“He is very very like me
From his toes up to his head
And I see him jump before me
When I jump into my bed.”
The words of the old Robert Louis Stevenson poem circle through my head in my grandmother’s voice. She used to make me recite them at night… not just “My Shadow” but all those children’s’ verses. We would recite them with Grandpop, too, “to help keep his brain stimulated,” the old woman would say.
In my innocence I had no idea they were meant to be protective spells. I would just become entranced by the rhythms and rhymes and the time spent one-on-one with the old woman. The images would swirl around in my imagination, but I never paid attention to the meanings of the words.
I also had no idea that my grandfather was slowly slipping away from us as Alzheimer’s ate his brain. Some days, he couldn’t remember how the percolator worked. Other days, he couldn’t remember my name.
Then there was the night of the big storm. The power went out and the world felt deadly still without the usual electrical hum that most of us don’t notice til it’s gone.
I saw my grandfather downstairs, checking to make sure all the storm doors were shut, and the windows closed and latched. It struck me as a comforting scene until the lightning flashed outside and cast his shadow – his true shadow – on the wall near my bedroom door.
Looking down, I caught the old man staring at me the way I’d have stared at a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles from Carvel.
As if I wasn’t human.
As if I were FOOD.
And his shadow… it looked more like that creature from ALIEN than the old man who happily hunkered down on the floor and played trains with me just a few hours before. And it… it was looking at me, too, the way a predator analyzes its prey.
“Get to bed!” Grandma came out of nowhere to push me back into my room and slam the door shut. “You must never let Grandpop’s shadow touch you.” Unspoken was the other half of the admonition, the half I was still too young to hear: “and never let your shadow cover anyone else.”
Sitting in my bed, in the dark, I noticed that my grandmother’s shadow wasn’t with mine, that only my form showed in silhouette on the bedroom wall. Through the crack under the door, I saw flickering light and comprehension dawned. Her shadow was out there, defending me from my own grandfather’s inner demon.
“Recite,” she ordered, though there was affection beneath her commanding tone. “How do you like to go up in a swing?”
“Up in the air so blue,” I dutifully continued. “Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, ever a child could do.” The words calmed me. I imagined myself swinging away from the weird shadow battle to a place of peace and light.
When the storm ended and the power returned, Grandpop came to check on us. I checked the wall, and saw the lamplight throwing only the expected, human forms of all of us there. Grandma smiled at him, and said, “It’s alright now.” And we all went on as if everything was the same as before.
Except… I am different.
I know things now.
The shadow curse runs in my family – I learned that later – but it’s been steadily weakening from generation to generation.
And the rhymes? They protect us and repel the monsters.
If that seems a bit far-fetched, consider: “Ring Around the Rosie” defines the symptoms of the Plague, and “This Old Man” warns us about a pedophile. “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,” on the other hand, refers to how female prisoners once got exercise.
My own demon shadow is a rare visitor, a puny and ineffectual thing compared to my grandfather’s.
Still, when the weather guy on tv warns of an impending storm, I sit on my daughter’s bed, take the video game out of her tiny hands, and teach her a rhyme:
“The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.”
None of him at all… Perhaps by the time my daughter has children, it will be so.