Light Changes with the Season by Colin James Torre

part of the collection Myopia


For two years the narrator of this story lived in Mexico in a residence on a hillside more than a mile from the sea. Because he had always hated the beach, the house was in a wooded area, a pine forest, and was divided between two apartments, one on the second floor and one on the first, and it was there, in this first story apartment, that the narrator made his home.

In his life today, he says, he barely thinks of those days. What he remembers is that the light changed in November and again in March, and in what would have been the winter season the grasses on the hillside dried up and died.

He also remembers the steep staircase that led down to the roadside at the bottom of the hill. Every morning, he says, before going down the stairs, he would look from the window of his bedroom across the surrounding hills to the rooftops of the town and the antennas of the apartment towers being built. From the stairs he would cross the far side of the narrow road, passing the small gardens of his neighbors, the plots of jasmine and thistle divided by rock walls and bushes, until he came to a certain bend in the road where pedestrians were often struck and killed. He had once listened to a neighbor describe coming home to find a shoe lying on the top of a bush near his door, and ten yards from the door, face-down on the lawn, the body of a young woman.

This was the narrator’s morning; in the evenings, after work, because he liked to drink, he would return to the house by way of a commuter bus. A stone bench on the roadway served as a stop for this purpose—seated there one could enjoy a view of the sea framed by the limbs of the pines—and for many years, when he would tell people of this time in his life, the narrator would see again the bench and the view of the sea and it would feel as though he were recounting a memory that was more or less not his own.

He had gone to the coast to work as a teacher. In the holiday months in winter and in August the majority of his colleagues and students left the town to travel; it was quieter then, in those months, he says, when he walked through the forest in the morning. He would pass the hours reading or walking to the coast with the dog of the tenant upstairs, and each evening, before suppertime, he would visit the families of his students.

One family, which he saw more than the others, was run by a musician who regularly worked with the Indians living in the mountains outside the town. Several times a year this man would go into the hills with a pack of instruments and recording equipment and document the music made in the villages. And whenever the narrator visited his house the musician would insist on playing these recordings for the narrator on his hi-fi; they would sit together, the narrator and the musician and musician’s son, who was the narrator’s student, drinking tea, listening as the musician explained to them what they were hearing. In one piece, for instance, each instrument contained the spirit of an animal summoned by the incantation of its player, and as the creatures entered and dispersed across the melody, into the chronicle, the listener was meant to become aware of his presence there with them, which is to say those beside him in reality and those beside him in the infinite space of the song.

The musician’s devotion to this topic, he claimed, had more or less taken over his life. And it was true—the family’s house was filled with hundreds of the black volcanic ornaments the Indians crafted and sold to tourists in the surrounding towns – rocks that were carved into the shape of beetles, flowers, and skulls, that smelled of resin and lay on every stair and bookcase up from the doorway to the kitchen — and the musician had even made a film documenting his work on the music which he hoped place in America.

All this, the musician implied, is what the narrator had been sent to Mexico to solve. On each of his visits the musician reminded the narrator to contact his friends in the States, to send them copies of the film, copies of the music, to get them into the hands of people who mattered; and each time, after tea, the narrator was obliged to remind the musician that though he wished him the best of luck he would be of very little help to the musician to fulfill that dream. The musician always seemed to accept his apology graciously, says the narrator, but with time fewer invitations came to ask him to dine. And eventually the narrator’s time as a teacher was over, he left Mexican coast, and was able to return to his life as it was in the city.

Nevertheless, he asked for and received a copy of the film, the musician’s film, and this is what I am watching as I listen to the narrator tell his story.

It is conducted primarily from a first-person perspective. A cameraman follows a road up a hillside through a town on strange roundabouts, past painting shops and warehouses and avenues of churches and flats, into a mountain forest. From a certain perspective we can see a small and distant town, and further off the green water of the ocean.

The trees along the roadside sprout into spiked scarlet bushes and flowers with umbrellaed yellow heads that nod in the sunlight, leading us to a village of small, white stone buildings. In the village the streets are empty; through the fences we can see half deserted gardens of trees and vines. But further on, at one end of the village, is a church, also painted white, and it is here that the cameraman has reached his destination.

Inside the church, a small crowd has assembled in the pews before a group of musicians: three rows of singers, a thin, boyish drummer, and bearded flutist lead the group in song. A woman has walked into the aisle and is kneeling in a sort of intense fervor; a man takes a piece of a candle from each candlestick before the altar and lays them at her feet.

Though the people are all singing in unison, they do not necessarily do so together; some are silent for moments or even minutes while others stamp their feet to the rhythm of the drum. We are meant to believe, says the narrator, that this continues for hours while the men and women of the audience look on.

Later, at night, in a grove of pine trees, a group stands and watches two men dressed in feathers, carrying shields on their arms, as they pantomime a fight. One of the men leaps forward and threatens the other, and then backs away, while the other repeats him; coming in close and departing, circling one another in avoidance and retreat, moving all the while in time to the tread of the audience’s feet. The narrator tells me that this may or may not be a ceremony to commemorate the loneliness of the human heart, or rather the peril of the man whose heart is suspended alone in time. The rhythm here is the same as that played in the church, but now everything is soft, subtle, and delicate, and there is no accompanying song.

When the film cuts again, a day has passed. We are now at a stream in a valley. We can see cottonwood trees on the banks of a river, and a bridge on which two women covered in black shawls lead two columns of men dressed in animal skins. As they proceed across the bridge the lines of animals walk in tandem: deer, buffalo, bear, wolf, coyote; in the rear two boys, dressed as foxes, move in slow silence under the noonday sun. In the hills in the background it is possible to see, within a dark spot of trees, the white buildings of the village and the spire of the church. Further away, along the foothills are green squares of the village farms and, beyond them, the mouth of a cleft of a little canyon.

We watch for a little while and the narrator tells me that it is incredible to him that what is shown in the film happened in the same place he lived long ago, in a life he can no longer remember. The hills are those of his apartment, he says, the same trees and the same village road he walked along during his morning routine. It is incredible to him that in two years he did not know such a life was so close to him, and that in two years he never left the sea.




Colin James Torre is a librarian. He lives in Brooklyn.