I left the path, I wouldn’t know where to look for him. Better to stay here, I thought. Maybe he will come back looking for me.

It has been fifteen summers since that day, and still he has not returned. I am no longer the shadow of a small boy. Somehow I have grown into a young man. I wonder sometimes if this means I am still connected to him. Perhaps he is a now a young man, roaming the world on his own. Maybe in his travels he will come back to this mountain pass. But I don’t really think so anymore. The older I get, the more I fear he is gone forever while I remain adrift, without purpose and alone.

I have approached other humans throughout the years. None of my encounters proved successful. Most people scare too easily. There were a few whose curiosity was strong enough to overpower their fear, but even those turned out to be useless. Humans are creatures of language. With no voice, I couldn’t communicate to them what I needed. I could understand everything they said, but it was completely one-sided. In the end, I was nothing more to them than a new form of amusement.

Once there was a news story about me. A pretty female reporter and a big, ugly camera man came out to my mountain pass with a local tour guide. The news people looked incredulous as their guide called out to the empty air. “Show yourself!” he commanded.

This is my chance! I thought. If they share my story, maybe my boy will see it and come back for me. So, I came out. The reporter was bold—only took a half-step back. The camera man screamed like a small child and dropped his equipment. The tour guide smiled with satisfaction. After everyone had regained their composure, the guide told the fashionable reporter some crazy story about how I was the ghost of a boy who was brutally murdered on this very mountain. He said I haunted the trail and occasionally lured lonely hikers to their doom.

I was outraged! Powerless to correct him, I began to despair. What if he scared my boy away with these ridiculous lies? This silly man might ruin my chances at reunion with the one person I needed to find. Never before had I felt such anger. I longed for a body of flesh and blood so that I could hurl that fraud down the mountain.

But of course, I had no such power. Instead, I slipped away and swore that never again would I communicate with another human. For years I have kept this vow. Though I have often been within inches of people and their shadows, I never let myself be seen. Not until today.

*          *          *

Today I see a girl wandering down my path. She is young, eight years old, maybe. She has a camera, and as she stops in front of me, she notices her long shadow stretching out before her in the soft morning light. She smiles, then lifts her camera to take a picture. A sudden reckless urge sweeps through me. I leap next to her shadow and make antlers with my hands above my head. She can’t see my mouth, but it grins mischievously.

She jumps, but no scream. Instead, she looks at me for a moment and then turns to run back down the path in the direction from which she came. Ah, well, I think. So it goes.

A minute later, she returns with her parents, and as I lie hidden beneath a tree, I can see her hands moving wildly, making strange shapes. Puzzled, I keep watching as her parents also make a series of unfamiliar movements with their hands.

What really catches my attention is when she shows the screen on her camera to her father, points to the ground where I stood moments ago, then makes these two gestures with her hands. First, she points the finger of one hand up like a vertical pole or tree, and from its base her other hand makes a spreading horizontal motion, like a shadow stretching behind its object. Next, she puts both her hands forward and mimes the action of picking up an item and moving it to a different place. She keeps pointing to the ground and then repeating these two movements.

Her parents look around for the source that might have caused their daughter to describe what must be nonsense. They think she is confused, but I begin to understand the magnitude of this moment. Shadow. Moves. This girl is using her hands to communicate without a voice!

I leap out of hiding, at which her parents, unlike their daughter, do scream. They grab her and hide her behind them, but I don’t care. I am determined to make this message clear. I point to myself, then I mimic her sign for shadow. “Me. Shadow!” my hands say. “I am shadow!” I repeat the sequence again and again as I dance around them with unrestrained joy. “I am shadow! I am shadow! I am shadow!” And today I know I am no longer alone.

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Courtney Ball

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