Embrace

A woman entered the square of light, her legs scissoring, the sound of her steps offbeat like an untended clock. She wore the long, crimson dress with tiny buttons, a sequined veil hanging from the round hat pinned to her hair like a cushion. The tingling sensation in his missing right arm intensified like a downpour of rain, and his throat strained against the tight collar he wore.

     Her image disappeared, but the sound of footsteps continued, coming closer. He pushed free of the camera’s head cloth, and the lukewarm light rushed past him.

     Above the woman’s head, the sun as a brass spotlight placed atop a miniature city, shining through a layer of river mist suspended around the rooftops. A gray vapor that was always in motion, always changing like a filter with settings one could not control. A marine smell—damp like the sea, ridden with salt—mingled with acrid, bitter wood smoke. 

     “Did you just take my picture?”

     Disappointment snuffed out a shy flame. It had happened before—people assuming he was there to accept a few coins, to answer witless questions as if he were someone hired by the city to entertain tourists. Photography had nothing to do with taking.

     He didn’t want others to become aware of him, to self-consciously pose for the photographer with his mechanical glass eye, waiting on the edge of their awareness. He didn’t want anyone to offer help because he only had one arm. 

     He wanted to be invisible.

     “Well? What’s the matter—are you mute? You’ve been following me.”

     A crazy idea. More like the other way around, he thought but noticed her voice had spiraled high and tight. In her left hand, she brandished a purse shaped like an eggplant. What if she were to call the police? The last thing he needed was more trouble with them. But the sensation at his right side, of pins and needles, distracted him—emboldened him, really—and he straightened and shook his head.

     “I wasn’t following you. I was already here,” he said, waving his arm toward Prague’s Central Square. “I don’t recall taking a photograph just now.” 

     “You did. I saw you.” She spoke Czech with an upper-class accent, a voice sometimes heard in the liminal space of darkened movie theaters.

     He ran his fingers through his hair. She seemed so sure. Did she understand about uncovering the lens? “Well I didn’t see you. You must have walked through it. An accident.”

     “Through what?”  Beneath the veil, her eyes appeared pinched shut in suspicion. 

     “My frame.”

     “Your frame? The Square doesn’t belong to you.” 

     She stepped around behind him, and he turned in a half-circle to keep her in view. “He paid you—my husband. Did Martin pay you?” she asked. “I’m not doing anything wrong. What is it—why are you staring at me?”

     In the studio a few hours earlier he’d set up the shot, draping the right sleeve of a crimson dress over a line of nacreous buttons running down the front, the left across his bed so that both sleeves seemed to reach toward the left side in the form of a question. A small, round hat too, placed a hand’s breadth above the neckline, making a space to drape the veil. 

Then he’d exposed several plates and felt restless, dissatisfied. Even though symmetrical looks didn’t interest him, he placed the right sleeve across the pillow, and then the left so that the empty clothes seemed to be reaching out to lift the veil. From the box of props, he selected dark stockings with seams running up the back and laid those over the edge. A pearl necklace, a single strand—just like the one the woman wore. 

     “Your clothes—where did you get them?”

     “What? That’s none of your business.”

     “Please excuse me. It’s just that you remind me of someone. I’m a fashion photographer. That’s how I make my living. I see a lot of women.” He studied the web of dark whorls and lines breaking the sheerness of the veil, searching for the face beneath. 

     In the studio—earlier when he’d laid out the clothes—he’d imagined breath making the bodice rise and fall, glittering eyes and the twitch of restless hands expressing some of what was inside. Now it seemed the clothes had gotten up and followed him. It was too lonely to be left behind.

     “Well, I’m done here,” he said. “If you like, we could walk to the café and have coffee. You could tell me about yourself—unless there are secrets. My name’s Josef.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d asked a woman to do anything—he didn’t say that.

     She laughed. “I don’t think so. But listen, you took my picture, and I want it back.” 

     He laughed too. “I can’t just give it back. It’s not in my camera.”

     “Where is it then?”

     “The image has to be developed in my darkroom. Right now, it’s nothing but a potential.”

     She shook her head. “It’s against the law to take people’s photographs without their permission.”

     “But I told you, I didn’t. It’s impossible.”

     They faced one another, breathing a little hard. Her mentioning legal matters bothered him, as did her persistence. He looked around the Square and— reassured not to see any police—began packing away the camera. Surely, the woman would realize her mistake and leave him alone. He decided when she did, he was going to feel more disappointment than relief. But when he looked up, she was still there, watching. Now she held the purse in both hands.

     “You don’t look like a detective,” she said, glancing at the empty sleeve pinned to his coat. “A detective wouldn’t use such a big camera. You were in the war?”

     “Yes, the war.” She seemed calmer, and he decided he had nothing to lose. “One cup of coffee.” 

     She frowned and took a breath, as if she were about to object, but, from one of the side streets to the left, there was a shout, and a man’s voice called out a name, Matthew or…Mark. The woman flinched and looked up at the clock tower. “Very well,” she said. “One coffee. And then you must find my picture and give it to me.” 

     “Let’s go then.” He’d concluded she knew nothing about photography and felt reassured. After taking a few steps, he realized she hadn’t moved and stopped and turned back. “Come on. What are you waiting for?”

     “No, I’m coming.”

     Her heels clacked across the paving stones in the Square; his shoes were muffled like cartwheels wrapped in cloth. The café’s tables spread out beneath a large linden tree covered in heart-shaped leaves. “Here.” With his ribs, he nudged her arm to gently steer her. Was it a curious sensation—to feel the absence of an arm? Sometimes he wondered if being one of those “unfortunate young men” mutilated in the war hindered him from meeting women. He usually avoided the question by paying for female companionship. That way, he never had to find out whether half an embrace was less desirable than a whole. Perhaps what was happening was a result of curiosity over both questions, a curiosity that always waited below the surface. They sat at a table and ordered. Out of habit, he placed the camera on the tabletop so that the lens pointed at a place between the two of them. It was pleasant under the fresh leaves; the coffee was strong, and bees hummed around the tree’s small yellow flowers. The tingling returned, and he had to stifle an urge to grab at what was missing.

     “Shall I guess your name?” he asked.

     “Anna.” She crossed her legs, and, after glancing around the Square, removed the hat and veil.

     He couldn’t tell her age—certain women had a timeless look. The natural curl in her black hair was pressed flat in a fashionable style, and her eyebrows formed tapered arcs above greenish-gray eyes, pale like the calmness of early-morning seas. Her chin came to a smooth point, and at the end of a straight nose, a neat, red bow of lipstick covered her mouth. As she turned her head, a shadow was visible on her right cheekbone. Perhaps she’d had a fall.

     “Do you live around here?” he asked.

     “You always have it with you? The camera—you’re always ready to use it?”

     He told her he took photographs of the city and sometimes exhibited them.  “The things I wish to capture happen all of a sudden.” Because he’d been admiring her, he was embarrassed, and out of habit, checked to make sure the camera remained where he’d set it. “I suppose it’s true that I’m always prepared,” he continued in a rush. “There’ve been occasions when I didn’t have it with me, or had used up all the film, and something presented itself. You can’t imagine how haunted I felt, tormented by the loss. Because I could see the memory of the image inside myself. Sometimes I have dreams where I’m searching in vain through my prints.”

     Her nostrils flared a little, as if she’d taken in a quick gulp of air, and she crossed her legs the other way, making a shearing sound with the stockings. “You keep them all, everything you’ve photographed?” she asked.

     “Oh yes, going back to my very first pictures.” He told her that, at his home, steel file cabinets filled an entire room, so tightly packed that he had to take care not to pull out the drawers too far for fear they’d tip over. “That’s happened, all the negatives and contact sheets spilling out, losing their organization, their proper place—which is chronological, by the way. But I remember them all and can put them back in the right order.”

     “And you said you take fashion photos. Of beautiful women.”

     “Of their clothes, at least. Yes.”

     “You have them take off their clothes?”

     “No,” he said, ignoring her teasing tone. “What I do is take photos of women’s clothes—you know, for the department stores, advertising. I arrange them in various ways. Just the clothes.” 

     “Don’t you know how to photograph a woman?”

     “Of course.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s just that I’m trying to do something different, express something. You’re familiar with still-life paintings? It’s like that.”

     She set the coffee cup down on the saucer. “I would like to see the picture you took. Of me.” 

     “We could meet again, and I’ll bring it along. Of course, it’s not till I’ve developed them that I know how they’ll turn out. You see, the image can change.”

     “You mean…my image?”

     “Well yes, not your image in particular, but the whole photograph.”

     “How could that be?” She admitted that the idea of change upset her. And photographs, she’d always thought, showed what was really there.

     He nodded and took a sip of coffee, and then nodded again. A little glow had spread out from his stomach—not just from the warmth of the coffee, but because he enjoyed being with her, enjoyed her interest, the kiss of lipstick that had appeared on the rim of her cup. “I understand. I used to think much the same—that the camera was a machine, the photographer its operator. But there’s more to it—much more. I’ll try to explain: what I see through the lens, what’s reflected in my own eye, is not the same as what will appear in the darkroom. The plate is exposed to light and the chemicals react to create visible forms that are reversed. A photograph is not a record of real things.” She stirred her coffee in slow circles with a spoon, and he felt an unfamiliar combination of excitement and tenderness.  “I’ll show them to you, if you like. All of my photographs. Would you—”

     “Why?”

     “I like you.”

     “Men usually do.” She looked away into the Square, and several leaves fell from the tree overhead. “Just now,” she said. “I walked here from the trolley stop along Vinohradska Street. In the windows of the department store, human forms draped in fabric emerged from a background of gray shadows—a dancer’s arm reaching across a void, smooth, baldheads with the coolness of Egyptian statues. Their eyes were empty, lidless with no pupils, no center. Are your pictures like that?” 

Sometimes he experimented with photographing the same thing from slightly different angles, and looking at those images side-by-side created a sense of vertigo. That was what he felt now. The thing she was describing—mannequins in a window—he’d seen it too. The surprise must have shown on his face because she laughed. To his astonishment, the blue-gray shadow on her cheek had disappeared.

     She touched her cheek and smiled. “So,” she said, “where were you wounded?”

     “On the Italian front, we were caught in an artillery barrage as we advanced. All of a sudden I was knocked down. It felt like a powerful gust of wind. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back, and my arm was cold and wet.”

     She pursed her lips.

     “I still feel it sometimes. Last year, I went back to…to where it happened. I had an idea I could find my arm. But nothing looked the same. Wildflowers covered the fields. I suppose it’s underground. It’s strange to have a part of yourself missing.” 

They finished the coffee in silence. The clock tower rang twice. “How long will it take to develop my picture?” Anna asked. 

For the past several minutes he’d been trying to decide whether to invite her to his studio.  He took a good look at her and decided it was foolish; this woman, he thought, would never be interested in me. “Two hours. Give me your address. If there really is a photo, I’ll mail you a copy.”

     She sat up straight. “I don’t want a copy, I want the original.”

     He shook his head. What she was saying was absurd. How could there be a photograph if he didn’t remember taking it? But he wanted to be polite. “I assure you I would never let anyone see it.”

     “I can’t take that chance. I don’t want it showing up in a newspaper or a book someday. You see, I’m not supposed to be here. My husband would be quite upset if he were to find out.” 

     A jealous husband, fear over being seen—what was this Anna up to? He imagined a man in a hotel room, a man in his shirtsleeves, leaning against the open doorway, staring at the wall. At the window, sulky afternoon air rustled the curtains as if a fevered hand were picking against a blanket. The trolley on the street below screeched and rumbled, and the bells of the cathedral rang, reminding him that he was waiting for someone who would always be late.

     He suddenly felt very exposed sitting there and glanced around. All the lunchtime walkers had dispersed. A solitary old woman wearing a kerchief crossed from right to left, heading toward the church. He studied the edges of the Square, wondering if someone was observing them, someone he couldn’t see.

     Anna put the hat and veil back on. “Your studio’s close by? I’ll come there, and you show me how you develop the picture. Give me the address. You leave first.”

 

                                                                                               ***

 

Josef headed back along the narrow streets. His arm was tingling again—like crazy. It was clear he’d interrupted a lover’s rendezvous—or inserted himself into one. But the farther he got, the less likely it seemed she’d appear. She would be lost to him—unless she was right about being in his photograph.

     He tidied things a bit in the studio: rinsed the dishes, swept away crumbs, and then tidied himself with some washing. He was just about to put away the clothes on the bed when Anna arrived, removing the hat and veil and teasing him about keeping an afternoon rendezvous with a stranger. He told her it was time to develop the plates. The process, he explained, would take them to the darkroom, lit with red light. Anna seemed quite interested and put on the apron and rubber gloves he gave her. She was a useful extra pair of hands. As he hung the negatives up to dry, he examined them with a magnifier. The morning’s shots with the empty dress draped across the bed appeared and, to his surprise, there was one more. The sun shining through the mist—that was all he could make out. “We won’t know what’s there till I prepare the contact sheet,” he said. “These will have to dry—an hour.”

     They sat at the table, and he showed her a portfolio of his fashion work. As they turned the pages, she kept glancing over at the window as if distracted by the light. “The garden,” he finally said. “If you like we could go out and—”

Without a word, she went to the window, but didn’t seem to be looking outside. 

     On the windowsill, a clear glass filled nearly to the brim with water held a sprig from a flowering tree. Josef’s sister had brought it; she liked to leave him pretty things. Along with the sprig, the glass contained the image of three discs—at the top, the bottom, and at the surface of the water. Anna ran a finger along the curving shape of the glass, the glass that created an illusion, bending the straight shape of the sprig. 

     The studio had become very quiet. Out the window, the garden ran with long shadows. Moisture glistened on the leaves, and tendrils of mist gathered around the iron legs of the empty bench. 

     Anna turned away, walking around the studio touching his things and then stopped at the bed where the morning’s clothes remained, empty like the skin of a fruit. Would she notice how similar they were to what she was wearing? “This is where you take the pictures,” she said. “Your easel.” She lifted up one of the stockings, set it down. “Something’s missing.”

With both hands, she took the dress and turned it over, bringing it close to her eyes to examine the small buttons and seams. She began to shrug off her own dress, pulling her arms out of each sleeve and then the dress itself over her head. The only acknowledgement she made of him was to turn her back. Clad in a slip, she sat again and rolled down her stockings.

     Other women had done the same series of actions in the studio—perhaps not as gracefully—but he sensed this time was different. In her posture, there was no invitation to do anything but watch.

     She replaced her stockings with the ones he’d laid out that morning. 

     She stood again and stepped into the crimson dress—the other one that the department store had sent over—using all her fingers to button the front. Before putting on the hat and veil, she smoothed her hair with one palm. Then she lay across the length of the bed, adjusting the veil over her face and extending her arms out to either side. Her feet nearly touched the floor. 

     He moved the camera to its usual position and loaded a plate. Step by step, the familiar sequence—sliding the cover from the holder, uncovering and recovering the lens—soothed him. But when he removed the plate holder to prepare another shot, he realized something was still missing. 

     He took the flowering sprig out of the glass on the windowsill and approached the bed. In silent agreement, Anna came up on her left elbow and swept off the hat and veil with her right. He placed the sprig in the hollow just below her right shoulder, and she lay back down. The fabric of the dress absorbed a few drops of moisture from the sprig.

     He hurried to the camera and uncovered the lens. 

     Afterward, the timer went off, and they hurried to the darkroom. The morning’s contact sheets showed the empty clothes on the bed, and in the last one, a woman stepping across cobblestones, clutching a purse with both hands, the image blurred because she’d been in motion.

     “It’s me,” Anna said. 

     Josef frowned. Surely the passage of his own arm, his hand and fingers removing the lens cap and replacing it would be things fixed in his memory? How could it be that he’d taken a picture without realizing it?

     Anna turned toward him. They were of nearly the same height. The tingling had stopped; a feeling of fullness filled his right side, as if he could reach out and embrace her with both arms.

     “There was a bruise on your cheek,” he said, brushing her face with his fingertips.

     “They fade eventually.”

     He told her he’d put the contact sheet in an envelope for her to take. “The ones we just made—I’ll send those too once they’re developed. I think they’re going to be very good.”

     “I can’t keep them. Put them into your steel case with all the others.”

     “No, give me your address—wait, let me get something to write on.” He went over to the desk, but when he turned around, the door to the garden was closing. In the window, a veiled figure was just passing the trunk of the twisted apple tree at a place where—last spring—lightning had struck, severing the big branch that scraped against the window when the wind blew hard. The silence was a reminder that it was missing.

     He turned away from the window, resigned to return to the day’s habits. His portfolio remained open on the table, the rumpled comforter on the bed under the camera’s eye. 

     There was no sign of a dress, hat, stockings. Anna had put on those the department store had sent over—so where were hers? He checked around on the floor, under the bed—all the clothes were gone. The only trace was the sprig from the glass. 

The photographer was left with the photograph, that thin record of reality that usually only pretends to be true. He knew in time, it would develop a second skin of nicks and black specks as if ashes had been rubbed across its surface. Below would be the hidden things, the lost things that remained, waiting to be rediscovered.

An earlier version of this story was published in Cigale Literary, Winter 2014.

Alan Bray, Contemporary Author of Fiction

al.bray22@gmail.com

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