Black Shadows

Harrowing new evidence from the underworld


Geng Longyue is 6.8 years old and says she has exactly 26 secrets. I met her during the long, middle stretch of an 18-hour train ride from Kunming into Sichuan where she and her parents were going to visit Chengdu for the first time. Longyue and I sat opposite a small, plastic table beside the window and gazed out at the morning landscape – rubble-strewn mountains, rice paddies, damp red-brown clay trails and leather-skinned peasants bent over in the muck. The rail line between the provinces weaves through countless tunnels and it was after one of those 30-second dips into darkness, as Longyue and I squinted at each other back in the sunlight, that she asked if I had ever heard of a Black Shadow.

At the words, her voice dropped to a whisper.

“You know my 26 secrets? Well, I saw a Black Shadow once ... that’s my 27th.”

I nodded and asked her what happened.

Longyue rearranged herself on the padded seat to compose her thoughts. She wore purple sweatpants, matching hoodie and a pink, fake jade bracelet. She had long hair and bangs to her eyebrows. There was a bit of dried snot under her nostrils and she was missing a few teeth. She frowned in concentration.

“It happened a few years ago. I’m not exactly sure when. I was just a small child then. But I was in my bedroom with my friend. You see, Black Shadows can only come into your bedroom, not anywhere else.”

“Wait,” I interrupted, “let me get my journal. I’ll write this down.”

“That,” she said decisively, “is a great idea.”

“How much space will I need to write it down before I can understand Black Shadows?”

She glanced at my journal, flipped a few pages and said, “Four pages should be enough.”

I got settled in again and Longyue continued her lecture. Black Shadows, contrary to intuition, don’t appear at night, but rather in the early morning. They fly faster than any known animal and come up from hell. Perhaps the worst thing about Black Shadows is that instead of simply killing you, they make you do horrible things.

Like what? I asked.

“Like killing your good friends,” she said, shaking her head.

They’re only afraid of light, which was how Longyue and her friend fended off the Black Shadow years ago.

“In fact, I didn’t even see it that clearly, because I immediately knew to turn on the light and scare it away.”

“But didn’t you say Black Shadows come in the morning? If it’s light outside why do they come in the daytime?”

Longyue sunk her chin down into her hand and lines appeared on her forehead.

“I’m not too sure about that. They can fly so fast, maybe they can just quickly go from underground into the bedroom.”

I nodded.

“Write that down. That’s pretty useful for you.”

I duly scratched it into the notebook.

“And you know you shouldn’t tell him about Black Shadows,” she said, pointing with her eyes towards the middle sleeper berth. There, an obese boy from Lanzhou was rolling around on his back with what appeared to be stomach ache. His mother and grandma had been stuffing mango slices into his cheeks. “Don’t say anything to him,” she whispered. “You’ll scare him to death.”

We kept on talking for about an hour, pausing whenever the train rattled into another tunnel and resuming only when we were back in the safe morning light. After I’d filled up my four pages, I asked Longyue if she kept a journal.

“I don’t have a journal because I’ve got a journal in my brain. All these things about Black Shadows, I’ve remembered all this for a long time.” She reflected for a minute. “But it’s good that you keep a journal. If you keep writing in it, you can probably become some kind of scientist. Maybe you could be a Black Shadow scientist!”

We slipped back into darkness, so she couldn't see me smiling.

Tom Pellman lives in Beijing