I met a man with no shadow today.
He crossed into the village limits near dusk, furtive in movements but resolute in expression. He wanted to find the Mamman. He did not understand my description of the route, partly because he spoke gutter Yoruba learnt from leather traders and partly because I have a stutter.
I decided to take him there because I thought it was a very sad thing losing one’s shadow. He was grateful, but fell silent after our initial conversation. I told him to wait while I checked my traps, for I am a hunter.
I had caught one bush rat and the leg of an antelope who had chewed his limb off in order to escape my pot. I reset the traps under the studious gaze of the man with no shadow.
The sun hid beneath the horizon, and even my shadow did not survive. We crossed the brook of tears without getting our feet wet and waved greeting to the three drinkers at the palm wine bar, men with whom I had been circumcised, but whose features had been blunted by ogogoro, their bodies the harvest of a misspent youth.
We walked past my house and I handed my puzzled wife my belt of charms. I did not kiss her or show affection in front of the stranger. I kept the rifle slung over my shoulder. The Mamman had magic, but gunpowder and lead would work on anything that had a heart, shadowed or not.
‘Your shadow is born when you are,’ said the Mamman, ‘but it outlives you. You should cast a shadow until your body rots.’
She was fat, with massive swinging breasts which held intricate tattoos and she had a sensual carelessness about her near-nakedness.
‘You may go,’ she said to me.
I shook my head. ‘I want to hear what he has to say.’
‘Very well.’ To the man she said: ‘What have you brought for me?’
The man unwrapped a small package and laid a dried, blackened object at the Mamman’s side. ‘This is the trigger finger of the greatest warrior my village has ever known.’
‘Did you kill him?’ she asked.
‘No, but it is mine to give away.’ He offered no further explanation.
The Mamman put it away and licked her lips, sat back down. ‘I’ve known two others who lost their shadows in my time.’
‘I did not lose it,’ said the man. ‘I drove it away.’
‘Explain, outlander. I get bored easily and when I’m bored I amuse myself by sucking the brains out of the eyeballs of mouthy customers.’
It was a story of war.
The man’s village had been outnumbered by invaders from the north. Fair-skinned, heavily-clothed warriors with curved swords and strange customs. They outnumbered the indigenous people two to one and had mounted cavalry and bows and arrows.
‘The witch doctor had a solution. He would bring alive our shadows, in the process doubling the army strength, but we had to win the battle before sundown because he could only hold the spell from dawn till dusk of one day. We also had to fight alongside our counterparts so that they could find their way back to merge just before sundown. As it turned out the invaders were so afraid of the dark warriors that they fled, but the shadow-selves were more…dishonourable.’
There was a massacre, with the slaughter and sodomization of unarmed men in the process of surrendering.
‘Most of my villagers allowed this, encouraged it even, but I objected. My shadow wished to continue, but I tried to prevent it. It turned on me, but I fought it off. It hissed and sputtered, and slinked away and I did not see it again before sundown. I have not cast a shadow since. It made my wife and family so uncomfortable that they rejected me. I had heard of the subtle skill of the Mamman here. I loaded provisions, left my kinsmen, and here I am.’
The Mamman was silent for a long time, and she scratched herself absently. Our shadows flickered in the candlelight, with an eerie gap where the stranger’s should have been.
‘It’s not such a bad thing to lack a shadow self,’ she said.
‘Then give me yours,’ said the man.
The Mamman laughed. It sounded like many jackals at once, and spittle sprayed around. I dared not wipe it off my chin. The woman stood and breadcrumbs dropped to the floor. ‘There are two ways of solving this problem. We can find your errant shadow or take one from a recently-deceased person. The latter will not look like you and may not move at exactly the same moment as you, but nobody will notice who doesn’t observe closely. Chose wisely.’
This is how I came to be a resurrectionist, digging into the grave of one Saliu Ogunrombi, who died in the last wave of Yellow Fever.
While we dug, he told me the story of their clan’s greatest warrior, Gani. One of the invaders struck him on the head with a war hammer, and Gani had lost his senses ever since. Became a different man, clumsy, and a falling boulder crushed his arm. The man without a shadow took Gani’s hand after the warrior died. He had two of the petrified fingers left. He gave me one.
There was no moon. There was the rhythmic digging of myself and the man with no shadow. The Mamman sat on a stool waiting, smoking.
The ritual itself was undramatic, and consisted of holding Saliu upright and lighting torches behind him. The Mamman said something to the resultant shadow in old language, and it detached from Saliu. It bobbed over to the stranger and fused with his feet.
We reinterred Saliu. His former shadow leaned towards the grave instead of away from light.
At dawn I settled at my wife’s side, freshly showered and with no intention of doing the day’s hunting. Her hand drifted between my legs, but grave digging is tiring work and there was no oak tree for her to climb, just a willow. She muttered something about me spending too much time with the three palm wine drunks.
Before I fell asleep I remembered the last words the Mamman said to me as the man walked away with his new shadow.
‘In a year he will return to us. To me. He will tell me to release him from this shadow.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘He will say his wife has left him again, and the people of his village shun him. He will say the new shadow self has changed his behaviour and he cannot control himself.’
I said nothing.
‘And he will be right.’
‘What is a shadow, Ma?’ I asked. I did not stutter when with her.
‘Sometimes, it is what lurks underneath your face, ready to emerge when you are angry or afraid. Sometimes, a blow from an enemy hammer can release it.’
She shrugged, and walked into the twilight. Presently, I went home.
I looked at the walls of my bedroom, at the shadows receding with the rising sun, and the rise and fall of my wife’s chest.