Like this life, the afterlife is unfair. A woman dies at twenty-nine and leaves her infant daughter behind. Eight years later she is still trapped on the other side. When I’m in my happiest frame of mind, I imagine Veronica searching for my darkroom each time I turn on the blood-red light. In my darkest moments, I know I’m failing her. She still hasn’t arrived.
I’m an experienced photographer. I should be able to do better.
Forget ghost stories and the spiritual emanations reported at places like Gettysburg and Edinburgh Castle. Forget death’s cricket song: the sound that slips across no matter what we living humans do. True paths between this world and the next appeared less than two hundred years ago when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce developed the first photograph. Niépce exposed a specially treated sheet of pewter for eight hours. The image was hard to make out, but it was a photograph all the same: a view of Niépce’s estate from a second-story window. Niépce’s photograph was the first physical pathway between the living and the dead. It wasn’t the last. After Niépce came Louis Daguerre with his daguerreotypes and Henry Fox Talbot and his paper-based process. Miraculous—all of it. With each developed print another physical doorway appeared.
Long before Veronica’s death and everything that followed, I understood the power of film. The one secret that all photographers know: only physical images offer an actual path to our living world. It is the chemicals—the darkness—the photographer’s intention—that cuts through death’s wall. No photographer is ever really alone. When we’re working, our darkrooms are like crowded railway stations: the dead passing through with each developed frame.
At night in my darkroom, I soak my limbs in developer, fixer, rinse, and then stare—hopeful—as the ghosts rise from the pictures I’ve imprinted on my arms: a long-haired child with stick-thin limbs, a scowling old woman with a limp, a village, a traveling horde, a forgotten family, the father carrying their smallest child. No matter what I try, it is always dead strangers who follow my guideposts back to the land of the living. My wife Veronica’s face is never among them. And so, each night after our daughter, Jenny, goes to bed, I turn on the blood-red light, submerge my arms, and try again.
Our Aksnes Family
After my parents died, I was raised by my Grandmother Henrietta, Henrietta Aksnes and her orphan grandson, Geir, I overheard a neighbor say, as though we were misplaced characters from a Dicken’s novel, David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.
Black-and-white images of Aksnes ancestors lined the hallways and parlor walls of Grandmother’s home, a time-worn brownstone near the center of town. Those pictures, with their egg-white-treated albumen paper and the brownish black-tea highlights, where my first introduction to photography—dead eyes following me from the house’s many corners.
In my own home on Lyman Street, all the photographs are of a single face, my wife Veronica. It’s eight years since Veronica’s passing. These days the Aksnes family is down to three people: me, my daughter Jenny, and my cousin and oldest friend Peter. He moved in soon after Veronica died and, thank God, he stayed
Peter with his blonde Nordic hair and long limbs. My sunny, sunny cousin. I don’t know where he got the knack, or how he passed it on to Jenny.
“Beets don’t mean Christmas, Uncle Pete,” Jenny declared at our family’s annual Christmas dinner. At nine years old, she had no trouble stating her opinion.
I watched as she pushed the salad with its gherkins and cubed vegetables, to a corner of her plate.
“Jenny, Uncle Pete went to a lot of trouble,” I warned, though I understood where she was coming from. The dish, with its beets and apples and boiled carrots, wasn’t exactly kid fare.
“Not much Santa in that particular salad.” Peter nodded his agreement and pushed his own portion to the side of his plate. “Or reindeer. They’re both too chewy.” He grinned, clearly anticipating her response.
“Uncle Pete, eating Santa is not funny.”
“Reindeer are delicious though, right? Super delicious.” Pete snorted and shook his head, pantomiming a reindeer shaking off the snow.
Jenny’s glare lasted maybe a second before she gave in and grinned. Peter had charmed her. Of course he had. Jenny is our family’s baby. The living light of our lives.
Peter and I have no one else. Our parents and grandparents are buried less than two miles away in Farsdale’s Forest Glen Cemetery, along with Veronica. Veronica’s grave is easy to find. At Jenny’s insistence, a small teddy bear is taped to either side of the gravestone.
Fear. Love. Obsession. Take your pick. Teddy bears and good intentions aren’t enough. Since that final night, that hospital phone call, I’ve known exactly what this family was missing, Veronica.
Of course, I wasn’t the only Aksnes on a mission.
An Incomplete World
Like any obsession the mural in Jenny’s bedroom started small. In fact, it took two fighting squirrels for me to realize what was going on.
Five-year-old Jenny and I knelt before the bay window at the front of the house, pillows under our knees, looking onto the street, our usual Sunday morning routine. Or Jenny watched the street. Mostly I watched Jenny, her expression so much sunnier than more hesitant me. My daughter smiled her crooked smile as two squirrels chased each other across the street, over a wooden fence, and into our neighbor’s yard. Suddenly, she busted out laughing. One of the squirrels had scampered up a maple tree and onto Mrs. Tomasics’s roof. The other squirrel, smaller than the first, remained below, chittering with anger, but unwilling to risk a rooftop fight.
“You know, Daddy, the ghosts like it better on Mrs. Tomasic’s roof, too,” Jenny said, glancing up at me. “That’s what I told Uncle Peter when he tried to sketch Mr. Tomasic inside his house.”
The mural project wasn’t exactly a surprise. Peter is a painter, a sculptor, and an all-round crafty guy. Since Jenny first started walking and talking, the two of them had spent their time on clay creatures, collages, and papier mâché. The mural was their most ambitious project. Peter and Jenny had been putting in long hours, slowly sketching images across the wall facing Jenny’s bed. I’d expected Jenny would lose interest. Five years old generally means enthusiasm without much follow through.
“You guys are still working on that?” I finally managed, trying to not frown. Sunlight streamed in through the window. Jenny’s head was bathed in light. She tilted up her head, her eyes meeting mine.
“Come see, Daddy.” Jenny grabbed my hand and tugged me toward her room.
What could I do? My girl actually sounded happy and Peter wasn’t even around.
What Jenny and Peter had managed in the month since they’d started the project was amazing. That was my first thought. Some areas of the mural were painted while others were just sketched. On the right side of the mural was a miniature version of the east end of our town, Farsdale. A red-hued barrier divided the town from the emptiness of the unpainted left. Peter’s faint pencil marks indicated that the non-Farsdale side of the barrier was unfinished rather than intentionally blank.
As I stepped closer, I noticed something new; the picture had extended to a second wall. On the wall that divided her room from my darkroom, Jenny had drawn a thick line with a charcoal pencil, identifying where the red barrier would wander next. Next to Jenny’s line, Peter had marked a few preliminary sketches with faint, careful pencil. One reminded me of Grandmother Henrietta’s old house. It seemed they were recreating our entire town.
“More?” I asked
“Of course, Daddy. It took me awhile to figure out where the red barrier should go,” she continued in a rush. “I drew it out all by myself. Uncle Peter said it was really good.” Jenny sounded just a shade concerned. The beginning of a frown line had appeared on her forehead. I wasn’t showing the appropriate parental enthusiasm.
“Jenny, it looks terrific.”
Aksnes. Obsession is our natural territory. For whatever reason, Jenny and Peter were determined to recreate our world, and the next, one paint stroke at a time. Who was I to say no? Glass houses and all that, or in my case closed darkroom doors.
And by some mysterious alchemy, in our house mural and photograph have always been linked.
For four years, after my wife’s death, I pulled the paper images from their chemical baths and watched as the ghosts rose up through the images and wandered through my home. Mere strangers, none of them were invited to stay.
That night was different. I’d finally recognized the need for deeper sacrifices and put the photographic paper away.
It was long past Jenny’s bedtime. I’d finished my darkroom work. My body hadn’t yet recovered. Point of fact, I was still trembling, waves of hot and cold crashing against my skin. Peter had gone out, though I knew he’d back before Jenny woke up.
But Jenny wasn’t sleeping, instead she stood in my bedroom doorway—all skinny limbs and large brown eyes. Between her outstretched arms hung a piece of paper almost three feet long. The paper has been cut into a series of paper dolls: eight identical figures in white dresses, with white stockings, white shoes, and paper-white skin.
“Daddy, look at my ghost people.”
“Paper dolls, honey, not ghosts,” I corrected. Why wasn’t she in bed? It felt like a phalanx of tiny angels were hard at work beneath my skin, carving me apart one nerve ending at a time. Each sharp jab of pain pulled at my attention. Tears welled in my eyes. It was all I could do not to claw at my arms and pull away the skin. Despite the burning, I noticed Peter’s scissors dangling from Jenny’s left hand. Jesus. He’d forgotten and left them out again. Five year olds aren’t supposed to play with sharp things.
Sometimes parents are only, barely, good enough. I didn’t take the scissors away. I didn’t tell Jenny to put those scissors down. Instead, I bent over my bed and started to straighten the quilt. If I was lucky the distance between us would camouflage my trembling, bloody arms. If I was fucking lucky Jenny would put the scissors down and go back to bed.
Jenny remained in the doorway, that stubborn look on her face. “Daddy, we don’t collect paper dolls. We—”
“And we don’t collect ghosts.” I tugged the top of the quilt and didn’t let go. Teeth. Or a knife. The pure clean pain of a naturally occurring wound. Anything would be better than this.
“But we let them visit, right?” Jenny replied, her mind still on her row of paper ghosts.
“Right.” I took a staggered breath, exhaled, and then started in on my bedside table, stacking the books into a careful stepped pyramid. Sweat trickled down my back. More sweat rested above my upper lip. And still Jenny didn’t budge.
“Ghost mommies,” Jenny reiterated, rattling her sheet of paper women. The look she gave me—even at five years old.
“Okay.” I attempted to keep my tone even. “Though only one ghost mommy, Mommy Veronica. All right?”
Jenny nodded. “Daddy, what did you do to your arms?”
“Oh, just a darkroom thing.” I should’ve just dealt with the fucking scissors. Of course she was going to ask.
My four-year epiphany: that night I didn’t use tongs to handle the developing paper. After four tediously obsessive years, I finally had the necessary revelation. Flesh. If a photographer’s intent is necessary to bring the dead back, how much more powerful is the effect when you use that photographer’s actual body? That night, for the first time, the Kodak TXOL Black and White Developer and the Ilford Rapid Fixer were busily opening doorways directly into my skin.
“Daddy, can you tuck me in?”
“Sure. Of course.”
The ghost horde would carry my Veronica up through my bleeding flesh ready to try again. Dear Lord, let that be true.
True miracles are as ephemeral as a child’s paper doll. When Veronica and I stood before that priest, my wife pledged her love “until her dying day.” When Niépce and Talbot performed their own miracle with pewter and paper, but they never promised they would last forever. Now, after just two hundred years, the gaps in death’s wall are sealing up again.
Digital cameras and smartphones have infested this physical world. Each month we lose another brand of film stock as yet more film cameras sit unused on some collector’s shelf. Meanwhile collection after collection of photographs moves from the physical domain into the digital world. With each digital image we lose another opportunity to guide our loved ones back home. It is the physical that draws the spirits back. Digital images all have the same basic limitation. They’re incapable of connecting us to the dead.
It’s been eight years. Veronica has missed our daughter’s first steps, her first words, her first day of school. Meanwhile, I still crave Veronica, her skin and lips, that moist warmth as I pressed my body into hers, but most of all I crave the way she used to look at me, as though my eyes carried her paradise.
When I’m alone in the house, Jenny at school or out with Peter, I find myself scanning their mural. These days the twisting images that stretch across Jenny’s bedroom walls seem to change almost overnight. The red barrier has become more complicated over time, a swirl of burnt orange and brilliant poppy that binds the world of the living from the land of the dead. On one side of the red wall is our town of Farsdale, including Lyman Street. Across from our house, huddled against the chimney, I recognize the face of our neighbor, Mr. Tomasic, an elderly man who died years ago. Stretched along the soot-stained exterior of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope High School is the face of Jack Nevinsmith, the kid who slit his wrists when Peter and I studied there. So many lost faces are scattered across our town. Not one of them is Veronica. It’s almost like Jenny and Peter are trying to keep her out. But I know that can’t be true.
In the last few months, a drab, haze-filled land has appeared on Jenny’s walls. Beneath the haze is a painted city with a multitude of crystalline towers. A pale ocean extends past the horizon, surrounding the city, while a wide swath of field leads from the city to death’s red wall. When I look closely at the field, I see scores of bent necks, tangles of arms, a mass of torsos and legs. I try not to glance at the field too often. I keep my eyes on Farsdale, instead.
My grandmother is long dead, and no afterlife doorway is going to bring her back. Still, each night as I work in my darkroom, I can hear Grandmother Henrietta’s voice somewhere nearby: “Not too much, Geir. Tone it down. You’re scaring all the good people away.”
No doubt, she’s right. Even my hands are revealing: orange-and-mustard-tinted cracks burrow deep into my fingers. Burn marks pockmark my arms. But my damage goes so much farther. A single monochromatic photograph is permanently etched along each arm. From a distance the photographs are likely mistaken for tattoos. It took me nights of darkroom work, calibrating the developing images until I heard the faint shhrushhhhh sound of death slipping through the newly opened doors.
Each night I redevelop both arms, helping through the spirits desperate to return. On one arm an empty highway edges up from my wrist, and then is lost in the bend of my elbow, the California coastal road near Big Sur. An Ansel Adam’s print from 1953. The image on the other arm follows a set of broad stone steps—the Mills College Amphitheater—as they curve around my shoulder and across my chest. The original picture was taken by one of my favorite photographers, Imogen Cunningham, in 1920.
I’m not the first to understand the power of architecture and landscapes. Adams’s photographs of McDonald Lake and El Capitan were full of empty space just waiting for the dead’s hurried footsteps. Cunningham’s architectural work is much the same. My body aims to repeat the trick: a photographic bridge that traverses the barrier between life and death. Lately, I’ve started wondering. Architecture and landscapes. What about the power of love and passion: Jenny, Peter, Veronica’s broken self?
Grandmother, I’m sure, does not approve of any of my darkroom theories.
Turns out the dead don’t have to travel back in order to haunt you.
It’s 3 am and the ghosts are busting through.
“Dad, the lonely people woke me up again,” Jenny calls out. At nine years old, my jaded child doesn’t even bother to get out of bed. If it’s midnight, she knows I’ve already pressed through the barrier.
“Just close your eyes, sweetheart.” I’m holding my arms submerged in a vat of rapid fixer. I try to take shallow breaths, fail and take a big gulp of air, feeling the familiar bite as the fumes burn the back of my throat. My hands have more than the usual quantity of sores. I try not to think about what will happen if they start to pop, revealing the raw skin underneath. Over all these worries, I hear the soft shhrushhhhh sound that signals death has found its way through my doorway.
Jenny will fall back to sleep. Please, let that be true.
“Daddy! The ghost people won’t stop whispering. And the baby one is stinky, like that milk you spilled in the car. I need Grandmother Henrietta’s glass.”
“All right. I’ll be right there.” I use my gentle voice, will myself to stay calm while a multitude press against my forearms. I can feel each spirit trying to force itself to the front of the line. The pressure is like a needle pumping liquid into already bursting veins. These souls are angry or desperate or simply stubborn. Whatever. I’m closing the door. After six hours of trying and failing, the lonely fuckers have woken up Jenny.
Four years of practice has made me careful. I wait until I’m sure the shhrushhhhh sound has died away completely and the path is completely clear before I pull my arms free of the metal canisters. Even then there is more to do. I rinse the fixer from my arms, towel off, and wait for the pain to quiet before finally turning off the red safety light.
When she was alive Veronica said things I wish I could forget. “I can’t stand the way you look at me.” “There is nothing that would compel me to return.” Death is supposed to make everything different. That’s what I’ve been pretending. But Veronica, my Veronica, what if she wants to stay lost?
“Milk’s on its way.”
I pad down the hallway toward the kitchen. Our house is a single story bungalow. Veronica loved the iron railing fence and the brick steps that led up to the front door. The rust and crumbling brick were all part of the charm. That first summer Veronica and I set some geraniums, all fuzzy, pale-green stems, on the sill behind the bay window’s curtains. Grandma flowers, we called them. Our ironic shrine to all those women who were dead and gone. The geraniums no longer strike me as funny, but they stay. Like so much else—the roses, the bedroom furniture, the toppling collection of books on the living room mantel—I worry one of them might be the necessary key that guides Veronica back home.
Jenny. I pull Grandmother Henrietta’s old tarnished tea glass from the kitchen cupboard and warm a saucepan of milk and honey. Back in Jenny’s room I prop her up in a nest of stuffed animals and pillows, just the way she likes it, and watch her sip from her special cup, the one that is supposed to mean I love her—which as it turns out I do, a surprising truth I still don’t know what to do with.
“You’re going to stay. Right, Dad?”
“Yes. Of course, I’m going to stay.” I move the teddy bears, Mr. Cuddles and Fuzzy Bear, off the bed, and settle myself in their place. Fuzzy Bear is the toughest of bears, the one set closest to the bedroom door at night. At nine years old Jenny still has a nightlight and a horde of stuffed animals, including the two teddy bears that guard the perimeter of her bed.
“Dad, what if Mommy tries to visit and Fuzzy Bear won’t let her in? The ghosts are always telling me how tired they are and Fuzzy Bear is really strong.”
“Jenny, it’ll all be fine.” I refrain from mentioning that the other spirits have managed to make it through. I know my kid. She’s got something specific on her mind.
“But what about you, Dad? You could die? That could happen, right? Fuzzy Bear might not trust it’s really you.”
“Jenny—” I pause. “Fuzzy Bear has known me his entire life. Even if I were dead, that wouldn’t change.” I smile at her, adjust my position on the bed, and try not to wince when I bang my arm against the wall.
Jenny smiles back, but that worried crinkle still runs across her forehead.
“How about a password?” I ask with sudden inspiration. “Words only Fuzzy Bear and I know.” I grab Fuzzy Bear from the floor. He has a worn and stained stomach and a tiny drop of dried glue at the edge of one of his button eyes. He can see in the dark with those eyes; that’s what Jenny tells me. Things can get rough at night. Peter has had to stitch his tongue back on at least twice. But Fuzzy Bear is the King of Calm. He is the Emperor of Secrets. Jenny is no fool. She chose well. Fuzzy Bear is the friend you can trust to keep you safe when the monsters arrive. I whisper in his ear as Jenny looks on. I watch as the worry crease smooths away and her smile widens. I can see her left eyetooth, the one that twists a little to the side.
“Now he’ll know for sure,” Jenny declares.
“Yep. Even if I sound funny or have a cold or lose my face or some such thing.”
“Or die.” Jenny likes to be specific. She takes a sip of milk, waiting for my response.
“Yes. Or die.” I take a slow breath. Right now at least, I’m alive and sitting at the bottom of Jenny’s bed, talking with my favorite girl.
“What was Grandmother Henrietta like?” Jenny asks. I don’t talk about my childhood much. My own dead parents. The glass is the only memento I kept from Grandmother Henrietta’s house.
“Dead,” I reply, seemingly not answering her question at all, but making her laugh—just a little—and roll her eyes. Death does not frighten my Jenny, not in the way it frightens most people.
“Dad.” She glances at me. “You know Cousin Peter says Grandmother wasn’t all that bad.” She gives me a stern look over the top of her cup. “You shouldn’t be so hard on her.”
“Cousin Peter didn’t have to live with her.” Then I make my Grandmother face—squinty eyes, twisted lips, hands held up like crippled and grasping claws—and Jenny snorts, milk froth flying up and landing on her nose. Subject dropped.
It’s Friday night, not late, maybe 7 pm. Peter is wrapping my arms like he does at the end of each week. But he keeps glancing at his phone as the buzz of yet another text rises up on the screen. A smiling women’s picture shows up: long hair, heart-shaped face, and woolen mittens she uses to frame her happy face.
“Soooo who’s the friend?” I ask, trying to hold my arms still. These days even the gentlest of handling is hard to take.
“Her name’s Fiona.”
“Looks like she’s been in your phone for a while. That’s a winter pic.”
“Yeah. A while,” Peter agrees.
“Linen shirt and skinny jeans. Peter, man. I should have known something was up. Don’t let my arms keep you. Really.”
“This won’t take long. Keep still, Geir, I’m trying not to hurt you.”
“Why don’t you ever bring her over?”
“You know why.”
“What? No, I don’t.”
“Jenny already has enough competition. You and your Veronica. She doesn’t need to see Uncle Pete slipping away, as well.”
“Peter, that’s not—”
“Just drop it, Geir. It’s okay. Fiona isn’t expecting me until Jenny goes to bed.”
I open my mouth, close it again, hold in my sudden flash of anger. But Peter and I both know it’s there.
In silence, Peter finishes tying the bandages across my arms. When he’s done he’s careful not to pat my shoulder or arm, no different from any other week. Even without anything touching my skin, my entire body prickles with fire.
“I better go help Jenny,” Peter says. “I promised her we’d finish the hospital section before bedtime.”
“Sounds good.” I feel like a shit. There is no way I can blame my sunny, sunny cousin. The golden boy who just visited Grandmother’s house. Despite my blunders, Peter stuck with me during my marriage and stuck with me after it, as well. He camped out on the couch for six months when he realized Jenny and I weren’t managing all that well. And then he moved in. Of course, he has his own life. Eight years is a long time—for both of us.
I never start work until Jenny is in bed and asleep. But tonight, despite Peter’s date, Peter and Jenny seemed determined to outwait me. I try surfing the web, looking at the digitalized version of the George Eastman Museum’s permanent collection, but it just makes me antsy. Depressed. How many people will print these ghost-empty digital copies? How many people would even care if the originals disappeared?
It’s now ten pm.
“You guys still at it?” I’m standing in the doorway of Jenny’s room. The bedroom lamp throws both light and shadow across the mural. The figures in the City of the Dead and the surrounding land look like warriors or battling monsters depending on where you stand. No doubt Peter intended them to come out that way.
“Just a few more minutes, Dad. I think we’re really onto something,” Jenny says. Tonight the two of them seemed to be concentrating on the Farsdale side of the mural. In fact, it looks like they’re both focused on Lyman Street. Jenny’s body blocks my view of whatever she’s painting.
“I think I’ll just get started in the darkroom.” I can’t wait any longer. My body itches and thrums, demanding its share of pain.
“I can tuck her in.” Peter turns and tries to smile. It’s not convincing. I probably look like some strung out junky, waiting for his corrosive fix. I feel like one.
“Night, Dad.” Jenny doesn’t even turn around.
Moments later I’m inside my darkroom, the door locked. My arms are submerged in a vat of developer. It takes less than a minute of waiting for the ghosts to crowd into my flesh. Each desperate spirit takes its own tiny bite. Eight years of punishment. More and more my arms feel like virtual facsimiles of a living man’s flesh. I no longer bleed when I submerge my arms. My skin itches but nothing more as the first wave of sound crests, high enough to slip across my living photographic bridge.
Shhrushhhhh. The sound rises over the whirring of the darkroom’s vent. Shhrushhhhhh. I’m coming, that sounds says. I’m traveling over. I’m almost here. The dead rush along the steps of Cummingham’s amphitheater, race down Ansel Adam’s road. Shhhrusshhhhh. The sound compresses my eardrums. Fills my skull. The song has never been this loud before. Veronica. After all this time I still can’t stop myself from hoping.
When the first spirit appears, biting into the bone of my left forearm, it’s just another stranger. “Damn it.” The words leak out.
I hear a knock on the door. “Geir?”
“Yeah?” My voice sounds rough, even to my own ears.
“I thought I’d stay in tonight, after all.” It’s Peter. Jenny is probably just behind him, the two of them covered in a rainbow of splattered paint.
“Okay. Sure,” I say, but what I really mean is why. Peter loves both Jenny and me, but Peter has plans. Skinny jeans and a linen shirt. Peter’s in love, or lust, trying for some sort of connection anyway. His heart is a multitude compared to my one.
I am thinking about Veronica’s rage, how she was that last time I saw her—and how I was—which is probably why I don’t move my arms from the developer to the stop bath. And why I forget to set the timer.
That last week, I sat next to Veronica’s bed, just another useless spouse, determined to follow the script. I was a photographer. I could sense the ghosts slipping under Veronica’s skin, jabbing shots of rage and despair along her brain’s neural network. Didn’t mean I knew what to do about it.
“I’ve been doing some research,” I babbled on. “You know there’s other options besides meds. I read this really interesting article on TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation. It lets you create new pathways in the brain.”
“Jesus, Geir, stop trying to fix me. Just because I’m not happy doesn’t mean I’m not happy with who I fucking am.”
My wife looked pretty, even with the meds and the fluorescent hospital lighting. The long fine strands of her hair clung to her face and spread outward like an ill-defined halo. I itched for my camera. For something to do.
“You should have just brought your rig and taken a few shots,” Veronica said. She frowned and then turned her head away. “You could title the piece Woman in Psych Ward Day Number 52. You could do a whole fucking series.”
“I didn’t come here to take pictures.” I said, and then fell silent. We sat like that for the rest of the visit.
Of course Veronica was right: the lighting, that brutal look on her face. It would have made the perfect shot. Rage Against the Dying Night Day Number 52.
Pain, sure, but I’m used to that. It’s what I see in the metal canister that holds my attention. Cunningham’s amphitheater and Adams’s coastal road both show something new. Instead of a horde of desperate souls with wavering faces, a whole world is moving along my flesh-built bridge. The will-o-wisps are hard to make out, but I recognize the crystalline city with its towers and the ocean shrouded in fog. Peter and Jenny’s mural with its blood barrier breached. It’s like a collision of tectonic plates never meant to touch. The shhhrusshhhhh sound is missing, replaced by a sensation I haven’t felt in all my darkroom years. It’s like a multitude of fingertips moving across my body, their touch both soft and insistent, pressing in then abruptly pulling away, until another wave of seeking hands crowds in.
There’s no smell. No spoiled-milk baby ghosts. No stink of sweat. Even the vinegary scent of my darkroom has disappeared. The living world is somewhere behind me. My body feels like it’s stretched via a series of fishhooks attached to my back. I can’t turn around. Veronica, a faded Veronica made up of a swirling shimmer of lips and hands and eyes, but Veronica all the same, is standing atop the field of bent necks and outstretched arms. It seems the only way she’ll cross my bridge is if her world comes with her.
“You always were a selfish asshole,” she says. The first words I’ve heard her utter in almost a decade. “Eight years and you still won’t take the hint.”
“I’m sorry. Veronica, I am just so sorry.”
“You traveled all this way so I could make you feel better? Really?”
Veronica is a head shorter than me. When we were first together, I liked to slip my arms around her while she tucked her head against my chest, and then we would both hold on, thirty seconds, ninety, two whole minutes. That’s how it went for a while anyway, and then she stopped, turned away first, complained about my “Geir drama,” as in “Jesus, Geir, just this once could you act like a normal human being.” Which, of course, I can’t—even now.
“I miss you, babe. Jenny does, too. We want you to come back.” The words sound all wrong, even to me.
“Jesus, Geir. Jenny doesn’t even remember me.”
I’m bad at love, that’s what Veronica, used to say. Looking at her now, my will-o-wisp wife, the bits and pieces of her body moving in and out of focus, the field’s carnage rising up through the haze, I know she’s right. Whatever or whoever she is, she’s not the person I’ve been carrying in my mind.
“Veronica, life isn’t so—”
“Shhh, God is singing,” Veronica says, but being alive, even on the bridge, surrounded by the City of the Dead, I hear nothing.
“Veronica, I can get it right this time. I know I can.”
“What are you talking about?” Her expression, her wavering, non-corporal expression is not that different from those last days in the hospital bed. Cold. Distant. Impatient.
“Don’t you love me?”
“Admit it. We had something special.”
Veronica’s body keeps shifting. It’s hard to keep my eyes focused as sections of skull appear and then submerge again. Basic features like eyes and lips and nose fade in and out. It’s as though Veronica doesn’t remember how a body works anymore, what parts go where.
“Geir, of course you do. It was over long before I used that razor blade.” The expression on her face. After all these years, it’s just the same, the irritation holding in check something far more primal. And then it seems the rage is unwilling to be tamped down any longer. I watch as Veronica pushes against the tarmac road and the stone amphitheater, as she pushes against my oh-so-human bridge. I can feel the power of the haze-covered ocean and corpse strewn field gathering behind her. She speaks one final time, “No more.” And then I’m tumbling, untethered.
Bile rises in my throat, my stomach rebelling as my body unravels back across the bleeding-red barrier, across the years of hiding in my darkroom, the years of no. The images on my arms, the Cunningham and Adams, slide off like the raw skin Grandmother used to remove before tossing the rest of the chicken leg into the cooking pot. And still my shorn body tumbles, through the rent, back to the living land of Farsdale.
Shhrushhhhh. Death’s thrumming sounds like a slow-moving wave finally pulling away. And beyond it a chorus of voices rushes out to follow. For a moment, I can hear God’s song, death’s entire composition, and then it’s gone, replaced by silence.
“Geir? What the hell. Geir?”
When I open my eyes, there are no more translucent towers. No more haze. There are no finger fronds trying to stroke my still living flesh. Veronica has discharged me back to our house on Lyman Street. Our house no longer.
Both Jenny and Peter are kneeling over me. Peter isn’t smiling. He looks worried. Jenny looks plain scared.
“Geir, say something, or I’m calling a God damn ambulance,” Peter says.
“Uncle Peter, you said, you promised. The paint was supposed to fix things.” My daughter, my Jenny is crying, tears spilling down her cheeks.
I can feel moisture on my face. It seems I’m crying, as well. I never do that.
I raise my left arm, my Cunningham arm, pat Jenny’s cheek. The amphitheater steps have vanished. Instead, my arm is covered in paint, not just any paint, but a rendering of Jenny and Peter’s blood-red wall. The painting continues on beyond the wall to the pale ocean and the crystalline city. Traversing it all are a multitude of lost, of dead, of will-never-travel-back faces.
“What the hell?” Every one of those painted faces looks like Veronica, her eyes unblinking as she says goodbye.
Eight years is enough. More than enough.
Truth time: it wasn’t just that I couldn’t make Veronica happy. What I was really good at was driving her to despair. The words might as well be chiseled on her gravestone: Geir Aknses drove me to this. I am the widower of a suicide. Of course, I got things wrong.
A Pinhole of Light
After rinsing and rewrapping my arms, Peter heads out to meet Fiona, leaving me to tuck in Jenny.
“Mommy Veronica doesn’t love you,” Jenny says when I hand her the warm glass of milk. Her expression is calm. Veronica is just the name of someone she never really met.
“Yes,” I say. I set both teddy bears on the edge of the bed just in case. Not that I’m expecting any more visitors. I’ve locked up my darkroom. And underneath the paint, my arms are covered in nothing but scars. The desperate ghosts are stuck on the other side now, along with Veronica.
“Dad, can you paint with me this weekend?”
“Uncle Peter says winter paintings send up dream flowers that last until spring.”
“Huh. That sounds like Peter.”
Stare at an image. Rewatch a movie. Retell a story. Do it often enough and the subject’s power evaporates. Instead of darkroom-time, I tell Jenny a new story, holding an old photo album between us, pointing out the pictures. “Once there was a very wise and beautiful woman named Veronica with long brown hair and eyes that looked like a cloudless winter sky.”
I am the camera, the lens, the opening through which all light must fall. I am a true photographer. I can let go of a broken image and move on.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 54, September/October 2016.