Great series of podcasts on this novella so far. I binge-listened to them while on a long car trip, and thought I'd chime in with some thoughts, mostly pretty disjointed. I know you're doing a closed reading, but forgive me if I jump ahead to some issues from the rest of the story. If anyone on the forum hasn't finished the story and wants to avoid spoilers, you might want wait to read this.
One of the mysteries (and I haven't read "V.R.T." yet) I can't quite figure out is exactly how many waves of colonization have hit St. Anne and St. Croix - we know there was at least one French one, and some kind of English speaking one, and from comments by the Wise Old One, one that perhaps brought the Shadow Children's ancestors from a supercivilization in ancient or at least antediluvian times, either Atlantis or Lemuria (Mu), or Gondwanaland before it split up, or Cabell's Poictesme or "The Country of Friends" - which I take to mean Texas, as the state's name comes from the Caddo Native American word "táyshaʼ "(friend), with the "S" added by Spanish colonists to make it a hispanicized plural. Texas is the only U.S. state that was once an independent republic (as Texans will often tell you, ( I've visited the site of the former embassy of the Texan Republic in London, not far from Churchill's War Chambers - there is a small plaque on the site), so Texas is literally the Country of "Friends". Or maybe the Shadow Children's ancestral memory, or the shared racial consciousness that the Wise Old One taps into from the spacefaring humans recalls the space base at Houston, when the Shadow Children dream of departures from the planet Earth. Oddly, Number 5 even suggests this antediluvian theory during the lesson with Mr. Million and David, when he says the Abos could be the "descendants of some earlier wave of expansion...even predating the Homeric Greeks." Although Mr. Million notes this as implausible, Number 5 glosses on the Etruscans, Atlantis, and the tenacity and expansionist tendencies of a hypothetical technological culture occupying Gondwanaland." That the Wise Old One should express the same idea as Number 5 in John Marsch's story is puzzling- the notion of interstellar colonizing missions launched from Atlantis or Gondwanaland (or even the Republic of Texas) is a fairly unusual idea, and how would John V. Marsch, the author of this story, be aware of the concepts espoused by Number 5 during this childhood lesson? One possibility is that (jumping ahead to the end of this novella), in the same way Eastwind either assumes the identity of Sandwalker or that Sandwalker and Eastwind are reunited in a single body after the Shadow Child bites him, in a similar fashion John V. Marsch, as an Abo assumes some aspect of the identity of Number 5 - which could be the significance of the (Roman numeral) middle initial. I don't know if that idea will be supported by the final novella, though. Or is the Wise Old One tapping into the human clone Number 5's theories as part of the human consciousness stream? If the first wave of colonists came from prehistoric Earth, as Number 5 and Marsch reports the Wise Old One as saying, and possibly carrying the ancestors of the Shadow Children, was there a later (Christian, monotheistic) one that imparted the monotheism (a religious concept that is rare in early civilizations on Earth) and the Christian names of John and Mary, and the "Go with God" salutation common to Germanic and Spanish Earth cultures - "Geh mit Gott" and "Adios") to the Abos before the events of "A Story" and the colonists who arrive at the end of the second novella? Does the German salutation of "Go with God" and the sort of rudimentary Calvinistic predestination that Sandwalker seems to profess indicate a German colonization wave?
Like Glenn, I thought that the descriptions of the Shadow Children could just be the description of baseline Humans, as viewed from an outsider's perspective, which would probably tell us more about the Abos (or at least Sandwalker's Hill People - there obviously could be more than one race or species of indigenous, or near-indigenous people). If I describe an average-sized man as very tall, that will imply to others that I am short. The frequent descriptions of the Shadow Children as having short legs strongly indicates that the Abos are a very long-legged people - and this seems a strong clue why the women of the Maitre's bordello are so frequently described as long-legged. I would guess that the mimicry skills of the Abos are not absolute - they are basically bipeds and have two arms and two limbs, and can alter their facial features and perhaps skin color to resemble settlers but could not physically assume the shape of, say, a ghoul-bear. So in their "natural" state, they have similar body structures but are extremely long-legged and taller than us, a fact which is hard to conceal. The Shadow Children's description as having heads and necks with the mobility of owls and their "too-supple necks" might simply be normal human neck range of motion, implying that Abos have thicker, less mobile necks. Their "claws" and "talons" would simply be the long nails that humans grow if they are untended. The Shadow Children's faces, "dark and weak, huge eyes above sagging flesh, the cheeks sunken, the nose and mouth, from which a thick fluid ran, no larger than an infants" would imply that the Abos are lighter-complexioned, strong-featured, high cheekboned, with large mouths and big noses. The thick fluid running from their mouths might be simply snot or saliva.
Later, Sandwalker describes the Shadow Children as too small, unhealthy-looking, ears too round and not enough hair - implying, perhaps, that the Abos have pointed ears. But later, the Old Wise One says the Shadow Children looked like the Abos look at the time of "A Story" - did the Abos initially mimic the Shadow Children, then the Shadow Children devolve over time? That seems to be what is meant; the use of the narcotic fiber that is chewed, like Dune's melange, seems to have reduced them in stature and health, as well as in corporeality. The essential weirdness of the Shadow Children, though, with their group mind and not-quite-solid presences and possibly venomous saliva doesn't seem to comport with an earthly Adamic origin, though. They might also be, literally, the Fair Folk who pop up regularly in Wolfe's work, from "Cabin on the Coast" to "Peace", who mounted their own space expedition in ancient times? Yet another possibility is that the Shadow Children of the story never existed, and that John V. Marsch is another Wolfeian unreliable narrator. (They do, however, seem to make an appearance again in Citadel of the Autarch.) In looking at any text forensically, we have to ask who the author is, who the intended audience is, and what the message is. I'm still trying to figure that out. Did John V. Marsch's name represent the "John" Christian first name of Sandwalker, and "Marsch" the Marsh-people of Eastwind's adopted tribe, and is John Marsch the twins, reunited in a single body, still alive? I have to read the final novella this week to see if any of this is supported.
Re "Eastwind", I note that "Westwind" was Gene Wolfe's CB radio handle, and of course the title of one of his best-known short stories, but I don't know if that has any relevance.
Going all the way back to the beginning of "Fifth Head", when David and Number 5 are getting a lesson in the library from Mr. Million, what is the source of David's (and 5's) knowledge of Abo history and culture. David seems especially well-informed about some aspects of Abo culture that show up in the second novella - has he read this story at some point, or as the naturally-born son of a prostitute (possibly the woman in pink) who is Abo or part Abo, has he obtained this information from some kind of racial memory? I'm thinking particularly of his statement that "they killed their sacrificial animals with flails of seashells that cut like razors," and how Sandwalker and Eastwind together flog Lastvoice to death, using the limbs of a tree with "little shells that slice the white flesh" of Lastvoice's back. Was there an even earlier, less-human form of the Abos before adopting the partially human template seen in "A Story"? I remember one passage saying the Abos lived in holes and were "longer" (but can't find it).
Again, jumping ahead in the story past your close read (sorry), to the concept that the Shadow Children take different names based on how many are in the group - I'm trying to think about what significance the names chosen for each-sized group have, although of course, if there is only one in the group, that Shadow Child becomes (the lone) Wolf. I have a sneaking suspicion that the seed of that concept (name-by-number) may have somehow come from Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo, of which Wolfe is a fan (as am I) - in his collection of "Letters Home" from the Korean War, he thanks his mom for sending him some Pogo strips, and asks her to send him some of the Pogo books. In Pogo, three little bats (themselves creatures of the shadows) are recurring characters. They don't possess individual names, but decide who they are going to be each morning by who wears which pair of pants - they have their three names stitched on the backside of each pair. Collectively, their names are Bemitched, Bothered, and Bemildred (sic, a take-off of the Rogers and Hart song) but like the Shadow Children, their identities of course are fluid.
Contemplating all this has made my head hurt, but in a good way. (Thank you, Mr. Wolfe.) I'll post more later as I think on all this...
Again, a great series of podcasts!