You can’t tell much about a person from just his shadow. Shadows hide all the details that might hint at age, wealth, fitness, disposition, or magical power.
The people living near the great glacier-formed Wisconsin lake have told a tale about the Mage shadow under the great pier for as long as anyone can remember. Each version has its unique details, likely altered slightly now and then to better fit the times of the telling. But they all bear enough similarities so that any local always knows right off if they’re hearing yet another version of the Old Man Miller story. A few copies of drawings of the once massive pier are still hung in local shops or pubs, memories from when the town of Iron Point was an important location for trade with the great white North. There’s nothing really left of that pier, but if you know where to look and you go when the sun is high, you can find an area of the beach that’s more like ground down wood and stone than sand, where the coloring is a few shades darker than the grainy light brown everywhere else along the shore.
Old Man Miller was a miserable man, folks say. He fell in love as a kid like everybody does, but he never had a reset button. He carried the weight of that love through decades of grief, living and yet not living as time sprinted along the beach and left him staring out at the waves. The object of his desperation isn’t remembered at all. She’s not even part of the story except for her name.
When Miller was very young, the tale of The Mage Under the Pier was very popular. He was said to be a demon who could answer one’s greatest hope though in some versions he was an angel or a man or a ghost. The Mage was said to meet with people under the bridge at certain times of day… briefly in the early afternoon when the sun would shine down through the weather-beaten slats of the pier, shimmering down to create a shadow, a figure of an ageless man. It was said this Mage from ancient times would stand inside the shadow to be visible but unseen only for as long as the shadow fit his frame.
And though Miller had always believed the story of the promise of the Mage, sixty years passed before he found the courage to follow through.
“Answer me Demon,” whispered Miller from the edge of the darkness under the ancient pier.
The beach was strangely silent, no kids splashing, no seagulls squawking. Miller stepped back and around toward the water and found an angle where the shadow of the Mage was more crisply defined. He could see the outline of the large head, the arms that stretched out north and south – so much farther than any other shadow. The Mage nodded his head as if blown up and down in a gentle lakefront breeze.
“Answer me Demon,” Miller whispered again, a little louder. He waited, squinting.
“I am no Demon,” said the Mage in a voice too deep for Miller’s time, a voice far deeper than the glaciers ever cut into the land of Wisconsin or anywhere else in the world.
Miller stood his ground. He had no fear for himself anymore.
“I’m sorry,” Miller said bravely, forgetting his whisper.
“There is no need. I will answer you, Miller. I have been expecting you.”
“It has been a very long time.”
“Not so long.” The sun moved and the slant of the rays and shadow changed much too quickly. “Time is not what you expect it to be. You are here. And I am here. Therefore, time is abundant.”
“I only hoped that you were real.”
“Miller. What would you ask of me?”
“There was a young woman named Ellen.”
“She is still young.”
Old Man Miller looked into the deep shadow, hope flashing through him.
“Is this what you have come here to ask?” asked the Mage. “To be young?”
“Do you mean I can be 17 again?”
“Yes, Time is indifferent to this desire.”
“And she’ll be there too?”
“You will be 17 again and you will not bear the burden of her loss.”
The next day young Miller went to school feeling like a different person, but he didn’t feel it right away. As he aged, he began to understand that something in him was missing, something he had lost. He quietly studied the joy and energy and desire of other people and failed to understand. He could not feel what they felt.
Much later in life, he saw visions of his youth. Some were well-remembered and clear, but some were him and not quite him. The confusing, often conflicting memories came to him more frequently and at last, in the complete stillness of desperation his two lives merged, briefly, and he had clarity.
He visited the pier, found in memories of his first life, and walked into the deep shade holding a hatchet in each hand.
“Answer to me, Demon! You made it so I never even knew her at all!”
Soon his yells and the sounds of steel slashing into the wood drew a small crowd. His windmill arms grew more and more powerful, stretching out to wondrous lengths both north and south, hacking in fury, woodchips flying into the air and scattering down to the sand like confetti in a parade. No one could get near him. All day he hacked. For a week he hacked. For the rest of his life he hacked until there was nothing left of himself or of the pier save for piles of woodchips soaking up the fresh lake water and staining the sand.