“Calm down now,” Umbra said as she wiped away Thomas’ tears. “Let’s play a game. It’s a secret though. You mustn’t tell anyone about it.”
After that he wanted to play every night. So it was that Umbra would get up from her roll up mattress on the floor beside his bed and move the lamps around to cast shadows on the wall behind them. Then she’d lie beside him and wrap her thin arms around him.
“You start,” she’d say, “make me a shadow.”
His hands were a muddle.
“What’s that?” Umbra asked.
Her hands moulded his. The shadow formed a sinuous feline shape, Thomas’ little finger sticking out to form its tail.
She placed one of her hands over the other and a dog appeared on the wall. It cocked up its ears and chased the cat, leaping from wall to ceiling. They were delicate and ethereal but definite entities. Thomas squealed and clapped his hands together.
“What next?” she asked.
His hands wiggled.
“Is it a fish?”
He nodded, well pleased that she’d guessed.
“Let me see,” Umbra mused as she gathered together the strands of scattered shadows in her fist and fashioned them into a seal that fell into a graceful arc as it dived, the boy’s minnow in its mouth.
“Now, little man, copy me.”
She taught him how to make shadow puppets. A rabbit with index and middle fingers for ears, a swan whose neck was formed from the curve of the wrist and feathers from fanned out fingers. Bears, ducks, turtles, even an elephant with tusks.
“This is my favourite,” she said as she made a pair of birds on a bough. “Watch.”
The birds divided and divided, becoming a flock that took flight. Fluttering wings covered the wall in an explosion of feathers.
“Now, that’s enough.” she kissed his forehead when the shadows had taken up their former shape. “Sleep now.”
When he was older he thought about trying to tell someone about her but he knew that he wouldn’t be believed, even though every part of it was true.
I went to Hong Kong last year and was struck by the women who work as domestic helpers- the sheer numbers who leave poverty and violence in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand for an uncertain future in other countries. One of the documents from UPeace that I read was particularly sobering : A Deeper Look At Violence Against Women : The Philippine Case .
It appears in Black Static (Issue 44) and is illustrated by Richard Wagner.