On Light

Seth Fried

God said, Let there be light.

And the young man standing before him wanted more than anything to ask, What’s light?

But God looked impatient behind his immense, cherry wood desk, and the young man knew that – whatever light was – he was in no position to tell God no. So instead he employed one of the many maneuvers he had learned as one of God’s functionaries. He agreed enthusiastically, but in a way that he hoped would elicit more information.

Of course, he said. What sort of light did you have in mind?

The old man swept his beard off the desk and began scribbling on the back of a manila envelope. He drew a diagonal bar with small particles bouncing around inside it and then held this drawing up for the young man to see.

Best to keep it simple, God said.

The drawing looked, to the young man, like nothing whatsoever.

Oh yes, he said, taking the drawing from God’s massive hand and pretending to admire it. No problem.

This attitude seemed to please the Almighty. However, when the young man tried to ask a few necessary questions regarding light, God turned Himself into a giant, apocalyptic mountain that quaked and belched fire and was surrounded by seven thousand froth-mouthed basilisks in that way He always did when He was starting to get irritated.

The young man returned to his cubicle with nothing to aid him in his task except that hastily drawn sketch on the back of an envelope. He sat at his desk, where he put his head down, allowing himself a moment of anxiety, in which he thought about quitting or calling his mother or both. Though, he saw himself as someone who always tried to do his best, someone who responded well to challenges. Eventually, he raised his head. He turned on his computer monitor, opened his web browser, and – with a look of vulnerable optimism in his eyes – began to Google the word light.

God had only introduced the concept of light to the universe a few minutes earlier, and even then only as an utterance. But word, especially His word, traveled fast, and there was already some blog chatter that proved useful. The young man also placed a few calls to the people over in Development, who had heard a rumor here or there. Before long he was able to come up with a working approximation of what light was or, more accurately, what light was supposed to be.

He hoped that if he showed this approximation to the Lord as it was, he would get some feedback to guide his project or that God would realize He had delegated poorly and simply reassign light to someone else. What he didn’t anticipate was that by the time his first stab at light came across God’s desk, the Almighty was already knee deep in separating the oceans from the continents. So God hardly looked at his frail attempt before signing off on it. To his horror, his half guess at light was put into use before it was even tested.

Some years later, he kept a file folder in his bedroom closet with reports on the role of sunlight in skin cancer, the development of cataracts, premature aging of the skin, suppression of the immune system, sunburn, rashes. There were newspaper clippings about children who had accidentally gone blind by looking into eclipses, treatises on optical illusions, poems about the unreliability of light.

He enjoyed a good deal of worldly success as a result of his efforts – he had, after all, played an integral role in Creation – but he couldn’t help but keep tabs on the many defects and dangerous byproducts of light. He was still a young man, but he was now more mature in that he had been forced to face the realization that he was not simply someone who tried to do his best or who responded well to challenges. He had come to understand the fierce idiocy of those self-descriptions. Somewhere a young woman was finding a firm, red nodule of Squamous cell carcinoma on her lip. He was someone who had done something wrong. Something deeply and irrevocably wrong. He had acted out of vanity and fear and a confused cover-thine-own-butt sense of ambition.

The world was poorer for it.

Even a lovely day, some bright afternoon in the park. Even moonlight, harmless. Even the works of Renoir. Even in his apartment, the faint light along his fiancé’s bare, slender back as she searched their dresser for who knows what in the middle of the night, was beautiful in a way for which he knew he could take no real credit. He watched her admiringly from the bed and then felt a heavy sense of resignation. He thought to himself: You love the people that you love. You hurt the people that you hurt. She turned to face him and smiled or didn’t smile. It was difficult to tell in the half-dark. Of course, it’s not that simple, he thought. It’s all… all… A play of light. A question of where the observer is positioned. What he hopes he will see.

Seth Fried’s short stories have appeared in Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Vice. His work has also been anthologized in The Better of McSweeney’s, Volume 2 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV: The Best of the Small Presses. His debut short story collection, The Great Frustration, was published May 2011 by Soft Skull Press.