My father, a U.S. Navy pilot, flew F-4’s at the tail end of Vietnam and then retired. He didn’t talk about it much. It was a thing he did, and did well, and when the time came to stop he moved on to other things, like picture-taking and cabinet-making. He built hideously expensive bookcases for clients for whom books were a household accessory. He said they were cathedrals to house unread books and it made him feel sad. He never lacked for work and our cottage was a testament to his craft as a cabinetmaker. Secret compartments were woven through the cabinetry he made from mahogany left over from his paying jobs. Strangers could move in for generations, and they would never find all of them. The first days of any cottage vacation were always hunts for the secret compartment that he claimed to have built and that we had never found. He said the treasures inside were dark and dangerous, and it was a good thing he hid them so well.
We believed him, of course. The dark and dangerous part added to the flavor, but like most children, we were not known for our perseverance. The imperatives of summer were too powerful to keep us looking for very long. There was always next time. Year after year, at the beginning of each vacation, we looked, and even as adults, we would push and prod wood panels feeling for some small tell-tale give.
Finding none, we quit, convincing ourselves that there was nothing to find.
But then, while sitting on the window seat, I shifted my weight and felt a little give in the board, nearly imperceptible. Too easy, I thought. Dad would never go for something obvious like storage under the window seat. It was beneath him. I slid off the seat and grabbed the lip and tugged. Magnets released their hold and the lid lifted. The storage area sighed with the scent of cedar. A heavy-duty, vinyl-coated cardboard box, the kind used to store photographic prints, and a camera lens lay concealed. An envelope rested on top of the box. I opened the envelope and read the letter.
I knew you would find this. It is yours, but be very careful. As you will find out, the lens is dangerous. I bought it in the Philippines while on deployment. I don’t know who made it. I don’t know how it works.
I took the unmarked lens out, feeling the solid heft of a well-made piece of equipment. I popped the protective caps off and inspected the glass elements and mount. The focus ring glided smoothly, extending and retracting the barrel. It was an F-mount lens meant to fit on Nikon equipment, like my own. I couldn’t recall ever seeing this particular lens on any of his cameras, but that didn’t mean anything.
I refit the caps and set the lens aside on a convenient shelf. I placed the cardboard box on the floor. There was nothing else in the storage space. I closed the lid, picked up the box, and sat down on the window seat to investigate. The top of the box slid free. Protective acid-free tissue paper fogged the first photograph. I took out the paper and set it inside the upturned lid.
The photograph was of my sister, Maria.
She stands ankle deep in the sandy-bottomed creek behind the cottage. The water, stained translucent brown with the tannin of millions of oak leaves and pine needles, ribbons away through a manicured forest. Morning light streams through the trees like golden spears. Reflective darts scintillate across the slow water. She wears a white cotton dress and the bottom of it wicks up the creek water. She looks seventeen, and the backlighting makes the dress look gauzy and ephemeral. Her body is silhouetted in the bright light, hinting at the curves of a beautiful woman. In her right hand she holds a snake. The elegant reptile bracelets her wrist in two slender wraps. Its tail dangles, and the tiny head sits on top of a gentle S-curved neck. She holds the snake up so each is staring into the other’s eyes. The delicate animal is striped the red, yellow, and black of a coral snake and not the red, black, and yellow of a scarlet king snake.
It was an impossibly perfect photograph, capturing my sister frozen between childhood and womanhood in a fantasy scene. Her dress, I remember, was her favorite when she was eleven years old, and she wore it so often that it only lasted that one summer. But she was not eleven years old in the picture. In the photograph she was at least seventeen, on the cusp of womanhood. The light slanted through the trees from the wrong direction. The creek curved a different way, and there was an outcropping of gray boulders in the background. There are no gray ice age boulders in Florida. And what kind of father takes a picture of his daughter nose-to-nose with a poisonous snake? The picture was hypnotic in its composition and beauty. The only thing wrong was that it could never be, but the more I looked at it, the more I felt like it should be, like it was.
I placed the picture in the upturned lid and removed another layer of tissue to see the next photograph.
My sister Olivia runs toward our father. She is breaking free from a crowd that is toeing a yellow line painted over cracked concrete. A wooden barricade fences the crowd to keep them away from the thundering F-4 Phantoms. My sister is a golden-haired child, six, almost seven, years old. The crowd holds welcome home signs aloft and waves American flags. She ducks under the barrier set to keep dependents from the flight line where the returning jets are taxiing into position. There she is, running toward our father, holding a sign that says, “I love you, bad!” The sign is slipping from her hands to fly away. My mother, my two sisters, myself, and my brother, Will, are in the background slightly out of focus. My mother wears over-sized sunglasses and reflected in the lenses is my father’s perfect miniscule reflection. His arms reach to catch his daughter. She is smiling and her hair is flying away in a blond waving mass, and she is just a few steps shy from her father defying anyone to stop her.
Somehow it was exactly as it happened or how it should have happened, but who could have taken the picture? My entire family was framed in the shot. I remembered the moment as clear as if it was, but it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. I remembered my mother scooping her back up. I looked away from the photograph to clear my head. My sister could not even have run. She wore braces on her legs until she was ten years old. I felt an ancient burn of shame. In addition to the hated metal bars that wrapped her lower legs, torqueing them straight with hard-soled patent leather shoes, she suffered with terrible dyslexia. In a pique of adolescent righteousness, I remembered mocking her hand-lettered sign. I tried to make her change the “b” to the “d” she intended but my mother caught me with a fierce glance and shook her head.
“I love you, bad” was the title of her Caldecott-medal-winning children’s book.
The next picture was of my mother and brother.
She lies next to William, my brother, her eldest son. Will is moments away from dying from leukemia. Slats of light from the window’s shades fall across both of them. She is so fatigued and sad that she has come full circle back to beautiful. His head is on her breast. His eyes are closed and he is inexplicably full-faced and sleeping, but his eyes will never open again. He is at peace in his mother’s arms; both comfort each other in their last moments together. Next to the bed, a pole-mounted machine displays the flickering parameters of William’s life. The electronic trace of his last heartbeat sketches across the display in a thin red line.
I remembered Will shriveled and sunken into the vastness of the hospital bed. I remembered feeling he was taking part of me with him. My heart raced and the picture blurred. I couldn’t remember the last time I really thought of him. I felt heavier, weighted down with something that the word sadness can barely describe. I traced my brother’s face with the tips of my fingers, and I remembered how much I miss him. Time had raced onward stealing his presence and taking away all the color of those moments.
This picture was exactly as it should be, and I had almost surrendered to the memory even though I was never there and there was no way Dad would take a picture of his dying son. What strange reason would compel someone to want to remember that?
But there it was. This was how it happened.
I put the photo down, covered it with the tissue, and caught my breath. What really happened bled back through. My mother left William’s side once in the last two weeks of his life. My father stayed while she went home to sleep and in that short span of time, William died. On the way back to the hospital she picked me up from school. I saw her face through the mesh classroom window and I knew what had happened.
For the longest time, Mom was inhabited by a quiet kind of sadness that she could not escape. The winter after Will died was the most painful time in our family’s history. All of us worked our way out, but Mom couldn’t follow . . . until one day she did. Although sad and angry over Will’s death the mention of his name would no longer cause her to break down. She would smile just a little bit and turn away as if she was remembering something.
William’s photograph drained me and left me tired. My head ached as if there were too many things inside trying to get out. I wondered if my father had shown it to my mother? I wondered if it had anything to do with when she became more of herself again after William’s death? More pictures dared me to view them. I thumbed through them, not wanting to linger.
My sister, Maria, holds her son, my father’s first grandchild, on a beach swept with moonlight. Silvered waves march to shore to break upon the rocks.
Except, I recall, my sister never could get pregnant. She had tried for three years and then surrendered to the inevitable and adopted a daughter from India with my wife’s help.
My wife looks at me with the kind of love that can’t be explained, her hair laced with baby’s breath, her dress, golden with evening light. Behind her, the ground is carpeted in emerald grass and peppered with wildflowers of gold and blue and purple.
I remembered it perfectly, exactly as it was. Except it wasn’t. A wildfire destroyed the spot two weeks before our wedding. And when we revisited our spot, the ground was ashen and the tree trunks were burned black.
My mother, a young woman, stands on a twilight beach and the sea is lathered up in a foamy rage and her hair is flying and she is young and beautiful. She is pregnant with William, my brother. In the distance an illuminated aircraft carrier sails to the far horizon beneath two thumbnail crescent moons.
I closed the box of photographs. I couldn’t look at anymore. I stood up and blood rushed from my head. I fell to my knees and took deep slow breaths. I felt like I was positioned sideways to reality, not much, just a small angle, and I needed a moment to straighten up. I put the box of photos back in the storage area under the seat. I pressed down until the magnets grabbed. The clock indicated that two hours passed. Where did the time go?
I went outside to sit and think and wait for my sisters.
I closed my eyes and rocked, and in the quiet distance, I heard the staccato rattle of the big red-headed woody woodpeckers echoing in the forest. I realized that time travel is possible; we do it naturally by anticipating the future and regretting the past. But as I sat in the front porch rocker that my father sat in, waiting for my sisters to arrive, bathed in halcyon morning light, I was no longer a time traveler. I was still, frozen in amber. Beyond me, the world accelerated away at the rate of one second per second and I was content to let it go.
After my mother died, my father moved to the cottage. The land sloped gently to Coldwater Creek, a shallow, sandy-bottomed creek that flowed through northwest Florida pine forests. As children, in the still morning, my brothers and sisters and I would walk down the slope and wade across the water to a vast hump-backed sandbar to collect beer and soda cans to trade for paper bags of penny candy and thick green bottles of soda from the general store. Before the creek filled with raucous teenagers trying their first beers, or sun-burned, beer-bellied men and their loud-mouthed, tattooed wives, my father would go down to the creek and sit, waiting for a like-minded stranger to come by, so he could share a word or two. If no one came he would sink into the quiet, hypnotized by the layers of light reflected in the water, and watch the silver-scaled fish flash brightly and dark turtles scull with reptile grace.
My father loved photography. He called it capturing the light. An impressive array of cameras, both film and digital, lined the upper reaches of the built-in shelves. He never did it for money. He said money would spoil it. He entered a few art shows when he found the time. He took all of our senior portraits. He developed quite the reputation in the local photography circles in our city, but he refused to cultivate his reputation. He was a master and his photographs are why I became a conflict photographer. I asked him how his pictures were always so beautiful and he replied that to take beautiful pictures, only photograph beautiful things. I didn’t believe him, because I saw things that he had photographed that were not beautiful in the real world. When I asked him about it, he said that everything is beautiful if captured at the right moment. Context is everything.
At the time, I thought his answer was touchy-feely nonsense. As an adult, I traveled to conflict zones and other exotic locales trying to capture their light and one day, quite by accident, I did, and won a Pulitzer prize for photo-journalism. My father framed the photograph and hung it over the cottage’s fireplace.
It was taken in India at a ship-breaking yard.
A young woman is in labor at their encampment on the flats. Other women are holding and comforting her. Her husband is behind and off to the side. She is in the agony of childbirth and he is in the agony of despair. Another mouth is coming into the world and he cannot provide for the ones he has. Yellow firelight, pinprick reflected in their eyes, illuminates the gathered ship breakers. The careening flats stretch away and the wind carries the women’s bright saris and gauzy scarves in undulating waves. Oily rainbows cut trails across the liquid-gray sand. Dark hulks of broken ships lay at crooked angles in the background. Sporadic fires dot the flats and from one ship a brilliant cascade of sparks from a cutting torch rains down. The sun has just set and a sliver of red defines the horizon. A few high altitude clouds reflect the dying light and above, the great sweep of the Milky Way arcs over all in a vast embrace.
The colors were rich and vibrant. The composition was so perfect that it could not be anything more than a fortuitous accident. It told a truth, said my father. I agreed in principle, that it told a story, and he insisted that it told a truth, something altogether different. He pointed to the elements of the photograph, the people, the sky, the broken ships, and said that this photograph captured the light in all of its layers. You could live your whole life, snap a million photographs and never do it again. It was a good thing, he said, that such photographs are so rare. They can change reality. He stepped close to the picture and leaned in. He said one could smell the salt and pollution, taste the oil and hot metal in the air, hear the grind of wind and machine, and feel it in your heart and bones. It becomes true, he said. Such photographs can start wars or make you fall in love.
He was right.
Ellen, a pale blond woman, centered amongst the dark-haired, dark-skinned Indians, kneels between the mother’s legs. She helps deliver the baby and turns to look at the fool with the camera. In her face is all the frustration and sadness of someone who wants to save the entire world, but knows that she cannot.
As I peered through a viewfinder disengaged from the world, my life was right in front of me. I booked a flight back that evening to find her and bring her home. She thought it strange and romantic and a little bit scary just as all new love is. It took convincing, a year’s worth of convincing, the kind that dips perilously close to groveling, but eventually she married me.
I heard the distant engine of a car and the creak of springs and I knew it was my sisters. The car drew closer and stopped. Doors opened and closed. I waited. They knew where to find me.
“Hey, big brother, did you get it all done?” asked Maria.
“Yeah, I found the secret compartment stashed with the family jewels so there is nothing left to do.”
She hugged me and kissed my cheek. My other sister, Olivia, climbed up on the porch and did the same.
“I hope you made coffee for all of us,” said Olivia.
“Well, don’t be rude, get your baby sisters a cup,” said Maria.
They sat in the rocking chairs our father had made. The wood was cypress, silvered and checked with time. They were diabolically comfortable despite never having a cushion on them. My mother called them time sponges because once you sat in one they absorbed time and worry until the day was over. I went inside and fixed them coffee.
I rejoined them, their rocking in progress, and handed them their coffees. I sat myself and we propped our feet up on the rail and pushed off with our toes. The morning warmed. Time fled.
Olivia was the first one to break the moment.
“We need to get to it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “In a minute.”
“So, go get the cleaning supplies in the trunk,” said Maria.
“You go get’em.”
“I’m a girl.”
“That only worked with Dad.”
I relented. They were always good at waiting me out.
“Works with you too,” she said.
Back inside, I dropped the cleaning supplies on a kitchen counter. My sisters surveyed the scene. Dad was organized. Everything had its place, but he was not one for the deep cleaning that Mom specialized in. Neither was I. Dust bunnies overpopulated the underplaces and threatened to become an invasive species. My idea of cleaning the toilet was lowering the lid.
“Oh my,” said Maria.
Olivia slapped me in the back of the head.
Maria took charge, issuing directions and instructions, which we both promptly ignored. We drifted off to the area in the cottage that needed our respective attentions the most, Olivia to the back bedroom where she used to play with William, Maria to my parent’s bedroom where she would curl in bed between Mom and Dad, and me back to the window seat, grown small with time.
I thought about showing them the pictures but then decided against it. I picked up the lens and felt the smooth, effortless glide of the focus ring. I thought of those wonderful, beautiful, disturbing pictures and wonder how many layers of light the lens dove through to capture them.
I put the lens down and puttered around, moving dust from place to place, lemon pledging the woodwork more for the smell than anything else.
I came back to the lens.
I knew I shouldn’t, but I did. I walked to my car and retrieved my camera, a Nikon D4, from the trunk. I affixed the lens and it clicked into place. The wind blew through the pines and I heard the scratching sounds of something small and furry in a clump of holly. I thought about what I was going to do and tried to talk myself out of it. Maybe there was a reason why I never saw the lens on any of my father’s cameras, maybe he knew better, but why leave it for me to find? I looked through the viewfinder not knowing what to expect. The world appeared the same and I was confused. I panned around, surveying the world through the lens, and thought that things should be different, like they were in my father’s photographs. When did it capture the light of other days, or days that we have no names for, in places that are just a little bit skewed from where we are, maybe in the act of creation, when a decision was made, and the shutter was released? I walked back to the cottage and my sisters were at the picnic table. A plate of ham sandwiches and a pitcher of ice tea were on the table.
“Not that you deserve any because you’ve been goofing off all morning,” said Olivia.
I raised the camera to my eye and both of them thrust their hands up to protect their faces from incrimination. It’s a false vanity. Both my sisters have inherited a natural beauty from my mother.
“Put your hands down.”
“Martin, please,” said Maria. “I’m filthy.”
“Come on,” chimed Olivia.
“Just one shot.”
“Just one.” agreed Maria.
“Only because you are so good,” said Olivia. “Do that Photoshop thing on my freckles.”
I crouched down to take a low angle shot. I focused the lens manually, my sister’s faces blurred in and out. I set the aperture to a shallow depth of field and composed them in the right one third of the frame. I focused on their eyes and released the shutter.
The picture popped up in the LCD window and then flashed away into storage.
“Let’s see,” said Maria.
“Hold on,” I replied.
I rolled the control button to bring the image up. I kept my face neutral. Did the lens give you what you what you want, or did it give you what you need?
“It didn’t come out,” I lied. “I just wanted to try one of Dad’s lenses he had in the bookcase. I don’t think it works with my camera.”
“Too bad,” said Olivia. “Eat a sandwich and get back to work.”
The cottage gleamed. The whole place smelled like oil soap and the scent drifted on the night air. Constellations of fireflies blinked in the dark. My sisters sat inside the cottage and I heard them talking about simple, innocent things. After finishing my bottle of wine, they decided to stay the night. I picked up my camera from the side table and dialed up the picture I took with my father’s lens.
I thought my sisters’ eyes were blue, but I saw that they are deep green. Olivia was on the left and Maria was on the right, but I would have sworn that it was the other way around when I took the picture. The ice tea glasses are gone, replaced by wine glasses. William’s arms are draped around both of them. He has a broad grin that crushed the ladies in high school. My heart pounded and the world seemed liquid and diffuse, like I had opened my eyes underwater. The depth of field is shallow so their faces are the only things in sharp focus, but in the blurred background I saw William’s wife, Candace, walking spread-legged with their third son, only thirteen months old. The boy was reaching up to hold her hands for support. I sank into the photo. It was exactly how I remembered taking it. It was exactly what I wanted to remember, but something else I wanted to remember was faded, almost gone. The noise in the cottage increased three fold.
Someone screamed, “No fair.” My daughter and my nieces and nephews played UNO at the kitchen table. My sisters, their husbands, and Candace laughed at some comment I didn’t hear. The screen door opened and slammed shut.
“Yeah buddy, you got the right idea hiding out here,” said William. He sat down in the chair next to me. “She’s doing all right, isn’t she?
“Yeah, she is.” Sara, my daughter had a difficult time, almost as bad as me, when her mother and baby brother died in the car accident ten months ago.
“That’s good. I’m glad. Beer?”
“Yeah, sure.” He handed me an ice cold Amberbock from the cooler in his hand and sat in the rocking chair next to me.
I held both existences in my mind at the same time, one growing stronger the other weaker. I wondered if I shifted a little left of reality or did they? I wondered what happened if I looked away from the viewfinder? Do I go back? Does reality compress to what was? I hoped so. I hoped it wasn’t too late. I wanted both to be true, to have my brother and my wife and son in the same place at the same time. Maybe that was the terrible power of the lens. You have to choose, but when did your choice become irrevocable? I didn’t know. How many times did my father use the camera to change what was? How many times did he use it to get back what he had? It explained why he never destroyed it. Maybe he hoped I would do better.
Details of things that never happened populated the empty spaces in my mind. I filled up with a life never lived. It was not a bad one, but still . . . am I who I am supposed to be? A warm flush of fear filled me and I wondered how many times I was undone or redone. How many times were we all undone or redone?
I selected the photograph from memory and pushed the delete button twice and the camera LCD faded to black. I tipped the bottle of beer in his direction. I wanted both, but if I couldn’t have both I wanted back what I had before I released the shutter.
I remembered being the best man at my brother’s wedding. I remembered telling my daughter that Mom and Christopher were not coming home. I remembered kissing my wife goodbye before I left for the cottage this morning. I could feel the layers of infinite light vibrating inside me.
My brother tapped the neck of my bottle with his own and I stared waiting for one of us to fade away.
“Dude, you’re creeping me out,” said Will.
“Cheater, you’re cheating,” shrieked one of the kids.
“Hey, knock it off,” said Maria. “Or you’re all going to bed.” Voices carried through the screen window and disappeared in the susurration of the pines.
The kids quieted.
“Where’s Dad?” asked my godson. He was named after me.
“Outside,” said Candace. “Go play with your cousins.”
My heart slowed. Things became as they are . . . firm.
“I’m glad you decided to come up,” I said to Will.
“Me too. I almost didn’t make it.”
The kitchen table crowd exploded into another shouting match.
“Making memories,” said my brother. “Do you think we need to go in?”
I turned and looked through the window and saw a cloud of UNO cards settling to the floor. Our sisters and in-laws were unaffected by the outburst.
“Nope, we’re good.”
I took a long pull of beer and set the empty down next to my chair.
He reached into the cooler beside the chair and handed me another Amberbock. Two full moons rose in the sky, one larger than another. The creek bent the wrong way and fireflies flashed love calls, releasing their own captured light. I held to the memory of my other life.
I will take more pictures. I have to.