The Lady of Light

 In Short Fiction, Stories

Remembering the child who wore my face in sunlight and summer days is like remembering the life of a stranger. But that stranger is someone with whom my life is forever entangled. These words are written on the back of “Anna, when she was lost, eastern Pennsylvania,” circa 1967. It is a chromogenic print, 3 ½ by 5 inches, from my father’s private collection. The penmanship is careful, precise, the penmanship of the woman who wore my hands when they were spotless and steady.

Sometimes, I run the words through my mind over and over, a slow meditation as the wind whistles through the broken windows and the snow drifts deep in the corners. Remembering the child. The child who wore my face. Remembering.

And, sometimes, I do remember.

*

Look, is all I ask of you. Look at these photos, these moments frozen in time, this light pressed down on paper.

*

Here, boys playing at being soldiers, though armed with real guns, smiled for me. They stood tall. Laughing, joking, making faces and being boys. I released the shutter again and again until the sun fell to the far horizon and we lost the light. I’ve never known what became of the frames I captured that day. Was it found, my camera? Has anyone ever seen these faces and wondered what became of them? The boy with the gap between his front teeth, the freckles. The sneer on the lips of his cousin. The shy one who turned his head to the side and, in profile, looked so much like a poet.

They’re dead now, of course. As are we all.

We were more than twenty kilometers deep within the forest, well off the roads, away from villages overrun by occupying forces. Fighter jets roared over the slopes of the southern mountains.

“Show them,” John said. “Show them what is happening here with these pictures. Show them the children. Show them what we do to keep them safe. Show the world that they,” here he motioned toward the far side of the mountains, “are the aggressors. Do this.”

“I will show what’s happening here,” I said.

John grunted. He’d known me a very long time, as he knew my father before me.

My father’s name you might not know, but his photographs appeared in National Geographic and Life in that strange troubled time between Yalta and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and those you’d recognize.

The lights of defiance in the eyes of a refugee, the aged hands of a nurse administering oral rehydration salts to a child who seems little more than a skeleton wrapped in skin: these are the stories that he told with still images.

Certainly you will remember his photograph of the child in Sierra Leone, hands severed. The forearms, wrapped in gauze, glare in the wash of shadow and light, but his eyes are where your own eyes are drawn. That child’s eyes ask a single unending question: why?

“Monsters hate the light,” my father said to me once, long ago. I was very young, flipping through an Archie comic book on the sofa. He was holding his Leica rangefinder and leaning back in his recliner, staring off toward the window. “A camera can hammer down their dungeon walls, tear off coffin lids, and reveal them for what they are.”

Is the memory distinct because I so rarely saw him at home? His was a life of going back to places best left behind.

I haven’t felt warm since I left my Natalie.

*

Natalie.

This is Natalie when we were at a little bar in Charleston, South Carolina, on the second floor of a very old building.

She cleansed her palate with fresh bread and finished her wine while I made do on house bourbon. Her lips, when I kissed them, smacked of honeyed pineapples, a lightly smoked citrus finish, and a pleasant blur of intoxication.

The moon was full, blood-orange outside the window, with winter constellations washed across the sky. Two young men were laughing far too loud a few seats away from us at the bar. Both of them in crisp white shirts, ties tugged loose at the necks, clanking their bottles together.

Natalie smiled at me, scrunched up her nose in her irresistible way, and touched a fingertip to my wrist. My Natalie. She danced Clara in The Nutcracker, the White Cat in Sleeping Beauty, and the Venetian Carnival Pas de Deux from Satanella.

*

Night was the safest time for us in the mountains.

John’s people once lived in a nearby village. One morning when the children were dressing for school, soldiers of the new occupying regime kicked open their front doors, called them terrorists, ripped drawers from cabinets, slit bedding open, and demanded to be told where the guns were hidden.

“We had no guns then,” John said. “But now, yes, now we do.”

They slept in grave-like hollows in the wilderness, building temporary, always temporary, shelter from tree limbs and tarps when they could no longer stand to sleep in the few remaining trucks. They became shadows passing behind trees, not yet dead but nonetheless haunting the place where their lives were taken from them.

I stood alongside John and Bogie near the edge of the woods as daylight slipped away.

“Look there,” Bogie said, more to John than to me, but I raised my camera just the same. A wolf, mangy and fierce, wandered out of the trees and looked toward us. “Yes! Yes!” Bogie said. “It is a good omen.”

I captured that: Bogie clapping his hands in happiness in the exact instant before the wolf slipped away into the depths of the forest. I snapped a photo of John, bemused, with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his field jacket. I snapped a photo of the trucks parked in the snow, insignificant in the vast expanse of trees and mountains.

*

You’re in a valley, late at night, and the sky is lost in snow. A flash of light lifts you off your feet, and you never hear a sound.

This is what Natalie said to me that night when she was so upset, after I told her that I’d accepted this assignment, the night we fought because I’d been excited, feeling that here was another chance for me, for my work, and why couldn’t she just be happy together with me? But this was her dream, she insisted. The vivid dream, the dream she could not stop seeing.

Your body shields her. You are already badly hurt but you don’t know that yet. You just get up. You get up, carrying her, and you walk into the forest. They’ve been in the mountains for months, the ones who find you… they hate these people, the ones you are with… don’t see them as people. They find you, you and the girl. They kill you and not right away.

This was her dream, the vivid dream, the dream she could not stop seeing.

I told her that this was the wine. I turned the bottle over to demonstrate that it was empty. A single drop of Riesling fell to the kitchen floor.

“Every single day I’ve had to fight to be taken seriously,” I said. “Every single day, shoulder to shoulder with fucking men and the way they look at me and the jokes, the insinuations, the shouldn’t you be shooting fashion week bullshit.” I slapped the wine bottle against my palm to punctuate the last of the words.

She said that she knew, she knew but hadn’t I proven myself a thousand times over and when is it going to be enough, when I was dead?

I told her to go to bed.

*

There are no luxuries that can be packed for an assignment such as this to make it easier. Camera bodies, a short lens, a long lens, a wide angle in a pocket for quick access when I need it. I carry enough to get me through. I carry duct tape, ear plugs, a few medicines and essentials for personal hygiene.

I wished I had lip balm. I’d packed it but misplaced it early on. I missed it terribly when my bottom lip split from the wind and the constant cold.

*

Sunset. The silent halls of my father’s house, in his final days. Soft light poured in from the large north-facing window in his living room and the open doors cut the hallway into alternating strips of light and shadow.

My mother, who never truly acclimated to life in the United States (I don’t think she learned more than forty words of English or cared to), predeceased him by nearly a decade. It was too long, I thought, for him to be alone. Yet he never spoke of loneliness.

The best of his work, in black and white, was arranged carefully on the walls, in museum frames. He suffered from debilitating Meniere’s late in life. The price, he told me, of too many moments lived too close to the sounds of gunfire and explosions. When his tinnitus flared up, all the sound in his world would be swept under a high-pitched hum. Other times, his head would go light without warning and he would drop to the ground. In his last few days, he would sit in his favorite chair in that grand living room of his, facing the window, trembling, with his hands resting gracefully on the top of his cane.

From the side, the window light on his face made him look like a classic painting from days long ago. I told him this. He blinked, trembled, looked on, straight ahead.

“Poppa,” I said to him. “Poppa, I’ve tried to see as you have seen.” I placed my hands on his hands. He blinked, trembled, looked on, straight ahead.

*

Sometimes but a single detail is sharp, in focus, all else a blur. Other times burn bright front to back. John climbed into the driver’s seat and told me that a decision had been made. There had been a moment of great change but it was a change that was kept from my eyes, like a magician’s trick, completed while I was looking at something else. The convoy was now heading toward the refugee camps near the border. Médecins Sans Frontières. I was to be extricated there, along with a few of the others. I argued. He said no argument. Something very bad had happened but he wouldn’t say what.

John had frost on his beard, even on the tips of his eyelashes. A thin layer of ice covered everything. It only melted away when the engines were running, and even then only on the hoods of the vehicles. “You have seen Porgy and Bess?” John asked me.

I smiled. I live in Charleston. Have I seen Porgy? Please.

“It’s a sad story. I saw it years ago, when I was younger. It played in the city.” Here his face darkened. “Before all of this began. Back in the days when this was a place for families, for children to grow and learn and make something of their lives other than to fight, fight, and fight.”

We began to roll forward.

“Do you remember the scene with the hurricane? How the storm blows in, causes such devastation, and the people are huddled together in their houses, praying, hoping only for it to end?”

I nodded. He looked back to the bare bit of uneven mountain road he could see in the darkness. Driving these roads in darkness was borderline suicidal but using headlights would be actual, immediate suicide.

“And then the skies are clear. This is a miracle, yes? People wander outside, laughing, amazed, so thankful that the storm has passed them by.”

The truck lurched.

“But it’s a lie.” John wiped his beard. “This is only the eye of the hurricane. This is not safety. This is far from safety. When they’ve been lured out of their homes, the skies darken. When it’s too late to run back inside, when they’ve wandered too far into the open, the storm returns.”

“This is what the planes are doing. They fly away as if their mission were complete. Just as the people think it is safe, they turn back for another run. I suppose they’ve studied Porgy, yeah?”

“I’m sorry, John,” I said.

We travelled on through the night, in the darkness and the cold, at a slow roll at the mountain’s edge. Hours passed as we moved at a crawl. The snow beyond the windshield was like a rush of wraiths around us, desperate, howling, the quiet rumble of the engines and the crunch of rock and ice beneath the wheels lost inside it. Even the trucks trembled with the worst of the gusts. Even the trucks.

And then came the moment when John slammed on the brakes.

His face told me nothing, and he stepped out of the truck. I saw the others watch carefully, guns at the ready. He barely had room to walk, we were so near to the edge, and he held the sides of the vehicles as he proceeded.

When he returned, he told me that the trucks could go no further. “The road ahead is gone,” he said. “It is blown away, bombed, it is gone.”

He placed his head on the steering wheel for a very long time. His gloves covered his face.

I touched his arm.

“John,” I said.

*

When I was very small, my parents would play at making me fly. We weren’t all together often, not with my father’s work, but when we were, we would go to a park and walk long winding trails that always seemed to lead to water. Mother on one side, Father on the other, me in the middle, and they would count as each of them held me by a hand. On three, they would swing me up into the air between them.

Once I got away from them while they were distracted by a sign that told of a great battle that had been fought there. I remember my father’s voice, reading it aloud, and I remember noticing a rabbit near the trees. I approached, the rabbit ran, and I followed.

Strange, but this is all I remember of that. The rest is a story I was told. How they searched and called my name but I did not answer, and when they did find me, I was still and silent, facing a tree like a child put in time out in a corner. Mother said, when she told me the story years later, that she scolded me and hugged me close to her, but that I wouldn’t answer as to why I’d run off. I kept saying that I’d met my sister from far away. Which is ridiculous, I have no sister. She told me this story over and over as I grew older, usually when she’d had a touch too much vodka in her juice, and I always felt that she didn’t quite believe me when I said that I myself did not remember saying what she said I said.

*

We gathered as much as we could carry. Families, having already pared their belongings down to bare essentials, said goodbye to all but themselves, their children, and what could be carried by hand. I helped as much as I was able.

The air was bitterly cold, and the wind did not stop. We were able to pass, on foot, where the trucks could not, by keeping close to the edge of the cliff. There were spots where it seemed my boots were half on rock, half in the open air.

Once we were past the cliff face and on level ground, Bogie guided us to a trail that took us into the forest. I heard water in the distance, still running along icy banks. Tired was something that had been and gone. Pain was something that had been and gone. I shambled.  

After half an hour in the forest, the house was there, abandoned and partly collapsed.

We settled in, all of us, on the dusty floor, on the cracked and split wood. There was no talk of building a fire in the hearth or other jokes. We collapsed into sleep, our few belongings under our heads as pillows.

*

The explosion snapped me out of sleep.

I jumped to my feet, clutching my camera, kicking my bag to the wall. I slipped into a corner, pulled my bag back to me, looked around. A few of the others were on their feet as well, but this was less than half of us. Where were the others? Gunfire. There was gunfire outside.

I crouched low, ran close to the wall, hands on my camera.

As soon as I was outside, I saw John and Bogie. Both of them were shooting from a kneeling position at the edge of the barn, using the rusted hulk of a tractor for cover. I photographed this, and I moved, still low to the ground, aiming for better cover. Bodies, smoke, the crack of gunfire.

Something landed between John and Bogie and exploded. The world went white, and I flew up into the air.

When I hit the ground, my ears rang. I saw a girl, a child, out of the corner of my eye. She was alone, crying, holding a scrap of rag that might have once been a doll.

I scooped her up, and we disappeared into the trees, smoke and confusion our allies.

*

I don’t know how long I ran. What happened? Why? I knew that I would never learn the answers. I carried the girl, forcing myself to keep moving, keep moving.

I was sure that I heard the sound of water running. I followed that sound, sure I could catch it.

When I could move no more, I hid us within a small group of trees, stacked branches around us for cover. When it was safer, I thought, we could find the way back to the trucks. What we’d do then, I had no idea.

I shared what food and water I had on me with the child and we rested.

Rest turned to sleep as the day darkened.

I dreamt of the dry ache that settles into Natalie’s hips each autumn.

*

The crunch of snow beneath boots startled me awake. I hugged the child, still sleeping, close to me, and I was very quiet.

I understood how little was left of my story.

I brushed her hair, softly, and felt the fever she carried inside her. For too long, this sweet girl had been pushed forward, forced to walk, hunted, and for what? I kissed the top of her head. What color were her eyes? I could not remember. Was this not terrible? I only saw them look to me, pleading, for a moment, before she was in my arms and we were moving.

I thought of Natalie then and there was so much I wish I could have said to her.

But all I had was a single moment, safe between horrors. There was food in my belly, warmth in my arms, and I was doing what I knew to be good and right. I had this. I had this moment.

I looked to the child, still sleeping.

Her face was the face of an angel, as still and calm as a dream frozen in time.

*

There was once in my life a dancer named Natalie. Her every step recalled a lifetime of splintered bone, of cartilage shorn away in ragged patches, of what she did to herself so that she could dance beneath those lights.

“Anna,” she said to me once, her voice raw with pain. “Anna, I need to stop.”

And so I held her, near the churchyard gates of St. Michael’s, and the light was kind. I brushed the back of my fingertips along the curve of her cheek, tucked a loop of hair back in place behind her ear. The world went quiet, just for a moment, caught between sunset and dusk.

Dorogaya,” I whispered. “Maya rusalka, dorogaya.

Dark grass rustled against the chalk white slabs beneath the churchyard’s oaks. She placed her forehead to my shoulder, bit once against my jacket.

This was her way: to play at being a child, to invite protection from others. She is one of those who believe that love will split cracks through concrete, grow through to bloom around her. Her hair, with its lingering scent of peach and honey, is a place inside of me that I could always go, if I only closed my eyes, slowed each breath, let life fall away. Maya malinkaya rusalka, my little mermaid, my dancer.

This is the image I held on to as my bones, with their strange gravity, tried to hold what was left of me close to them.

*

I can’t tell you how long I’ve wandered or where.

Snow is piled deep in the hallway. Glass has fallen away from the windows. The wind rushes in and is bitterly cold.

A child wore my face when there was nothing separating it from sunlight and summer days. It’s like remembering the life of a stranger, but that stranger is someone with whom my life is forever entangled.

Poppa. I have tried to see as you once saw.

Natalie. Only this, a kiss. My mermaid, my dancer.

There are times when I am a child, free and laughing, sure a swift rabbit is right within my reach. There are times I fly high into the air, my father’s strong hands always there to catch me. I am in the moment, focused, my breath steady and even, eyes and hands as one, doing my work as bullets fly and the world explodes around me. I am terrified. I am cold in the ground and all that’s left of me is bone. I am watching Natalie dance Clara in The Nutcracker.

I am alone and I am old. My hands move through piles of photographs, light pressed down on paper. Some are still, some flowing into motion, some bursting with rushes of sound and scent and taste and touch.

This is light, pressed down on paper.

Even when the paper’s gone, the light goes on forever.

Jason A. Zwiker’s writing has appeared in All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society, Eureka Literary Magazine, Resist & Refuse, and Weirdbook. He was listed as an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (19th ed.). Find him on Twitter @jazstory

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