Watching Shadows Move

Richard Risemberg

Short Fiction

The afternoon light coming through the window raked across the bedcovers, throwing shadows that the observer likened to those cast by desert hills just before sunset. The observer was familiar with that image from days past when journeys out of town, undertaken for no functional reason, were a regular feature of the observer’s life. There was something in the desert that the observer sought without formulating what it might be in mental language. It was there, certainly; but it could not be elucidated in words. It was, perhaps, a form of emotional gravity. The light bending over the broad empty sky, the thick shifting sands underfoot, seemed to compress the observer into a primordial mass of self that felt both heavy and free, full of possibilities: a universe waiting to be born within the observer’s own fragile and ordinary skull.

If so, it was stillborn: no epiphany had come, only an anticipatory pleasure in this possibility of expansion, of a birth of stars that never happened. The night sky in the desert glimmered with distant suns; the night within the observer’s skull was dark: its gravity was palpable, the observer felt currents moving, but there came no light. This was not tragic: the sensation itself was sufficient. Watching shadows move around the desert hills, move also within the little cups shaped into the sand by indifferent winds, or through the shrubs where small lives crouched in fear of larger ones: that was enough. It had sustained the observer throughout a turbulent youth, persisting in memory the way the light of dead stars persists in the night sky. Now, as the observer lay in the bed by the window, the streaming sunlight brought it back in miniature, and shadows moved across the rumples of the bedcovers, mimicking or perhaps replicating the shadows the observer once watched from a knoll in the lost desert west of America. It was the same sun, the same light.

Voices mumbled through the walls: a grown voice and the voices of children. The grown voice spoke alone, with many lacunae in the flow of speech: talking on the phone, speaking with calm, perhaps indifference, in any case the voice exhibited neither enthusiasm nor apprehension. The observer imagined that the unheard interlocutor was a second-tier family member, one who must be attended to but is rarely sought out, though is not disliked. The children’s voices were different: two voices, alternating between explanatory tones and commingled giggling. Since the observer’s household counted only one offspring, there was obviously a neighborhood friend attending. “The world is already overcrowded,” the observer had noted after the birth of this child, in rather peremptory tones. “We have spawned once, and that will suffice.” This proclamation had not been received gracefully, but had eventually been accepted as reasonable, and also as convenient: the singular child requiring a great deal of attention which the observer and the spouse preferred to devote to, or perhaps demand from, each other. Nevertheless, the child was well-attended to and, to all appearances, happy. The observer had been hoping to inquire, when the child was grown, as to the emotional conditions resulting from the parents’ decisions in the matter. The observer had made extensive if amateur observations of the lives of other families and the behavior of their children in order to help forge a method that would bring the offspring happiness, and instill capability, without becoming oppressive. It was far too early, with the child still in the giggling stage of development, to determine whether success was likely. The observer had taken the child out to the desert several times, but the offspring had complained of boredom. Perhaps the observer had been premature in expecting a child of such a young age at the time to seek epiphany in silent spaces.

These thoughts occupied the observer’s mind for half an hour after noting the voices. In that time the shadows had moved to the edge of the bed and melded, and were no longer significant. The observer noted that the shadows outside would soon be flowing over the household as the sun moved toward the horizon. The observer further noted, with satisfaction, that the household would be immersed in shadows similar to the ones viewed from the desert knoll, but that in this case the shadows would be, not a visual artifact viewed from afar, but the very habitat in which the observer could note the texture and other qualities of shadow in detail at first hand. Or perhaps first eye…. The light dimmed in the window, the bedcovers became mere rumpled cloth rather than simulacra of stately low hills and hidden canyons, the truth of their nature was now revealed, without the imposition of the observer’s sentiments imbuing them with a constructed meaning. This elision of the observer’s personality was pleasing rather than distressing to the observer, who felt that to observe truly meant to note the nature of the phenomena observed without the restless editorializing of the watchful but often bored mind. The bedcovers could be bedcovers again, rather than part of an existential grammar imposed by the observer’s emotional and intellectual history. The observer’s toes wiggled under the bedsheets, causing not simulated earthquakes of an impossible scale, but a simple and satisfying rubbing sound and the feel of a fresher part of the cotton sheets against the skin. Cotton, string in effect, an accident of evolution in the mute kingdom of the plants, stretched and tangled in a precise and controlled manner designed to create the very sensation which had resulted from the toe-wiggling. This, the observer realized, was a moment immersed in fundamental realities, as far as they were achievable to the coarse senses of a human. The moment was satisfactory.

The voices continued in the other rooms. The observer was pleased that they were not loud enough to permit comprehension: in this way, the observer could judge them as universal phenomena untinged by the desperate intellectualizing that the observer too often indulged in.

The voice on the phone continued its interrupted discourse, starting and stopping in a regular rhythm, while the children’s voices continued their syncopated duet. Thanks to the observer’s distance from both, the observer could enjoy them as a sort of accidental music, an aleatory improvisation in which each party was unconscious of the other. In this sense, the observer became a nexus that created the music out of a randomness of association. The observer understood that this could be interpreted by some as a pretentious assumption, but it was, the observer felt, fundamentally sound. Nevertheless, with this in mind, the observer intentionally excised thoughts of being an interpretive creator of music from random voices. The observer let the voices be voices again, and enjoyed them for their simple qualities of tone. This was a salubrious exercise, a diet for the ego, or so the observer hoped. One lived a certain span of years, and there was not much time, really, in which one could learn how to live in the world as it was, rather than within egotistical impositions of meaning. The observer felt it was imperative to determine a true way to live and to follow it for however short a time might be available.

The voices continued as the room filled with shadow, and the observer returned to the contemplation of the flow of darkness. The earth’s shadow now seemed to pour into the room, though of course the observer immediately understood that it could not “pour” in the manner of liquids, that this characterization of shadow was yet another neurological interpretation based in culture, reading, conventions of wordy thought. The observer tried to pull back from verbal characterization, tried only to feel the shadow: clear despite the lack of light, empty of color, spacious in a way that the light was not, as the walls of the room lost definition and the observer’s mind could follow the darkness into infinity. The observer could of course have reached to the side table and turned on the lamp, but chose not to.

The darkness was expansive; the observer’s condition was such that expansiveness seemed profoundly attractive; to expand into the dark infinity should be a goal. It was in any case inevitable. The room’s door was closed; the darkness in it could in fact become infinite. The observer smiled in the dark, feeling the pull of muscles on skin: the long-awaited moment had arrived. The room was now empty of light and could encompass the vast universe. A darkness without poetry enveloped the observer and dissolved both time and space.

Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He’s spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and writing stories, poems, and essays based on his experiences. He has published widely in the last few years, as you can see at

Photo Credit :Augustine Wong on Unsplash

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