Second Prize Winner

Alight in a Dark Room 



Such ingenuity, he mused, passing through the Christie’s exhibition’s myriad of early photographic devices and their sepia-toned products of faces, places passed into time’s vast, unrepeating repository. Yes, there were ‘types’, but even misnamed ‘identical twins’ showed nuances of individuality, Frank reasoned and, thereby, added to his enthusiasm for these artifacts.

Of especial interest was the ‘camera obscura’ and its chiaroscuro, a painterly imagery seemingly lost in an overlit world of machine-driven virtuality in which the ersatz became the real, absent the meaning of the true, the original. The appeal of the realness of this ironic ‘brilliant darkness’ acted on his subconscious in a similar way, whatever light within his psyche only, just, revealing the essential truth about the dark, hidden ‘stuff’ of the surreal.

“And, now, for Lot #238899, the very camera utilized by Matthew Brady during most of his work during the American Civil War” the auctioneer announced.

The precious cargo was carefully stowed in the trunk of his car, complete with bubble wrap; he had even managed to successfully acquire the necessary glass plates and other accoutrements necessary to the camera’s use, albeit they were modern copies fashioned by a historicist friend who shared his passion for the genuine, the real.

“Now, Frank, don’t need to tell you, these plates are as close as we can make them today; I’ve even given them the most modern qualities while preserving the original look and feel” his friend had advised. “The important thing is that development will be a breeze, just think of them as the best of today and yesterday.”

There was a pause, a kind of reticence on the part of Frank’s friend, approaching fear so closely that Frank forced the matter. “What’s with the long face, you seem somehow disturbed by all this.”

“Well, you know, sometimes things carry a kind of pattern, field, almost like a habitual information with them; that fella Brady, he went bankrupt, nobody wanted his pictures, save the papers and they couldn’t print them, only used em for engravings and such” Morley confided.

“Is that all, for crying out loud, I’m not trying to make a living with this contraption, just amusement, for me and my friends. Thanks for everything, Mor, I’ll be in touch.” And Frank was off to his spacious home, now equipped with a studio, ‘atelier’ his wife insisted to their friends, all anxious to sit for this image-maker of renown, usually in period costume of Victorian vintage.

The Cuzzins’ had been his first subjects, showing up in costumes they had acquired at some fire sale of an old Hollywood costumer that Edith Head had put a curse on after a flap over deadlines; they had gotten a bargain for the whole lot, and wanted the entire antique collection, including Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, history’s luckless duo of chic clueless ness.

But the dark room was where the real fun occurred, seeing the now bizarrely histrionic faces of his growing circle of friends emerge through time’s chemical alchemy, thanks to his own personal ‘philosopher’s stone’, as he called it. The history of the instrument had a potent hold upon Frank’s mind; after all, he reflected, hadn’t it been the very one, the actual lens that had captured the likenesses of the greats of its era: Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Beecher, so many who had graced the stage of history. And the photographer, he had studied under no less a luminary than Samuel F.B. Morse, who had single-handedly introduced the photographic art to America. Warned of both the physical and financial risks, he replied, mysteriously, ‘A spirit in my feet told me I had to go, and go I did’.

Those feet trekked through the horrors of war’s ground, from first Bull Run to some of the bloodiest battles the world had ever known. But it was Brady’s vision, his sense of mission that Frank Moebius found so compelling; ever the innovator, Brady and his close associates endeavored to facilitate both the quality and quantity of their work in the field, using the then new carte-de-viste camera capable of large production of imagery. And it was this very camera, his first, that Frank now possessed.

Possession was the correct term, as he had dreamed of getting his hands on it, using all his business contacts and sense to achieve his goal. And, now that he had it, he intended to create his own New York gallery, this time in mock homage to that of his hero. When warned of the superstition that history tends to repeat itself, he gave such advice the back of his hand, noting that his wife was in terrific health and that nostalgia and its spin-offs made for a lucrative and enjoyable return on his investment.

There they were, bedecked as the doomed royal couple. . .what’s this! Frank’s heart and brain exclaimed silently. . .they’re sitting just where I shot them. . .beheaded, blood gushing freely from their severed jugulars, covering their prized costumes like candle wax, mimicking their internal craggy venous architecture.

Gasping for air, he fled the room, noting the time, 2 a.m. What had been meant as a delightful avocation had become obsession, he reasoned, returning to the darkened chamber, seeing only a blank glass plate, awaiting its soberly scientific process.

‘7 a.m.’, the clock informed his one partially opened eye which attempted to behold its eternal insomniac face.

Frank’s sleep had been dreamless; who needs dreams, he self-critiqued, when his camera’s eye conjured more than nightmares. He determined to resume his photographic endeavors, now somewhat refreshed.

There, he comforted his agreeing eyes, heads and all. The plate was perfectly normal, that is except for the ridiculous image of his two very ordinary friends as larger than life dead royals. As he processed the hard copy prints, he smiled, bemused at his fatigue’s fanciful dramatic powers--he kept a copy for his planned collection of historical rogues for an ambitious gallery.

Returning to his still warm bed, now he dreamt of such a gallery, this one in New York’s cast iron district, now SoHo; he even felt himself smiling at the signage, inspired by his wife: ‘Atelier of Photographic Arts/M. Brady, Esq., proprietor’ . . . his assistant, Alistare, a freed slave of industrious ways, had painted it for him, the literate fellow, but how did he learn . . . he did have strong references, almost fawning over his ‘skilled mannerisms’, whatever that meant, Frank’s subconscious interjected its modern skepticism . . .

“Alistare, what’ve you done with my ether?” Brady demanded; “Why, suh, I done nothing sept what you toll me ta do, and dats ta mix it up.”

“Ah, yes . . . good, as we have many plates to process for the artists from the Atlantic Monthly, paying us handsomely; now, shall we…” and he walked to the dark room through black curtains giving the appearance, sublimated Frank, of those seen in elaborate mortuary hearses; finding the chemicals somehow leaking onto the floor, Brady burst into a rage… “You fool! See now what you’ve done! I’ll be ruined!” Alistare recoiled but without outward fear, only disgust at the white man’s lack of control, nothing like the public image he tried to portray.

While Alistare knew it was the cats that were kept for rodent control in this shabby district of the City, he did not implicate them as he feared they would be destroyed or simply thrown into the street; cats were given special status in his ancestors’ traditions, still very much with Alistare, via an oral system of learning which had effectively endowed him with shamanic knowledge.

“You, sir, are dismissed, now get out!” With those words Brady’s fate was sealed, sealed in a way no waxen vellumed parchment could ever encompass, for he now was the victim of the ‘wan cadada’, a hex reserved by the tribal seers for those who had done complete wrong, untempered by remorse or forethought.

What the white world called ghosts were very real entities to Alistare’s tribe; but these entitities, the ‘cadada’, did not so much inhabit a place or thing as change it, alter its essence so thoroughly that it was in a fittingly ephemeral way new to the world of the ‘chendendi’, the material.

“I don’t understand” cried Brady, as the plates, one by one, revealed what he thought to be overexposure ‘clouds’, obscuring or masking his images to the point of uselessness; on some of them, the especially gruesome corpses already racked with rigor mortis, Brady’s own face had been somehow engrafted--he was the dead man in scores of his handiwork!

Frank’s arms and legs trembled, so that his covers were now overthrown, a seeming half Lazarus whose body’s tongue bespoke a plaintive shriek uttered to its mechanical savior with the coolly benumbered face.

Though the ‘how’ of it was unknowable, Frank wandered Bowery streets, stupored from drink and self-pity. Can I smell in my dreams, his faculties injected . . . ‘What has happened, why, I am a man of substance, in demand….’ As he stumbled and fell, bumping his addled head into momentary blankness.

“Have you seen his latest work?” It is simply abhorrent, why, all the faces are his--do not ask me how or why--but he is under some sort of demonic influence, I can assure you of this!” Greeley was adamantine: Brady was finished, as was the War and its maudlin appeal. “The West, now, if only Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery had possessed cameras” exclaimed Greeley.

Now back at his studio at Broadway and Fulton, he found the door ajar, cats scurrying to and fro; of course, he thought beclouded though his brain was, they had upset the laboratory for which he had so berated Alistare . . . but how could he set it right, there was no telling where Alistare had gone, what further damage he may have done . . . what was the use? The creditors, so lavish in their praise and support, would now descend upon me; his assistants in the field would emerge as those who had done the actual work of trudging through sodden battlefields, braving shell and shot, the stench, always the stench; I had seen it myself, at Bull Run, before my eyes began to desert me . . . called brave beyond soldiery, now that would be forgotten, the images reminders of that from which survivors sought reprieve, forever. Even the President was its sanguinary victim, he who had credited me, along with his Cooper Union address, with making him President . . .

A shadowy figure, certainly not a cat, appeared in the peripheral view of Frank’s left eye…….. ‘Who is there?’ No reply; ‘I say, answer me, this is……private property, I can have you arrested.’

“Arreste . . . (laughter)…my friend, it seems that it may be you who is trespassing, yes? Did you think you could rid yourself of me so easily; no, my former friend, we are bound up together, my handiwork entwined with yours, across time…”

“Alistare, is that you? I’ve been wanting….”

“Want, you speak of want, and want it is that you now have, yes?”

“Listen to me, I was . . . wrong, I know that…”

“Silence! The cadadas have been loosed, nothing can stop them; goodbye; I am already dead, as they show no mercy once summoned.”

Awake. Frank looked at the clock, only one hour having passed. Struggling to recall his dreamscape, he was supremely frustrated by the blank conscious canvas his hardened brush of a brain now refused to decorate with recollection; his comforter spread upon the floor, its fanciful name betrayed by the violence it had failed to contain. Dehydrated, he glanced at his night table, a half full wine glass his only suspect, released without questioning by an increasingly shrinking awareness of what might have been behind such a scene of kinesis on such a place of presumptive rest. Caffeine now overwhelmed his efforts at reconstruction, causing him to trip over the cat. “Alistare, do you mind!” Wait, cats, hadn’t they been in my dream…….and the name……that’s it, Scrooge must have been right, a morsel of beef, or cheese, and the strangest things can be conjured by the brain. Yes, that was all.

“Thanks, my feline friend, there’s a tasty treat in your near future.”

Weeks passed, and that gallery grew so that his avocation had now truly become a craft, overtaking his time like some sort of compulsion, passionately outpacing his original interest and, while it surprised him, that effect was only heightened by the news.

Fred and Ophelia Cuzzins, only casual acquaintances, had been killed in a freak roadside accident while on one of their escapes to Europe, both beheaded by the high-speed impact of a tractor trailer. He had learned that they were the safest of drivers, never even reaching the speed limit under any circumstance anyone who knew them could conjure; they had traveled to France with the specific intent of retracing the steps of the famed doomed couple whose likenesses they had reveled in before Frank’s prized camera. So violent was the crash that the lorry which struck them had overturned, spilling its contents all over the roadside. Razorblades, manufactured by the same firm which had fashioned the various guillotine blades for the Revolution.

At the funeral, to which he felt drawn for ‘reasons’ of confirmation more than affinity for this unfortunate couple, Frank Moebius could not help but see that image, it had been there, on the glass plate----he replayed Morley’s words, and that was enough to cause him to find the whole damned business risible; enough, he thought, optical illusion…refracted ordinary images, it happened to photographers all the time, since the first elementary dark rooms--Daguerre himself had written of it: ‘Trickery of light’, he had called it.

Months passed, and he had photographed several more persons, happily and without the freak accident of the Cuzzins’. Then, when he had all but forgotten the whole episode, he came across it, the phenomenon which would both explain and confound his experiences, waking and otherwise. He had read of the confluence of science and philosophy, their artificial walls erected by a reductionist worldview now in serious question; it unnerved him that with or without a high tech laboratory, the truth was accessible to the truly open mind.

His video club had sent him some tapes concerning animal instinctive behaviors, featuring the ideas of a man named Sheldrake; he thought they would be useful in understanding his dog’s penchant for detection of unseen things, forces or whatever. She would not go past the dark room door, that was certain, and her actions bordered on the spooky. Every time he went near it to develop some shots, she would lay down, tense, with her paws over her eyes.

“Morphic resonance” Morley announced blithely.

Frank had contacted Morley after midnight, he had been so flabbergasted by Sheldrake’s theories.

“Why didn’t you say something . . . wait a minute, you did” Frank was in a daze.

“Look, it’s just theorizing, but . . . if he’s right, well, then material things, everything really, even so-called inanimate objects create some sort of lasting field of force that we call habit.” There was a pause, during which both men were somehow thinking the same thought.

“It’s cursed”, as he hung up the phone Frank mouthed the words he never imagined himself uttering.

We exist in a universe, the nature of each integral to one another, yet the who, what, why, even the when of it all is largely unknown to us, he mused; even consciousness is indefinable. Why wasn’t a ‘curse’ real, wasn’t it just thought, and thoughts were energy, emerging from somewhere . . . my brain, my mind . . . can I even define them, distinguish them? Energy, wasn’t it a basic law that nothing, even it, was ever destroyed, only transformed . . . he recalled that electrons lasted for eons, maybe forever, and wasn’t this an electric world, electronic through and through? More than ever, he wanted to know, now reassured that Hamlet’s dilemma was soluble, with what we know today.

Two weeks later, Frank was found in his dark room, his stale blood having mixed together with development chemicals in a glossy pool round his shattered head, shattered by a gunshot to that head.

“Those wrongful death lawsuits must’ve been too much for him” the coroner mused.

“The thing I can’t figure is, who the Hell took that picture of him with the gun to his head” the detective said.

“His friend, Morley tells me that he prepared the glass plates, swears they were brand new, state of the art glass, the works” the forensic specialist added.

“Well, one thing’s for sure, that image, the one they found on all the plates, it’s a guy name of Brady, Matthew Brady, wearing what looks like a smirk or grimace on his face, in the background, with Frank Moebius aiming that same weapon at those 12 people.”

In the municipal morgue, the embalmer paused in his morbid practices, his ‘undertakings’, as he called them risibly on so many occasions whenever morticians numbered at least two. It had been an unusually busy time, as it seemed always to be around All Hallow’s Eve. He smiled bemusedly at the mindless paganism of its observance, its indulgents’ never even so much as reflecting upon its gruesomeness.

In that same room had been the bodies of some dozen gunshot victims, shot at close range, from the back, seemingly unawares, as if they had been surprised. And now these deaths were being blamed upon this, his latest subject, an apparent suicide, the bullets having entered the base of his skull.

This ‘subject’, as his profession referred to cadavers, was, then, of special importance; he would allow himself to enjoy a cigar, despite the flammable chemicals abounding. As he walked to his office desk in search of the tube of tobacco which symbolized for him relaxed repast, he looked up at the two old photographs on his wall, treasured heirlooms of his family for over a century. These sepia ovals bore the separate images of his great ancestor, known as a shaman in their native village of West Africa; the other, the image of his brief employer, one M. Brady of New York, whose resemblance to his extant subject the mortician found remarkable.

The End

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