Wherever chiaroscuro enters, colour must lose some of its brilliancy. There is no shade in a rainbow, nor in an opal, nor in a piece of mother-of-pearl
– John Ruskin
LIGHT CAN BE SLOWED DOWN, can be made to reconsider its own path, its own desire for velocity. When light passes through glass, moving from thin air to that other more substantial material, it slows and makes a slight detour we call refraction. Refraction is matter’s way of saying: “Let’s rethink this.” Shine light through a diamond and it slows its speed by almost half because of the density of the crystal. If you lived inside a diamond, you would be twenty-five when your peers were fifty; you would live twice as long, and twice as slowly.
That Thanksgiving Day it was warm, and humid, so after dinner we went outside, full of a strange energy. In the western sky over the new-growth forest, we saw a triple rainbow. A double happens once in a while, but there were three in the sky that day after the storm, one inside the other, and we looked at them, knowing we would never see such a thing again, no matter how long we lived. The rarity of it locked us into silence; we grappled with the event the way medievalists must have contended with comets or halos around the moon, with wonder and fear as well. Wonder and fear refract our direction, bend it into new paths. The wonder takes hold of us and says “I have caught you. The fear says “I am going to change you whether you wish it or not. From now on, up will be down, and inside will be outside.” But wonder cannot last. Colors fade, especially in a rainbow.
After matter emerged from chaos, the first miracle was the creation of light, and with light came time. With time, came shadows. When the triple rainbow began to fade, we came to ourselves, the way sleepers awake, slowly and with confusion. We went back indoors carrying new desires with us and I wished I had seen the triple rainbow when I was a child, not a grown up. I think somehow things would have been different. I cleared the table of our dirtied dishes and glasses and the vase of yellow garden mums.
JEANNE MACKIN is the author of several novels and has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in journals and periodicals including American Letters and Commentary and SNReview. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and is an award-winning journalist. She teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at
“Prism” is an excerpt from a text to accompany photographs by artist Steve Poleskie. The text and photo exhibit, titled “Light and Shadow” will be exhibited at