Umberto, My Child

Anna gave birth on a Wednesday. Outside it was snowing but not sticking. The doctor appeared between her and the window and spoke without showing his face: the baby had never arrived. The only thing that had entered this world was its shadow. But the doctor didn’t tell her that part. She knew that already.

The shadow did what shadows do. He didn’t eat, he didn’t speak, he didn’t hear or see or feel. He wasn’t a he, but Anna had always wanted a boy. She named him Umberto.

Her husband was gone by spring. No matter how obvious the presence of the child, no matter how much it resembled his own silhouette, her husband couldn’t live this life. It was worse that he—that no one—could deny the child was there: it was on the floor, against the wall, stretching across the table as they ate. So he left and they continued on without him.

They were Anna and Umberto and her mother, who didn’t pause when asked to help. Anna and her mother had never really gotten along. Then Anna gave birth to a shadow and everyone disappeared and her mother showed up. She stayed with Umberto when Anna went to court, went back to work at the accessories counter of the department store downtown.

Anna had never noticed her own shadow before. Now she was always watching for it, memorizing its shapes—inspecting everyone else’s as well. Those she had known now seemed more profound, more mysterious. Those she had despised—or at least disliked—she now longed to see more of, to know better. Every movement of their silent two-dimensional figures told her volumes their voices never had, told her more about the world, about her son.

Umberto would lean at an angle across the path as they walked in the park, as she sat to watch the others’ shadows mingle with theirs. From the tangle of flat forms, Umberto would raise his head and she would dream of his companion sensing something no one else could, something unspeakably beautiful in the sky of another world.

That’s how she thought of the child she had not had: Umberto’s unseen companion. But that being was not her child, her own. Her child was Umberto and Umberto alone.

As she grew to know her child, she began to make new friends, people of fascination who saw the wonder of her extra shadow and showed her theirs: invisible aliens, unspeakable ghosts. The silhouette of her manager’s mother would join them sometimes for lunch; on Saturdays, the shadow of her neighbor’s late husband would walk with them to the corner for coffee. Through these witnesses, she began to see all the other shadow people, and the world grew full. There were so many more shadows than she had accounted for, so many designs cast by the unseen. Millions. More. Everything was richer, bottomless, replete. Anna was happy. That was summer.

In autumn, when Umberto was five, he followed the other shadows his age into the class. Anna did not stop him—how could she—and in the end she didn’t need to. School was pointless. He was fully formed but didn’t fit.

He tried to be like the others: the shape that fell across the pages of an open picture book, the darkness that combined with a bicycle as it slid off the curb. But he wasn’t like these other shadows. His foot could touch the ball, his hand could overlap the shadow of another’s, but his presence went unregistered. Neither his companion nor the other children could take pleasure in the event.

So, after a few years, one day he did not move. He lay across his bed like this for weeks, until Anna worried that his companion was not eating, or sleeping, or doing whatever it needed to do to keep her child alive. Her worry only increased when, on a morning that promised an evening storm, he was gone. His room—his high-lamped, white-walled room, window-filled—was empty.

He had always toyed with her in the night—had always been able to disappear with ease. Yet even though she had awoken before light, she knew this time was different. This time he had run away. Later, she would turn on all the light to confirm he was not hiding in a closet, in the unlit blank behind the couch.

“He will come back,” her mother said, touching a sheet they had hung across the fireplace. “They always come back.”

Anna didn’t know. Didn’t know what they did or whether her child was one of them.

Nonetheless, she waited. At work, she tried on sunglasses, dimming the world, imagining it as full of her son. At home she would eat in silence, looking through pictures of her own shadow and her child. She fell out and then back in with her new friends, who were no longer new. They understood and were there when she was ready. But years passed and she was never ready.

At night she and her mother would go to the planetarium, where she dreamed of Umberto’s companion escaping with her son into the stars. Her mother would fall asleep and Anna would cry as the sound of giggling teens fell over her from a few rows back. She would pull out her favorite picture, which she could not see in the dark. She would run her finger over its surface, an image of Umberto encompassed by her shadow, his smaller body hidden in her shade. A stranger would not have been able to see the memory, but she knew it was there. With the teens’ laughter would often come a sweet aroma. What Umberto could never do would overwhelm her with regret, nostalgia for what had never been.

One night, as she walked home alone—having put her mother in a cab—she stopped at the window of a bar & café. Gazing at the outlines of the listening and laughing bodies inside, she found the shape of her face in the glass. Caught between dimensions, it reminded her of someone she had seen only across the room at parties, a woman in a dream who always turns away in the end. Though flat like a child’s drawing, her reflection was evidence of a world of depth. It contained color and the relics of action; it produced its own shadows, beneath her cheekbone, nose, lip. A patron inside looked up and, finding a stranger’s face in the window, smiled. Anna returned the smile. She was but was not like her child: she was not fully embodied, but she was filled in, distinct from the darkness that clung to her body. As the patron turned back to the group they were with, Anna decided to move on. It had been a miracle—as others had helped her see—but it was not hers to possess.

As she came to the end of the block and turned the corner toward home, a shadow emerged from behind a lamp and, as it always did, followed her home.

*

Nelson Lloyd is a creative writer, teacher, critic, and cartoonist (gapintheatlas.com) currently living in Michigan and teaching in Palestine.