The Change of Nothing (A Short Story)

*Written on February 24th, 2020.

The Change of Nothing (A Short Story)

He sat amidst a swirl of voices. The voices were muddled and punctually interrupted by the sound of an espresso machine—“crrrshee!”—before returning the their homeostatic melody. He’d been there for some time, books splaying in different directions, carving a semi-circle round him. One would think he was hiding behind this edifice. The tallest stack rose just a few inches below his nose. Though it appeared unorganized, there was a strict order to this paperback fortress. First, all the book spines faced him, making it feel as if he was in a private library. Second, they were placed in order by size, with the largest books on the bottom and the smallest on top. Book height was especially important in this schema. Even if a book is significantly thicker than another, it cannot be placed on bottom unless the thicker book is longer than the other, and so on. Else, you’d have spines lurching out at our reader, frightening him from lack of order. The fortress served a sublime yet practical purpose for this man. 

With his headphones snugged in, the man rocked slowly as he read his paperback, despite the lack of beat or tune to his music. Between the intermittent rocking, he swung his head up and down. Beginning by looking down at the book, he’d swing his head up rapidly to type his notes as if they would evaporate. He reads, then swings, pecking rapidly at his keyboard—“pah!..pah!..pah!.pha!” […silence…] “pah!..pah!..pah!.pha!” His quick undulation allows him (in his mind) to not miss a step of the author’s logic. He cannot misstep. Nor can his notes, which externalize his frantic mind on the smudged screen. 

The man is unaware of his peculiar facial expressions as he pecks away, not noting the in-and-outs of those around him. He only notes—the notes. In his mind, they form a tectonic structure allowing him to decipher the author’s intent. Every book is a building intricately constructed, and therefore, intricately deconstructed to be understood. As he reads, he climbs the scaffolding. For fear of heights, he pecks down more notes. He reads and pecks and reads and pecks, as he scales the walls and explores the chambers of the author’s mind. His fortress insulates him from the cosmopolitan milieu surrounding.

As he records his meticulous observations, he relents to take a break from slapping the keys. Removing his headphones, he leans back to take a breath. His mind had been spinning, weaving thoughts into cerebral structures. It had spun and spun. And now, like the wobbling of a top, he waited until it came to rest. Crossing right leg over left, he panned toward the broad window, basking in the light floating toward him. The sun was descending, but because of the reflection from the waxy table nearby its rays were moving upward. They were creeping from his hips toward his navel, slowly painting his body with warmth. The rays warmed something inside the man, as a pot slow to boil, converting him into a prism waiting to be peered through, waiting to cast an image into the world from which it came. 

As he gazed out the window, his vision focused on the passing strangers. All moved slowly. The moment moved like an unhurried falling snow—silent and sublime. Everything was as it should be. Everything was in its right place. He altered nothing yet was altered by this nothing. The nothing did not appear by chance. It was the product of a life given and taken in its own idiosyncratic manner. Like a painting, when you see it, an initial impression is given, of which you become a slave. Though in this art-observer dance, the painting has labored for its impression, and the greedy viewer may only consume its initial aesthetic dimple—the sugary crust atop the savory center. But it is the viewer’s further examination that reveals the long-labored center—it’s ripest fruit. The viewer must pry his mind open, allowing the painting to be wafted toward him like catching a feather in still air. When one grasps it, or rather, is grasped by it—all falls into place, settling gently, organically, yet precisely by the nature, the life, of the artist. The painting no longer is a trivial interest. It is something more.  

This is how the man viewed the scene. And not only did his vision arrest it, his intuition escaped its limits. Falling light, bright refractions from heavily waxed oak, cool concrete spackled with divots, and various shuffled newspapers entered him as qualities. Just as the content of one’s painting, the melding of colors and shapes, cannot be quantified, neither could this man’s scene. Refusing naivety, he acknowledged the moment as the movement that it was, uncontrolled, never present but unfurling and melting from past to future. He acknowledged its fickleness, though he could not allow thoughts to pollute its holy stream. He feared stirring its waters. 

As these waters ran gently, it emerged—the fruit of his passive reflection. He was unafraid to speak it. Beneath his breath he whispered; “I’ll make something beautiful of this life, even if it kills me.” 

As the words melted into the bustle around him—the “crrrshee!” of espresso and the boots thumping gently across the cool concrete floor—the man could no longer remain. He felt thrust into the world. Returning to the fruit of his reflection, the infamous line from Twelfth Night emerged. He whispered it aloud; “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” He felt as if he understood its profundity—its jest and beauty. But these lines were too much to meditate on. He no longer felt the need to read or think. His paperback fortress had lost its efficacy. He only felt it necessary to depart. He sensed he could wait no longer. All his life seemed directed toward this moment, a final push toward an unexplainable “ought.” The ought, its true fruit, he could not know. He only knew it must be.   

The light had slowly been approaching his face. It now shone on his chin, revealing the particularities of it. It was so warm. He lingered. He knew that he was meant to go. Yet he felt bold, strangely audacious. He felt like playing fate. He remained. As the seconds ticked in his mind, he felt the sun’s warmth rise round his chin. It felt not like a ray, a measurable reality. It felt as a golden, enigmatic embrace, though he feared it, he was more fearful of its absence. The warmth kept rising, despite the sun’s descent. What would happen if he lingered? What would incur if it grazed his porous cheeks? What if, it engulfed his being?   

As time creeped and his audacity held firm, the warmth began to feel oceanic as it encroached his cheeks. Ever since the sun grazed his bare ankles, he had felt it. He had been unaware that the waters were rising, but now, he began to see its depths and intensity. As the rays slowly ascended, he became aware of its terrifying presence. It was swirling as a whirlpool. All was light, except the horizon. He sensed that the horizon held the immaterial “ought” he had received. But the center of the whirlpool made him motionless. Like some sort of primordial womb, he longed for the light to immerse him, to return to some unknown known. In the center, there lied a colorless darkness—a point—growing in perfect symmetry. He had never seen or imagined such. 

Sounds began to emerge and grow in intensity. Strange sounds unheard. Dark, deep, primitive hums and clatters, chaotically creating and destroying. They hailed symbols within his senses, intuitions of truths not known nor forgotten. The horizon was still descending, becoming smaller and smaller. But he delayed. He feared leaving, but he feared not staying even more. He felt like the unknown-known, the colorless point, longed for union with him, though also felt this kairotic moment was not his. 

The chaotic clashing of unheard sounds and colorless colors were reaching a climax as they submerged the horizon. The wind began to vacuum the air, exuding the smell of scent’s absence, of void. Rising to a screaming pitch, an ancient shriek, rising and rising and rising, thrumming and thrumming rhythmically, louder and louder and louder—until he took a deep breath, a breath that scraped his esophagus and lungs as it went down, he inhaled just a speck of that colorless point—as all went quiet. 


The man with legs crossed released the breath. A sturdy grin overcame his face, so strong he feared it would leave it perennially furrowed. The whirlpool had passed. He knew what to do. A groundless hope had settled in him. Unburdened, he stood quickly and elegantly, releasing the tension accrued in his thighs. He exited, not minding the pile of paperbacks left behind.

The cold air greeted him. As he looked at the faces of those passing by, he saw the suffering each carried in their own way. He saw the colorless point in their eyes—the whirlpool—and the horizon behind them, eclipsing their frowns. The sun was finally setting. 

With a youthful glow settling on his skin, he remembered the line. “I’ll makes something beautiful of this life, even if it kills me,” he whispered aloud. And the world awaited its new visitor, welcoming him with the light of darkness, as he walked to his immaterial “ought”—that unknown-known—carrying a strange and unexplainable hope. Breathing out, he walked on. 

Photo Credit: Victor Freitas

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