Quiet Lights

A simple memory about nothing at all, which happened a few months ago, before Christmas, when I was still living in Changsha.


I was lying on top of the covers in my bed in December, a string of Christmas lights draped over the headboard, and it was curiously, curiously calm outside the window, as if the city were holding its breath. The string of lights was brightening, brighter and brighter, red and blue and green and orange on the water-stained wall and the uncovered windows–and then it was fading, so softly and slowly it felt like a breath being pulled in–deeper in, the sort of inhalation that draws your lungs to the back of your rib cage–and then it was starting to glow again, breathing out, breathing life and color into my dry winter-pale skin and the brown split ends of my static-filled hair.

It was midnight. Later than midnight. And the buses had stopped coming, the bright smiling billboards at the bus station to the ground left of my window extinguished–even the streetlamps were sleeping, all dark and stiff and cold. But there were hushed, hushed whooshes of cars passing, although they didn’t sound like regular cars, not the cars that honked and brayed and sputtered and roared and growled in the daytime. One paused on the street, and an arc of brightness soared over my walls before it went on again, following the headlights.

I sat up then. I was wearing my saggy school jacket over my sweater, in an earlier attempt to pretend that I was still at school, so I could do my homework with more efficiency. It wasn’t very good at keeping out the numbness that was clutching at my toes and my stiff knees, and I felt the cold, but I didn’t turn on the yellow lamp sitting on my desk, even though the sunny light might have made me feel warmer. I set my feet on the wood floor, the shocking iciness of the brief contact burning through my socks, and then I flattened my palms on the windowsill and lifted myself up onto it.

There was an apartment building across the street, and it was taller than ours because it sat on a hill, so I could see all seven of the floors. Four or five windows to a level, and I pressed my forehead to my own window and tried not to breathe so much, in case my breath fogged up the glass. Eight windows were still bright–no, only seven–someone had just switched a light off. People were behind those windows. They were reading, maybe, or cramming for an exam; or watching late-night reruns on TV, or staring at their phones; or having a weary conversation, or just sitting there, being. I wondered if they were cold. I wondered if maybe someone behind one of the dark windows was still awake like me–still awake and staring out at the world, at my side of the street, counting the lights that were still on, like I was doing. I thought if they were, they would probably see the glow of the fairy lights even from across a street, because the glow was that colorful, that bright when it breathed out, out, like a chain of fireflies all signaling at once.

Someone was walking below my window. It was a man, all shadows and fuzzy edges. His footsteps were slow and heavy and deliberate, as if his energy had been spent somewhere and he had no strength left to make any unnecessary movements. Hands in his pockets, not a very thick coat on–did he feel the cold? There was no wind, none at all, but the air was still and frigid and sharp. I knew because I had opened my window, just a crack, and I could feel it, like the flat edge of a silver knife.

The man trudged on, past the noodle shop, and then the convenience store that sold cigarettes and alcohol behind the counter, and then the shoe shop that was never not blaring unpopular songs by unpopular singers in the daytime–and then he was moving past the gates to our little community of apartments, to another claustrophobic convenience store crammed with snack food, and then–I couldn’t see any more, my view blocked by a shiny SUV he went past.

Someone else came along, from the other direction, and it was also a man, with almost the same undistinct edges and undefined shapes. He was dressed more warmly, but his footstep were the same, heavy and exhausted. He disappeared past the bus station, and another quiet car rolled past him, its headlights throwing another boomerang of light on my walls before vanishing.

There were only four windows that were still bright in the building opposite mine. I stared at them, hugging my knees to my chest, and a few minutes later, two windows darkened at once. Another man walked past the pavement below my window, but he was different–still blurry and shadowed–but his feet were quick, alert, awake. I followed him as he walked rapidly past the gates, to the shoe shop and then to the noodle shop, and I knew where he was headed: the internet cafe that was just a few more steps away. He looked young and purposeful, as if he’d just woken up–as if it were morning, and he was off to school–and his shoes were too loud in the steady quiet of the city. Offensively loud, criminally loud, almost. It disturbed the air, the even pattern in which my lights faded in and out of existence. But it stopped quickly–I didn’t have to see to know he’d ducked into the glass doors of the internet cafe. And the disruption his jaunty footsteps had caused, disappeared.

Now there was just one more light in the building. I stared at it, my eyes all dry and unfocused, and I blinked, and it went out. The building was dark, everyone was asleep, maybe, or trying to sleep, or they were looking out of their windows at me, like I was looking out at them. I let myself down from the windowseat, my feet tingling, and I lied back down on the covers and stared up at the ceiling again, making myself breathe in time with my Christmas lights. It was probably one or two in the morning then–still as black and cold and still outside as it was when night fell at six the previous day–but I wasn’t tired, not at all. There didn’t seem to be an OFF switch to my mind, athough I needed one, because I wanted to be tired and sleep, so I could wake up at six a.m. with at least four hours of unconsciousness, but I couldn’t do it.

It was just so quiet. Not silence–quiet. The sort of quiet that is so peaceful and so sacred that you don’t want to miss any of it. The sort of quiet that is the sound of a whole city sleeping. If you don’t speak, there will be no sound, but it’s not silence, no, not complete, because underneath it is the faintest hum of life, like you’re listening to the world from underwater, or in a snowy field, and everything is muted, and even your eyes are closed.

So I just stayed unmoving like that for another space of time, exactly how long I can’t remember, until my brain found that OFF switch and shut me down for maybe three hours before my alarm rippled through the room, and it was six in the morning, and the streetlamps had just been blown to life.

And the quiet that was so all-encompassing was gone, replaced by quick gusts of bitter wind that was forcing itself past my still slightly-open window, and the rattling and wheezing of early buses as they trundled along their routes.

And somehow, my Christmas lights had gone from the slow-fade setting to flash, and they were jumping and winking and flickering madly along the walls as I sat up, stiff and numb with cold, and I thought through a ringing, spinning head that I really shouldn’t have stayed up so late.

2 thoughts on “Quiet Lights”

  1. Child, you are a WRITER. I read this whole journal (which was hard because I’m older and my eyes get weary). I was mesmerized by your lyrical use of language. This could be an excerpt from a best selling novel. You MUST keep writing. You’ve been given a gift. I am a writer, too, with two published books. God bless you!

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