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On certain afternoons, rooms prey to too much loneliness will turn into real hotspots for angels, in the peculiar, otherworld highway that so often diverges into our own.
Well-springs of angels frequently arise in hot, golden fields, of waving wheat, foaming with white crocus; the tossing of dandelions, air-borne whirligigs into the air, has the byproduct of unleashing a summer’s worth of angels.
We are of course familiar with the angels so often depicted by Fra Angelico, in Catholic orthodoxy, but we are perhaps much less familiar with those angels which are, in truth, but mere functions of the light, light-seeds, light-needles, light-flies, all the sundry, wonderful assortment of epic phenomena you may see reflected on water.
It is the apex of my career to have witnessed and documented the true ecosystem of these lesser-known angels, what I call the varieties of light. First and foremost in my study I must thank my father Abraham Schmelke, who first pointed out to me that, from the image of water on light, from this alone, one may derive the incalculable assortment of light-functions that compose this whole, miraculous mobile system. Some — I shake to say it — still insist that angels walk and talk, that they do such things as kill or rapture, or take away, and few have come to the proper understanding of angels as the derivatives of the principles of light on water: I am astonished that I need not merely point out, for example, the upjumping droplet of water (when a droplet has fallen into the river) as an example of a light function, an angel hesitating and springing about in the air for a micro-second; and I am astonished, furthermore, that some people simply cannot come around to this way of viewing things, when, of all matters in the universe, nothing is more pressing than to figure out the constituent parts of the reflection of light on water!
What can be more astonishing than light on water? What can be more prophetic? I simply mean the essence, the most basic, and boring version of water on light, and do no need to specify further.
And yet, most infuriatingly, those angels whose existence I denied, those walkers, talkers, breathers, the Biblical angels, have been most ridiculously impugning my existence with their own existence, have been shaking my strongest denials, working against me…
This afternoon, with my wife gone to work, I have been prey to the most subtle and pernicious kind of loneliness. In this loneliness my own voice arises, my interest in work decreases, my ability to calculate and think are all gone…
With enormous regret, I draw the curtains, no longer able to study the various light phenomena of the day.
And I try to sleep; to no avail, despite the shadows of the room. Whether it’s the neighbor’s cat, who likes to creep and vanish along the gutter under my windowsill, or the yellow face of my house, built with horizontal boards, whose lightweight armor the sunshine heats up, I simply cannot seem to get any peace of mind, any freedom from my doubts. It cannot be that there are real things called angels; what I know to be angels are merely the matter of light, the things that make up light, its reflections, its shards, its glasses, and its broken glass, its effects, its strange absorbance in a wet rag, its dirty rainbows. I know that I alone have documented any kinds of angels, and when I say that they “arise” in hot fields, I really do mean of a kind of angel, of the kind that we see-as, dandelions as angels, wheat-spires, the waving brilliance of sunset clouds. I do not mean that angels walk or talk; I mean, simply, that angels arise out of different arrangements of light. First is the mystery of light; then, angels explain them. First is our mesmerization by light; second, our so-called experience of angels. I argue in my rather eccentric study for the primacy of light, and the secondary, merely tangential after-effect of angels. So what if angels might be more literary, and might have greater legacy and literature than functions of light? I am concerned with truth, and I believe that truth sets us free, not lies!
And yet a kind of “unreal” feeling has come over me… I am really not well. I pass a wet rag over my sweaty face.
There is no decent way to say this. A field of light on water has come to rest alongside my house.
I am on the third floor, so a flood is not outside the bounds of reality. Yet there could not be a flood; unless, that is, one accounts for the light raining down all morning. I should mention something in case someone reads my case study and wants a better understanding of my demise:
Just a few days ago, I went with my wife down to the city towards the South. We went to a pond to look at turtles. There, we walked in boredom for sometime, hardly speaking to each other, until we stopped under a tree whose branches so richly grew that, overhanging the pond, the top half of branches had grown directly into the pond, quasi-roots; trailing the spine of the branches evenly and at intervals thrusting out with lesser branches, the armor of green, tender leaves followed and thrust into the pond as well, thus forming a canopy, a little perfect cave, of slightly illuminated, mosaic-stone leaves. I stood there, completely enraptured by the light upon the pond-water. The water was motionless, thick, and in fact almost brown, with a layer of scum. Upon it, thanks to that translucent film of scum, like pale, unskimmed fat, the shadows of the leaves were distinct, in patterns as though printed upon a card. I stared, not at all conscious of how much light I was allowing into my system. I had not understood the possibility of the light of scum angels, of translucent ponds; of light, blurping suddenly with fish turning airward to catch flies…
But after that, I had a migraine, and have since been living almost completely in the dark. My wife hates this, but I do not allow any light to be turned on at evening; I move through the hallways of my house aware of every object; except, that is, when I need to find something.
But since then I have been afraid of too much light.
Vicious, overpowering, headache-giving, leaf-giving, violent light, that overgrows my ears, out of which delicate tendrils madly sprout straight lines and curling wires!
Light on its own is a pure substance, a space without definition, without color; and yet so often light wants to be reflected on walls (like in my room, through the curtain the wind kicks open), wants to grow up in soil in little, squiggly worms, wants even to appear in people, as a sly glance; wants even to be corrupted by becoming smooth, shining, lustful, oil-rubbed skin! Light simply can’t stay where it is, can’t be whole, and remain in heaven. My father died that day when I admitted to him that I realized… that I thought… that light on water was not the only form of light. That there were other forms of light worth studying — of course I have not studied them! to do so with would be to spit on my father’s grave! And yet when I went to his grave, be honest, young Schmelke, did not the tendrils of the weeds lightly catch the light; didn’t the delicate rosenberries become illuminated, beneath the dark skins, revealing the eclipse of the pit? Don’t stripped peaches show a flesh slightly indented, yet mildly radiant, like an old angel, his power lost but still overwhelming? Ah, don’t cry, don’t blur your sight: doesn’t light in all its varieties show up in your dreams? Yes, your father was right: from light-on-water springs everything else; it is the one principle upon which the family has turned… I am losing my mind…
This room of light, flocking angels to my window, these passerby, led by a holy shepherdess in the sky…
“We’re just on our way to where a sweet spot is gathering,” one tells me. “It’s nothing to do with you.”
“No,” I tell him, “You do not munch sweet spots in the sky like cotton candy. That is only a myth.”
I have crawled to my windowsill; the ruffian, the sleepwalking angel, sits with his back facing me, looking out at the bright, big Maple tree; now he looks over his shoulder at me, and his round, sweet almond face, with bright, brown eyes, cannot be anything but real.
“We’ll be out of your hair, soon,” he says.
“Out of my hair? You are not in my hair in the first place!”
“See? She’s getting ready to leave,” and he points at the shepherdess that is guiding this river of angels, on their daily, bored paths. I see the shepherdess standing in the branches of my big maple tree, higher than my room on the third floor. A gentle woman, she holds a staff, and her naked feet cling unevenly, but surely, to the huge, strong branches; in her brilliance, the snake-like arms of the giant maple tree are made bare as if by winter; I see, instead, only the outline of a hydra of snakes, of the bare branches alone silhouetted and radiating outwards in this overbright apparition; the blue house behind her has a blotch of light upon it; over and behind all of them, the courtyard in the distance, where roofs of the nearby houses meet, looks as though a small set of play-houses, dollhouses, made different under the distortion field of this magic, traveling shepherdess.
“Oh, wait,” he reflects, “no, not yet. That was just her gesturing at one of us to get off the telephone poll.”
“Who are you? Are you the creature spoken of in the Bible? Or are you truly a light function of water?”
He smiles at me, as though I couldn’t possibly understand, or perhaps he does not understand my question at all. Perhaps he is slow in the head; he looks down at his lap, on which a little book is spread out, and turns away from me and goes back to reading, continuing to slowly kick his feet against the boards of my house. I calm, and settle down, and try to take mental notes, to read what is in his book; now and then, he looks up from the book, sighs deeply; strangely, his face of appreciation for what he has read also causes his eyebrows to arch up sarcastically.
Surely what he reads he at once appreciates as holy scripture, but in the same moment causes him to slightly roll his eyes.
Unable to read his book, I touch the faint, delicate white tunic in which he is clothed; his bare delicious shoulders have a fragrance as of fresh myrtle; his feet, barely covered in their sandal straps, seem made for traveling in the air.
“What’s this?” he asks me. Then he turns to me and stretches out his eyes sarcastically, white with extravagant surprise, and puckers his mouth into a little, sour hole, the face of someone who is trying to ward off someone else’s advances by a look of comedy. The illusion, however, cannot break; he is like grapes hanging out from a tree branch, which I must grab, and munch in my mouth; now he tries to jerk free from me, but I won’t have it! This day he has proved to me that angels are real, and by God, I will have a mouthful of him as reparation. The curtains billow in my room, the outside lights up my walls, the posters flap, the opened books turn their pages, read by light, the skeleton of the words are revealed as dead letters; I reach for him, and off the wall he slips, down to somewhere I can’t see — I’m almost out of the room when someone grabs me from behind. It’s my wife, who’s come home from work just in time to keep me from falling out of the house. I look outside, again: I see only the tree, on which hangs nothing but some lost papers and maple seedlings.
Brilliant, Light Angels, how truly I wish that you did not exist. How deeply I wish to go back to my old life, to its simplicity, its relative ignorance, its lack of this power. My wife, naturally, does not believe me, in the little I was able to relate to her; and that is for the better. But now that the power of the light angel has been over me, now that, it seems, light angels filter through my blood, run in shivers underneath my skin, brightening my soul, so it seems that soon I shall run into overbright territory, carried away, raptured not in the imagination, but by some irrepressible mistake (a doomed landscape stamped in irreversible gold), some action taken as though light angels indeed live! And that, I now realize, was the crux of my effort to ground angels in the light of water. Once, I wanted to show that nothing wondrous occurs in the miraculous, but as effects of light-in-water; yet now it seems I am caught up in unrealities, my wife at work cannot hold me back from my room attracting the flocks of angels; and I soon will no longer be able to say, “No, no, none of you are real!” My soul is now a battleground, a page between words of light and dark; now brightness is taking the day, as though the angels had visited a well and expunged the water and replaced it only with a descending throat of miracle!
You who touch my pages with your sight, be careful, lest you rub your eyelids and gold paint stain your fingers!
I must proceed with my study carefully. Yet, just yesterday, didn’t it happen that my wife appeared to me like an angel? Can this be denied?
Days used to go by without a single word passing between my wife and I. I myself don’t believe in female angels, certainly not in the corruptions of light, mixed blood between giants and humans, in female bodies so alluring that their navels, once seen, are like a question mark and a demand, are a hint at what curling fire-red hair lies below.
My wife is a simple, cold-hearted woman, with black hair, and wide, bright eyes, with a simple outlook on life, and an unremarkable personality: a book-keeper’s wife.
But now, I cook meals with so much pepper, with so many summer tomatoes, and so many clean oils, that my wife’s skin has taken on a different sheen, like a poisonous salamander, like a chameleon perpetually in between changes of colors. After our meals, in darkness, she bathes for hours, scrubbing her legs, which she sticks out of the tub in my direction, dangling a dainty foot. Here I am, sitting in the living room, on the floor, or in the hallway of my house, looking out at the balcony, staying within the burning edges and lines of darkness (where the hallway edges meet the walls), ensconced as within a comforting shell, the only thing that soothes me these days, that reminds me not of the light angels, avoiding at all costs the lantern in the neighbor’s house down the street below the eaves, which flashes at me from beneath my table, avoiding, too, the double-lantern (far away!) which projects my shadow onto the wall in a strange double-vision. I have even added that shadow to my study: something I would never have done, to even begin a study of darkness! I note that my shadow is only slightly doubled, that a main shadow remains, my body shadow, but that the penumbral double, caused by the places where the lanterns do not twice overlap, a hollowed out shadow, encases me as in a lightweight armor which at any moment I can destroy by simply doubling my arm shadow over it; it as though my real person were being copied and paginated by the forces of light, overbright summer, and more and more me’s, which I cannot control, and which are taking over my life, cooking for my wife, making love to her, making her so happy, all studied the light angels and their sarcastic and carefree demeanor, their lackadaisical kicking of my house’s walls as they sat on the windowsill, the unrelenting pursuit of light for something far beyond itself, its discontent with staying still and its inability to rest!
Soon, I know, light shall burn me out like a candle, and I’ll have nothing to show for it, not even my life.
Even so, how like a crocodile the fumes of lust creep across the burning body of darkness, the scent of her aroma climbing across the black walls down the narrowing hallway, whose forever-receding door, of blackness, like my self trying, by indifference, to flee away from the rising floodwaters of her desire, how, suddenly, to her bathtub — like a fish shot out by hook from the sea — I kneel besides her, knees immersed in her fluids, her fragrance, her soaps, and bury my small face in the overwhelming cascades of her red, shadowy hair. Most brightly of all burns the hair of my evening loved wife! She steps out of the bathtub, completely naked, her skin covered, it seems to me, in silver glimmers that run like waterfalls, in waves, down the in-bending of her waist, down the indents of her knees, to her very shins and feet, which are items of love.
All, I promise you, in complete darkness, yet I can see far more of her body, ebbing faintly in the Night, than if we had kept the lights on. Her expansiveness has not altered the slender original blueprint of her delicious, compact body, and I cling to it, contain it between my arms, and she violently pushes her head away from mine, throwing a hand into my face and smushing me as though to get away; ever encircling a greater area, our nightly transgressions leave the bounds of what’s proper and appropriate, and soon, like a dove leaving forever, may go where no one returns.
I am afraid, I tell you, of dying from this overbright feeling, from this unafraid nature in me so discovered!
There must be an end to all this light. I beg you, to end all these revelations, to end all this overbrightness, to return my boring wife to me, to return me to normalcy.
It cannot go on. I do not want to live like this.
Then, just like that, like something which you need but which you cannot know about because you don’t have it, a certain event ended it all in a pleasant culmination. I talked to a light angel, and he told me exactly how it happened, and after that, I no longer believe in light angels.
This is all I heard: in the heat towards the South, in the many wheat-fields there, where a woman may lay the afternoon hidden in stalks of corn, heat rises from the wires, and filaments of the golden curls, of bursting corn fibers, of tides of waving wheat, over which a hand passed tending its hair like pulses of electricity, so air tickles and caresses the gathering updraft of moisture until, like an evaporating funnel, the tiny fireflies, glass mirror shards, lakes light on the water, give up a little light to the evaporation, till powerful, boulders of cloud, dark and opaque, move their congested days over to my town, and rain, not with light or shadow, but clouds, and dripping, with sopping, and boring rain. Now my days of agitation are at an end. The Fall season is here. I think no more about light angels, with the heat relieved. Weeds again grow in sundry cracks on the sidewalks. The sunflowers, already grown too large, wilt, and children take their heads away for their personal collection. Looking back on that time, before the summer rain, I can only say that I am happy it is over and that it is with me no more. I can derive no permanent meaning from it, and have expunged all pertinent points from my study, which remains a study of light-on-water.
I do not believe in any angels made of light. Everything that I experienced was only the after-effect of viewing for too long the many functioning parts of glittering-on-water.
Am 24, and graduated from Harvard in 2018. I live in Cambridge, Mass. This may sound very silly but the essays are authored under "Samuel Liu" but real writing is under "Samuel." Have also published in The Harvard Advocate, Slate, Yale Letters, Marginalia Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Harvard Crimson, Caixin, Wall Street Journal (sort of), Little Star Journal, Business Insider, The New Guard. Some of these are really silly and don't count for anything.
There is also some random old press about me lying out around there but it should be ignored. Am also an associate editor of criticism at Marginalia Review of Books. In the day I do tech stuff like a good Asian boy.