by Kate Bernheimer
Once upon a time, I came into the world without breathing. As my mother tells the story, suddenly a window shade opened, all on its own; a golden light spread over the room, and I breathed. There was a huge sigh of relief, but then everything darkened. A shadow covered the room. It was my shadow, a curse I would learn about later.
On my birthday, I weighed only four pounds and looked like a blind little rodent, I’m told (by my mother), or like a featherless bird (by my father).
My shadow learned to walk when I learned to walk, and her first word was also my own. When I lost my teeth, she lost her teeth too. The Tooth Fairy left me a quarter; my shadow left me her teeth — under my gums. Over time they grew in. I always found my shadow a comfort, though she bothered me some. There was no getting away from her, that much I knew. As fast as I’d run, she’d run too. And her grey aspect slid toward me from the ceiling at night— a mirror of me made of shadows — even when I dreamed. She always had a vague edge to her.
And the more I grew up the harsher she got —I don’t think she liked the way my growing stretched her so thin. When I became a woman, as my mother puts it, I grew leagues not only in height but in feelings. Soon after that the shadow girl began to trouble me badly. She became very strange: her face held a constant and hideous smile, in the past, she had hardly broken even a tentative grin —just like me, whom my mother has always accused of having a grim demeanor.
Things got rough for a while, but we’ve worked everything out now, me and my shadow, me and my little curse.
Once upon a time, my shadow made things painful for me. The first day of preschool, in the red barn of Happy Acres, I was settling in for a nap, ready to enter a drooly condition of spaced-out bliss on a sky-blue terrycloth mat to tinkling music beside a blonde girl wearing a pink and purple striped top with a zipper down its center and matching shorts. I thought she was the prettiest creature I ever had seen. So, like a monkey, I stretched out my lips and showed her my teeth; I’d learned to smile, of course! But the response I received was quite unexpected. The blonde girl in the purple and pink outfit made a horrid face when she saw me, and turned away. When I told my mother she said, "Don’t be silly, it had nothing to do with you!" But that’s not true. She saw my shadow, I’m sure
People try to tell me that everyone feels there is something wrong with them, but there’s not. Well, they’re wrong. It’s the shadows they feel. This, from my shadow girl I have learned. Because I saw, I got used to her; and we were always in it together.
The first day of kindergarten, we were asked to sit in a circle, to sing. I sat down next to Janie O’Malley. Her freckled face went white under her orange hair. She turned to me with her eyes burning bright, reached out and pinched my hand. Her face was a white globe of meanness. I don’t know if it was her face or her pinch that hurt me so much, but I do know I cried. "Go away," she hissed. "Why?" I asked. No answer.
We had to make rhymes later that year with our names. We’d just learned to read and to write. Oh, I was proud at my clever idea! Words, especially rhyming words, had quickly become my very good friends. "Cathy needs a Bathy," I wrote very carefully, in crayon. I drew a clawfoot tub, white and gleaming. How I loved my nightly baths, a special time alone with my mother and No More Tears. But everything went bad from there. Janie chased me home from school yelling "Cathy needs a bathy! Cathy needs a bathy!"
That evening, when I looked in the mirror as I brushed my teeth before bed, my face simply burned and I could see it burning. I perched on the footstool into which my name was etched in red and blue and yellow letters — C A T H Y — and the happy colorful letters became black and loomed in front of my eyes. Not like shadows, but like headstones. I heard a rushing inside, and was sick in the toilet.
That night the shadow girl came to my room. She had been with me forever, since that very first day, but for the first time since then she told me her name. I woke up in the middle of the night, just as always. The moon shining into the room. I looked over to my sister’s bed where she slept deeply. Meg-Anne’s brown curls framed her face on the pillow. Even fast asleep she looked like the perfect little creature she was; when awake she often played on her toy plastic guitar and sang happily over and over "I am Meg-Anne!" Above her head, the Wonder Woman curtains flapped in the wind; Wonder Woman pointing her finger straight at me, a gleam in her eye. I noticed a movement on the ceiling. A shape on a string, dropping down.
Soon, on my night table, next to the music box with the twirling dancer inside, sat my shadow, my friend, glowing as the moon glows and as a star sparkles. With her little legs crossed and in a puny green dress, just like my own green velvet dress, the one I had gotten at Grover Cronin’s, she looked terribly sad. She cupped her hands over her mouth and whispered "I’m Cathy." Then, she disappeared. I felt my heart beat hard, harder than ever before. She had levitated, hovered over my face. I saw that what I had believed for many years to be wings flapping slowly at her back. She flew not like a butterfly but more like a crow. And I noticed for the very first time that there were no wings on her back — what I had thought were wings was her shadow.
I told my best friend Lizzie Morgan about my shadow when we played the next afternoon. (Yes, I did have a friend for a time, but nothing lasts forever.) "Oooh!" she said. "Let’s play that!" So with our two dolls, who were also best friends, we enacted the scene. It became our most favorite game for several years to come. My doll played me and Lizzie’s played Lizzie. We set the dolls up in their tiny toy beds. I’d put my hands over my mouth and whisper "Cathy" and then I’d flap my hands together like they were a bird. Lizzie would sit the two dolls up in their beds and with her mouth make a big giant O! of surprise and of fear. Come to think of it, that’s how Lizzie always looked at me: with surprise and with fear.
In fourth grade, one of the last times that we played the Shadow Game, we used my Polaroid to record it. "The camera is broken," Lizzie said dully, waiting for the photo to develop. The frame was filled with white light, nothing more. No sign of the dolls. Nothing but light, white and gleaming.
In fifth grade, the year I lost Lizzie’s friendship, my class put on "Mary Poppins." For the tea party scene, Mrs. O’Neill had rigged up a table and chairs to hang from the ceiling on ropes. All the girls wore party dresses in pink, blue and green. Boys wore black suits with jackets and ties. We sang about candies and cakes. The table and chairs wobbled and danced. In the middle of the nonsense song about delicious foods everything suddenly went black, and when I opened my eyes I saw my shadow, dangling in a sparkling party dress from the ceiling. Like my dress, hers had ladybugs printed on it, and a clear plastic purse in the shape of a ladybug hung over her shoulder. Dark circles under her eyes. Her shadow-wings were a little bit broken.
Then everything went bright and I was arm-in-arm with Lizzie Morgan and Barbara Murphy, singing that song. Over my head, I saw the shadow girl, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lizzie also look up. She turned to me with terror . . . the dancing went on . . . and then I felt a sharp pinch on my behind. "I hate you, Cathy," Barbara said in my ear. She looked over my head at Lizzie. Lizzie glanced my way, then up at the ceiling (my shadow was gone). "I hate you too," Lizzie whispered. "I hate you, Cathy." Then there was a flash, my mother snapping her camera.