Authors: Patricia Maclachlan
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THE KITE FIGHTERS,
Linda Sue Park
THE VICTORY GARDEN,
HALF AND HALF,
THE SHADOWS OF GHADAMES,
BELLE PRATER’S BOY,
THE CHAIN LETTER,
It is our inward journey that leads us through time—forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling.
Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn’t attending to.
—Emmet Gowin, in O
, by Susan Sontag
Mama named me Journey. Journey, as if somehow she wished her restlessness on me. But it was Mama who would be gone the year that I was eleven—before spring crashed onto our hillside with explosions of mountain laurel, before summer came with the soft slap of the screen door, breathless nights, and mildew on the books. I should have known, but I didn’t. My older sister Cat knew. Grandma knew, but Grandma kept it to herself. Grandfather knew and said so.
Mama stood in the barn, her suitcase at her feet.
“I’ll send money,” she said. “For Cat and Journey.”
“That’s not good enough, Liddie,” said Grandfather.
“I’ll be back, Journey,” my mother said softly.
But I looked up and saw the way the light trembled in her hair, making her look like an angel, someone not earthbound. Even in that moment she was gone.
“No, son,” Grandfather said to me, his voice loud in the barn. “She won’t be back.”
And that was when I hit him.
is belly down in the meadow with his camera, taking a close-up of a cow pie. He has, in the weeks since Mama left, taken many photographs—one of our least trustworthy cow, Mary Louise, standing up to her hocks in meadow muck; one of my grandmother in the pantry, reading a book while bees, drawn to her currant wine, surround her head in a small halo; and many of himself, taken with the self-timer device he’s not yet figured out. The pictures of himself fascinate him. They line the back of the barn wall in a series of my grandfather
in flight, dressed in overalls, caught in the moment of entering the picture, or leaving it; some with grand dimwitted smiles, his hair flying; one of a long, work-worn hand stretched out gracefully, the only part of him able to make it into the frame before the camera clicks.
Cat gave him the camera in one of her fits of cleanliness.
“I’ve given up the camera,” she yelled, her head underneath the bed, unearthing her life. “I’ve given up the flute and most everything else. Including meat,” she said pointedly. “I have spent the entire afternoon looking into the eyes of a cow, and have become a vegetarian.”
“Which cow?” asked my grandmother, not kidding.
Cat gave her a quick look. Grandfather picked up Cat’s camera and peered through the lens.
“You tired of this, Cat?”
“My pictures are so …” She waved her hand to the pile of pictures. “So …”
“Boring,” Grandfather finished for her.
I felt my face flush with anger, but Cat laughed.
“Take it, Grandpa,” she said cheerfully.
Grandfather turned to me.
What did he think I’d take pictures of? This farm? I could close my eyes and see it—the spruce trees at the edge of the meadow, the stream cutting through, the stone walls that framed it all. I knew every inch of every acre. What would pictures tell me? And the people. What would pictures tell me of my grandmother, so secretive; my grandfather, tall and blunt?
On Cat’s dresser was a picture of our father who had gone away somewhere a long time ago. He was young in the picture, laughing, his eyes looking past the camera, past the place, past me. When I was little, I carried that picture around, trying to remember him, trying to place the picture so that the eyes would look into mine. But they never did. His face was like carved stone, not flesh and blood. And the picture never told me the things I wanted to know.
Did he think about Cat and me? Where was he? Would I know him if I saw him?
I turned and the camera clicked: Grandfather’s first picture of me. I stared at him angrily, and slowly he lowered the camera and looked at me with a surprised and dismayed expression, as if he’d seen something through the lens that he hadn’t expected.
Grandma’s voice broke the silence.
“I’ll take the flute, Cat. And this.”
Grandma had put on the sweatshirt that Mama had given Cat, LIDDIE written across the front in big letters.
“No!” My voice sounded harsher than I meant. “That’s Mama’s shirt!”
Grandfather put his hand on my shoulder.
“Your mama left it, Journey.”
I shook off his hand and stepped away from him.
Grandma stood in the light of the window, her hair all tumbled like Mama’s in the barn. I looked at Cat to see if she noticed, but Cat was smiling at Grandma.
“You look wonderful, Gran.”
Cat pulled me after her and went to hug
Grandma. And Grandfather took a picture that 6 would startle me every time I saw it: not Grandma, her hair tied back with a piece of string, smiling slightly as if she knew the secrets of the world; not Cat, her head thrown back, laughing; but my face, staring into the camera with such fury that even in the midst of the light and the laughter the focus of the picture is me.
The first letter that wasn’t a letter came in the noon mail. It lay in the middle of the kitchen table like a dropped apple, addressed to Cat and me, Mama’s name in the left-hand corner.
I’d watched Cat walk up the front path from the mailbox, slowly, as if caught by the camera in slow motion or in a series of what Grandfather called stills: Cat smiling. Cat looking eager. Cat, her face suddenly unfolding out of a smile. She brushed past me at the front door and opened her hand, the letter falling to the table.
“No return address,” she said flatly. My grandmother stirred soup on the stove 7 and looked sideways at me. After a moment she looked away again.
Grandfather, cleaning his camera lens with lens paper, lifted his shoulders in a sigh, the way he always did when he was about to say something I didn’t want to hear. “I expect—” he began. Grandma’s voice made me jump. “Marcus!” Then softer. “Let it be.” Cat began to cut carrots at the kitchen counter. My grandfather flinched with each violent stroke.
“I think (thwack) that what Grandpa (thwack) means is that there will be (thwack) money in that envelope. Not words.”
Cat stopped and stared down at the counter, the sudden silence like noise filling the room.
“Not the words you want,” Cat said softly.
I felt tears behind my eyes. There was something soft and sad in Cat’s voice that made me think of Mama.
Grandma stopped stirring the soup, and Grandfather cleared his throat.
“You will be disappointed,” he said.
“I’m not disappointed,” I said loudly. “I’m not!”
I reached over and tore off one end of the envelope, blowing inside the way Grandfather always did.
Inside were two small packets of money, the bills fastened with paper clips and a torn piece of paper on each. One said CAT. The other said JOURNEY. The paper clip over my name was bent, as if Mama might have tried to make it right and hadn’t. I stared at that paper clip for a long time.
“There are words,” I said. My voice rose. “There are words! Our names are there. Our names are words!”
There was silence. The sound of my voice hung in the air between us. Cat turned to face me.
“Journey, you keep the money. Do whatever you want with it.”
She began to cut the carrots again, this time calm and steady.
“I’ll put it in the bank,” I said. Grandma
smiled at me from the stove. Grandfather peered at her through his camera and snapped a picture. I stood, suddenly angry, wanting him to stop taking pictures.
“I’ll start a travel account!” I shouted.
Surprised, Grandfather put down his camera.
“So that when Mama tells us where she is, Cat and I can go visit! We’ll take a bus … or a train. Something fast.”
I looked down at the letter in my hand.
“She forgot the return address,” I said.
Cat turned at the counter to stare at me.
“She forgot, that’s all,” I said softly.
Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and came over and put her arms around me. I smelled onion and something like flowers, lilacs maybe, and I burst into tears.
“Ah, Journey,” Grandma murmured.
I heard the click of Grandfather’s camera. “Why does he do that?” I asked, my voice muffled in Grandma’s shoulder. I leaned back to look at Grandfather. “Why do you do that? Why?”
“Because he needs to,” said Grandma softly.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know,” she whispered.
* * *
My bedroom was sun-dappled and quiet, the smell of lilacs strong through the open window, mingling with the lily-of-the-valley from under the bush outside.
The door opened and Grandma stood there with a bowl of soup in one hand, an album in the other. She set the bowl on the table by my bed. Then she opened the album. It was full of pictures, pictures of people I didn’t know— men in black suits and white starched shirts and broad-brimmed hats, women in flowered dresses, and children with bows as big as balloons in their hair. Grandma pointed.
“Me,” she said, “when I was Cat’s age.”
In the picture Grandma sat in the garden swing, looking straight at the camera with a great smile on her face. Tables were set up in the
garden with food and pitchers and bowls of flowers.
“This was taken on a long-ago Fourth of July.” Grandma closed her eyes. “Nineteen thirty, I think. The day I met your grandfather.”
“You look happy,” I said. Grandma nodded and looked at the picture.
“The camera knows,” she said.
“The camera knows what?” She turned more pages.
“And here is your mother, same age, same day, but many years later. Grandpa took that picture. He didn’t have so fine a camera as now, of course.”
In the picture the girl who was my mama sat behind a table, her face in her hands, looking far off in the distance. All around her were people laughing, talking. Lancie, Mama’s sister, made a face at the camera. Uncle Minor, his hair all sunbleached, was caught by the camera taking a handful of cookies. In the background a dog leaped into the air to grab a ball, his ears floating out as if uplifted and held there by the wind. But my mother looked silent and unhearing.
“It’s a nice picture,” I said. “Except for Mama. It must have been the camera,” I said after a moment.
Grandma sighed and took my hand.
“No, it wasn’t the camera, Journey. It was your mama. Your mama always wished to be somewhere else.”
“Well, now she is,” I said.
After a while Grandma got up and left the room. I sat there for a long time, staring at Mama’s picture, as if I could will her to turn and talk to the person next to her. If I looked at the picture long enough, my mama would move, stretch, smile at my grandfather behind the camera. But she didn’t. I turned away, but her face stayed with me. The expression on Mama’s face was one I knew. One I remembered.
Somewhere else. I am very little, five or six, and in overalls and new yellow rubber boots. I follow Mama across the meadow. It has rained and everything is washed and shiny, the sky clear. As I walk my feet make squishing sounds, and when I try to catch up with Mama I fall into the brook. I am not afraid, but when I look up Mama has walked away. Arms pick me up, someone
else’s arms. Someone else takes off my boots and pours out the water. My grand father. I am angry. It is not my grandfather I want. It is Mama. But Mama is far ahead, and she doesn’t look back. She is somewhere else.
I walked to the window. Birds still sang, flowers still bloomed, cows still slept in the meadow, and I ate soup—now cold—as if my mama hadn’t ever gone.