The house stands at the end of the road near a river, always a good vehicle of transport to the other side. He stands in the night street appraising the house, the ghost glow, the promise, a hopeful omen. He gathers his bags with the tools of his trade and begins to climb the stairs when he hears the cry from inside. A child’s wail, loud and desperate.
A haggard woman opens the door and shows him inside. A weary smile on her face, she seems too old to be the child’s mother.
“Thank you for coming,” she says, and she tries to stifle a deep cough. “My son is upstairs. I think it is almost time.”
“I hurried. I had a feeling,” he says. But he does not tell her how he stopped several times along the river road. Such a strange thing, the sight of glowing trees. Even the grass seemed lit. He had stopped to take photographs.
“You’ve seen the trees,” she says. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“Wasn’t always this way. But the people started their work up river. Nothing is the same now.”
The stairs are narrow, but strangely illuminated, though he can’t see a light or a lamp, a source. Once they reach the second floor, he feels as though they are drifting toward the room at the end of the hall. It is a dizzying thing, but he takes it for what it is. He holds his camera close to his chest in a protective way.
When they enter the bedroom, he sees the boy, all aglow, on top of a quilt of many colors. He sees that the quilt is a pattern of trains, the old steam engine kind. The steam rises from the train engines and gathers in clouds near the ceiling. The clouds glow softly. The trains and the clouds are not going anywhere in the small room. Yet.
“Should I stay?” the mother asks.
“It’s fine,” he says. “What is the boy’s name?”
She again stifles a cough, then backs toward a window to make room for him to do his work. She folds her arms tightly around her chest. With light from the window behind her, he sees that the boy’s mother is translucent. Her bones are visible and white. They shine through her woolen sweater and pants.
“Isaac, I have come to make your memory portrait,” he says soothingly.
“Yes sir,” the boy whispers, obviously in pain. “But I might not smile.”
“I understand. Just relax and I’ll be finished soon. Then you can sleep.”
He can feel the boy’s fever in the air, but he does not back away. Instead, he carefully takes the camera from its case and begins to focus on the glowing boy, the white effervescent sheets, and the smoking quilt. As he does, he wonders how soon he will return to this house on the river road, to take the memory portrait of the mother. He is not good with time, but he thinks it has only been a month, or maybe six weeks, since he was there to take the memory portrait of the boy’s father. And maybe four months since he began the memory portrait series of the river people.
“Smile for me, Isaac.”
But the boy merely stares blankly into the camera. Dazed, all of them.
These river people do not pay him for their portraits. Instead, he receives envelopes of cash from someone he does not know, a person who wishes to remain anonymous. His work at the camera store as a clerk doesn’t pay much, so he has begun to appreciate the cash from the mysterious stranger. He has puzzled over this, who the employer might be and what it all might mean, but he has become so busy taking the memory portraits that he has almost stopped thinking about it. What he can be sure of is that he is living better because of the cash, though he is unsure how long he has been receiving it. Four months? Five?
As he clicks the shutter, he feels that numbness in his fingers again. The numbness comes and goes, but lately it has become more pronounced. His skin also seems much paler than before. When he is finished taking the portrait of the boy, the mother steps toward the bed. She strokes the boy’s forehead. Her bony hand moves like a soft light across the boy’s face. The boy’s eyes are closed now. He is gone. Elsewhere.
“I’m sorry,” he says to the mother. She nods and lowers her head. She is quickly becoming accustomed to this, to grief.
He leaves the house and walks to his car. He looks up at the stars. They have become more and more faint lately. The grass and trees have slowly become brighter. He wonders what is happening up river. So far he has not tried to investigate. If he does, he might lose his job. The only instruction he has received from his mystery employer is to take the photographs at designated houses, but to never drive up the river road. So he has not, nor has he asked anyone about it. He has wondered all along if he should ask someone, if he should drive up the river road. Down deep, he has wondered if his employer is some kind of mass murderer, a wealthy one who is collecting memory portraits for a private exhibition.
As he starts the car, he notices another change in his hands. His fingers are now ghostly things, nearly translucent. He drives a mile or so and then pulls to the side of the river road. His first impulse is to keep driving up that road, to find out what is happening upstream. First, though, he must do something else, something important and lasting. He takes out his camera again. He takes a self-portrait.
Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. His published works include a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. He conducts creative writing workshops in Houston at The Women’s Institute. His photographs have appeared in many journals, with photo essays published in GLASGOW REVIEW, PUBLIC REPUBLIC, DEEP SOUTH and NARRATIVE MAGAZINES, among others. He has completed a darkly comedic novel, HEARTS IN THE DARK, about a sociopathic radio talk-show host.