Walking through the market one day at the end of my holiday, I decided, on a whim, to go down a side street I had never seen before. I was sick of the sun and couldn’t wait to return to England. My shadow walked on ahead of me as if to check the way, his head stretching further and further away on the cobblestones. I turned the corner to follow but he was gone, nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly I could not bear the harsh sunlight, the empty street. I went into an open door to my right. I could see nothing at all in the dark. Gradually, there came into focus a small coffeehouse. The owner looked up at me from behind the bar where he was playing with a small monkey: “Good day. Coffee? Or something stronger?” I sat down in the farthest corner, feeling thin and worn out.
“What’s wrong?” he said, as he brought me a drink: “You look pale. Lost your shadow?” Perhaps I looked up at him a little too quickly. He laughed.
“The sun is always playing tricks ’round here. Drink this.” I took a sip of the honey liquor and the sweetness went straight to my head.
“So your shadow’s gone. Why worry? There’s so much to live for. No need to be negative. Love, your British Shakespeare, the ineffable rules of cricket! Look at the monkey. It doesn’t care if it has a shadow or not.”
The monkey was teasing a cat with a small ball.
“Is that your cat?” I heard myself say from far away.
“It’s the monkey’s cat. It follows him everywhere, as your shadow once followed you.” He started to laugh. My head felt heavy and I couldn’t stay awake any longer, but I was vaguely aware of the owner continuing to fill the sticky air with quotations from “your great British poets.” Then his voice, the shrieks of the playful monkey and his cat faded into my dreamless sleep.
I felt a hand on my back. How long had I been asleep?
The bar was now full of people, muttering to each other, and I felt them looking at me. Though my grasp of the language was not great, I understood a voice to say “Sleeper! Awake!” and someone prodded my shoulder. I looked up from the table where my head had been slumped.
There was no barman, no monkey, no cat: nothing except a crowd of local extras. Even the bottles behind the bar were gone. The room was like a stage set from which all the props had been removed. Only the audience remained.
“Are you the man with no shadow?” asked the group’s designated leader, a hard unshaven man with one arm. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t ready to answer to that name, and I didn’t want to incriminate myself. “Pull him up,” he said, and they hoisted me so I was sitting up straight. The light shone in the window, straight through me. Their shadows stood proudly on the wall but there was an empty space where mine should have been.
My head ached. I remembered an old Sussex ghost story my grandmother once told me about the new vicar who had thrown no shadow from the pulpit. Had the parishioners killed him?
The onlookers muttered. One by one, they left the room, until only three people remained: the leader, another man and an old blind woman. I looked at the wall and raised my hand in the hope of seeing some faint movement.
“Would you like your shadow back?” asked the leader abruptly, stroking his stubbly chin.
I groaned and felt like a tourist. “How much will it cost?”
“Money doesn’t come into it. You took your shadow for granted. But now it does what it likes. It stays. It goes. When you run, it doesn’t have to run anymore. When you smile, your shadow frowns if it wants to. But let’s not call your shadow ‘it’ anymore. He is free.”
“How do I get it back?” I felt myself getting thinner and weaker, from my mind outwards.
“I don’t know how to get that shadow,” said the second man. “You’ve even lost the root. We can get you a replacement.”
The blind woman interrupted: “If you want a shadow that’s going to cling to you this time, then you will have to fetch it yourself.”
“From the world of men!” She spat. “Horrible! You will have to mingle with humans — businessmen, politicians, sluts, thieves, murderers.” I looked at the other two.
“She never talks,” the second one said. “You are very lucky.”
“You will have to flatter their vanity,” she continued, “humor their stupidity, and you will have to seek out the company of villains, because you can only get a shadow by stealing it from a dying man.”
I had had enough. Let them find another foreigner to make fun of. Summoning all of my strength, I got up slowly and walked past them to the door. They did nothing to stop me.
“Oh well,” I heard the blind woman say. “Let him go.”
Outside, I was surprised to find that it was early evening. I didn’t know where to go or what I should do. Down the street to my left, I was relieved to see the barman with his monkey. He was talking to a man, smartly dressed in the English style, whose back was turned towards me. Walking towards them, I passed a mirror at an empty stall and tried to catch a glimpse of myself, but I could see nothing. As I got close, the man turned round and looked at me.
I was looking at myself.
“There you are,” he said to me and smiled. I started to move towards him, as if drawn magnetically. I tried to pull back, but I didn’t have the strength. “You know me,” he said. “We’ve met before.” The barman smiled, rolling a gold coin round his fingers. Another bag of gold coins hung from the neck of the monkey.
“Who are you?” I demanded, and took a helpless step closer.
“Who is asking?”
“The man with no shadow,” I said, surprised at the words as I spoke them.
“No,” said the man whose face was a mirror of my own. “I am the man with no shadow. But now it looks as though I have acquired one.” He looked at the barman and smiled. The monkey clapped its human hands.
“Am I dying?” I asked.
Everything went black and I felt the cool of the ground against my face. I heard his voice whispering directly into my soul:
“You are already dead.”