An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father in this “stirring” (School Library Journal) debut novel laced with magical realism.
Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined.
With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom despite their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?
One Shadow on the Wall is about love and loss, family and friendship, and creating your own future—even when it’s hard to do.
MOR bounced pebble after pebble off a crumbling packed-mud wall behind his family’s barak. Clouds of powdery dirt exploded with each strike.
“You want to play?” his friend Oumar asked, juggling a makeshift ball made of plastic bags and twine against his knee and foot. “It always makes me forget when I’m sad.” Oumar hopped on one foot while balancing the soccer ball on his other.
“I do not want to forget.” Mor stared at Oumar over his shoulder. The ball flopped to the ground. “My baay is gone. I always want to remember him.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I just thought . . .” Oumar picked up his ball, not finishing his sentence.
Mor could tell Oumar wanted to scamper off like his other friends had after the burial. Mor had seen their discomfort and felt their pity pouring off them like sweat. Oumar was no different. Even though he had stayed, he wore his uneasiness. It draped over his shoulders and pressed down on his head.
“Go if you want,” Mor said, freeing him. He scooped up a handful of dirt. “We don’t all have to feel as if the air is gone.”
Oumar’s feet moved before the last words had left Mor’s lips. “Maybe you’ll come down to the field tomorrow,” he called back, dropping the ball to dribble.
Although Mor loved the feel of the soccer ball against his foot, he knew he wouldn’t go.
Dust and tears stung his eyes as he watched Oumar run away.
His baay was gone. And now so were all his friends. Only Jeeg, the family goat, stayed by his side. She was tied to a post, watching a few mourners as they turned for their homes. It had been only six hours since his father’s death, and as was tradition, many of the mourners still prayed and played religious songs on the path outside his family’s door, remembering his father’s life. But Mor couldn’t. It already felt like he had lived a lifetime without him. The sting was as great as, if not greater than, when his yaay had died. Then he’d had his baay and his best friend, Cheikh, to lean on. Cheikh had been more like an older brother, but he’d long since been sent to a religious school in the city, and now Mor’s father had left him too. With the exception of a distant aunt, he and his sisters were now alone.
He studied the ground and caught sight of an enormous beetle scampering past his foot. Lost in its movements, he opened his fingers, letting the dirt he clutched rain down on the bustling bug. The shimmering black beetle stopped and started in a manic crawl. Mor took up a flimsy stick and poked the ground, changing the beetle’s direction, causing the bug to leave behind zigzags in the sand.
Does this settle the storm within you?
Mor’s head flung up. He strained to hear beyond the caws of crows, through the evening prayer call, and over the murmur of mourners. He was certain he had heard someone, but other than Jeeg curled near him, Mor was by himself. Although Jeeg flicked her ears and lifted her head, he knew she couldn’t have spoken.
What has this beetle done to garner such attention?
Mor stood straight. He recognized that voice. “Baay?”
You are not a python slithering in the dirt, hampering any life that falls across your path. Do not let your hurt turn you sour. For in an instant that beetle could have scudded into your spear.
“Father, is that you?” Mor spun around wildly, knowing his baay could not be there. Could he? Like his yaay had been a week before? Mor was sure he had heard his father’s unmistakable voice, which held the feathery lightness of a locust’s wings, braided with the strength of a plowing ox. It was deep and quiet all at once and always spilled out as an overflowing stream of riddles.
I know you hear me, my son, but are you listening? the voice asked in the growing darkness.
Mor crumbled to the ground and swatted his tears, raking his palms across his cheeks. Dirt ground into his skin when he wiped his face. “I’m going mad,” he sniffled. “Maybe Amina was right.”
I assure you, you have not conjured a dream or lost your sense. We are here with you.
“?‘We’?” Mor stopped. He had seen his mother—could it be that they were together? “Is it really you, Baay?”
Yes, my son.
Mor’s heart warmed and his tears stopped flowing. “Will you come to Tima and Mina, too?” he asked the purpling sky, hoping his sisters would experience the same. “They will not believe me if you don’t. Especially Mina. She trusts little I say.”
It is not her role to trust with abandon. She is our questioning child, who takes the cautious road. Her love often prickles only because she does not want either you or the open heart of Tima to be led astray. You are the anchor of this house now. We come to you.
“Will you stay?” he asked, hope rising with his words.
Not always. Now your need is great.
“What about Yaay?” Mor leaned forward. “Why can’t I see her?”
You will see her in comfort, and hear me in storms.
Mor searched the space around him. He wanted her now.
“How can I hear you?” He was relentless with his questions, but he didn’t care. He wanted to know. To understand. To keep his father close. “And how can you hear me?”
How can anyone hear? his father asked him. They listen. Are you listening now?
“Yes, Baay,” Mor said, going still.
That beetle was not the cause of your heartache. Do not let it be a victim of it.
A heat spread over Mor’s chest. “I know.”
You are a shepherd, not a venomous serpent, and have been entrusted with our beautiful flock of two.
Mor lowered his head. Jeeg stared up at him. “I promise to do all you ask of me if you return.”
“Promise,” you say? His father’s voice held a slight coarseness. You have already made a promise to me, yet here you are sulking in the dirt.
The image of his father’s hand covering his own filled his head.
It was the day after a careless moto and a roaring truck had hit his father. His baay had awoken in the Balla Clinic, with its tan tile walls, whizzing fans, and rows of occupied beds laden with sugar-white sheets and black, sick bodies. Recognition had brightened his baay’s eyes when he opened them to find Mor and his sisters huddled around him.
Mor and Amina had tried to quiet Fatima as she clung to their father’s chest, sobbing, trying to climb into the bed. Amina pulled at her legs until their baay told her to let Fatima be. A tear escaped Amina’s face then. The only one Mor had seen since their yaay’s death.
Instead of asking where he was or how he’d gotten there from the roadway he’d been walking along, their baay said, “The wind has blown all that I love back around me.” He wheezed then. Small tubes extended from his nose and bandaged arms. When he turned his stubbled chin, it sounded like sandpaper scratching wood, not a cheek grazing a pillow. “As one, all things are strong,” he continued. “Divided, they are weak and scatter.” Their baay’s eyes were glassy when they turned toward Mor. In a breathy whisper Mor felt his baay speak as if he and Mor were the only people in the room. No coughing strangers, no beeping machines, no crying sisters. “Do not let our house divide. Your sisters need you. And you need your sisters. Do not let yourselves scatter on a gust of wind. Hold tight to one another.”
And with a shaky voice Mor heard himself reply, “I promise.”
Do you recall your words to me, my son? His father’s voice now shook Mor from his memory.
“Yes.” Mor had trouble finding his own voice.
Honor your promise. Keep our flock as one.
When the sun had slipped from the sky, and most grasshoppers rested on leafy stems, long after all the well-wishers had gone and his sisters were stretched on their parents’ pallet, eyes closed, Mor hunched on a crate outside his family’s one-room home. The moon was the village streetlight, shining down on a mix of rippling tin and thatched wood roofs. Black tarps hung under them against mud-brick walls. The footpaths in front of Mor led in every direction: to a neighbor’s barak, the village well, the beach, or the village center. Staring ahead, Mor wished he would see his parents strolling along the one to his door, like he had so many times before.
He wiped at his eye while Jeeg lay over his feet, as she often did in the breezeless quiet. His eyes, already accustomed to the moonlit darkness, saw Coumba Gueye, their neighbor and his yaay’s closest friend, before he heard her approaching on the path. Even though she was not related by blood, she was an auntie to him, a tanta who had always been there. The moon guided her way toward him.
“What’s this?” she asked when she was a few steps closer. “Why are you out in the dark with only Jeeg as your blanket?” She reached down and stroked the goat. As she bent, she revealed the melon-size head of her son, baby Zal, with tight black curls budding on his scalp. His chubby cheek was pressed against her back.
“I do not need a candle to see that my baay is gone, or a flame to show that my yaay no longer sleeps on her pallet. So what do I need to see?” Mor said bitingly. As Tanta Coumba straightened, one side of her mouth curved into a slight smile.
She rocked her head from side to side, her head scarf and baby Zal bobbled with her movement. “You are definitely your father’s son.” She dragged out another small crate, which had been leaning against his home. “The light is not to show you what you do not have, but what you do.” Gathering the ample fabric of her teybass so it wouldn’t dust the dirt, she sat, tucking the dress’s excess cloth in her lap. “For you, that flame shines on two precious girls who need their big brother.” She motioned toward the doorway.
Mor shifted, recalling his father’s words, “our beautiful flock of two.”
Tanta Coumba lifted his head with her hand, and she wiped away tears from his cheeks. Tears he had hoped were invisible in the night. But as he looked down, the glow of the half-moon illuminated the smeared, wet streaks on the backs of his hands. He brushed them across Jeeg’s fur, pretending to pet her.
“It is okay to cry.” Tanta Coumba leaned closer, pulling his hands from Jeeg. “It is a sign you will be a worthy man because you feel. It is a danger to cinch everything inside, becoming rigid like a stick.” She stared at him. “Do not become a cold, unfeeling boy, worse than a flea, springing up only to make others itch, leaving behind scabs and unsettled skin. Let your heart and feelings guide you.” She smiled. “I know this is what your baay and your dear, sweet yaay would want of you.”
He blinked rapidly, still embarrassed.
At the mention of his parents, though, he wanted to tell her all about the visions of his yaay and hearing his father’s voice, but he hesitated. Jeeg had been the only one to understand. Amina had sat disbelieving when he told her of their father’s riddles. Suddenly he wished Cheikh, Tanta Coumba’s other son, were with him. Cheikh would not have needed more proof. Mor’s words and his belief would have been enough. His old friend would have known exactly what to say to ease Mor’s worry.
When Mor looked at Tanta Coumba, he thought instantly of his friend. Cheikh resembled his mother in so many ways, from their penetrating stares to their oval faces. It made Mor miss him even more. “What is it?” Tanta Coumba asked, distracting him from his thoughts.
“Nothing.” He focused on the dirt. “I was just thinking of Cheikh. I wish he was here so I wouldn’t be alone.”
Tanta Coumba sighed. “I wish my boy was here with us as well. But his father believes the daara in the city is better for him.” Then her eyes swept over the other baraks huddled in the dirt like a pride of slumbering lions. “But remember, you are not alone. You have all of us, and we have you. A child of my friend is my child. I would bring you into my home tomorrow if I had enough to spare, but dear Dieynaba is coming, Incha’Allah. Your aunt will look after you as she looked after your baay when they were growing up here in this village.” She spun her fingertip into the tight-coiled hairs at Mor’s temple. They loosened under her touch, then sprang back tight when she released them. “You are strong enough for this.” The balls of her cheeks pushed against her eyes.
“Even if my mind has left me?” Mor whispered. Not wanting to think of his bàjjan right then and all the changes she would bring.
“What do you mean?” Tanta Coumba asked. Baby Zal shifted but stayed asleep.
“I see and hear what is not there.” His eyes and nose tingled as he forced back more tears.
Tanta Coumba watched him for a long while, not saying a word.
“Things I know cannot be,” he continued.
“Things like what?” she prodded softly.
Mor picked at a small hole in his shirt, making it wide enough for his pinky to pass through. Realizing he’d created something else for Amina to mend, he withdrew his finger and let the shirttail fall.
“Go on,” she assured him. “I’m certain it is nothing I’ve not heard or thought myself.”
Mor wished more than anything that were true, but he knew what he was about to say made it certain his sense was running from him. He blurted it out anyway. “I see my yaay and hear my baay.”
Tanta Coumba looked him squarely in the eyes. “And that worries you?”
Mor’s neck and cheeks bristled with heat. He moved to stand.
“Be still.” She pressed her warm palm into his shoulder. “I do not doubt your words. Many of us see the dead in our dreams.”
“But I am not always dreaming. I see and hear them when the sun is bright and when the moon is shining.”
She sat for a long while, scanning his eyes. “I often talk to your yaay throughout my day. I have since she left us three years ago. Does that make me mad as well?”
Mor glanced her way. Hope flooded his chest. “Does she answer?”
The light dimmed a little in Tanta Coumba’s eyes. “Not as you and I are talking now, but in her way, I would like to think she is answering.”
Hope crashed against a dam within him. That was not what he meant. She couldn’t understand.
“Where does she visit you?” asked Tanta Coumba.
At first he was reluctant. Tanta Coumba waited, swaying back and forth like a blade of grass in the breeze.
“She came the day after Baay’s accident,” Mor uttered finally, ready to confess. “And a couple days after that.”
Tanta Coumba nodded as if she understood. Then she shifted and stared back at Mor. “So she looked in on you when your baay’s voice was first absent, when you needed comfort? When he could not speak?”
Mor thought hard. He had not seen it that way, but he realized she was right. His yaay had appeared the second day his baay lay in Balla Clinic, the day he’d slipped into sleep.
“But only I can see her.” Mor pulled on his finger. “I feel a fool.”
“Hush now. It is your blessing.”
“But why can’t I hear her like I hear my baay? And why can I not see him as I see her?” Mor’s shyness had vanished. He no longer cared if he sounded strange. He wanted to understand.
“We can never fully know why certain things come to be, just that they have.” She cradled his hands, stilling his fingers. “Treasure the comfort and guidance they bring. Though, we can seek out a serigne if you are so troubled? I am sure he could bring more understanding.”
Mor shrank against his seat. He did not want to tell anyone else what he’d seen or heard, even a religious leader, because he knew of people who had been taken away from their families and their homes for thinking peculiar things. Others were laughed at and thought crazy. And he didn’t want that. The idea of being confronted by someone else who might question him made his stomach twist. Despite himself, he asked Tanta Coumba another question.
“Will I ever see my baay and hear the voice of my yaay again?” he whispered.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot say. I can only assure you that you have not gone mad. You will not be locked away for your thoughts. Instead of worrying, be grateful for what you do see and hear. Many would give anything for a word or glimpse of lost loved ones. These are gifts. Welcome them,” she encouraged. “And your aunt Dieynaba’s arrival will be another blessing. She is saddened not to have made the burial, but she has called your father’s old shop and told Mamadou she would arrive in four days’ time on the early ndiaga ndiaya. So prepare for her arrival, and thanks be to Allah that she provided for your father’s stay at the clinic and that she is coming to provide for you and your sisters.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mor said, his head full of thoughts. He wished Cheikh would be on that bus from Dakar too. Not just an aunt he hardly remembered. He couldn’t imagine what it would soon be like to share his home, and his family’s space, with her. After all, it was her home too. And now there was room again in it for her.
Tanta Coumba spread her fingers across her knees, ready to lift herself up. She placed a light kiss on Mor’s forehead. He inhaled the fragrant scents of incense and ginger mixed with light sweat as she rose.
“All will be well. Your bàjjan is a wonderful soul who has always aided her brother in times of trouble. And now she will lovingly do it again. You will see.” Tanta Coumba pinched Mor’s cheek when he did not look up. “She will bring sunshine again, Incha’Allah.”
Then Tanta Coumba stood and turned for home, leaving Mor with his wishes and the night. Without his permission, more tears blurred his eyes as she got smaller and smaller on the path.
When he blinked, his mother’s djiné, gleaming like stars, leaned against the doorframe of their home. Her spirit smiled down on him. He jumped to his feet and raced to her as Jeeg’s m-a-a rolled across the air. His heart danced against his chest. The happiness that ribboned through him was strange after so much sadness. He welcomed it and wanted to be locked in his mother’s arms, but he almost stumbled through her. He stared up at her as she stared down, so many silent words being spoken between them. He wished he could hear her voice, but somehow it didn’t really matter; like Tanta Coumba had said, the sight of her was a relief. A gift. The love in her eyes, the heat of her presence, and the comfort in her smile were all he needed in that moment.
They stayed staring at each other until Tima squirmed inside on the pallet next to Amina. When Mor looked back from the open doorway, his yaay’s lips swept across his cheek like a sunbeam peeking through a cloud.
Then she was gone. But Mor’s eyes were dry. He reached up to his cheek and smiled, yawning. He thought he was finally ready to close his eyes and dream.
Leah Henderson has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. Many of the hopes, struggles, and traditions witnessed on her travels find a home in her work, hopefully offering added color and new perspectives to her characters’ lives. Leah received her MFA in writing from Spalding University and currently calls the Washington, DC, area home.
"To read Leah Henderson's remarkable debut is to be utterly transported to a world that is at once mesmerizing, harrowing, and full of profound grace. Even as I rushed through this page-turner, I didn't want it to end; I wanted to bask in its evocative language, and fell completely in love with its loyal, clever hero. Give this to book to anyone who has ever struggled to decide between doing what is right, and what easy - namely, everyone."
– I.W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above
"In her debut, Henderson paints a detailed picture of life in Senegal. The author’s experience, research, and sensitivity shine, making this distinctive novel a valuable addition to the literature....A book that rewards patient, sensitive readers willing to dive in."
– Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2017
"A poignant yet hopeful story of surviving the world through the power of promises."
– Kathy Erskine, National Book Award winning author of Mockingbird
"Henderson creates a multifaceted portrayal of Senegalese village life. Senegalese vocabulary (presumably Wolof) peppered throughout enriches the text....A stirring tale"
– School Library Journal, June 2017
"Debut author Henderson’s depiction of Senegalese life is well researched and warm with affection....Mor’s drive to do right and his love for his family are unmistakable. Keep an eye on this author!"
– Booklist, May 31, 2017
"Through tight, polished sentences and a smattering of regional vocabulary, debut novelist Henderson believably evokes the harsh realities of the impoverished seaside village and the resilience of its residents....Mor’s indomitable spirit, love for his family, and refusal to give up make him a fascinating and well-rounded protagonist"
– Publisher's Weekly, June 19, 2017
"...offers well-developed characters, lots of action, unexpected plot twists, and vivid insights into African village life....All these components come together in a satisfying story that will captivate dedicated readers."
– School Library Connection, August/September 2017