Asia, Original Fiction, Travel

The Case of the Missing Shadow

One-Eye woke up one day to discover his shadow had gone. He made some preliminary researches. First, he twisted around to bite his back, thinking the shadow might have gotten bunched up where he couldn’t see it. Then he sniffed about on the ground thinking it might have slid into the ditch or blown over the road into a rice paddy. He even trotted along the road to the bits-and-pieces store to glare at the orange cat sleeping on a tree stump. It opened its eyes, glared back and yawned. The cat seemed lazy and insolent, as usual, but not gloating, not as if it had succeeded in stealing his shadow. It was as puzzling and maddening as an unbitten flea.

 

Norwegian Forest Cat Breed Pictures 01

 

When anyone in the village had a question they needed answered, there was only one place to go: Old Maria’s. It was a short walk to the cottage, which stood opposite an old stone church whose enormous dark stone bulk was now surrounded by banana trees, coconut palms, passionfruit vines and bouganvillea. By comparison, the little hut seemed ephemeral as a butterfly, like a leaf about to blow away in the wind. This crooked little structure of thin branches and palm fronds was the home of Pinto and Ana, their two children Ernesto and Fernanda and Ana’s mother Maria, who was a very skinny woman with leather-brown skin, white wisps of hair and one front tooth.

 

fam

 

Every morning, the whole family except for Maria climbed on a little motorbike and rode away to the city. Ana was a teacher so she and the children went to school while Pinto stood outside in the street, in the shade of the trees, selling ice-cream and drinks out of a polystyrene icebox. When school finished, Pinto packed everything up and they all rode back home to the cottage. Meanwhile, Old Maria spent the day keeping house. She washed the family’s clothes in a big plastic bucket, wrung them out with her strong hands, then hung them out to dry. She shook out woven mats. With one twig-broom, she swept the dirt floors and with another she tidied the garden path of dead beetles, fallen leaves and fruit. She moved slowly but got a lot done. When noon came, she retreated to a large cane chair just inside the front door, where she fanned herself slowly and gazed at the tops of distant hills until her eyelids closed.

It was at this time, when Maria was safely drowsing and unlikely to throw slippers at visitors, that One-Eye ventured into the garden.

Not far from the hut, under the shade of an ancient banyan tree, an enormous pig lay snoring gently in his mud bath. This was Porphyry the Sage, an intellectual giant. Although he was an expert in Psychology, Philosophy, Logic, Classical History, Medicine, Botany and Astronomy, his forte was in Problem Solving.

He’d received his education from his late mother Nellie, a precocious sow who’d given the world 33 other fine little piglets. During her youth Nellie had taught herself to read with the help of an English dictionary that had fallen out of a schoolgirl’s backpack and landed on the roadside near the cottage. One of Nellie’s numerous siblings had chewed from ‘Aardvark’ to ‘Chrysanthemum’ then, finding it dry, left the rest to his sister. She’d carried it over in her teeth to the edge of the property and stowed it in a hollow stump. Something drove her to treasure this book greatly, spending hours gazing at it. Over time, she realized that the small dark patterns were not just pleasing to the eye; they added up to something. She started recognizing the same little shapes wherever she trotted: on signs, cardboard boxes, newspapers.

 

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Being the runt of the litter, Nellie was adopted as a pet by Ana and was sometimes allowed to sit on the step next to her as she helped the children with their homework. As Ana quizzed them on their ABC’s, Nellie sat attentively at her feet. In this way, she learned that the letters corresponded to sounds and that, depending on how they were arranged, they could invoke things that weren’t actually there.

As soon as Nellie realized this, she cherished her mangled dictionary even more. She decided that one day she would know what each and every word meant. Furthermore, when she saw any item with writing on it, she would take it up and carry it back to her nook, the tree-hollow at the edge of the property, to add to the collection. In this way, over the years, she built up a large and eclectic library including a physics textbook, a King James Bible (hardcover), an English-language reader of Robinson Crusoe, a history of philosophy, five cereal boxes, assembly instructions for a wardrobe, a German newspaper and a book about how to make birthday cakes.

In recognition of how important the dictionary was to her, she gave each of her 34 piglets a name beginning with her favorite letter, ‘p’. Porphyry was one of her fifth and final litter, as were Porcupine, Plato, Pluck, Pride, Peace, Peep, Pyx and Paracelsus. She imparted what knowledge she had to her offspring and all of them were able to read, though some of them didn’t really like to. Alas, Nellie was gone now and most of the piglets had scattered far and wide. Now it was only Porphyry who snuffled about the native homestead, meditating on the Nature of things.

 

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It was to Porphyry that One-Eye the dog now repaired.

There was, everyone knew, an accepted procedure for these visits. The supplicant would sidle up to the massive authority, ask him politely whether he had eaten yet and (without waiting for a reply) gently place an offering of food at the side of the mud pool—a mango, perhaps, or a boiled egg or a clump of cooked rice taken from some slop pile. The donation made, the supplicant then respectfully ask for advice. After rising to ingest the offering, Porphyry would then return to his bath, close his eyes and twitch his snout, the only visible sign that he was cogitating. Just as the anxious supplicant began to think that the Sage had gone to sleep, an answer came.

As soon as he saw the large mud-soaked bulk of Porphyry, One-Eye’s tail began to wag gently with renewed cheer. The pig exuded intelligence. Carefully, One-Eye placed his offering at the side of the mud pool. It was especially choice—half a grilled fish wrapped in a banana leaf. He’d snatched it from a roadside barbecue where it had been dropped the night before. With incredible self-restraint, the dog had only taken a single bite, with his small, sharp front teeth.

 

One-Eye coughed politely to get Porphyry’s attention, then delivered the time-honored formula (quietly, so as not to wake Old Maria):

 

“Your honor, Porphyry the Wise and Well-brained, I come in the name of all questioners to question Thee, the Trusted Source of All-seeing and Corpulent Spring of Truth. With this fish, I humbly entreat thee, Plump Prophet, assist me in my confusion. This is the knot I wish to untie and this is the darkness I wish to light: I have lost my shadow. The question is where did it go?”

 

Having said his piece, One-Eye gave one last wag of his tail, then respectfully sat down on his haunches to wait.

Porphyry grunted. After a couple of minutes, with a great squelching, he hauled his bulk up out of the cool muck and wobbled over to the fish. After a couple of snuffles, he addressed himself to the meal, cast an approving glance over to One-Eye, then returned to his couch.

Birds twittered and zipped overhead. So confident was One-Eye in the sage’s abilities that a pleasant drowsiness, almost trance-like, washed over him. He forgot, for the moment, the catastrophe. In fact, his eyes had just fluttered shut when Porphyry finally spoke.

“Where did you see it last?” drawled the hieratic hog..

Suddenly awake, One-Eye shook himself to the task of memory.

 

shad
Photo from NYT

 

“It was…ah yes. It was yesterday evening. I’d gone to visit the herd of white horses at Three-Tree Beach. On my way home, my shadow was in front of me and had changed shape. Usually it looks more or less like a dog, but this time is legs had grown like vines and the body was high and small. I was worried at the time. Now I realize that may have been the beginning of the end. And later in the night, when I sat outside the church door there, listening to the singing, I saw it had changed again—it was weaker.”

“You didn’t see it this morning?” Porphyry asked, with a soft, tired voice that sounded as if it came from a great distance.

“I didn’t,” said One-Eye. “But then,” he added, “I didn’t wake until just a little while ago. In fact, as soon as I realized it had gone, I came straight to you.”

“I see the problem,” said Porphyry. “You did the prudent thing by consulting me so quickly. The diagnosis is a Restless Shadow. I’m afraid it’s rather serious and that if you hadn’t come as you did, then the situation might have gone even further and the shadow would have become permanently unlatched.”

One-Eye looked at him, his head cocked worriedly.

“As it is,” Porphyry intoned, “We can act now and halt the progress. What I want you to do is to repeat after me the following rhyme:

 

Shadow, shadow, stick to me,

Not to the boy and not to the widow

Nor for sorrow and neither for joy

Nor to grass nor yet the harrow

But here, where a shadow ought to be.

 

“In this case, the shadow will still waver but cannot possibly leave you altogether.”

 

One-Eye, after a few false starts, duly uttered the rhyme. He then glanced around and looked at Porphyry indignantly.

“It didn’t work,” he woofed. “I don’t see it!”

“If you look under your feet, you will see that it is skulking under there.”

One-Eye jumped up, saw that it was true and gave it a good bite, to teach it a lesson.

“You will find,” Porphyry said, “That from now on it will be hardest to find at noon, since it resents being attached to you and will always remember the hour when you finally enthralled it. But in the mornings and afternoons it will calm down a little.”

“I see!” the dog wagged happily. “How can I ever repay you for the service you have rendered me?”

“Well…” the pig eyed him shrewdly, “Just to make sure that the cure sticks, I would recommend bringing a few more of those fish, let’s say once a week? That should do it.”

“Certainly, I would be only to happy to–Ouch!”

One-Eye’s speech was interrupted by a Maria’s ‘throwing shoe’ landing on his backside. Seeing the proprietress coming for him with a broom, he excused himself and hurried away, along with his shadow.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Shadow”

  1. Brilliant! Seamless. Polished. Clever, funny and inventive. Such good writing, Katherine! My favourite line: ‘One of Nellie’s numerous siblings had chewed from ‘Aardvark’ to ‘Chrysanthemum’ then, finding it dry, left the rest to his sister.‘

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