Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Zachariah McNaughton lives in Sarasota Florida with his wife and two cats. He’s published poetry, stories and translations in various magazines and online publications, including Underground Voices Magazine, Poesy, and Abraxas. This week he brings us a short story entitled The Cameraman. Although Zachariah has not shared a F/SF/H story with Toad as such, she really likes this dark, evocative piece and has decided to share it anyway.

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The Cameraman

I found the photograph in the sink. Well to be more precise I found it in the cabinet underneath the sink. I ventured into its shadowy back corners looking for any kind of disinfectant to clean the bathtub before I used it. (It was a public bathroom shared by other tenants in the same building.) A few strings of cobwebs had attached themselves to it when I found it, lying upside down at the very back of the cabinet.

I don’t know how to explain it really. There’s a rarely quoted corollary that states behind every picture is a thousand words. But I don’t even know how to begin. It is hard enough to write or say anything without twisting the truth, stretching it out or smushing it flat, but to describe a picture in words is next to impossible.

Perhaps I should begin by describing the photograph itself and not even bother right now with the picture on the photograph. It consists of a thin cardboard-like paper, mostly white on the back side, except for some yellowish discoloring, a paisley spot of mold and a heavy crease running lengthwise, that is, horizontally down the center, crossing through the actual picture on the other side as well. It holds approximately the same dimensions as a notecard one uses to take notes or in studying. So far, so good. There is a looped piece of duct tape on the back side that still holds some flakes of green paint in its glue. Of course this came later, when I taped the photograph on the wall above my desk and left it there for some time. Several years or so, I can’t remember exactly how long it was, only that it was long enough that I’ve begun to look at it without even seeing it.

Now the picture―before I get to the actual picture I would like to beg a small favor from the reader. I would like you to imagine the photograph as I’ve described it so far, resting in your hand between thumb and forefinger. I want you to look at the picture and clear your mind of any expectation. It’s very much like going to someone’s house for the first time. Before you get there, some vague idea forms in the back of your mind about the layout and arrangement of the house, perhaps based on your knowledge of the owner’s personality or affluence, perhaps influenced by some childhood dream of a house or even just a passing fancy at the moment that the idea of this particular house first crossed your mind. Now I want you to cancel that expectation. Look at the picture without envisioning it. Imagine you are blind and have been so since birth. Now consider what you would think a picture must look like. Close your eyes and visualize visualization. Empty space. Perhaps an x and a y axis, maybe a word or even just a symbol that equates the idea of image.

Now with that understanding, the understanding that there is absolutely no expectation of what the picture might or might not look like, I shall begin to describe it as I first saw it upon my chance discovery at the bottom of a utility cabinet beneath the sink of a fourth floor apartment bathroom with only the unpolished white tile floor as a background.

The first shape to jump out is a human being. A woman in the center of the image. Her head tilts downward at a slight angle but her shoulders remain perpendicular to the line of sight of the camera lens. She is facing the camera standing in front of a mirror but there is no glimpse of the camera or the person behind the camera, except perhaps, and I’m getting ahead of myself here, an elbow just to the left of the woman, or from her point of view, just behind her and to the right. Well now I’ve gotten myself into trouble. The elbow is only behind her and to the right if we imagine that her image in the mirror is actually her. If we imagine that she herself, that is, the physical manifestation of herself, which is outside of the picture, is actually her, then the elbow would in fact lie slightly behind her and to the left.

So far I’ve served only to muddy the water. From the point of view of what the picture actually is, the elbow is unimportant. It is barely noticeable and I don’t think I saw it until I questioned where the camera must have been placed to take such a frontal view of a mirror image without itself being seen.

The room, and I conclude that it is indeed a room from the surroundings, is most likely a bathroom. Beneath the mirror lies a small wooden ledge, (or something that looks very much like wood.) On top of this ledge a great many bottles and vials cluster together along the mirror. But if you count them, there are not as many as it seems. The mirror serves to double the count and that gives it a very crowded feel. They appear to be toiletries: lip balm, perfume, lipstick, dental floss, and an oval box―perhaps a powder box, with its lid propped half-opened towards the mirror so that only in the mirror image does one get a tiny sliver of a peek of its contents, something dark and intangible against the glossy reflection of the inner metallic lining of the box. There is no toothbrush or toothpaste apparent.

From the photograph I can only conclude that the picture is of a woman putting her makeup on.

On the far left of the picture, to the actual woman’s far left and to the right of the visual woman in the mirror, the picture gradually brightens from the orange wallpaper with a faded pattern, to a soft yellow, and terminating in a faint white glow at the very edge of the photograph. To my mind there are only three possible explanations of this phenomenon.

First, there may in fact be a window. This was my first impression. There are distinct lines or ripples along the color gradation that insinuate a very thin, gauze-like curtain, behind which one might expect to find a window. It is possible. But it is also possible that I was unduly influenced by my initial impression that the bathroom in which I found the photograph was one and the same with the bathroom in the picture.

In my bathroom there is also a mirror, though it’s newer, recently installed, and certainly not the same mirror as the one in the picture. There is also a window in my bathroom just to the left of the mirror from my point of view facing my reflection, or, if one were to take a picture of my reflection in the mirror, the window would be to the right of my visual image in the mirror, just like the window in reference to the woman’s visual image. However, in my bathroom there is no wallpaper, not even faded wallpaper, but plain white paint. And the window has no curtain. Of course mirrors can be changed, wallpaper can be stripped, and window curtains taken away, but there is simply not enough evidence either way. I cannot say with any degree of certainty that the bathroom in the picture is or is not the bathroom where I make my toilet every morning and evening.

Sometimes, I like to assume that they are the same bathroom. I take the photograph with me into the bath and look at it and feel a unity with this ghost of a person who stood in the exact same room, only at a different time. But also I enjoy imagining that it is a completely different bathroom in a completely different house that I’ve never been in or even seen. And then the picture becomes my single keyhole through which I view one single moment of the inner workings of the bathroom of a strange home. I watch, without any fear of ever being caught, a complete stranger, who may or may not even live there herself, as she conducts the chore of applying, or possibly removing make-up.

There is another explanation for the brightening of the image at the far end of the photograph. The photograph may have simply faded. The edge may have been exposed to more sunlight than the rest of the picture. Perhaps someone slipped the photograph under a book on a window ledge or in the back of a car and left it there for an extended period of time, long enough to cause the exposed portion of the photograph to fade. I don’t like to linger on this possibility, however real it may be. When I look at it this way, I begin to feel quite mortal. I can see the process of decay in the photograph. And although it may continue to exist for a long time, I cannot deny the inevitability that this picture too must perish. For some reason that is even harder for me to face than my own death. I know that one day I’ll die. I prefer not to dwell on that fact, but if pushed to it, I must admit that it is more than a possibility or a probability, but an absolute certainty, that I will die. I will cease to breathe. But at least in my death there is some consolation. I will continue to live on in the memories of those who loved me. But even after everyone who ever knew me dies, pictures of me will still exist. Long after I am completely forgotten and everyone who knew people who knew me dies, pictures of me will continue to exist. After every particle in my being is broken down and scattered and reattached as various other atoms and molecules, the visual proof of my existence will remain, if only in the back of a moldy cabinet of some future bathroom for some imaginary stranger to find as he looks around for cleaning supplies. But if the picture itself decays? Then what remains? The ripple expands outward indefinitely, past the sky, past the moon, past the solar system and Voyagers I and II until the riptide that was my existence, mingled with six billion other existences, expands to encompass the universe as far as humans can perceive and beyond. It frightens me to think of a decaying photograph. I would prefer any other possible alternative to this one.

There is another possibility. It came to me after a long, restless dream. What if the camera malfunctioned? Maybe the film itself had been partially exposed before the photograph had ever been taken. Then the picture was compromised from the beginning. The art of observation is a subtle one. Cameras, in which we place the power to create facts, the ultimate tool in empirical evidence, are subject to every possible trick that light can play. Spheres, orbs, halos, UFOs can all be ascribed to the finicky nature of captured light. Yes, it does travel in a straight line. But it also bends, vibrates, pulsates, twinkles. It can cast shadows. It travels for millions of light years and still ends up in some whirlpool of gravity to disappear forever. We don’t understand it. It’s beyond us, surrounds, encompasses us all the time and we have only two soggy eyes to detect it, or even less reliable, the clumsy click of a camera shutter taking in light for a fragment of a second and storing it on film.

Something bothers me about this possibility. Somehow it feels dishonest, like a shirking of responsibility, to blame it on the camera. But any rational creature must admit to the possibility of error.

Amidst the turbulence of determining the causes and effects, the ebb and flow of all the various possibilities of reflected light recorded onto a photograph, I’ve forgotten the most important point. The picture is of a woman. And that may indeed be a rather anthrocentric interpretation of the picture, but neither am I completely unbiased as an observer. I, too, am homo sapiens. And in any picture in which a human figure is centered, I will always take that person as my focus. And if the reader is humanoid as well, we cannot help but share the same bias. The question we all beg is, who is this woman? I don’t know. I don’t know! All I can see is her face, tilted downwards. Her face is serenely expressionless. It is the face of someone engaged in a routine task, a task that one can do, and often does do, without conscious thought. Inside, she might be anywhere―in her memories, in her ideas, anywhere within the sphere of what she can possibly imagine. Or nowhere at all. Perhaps her mind is blank. Like imagining a picture without visualizing it. A complete spatial-geometrical balance of emptiness. Like a lava lamp in the one unrecorded moment in the history of lava lamps when all the wax particles perfectly and uniformly distribute themselves throughout the water. In short, we cannot say what she is thinking or not thinking. Only a poet or a liar would dare to try.

But the facts! And there are facts, as far as they go. Her hair is pinned to the top of her head. It is gray. Gray-ish. There are hints of other colors. Black, brown, and blonde. She might have been a redhead. But she is certainly past middle age. If pressed, I would guess her age to lie somewhere between 48 and 55. She doesn’t look old. In fact, her face looks young. There are no detectable wrinkles. But she feels tired. She looks tired. She looks like she feels tired. But she is not unattractive, if in my position as a predominantly heterosexual male in his late twenties in the year 2007 BCE does not disqualify my opinion, then I would even venture to say that she is beautiful.

Perhaps that is why I slipped the photograph into my shirt pocket upon discovering it, instead of tossing it back to its original obscurity in disgust. I was attracted to the woman, to the picture, to the picture of the woman in the photograph. Even now, several years later, it does not cease to stimulate me. Who is this woman? Why is she so perfectly expressionless? Why am I so intrigued?

It is rare to find a photograph of a human without any hint of motion or pose. We are observant creatures. We notice when someone has a camera. We notice elbows in mirrors behind us, or in front of us in the reflections of mirrors. Under any observation we immediately become self-conscious, shy, but especially around a camera. We know that anyone might find what a camera discovers. Someone might steal our souls. But in the bathroom, in the middle of our hygienic routine, we are intensely jealous of our privacy. Particularly women, if I may be so bold as to suggest a definite general trend of difference in behavior between men and women, value their privacy, particularly in the bathroom, particularly while making their toilet. I do not know. I cannot know it. But I sense that this woman is completely unaware that a picture is being taken while she looks down at something in her hands above what is most likely the bathroom sink, in front of a cluttered pile of hygiene products.

I don’t know. I can’t know why she attracts me so much, intrigues me to the point that I stare and stare and can’t stop staring. She never ages in the picture. She never moves. Her eyes remain forever downward so that I can only ever see the oval curves of her eyelids and eyelashes. She will never look up and see me. Or the person taking the picture.

And therein lies the greatest mystery of the photograph. The elbow. It may not even be an elbow, it may be a plaid wash-cloth hanging from a hook on the door, somehow twisted and hanging in a way to assume the shape of a human joint. But I believe it is an elbow. I believe it with my entire being―body, soul, and spirit! It is the person taking the picture. I know it. As far as I can know anything, I know this, that the shape in the reflection of the mirror in the bathroom in the picture on the photograph is a human being grasping a camera and taking a picture of a woman at a bathroom sink.

And you can argue with me. You can attempt to dissuade me. You can use every conceivable argument or even throw back in my face the arguments I’ve already put forth concerning the light along the edge of the photograph and the possible causes and reasons for it, you can take the photograph out of my hands by force, burn it in front of my eyes and tell me it is all a lie, a trick, a freak accident. But I can no more deny the truth of the elbow than I can deny the breath in my lungs, or the consciousness in my brain. The elbow exists or I do not.

And now I see I’ve gotten carried away. Forgive me. This is something I feel passionate about. I consider myself somewhat duty-bound as far as my testimony concerning this photograph is concerned. If I allow myself a little leeway it’s because I’ve looked at it for a long time and I believe if I were called as witness in a court of law my opinion would be considered expert and therefore valid. There is an elbow! There is a cameraman!

But I may have omitted one small, possibly inconsequential, detail of the photograph. In the bottom right hand of the photograph there are four letters printed in white. July. And below that word, two digits. 87. The picture is recorded as being taken twenty years ago. The cameraman, this woman, may still be living. Still breathing. Somehow this picture came into my possession from theirs. Somehow, in some way, I am already connected to them. But for all I fight and rage and tear at myself inside over their identities, I may have already met them. Perhaps she was the woman I honked in the mall parking lot. Or perhaps he was the man I passed on the park bench on my way home this morning. I couldn’t tell for sure.

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