On the Absence of Light
By Hugh Fulham-McQuillan.
1. When the world first began to turn from the sun, pulling that new light until it broke against a fallen leaf, or the cap of a mountain, which, from the perspective of the sun must have looked like a pebble, it created infintesimally small absences of light. The world turned and the absences grew, spearing and then cloaking desserts, forests, fresh oceans, and the world pulled the darkness around it.
2. Amerighi da Caravaggio painted his studio black. Pinholes in the ceiling let the light peer through. He is there, face emerging from the shadows, holding a lantern obscured by the helmet of the soldiers arresting Christ. He watches us through the tired eyes inside Goliath’s severed head; he emerges from the vast darkness to witness the murder of St. Matthew. Bellori, his first biographer, believed “Caravaggio’s stylistic habits corresponded to his physiognomy and appearance. He had a dark complexion and dark eyes, black hair and eyebrows, and this naturally, was reflected in his paintings.”
3. Remember we could not speak the language, and the bus stopped, and the driver motioned for us to get off on that rutted road that smelled of roasted manure. After a while, a town shimmered up from the horizon, slowly creating itself in readiness of us travellers. We measured the earth’s imperceptible turning by the length of our shadows drawn before us as we walked. And now those same shadows reach across the clutter of my desk. I turn on the lamp and my own vague image jumps, darkly, against the wall behind me.
4. When Robert Marlowe and William Shakespeare wrote their way to immortality, the title for those people who would act out their words was shadow. You were a shadow on the stage and a man on the ground. When Macbeth was first told of his destiny, in a 1933 production of Macbeth, directed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, his ghost was portrayed by a shadow. Henry Irving used man, shadow, and light to portray the ghost in different attempts to produce that perfect play: a silhouette in 1877, a trick chair in which the shadow playing Macbeth was seated in 1887, and a shaft of light in 1895. It is fitting that Irving dithered between his representations of the ghost, not knowing whether it was man, or shadow, or light, when these shadows are identified as Plato’s flickering images projected on to the cave wall.
5. On the tennis court we were each multiplied by four. You fell, and the crack echoed through the Winter night. Your selves coalesced as you lay on the ground. The doctor showed us the shadow of your delicately named bones, your tibia, your fibula; she showed us the cracks that looked like hairs had stuck to the image. I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t wanted to brush them away.
6. There are three constituents of a shadow: umbra, penumbra, antumbra. I hold my hand between the lamp and the desk’s surface. The darkest place, where my hand blocks the direct rays of electric light, is the umbra – latin for shadow. The penumbra (almost, nearly, shadow) is the partial occlusion of light, where the darkness is less severe, seen in this case, emanating briefly from the edges of the umbra, from my dark finger tips. The antumbra is something that cannot be described.
7. When Odysseus moored at Oceanus, he dug a hole for an animal sacrifice to summon Tireseaus of Thebes. In Hesiod, Erebus is the god of darkness, born of Chaos, father to Charon, the ferryman. Homer gives this name, Erebus, to the underworld. Shades soared up from the recently dug pit. (Odysseus drew his sword to guard the animal’s spilt blood from their thirsty dead mouths). The first to arrive was Elpenor, his old companion. They sat in gloomy conversation: “I, on one side, holding out my sword above the blood, and on the other side, the shade of my companion speaking out.” The shades, the umbras, the places most absent of light. It was only recently that we relegated shadows to a phenomenon known only by the occlusion of something more substantial. Where light cannot reach, there will be shadows: cheap toys for poor children, barely remembered tools for astronomers.
8. To say someone is afraid of their own shadow is to say they are a coward. The shadow waits at the end of the road; why not be afraid of that ultimate destiny. E.A Poe has a character describe the voice of a recently deceased friend whose speech rings out to haunt his own wake: “The tones in the voice of the shadow were not the tones of any one being, but of a multitude of beings, and, varying in their cadences from syllable to syllable fell duskly upon our ears in the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends.”Are You Afraid of the Dark? Do you remember it? The teenagers, our forever elders, sitting around the campfire telling horror stories. It must have taken all your strength to hide your fear: I never saw you raise your hand to hide behind, never heard you yelp at the reveals, even during the episode when a girl’s face was stolen, and beneath we saw an absence of features, smooth skin, a tiny puckered mouth.
9. The Mayans were wrong, Nostradamus has not yet been proven right, but men of science extrapolate – this is different to prophesying; so different the two barely share the same letters – that the sun’s brightness will increase steadily each year. In about 7.7 billions years, it will expand through the remains of our ozone layer, past our closest defences, and take us in its fiery arms until we become a burning light, and future historians will say the earth died by celestial cremation. Caravaggio created his life as if it was another painting, but it was more a myth than a life and he was not a god. On the run from Rome, he disappeared. “Thus was Caravaggio reduced to leaving his life and bones on a deserted beach” (Bellori). The shadow of death is on every face. There are numerous theories as to Marlowe’s death, many involving arguments over money. Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh feature in some of the more interesting accounts. In any event, he died in 1593. Shakespeare died many deaths, as is fitting. Theodore Komisarjevsky died in San Remo in 1905, the same year in which Henry Irving died, hours after performing as Beckett. Macbeth, having been fooled by the Witch’s prophesies, delivered in turn by armoured head, bloody child, and a crowned child carrying a tree, died at the hands of Macduff. Unfortunately, Plato had no Plato to record his death. He died in his bed in 347 BC, accompanied only by a Thracian girl, who serenaded him with a double reed flute. “The girl could not find the beat of the nomos. With a movement of his finger, Plato indicated to her the measure” (Vogelin [whose last word, incidentally, before he himself died, was Plato]). Plato died in tune. Like Macbeth, Odysessus also sought knowledge of his destiny from the shadow world. After speaking with the shade of his former companion, the shade of his mother arrived, then came Tiresias, one time advisor to Cadmus, robbed by Athena of the sights of the present and gifted with the sight of the future. He prophesyed the death of Odysseus would come from the sea. Telegonus, born of a brief affair between Circe and Odysessus, had been sent by his mother to find his father but was forced, by dangerous weather, to land on Ithaca. Not knowing this to be the home of Odysessus, he set about stealing cattle. Odysessus challenged his unknown son. In the ensuing fight, Telegonus, not recognising Odysessus, killed his father with a spear tipped with a stingray’s poison. Poe was found lying unconscious on a plank outside a pub in the Autumn of 1849. He died in hospital after four days of suffering delusions and comas. The last words of Giacomo Leopardi were a request for the window to be opened so that he might see the sun. He died in the arms of a friend in Naples, in the summer of 1837. If this piece of writing is to last, and I will be expending a sufficient amount of effort to insure it does, then I cannot say I am the only one of this illustrious circle – into which I shoulder aside a place for myself like some Dunning-Kruger test case – who is not dead. I may be dead when the, always, dear reader gets around to reading this, say when they find it taped inside multiple waterproof envelobes hidden beneath what used to be my floorboards, or stumble upon this ancient blog of mine on what will be the old internet. Or I may be still living when the reader buys my house at an inflated price and decide to install tiles and uproot the pine. Thus, for the purposes of the dear reader, I am both dead and alive, darkness and light, in other words, a shadow, like you. And yet, I know there is more to me, that my shadow is still bound to the souls of my feet, striding behind me in the mornings, rising up to meet me in the evenings. I still enjoy the heat of the sun, the lustre of the moon, the brightness of the long lasting light-bulb. I wonder if they will have affordable Oakely sunglasses in the future, with built in x-ray vision. I wonder if you, the you who knows who you are, the you who is not the dear reader, but you, I wonder if you will come back to my life, or will I ever meet you again. Somewhere. Later. (If I were dead I would know this, but I am only hypothetically dead, and that is apparently not enough). Do you remember when this rhyme was just a game, and not a tired reference to the plague, not a tired reference to life. I think it is best understood when sang by children, or chanted by passionate, underground cults. Ring-a-ring o’ roses, a pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
11. In the dim light of his father’s library, Leopardi wrote of every kind of light, of every shadow, every darkness; I can rely on him, not my possibly dead, probably not, self, to provide these last lines, to communicate that which I cannot: “Most pleasing and full of feeling is the light seen in cities, where it is slashed by shadows, where darkness contrasts in many places with light, where in many parts the light little by little grows less…”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hugh Fulham-McQuillan is studying for a doctorate in psychology in Trinity College Dublin, having completed his Undergraduate and Master’s degree in same. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in The Stinging Fly, Burning Bush 2, Long Story Short, Thresholds Short Story forum, and Word Riot. He recently placed third in the Abroad Writer’s Conference flash fiction competition and is currently working on a short story collection.
[Image: Ad Reinhardt]