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Darkness Incomprehensible

written by: Noah Smith


Mikhail Andreyevich Zatmeniyev was a shadow. He was also that sort of shadow which was always attempting in some form or fashion to become a light.
As such a transitive being, Zatmeniyev had peculiar habits. He would walk into a crowded cafe in hopes of conversing with a stranger, but invariably took the same table, which other customers, by habit, avoided; it was in the darkest corner of the room. While there he would always order two drinks so that when a stranger approached him he might exhibit hospitality and therefore have a chance of making a friend by putting his visitor in his debt. He invariably drank both.
On cold nights he never muffled his face so as to be recognisable to people passing on the street, as if hoping that familiarity would breed curiosity. If that was his sole end he was successful; a chief murmur of conversation among townspeople was speculation “of what sort his insanity was”. He wrote more than he drank, and yet never published, for fear that his musings might prevent familiarity with other persons if he were to achieve success, or breed contempt if he failed. By thirty his hair was white and his eyes, grey. His back was hunched and yet he never walked with a cane, no matter the pain it caused him. If he was indeed fearful, he was most certainly indomitable.
It was in winter 1867 that I met this Ozymandias; I was returning from my studies at the University when I chanced upon him in a cafe in the Old Quarter. He was sitting on a stool in the back corner of the room, only visible by the pale light of his face, which never looked about. A closer inspection revealed him covered by a threadbare blue overcoat, idly sketching with a piece of charcoal upon a sheet of paper. Intrigued by this, I sauntered over to the table in the corner and, after several moments (during which he never once looked up) sat down opposite him, eyeing the drawing carefully. Upon it I saw the likeness of every person in the room, including myself (how he sketched my likeness, having not once looked up, was a mystery), lounging, exactly as I had, against a chair, my intent, piercing eyes seeming drawn to an animal ferocity of hunger or inspection. I was about to comment on the drawing when I observed that each face was not complete. Not to say that it was incorrectly rendered; indeed, the faces were so true that I was afraid, but that each was shaded in an obscene fashion. Some were ablaze with ethereal light; others shrank so far in black charcoal that their eyes became mere points in a vast uncertainty. And then he looked up. Such a glance it was, that I drew back in unconscious horror. His eyes were sunken and hollow, so grey that for a moment I concluded he was blind. He reached up three long fingers and brushed away a shock of white hair. And he smiled. It was not a smile of friendship or even the smile which recognises the approach of a human being, but a smile of terror, defence, and pitiful complicity; it breathed rage and yet invited tenderness. I breathed deeply and he leaned back proportionately in his chair, maintaining a fixed distance between us. He spoke.

“Good day, student; I see you are one.” Why did his teeth flash so incomprehensibly? And why did his lips draw back so tightly- there was no flesh to them. It was as if the genius of his body refused to cover with human likeness the shape of the nameless terror, the toxic incongruity, which somewhere lurked within his oversized head. His nostrils flared like those of a mastiff. Had he no human influences? There were two glasses of vodka upon the table. I reached for one and with a whimper, he convulsively pushed it towards me, as if forgetting a word of the Liturgy during a mass. “Drink!” He said it so hopefully, so pitifully, that it repulsed me. My throat was dry and would not be consoled. I stared at him inexorably. “Drink.” It was not a plea; it was a command, said with the snarl of a mountain wolf. I drank- slowly, without removing my eyes from his face. He sighed. It was a monstrous incongruity, that sigh, which sounded like that of a girl of ten. Combined with the fearful aspect of his face it was hideous. I gagged subconsciously and set down the glass as the liquid burned my dry throat like iodine. Another complicit smile. “I am a student,” I replied; softly, as not to agitate him. “In the school of Law.” He nodded comprehensibly as if this was already known to him. I felt as if I were interrogating (as I did once in exams) some desperate criminal and my old tricks were beginning to come back. He thought me an accomplice? So I shall seem. I smiled grimly and leaned forward as the pitiful creature groaned in some sadistic pleasure. “Very frankly, I’m falling on hard times. The rates have gone up, as they always do, and books are dear.” He was beginning to purr, like a cat who has captured his prey and sits down to watch it struggle. He cocked his head slightly to one side as if waiting for more, but I told him nothing. The aspect of his face again became venomous. He sipped heavily on his vodka and looked around the room several times. “You are human. Learn to stub your toe and take it.” He laughed with uncanny heartiness and I laughed too, for fellowship. “What is your name, Student?” For once he sounded half-human as if attempting to be polite. “I am Andrei Petrovitch Radostnyyov,” I replied. “And you?” The spectre half-rose and said, bowing slightly: “Mikhail Andreyevich Zatmeniyev, at your service.” “Mr. Zatmeniyev,” said I, tired of formalities and their associated terrors, “why drew you the picture just so? How are some faces so bright and others so dark as to be antithetical to their existence? Such portraiture belies some deep problem, but either I have not the wit or your portraiture lacks the talent to see it.” Mikhail Andreyevich seemed shocked by this sudden outpouring of syllables and sat for some moments studying my face nervously. When he spoke again, it was in a low whine, all the while staring without pause. “There are but two kinds of men, Radostnyyov,” said he. “The first are the lights; the second, the shadows. Of course, there are those which try to be both but they are not of the living. Each man either brightens his world or merely absorbs the light of others. Bright men reflect the light of their equals and so become brighter, but the dark man needs not another man to become himself; he feeds upon his own existence; his void grows of himself. He becomes it; he is it. To attempt to become a light would mean annihilation; for there is naught but light and dark, and to become light one must cease to be dark. But to cease to be dark would mean to cease one’s existence. Therefore some men are void. So is the picture.” Spoken in such an intense monotone, with the sudden expatiation of his eyes, Zatmeniyev’s speech had the quality of an incantation; indeed, afterward, he seemed to breathe heavily and his muscles relaxed as if recovering from some intense strain. I was troubled by his speech, and looking at my watch, found the necessary reason to merit excusing myself from his presence. “Ah!” I said with feigned surprise. “It is late; any more of this and it shall be too late!” And then, by way of conclusion, “You are a strange, foreign creature, Mikhail Andreyevich!” He did not move, even blink. His eyes burned into mine, piercing in a glance; scorning my indifference yet breathing quiet resignation to it. “It is always too late, Andrei Petrovitch.” He rose. “You have made up my mind, friend,” he said; “You must leave; so must I.” I heard him jingle in his pocket for coins. Mikhail Andreyevich set five sous upon the table, for his drink. “I shall not forget it,” he muttered harshly. Then, without another word, he sniffed loudly and shuffled away, out the door of the cafe and into the windswept street. I shrugged. “Queer bird.” I spoke out loud as if adding a ring of conviction to my words. I turned to leave but noticed the drawing still lying upon the table. There I was, in uncanny relief, my face bright and empty; in the corner of the room, shrouded in the black shadows of the walls, there hung two points of grey. I shook my head rapidly. The vodka must have dulled my vision; I felt myself pulled almost inexorably into the drawing, and only with great effort did I refrain from an exclamation. I reached for the drawing in both hands to tear it, stopped, cursed, and stuffed it into my coat pocket.

The next morning dawned clear and cold, and I awoke in my bare apartment with no fire. Blowing on my hands to warm them, I moved Onegin, which I had been reading, from my bed and stretched. I had no sooner put on my coat to go out then a knock sounded on my door. “Come in,” I called. I was in no mood for conversation. The door opened to reveal a tall, spare, soberly dressed gentleman in the uniform of the police. I started back; his expression was grim. “Now, don’t start, Radostnyyov,” said he, “I’m Lieutenant Kholodnov with the police. You’ve received a summons.”
“A summons?” I replied. Never before had I any dealings with the police. “Yes. You’re to appear at two this afternoon; the commandant would like you to answer a few questions, that’s all.”
“I’ve not done anything amiss, then?” “Not that I know of,” Kholodnov replied, drily. “As a matter of fact, most of you students are boringly unassuming.” “A matter of means, officer, and that alone,” I replied, relieved. He chuckled. “Two o’clock. Be sure you’re there. Good day.”
He left as suddenly as he had come, leaving me to wonder about my summons.
The morning I spent in speculation, and my fellows found me, for once, morbid instead of bright, and unstable instead of firm. The hours passed on slowly and at ten before the appointed hour I made my way over the snowy streets to the police station. It was a tall, windswept building of sandstone, the steps worn by the passings of numerous people. I ascended these stairs and entered a large open room, evidently a waiting room of some sort, for there was the clerk’s desk at the far end and the doors of offices beyond. Occasionally I heard the clink of a cell door opening or the shuffling of manacled feet. I looked around me and saw a symphony of dejected, worn faces staring hollowly at the roof, the floor, or nothing particularly. I joined them, became one of them; I sat in the centre of the room and looked about, at nothing, at everything. Presently at five ‘till I went to the clerk’s desk and announced my presence. He was a weathered fellow, not over five feet tall, with a shock of sandy hair over his worn, lined face. He was, to a rule, indifferent. I found myself signing my name upon a register and receiving a card of some sort, and then being shown through a door and into an identically cheerless office which contained several old chairs and a worn desk, behind which sat a captain of police. I bowed slightly and the clerk, in a bored, disinterested voice, announced my name. The captain looked up, his piercing eyes drawing to mine. There was a look of intense interest on his face. “Sit down, Mr. Radostnyyov,” he said, motioning to a chair. He was slightly polite and heightened my confidence a little. I sat. “Mr. Radostnyyov,”, he continued, leafing through a large notebook, “last night you stopped in at Karamazov’s cafe and spoke for several moments with a man, did you not?”

“I did.”

“What was his name; can you recall?”

“Zatmeniyev,” I replied; “Mikhail Andreyevich Zatmeniyev.”

“Mr. Radostnyyov, Mr. Zatmeniyev did away with himself last night by jumping over a bridge. He left behind his coat and hat, and inside his coat, the watchman found a note, addressed to you. I have it here. Would you read it aloud, please?” He pushed across the desk a fragment of foolscap, upon which were printed with copperplate precision these words, which I read aloud:

When I said I must also leave, I did not happen to mention that I would arrive at the same destination as yourself; neither did I mention that I would arrive before you. I must thank you, Radostnyyov, for this. You made up my mind that my own conclusions were correct and that to leave this cafe was the correct decision. I have now tasted of the vinegar and gall which it serves, and I have refused it. Having seen me for but an instant I would assume correctly that you shall manage your misfortunes without me; be well. Signed Zatmeniyev. Below is an address of some sort.

“His rooms, I assume.” The captain shook his head.

I looked at this note in amazement for several moments. The portent of his words was plain. Having somehow inferred from my conversation that human society was bitter, he determined to “refuse it” and escape. To where I doubt he knew any more than I.
The captain leaned across his desk to me with a keen expression of interest. “Radostnyyov, you spoke for only a few moments with this fellow, Zatmeniyev, and yet he killed himself because of this conversation. What in heaven’s name did you say?” I was stunned by the force of Mikhail Andreyevich’s message and now frightened by the line of questioning the captain seemed to be pursuing. I attempted evasion.

“He questioned me closely- about my life,” said I, faltering. “I- I don’t quite remember what I said.”


“And I said it was none of his business or something.”
“Why did you talk to him, Andrei Petrovitch? What had he done?” Could I evade this question? Most certainly not. Redirect? Too suspicious. An outright lie? Could I support it? Oh, bother it all. My hands shook and my palms were becoming sticky. “He drew a picture,” I croaked.

“A picture, you say?” The keen look was becoming sharper than a knife. I fumbled in my coat pocket for it, found it in a ball, and shakily unfolded it on the table. The captain studied it closely for some moments and I began to wonder if he had forgotten me. Once I resolved to rise and go. Still, I sat. Finally, he looked up. “What did he tell you of the lights and the shadows?” I clasped and unclasped my hands convulsively. “He said there were two sorts of men,” I replied. “The-the lights and… the shadows. They absorb themselves, sir. Something he said, too, of trying to become a light but not being able to because of the shadow.”

“A lunatic, then. It’s as I thought. With a careless word or gesture, you gave him the sword to fall upon.” I rose, sickened. It was insane, but yet I understood. I took the note and drawing from the table. “Of course it wasn’t your fault, Radostnyyov; sometime it would have happened anyway.” I shut the door behind me. “He was most likely drunk!” He called after me. I hadn’t the heart to hear more; I dashed past the clerk and the waiting people, out the door and down the sandstone steps, out into the street. I ran till I could run no longer. When I stopped, I found myself in the midst of an abandoned factory lot, the derelict rail lines and lampposts, the broken windows and the chipped brick walls, all cast a foreboding shadow. A slight mist was blowing in from the river and I shivered in my coat. I had not brought a scarf. It was then that I realised I was lost. In an unfamiliar part of Petersburg, with no way of remembering how far I had come or any possibility of returning. I took a deep breath and walked, with tremulous steps, to the corner of one of the derelict buildings, upon which was painted an address, which read, inn chipped and peeling white letters, 'Vvedenskiy Kan, .5 Km.' “So,” I said aloud, “I am somewhere in the Worker’s District near the Fontanka.” I had followed the road from the old factory till I reached Zagorodnyy Prospekt before realised that I was within walking distance of Zatmeniyev’s address. The lamps were being lit along the road when I passed, but still dirty children fought and street organs creaked. The red sun was falling level to the street, lighting it in an unpleasant glare which reflected off the dirty snow in particles. I stumbled along until I reached a corroded brass plate which read: 'Nomer dyevyatnadtsat'. I felt a sudden shiver upon turning to the door. It was old and blackened and the glass peephole was cracked. The door was uninvitingly ajar. I entered to find myself in front of a large set of steps that evidently led to Zatmeniyev’s rooms. They creaked under my weight and one broke. When I reached the top I surveyed the room. In fact, it rather resembled my own; there was an old bookcase in one corner which contained, upon inspection, a number of volumes on isolationism and a ponderous Bible, heavily worn from apparent use. I opened the front flap and several worn daguerreotypes fell out. One was marked “From Mother to my dear son. God bless you.” On another, “Dear brother, we are entrenched under heavy bombardment now. Say a mass for me, will you? Remember me. Sevastopol, 20 June 1855.” Behind this was a short note, which read: “Dear Mr. Zatmeniyev, we are sorry to report that your brother, Private Alexei Ilich, was killed in action at Sevastopol on July 19th. - Aleksandr Petrovitch Menshikov, commandant.” I shook my head. Had this man not lost everything? I replaced the photographs gently in the cover and set the Book upon a small table. It fell open upon a much creased and worn page. I saw crabbed handwriting in a margin and read the verses beside: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Besides the passage, I read these words:
Well, was it spoken, there are but two things in this world: love and power, and no man has both. The light is the life of some; those chosen Sons of God. And the darkness does not comprehend it. I am doomed. Forever a shadow. God help me, for he has most certainly dammed me!
I stepped back, cowed into silence. The man was gone. He lived on fear alone, for the light of life was drowned in shadow. He fed on it; he became it. Perhaps he lingered within that in-between place; the transitive dusk before the night, but oh, the torments which must have been his! Perhaps he swallowed himself into that depth of darkness, that profound vacuity. But I dare to hope that the brilliance which could not be the light of his life might be the solace of his death.

Noah Smith

Noah Smith

Good day! I am Noah Smith and I am a student pursuing a career in English Literature. My life is planned around readings of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.
Noah Smith

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