In this short story by Robert Marcuse, a man attempts to rid himself of his own shadow.
When a man looks at his shadow, it’s because he’s thinking about something else: he looks at it without seeing it, lost in thought, and his gaze barely touches it.
We’ve lived with our shadows so long that they no longer attract our attention. They’re withdrawn and rather mysterious beings often hiding just behind us, or they peek out from the soles of our shoes. They frequently mingle with and dissolve into other shadows, creating deformed monsters that don’t even resemble us. When the sky is gray, they’re barely visible. That’s why clouds only project their shadows on sunny days. They need light, an obstacle to protect them from that light, and a surface to pick them up. Man and his shadow are like Siamese brothers, but no one knows if a shadow can live without its master or a man without his shadow.
I am Juan Manuel’s shadow. I have been ever since his birth, when in the hospital’s maternity ward, the floodlights hit him fully for the first time. He was a reddish, crying, screaming baby. I was already prettier than he was, neither reddish nor wrinkled. While he screamed his head off in the crib, I rested calm and quiet, like a well-mannered shadow. That’s because we come into the world with all the good manners learned in past lives. But Juan Manuel was just Juan Manuel, he’d never been, nor ever would be, anything else. He had to learn everything.
Like a good parasite I fed on him, and I thought that with time we could come to resemble each other more closely and understand each other better. It wasn’t like that. When he became a man he acquired a very defined and stable temperament and shape. I, on the other hand, became more and more capricious and temperamental.
I follow him everywhere and never lose sight of him; he rarely notices me. At night, when we go out for a walk, I need to be everywhere and turn constantly around him. It’s because, besides the streetlights illuminating us with predictable regularity, I also must avoid the bright glare from a window or a car’s headlights that force me to run along the wall. This constant rush to make myself long, short, and split in two is exhausting.
When we go to bed, I barely sleep. Juan Manuel turns off the light. I know sometimes it takes him a while to fall asleep, and he lies awake for hours in the dark. Plus, he dreams. That’s something I don’t do. Dreams give continuity to his life, because he often remembers them in the morning. I’ve had many consecutive lives, or a life cut in pieces, since at night I fall into a bottomless pit and disappear completely. Juan Manuel doesn’t believe in reincarnation, because people don’t reincarnate. I’ve been the shadow of many throughout centuries. I have no dreams, but I do have an infinite well of memories.
I am Juan Manuel, who I’ve been since I was born and baptized with that name. I’ve never been, nor do I want to be, anything else. I live alone, have few friends, and enjoy my independence. Everything I’ve accomplished was with great effort and without help. I don’t need anyone, not my family, my girlfriend, or even my shadow. My parents separated when I was still a child; they didn’t care about Juan Manuel. My girlfriend ran away with another man. That’s why I mention my shadow; it’s the only one still with me. I had never noticed it before. It’s strange, because it was always there. It’s quiet like me, that’s why I put up with it. But I don’t need it.
It all started when Juan Manuel’s girlfriend left him and he began drinking, something he’d never done before. One day he was sitting in an armchair in the den, a bottle in his hand, with me curled up at his feet; he looked at me, surprised, as if seeing his shadow for the first time. He mumbled, perhaps addressing me: “They say I’m all alone. But it’s not true; you’re always with me.”
His words frightened me, because people should not speak to their shadows. And I was right. That day was the beginning of a long nightmare. Juan Manuel could no longer stop observing me, or talking to me, perhaps hoping I’d answer him.
That evening, when we went for our regular walk, I had a hard time following him on the sidewalks, trying, as usual, to elude the constantly intruding lights. I realized that my skulduggery made him nervous. When we returned home he opened the door, and before going in, he bowed to me and said ironically: “After you, Your Lordship.”
Sunday I decided to visit Pedro, who lives in the suburbs. It was a nice afternoon for a drive. From time to time I’d look at the scenery to my left because the setting sun blinded me. I took a curve and had the strange feeling a car was trying to overtake me. I turned around and saw a gray spot silently speeding beside me on the highway. The car and its driver mingled into a single mass. A centaur galloped across my view. The car was following me but didn’t pass me. I moved a little toward the middle of the highway, and my pursuer did the same. Since no one was coming from the opposite direction, I moved a little farther to the left to push the other car against the markers bordering the route. Unfazed, the spot began to swallow and spit with the regularity of a metronome. I accelerated to try to leave it behind. But it was no use. I accelerated more.
One day Juan Manuel decided to go see a friend who lives in the suburbs. He took his convertible out of the garage, and we left. I settled comfortably in my big gray spot to follow him. In the beginning everything went well, despite his driving too close to the middle of the highway. Then he accelerated, trying to leave me behind. Of course he couldn’t, because I don’t need to step on a pedal to speed up; it’s enough for me to stick like chewing gum to the car I’m with.
The crash was violent. I didn’t lose consciousness because it was daytime, but for quite a while I was tangled in the shadows of the tree branches. I was really worried; I knew Juan Manuel was not dead, as I couldn’t get free, but feared he was badly wounded and might die. I didn’t like the idea of having to find someone else to serve as his shadow.
I woke up in the hospital. Someone was standing next to my bed, bending over me. I opened my eyes: no one was there. The only thing above me was the ceiling. I tried to move my left leg but couldn’t. I managed to half sit up by leaning on an elbow. The other patient did the same thing on the wall. It was him. I greeted him with a hand gesture which he courteously returned. When I lay back again and closed my eyes, I had the feeling once more of someone leaning over my bed. I hesitated to open my eyes, since my desire to surprise him was mixed with a certain anxiety. Suddenly I made up my mind, and again: nothing. I turned around, there he was resting on the wall, unconcerned about me. As soon as I closed my eyes, I again felt I was being observed. This time I was faster. I was startled: a nurse was standing next to me. I asked her if she’d been there a minute ago. She replied that she hadn’t, she’d just come in.
When he came home from the hospital, Juan Manuel was better physically, but his mind was disturbed. He blamed me for the accident and started hating me. He’d lash out with all kinds of curses against me. He’d say: “I don’t need you. I’ll find some way of getting rid of you. Damn you!”
He even started telling his friends about me.
At first I thought total darkness killed it. But it’s not like that. It only makes it sleepy, and at the tiniest sunbeam it reemerges like a devil from his cage. The only way to get rid of it is to shine light on it from every angle with equal intensity, so it can’t hide anywhere. For nights now I’ve been sleeping with the light on, and it’s growing weaker. Any day now I’ll manage to free myself of it.
He’s realized light bothers me. He amuses himself by cutting me into pieces with a flashlight. At night he turns on every light in the house. He even bought a few more lamps and a couple of powerful floodlights. I bore all this stoically, not suffering too much because I still had the nights to rest. Until the day he decided to sleep with the light on. I put up with it for five days and then began to feel very sick. I turned into the shadow of a shadow.
I had to do something before it was too late. That night we went out for a walk as usual. I dragged myself behind Juan Manuel as best I could. The friendly shadows of streetlamps, grilles, trees looked at me with pity and sympathy, until the shadow of a branch whispered in my ear: “Grab it, grab it now!” I coiled an arm around the lifeline offered by my friend. And I stretched and stretched, until only a thread tied me to Juan Manuel’s tendons. For a second I thought about Achilles’ heel, and at that moment the thread broke.
That night when we went out for a walk it seemed it had a hard time following me. I walked faster than usual to exhaust it. Suddenly I felt very tired and decided to go home. When I came in I turned on all the lights. Despite my desire to torture it, I thought only of sitting in my armchair and watching some TV. The truth is, I wasn’t feeling at all well, as if I were the one who hadn’t slept the last five nights. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and looked around to see how it was. My heart stopped: it wasn’t anywhere. I thought perhaps I hadn’t looked carefully enough and made a thorough examination of the rug: nothing. I was overwhelmed with euphoria. I’d done it, I’d killed it!
When he came in the house, Juan Manuel looked for me beside him as he always did, but this time he didn’t find me. He must have thought he’d managed to kill me. He tried to share the news with someone. He went up to the large living room mirror to celebrate. But there was no one in the mirror.
© Robert Marcuse. By arrangement with Aida Marcuse. Translation © 2019 by Cristina Lambert. All rights reserved.