I pulled the car through the winding hillside streets in the evening stillness and I thought it both strange and affecting how in that town one could scarcely peer through the thick shrouding gray to the setting sun beyond. Crooked rows of small one-story frame houses in light pastel colors, the yards manicured into taut pristine statements and the black bay water forever looming immense and threatening in the background. Anonymous joggers of dusk puffing the saline air beneath the watchful eye of antique streetlamps not yet ignited to life there in the grayest of twilight.
I parked in front of a modest green house enclosed by a painted wrought-iron gate with RENNAY engraved into its steel nameplate. The sky sunk from gray to charcoal and I walked through the creaking gate to the house and rapped quietly on the front door and waited for the old woman to answer. It took her several minutes but she finally opened the door and the front room smelled of wilted lilac and dust and candle wax. She didn’t speak but led me to the right through a long hallway and I entered a dark room near the far end of the house where there was no indication of the neighborhood outside nor the secular bay at dusk nor the concept of space or even time as contingent upon men to decipher such things. It was dark in the room and there were jagged shadows dancing on the walls behind the molten arrhythmia of candle flames licking the air.
“Finally you show up in this town and I can’t offer you a drink,” the old man said. He sat staring at me from a rocking chair in the corner of the room, heavy patched blankets covering his body. “I drank the last of the scotch,” he said, holding up an empty tumbler, rolling it slowly around in his thin fingers. “Eighty-four years old.”
I stood and looked from the old man to the candles spread in divine geometric petition throughout the room.
“Come over here and sit,” he said. “What I have isn’t contagious.”
“I’m fine,” I said calmly. “Listen. Some men are on their way here. They’ll be here just before dawn. They have guns. They’ll threaten you and they might even kill you. They’re coming here looking for a box of papers. I believe you know which one.”
The old man looked away from me to a candle at his left, the flame rolling and thrashing in shades of orange and red, his face illumined by the throbbing vigorous glow that had not truly come from within in many years.
“These men,” I said. “I’m the one who sent them.”
I turned my face to the flickering lights and the mad swaying shadows born from them and I told the man to give me the box of papers so that it would not fall into the hands of the men who were coming for it.
The old man was silent for a long time. He looked from the candles to me and then back to the candles, forty or fifty wavering truths whipping loose and radiant about him, little eyes of fire sustaining his brooding contemplations and force-feeding his old heart.
“I spend a lot of time in here staring at these candles,” he said. “Just thinking. Little flames swirling in the air. It comforts me. Colors and privation of colors. All the answers I’ll ever need. One of the things I often think of while sitting here is the queer relationship between time and light.”
He looked up at me again, his dark eyes afire with strands of pooled light, pale and intractable and omniscient.
“We were taught as children that the human brain receives visual information as the cornea intercepts it from the light spectrum. As if the light wasn’t there before. As if it needed the human brain’s sanction to exist at all. We were also taught that the mind assimilates this visual data into assorted modes of scientific and psychological assertion. Cause and effect. Theory. Association. Illusion. The mind thrusts upon itself certain varieties of light as time’s witness, as specific and inalienable proofs of time. Our vision, more than any of our other senses, acts as a placeholder for all the things we experience in this world. It is the supreme catalog of the human condition. Of course, light is synonymous with many things in the human lexicon, but the most pervasive of associations is light with the pairing of our concept of time. For those of us who are not blind, and I imagine even for some of us who are, the visible world is permanently wed to history. We cannot think of the past without trying to see it, trying to visualize it. We can’t possibly comprehend a future without looking for it, trying to see what our world will look like. But light is not time, my friend. Nor does it exist in time. Light creates its own time, it carries its own dimensions, all of which far exceed and outperform our frail human understanding. Time is a human machination, a device of logic and pragmatic substance. But light is meta-human. It operates as an instrument of the gods, as a divine right of privilege, the sole witness of soul transit and multi-dimensional communion in this, an omnisensory universe of mere human speculation.”
He sat silent for a while and then he pointed with a long bony finger to the closet at my right where the box of papers sat small and dusty on the carpet. I looked at the man and picked up the box and began to walk out the door.
“The light of this world does not create shadows,” the old man said to my back.
I sat on the pier and watched the gulls float high above the lapping bay tongue, darkened ghosts circling slow and listless in the gray dawn. I checked my watch and turned around just in time to see the clock tower behind me strike the top of the hour and I heard the brawny bell echo throughout the bay town and when I turned back to face the water the gulls were gone. Something was moving about in my pocket and so I pulled out the vibrating cellular phone to answer it.
“What is it?”
“Looks like records. There’s a dimple in the carpet where a box, maybe a pile of boxes used to be.”
I sat silent, listening to the cold water slap the wood pier at my feet, looking into the murk for some vestige of life in that bleak and dark cold mystery. I watched the foam froth against the wood and fizzle away and then repeat itself again and again as it has for a hundred years, and for another hundred years before that.
“Maybe it means something,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t.”
“Let them go.”
I put the little phone in my pocket and saw a steamship crawl across the water way out on the horizon. It was big and black and rumbling in ill spirit of augury and I stood up and listened to my bones creak and I felt the muscles begin their little dance of mutiny and then I turned and walked back to town, the opening of shops and emergence of sleepy-eyed buskers and myriad invisible homeless advancing from the margins of town with their ragged blankets and empty bottles and I walked beneath that old clock tower that had endured windstorm and pestilence and centuries of starless night with nothing to display but its consistent pulsing record of history and its rote totalitarian demands.