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It was a wayward scrap of glossy Kodak paper, evidence of a crummy stint in double exposure that had evidently been truncated almost as soon as it had begun. It had survived without the glow of attention and warmth of inquisitive eyes for a decade or two, its only identification the three lines written on its back, in the upper left-hand corner: Double exposure. House on Nantucket burns down. Hawaii ocean and sunset. The letters were soft and rounded, the faded pink-stamped date weakly declaring that it was processed in JUN 1988.
It was unknown to all how this curious artifact found its way into the forgotten bottom of a box in the attic, a smooth wooden trunk with the carefully painted pattern of roses crawling across its cover. So many years since this trunk felt the comforting pull of callused hands, the electrifying rumbling of transport. Now its world is dust and paint fading where it once was vibrant. The hush of box after box kept quietly in the tangled, overgrown briar patch of artifacts that was the Mortensons’ attic.
The photograph is an alien in its trunk, for its neighboring keepsakes date back much farther than the June of 1988. There are other photographs in the trunk as well, but they are strangers clad in mournful black and white and grey. The image of a faded Hawaiian sunset and house collapsing in vibrant fire makes this photograph an outcast. They tell the shaded truth of centuries past, neatly tied in a stack and set in the corner of the trunk, suspicious of the newcomer who has lain with them for mere decades. From within the soft yellow ribbon that binds them, they scoff at this radical of color and light, this mystifying falsehood of double exposure. A sunset. A burning house. Nantucket and Hawaii, places foreign on their paper lips, even for all their adventuring. Jealous, they cozy up to the packet of ancient letters they rest beside, absorb themselves in ink and swirling signatures. When they know that the color photograph can hear them, they brag about their birthplaces and the things they saw on their long-ago adventures – the Great Pyramids, Buckingham Palace, rebellions and wars and pretty dancing girls. Nantucket, they scoff. Hawaii. Who cares about such tame places when one can lay claim to a section of history?
In its spare time, and in an effort to ignore the badgering of the elders, the photograph listens. For the first decade, it only slept. The second decade, it awakened in the bleary confusion of a forgotten existence, and strained to remember the circumstances of its arrival in the bottom of the rose-painted trunk. But now it listens, listens to the sound of the dust mites forming on box-tops and swirling in the hazy morning sunshine that slants through the key-hole window high in the eaves. Listens to the careful shifting of the packet of letters, the mutterings of the elderly photographs within their satin ribbon binding. Sometimes, when it listens with every shred of its Kodak-developed existence, it can almost hear the roaring crackle of a seaside house in flames. The babble of easily pleased beachcombers who strut along the palm-tree strewn sand to watch the sun dip and slide beneath the horizon. It retreats into this world when the jealous mutterings of the black-and-white photographs are too much, when it is tired of hearing about the Seven Seas that each and every one of the elderly photos claims to have crossed in their early days.
In that world of burning house and evening beach, the photograph is alone, the sole keeper of the portal between the two scenes, the link between flames and sunset. And when it surfaces from its intently focused dreams and finds itself again at the bottom of the box, with the quiet of dust mites and jealous photographs and forgotten keepsakes all around, it is alone as well – as alone as any of them, stranded in the wooden trunk with a strange, ancient perfume settling around them in a glimmer of faded past – the faint aroma of dying flowers.
On one particular morning, during the narrow stretch of time in which the light slanted and caught the box in its luminous glare and made the wooden trunk seem transparent, a tremulous invisible structure in a world of piercing sun, the photograph lay contemplating its corners. Having never suffered much love or attention, having never known the touch of prideful hands and the careful passing-back-and-forth that comes with a much-adored landscape, the photograph was quite neatly kept around the edges. Its corners were flat, its glossy paper backing untarnished by age. It is in this capacity, at least, that the photograph thought itself superior to the elders in the opposite side of the trunk, for they are creased and worn thin with handling, their edges rough with fingerprints and their backings turned a discolored sepia. “I have no need of attention or admiring,” the color photograph told itself with firm resolve. “I have no need of Pyramids and Palaces and Seven Seas. I am handsome and well-preserved, far lovelier than these foolish elders, who have nothing but their withering memories of sometime fame to preserve them through the years.” The black-and-white veterans grimaced at the attitude of the color photograph, whispering amongst themselves about the folly of youth and the treachery of technology.
On this very morning, while the color photograph was absorbed in contemplating its impressive corners and fastidiously ignoring the acrimonious jabs of its counterparts, it heard an unfamiliar sound. After years of carefully attuning itself to tiny changes in the pattern of light and sound, the noise that now assaulted its photographic senses and climbed to the forefront of its sleepy attention was utterly unfamiliar and blatantly baffling … the soft and steady tread of feet on the attic stairs.
The packet of letters ceased its shifting and lay still. The ribbon-tied photographs struck up a chorus of surprised whisperings more fervent than ever before, then quickly fell silent. The rose-painted trunk and its other occupants, the entire row-on-row briar-patch attic of artifacts, even the dust mites swirling in the morning sunshine – all were arrested in time, frozen for second after second that stretched outward into infinity … waiting for the arrival of the visitor.
It was a voice that arrived first, floating through the cobwebbed cracks in the floorboards and mingling with the light as it vibrated through the air.
“Grandma! Grandma! I’m – no, no, I just want to play in the attic. Okay, just call me then and I’ll come down…”
The trapdoor creaked open. A tuneless symphony of humming floated through the air, punctuated with whistles and the clop-clopping of childish feet. A pause, then, suddenly – light.
If the boy had been able to hear the way the color photograph could hear, he would have sensed the air explode with the gasps of old photograph stacked on old photograph, the startled outcry of the packet of letters, even the surprised creaking of the trunk’s hinges as he opened it. He would have known that the touch of the morning light they enjoyed through their wooden walls was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the dazzling brilliance with which they were confronted now. The box lay open on the floorboards, the dust mites swept into a giddy frenzy in midair.
The color photograph stared out through the harsh angles of its double exposure, two scenes collaged over each other until they were one, and watched as the boy fumbled through the contents of the trunk. Past the bits and pieces of forgotten treasures, past the packet of letters with their swirling signatures … and stopped at the old photographs.
“Oh, cool,” he whispered, sliding off the ribbon that bound them. He rifled through them as they purred with the high of human attention, sliding past his fingers and smirking at the little color photograph in the corner, sullen and anxious and utterly alone. “I have no need of attention or admiring … I am handsome … far lovelier …” the color photograph muttered stubbornly to himself, but something in his glossy-papered heart sank as he watched the elders delight in the boy’s touch.
But then the boy refastened the yellow satin ribbon, carefully placing the photographs back in the corner and continuing his search. “The background for my Lego battle has got to be awesome,” he reminded himself seriously. And then he came upon the little color photograph.
“Perfect,” he breathed, lifting the photograph out of the trunk. Suddenly airborne, irrevocably chosen, the photograph gaped in awe at the world it had suddenly entered, a world with colors far more splendid than it had ever admired in itself. The boxes, the window – even the weathered floorboards were bright and alive with dimensions it would not have thought possible from peering through the cracks of the trunk at the swirling dust and slanting light. The boy set the photograph down upright on the floorboards, leaning up against the trunk. The photograph saw in front of it a sparkling mountain, a towering armful of bright little plastic squares and tiny figurines that lay spilled across the dusty attic floor, illuminated by the spotlight the keyhole window cast on the floorboards. And so he began to play, and the photograph was swirled up in an endless world of structures and battles, drama and silly adventuring, and it slowly began to forget its seamless edges and its glossy white backing which had seemed so important. So, too, did the photograph begin to forget its years of lonely rivalry at the bottom of the trunk, for the world of the boy was bright and alive and swift and noisy and timeless.
Today the color photograph lies once more in the bottom of the rose-painted trunk in Grandma Mortenson’s attic. At a certain time every morning, the sun slants through the cracks in the box and washes it with a translucent glow, and the contents of that box remember with wonder and longing the morning when that glow became a fiery flood of direct light. The color photograph hugs the memory to it with a laughing pride, and now when the black-and-white photographs reminisce about times past, it does not take offense. It knows something of the need to remember times of light and glory, touch and rebirth.
Of course, the elder photographs in their cradle of yellow satin still mutter to themselves, still ramble about the wonder of their early days, and the color photograph still spends some mornings reflecting on the smoothness of its corners. But there is a difference, and all of the artifacts in the wooden trunk can feel it. Even the tiny dust mites that settle on the box-tops admit that where the two types of photographs once were separated, they have now reached a tentative detente, for when the black-and-white photographs insist that nothing can compare with the attention and pride of a human being, the little color photograph must agree.
But when the black-and-white photographs brag, as they often do, about all the places that humans have taken them, the little color photograph smiles to itself in its corner of the rose-painted trunk. Because although the elderly photographs may have crossed the oceans, although they may have been born at the Pyramids or the Buckingham Palace or the site of a famous historical event, the color photograph knows something that they do not. For although the play-world of a little boy may only be as wide as the spotlight cast by a window set high in the attic eaves, it is as vast and wonderful as the Seven Seas.