40th Anniversary Feature: THE SHADOW ROOM

Oct 11, 2013Archive, Feature

BWR Genre Editor, Nonfiction, 2008-2009


From the interior of The Shadow Room, I watch his shadow fade.  Though not yet two, Henry understand the intricate process: how we tuck ourselves into the darkened room in the children’s museum, slap a palm to the button, then wait for the bulb to flash.  


The pop sounds like a baseball mitt snapped snug around a dragonfly.  A high-pitched buzz followed by the pop.  The eruption of light disorients us, and though both of us know that the button brings the light—that we have summoned it—we never quite have time enough to prepare for what we know is coming.

First there is the pressed button, then the pop, then our eyes newly blinded by the burst.  Just behind us, the light sears our shadows to the wall.  This is the marvel the exhibit intends to highlight—the interplay between shadow and light—though Henry remains far more entranced by the pop then what that pop produces.

I, however, prefer our silhouettes, fixated by the way our inky blots hold tight against the wall.  Pop, flash, and we become wallpaper, a Rorschach test in which we only ever see ourselves.

Henry tiptoes toward the button, and with a slap of his palm, initiates the disconnect between self and shadow self.  Pop, flash, and we each become two halves of a once-whole thing, our originals trailed by our copies.  We split from our selves, and we remain split until our copies blink first and fade away.  Until the light slips out, and in its place, shadows crawling to erase us, priming the canvas for the next father and son soon to be ensnared.  

Even as a child, I understood the futility of trying to capture my shadow.  How even if I managed to catch it off guard, where was I to store such a slippery thing?

Instead, I treated it like a pet, taking it on long walks up and down Fort Wayne’s Breconshire Drive.  I fed it three square meals a day—the same food I ate—and took it everywhere there was light.

During the late innings of my little league games, I’d watch it stretch in the right field grass.  It was the only friend I had who never said goodbye, and so, it was the most loyal.


But then one day things began to change—so subtle at first I hardly noticed.  I grew up, made new friends, and found that I had little use for my shadow.  I began treating it as dismissively as my tonsils.  I ignored it, but it refused to go away.  And so, I tried to outrun it. Faking left, cutting right, it always stayed one step ahead.  How do you do it?  I panted, shaking my fist.  It shook its fist right back.

There was no way to disconnect, I learned, unless I was willing to lose the light.  The trouble, though, was that to a six-year-old, the darkness, too, was scary.   Which was worse: the shadow self that mimed my every move, or the devil I didn’t know lurking in the dark?

For several months, I relied upon a nightlight to transform my shadow into a marionette.  Yet after enough nights spent performing puppetry upon the bedroom wall I began to wonder: Which of us controls the strings?

Once, long before my time, a Newfoundland named Nana tore Peter Pan’s shadow from his limbs. When Peter returned for it the following night, he found the lifeless thing tucked inside a drawer. Wendy woke to the boy’s crying, and when she saw it dangling from his hands, said,  “I shall sew it on for you, my little man,” reaching cheerily for needle and thread.  But before reuniting Peter with his shadow, she whispered a warning: “I daresay it will hurt a little.”

The first time I found Death it hurt a lot.  It came in the form of a Doberman named Sandy sitting supple in a beanbag chair.  I was a first grader living in Breconshire Drive, and until that day, had successfully sidestepped Death.  There was no Death then, only shadows, and shadows were a Devil I knew.  When my parents told me Sandy would not be waiting for me after school, I wondered how they might know such a thing so precisely.  I offered Sandy one last pet, one last nuzzle, that was all.  When the bus honked, I ran toward it.  The last Sandy ever heard of me was the whine of the screen door slamming shut.


Why, he wonders, do these birds stay still while all the others fly away?

I want to tell him, Eventually, everything flies away. Instead, we just stare at the perfectly preserved specimens.  They are the work of a single man, who from 1870 to 1920 gathered these broken creatures and gave them eternal life.  Set their wings, contorted their bodies, tried to ward off death with lifelike poses.

For decades, the man cleaned out the birds’ bodies and built new ones, inserting marble eyes into their sockets so that they might know their god.  It took him 50 years to realize he wasn’t a god, but an angel of death.  Then one day, Death came for him too.

Many years back, Death came for me just a few miles from Breconshire Drive.  My then-girlfriend and I were driving the darkened city streets when we watched a van barrel into our lane.  We did not invite Death into our car.  Time slowed as the van sped toward us, though not enough for me to swerve out of the way or finish the second half of my prayer.  It slowed just enough for me to hear the chorus line of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” screeching from the speakers.  Just enough to hear the crunch of the car, the sound of the hood of the van folding into the tree.  The radio cut out, and we were left with silence as the drunken boy stumbled forth from his stolen van.

The drunken boy wasn’t even as old as the high school freshman I would teach The Odyssey to the following Monday.  Not even as old as a fresh-faced Telemachus.  The boy bumbled up to me—out of his mind—and asked if he could borrow my light.  He had no sense of what he had almost snuffed out, who he had almost invited into our car.

My shadow is the first to arrive on the scene.  It attends to me as it always has, staying close, following my lead.  It tries to hide it, though I can see that it is as shaken as I am.  Some things never change.


Did I tell you that the man who preserved the birds was also the man who killed them?  That he loved them so dearly he could not bear to let them fly away?  Many mornings he strolled the rivers and woods by his home, twelve gauge in tow, and waited for a bird to take flight.  The bird would hardly have time enough flutter before the man’s rifle soared to his shoulder, sending the creature plummeting like an anchor for the sky.

The bird’s shadow—once pressed so large against the field—shrank as the body fell.  It shrank and shrank and shrank and shrank, then folded into itself.

How to explain all of this to a child?  By way of shadow rooms or fairy tales or a chorus line from Def Leppard?  Which can explain to him how all those unblinking birds learned to hold their breath so terribly long?  Who will tell him how when the young bird returned to its nest its mother did not.  Somewhere, a trigger was pulled—a pop, a flash—and nobody had prepared for it.



B.J. Hollars is the author of two nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops and Opening the Doors—and a collection of stories, Sightings.  He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he still bleeds crimson.


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