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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

My Mother's Shadow

Henry Lu is a computer programmer by day and a writer by night. His works of fiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Sips Card, Pseudopod, Fiction 365 and Eschatology Journal, among many others. He learned English by listening to the Voice of America as a teenager in Communist China.

My hand is in the firm clutch of my mother's, my steps timid alongside her sure stride. I am almost as tall as her shoulders.
"Caroline, keep your head up," my mother reminds me.
A fat man in front of a deli spits toward us to show his contempt. After we have passed him, I feel the chilling hate in his eyes on my back.
I hear the disturbing sound when our feet crush the autumn leaves. Now and then, the setting sun sneaks out from behind the clouds, sparing warm light on our thinly clad shoulders. Then, as always, I am stunned to behold my mother's long shadow on the cobblestone street: slender, elegant, with a jagged edge.
I am proud of my mother's shadow.
A group of young men are smoking in front of a bar, each sporting the standard crew cut, wearing the Shadow of the Crucifix pins, their combined shadow on the sidewalk a menacing predator. They study my mother with a sneer on their faces, their lascivious eyes roving. "Here comes Mother Teresa," one of them sniggers, leering, "can I buy you a drink?"
My mother does not slow down. Without batting an eye at him, she says, "You can if you buy my kid a burger."
I cringe. They must be giving me the once-over now. The kind of second look one gives to roadkill from behind the wheel.
"Bitch! Whore!" they yell at my mother's back. The sun instantly hides behind the clouds, as if embarrassed by the rudeness in the air. The wind kicks up a notch and swoops debris past us, throwing dust at the foul-mouthed men.
I hang on to my mother's hand, trotting to catch up with her quickened pace. Her firm jaw line shows a renewed determination, her gaze firmly trained ahead, at the gate of the prison.
One day when I was four, I came home from playing with the neighborhood kids, heartbroken and sobbing. It was a bright summer day and the sun was burning high in the sky.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?" My mother squatted to wipe tears off my face. But my tears would not stop, gushing like a fountain.
"Mommy, how come I don't have a shadow?" I asked her. I had discovered it when a bunch of us were playing shadow puppets in the sun. When it was my turn, I could not make a puppet.
"Look!" I pulled the front door open and stuck my arm out into the sunlit doorway. There was not a single thread of shadow on the floor. "Stick out your arm, mommy."
And when she did, a semblance of her arm in a darker shade fell across the floor.
"See?" I cried tearfully.
My mother picked me up and held me tight. I realized that she knew that I had been born shadowless.
She kissed away my tears and told me she would never leave me. She would always keep me close to her heart. "See," she pointed at her shadow and assured me, "my shadow is also your shadow. We are together."
Just then, my father showed up at the door. With me still in her arm, she embraced my father. With the three of us in a tight group hug, my mother pointed to the slim shadow on the floor, "And my shadow is also your father's shadow."
I studied the shape of the shadow and realized, for the first time, that my father had no shadow either.
Things changed in the second semester of my first grade school year. I was no longer allowed to go to the neighborhood school. Instead, I had to take a long bus ride to attend a makeshift school in a trailer park set up for shadowless kids. My father and I were no longer allowed to mingle with people with shadows. At supermarkets, restaurants, public bathrooms or on public transportation, we had to stay in a designated section. We had to wear armbands issued by a federal agency identifying us as shadowless.
In our textbook, we learned that we were shadowless because our ancestors had betrayed God. They were infidels, so God took away their shadows to make them and their offspring easily identifiable.
My father lost his job in a French restaurant when the owner decided that the shadow-proud patrons might find a shadowless chef unsavory. He was arrested soon after for failing to wear his armband, reported by strangers who had spotted him on the street.
In our textbook, we also learned that we lived in the kindest country on earth for shadowless people. In other countries, we were simply burned to death. But here, we were only asked to repent. Segregation was intended to help us repent in solitude.
Religious evangelists said on TV every day, "What do you see on the ground when you step into God's glory? You see your own humble shadows. Your shadow is your contract with God. You have betrayed God if you have no shadow; you are therefore damned to repent."
And I had read many fairytales of kids who were born shadowless but received God's gift of a shadow eventually, by way of repenting their sin, by faithfully honoring the law of segregation to the letter.
But my mother chose to remain the wife of a shadowless man, and the mother of a shadowless child, hence forfeiting all privileges bestowed by the law on a person with a shadow.
And my father proved to be an intractable rebel. He got caught again after serving a couple of years for the armband violation. This time, for conspiring to assassinate the Supreme Court Chief Justice--the guy who came up with the famous quote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, as long as they have their shadows on the ground."
In front of the prison gate, a dozen or so women and children wait. The women wear threadbare aprons or overalls and the children are in dirty rags, their faces gaunt and sallow, their bodies deformed by hardship and their eyes lifeless like bruised fruit.
They immediately notice my mother's shadow, the only one in the crowd. Their gaze pauses for a brief moment on me before they search for my shadow by my feet. When they do not see it, they don't give me another look. Again and again they glance at my mother's shadow incredulously. In return, my mother smiles vaguely.
When the gate opens and a shadowless man staggers out, we are struck by his feeble gait and decaying odor from afar. The women and children bow their heads in despair and leave. Obviously, he does not resemble whomever they are waiting for.
My mother lingers on, exchanging a long look with the approaching man.
"He's not my father," I say.
"I know," my mother says. "But he's your uncle."
It's a lie. My father could not have so many brothers. On the first of every month, we come here to see if my father is among the released prisoners. We've never seen my father walking out. But whenever a man walks out with nobody there to meet him, my mother tells me he is my uncle and takes him home. Fortunately, these men do not live long. In fact, they normally die within a month. Otherwise, we could not survive on the scanty food supply my mother manages to bring home.
But I am used to shaking a shadowless stranger's hand, and calling him uncle this or that. When we walk home, with the new uncle in between us and his scrawny arms on my mother's waist and my shoulders, I always point to my mother's shadow and say, "Look, that is our shadow!"
But I resent these uncles. They are the reason I am always starving. They are the reason the men on the street call my mother a whore.
I fear that I am growing up too fast. I want to hide myself in my mother's shadow, for as long as I can.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 29th, 2012

Author Comments

I remember a few things vividly about the days in May 1989, when I was camping out in Tiananmen Square as a student protester. I remember how jealous I felt, waking up after sleeping on the hard ground for a night and catching a whiff of the strong coffee from the raised platforms of American TV crews nearby. I remember thinking to myself how lucky those Americans were. Not just because they had coffee, but also because they lived in a great country where the citizens were protected by a great constitution.

After living in the U.S. for two decades and becoming a citizen, I have come to feel the weight of being an American. Sooner or later, we will all be confronted with our own unique moments to defend the constitution, and some of us will rise to the occasion. As Rosa Parks did, to name one among many. Like "my mother" is doing in this story.

- Henry Lu
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