How can so small a body
cast such a long shadow
how can the shadow stay with us
without the body
-W.S. Merwin, from “Shadow Questions”
Our shadows gathered without us. They fattened themselves on the purple darkness, the bloated dusk that squatted above the nearby hills. They intoxicated themselves on the spiced air exhaled from tea plants terracing the slopes outside the village. They hovered en masse, untethered from neglectful bodies, grateful for once not to follow. Cloaked in the gloaming’s invisibility, they grew bold, reckless.
We envied their freedom, that careless drift. We had been led here to grasp stems between finger and thumb, to fill the hampers on our backs with sheaves of leaves to be turned into liquid. The plants were not fragile but we handled them with exquisite care, the momentary welling of tenderness enough to convince us we were not machines. We had no choice but to melt into the work. At noon we gauged the heft of the basket, but no longer felt the midday merger of body and shadow.
I saw them, once. Walking home from the fields, I crossed the village’s main street at the instant the sun ducked below the highest hill, when the center erupts with activity. A man was roasting corn by lantern-light, the kernels gossiping loudly with the open flame. A woman filled a bucket with water from the communal tap, the stream echoing against the steel like an ocean reverberating from a conch shell pressed against the ear. A teenage boy wobbled back and forth on a too-large motorcycle, its engine sputtering in feeble protest.
The village was never silent at this hour; the shadows did not desire silence. They crept across the dust, unfurling against the peeling whitewash of a one-story house. They stalked the whining dogs prowling outside the butcher’s shop, provoking a flurry of futile chasing. They cavorted across smudged windows, dancing with hidden currents of night-blooming jasmine.
I watched the shadows, their fleeting light-footedness, their ephemeral touch, until they rushed headlong around the corner. I walked home feeling the unbearable leadenness of my limbs. As I peeled off my sweat-soaked clothes, draping them over the iron balcony railing, I wished for nothing more than to also strip myself of my body. I drew a bath with my remaining water and sank into the steaming tub, momentarily relieved of the burden of heaviness. I floated there for hours, skin puckered and flooded, dissolving into the living darkness. As light as air, still solid of form.
Nina Sudhakar is a writer, poet and lawyer. She is the author of Matriarchetypes (forthcoming), which won the 2017 Bird’s Thumb Poetry Chapbook Contest. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Ecotone, Arcturus, and WhiskeyPaper; for more, please see www.ninasudhakar.com.