SHADOW PLAY • by Stephen V. Ramey

One day after pizza-for-dinner, Dad decided to teach me how to make shadow puppets. We stood by the desk in his office, a big beast of a thing with sharp-corner shoulders hunched down to hold a computer and its screen.

The overhead light flicked off. My whole body went cold.

“Imagine a dog,” Dad said. “Imagine its profile against a blazing sun.”

“I don’t want to,” I said. “I can’t.” Did it have a broad face like the neighbor’s bulldog or a long snout like the German Shepherd down the street? Did its ears point up, or flop down? More importantly, did it bark and snarl like my parents used to before Mom went away?

Dad loomed over me, dark on dark, hungry to chomp down.  The image of Mom’s suitcases standing by the door came to me, the loneliness of them, the way they kept everything locked up inside.

A quiet screech sounded, a click. The desk lamp came on, and the shadow of my face splashed onto the wall. The angles were wrong, my forehead stretched, my chin compressed. I rotated my head, stood onto my tip-toes, reshaping what I was until the shadow trued.

“Pay attention,” Dad said. He cupped one hand into the light and propped the other behind it, two fingers extended. A dog’s face appeared, a glowing eye, a slit for a mouth. I opened my real mouth, and the light rushed in. I gulped. A shiver shook my shoulders.

“Try it,” Dad said. His teeth glinted. I held my hands in rough imitation. A smaller dog appeared on the wall, a mutt with crooked ears and deformed jaw.

“There you go,” he said. “See how easy that is?”

“I guess.”

“Make it bark,” Dad said. He opened and closed his fingers. A growl sounded deep in his throat. It scared me. My dog dissolved into hands.

“Dammit,” Dad said. He twisted me by the shoulders. “Why is everyone so goddamned timid?”

I wanted to tell him, but that would only make it worse.

“Again,” he said. He pushed my hands together in the light. I scissored my fingers and the little dog opened wide. I thought of Mom staring from her dinner plate. Her eyes were shadows in an inflexible face.

“Let’s play,” Dad said. The larger dog darted in and out, jaws snapping. I tried to keep up, but his dog was bigger, faster, better formed. I thought of real dogs fighting, the noise of it rising up and up inside my ears, a shout, screams, the sound of something smashed.

Dad’s dog lunged. Its jaws closed. A whimper pressed up from my stomach. Get it over with, ISts thought. Just get it over with and kill me like you killed Mom. Mom wasn’t really killed — I understood that in my head — but I didn’t think she would return from the place Dad drove her. I pushed his hip with all my might.

He shoved back. I stumbled into the corner and went down. One wall pressed my shoulder, the other grated my arm. All I could see was Dad’s open hand in the beam from the lamp. I watched his expressionless face, part shadow, part light.  His fingers curled into his palm.

“I’m sorry,” I said. The words were hard edges in my throat. I barely got them out.

“Yes,” he said. “You are.” He moved out of the light. A snick drew my attention to the exit. “I should’ve sent you with her.” His silhouette appeared against brightness and extinguished as the door swung closed.

I squeezed my hands into fists, but could not see them. Somewhere a dog was barking — yap yap yap yap yap yap yap. I joined in — “Yap, yap, yap!” — my voice swelling until it filled the room.


Stephen V. Ramey’s work has appeared in a variety of places. He also edits the Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and trapeze, a twitter zine. He lives in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river. His collection of very short fiction, Glass Animals, is available from Pure Slush Books via Lulu.com and Amazon.


Rate this story:
 average 4.5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Spencer Curtis

    I enjoyed this story a lot. This scene is very vivid as I can picture it folding out in my head,

    My only suggestion is the ending. I wanted it to end here:

    “I squeezed my hands into fists, but could not see them.
    Somewhere a dog was barking — yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.”

    To me, this would be a more powerful ending as it puts stronger emphasis on the imagery/meaning of the story.

  • Spencer Curtis

    I enjoyed this story a lot. This scene is very vivid as I can picture it folding out in my head,

    My only suggestion is the ending. I wanted it to end here:

    “I squeezed my hands into fists, but could not see them.
    Somewhere a dog was barking — yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.”

    To me, this would be a more powerful ending as it puts stronger emphasis on the imagery/meaning of the story.

  • I like the way the narrator’s memories of the mother weave into the frightening shadow play with the father. Also nice are the echoes of imagery throughout the piece–the sharp corners of the desk and the hard edges of the words in the narrator’s mouth. A fresh take on a much-explored subject.

  • I like the way the narrator’s memories of the mother weave into the frightening shadow play with the father. Also nice are the echoes of imagery throughout the piece–the sharp corners of the desk and the hard edges of the words in the narrator’s mouth. A fresh take on a much-explored subject.

  • GK Adams

    A powerful handling of a difficult subject. I agree with Audrey–the devil is in the details here.

  • GK Adams

    A powerful handling of a difficult subject. I agree with Audrey–the devil is in the details here.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    This is the sort of piece I find very frustrating. It’s brilliant and arresting writing, but I’d consider it a sketch rather than a story. As part of a linked series of short pieces that together formed a whole, it would work perfectly, but presented on its own, it’s just a segment. And because of that only, 3 stars.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    This is the sort of piece I find very frustrating. It’s brilliant and arresting writing, but I’d consider it a sketch rather than a story. As part of a linked series of short pieces that together formed a whole, it would work perfectly, but presented on its own, it’s just a segment. And because of that only, 3 stars.

  • Avalina Kreska

    As Sarah said, it isn’t really a story – more of a tableau. I enjoy tableaus. Nonetheless, I was in the moment, in the room and feeling the desperation of the child to please his Dad whilst struggling with fear. I don’t know what a ‘snick’ is – maybe it’s an American thing! It was well written and involving though.

    • Carl Steiger
      My American dictionary didn't provide a good writerly definition for "tableau," but from the context I'm pretty sure I know what you mean. And I don't know what a snick is, either.
      • Avalina Kreska
        Haha! Have you ever taken a look at Vine Leaves Magazine? They call a 'tableau'a 'vignette' I've submitted some 'tableaus' with them.
        • Carl Steiger
          I'm going to take a look at that! Most of the things I jot down wind up as "tableaus" anyway.
          • Avalina Kreska
            I know what you mean. Mine often started out as a poem which led to a scene... it seems to be a fine line. When I showed my 'tableaus' to folk they said they weren't stories as there was no moral quandry - I must admit, I prefer writing tableaus but I am trying to write stories too. I'd be interested in what you make of Vine Leaves. Best Wishes.
      • Avalina Kreska
        Sometimes tableau means 'picture' I think of it as an unfolding scene.
  • Avalina Kreska

    As Sarah said, it isn’t really a story – more of a tableau. I enjoy tableaus. Nonetheless, I was in the moment, in the room and feeling the desperation of the child to please his Dad whilst struggling with fear. I don’t know what a ‘snick’ is – maybe it’s an American thing! It was well written and involving though.

    • Carl Steiger
      My American dictionary didn't provide a good writerly definition for "tableau," but from the context I'm pretty sure I know what you mean. And I don't know what a snick is, either.
      • Avalina Kreska
        Haha! Have you ever taken a look at Vine Leaves Magazine? They call a 'tableau'a 'vignette' I've submitted some 'tableaus' with them.
        • Carl Steiger
          I'm going to take a look at that! Most of the things I jot down wind up as "tableaus" anyway.
          • Avalina Kreska
            I know what you mean. Mine often started out as a poem which led to a scene... it seems to be a fine line. When I showed my 'tableaus' to folk they said they weren't stories as there was no moral quandry - I must admit, I prefer writing tableaus but I am trying to write stories too. I'd be interested in what you make of Vine Leaves. Best Wishes.
      • Avalina Kreska
        Sometimes tableau means 'picture' I think of it as an unfolding scene.
  • Sarah Russell

    You had me from the first line. Well done!

  • Sarah Russell

    You had me from the first line. Well done!

  • Carl Steiger

    How in the world did Dad win custody of this poor kid?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Well, I wondered about Mom abandoning the kid to Dad, and all, but figured that the Spanish Inquisition was gonna remind me that this is fiction, after all, so I decided not to go there. But, yeah, that too.
  • Carl Steiger

    How in the world did Dad win custody of this poor kid?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Well, I wondered about Mom abandoning the kid to Dad, and all, but figured that the Spanish Inquisition was gonna remind me that this is fiction, after all, so I decided not to go there. But, yeah, that too.
  • Stephen Ramey

    Thanks for the lively discussion. It’s always nice when a story gets people talking. I wanted to add my 2 cents on a couple of issues in case it’s helpful. First, a snick is a sharp metallic sound, as in “the snick of a latch”. Not a common term and I could have done better to evoke a sound. And, as for custody, there has been a trend toward recognizing paternity as equal or near-equal to mother’s “rights” regarding children. In this case it’s likely that the judge (if it has gotten that far) decided that continuity and ability to provide were major factors in determining primary residence for the child. There is some indication, too, that the mother is in no proper state of mind to fight for herself or her child. Perhaps that will change over time. I do know of several cases where a mother has simply walked away from her children. Finally, we need to understand that we’re seeing this from the boy’s experience, his perception of power struggle and loss, and the objective truth may be much more complex. As for whether this is a story or not, it’s your reading that matters. My own sense is that there is an indication of resolution here in that the boy, who was initially afraid of even mimicking a dog, is now willing to become a dog (by implication, to become his father, and claim power over others). It’s slight, and the editors did worry about this issue, but that was my thinking. Oops, didn’t mean to write a book :-), but thought it might help the discussion to include my take on the situation. In the end it’s the readers’ reading that matters, so whatever I think is less important than your reactions. Thanks again for reading.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      "Snick" is a fine and effective word, and suits the cruelty and sharp edges of this story. The writer always needs to honor his own gut in what he writes, and then hope that readers will feel what he does. This is a fine piece of writing but it left me unsatisfied.
      • Stephen Ramey
        Thanks for that. I'm of the opinion that writing is solitary, but publishing is collaborative. Thus, I do listen to editors and readers as carefully as I am able during the revision process. Usually it's a matter of finding better ways to communicate my intention, but sometimes the process enlightens me. This was a story that came out of me with intensity and purpose, but I did have to struggle for an ending that suggested change of state, and it would appear that this ending still does not achieve that result for many readers. That's fine, of course, but it is a failure of sorts too, in that my goal is to satisfy (and/or challenge) every reader (impossible, but that's the goal). It's wonderful to read reaction to a story, and thanks for taking time to provide it.
  • Stephen Ramey

    Thanks for the lively discussion. It’s always nice when a story gets people talking. I wanted to add my 2 cents on a couple of issues in case it’s helpful. First, a snick is a sharp metallic sound, as in “the snick of a latch”. Not a common term and I could have done better to evoke a sound. And, as for custody, there has been a trend toward recognizing paternity as equal or near-equal to mother’s “rights” regarding children. In this case it’s likely that the judge (if it has gotten that far) decided that continuity and ability to provide were major factors in determining primary residence for the child. There is some indication, too, that the mother is in no proper state of mind to fight for herself or her child. Perhaps that will change over time. I do know of several cases where a mother has simply walked away from her children. Finally, we need to understand that we’re seeing this from the boy’s experience, his perception of power struggle and loss, and the objective truth may be much more complex. As for whether this is a story or not, it’s your reading that matters. My own sense is that there is an indication of resolution here in that the boy, who was initially afraid of even mimicking a dog, is now willing to become a dog (by implication, to become his father, and claim power over others). It’s slight, and the editors did worry about this issue, but that was my thinking. Oops, didn’t mean to write a book :-), but thought it might help the discussion to include my take on the situation. In the end it’s the readers’ reading that matters, so whatever I think is less important than your reactions. Thanks again for reading.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      "Snick" is a fine and effective word, and suits the cruelty and sharp edges of this story. The writer always needs to honor his own gut in what he writes, and then hope that readers will feel what he does. This is a fine piece of writing but it left me unsatisfied.
      • Stephen Ramey
        Thanks for that. I'm of the opinion that writing is solitary, but publishing is collaborative. Thus, I do listen to editors and readers as carefully as I am able during the revision process. Usually it's a matter of finding better ways to communicate my intention, but sometimes the process enlightens me. This was a story that came out of me with intensity and purpose, but I did have to struggle for an ending that suggested change of state, and it would appear that this ending still does not achieve that result for many readers. That's fine, of course, but it is a failure of sorts too, in that my goal is to satisfy (and/or challenge) every reader (impossible, but that's the goal). It's wonderful to read reaction to a story, and thanks for taking time to provide it.
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