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Davis, California

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Hidden in shadows

There’s this picture that sometimes rotates as my desktop background – the shadows of four girls splayed against a nondescript sidewalk somewhere in residential Willow Glen. I’m the one in braids and a skirt raising my hands like claws; my best friend is the hooded figure (this was during her Little Red Riding Hood phase). I guess everyone has a picture like this – one where the faces are not visible, but the memories are.

I keep it there because it’s one of the few pictures I have of my friend Krystine where she’s not covering her face (probably because you can’t actually see her face). I keep it because the four of us used to call ourselves Los Banditos and roam the quiet residential streets in bandit masks and plaid skirts. And perhaps there’s some part of me that likes it because there’s a lack of clarity there – the blurred outlines of our 16-year-old knees and elbows serving as the only markers to a specific memory.

I like the idea that you can reinvent things, thread snippets of speech and snatches of color and turn them into something whole. When I was in elementary school, I was told that shadows were dark spaces made by objects blocking light. Thus, if I positioned my tricycle in the driveway in the afternoon, a shadow would lay itself down against the expanse of cement.

That explanation seemed lacking to me, even then. There’s something magical in shadows, in creating and finding them. I’d spend whole summers crouched in the grass, examining the swords of shadows cast by each individual blade. My next door neighbor and I would clap the soles of our flip-flops against asphalt as we hopped from foot to foot, trying to see who could step on the head of the other person’s shadow first. In summertime, there was something beautiful about our shadows, as if by twisting ourselves this way and that, we were creating ephemeral imprints of art.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t understand how shadows could have such a practical, scientific explanation when there were so many nuances there. I grew up holding my breath when I saw a shadow pass my bedroom wall, convinced that some mystical spirit had just floated across my pastel walls. I grew up recognizing the role that shadows played in ghost stories and even in the folklore my grandparents would tell me on the afternoons they babysat me.

There was one story in particular that I remember – the tale of how a misunderstanding over a shadow and marital infidelity led a woman to drown herself. Though stories like this were depressing, I was fascinated by how tragedy could come out of something so intangible.

Shadows were things that you found in stories about the supernatural, in the flicker of candles on nights when the power blew out and attached to the sidewalk from an invisible string that led to your feet. There was nothing about them that was rational or completely real even. When holding my hand in front of a flame, I could project an image onto the blank wall that was not grounded in reality. I was touching imagination.

Now, of course, I understand exactly how shadows work. There’s no mystery, no confusion shrouding my mind when I read through the definition on Wikipedia. I hardly stop to look at my shadow anymore, nor have I made shadow puppets against the wall for quite some time.

But last night, I was examining the shadows that passed across the ceiling as the lamps outside streamed through the blinds, and I remembered how I used to do that when I slept over at my aunt’s house as a child, marveling at how the patterns were unfamiliar from my own bedroom.

There was something that departed from reality; in that moment, I could twist the shadows into their own stories and create something from nothing but a lack of light. And it was then that I realized what I love and see in shadows – they offer proof that you can create something from nothing, from less than nothing. You can hold out an empty hand and still, you’ll be able to make something happen.

TERESA PHAM needs more easy-to-make recipes! Feed her at terpham@ucdavis.edu.

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