This is a random short story, about 3 pages long, that I originally wrote in March 2013. As I was daydreaming one morning while washing up, the first line occurred to me, and I started to create a story in my mind starting from that first line. This peculiar symbolic tale is how it ended up.
Fire or Light
This story starts in complete darkness. You can see nothing, nothing at all but blackness, devoid even of swimming, shadowy memories of past light. For all you know, you could be in a room so small that the walls are almost touching your head and the hands at your sides, or in a room so large that you could not find the walls for a long time.
Then, with a swashing sizzle, I light a torch. You can see the brilliant, living fire. It blinds you for a moment, doesn’t it? But then, slowly, objects fade, still shadowy, but their outlines visible, into view. My face must look grotesque in the unpredictably flickering light of the torch, adding lumps to my nose and blackness under my eyes.
“Can you see where you are now?” I say. I move the torch close to the walls, and now you must be able to see the grains of the earthen walls, enlarged and blackened with shadows.
“You cannot see them right in the glare of this torch,” I say. “Touch the wall and feel it as it really is.” I imagine that you can feel how hard-packed the soil is, and when you dig your fingers into it, pull some out, and loosen the dirt in your hands, you must feel the smooth lumpiness of it. You press the soil back into the wall. I gather from your exclamation and the way you rapidly jerk your hand away, brushing it off and shaking your fingers, that you felt something wet and slimy, something unknown and strange, there.
“It is an earthworm,” I say. “I know you are not afraid of earthworms.”
I walk around most of the room with the torch, and you can see that it is small, but not claustrophobically so. But where is the exit? Where is the door? Where is the ladder to the trap door? Or is there no trap door but merely a trap?
“Do you wish to see what is above?” I say.
I can feel, I can hear quivering in your voice, your hesitation. The small, underground dirt room, the earthworm lurking in the wall, the light from the deceptive torch – they may not be pleasant, perhaps, but they are known. But above? What could be above? You don’t know anything, and even if I told you something, what evidence would you have to prove that I am trustworthy?
I say: “Do you wish to stay in this little room, your eyes being tricked by the torch, unable to tell what you are touching, overwhelmed by the smell of smoke and fire and kept from being able to breathe the scent of the soil, your hearing of the outside marred by these infinitely thick walls and your hearing of the inside marked by the sputters of an impulsive torch, your mouth dry with dirt and smoke? I agree that it is much better than some things that could be outside; stay if you will. But I know that what is outside is much better, if it is ever so much larger and ever so much more complicated. I will tell you this: there is more light.”
Does the thought of light tempt you? Perhaps it does, because you say that you do want to venture outside. I walk to one wall of the room, and there, brandishing my torch, you can see the very bottom of a flight of stairs. You cannot see farther than where the torch throws more shadows than light. For all you know, the door could be directly after the flickering boundaries of the ring of light ends; or the flight of stairs could go on forever and ever up. The stairs are uneven, as well. Some are thicker or thinner than others; some tilt to the right or the left, or upwards or downwards. Again, I can hear the hesitation in your voice.
“I am here to go up these stairs,” I say. “No – that is not true. I am here to go up these stairs with you. If you will not go, I will stay and wait a little longer. I can wait; I have already been waiting a long time.”
It has been a long time indeed. I do not know if you can tell how long you were in the darkness; how long you existed merely with the torch; how long you waited, curiosity satisfied for the moment, after having felt the walls; and how long you were quite happy to stand and remain in the familiar darkness before inquiring about the way out. But I can wait. If I were impatient, I would not be who I am.
You finally agree to go up the stairs, and I begin, carefully feeling and stepping my way up the stairs – they are hard, but ultimately they are of shifting soil, and I go cautiously. You are behind me, occasionally pressing a hand to the wall for support. The torch reveals stairs, and more stairs, but in its playing, flickering way. It shoots one way, and then the other; it flashes bright light on my face, and then leaves it in gloom. I keep it low, so we can see our way, but at the expense of seeing our ending.
Even though I am ahead of you, I can imagine your discomfort. Are you worried that with all these stairs, one is sure to be unsteady and make us fall all the way back down? Are you worried that the stairs will go on forever? Or are you worried about what you will find at the top? Are you thinking that perhaps it would be a good idea to go back? A safe idea, I assure you, but not necessarily a good one. If you ever hope to escape from that room in the earth, you will have to go up these stairs sometime.
Do your fears disappear now as I raise the torch to reveal a door of wooden planks? Or are you looking back and seeing the great length and steepness of what we have left behind? I will wait until you have turned your face back to the light – the rough, red, unrefined, capricious light – of the torch to open the door. Yes, you looking again now, and so I reach forward and lift the catch that holds the door. This door must have been set in wrong, for when I lift the catch, it begins to slowly drift towards us with a wailing creak. You step backwards quickly, then wildly grasp at the wall for support – you must be remembering again that long flight of stairs.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “I left room for the door to open. Here, it’s open now. Do you see the light out there? Come on.”
Can you tell how different this new room is? Can you feel the cool stone under your feet? Can you hear the airy emptiness? Can you smell fresh-cut wood and maybe a distant sweetness of flowers? Most of all, can you see the cracks of white light shining here and there, sending glowing beams onto the floor? Does the torch seem dim and crankish now, as it spits here and there for seemingly no reason?
You ask where you are. I respond, “Look around; you’ll see where you are in a moment.” This place is so bright after the last one – I am sure you can see at least the outlines of most of the objects within it. I am sure you can see the arches curving like eyebrows over the tall room, the deep, octagonal wooden basin at one end, the rows of polished benches, the dais at the other end, raising itself up in even stairs, culminating in a great rectangular table covered by a cloth, shadowy guardian candles on either side. And between those candles is a tall, thin sculpture, curved and carved, but unrecognizable in the remaining darkness.
Do you know where you are now? Of course you do. You have been going to this church since you were a baby; you were baptized in this church; you went to this church every Sunday of your life – that is, until last week. This is why you can tell that something is amiss. You ask where the great stained-glass windows are, and what that sculpture on the altar is.
“The stained-glass windows are boarded up,” I say. “That is why there are only cracks of light coming in. They were boarded up because your priest, Father Louis, was afraid they would be broken by the revolutionaries. As for the statue – well, I shall show you the statue.”
I go to one of the hidden windows, a low chunk of stubborn light shining me in the face as I pass. I raise my torch. Is it a surprise to see that torch again? Is it strange to see its red, shifting light next to the calm, white-yellow, steady beam coming from outside? Well, I shall do something now that you may consider even more strange. I lift the torch to the boards covering the window, and touch the fire to them. They flare into flame, spitting and hissing. Perhaps it passes through your head that the flames sound like the revolutionaries themselves, the way they spat and hissed at the glass windows of the church.
I go to the next window, and light the boards covering that one on fire. And the next, and the next, until all the windows are covered with flame. The fires grow and lengthen, sending a swimming red glow over the whole room. You must be able to see better now, but the question is, are you seeing what really is? Do the cool floors really have that bloody glow to them? Does the baptismal really have such a protruding lip on the edge? Is the cloth on the altar really white or not?
“Look at me,” I say – I must say it loudly, over the roaring of the flames.
You look at me. I imagine what you must see: a strange, shadowy face in a sharp, angular form, hung with the same red glow that drowns the whole room, perhaps even appearing warlike and violent, holding high the torch that is a microcosm of the inferno flaming about the walls – spectacularly unpleasant.
Then I go to the baptismal and immerse the torch in it. It dies with a hiss, and I bring it up again, soaked, dripping. There is a small basin next to the baptismal that I pick up and fill. As I go to the first window, I pass by you. “Feel the water,” I say. You immerse your hands, and you must feel and see how it is cool and clear to the bottom of the basin. You take your hands out, and they drip on the floor.
Now I go to the window. I heave the baptismal water at the roaring flames, and they spit. I splash water all over the window, and you see that all the boards have been burned away, leaving the glowing panes of glass in the brilliant colors of the rainbow. How serene and strange it must look next to a window aflame with now even angrier fire! Again I fill the basin from the baptismal, and immerse the next window in water. It is left fresh, dripping, the uninhibited sun glowing through with steady glory. And on and on I go, dipping the basin full of baptismal water, and splashing it on the fiery windows until all their flames are gone and leave only clear glass.
The room grows brighter and brighter. There are colored shapes on the white floor, but I am sure you can see now that the floor is white, you must be able to see the bright purity of it surrounding the shapes. The baptismal, undisturbed by the water I take from it, is now clearly a perfectly proportional octagon, a delicately curved lip on the edge. The cloth on the altar is white as snow. And that sculpture on it – you can see it better now. It is a wooden sculpture of a woman holding a torch, as angry and violent, angular and sharp as I appeared in the glow of the flames. In fact, the jut of her nose and the thrust of her arm are eerily similar to how you remember me. At the very bottom of the sculpture, on its base, is carved in large letters: “REASON.”
I step next to the sculpture that shows me as I was in the light of the flames, and the bright sunlight from the stained-glass windows falls on my face. “Look at me,” I say again.
I am not sure what you see this time – different people see me differently. But however I appear, I am very beautiful. My face is perfectly even, my eyes are clear and sharp, all of me is flowing even as it is symmetrical. Yet even now, you can tell in the tilt of my nose and the lines of my arms that I am the same person you see in the sculpture and saw in the fire.
“You see me now as I really am,” I said. “You did see me before, when we were underground, and when you looked at me in the light of the fire. But here I am as I really am, in the light of the windows.”
Do you realize now that this was all a dream?
Are you waking up now as the picture of me standing tall in the light next to the sculpture of me in the fire fades away?
Will you shiver at the strangeness of a cryptic dream and lock the memory of it away to be forgotten someday to make room for something more straightforward?
Or perhaps will you smile at the memory of something ridiculous concocted from random elements of an overactive imagination, messily juxtaposed in sleep?
Or perhaps will you even laugh at the impossibilities that your sleeping self had taken as somber fact, reasoning that such windows would be boarded from the outside and after all, one could not burn the boards off like that?
But when you go to breakfast and learn that the windows of your church had indeed been boarded up for fear of the revolutionaries, will this uneasy memory stir? I think it will. Yet the question remains: what shall you do about it?
Shall you see me in the eager fire of the human revolutionaries?
Or shall you see me in the light of the stained-glass windows baptized out of fire, something beyond your own humanity?