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"Shades" (Polish: "Cienie") is one of Bolesław Prus' shortest micro-stories. Written in 1885, it comes from a several years' period of pessimism in the author's life caused partly by the 1883 failure of Nowiny (News), a Warsaw daily that he had been editing less than a year. Prus, the "lamplighter" who had striven to dispel darkness and its attendant "fear, error and crime," had failed to sufficiently interest the public in his "observatory of societal facts," Nowiny.[1]

"Shades" is one of several micro-stories by Bolesław Prus that were inspired partly by 19th-century French prose poetry.[2]


As the sun's rays die away in the heavens, twilight emerges from the earth. Twilight: a great army of the night, with thousands of invisible columns and billions of soldiers. A mighty army that from time immemorial has contended with light, broken in rout with every dawn, conquered with every nightfall, held sway from sunset to sunrise, and in the daytime, scattered, has taken refuge in places of concealment and has waited.

Waited in mountain chasms and urban cellars, in forest thickets and depths of dark lakes. Waited as it lurked in ageless caverns in the ground, in mines, ditches, corners of homes, recesses of walls. Dispersed and seemingly absent, yet it fills every nook and cranny. It is present in every crevice of tree bark, in folds of people's clothing, it lies beneath the smallest grain of sand, clings to the finest spider's thread, and waits. Flushed from one place, in the twinkling of an eye it moves to another, availing itself of the slightest opportunity to return whence it had been banished, to break into unoccupied positions and flood the earth.

As the sun expires, a twilight army, silent and cautious, moves out in serried ranks from its refuges. It fills the corridors, hallways and poorly lit staircases of buildings; from under wardrobes and tables it creeps out into the middle of the room and besets the curtains; through cellar airholes and through windows it slips out into the streets, storms in dead silence the walls and roofs and, lurking on the rooftops, patiently waits for the rosy clouds to fade away in the west.

Another moment, and there will suddenly spring up an immense explosion of darkness reaching from earth to heaven. Animals will hide in their lairs, men will run home; life, like a plant without water, will contract and begin to wither. Colors and shapes will dissolve into nothingness; fear, error and crime will take their sway over the world.

At that moment, on the streets of Warsaw that are falling desert, there appears the curious figure of a man with a small flame over his head. He dashes down the sidewalk as if pursued by the darkness, stops for an instant at each lamp, then having kindled a merry light, vanishes like a shade.

And so it is every day of the year. Whether, in the fields, spring breathes out a fragrance of blossoms, or a July storm rages; whether, in the streets, unbridled autumn gales hurl clouds of dust, or winter snows billow through the air — always, as soon as evening comes, he runs down the city's sidewalks with his little flame, kindles light, then disappears like a shade.

Where do you come from, man, and where do you keep yourself, that we know not your features nor hear your voice? Have you wife or mother who awaits your return? Or children who, having set your lantern in the corner, climb to your lap and embrace your neck? Have you friends to whom you tell your joys and sorrows, or acquaintances with whom you might speak of everyday events?

Have you, indeed, a home where you may be found? a name by which you may be called? needs and feelings that would make you a man like us? Or are you truly a formless, silent and intangible being that appears only at twilight, kindles light, then disappears like a shade?

I was told that he really was a man, and I was even given his address. I went to the tenement house and asked the porter:

"Does the man who lights the street lamps, live here?"

"Yes, he does."

"Where would that be?"

"In that cubicle."

The cubicle was locked. I looked in through the window but saw only a couch by the wall and next to it, on a tall staff, a lantern. The lamplighter wasn't in.

"At least tell me what he looks like?"

"Who knows?" shrugged the porter. "I don't even rightly know him," he added, "because he's never in by day."

Half a year later, I went there again.

"Would the lamplighter be in today?"

"Oh, no!" said the porter, "he isn't, and he won't be. Yesterday they buried him. He died."

The porter became thoughtful.

I asked about a few details and went to the cemetery.

"Gravedigger, show me where the lamplighter was buried here yesterday?"

"Lamplighter?" he repeated. "Who knows! There were thirty passengers yesterday."

"He's buried in the poorest section."

"There were twenty-five of those."

"But he was in an unvarnished coffin."

"They brought in sixteen like that."

So I never did get to know his face or name, or even see his grave. And he remained in death what he had been in life: a being visible only at twilight, mute and elusive as a shade.

Amid the murk of life, where wretched mankind gropes its way along, where some smash into obstacles, others fall into an abyss, and no one knows a secure path, where superstition-bound man is prey to mischance, misery and hate — in the dark trackless areas of life, lamplighters also bustle about. Each carries a small flame over his head, each kindles light along his path, lives unknown, labors unestimable, and then disappears like a shade...

Translated from the Polish by Christopher Kasparek.

Note on the translation:

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See also


  1. ^ Christopher Kasparek, "Two Micro-Stories by Bolesław Prus," The Polish Review, 1995, no. 1, p. 99.
  2. ^ Zygmunt Szweykowski, Twórczość Bolesława Prusa, p. 99.




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