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The Tin Canister

He put the light in a small tin canister and kept it there under the bed. No peeking, he said. The light’s fed up with shining and beaming and peering and stroking and refracting and walking around without clothes on. It’s had it with this lighter-than-light mentality that’s destroying the deep darkness of the world. The light needs a break, he said.

And so do I, he added. I’m exhausted by lights that shine through our kitchen window from two doors down. Lights that manufacture shadows for thieves and robbers to linger in. High lights. A midnight blaze triggered by a squirrel’s footstep. The eye can adjust to darkness, he said. So—adjust. Adjust to a handful of light photons.

Under the bed she heard the light tap-tap in the night and slip out and send its rays skittering across the bedroom floor, though always pretending, if she got up to go to the bathroom, that it was just the moon, an escaped moonbeam that had lost its way and was hurrying up to the sky.

Under the bed she heard the light let out sighs. Impatient. Regretful. Jealous. She felt the dark close in around her, tightening snug around her shoulders. She liked the dark, she really did, but still she hungered for stars. They hadn’t exactly come romping back into her life since the rest of the light was extinguished. Imprisoned, rather.

Couldn’t you let out just one little star? she asked him, sidling up against his naked body in the bed. They had more time in bed, now that there was no light. She was pleased; they had to make love without the light on.

A star? You’ve got to be joking, he said. Letting a star loose could cause all manner of unintended consequences.

The tiniest star? A miniature star? A pinprick of light? Something smaller than a star? She pressed her breasts against his back.

Don’t, he said. Don’t even think about it.

She heard the canister give a little cough.

I suppose it will talk next, she said.

What will?

Your prisoner, she said. Can’t you hear it?

Don’t be ridiculous, he said. But he was not ill-humored and he pulled her towards him, and her hair fell over her face and blocked out even the last photon of light from a stray moonbeam.

It’s for the best, he said.

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Later as they drifted into sleep, and her dreams began to fill with luminescent yellow, she heard the tin canister rolling under the bed.

Gosh, she said sleepily, wearily, it’s escaping. I hope we didn’t drive it away.

It does pay to be discreet, she heard a voice—filled with light, airiness, slipsliding-ness—say, though it wasn’t the voice of an angel. Just a light, almost brisk voice. The voice of light.

I hope we didn’t embarrass you, she replied.

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Don’t think I’m going to release it, he said, rolling over in the dark. The jet blue dark. The blue black dark. The dark that sky watchers love. Sleep talking. Don’t think I have anything to be sorry for.

You aren’t doing this out of love, she said.

Silence.

Out of something less than love?

Less, yes.

Out of—?

Forget it, he said, awake now.

Holy moley, she said. Then you’d better let it out.

I don’t think so, he said.

You’ve got a nerve, she said. It’s that Return of the Dark Movement, isn’t it? You’ve got mixed up with them. You didn’t even ask me.

What do you want? he said. Some kind of mind-blowing, light-crazed experience?

Sure, she said. Why not?

He shrugged under the covers, and shut his eyes to her.

You’re a jerk, she said. A light-fingered one.

I’ll take that as a compliment, he said.

Will you?

She stretched out one long arm and fumbled for the tin that had rolled under the bed, from his side to hers, under the cover of lovemaking. She pulled it up and tucked it under her breast like a woman about to nurse her two-month-old.

What’s going on?

Nothing. Nothing, she said.

Her fingers wrestled with the top of the canister and the grip of the tin lid, and she should have passed it to him, as she often had passed such a lid to him—ketchup bottles and mustard lids and lids of preserves—but she could not, would not; she panted, trying not to pant in the pitch-black. He had fallen back on his pillow and could not see her movements. He was falling falling because of the dark, back into a deep and restful sleep. Without moonbeams, without star beams, in the deeply original, earthy earthly dark.

Wha—? Whatsa matter? He woke seconds later. Whatareya doing?

Nothing darling, she said.

She took the canister to the bathroom, and pointed it under the bathroom tap, turning it in her hands under the hot water. Oh, she said, should I do this or not?

The container did not answer, but through its thin walls she felt a pulse of energy, a throbbing and looming, the urge of a force she had not imagined before. Like an ocean wave miles long, building to release.

Oh my god, she said, and almost dropped it.

She hugged it to her nightgown and tiptoed back to bed. The pulse grew bigger. Like a giant angel flapping its wings. Were they yellow?

She eased the lid, opening it, little by little, fearing it had the qualities of a jack-in-the-box.

And it grew, it flew, it spun hard into her face, and she lowered her eyes before it could damage them. Her husband shot up in bed.

What’s happening? he said. His arm crooked over his eyes, and the light spat and zigzagged and scowled in the darkness, rearing up like a giant white horse on mythical legs. She clawed at the lid, trying to stuff the light back in.

Rash move, he said. I could have told you—

Don’t, she said.

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The light swarmed the room. It crowded her face. It shone a light on every hair on her upper lip, and her eyebrows turning thin, and one lone hair sprouting from the middle of her chin. Merciless, she said. The light spun and spun like a monster weaving a web.

You can’t mean to be like this, she said.

Like what? it said. Too bright for you? I’m trying to turn myself down.

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Down/drown/in partnership, the dark said.

Loon, the light said. Do you want me back?

Don’t know, the dark said.

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In the glare of light the two of them exchanged glances, as if to say—a lover’s spat? We’ve been dreaming, he said instead.

Not exactly, she said. And she shook the canister upside down, in case other shards of light had been trapped.

Do you really need to be so thorough? he asked.

The light had vanished; it was still night, and the dark sucked in its breath and held the light. Strongman, it could go on like that for hours.

When she shook the canister again, a tatter of light escaped. She tried to catch it. Like a scarf just out of reach. Eventually he got out of bed with the canister, and tracked the light down for her, capturing it against the window pane, scooping it up with his hands.

Souvenir? he said.

I couldn’t, she said. It seems—inhumane, she said.

But the light clung to her, like droplets in her hair. It circled her neck, flowed down her shoulders, kneaded the aching muscles in her back.

Should you remain a secret, she asked the light when he couldn’t hear. Our secret?

The light whisked itself from her shoulders and compressed into a ball. No secret, it said, suddenly hard and glaring, like a garage light.

Please, come back, she said. Come back in yellow, not white. Come back into dreamscape. Under dreams-cape. Light, mellow light.

Oh, all right, it said, caving in a bit quicker than it wanted to.

All right, he said in a no-nonsense voice. It’s dark. We’ll wait until it’s not light enough, but dawn enough—to look for the rest of the light.

But I’m already here, it said, light-headed and light-footed, skimming across the pillows.

She elbowed him. See? she said. The return of the light. It’s got a mind of its own. Look out the window. The sun’s up.

Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Jones

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Rosemary JonesRosemary writes:
I wrote "The Tin Canister" in a couple of bursts, prompted by the theme of your competition. Recently I read an article about the shrinking number of places where it is possible to experience true darkness (the Australian desert being one of them), and I wanted to explore that idea. In the end though, the light won out, as I suspect it will in terms of the planet being over-lit, and I veered from my original thoughts into a playful portrait of a couple disagreeing over dark and light.

Rosemary Jones is an Australian who lives and works in Connecticut with her husband and two children. She teaches writing at Yale. Her stories have been published in Australian literary magazines, and she has work forthcoming in the February issue of the Mad Hatters' Review. She is currently writing a novel set in an Australian desert opal mining town. Rosemary can be reached via email at: rosemary.jones@yale.edu.

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