The Nefirobe neighbourhood sits on a small hill at the northern end of the Lekaro district, just to the west of the much larger hill of Labetachi. In the reigns of Bulodi II and of the empress Aritokéhhe neighbourhood was a very fashionable address. The area was badly hit during the great plague known as the Blue Death, however, and never fully recovered. Its wealthy residents resettled to the east, in the Topla district, and their large and elegant former houses were subdivided into workers’ tenements. Despite the fact that it is located next to the extremely affluent neighbourhood on the western side of Labetachi Hill, Nefirobe is now a poor and more-or-less forgotten corner of the city.
In this print, we are presented with a view of one of Nefirobe’s characteristically steep and narrow side streets, which descend towards the Nachilatizabu (“Tizabu Canal”) between high stone buildings. It is near nightfall, and a lamplighter is going about his duties. We see his aged-looking hand holding a horizontally placed ladder, which is presumably resting on his shoulder. In one of the artist’s recurring compositional strategies, these elements are placed in the extreme foreground, in such a way as to place the viewer in the role of a participant in the scene—in this case, that of the old lamplighter. Looking down towards the bottom of the street between two rungs of the ladder, we see that there is a young woman leaning against the stone balustrade bordering the canal. She would appear to be waiting for someone—perhaps, since she is looking towards the water, someone arriving by boat. Her body language seems to suggest a mixture of nervousness and impatience. In spite of the distance and the failing light, it is clear to us she is uncommonly beautiful.
Who is she waiting for? She seems too respectably dressed to be a prostitute, and yet she must know it is highly unsafe for a woman to be out by herself in this area at this time of the evening—not to mention quite improper. The mind races wildly. Is she the daughter of a wealthy family in West Labetachi, who has made arrangements to elope with her secret beau? Or has she gotten involved in some shady affairs? Is she meeting with her dealer? Or could this have something to do with the fact that Tizabu Prison (See n. 7) is located nearby, on the other side of the canal? Perhaps a relative got on the wrong side of the imperial government and has been imprisoned there, and now she is waiting to receive some news about him from a source inside the prison? But no, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and the most likely scenario in this case is that this is an assignation with a lover. Perhaps there is an empty room nearby that they use. But then, wouldn’t it be safer to meet there directly? It is all quite mysterious.
If it is a lover she is waiting for, he must be quite a captivating figure to have induced this young woman to put herself in such a potentially compromising and even dangerous situation. Perhaps he is already almost here, paddling softly through the darkening water in a small punt. Perhaps he has just has caught sight of the girl’s furtive silhouette against the last remnants of the evening light. Perhaps, in this fleeting moment before she becomes aware of his presence, he is briefly able to imagine how the situation he is presently living—so full of tortured indecision and overhanging heartache, and of all the myriad complications that have necessitated this clandestine rendezvous—might appear to an outsider, as an exhilarating and almost impossibly romantic adventure.
And in another life—who knows?—this young man could indeed find himself in the position of the old lamplighter, looking down upon the scene with the same sudden awareness of the beautiful, inaccessible mystery of existence as one sometimes experiences when gazing up at the stars. It is a sight almost painful to linger on, yet so infinitely… beyond everything else. For that which one is seeing with one’s eyes is only a small part of it. That which one is seeing with one’s eyes is really almost nothing. It is through all that one projects on them of what is deepest and most fundamentally inexpressible inside of one that such visions cast their inescapable spell.
The temptation now for the lamplighter would be to put down his ladder and tinderbox, hide in the nearest doorway, and wait to see who shows up. But if such an action would have seemed ridiculous and undignified in his youth, at his age it seems unbecoming even to contemplate it. Besides which, it is getting late. He has a home and bed to get back to, and his own familiar constellations to finish planting upon the vast dark emptiness of the city.