Ex Umbris, by A.M. Kaempf

Art: Pi

The campus was abandoned in the summer, but the library remained open for those of us who preferred the quiet world of books to the crowded clamor of the city. I spent nearly every day there, hunched over a creaky desk in one dusty corner or another, safely concealed behind the sagging shelves that reached all the way to the ceiling. I was supposed to be researching German Romanticism, but in reality I was reading whichever books happened to catch my interest. Without much of a plan or purpose, I plucked books down from the shelves and read them until I grew bored. In this way I became very poorly educated in a very great number of subjects: Renaissance architecture, Scandinavian mythology, pre-Socratic philosophy, and Chinese sculpture, to name a few.

One day, while glancing through an old Danish edition of Niels Lyhne, I saw a woman emerge from the shelves and then disappear into the distant shadows. She was the first woman I’d seen all summer, and the sight disturbed me. With an instinctive irrationality that made perfect sense at the time, I decided to follow her.

She moved silently through the aisles, pausing now and then to inspect the spine of a book, but never once acknowledging that I was behind her. She finally stopped in a dim corner of the library, pulled a book from the shelf, and sat down to read. I moved to an adjacent aisle and found a gap in the shelves through which I could watch her without being discovered.

For the next hour I observed this enchanting woman with the same reverent fascination that she directed toward her book. There were moments when I thought she had fallen asleep, but then a smile would twitch across her lips, or her head would raise and lower in a sympathetic nod. She found the book especially pleasurable, and I found her to be the same, though I do not quite understand why. Perhaps it was her sylphlike appearance, her smooth, pale skin that seemed to glow with a light of its own, her silent vitality that contrasted so intensely with the lifeless things around her. Or perhaps it was simply because I had not been in the presence of a young woman for a very long time.

Whatever the reason, I was unable to look away from her, and when she finally returned the book to its shelf and walked away, I hurried after her. Without looking back at me, she left the library and walked directly to the northern edge of campus, where she waited for the bus. When it arrived I suspended my pursuit and whispered a mournful farewell. But the woman paused and looked over her shoulder; her eyes met mine, and the briefest of smiles flitted across her face. In my bewitched state I interpreted the expression as an invitation, and a moment later I was seated behind her on the bus.

I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to think of something to say. My hands trembled, my face became swollen and sweaty, and the bus’s stifling air stuck in my throat, causing me to cough and wheeze. Resigning myself to silence, I slumped back in my seat and reflected on how extraordinary it was for me to be there, outside of the library, trundling along an unfamiliar street in the company of a young woman. I wondered if I had succumbed to some peculiar form of madness, or if, in another instance of my delightful yet dangerous tendency to subject reality to the whims of my imagination, I was merely daydreaming, and though my thoughts were floating along with the woman in the bus, my body was still firmly stuck at a desk in the dusty shadows of the library.

We disembarked at 35th Street into the heart of the Maple District, an eccentric neighborhood I had never visited before. Half-naked children wrestled on the street corner, two men in frayed linen suits played chess on the sidewalk, a malnourished dog limped through a pile of debris, and I, a stooped and squinting old misanthrope, shambled after a beautiful stranger.

We walked a few blocks and then came to a garish bar whose windows were decorated with neon signs and advertisements for cheap liquor. To my astonishment the woman went inside. I felt as though I had no choice: I had to go after her, not to further pursue whatever desires had led me there, but to protect her from the ugly things that lurked in the low light of that sordid establishment.

It was a nauseating place, suffused with cigarette smoke and various sour odors. Drowsy men with swollen thighs and sagging bellies turned on their stools and greeted us with contemptuous stares. The bartender acknowledged my companion with a lecherous grin but paid me no attention. My presence there was insulting, and it filled me with a suffocating sense of self-hatred. I closed my eyes and imagined my favorite desk at the library, my stack of books, the notecards on which I recorded my thoughts. How strange it was that I had strayed so far from where I wanted to be. I opened my eyes with the conviction that I would walk outside and return as quickly as possible to where I belonged, but then I saw the woman beckoning to me from a table across the room, and I knew that I would never forgive myself if I refused to join her.

Something unsettling occurred as I sat down at the table: due to the lamp hanging behind me, my shadow lurched forward and draped the woman in darkness. In a disturbing coincidence of proportions, my silhouette matched the size and shape of her body, and even when she shifted in her chair or moved her hand across the table it seemed to follow her. The effect of this was rather uncanny. She did not appear to be obscured by my shadow, but defined by it. She had become a darker version of herself; or, considered from a different perspective, my shadow had suddenly assumed a greater reality—it had, so to speak, come to life. This new creature—whether a perversion of the woman or a projection of myself—caused me to shudder with disgust, for its features were hideously exaggerated by the harsh contrasts of darkness and light. Its eyes were drowned in murky pools, its nose was stretched to a sharp point, and its mouth was spread far too widely across its face. With a groan of dismay I fell back in my chair. What a fool I had been to follow the woman to this squalid neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. I would die there, I was sure of it. I would end my life in a filthy bar, lost among hostile strangers, far away from everything I loved.

I looked away from the shadowy figure in front of me and surveyed the room. Memories of my youth rose to the surface of my mind, and I recalled with great shame all the time I had wasted in places like this one. My life as a bookish hermit lost all dignity when I considered the circumstances from which I had come, when I accepted the fact that my quiet lifestyle was merely a consequence of a previous chaos. My decisions as a young man had led me to a place I could not escape, and in my dishonest way I pretended that this was exactly the place I wanted to be. But in truth I had lost control. I was Icarus, mistaking my fall for flight.

Without speaking to the woman I stood up and left the bar. I don’t remember much else until the next morning, when I returned to my beloved library. As I laid out my books and papers I paused for a moment to reflect on the previous day’s events. I could not comprehend my behavior, nor why the woman had allowed me to join her. She was a stranger, after all; her life had no relation to my own. I picked up my pen and resumed my work.

Several decades have passed from that moment to this one, but my life remains the same. The scenery has shifted, of course—I eventually retreated from the library to my private study—but my routines have hardly changed. Another summer has arrived, identical to those that came before. I am alone with my books and the thoughts they inspire. From my desk in the corner of the room, wedged between two windowless walls, I fill my notebook with these words. How small the world seems, and how disappointed I am to be here.

A. M. Kaempf is an editor at The Northwest Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Millions, and Full Stop.

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