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Alan Lightman

Imagine a world in which people live just one day. Either the rate of heartbeats and breathing is speeded up so that an entire lifetime is compressed to the space of one turn of the earth on its axis—or the rotation of the earth is slowed to such a low gear that one complete revolution occupies a whole human lifetime. Either interpretation is valid. In either case, a man or woman sees one sunrise, one sunset.

In this world, no one lives to witness the change of the seasons. A person born in December in any European country never sees the hyacinth, the lily, the aster, the cyclamen, the edelweiss, never sees the leaves of the maple turn red and gold, never hears the crickets or the warblers. A person born in December lives his life cold. Likewise, a person born in July never feels a snowflake on her cheek, never sees the crystal on a frozen lake, never hears the squeak of boots on fresh snow. A person born in July lives her life warm. The variety of seasons is learned about in books.

In this world, a life is planned by light. A person born at sunset spends the first half of his life in nighttime, learns indoor trades like weaving and watchmaking, reads a great deal, becomes intellectual, eats too much, is frightened of the vast dark outdoors, cultivates shadows. A person born at sunrise learns outdoor occupations like farming and masonry, becomes physically fit, avoids books and mental projects, is sunny and confident, is afraid of nothing.

Both sunset and sunrise babies flounder when the light changes. When sunrise comes, those born at sunset are overwhelmed by the sudden sight of trees and oceans and mountains, are blinded by daylight. When sunset comes, those born at sunrise wail at the disappearance of birds in the sky, the layered shades of blue in the sea, the hypnotic movement of clouds. They wail and refuse to learn the dark crafts indoors, lie on the ground and look up and struggle to see what they once saw.

In this world in which a human life spans but a single day, people heed time like cats straining to hear sounds in the attic. For there is no time to lose. Birth, schooling, love affairs, marriage, profession, old age must all be fit within one transit of the sun, one modulation of light. When people pass on the street, they tip their hats and hurry on. When people meet at houses, they politely inquire of each other’s health and then attend to their own affairs. When people gather at cafes, they nervously study the shifting of shadows and do not sit long. Time is too precious. A life is a moment in season. A life is one snowfall. A life is one autumn day. A life is the delicate, rapid edge of a closing door’s shadow. A life is a brief movement of arms and of legs.

When old age comes, whether in light or in dark, a person discovers that he knows no one. There hasn’t been time. Parents have passed away at midday or midnight. Brothers and sisters have moved to distant cities, to seize passing opportunities. Friends have changed with the changing angle of the sun. Houses, towns, jobs, lovers have all been planned to accommodate a life framed in one day. A person in old age knows no one. He talks to people, but he does not know them. His life is scattered in fragments of conversation, forgotten by fragments of people. His life is divided into hasty episodes, witnessed by few. He sits at his bedside table, listens to the sound of his running bath, and wonders whether anything exists outside of his mind. Did that embrace from his mother really exist? Did that laughing rivalry with his school friend really exist? Did his lover exist? Where are they now, as he sits at his bedside table, listening to the sound of his running bath, vaguely perceiving the change of the light.


A section from Alan Lightman’s ridiculously imaginative collection of short stories Einstein’s Dreams.