Penumbra

We found a shadow hiding in the corner of our back yard.  It had come there weak and injured.  My daughter and I first noticed it because it didn’t belong to any of the other objects there in the yard, and we could see that it was out of place.  The shape of it flinched as we approached, and we could tell that it was scared.  I tried to coax it out.  I spoke gently and beckoned it with my palm turned up and my fingers trying to draw it forward.  But it just rattled about in the tall weeds and it refused to come out.

Late in the evening, we brought it out some food.  Being a shadow, we had to bring it the shadows of food, and this was no easy thing to arrange.  I laid the meal out on the dining room table in the dark.  Then I placed a flashbulb at one end of the table.  I popped the flash, and the tableaux of the bottle of wine and the block of the cheese and the plate of fish were all briefly illuminated, the memory of the sight lingering far longer than the sight itself.  The shadows of the wine, the fish, and the cheese had all been cast onto a tray that had been placed behind them, and I lifted the tray up in the dark and carried it carefully from the room.

We had to wait till evening to feed the shadow, because the other shadows were longer and deeper then, and it could blend in with them and creep out a little from its hiding place.  It was a starlit night, and I crossed the yard shading the tray with my hand, trying not to let any of the starlight disturb the shadows of the food on the tray.  My daughter tagged along beside me.  She wanted to see the shadow come out to feed.  I think she wanted to pet it or tickle it behind the ears.  But I told her that she had to stay back.  The shadow was wild and scared.  We didn’t know where it had come from or what it would do.

As we approached the corner of the yard, I realized that I had no idea if the shadow was still there.  The shadow made no noises of it own, and there would be no sounds if it bumped against the other shadows and the other things in the dark.  I had a flashlight with me, but that would do nothing but chase the shadow away, and I didn’t want to hurt it or scare it.  So, I just placed the tray on the ground and backed away.  I whispered to my daughter and told her that we would come back in the morning and see if the shadows were gone. 

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The Silent Years

I came into Galilee on foot, feeling my way through the rocks and crevices with my staff.  On the outskirts of a town, I came to a small shack sitting alone in a clearing, the ground parched and cracked all around it.  There was a young man up on the top of this house, working on the peak of the roof, hammering long nails into the boards there.  I stopped before the door and looked up at him and waited.  He looked down from his work and saw me standing there.  He wiped the sweat from his brow and shaded his eyes with his arm.  I called up to him, asking for lodging, and he nodded, and the arrangements were made as simply as that.

In the evening, when the young man was done with his work on the roof, he made a fire in the yard in front of the house and he cooked some stew over the fire.  We sat in the yard eating the stew as the sun went down behind the house and a breeze blew in, cooling the sweat of the day.  Two men approached out of the gathering darkness.  They were friends of the young man.  They introduced themselves to me as Peter and John.  The one named Peter asked the young man if he was ready to go to Jerusalem, but the young man shook his head as he scraped the last of his stew from the bottom of his bowl.  He told Peter that he had to stay to finish the house.  He told both of the men to go on to Jerusalem without him.  He told them that he would meet them there when he was done.

The two men walked off, grumbling to themselves.  Peter glanced back a few times with a scowl on his face.  But eventually they receded back into the darkness and we were alone again before the fire.  The young man said nothing for a long time.  He just stared thoughtfully into the flames.  When the sun was almost completely set, I began to notice some lights far across the plains.  I tapped the young man on the shoulder and I nodded in the direction of the lights and asked, “Jerusalem?” He looked that way and nodded slowly.  I could see that it was something that he didn’t want to talk about.  I could see the lights reflected in his eyes and I knew that it was some dream that he had.  He sat gazing at it out there, just beyond his reach.

But he stayed there, working on the house, making a little more progress with each passing day.  Other men came, other friends, one named Andrew, others named James and Bartholomew.  They came in the mornings and the evenings and at midday.  They found the young man pounding the nails into the boards on the roof or mixing the pitch and the tar over a fire in the yard.  The conversation was always the same.  The men would tell him that they were headed on to Jerusalem.  They would ask him if he was coming with them.  He would tell them that he had to stay and finish the house and that he would meet them there when he was done.  And they would stomp away, grumbling and leaving dust in their wake.

Time went by, and eventually the friends stopped coming.  The last of them had moved on to Jerusalem years ago.  They had settled into their lives there, and they had probably long since forgotten about the young man, and they had probably taken jobs and gotten married and given up waiting for him.  The young man explained the situation to me many times, many evenings beside the fire, as though he had read my thoughts and he was answering some persistent question that I had never asked out loud.  The house had been left to him by his father.  It was the only thing of value that he had in the world.  He had to make sure that it was fixed up properly, and he had to find new owners to sell it to.  He couldn’t leave until this was taken care of.  I never said anything in response to this explanation, but I grew more frustrated every time I heard it.

As the young man grew older, his beard grew fuller and his brown hair grew longer.  One morning I woke up and I saw him washing his face in the clay basin across the room.  The water dripped from his beard as he lifted his head and wiped his face with a towel, and then, with that sudden fresh clarity that sometimes occurs upon waking, I realized for the first time exactly who he was.  I understood the whole thing.  These were the silent years, the ones the Gospels had never mentioned.  I knew the whole story.  I knew what was ahead.  And yet, at the same time, this future seemed so precious and unset.  There was no certainty that things would happen as they were supposed to.  My frustration got the better of me, and I started yelling at the young man, “How can you just stay here working on this house!?  You know who you are!  You know what’s going to happen, what needs to happen!  How can you waste all this time!?” But he said nothing.  He just followed his eyes to a support beam across the room, feeling its unsteadiness with his hand.  Another thing he’d have to fix.

I stopped talking to him for a long time after that.  I would stare sullenly at the fire in the evenings and I would snatch the bowl of stew from his hand when he offered it.  I knew I wasn’t being fair.  I knew I wasn’t being a thankful and respectful guest in his home.  I didn’t care.  I couldn’t stand to sit there while history was put on hold, maybe even jeopardized, just for the sake of some ramshackle house.  I felt like my skin was crawling with aggravation.  I thought of a thousand angry words to say, but I swallowed each one.  I shuddered at every pounding of the hammer.  I clenched my fist whenever I caught a whiff of tar in the air.

By the time the house was done, we were strangers.  We never even said goodbye to one another.  I just woke up in my bed one morning and the house was quiet, and I knew he was gone.  There was a headstone set in the ground beside the front door with a simple epitaph which read, “Gone to Jerusalem”, and there were a couple of bright desert flowers planted around the stone.  I understood that he had left the house with me and he trusted me to take care of it.  I stood over the stone for a long time.  I felt the flower petals with the tips of my fingers.  I walked around the house, inside and out, feeling the solid craftsmanship of the joints and the boards.  I sat on the edge of my bed, smoothing the blankets and situating the pillow.  I waited for the tears, but they never came.

That night I had a dream that rolled down through the ages.  I dreamt that I sat by the fire and watched as the lights of Jerusalem went out one by one.  Wars and nations came and went.  Travellers passed by, asking the way, their clothes and modes of transportation changing with every generation.  Soldiers passed, wearing different uniforms, belonging to different armies, pushing ever more sophisticated machines of war among their ranks.  And all the while the house stood, weathering every storm that swirled around it, rooted firm against every tide of time and fortune, until finally I woke up, and I knew that I was somewhere else now, adrift in human history.  I went to the door and looked out on this new world.  It still looked like the same desert, but I knew everything was different out there beyond what I could see.  Where would I go now?  What was I supposed to do?

A Season Ticket

I went down to the baseball stadium to see the game.  It was a fine day, and from my seat high in the upper deck I could see the city surrounding the park.  I could see the traffic moving through the streets.  I could see the tall buildings all around.  I thought about how my father would have loved this.  I thought about him living in an apartment in one of these buildings and coming down here every day in the summer heat to see the game.  He would have been in heaven.  And when I thought the words “in heaven”, I took a moment to consider them literally.  Maybe he really was somewhere just like this, someplace beyond this life, making his way through the city streets with his ticket and a mitt for catching foul balls.  And if that were so, if there was even a possibility that that were so, then in a way, this really was heaven already, this was a little parcel of heaven, a few city blocks colliding with eternity.  This was what heaven meant to someone and it was here in this life, on Earth.  I sat there high above the field and I smiled at the thought.

Home Movie

It seemed like a fragment of a childhood memory.  I was sitting in the front seat of a pickup truck beside my grandfather.  The truck was parked in the doorway of a collapsing old barn that my grandfather used as a garage.  Only the bed of the truck was tucked inside the barn.  The cab was out in the open in the muddy driveway that wound its way up to the barn, and the driveway was lined with rusty mufflers and discarded fenders and other debris on either side.  There were empty cans of oil and old food wrappers scattered about the seat of the truck.  My grandfather just stared out the windshield, saying nothing, as he drank black coffee from his heavy brown thermos.  He held the thermos in one hand and he held the lid in the other and he drank the coffee from the lid.  He took his time drinking the coffee, dipping his chin forward with each sip but keeping his eyes fixed and watchful on something out there beyond the windshield.  It was an overcast day, but through the grime on the windshield I could see that there was soft light breaking through a stand of bare trees across the field.

I wasn’t sure what the significance of this memory was, or why it had lingered with me.  But as I sat there watching my grandfather and watching him watch the light through the stand of trees as though he expected something to emerge from that spot, I heard a voice somewhere in the darkness of the barn behind me.  It sounded distant, like it was rattling around inside a rusty metal drum.  The voice was talking about how they could clean up old footage like this, make it something crisp and usable.  As the voice spoke, it seemed like the scene before me was drawing focus.  The colors and shapes softened and blurred for a moment, as though seen through a tear drop, and then the whole scene pulled into an incredible sharpness.  I could see every detail.  All of it became meaningful.  There was a movie of this.  The boy and the grandfather sitting in the truck.  The light beyond the trees.  There were long, unspoken shots that you lived with, dwelt in, contemplated for their own sake.

I opened the door and climbed down from the truck.  I wanted to have a look around, see everything with this new clarity.  I saw it all in a succession of long takes.  There was a long shot of a row of pines, the wind cascading through their branches.  I could see every needle.  I could feel winter coming in on the wind.  The shot lingered just as long as it needed to, saying everything it needed to say.  I turned and saw the farmhouse with the long clothesline strung from the corner of the house to a telephone pole out by the road.  There were sheets and blankets hung on the line and they rippled in the wind.  There was no one around, but the shot rolled on and on, as if to say that it would stay here, long after everything else was gone, after the wind had carried off the world, and there just this place, just this memory.

The Sound of Water

My wife and I were woken up at three in the morning by the sound of rushing water coming from the bathroom of our apartment.  We opened the door and found that the floor was flooded a few inches deep.  The water was flowing from a hole in the ceiling in the far corner of the room.  It appeared to be coming from the apartment above ours.  As we stood there in the doorway of the bathroom, several neighbors from the other apartments came in to see what was going on.  Apparently the sound of the flowing water had woken them up as well.  A few of them squeezed into the doorway beside us and surveyed the disaster with curiousity.  It was one of them that first noticed that there were streams of red in the water pouring from the ceiling and clouds of red spreading here and there in the water on the floor.  Someone else said that it looked like it might be blood.

That kind of caught everyone off guard.  We all looked at each other, not quite sure what to make of that statement.  Then one of the neighbors pushed through the crowd and we stood aside and let him through the doorway of the bathroom.  He crept in carefully.  His feet were bare and the water was cold.  He curled his toes and stepped lightly across the tile.  When he got over to the other side of the room, he braced himself against the wall and turned to look up at the hole in the ceiling where the water was coming through.  His eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open.  His head started shaking back and forth.  He looked down, biting his lip and thinking, and then he rushed out of the room, gesturing with his hands for us to part and clear a path for him.

We all followed him as he ran down the hall to the stairwell and pounded up the stairs to the floor above.  He slammed his shoulder against the door of the apartment directly above ours, cracking the wood until the lock gave way.  The door burst open and slammed violently against the wall as he stumbled into the dark apartment.  Inside, I could hear the running water, louder that it had been below.  We all made our way through the rooms, and we stopped cold at the doorway of the bathroom.

The faucets on the sink and the tub were all turned on full blast, and the sink and the tub were filled to overflowing.  The water ran over the sides of the porcelain and streamed across the floor to the far corner of the room where an old woman stood doubled over with her face pressed to the floor in a pool of blood diluted by the water flowing around her head.  One of her hands lay limp in the water, and there was a silver gun lying next to it.  The man who had rushed up there hooked the gun with his big toe and drew it away from the woman’s body.  Someone turned off the faucets and opened the drains on the tub and the sink, and we all stood there, trying to make some sense of what we were seeing.

It seemed that this woman had lived above us, harboring some grudge against my wife and I.  We had no idea who she was, but apparently she had taken some offense to us or something we had done to the point that it had consumed her entirely.  She had concocted this bizarre revenge.  She had made a hole in the floor and then turned on all of her faucets in order to flood our apartment from above.  Then she had placed her eye to the hole that she had made while putting the muzzle of the gun to her head.  She wanted to leave her body there to watch, beyond death, with the water and the blood flowing around her cold eye and a cackling rictus of rotting teeth hardening on her face once the rigor mortis had set in.

Morning Classes

I was taking a class that was held in the very early hours of the morning.  I arrived at the school when it was still dark out, and even then, I was hustling, walking fast, afraid of being late.  The school building was just a large brick house.  There were three storeys to the house, and as I approached, I saw that it was lit from top to bottom.  Inside, the rooms of the house had all been converted into normal classrooms.  The number of the classroom that I was looking for was printed on the red stub of a carnival ticket that I pulled from my pocket.  I went from room to room, floor to floor, trying to find the right room, trying to match the number of the ticket in my hand.  I rode up in a newly installed elevator with heavy silver doors and blue illuminated buttons.  I made my way back downstairs by a grand staircase which had a thick white banister capped with posts on each floor that were mounted with the busts of different Greek philosophers, Plato and Socrates and Aristotle.

But there seemed to be no system to how the classrooms were numbered.  They weren’t numbered consecutively, or in any other sort of discernible order.  They weren’t numbered by floor or subject.  I held up my carnival ticket and worked my way up and down the halls, thinking I had picked up the trail that would lead me to my class, thinking that I had deciphered a pattern in the numbers.  But then I would find myself confronted by a seemingly random number posted on the copper plaque beside the door of the next classroom I would come to, and it would completely blow the pattern that I had thought I had established.  I would hold up the ticket next to the copper plaque and stare at them both in a stupor, as though holding them side by side would somehow bring one number into miraculous alignment with the other.

Finally, I thought I had found the right room.  I started to settle in at one of the desks in the back.  I dumped my books on the desktop, and I started to hang my coat on the back of the chair.  The class hadn’t begun yet, and there was hardly anyone there.  The teacher was at his desk up at the head of the classroom, and a couple of his students were there talking to him.  I had slipped in unnoticed, but when I set my books down, the noise had caught their attention.  I looked up from arranging my coat on the back of the chair and saw that they were all staring at me.  The teacher held his white coffee cup poised under his scowling face.  They said nothing, but they stared at me so insistently that I became certain that I had mistaken the room number.  Everything about their demeanor conveyed the idea that I was in the wrong place.  I looked at my red ticket again.  I went back out to the hall and looked at the room number again.  I blushed and laughed and gathered up my books and coat and slipped back out of the classroom.

I started to think that I would never find the right room; I would never make it to class on time.  The class was probably already in session, somewhere, in one of these rooms, the lecture already proceeding in muffled tones behind the closed door, vital information for the course already dispensed, all of it already lost to me, frustrated me, roaming the empty halls with my useless red ticket.  The books weighed heavy on my arms.  My coat was hot and uncomfortable slung over my shoulder.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself.  I turned this way and that, stepping in one direction and then another with a purpose, only to find that purpose dissolving in uncertainty.  I had no idea where to go.

Down at the end of one of the halls there was a set of French doors with long lace curtains hung over their windows.  I went out through these doors and I found myself on the front porch of the old house.  There was a young lady there, wearing a white nightgown and swinging ever so softly on the porch swing.  She was turned away, gazing off at the morning glow on the horizon.  She turned back briefly to look at me, scanning me from head to toe with a quick nod of her head, and then she turned to look back out at the sky.  I thought of the red ticket still in my hand, still clutched in my fist.  Maybe she would know where my classroom was at.  She seemed like she was a fixture here, perhaps a daughter of someone on the faculty or on the board of administration, passing her time out here on the porch swing while all the daily business of the school carried on inside.

I turned my hand up and opened my fist, but instead of the red carnival ticket, I found a frail baby bird sitting in the palm of my hand.  It looked like I might have injured it a bit from the pressure of my fist.  Its feathers were disheveled and matted, and it struggled to its feet on broken bones and flexed its crooked wings.  It looked up at me, hoping that I could help it, but all I could do was hold my hand out and let it take its time there on my palm and gather whatever strength that it had left.  Then, suddenly, it sprang from my palm and took flight.  It circled around the porch there, its wings flapping against the posts and the corners of the roof.  The young lady and I both followed the bird with our eyes, smiling, our heads twisting as the bird bounced here and there above us in the dark.

But finally the bird found its way.  It ducked down low and slipped out under the roof of the porch and flew free out into the morning air.  It settled on the branch of a nearby tree and took up the song that it was born knowing by heart, hesitantly cracking out the first notes.  I took a seat beside the young lady, settling down slowly and taking care not to interrupt the steady, gentle rocking of the porch swing, swinging just enough to compensate for my own added weight, letting the swing drift back and forth in the same rhythm as before.  And so we sat, swinging quietly, adding no words to the situation, listening to the bird on the branch, and watching for the sun to rise.

Foot Work

Some friends of mine were sitting around over coffee, talking about what they would do in a dystopian scenario where everything was controlled and censored and no one had any privacy.  They proposed all of the usual measures, underground manifestos, clandestine groups of rebels, and so forth.  I let them talk it all out, getting all the details in order, and then I explained to them why their plans wouldn’t work.  In these scenarios, the government always maintains a tight rein on information and ideas, and they actively discourage the meeting of two or more minds, keeping people as isolated as possible.  Their manifestos would be found and burned.  Their subversive groups would be infiltrated and broken up the moment they formed.

I had a different idea.  The only way to hide the truth in these circumstances would be to leave it in plain sight.  I would affect a limp, possibly as the result of a manufactured accident.  I would walk with my right foot turning outwards from time to time in a way the would seem involuntary, like a spasm or a response to chronic pain.  But I would build a code into this limp.  The left foot would pace the spaces off evenly and the right foot would shift at different angles to indicate different letters.  And wherever there was an occasion to leave lasting footprints on the ground, I would write my message step by step.  I would teach no one this code.  I would just leave it there on the muddy ground to be deciphered by someone in the future.  There would be no meetings, no manifestos, no counter-revolutionary cells.  There would just be one man, walking, leaving the truth behind me everywhere I went.

Smiling Back at Me

Tucked away in a box of odds and ends, I found a lost photograph of me as a baby.  It was just a picture of me in a blue jumper, half smiling with my head resting on a pillow.  My name and age were scrawled on the back in smudged pencil.  I showed the picture to my wife.  She could hardly believe that it was me, although there was something that she recognized about the eyes.  She was so taken with this photograph, she commissioned a full-sized portrait of it painted.  She hung the portrait over the fireplace.  For the rest of my life, I had to see it hanging there, smiling back at me, every time I walked into the room.  I got so tired of it.