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Fiction Fantasy

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

A modern retelling of the fairy-tale The Shadow by Hans Christian Andersen.

I knew a guy who died from choking on birthday cake at someone else’s party. 

‘Knew’ is a strong word. We weren’t much more than acquaintances. I heard the news, felt a little bit sad, and then got on with my life. Sometimes, though, I can’t help thinking about how many tragedies are wrapped up in that one little point in time. Family and friends mourned, of course, grieving the unexpected loss, but whenever I think about the guy who choked on birthday cake, I end up fixating on whoever’s party it was. They will never again enjoy another birthday, not if they’ve got a decent conscience. Their birthday is forever synonymous with the death-day of a friend. They’ll probably never eat birthday cake again.

This is what I’m thinking about as I vomit on the pavement of a dark Parisian alleyway. 

I’m thinking about distortions. The happy becomes the tragic; the beautiful becomes the dangerous. A celebration of life is the cause of death. Language creates definitions and definitions struggle against contradictions, because reality is imperfect and paradoxical but definition seeks perfection. Names are definitions, and what’s in a name? The most common name for a criminal is Jeremy. Are people named Jeremy more likely to commit crimes, or are people who commit crimes more likely to have been named Jeremy? 

When the retching stops, I crawl to the nearest brick wall, and I wait. I’m terrified but my heart beats impossibly slow. It’d all catch up with me eventually and I’ve known that for a long time. It’s a relief to finally stop running.

~~

“The Shadow was the master and the master was the shadow.”

(THE SHADOW, Hans Christian Andersen)

~~

When I was nine years old, I loved to dance. At night, when my parents were asleep, I’d descend the stairs from the kitchen to the basement with my iPod in hand and jump around to Britney Spears, pausing every time I thought I heard a creak overhead. I wanted lessons, but my dad refused. He said dance was just another way of sending money down the drain. 

I had one friend in third grade. His name was Leo and we were the only kids who went to the swing set every recess. Leo had platinum blond hair pressed tight against his head by the band of his Rec Specs, and frequent eczema flare-ups on his arms. He hated kickball and lost every game of Cops and Robbers, so together we abandoned our playground peers, thinking of ourselves as little renegades, allied in defiance of our pre-pubescent shame. But Leo moved to a different town the next summer, and I started fourth grade alone. 

I had no siblings– you’re enough to deal with by yourself, my mom said– and the family dog had died two years prior. So I spent the summer before fourth grade playing on my own in the backyard, shoving sticks in the ground and imagining they were troops of soldiers I could tactically manipulate, lining up empty Diet Coke cans to throw tennis balls at. 

Sometime around the ides of August, twirling in the humid basement, I discovered a dancing partner. One lightbulb illuminated the space; it hung just to the side of my clearing, around which dusty cardboard boxes languished in stacks. My shadow stretched out beside my feet, always dancing with me. How had I not seen it before! We were just the same, but unlike other people, I believed this friend could not leave me. 

My shadow and I became very close, though describing us as ‘inseparable’ would be redundant. I spoke to my shadow of all things: every anxiety, every aspiration, every childish hope, from what I wanted for dinner that evening to my desire to someday perform onstage as a male étoile. My shadow was an incomparable listener. 

One evening in mid-October, my parents drove us out of the suburbs and into the city. Despite living so close, I’d visited only a handful of times. During the walk between the parking garage and a family friend’s apartment I stopped and stood, mouth agape, before an old theater. My parents urged me onward, but I didn’t listen. 

I'd seen nothing like it before. The building was immense, constructed of red-hued brownstone and lit with flickering gas lamps. Five glass doors led inside, through which I could see the lobby was empty aside for a small number of ushers and ticket-scanners; the show had already begun. Covering the front were posters of a beautiful man and woman posed against a backdrop of white, their bodies perfectly sculpted, their smiles brilliant. The ballet was on that night, and more than anything else in the world, I wanted to sit in that theater and watch. 

My mother took my hand and pulled me along with her. Stop dawdling, we’re going to be late. As we walked away I glanced over my shoulder, etching the glowing building permanently into memory, from which I could just barely hear the swelling of an orchestra (or, more likely, that is a fabrication of later remembrances). I refused to leave the theater behind.

I looked down at my shadow, which trailed blurry and warped behind me, struggling to form on a sidewalk surrounded by street lamps, and I told it to go watch the performance. Come back to me later and tell me everything, I said. Be everywhere– in the audience, in the wings, onstage. It obliged, and so my shadow went off into the night. 

It never returned to me. For some time I sulked over the loss of my friend, but I soon grew another shadow, though it took several years to complete. I forgot my dreams of dance. I went about my days like any other student, distracting myself with video games and toys, later with sports and drinks and girls. I moved passively through the motions of what I was meant to do. I graduated in the higher forty percent of my class, and soon found myself sitting in beige lecture halls at a mid-tier college in the city.

My roommate didn't speak to me; I never kept a girlfriend for more than 3 months. I oscillated between majors and walked with lowered eyes past every poster advertising the dance club. I found a job at a fast food joint on campus, working long closing hours and waking early for classes I didn't pay any attention to, primarily eating whatever would otherwise be thrown out at the end of my shifts. I'd go to parties and find strangers to love for the night: men, women, it didn't matter much to me, as I wouldn't remember any of it the next morning. 

The dead of winter, my third year of college. The heat in my apartment was broken and I had no motivation to clean. My phone logged a steadily expanding list of missed calls from my advisor; my mom had stopped trying. I was halfway through warming a bowl of soup in the microwave one afternoon when a knock came at my door. With a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I shuffled up to the door and cracked it open with the chain still locked. 

Standing outside, in a long coat and well-tailored suit, was me.

He had a cleaner haircut than me, a sharper jawline than me, smoother skin than me– but nonetheless, we were the same. The face of a silver Rolex peeked out from under his coat sleeve and his shoes were polished to a mirror quality. I didn’t ask who he was, because I already knew. 

“Can I come in?” he asked, in my voice. 

“Um– just a second.”

I shut the door and considered keeping it closed until he went away. But I couldn’t, and I knew I couldn’t, so instead I grabbed a half-eaten bowl of rice off the counter and swept the needles on the coffee table into it, hiding the evidence in a cupboard. Empty cans on the floor went in the trash bin and a few dirty dishes into the sink. I threw off my blanket and opened the door for him. He waited outside still, his expression neutral and unbothered. 

“It’s cold in here,” I said. 

He shrugged as he stepped inside. “Doesn’t bother me.”

I invited him to sit, and he walked gingerly to the couch as though the carpet would infect him with some disease. My bowl of soup remained forgotten in the microwave as we stared at each other, steeping in tense silence, until eventually I asked why he'd come to me.

He explained how he’d made a small fortune as the landlord of several apartment buildings in the city; he’d observed the ways of man so acutely he became flesh and blood himself, and learned how to expertly command the attention of others. He could be any age he wanted, he could have any name. He had a place to live and could afford any comfort or luxury he desired. “But in all my time evolving from shadow to man,” he said, “I never forgot the boy I was once attached to. I return to you now to ask after your wellbeing and learn of all the ways in which we are the same, and those in which we differ.”

“How remarkable! My shadow returns at last.” Beyond these sentiments, I had nothing to offer him; no accomplishments that could match his own. He smiled at me with teeth a little too white. 

“We have all the time we want to discuss things– there is no rush. In fact, I’ve been considering doing some traveling this summer, perhaps in Europe, and hoped you would be agreeable to joining me as a companion. I have no one else to go with. I will pay our expenses, and you can, for all purposes, be my shadow.”

At first I rejected his offer, as I found the idea of being a shadow undignified. So we parted, and over the next few months I grew colder and sadder and weaker until my place at the college was stripped away, and I was left with only a minimum wage job and an eviction notice slipped under my door. 

The Shadow visited again in spring. He said the offer remained open, and I took a glance at my life and understood I had no reason to reject him. So when June arrived I latched onto him, traveling beside his feet as any shadow would, and we walked together through rolling Tuscan fields and narrow riviera town streets. In the southern European sun I found myself revived and rejuvenated. The Shadow and I became the closest of friends once more, and I thought that perhaps I had discovered joy again, swimming in crystal waters and sharing bottles of wine. He directed my every action, from waking to sleeping, but I didn’t mind.

Whenever we met new people the Shadow introduced himself with my name. He never spoke about me, and nobody asked. I understood what it was to be a silent servant, devoid of personhood, and though I knew I should free myself of his hold I instead relaxed into it. His control was restrictive, and yet freeing. I did not have a thing to worry about; I lived in such a way that did not require thought. 

A month and a half into our travels we stalled in Paris, finding it the most suitable location we’d visited. He became accustomed to the French manner very quickly and, being a shadow, could engage in conversation in any language he so chose, leaving me struggling to understand anything said in my vicinity.

We were drinking one night in a bar we frequented, when from a dim corner of the room a young woman emerged and initiated conversation with the Shadow, as he was attractive in his well-fitted dress shirt, with his hair hanging loose and unstyled against his forehead. Such interest had not been unusual throughout our trip thus far, but if she made any notice of me, she did not show it. The Shadow led her to the dance floor and they pressed their bodies together as I watched and drank, and drank, and then continued drinking. 

The Shadow eventually took her wrist and led her out of the bar, and together they went stumbling down the street. I followed behind at a short distance. He unlocked the door to our room and inside they undressed, and as he lay her down on the bed she finally looked over at where I stood by the wall and inquired after me. 

The Shadow told her something in French and she, half-naked and slurring her words, spit a response back at him. He sighed and turned to me. 

“Leave now.”

“What did you tell her?” I asked. 

“That you are my shadow, but you believe yourself to be a man. She doesn’t want you here– so don’t return tonight.”

What choice did I have? I left immediately and slammed the door behind me, shunned and bereft. For some time I wandered aimlessly in the humid night, seemingly invisible to all those passing by. It had rained earlier and so the streets collected pools of water in which the many twinkling lights of the city reflected. Like shadows in reverse, the puddles mimicked a light which was not their own. 

I raised my eyes from the pavement and saw that I stood before an ornate box of a building, a mammoth of artistry and architecture, on top of which statues of angels stood looking down at me. I knew it at once to be that Opera House of great renown. In the nighttime the theater was awash in golden light, as though not only illuminated but radiant, divine. Overwhelmed by its beauty and stature, I circled the perimeter until I came to the front. 

Behind the glass doors, I saw a banner of the night's bill. The ballet was on. 

I staggered away from the Opera House. Nauseated, exhausted, I saw only flashes of the city as I traveled through it, tears streaming down my face. I cried out– what have I come to! And no one on the street so much as looked my way. Searching for anything familiar, I felt the deep reverberations of loud music and followed them to a party brimming with barely covered bodies and swirling smoke. Each room was barren of furniture, devoid of landmarks. I processed only colorful flashing lights and heavy bass pumping through unseen speakers. In a stained and fetid bathroom a group of people congregated, some on the floor, some in the bathtub, and one on the toilet. I took several of their needles and not one said a word to me. On my way out of the house I gulped down several cups of some liquid I could not identify, but which evaporated pleasantly in my mouth. I dropped the cup on the floor, laughed, and left. 

My patience was short, so only two blocks away I turned into an alleyway and rolled up my sleeves, rubbing and slapping at my inner elbow to reveal a vein. I emptied the syringes one by one. 

Now I stare at my pockmarked arms and pale skin and I wonder, through the fog at the forefront of my mind, through the static that buzzes at my temples, if my shadow had ever been a friend at all. He should be a perfect replication of myself, but he is not. He is beautiful and prodigal and empty, and I am washed out in his artificial light. I have chased him across continents, synchronizing my own steps with his, but long ago he was once the darkness which followed me. Language defines a shadow as a dark shape: an inferior, a remnant, a disciple. But I’d fed into the delusion of our brotherhood, and in turn submitted myself to his will. If a man follows behind his Shadow, has he surrendered his personhood?

I am dying. I do not know if the Shadow will continue on once I am gone. He is the legacy I unwillingly leave behind; but without him I have none at all. 

Here, walled between two buildings, enveloped in undefiled darkness, I have no shadow. So I eat the birthday cake. I spin and jump and stamp my feet on the wet pavement, dancing alone and unafraid until my breath runs out.

November 24, 2023 21:04

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4 comments

Chrissy Cook
13:03 Nov 27, 2023

I had never read the original before reading this version, but now I'm intrigued and want to go look it up. It reminds me a bit of a more twisted Billy Elliott, although perhaps that's just the ballet angle getting to me. In either case, a well-written piece!

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Matthew Madsen
22:00 Nov 27, 2023

I highly recommend you do!! I love Hans Christian Andersen's stories, they're such melancholic 'fairy tales' and they reveal a lot about his emotions as a queer man in the nineteenth century. Anyways, thank you so much!

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00:58 Nov 27, 2023

Great writing and interesting adaptation. The way it ends I feel like the MC is an introvert letting himself disappear under his more outgoings friends shadow. When his shadow dances at the bar, the thing he himself hasn't allowed himself in all those years, its a quite a sad and revealing moment.

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Matthew Madsen
00:35 Nov 28, 2023

Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed :)

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