The Scourge of Darkness

Norman Lock

We sent for Edison, because of the darkness. The darkness had finally unnerved us. It was insupportable -- the darkness at the heart. And so we sent for him, never believing for a moment that he would come, that Edison would come. Hoping, yes! -- but full of doubt and mindful of our great presumption. But Africa made us extremely nervous. So we sent for him. "Come at once!" we telegraphed. "Come at once" in dots and dashes. And by God he came! We couldnít believe it. We could not believe that he would come. But he did -- and faster, too, than any of us thought possible. He arrived within minutes of our telegraphing -- his blue workmanís jacket smoking, his hair standing on end, and the air crackling all around him.

"You sent for me," he said irritably.

We saw that he was tired: he had been working for three days without sleep in his West Orange laboratory to pry open the secret of the electric eel.

"Yes," we said sheepishly. "Itís the darkness, you see -- the accursed, infernal darkness. It makes us nervous."

We took off our safari hats and wrung them apologetically.

Edison walked up and down, studying the darkness. He did so with the air of a connoisseur, of a man who has looked at the dark and learned to appreciate its subtleties. He felt around in it like someone caressing velvet draperies.

We waited to hear what he would say -- what Edison would say.

For a long while, he said nothing, only sighed -- sighed a dark and velvety sigh that brought us to the edge of a swoon.

At last he asked for a towel with which to wipe the darkness from his hands.

"It is, indeed, dark," he said frowning.

We were glad to hear that we had not been mistaken.

"Yes, yes -- this is no ordinary dark," he said.

We cheered him then and there for confirming what we had suspected but were never able to verify because of the taint on our judgment that came from years of exposure to Africa.

"I should like to measure it," he said decisively.

"By all means -- measure it!" we assented.

*

We went to the rest house and watched through the window as Edison took the measure of our darkness with a special instrument. He made notes in a little book after each sighting. We admired his composure -- how he did not flinch from the blackness that roiled about him. As he penetrated its most profound depths, he was enfolded; and we lost sight of him.

"Dear Mr. Edison!" we cried. And then we prayed, each of us in his own way, that the great man should not be obliterated.

Time passed; little by little our spirits fell.

He reappeared. He folded his instrument and beckoned to us.

We filed out, hardly daring to look him in the face.

"It is a darkness on a scale such as I have never before observed," he said, his voice trembling slightly. "I reckon it at -9.7; -10 is absolute darkness, which cannot be measured because the minimum illumination needed to read the instrument is .3." He paused, cleared his throat, and said, "Gentlemen, we are standing in the vestibule of absolute darkness."

We shuddered. We knew it was dark, but not how dark!

Exhausted, Edison returned with us to the rest house. We noticed that he was nervous and began to misgive. (Africa has such power to shake one!) He asked for broth, and we gave it to him. He asked that all the lanterns be lit, and we lit them.

"I wish I had my electric underwear," he said, "to pep me up."

"We have no electricity!" we exclaimed.

"But you telegraphed."

"With our minds. Itís a little trick Quigley learned at the Institute for Psychical Research."

Edison fell silent, considering this new difficulty.

"Then you wonít be able to illuminate our miserable darkness?"

"I didnít say that," he said.

He rose to his feet and went outside. He stood there a moment, confronting the vast indifference, then turned to us and shouted:

"By God I will do it! I, Thomas Alva Edison, Scourge of Darkness, will do it!"

"Hooray!" we shouted, tossing our hats into the general obscurity.

*

Edison scooped up a bit of concentrated darkness that had collected around the base of a baobab tree and locked himself in the rest house (requisitioned as a laboratory) to experiment on it. During the ensuing

hours, we heard screams; but whether they were Edisonís or the darkís we could not say.

That night (I refer to a temporal concept, not a perceptible event --

day and night being indistinguishable where all is always dark) a haggard Edison emerged from the rest house. He spread his hands before him in a gesture of defeat.

"It cannot be done," he said.

We responded with groans.

*

For several days, Edison lay at the foot of the baobab tree. He did not speak. He did not move. We could not see his eyes -- whether open or closed -- in that thick murk. We feared he had caught the sleeping sickness and would remain dormant for months.

In despair, Toby committed a most dreadful suicide, much in use at the time: he opened his mouth wide and swallowed the darkness.

"I am drowning!" he cried at the last.

Captain Slade proposed a little comic relief "to lighten the situation," but we found his jest in poor taste.

We tightened the handkerchiefs around our mouths and withdrew.

*

Edison awoke with a bright idea. Thankfully for us he did not have the sleeping sickness: he had merely slept in the usual way of our kind.

"I think even in my sleep," he explained. "And I have thought profoundly of the dark."

We took heart.

"Iíll capture it on film!" he announced; then bury it underground in absolute darkness where it will be unable to escape -- that darkness being greater than this by .3."

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" we laughed scornfully. "What an absurd idea!"

"Doubting Thomases!" he chided.

Ashamed of our bad manners, we went into the jungle and hid. When we returned to apologize, we found him chagrined.

"My movie camera is in New Jersey," he said.

Hanby recalled that George Méliès had left his camera behind after filming An African Fantasy. The porters parted with it reluctantly (and only after the promise of additional green umbrellas), believing it an instrument of magic.

We presented the camera to Edison and then, having come to the end of our strength, retired to the dining-tent for cocktails.

*

"My God, itís getting lighter!" we shouted. "Can it be heís done it after all?"

We left the dining-tent in search of Edison. We found him in a clearing. Darkness swirled about like smoke. Here and there it was thin enough to distinguish individual blades of grass.

"Look!" shouted Quigley. "Stars!"

The Stygian darkness had dispelled to such an extent that we could, indeed, see stars, which had long been hidden in obscurity.

"Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Sirius!" we cried.

As we stood and watched, the night turned gray and the stars were quenched by the feeble light.

"Edison!" we intoned, ready to exalt him. "Oh, Edison!"

But he was troubled.

"The operation was not a 100% success," he confessed sadly. "The dark is too palpable, too thick. You can see how it still clings to the walls of the rest house, the edges of the leaves, and to the backs of your hands."

He was right. It needed the sun, but the sun would not rise.

"But the worst is over," we said, trying to cheer him. "Itís not nearly so dark as before."

"Gray!" moaned Edison, who loved clarity above all. "Everything is gray!"

"We can learn to live with Ďgray,í" we said. "We can learn to love it!"

He shook his head and left us as inexplicably as he had arrived, leaving behind the acrid smell of electricity.

"Gray will soon be our favorite color!" we called after him, such was our joy, such was our gratitude.

But he had returned once more to daylight and the incandescent night.

*

Did we miss night? Some did. Quigley, Hanby, and others did, remembering, with a sentimental fondness, how they would retreat behind the shuttered windows of the rest house. Their long shadows waved against the walls, while foxtrots crackled on the gramophone and white-coated house-boys passed dreamily among them. Those who now missed the night had made for themselves a dream life and would gladly have returned to the darkness to dream again. They were depressed by unvarying gray days - neither day nor night but only time, which seemed unbearably present, oppressive, and slow. For my part, I found the grayness congenial; for in it I detected the bones of the world, all but invisible in blackness or in the blinding light. Was I a philosopher then? No; at that time, I was one who was fascinated by death.

Edison never returned to Africa, in spite of Quigley's distress calls. But once a crate arrived from Menlo Park, New Jersey, containing a machine to regulate light that would return to us - Edison declared in a brief note - the natural alternation of day and night. But the apparatus, mostly glass, was smashed beyond repair.

So we went on, there, in that way, that gray way, until the sun one morning did rise; and we resumed our lives as they had been before the darkness had engulfed us. And, for a while, lived as you do. But only for a while.

© 2001 Norman Lock


In addition to fiction, Norman Lock's plays have been performed on major stages in America and Germany. "The House of Correction" was judged one of the ten best plays of 1988 and (for its revival) 1994 by the critics of the Los Angeles Times; it was also called "The best new play" of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Four radio dramas have been broadcast by WDR, Germany's largest radio station. He is also the author of a film short screened at theatre festivals in the U.S. and Canada, and served as script consultant of the feature film adaptation of his play "The House of Correction". HNLOCK@aol.com

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