Still Life

By: Haley Renee Born

I’m sitting in the middle of nowhere, on a hill looking toward the horizon. No tripod, just crossed legs and my elbows resting on my knees, holding an old camera filled with darkroom film. I like the slight blur of pictures taken by human hands, I like the unpredictability, the otherness of a smeared world. And I only care about what I like, what I want my art to be. This is before my photography is ever commissioned, before it belongs to someone else. This act is purely selfish.

Just after five in the morning and still dark, the ghosts of stars are visible overhead. How the sky stretches for miles. I don’t know the significance of the field I lie in wait in, I don’t know what history is hidden under the grass. I suppose I am inviting someone to teach me, to remind me of our responsibility to the past. 

I have come to capture the sunrise, to freeze an overwhelming moment of color, of aerial fire, eternally in shades of grey. I want to simplify the world. I’m sure some subconscious crisis of control has brought me here, but I refuse to see it. I don’t want to reflect, like so much light in the sky. I want things to be simple, tints and shades without hue.

So I frame the horizon, just beginning to light. The picture is crystal clear, waiting to happen. And then it isn’t. My view is obscured and shadowed, the viewfinder difficult to see through, but also difficult to look through. An ache starts behind my eye.

I pull back, turning the camera to check the lens.

And there they are.

Dusk is barely beginning but I can see them clearly. Four creatures sitting casually around me, forming a circle that I complete. They’re cast in a warm flickering light as if we gathered around a fire, but the ground is bare between us.

The bodies of men, the heads of beasts. In uniforms dirty and torn, old military arm bands and buttons, fur trailing down the necks of shirts.

Something happens, something I’m not used to. I stare at glowing eyes watching absent flames and I freeze. Finger on the shutter, I don’t move. My instinct for once isn’t to trap the moment in silver and light sensitive paper. Not that I could capture my strange subjects if I tried, not that I really want to.

To my right, the tall man with the black dog muzzle shifts to face me, yellow eyes fixing mine. His jaw opens, only slightly. A flash of curved teeth and a soft pink tongue. He speaks. 

His mouth doesn’t move. Neither do his hands, human fingers wrapped around a rifle resting in his lap. But I know it’s him, even though his voice isn’t as deep as I anticipate. Hearing it, I realize how full I am of anticipation. I’m rigid with it.

It’s been a long day, hasn’t it? 

“Yes” I reply without thought, but I don’t regret it. As soon as I’ve spoken, I know it is the truest word I’ve ever said. I am heavy with the weight of the day not yet begun.

His chest rises and falls, like panting but slower. 

“Where’s the fight?” I ask, looking at the guns in laps or slung across backs. I am intensely present, barely human. Stimulus and response. I see and I speak. This time, The Buck’s mouth parts.

Here, of course. Hiding, but the daylight will find it. 

He lifts his head, antlers climbing into the purpling sky, to look at me. I want to ask his name but I should already know it. We all should. His eyes are dark wells and I turn away in fear of falling in.

“At least for now we can rest,” I say, but shift nervously. In the East, the horizon is almost lavender.

No rest for the wicked. 

The Fox replies, and it feels like an electric shock. My chest tightens, the urge to scream gripping me. I want to contradict him, to grab his shoulders and shake him. I need him to know that he is not evil, that none of them are monsters, only beasts by necessity. I want the power to absolve them of their sins.

But I can’t be sure he isn’t talking about me.

“Where’s home?” I hope to remind them what it’s all for. I hope they will tell me.

Far away. Lost. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back. 

He responds, glassy eyes still on the spot where a fire isn’t burning. I feel a cold breeze, but it doesn’t buffet them. The Second Wolf, tawny and grey, speaks. 

Things change for us. Things change everywhere. If we return our homes will be a fading memory and what we find in their place won’t recognize us.

He leans a little closer to The Fox. He won’t look at me.

“I’m sorry.” Their heads pivot toward me, together they move. Four pairs of shinning eyes find mine. I am an insect on a board, each gaze a pin through my wings. 

The Black Wolf opens his mouth again, tongue slipping over teeth and falling from the left side of his muzzle. He’s panting now. 

Does the earth remember? Do these fields, upon which unspeakable carnage occurred, where unknowable numbers of bodies are buried, bear witness in some way? 

I’ve seen the words on a museum wall somewhere, credited to the photographer Sally Mann. I may recognize the quote but I don’t remember there being any answer. A silence settles in me as color stains the sky. The curve of the sun is just visible over the edge of the world.

“The sun is rising.”

We look to the horizon.

So it is, They say, and when I look back, I’m not surprised to find them gone.

I watch the sunrise, letting the reflected color fill me.

I leave without taking a picture.