Naming Shadows

Waikato River, New Zealand by Alex Cowley


This story first published in:     

The Bitter Oleander: Volume 15, Number 2     





Naming Shadows     

It is the time of night when earthworms stop their blind twisting, their digestion of earth, and lie still. The clouds part and starlight presses down through the fronds of fern trees and into dark soil. Crickets, owls, and frogs pause, absorbing, listening.     

Seven-year-old Tama wakes from a dream in which a lion, a tiger, and a giant dog leap from a cliff. Claws and paws extended, bellies bared, mouths open. Above them the sky was so blue it ceased to be a color and became a mood.     

The dream fills Tama with pride. He knows it is proof of something but he doesn’t know what. He sits on the torn second-hand couch that is his bed, trying to find his way back into the dream. The air is thick with the scent of urine, stale beer, and cigarettes.     

“I am here,” the Something from his dreams says. It comes from the corner where shadows drape over the television and broken vacuum cleaner; the corner where Tama is made to sit for hours, imagining what it would be like to be an ant climbing through the forest of the shag carpet. Sometimes his mother forgets him, and Tama falls asleep, his cheek against the wall. He wakes up to an empty house, but still, he does not move until he is told to.     

“Kia ora,” Tama whispers to the shadow, because it is the polite thing to do and Tama, against the prediction of New Zealand national statistics, is a good boy.     

Tama is afraid but fear has always made him reflexive, full of puppy-dog pounce. Faced with the unknown, he scrambles up boulders and grabs his knees to chest, cannon-balling into deep waters to keep himself from drowning. At the top of the jungle gym he leaps, arms pin-wheeling through the air because it is better than falling.     

And his mother’s violent anger does not make him fold into himself. He does not act out in larger and larger ways against his mother’s demands for him to become smaller and smaller.     

Tama means ‘boy’ in Maori, and that is all he has ever been until the dream. Now Tama thinks he might be something more.     

“Kia Ora!” Tama repeats, his black eyes shining. He says it loudly in case the shadow is dumb. It is loud enough to have woken his mother up and earned him a cuff on the side of the head but his mother is gone. As gone as she can be.     

Tama doesn’t know it, but he can do anything now. Yell. Put his mouth over the milk carton and gulp, gulp, gulp. Eat five slices of bread smothered in butter. There will be no punishment. No more accusations performing circus acts in his mind.     

Tama’s mother has become metal crumpling into concrete. She has tumbled over the edge of the bridge’s guardrail, the right hand turn signal of her car a blinking star on the river’s dark surface.     

But Tama is less alone than he has ever been. Something Else sits in the corner, speaking to him with a voice of sunlight and cricket song.     

“I am,” it says.   


Tama wants to get the name right.     

There is laughter; a low roiling noise that causes the dust motes to stir in their dreaming.       

“I am.”     

Tama thinks the name several times in his mind before speaking it out loud.     

“Hello Eyeam, I’m Tama!”     

“I know.”     


“I know.”     

Tama doesn’t know how to respond so he sits, blinking, his mouth opening and closing. The air is suddenly swarming with the scent of wildflower honey. He remembers honey as a grumbling in his belly. He remembers his finger in a jar and a smack on his hand. His mother yelling, “Its shit now boy, shit! Putting your dirty finger in it! You turned it to shit!”     

He remembers how the jar, yanked from his hands and thrown out the open window, caught the sun in its flight before shattering. It had looked as beautiful as it tasted; a glow on the tongue, a warmth in his toes.     

 Tama sits, swallowing the sweet air, grateful that it is free from insects and slivers of glass. He sits and waits for Eyeam to speak. But the shadows are silent.     

Earth worms began to twist again, to digest, to tunnel. The honey-air dissolves on his tongue. A whining in the distance grows wider, filling with red and blue flashing lights. The shadows thicken in the corner, as the highbeams of the patrol car push through the weary curtains and wash over Tama’s goose-fleshed skin. He is a small brown boy with big eyes waiting on a patchwork raft for the rescue he doesn’t know he needs.     

The police officer knocking on the door is a sound Tama will remember for the rest of his life. Whenever fist hits wood with that same dutiful force the center of his chest will open to an empty hall of dull light. But in that echoing space will also be something else.     

The first police officer with his family-man eyes, smiles a tired smile and asks, “What’s your name, son?”     

Tama will always remember his own voice answering, “My name is Eyeam.”     

He will remember a lion, a tiger, and a giant dog extending their claws and leaping in the sky. It is the night that the shadows gave him their name.

8 responses to “Naming Shadows”

  1. Love it!!

    “He says it loudly in case the shadow is dumb. “

    1. Thank you!
      (and you never know with shadows…)

  2. Such evocative writing… and wonderful to read a finished piece like this on your blog.

    1. Thank you! I have to admit I have a real affection for Tama – I was so happy he made it to print but I didn’t want his story to end there.

  3. Nanea Hoffman Avatar
    Nanea Hoffman

    This is gorgeous. I read it three times, just now.

    “Tama doesn’t know it, but he can do anything now.”

    I loved this. Completely engaging.

    1. Thank you Nanea!

  4. Do you realise how much talent you have? I completely understand the saying “I would kill to have as much talent as she has in her little finger”, because if your little finger could send some of that talent over my way, I would be very grateful! I am very jealous of you right now. And in awe. . . .

    1. I’m going to pay you in gold for that one, sweet talker! xoxo

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