He went around the side of the house and climbed over a broken fence. Climbing it was easy, the fence gave way, giving him way, and soon he’d stepped through enough waist-deep shrubs and weeds to gather their briars, hooks, and brown hitch-hiking bits from his pants for a bouquet of prickly plumes, which he tossed to the overgrown field. He set his bag on the ground, pushing aside some dead brown fronds. The field crowded itself, oblivious to the old endeavours of absent people. He’d work fast. Eyeing the sky, clouds were closing over the hills, ready to encroach on the old house. Everything was encroaching on the old house.
He unzipped the bag and lifted a solid, single lens reflex camera into the air. Digital never would compare to the uncanny accuracy of analog, which glaciated from molten instants of reality. Digital broke all that up into pieces. Every few months a company made those pieces smaller and more numerous, which would arrive to the applause of loving technophiles and neophyte consumers. He looked up, nervous. Not much time. Clouds furiously devoured blue. Tossing the camera strap over his head, he stepped from the bag and approached the side door.
The old house, unmaintained, was tending toward paint shedding; its wooden corners and even the door’s hinge had crumbled. It didn’t squeak when he pulled but rust rained. Rotten wood—the smell was strong before it escaped, he knew it right from the start. It had a barn, which trailed behind like a kid sibling. Except the barn was bigger. He considered it his find, though plenty of others remained throughout the Cape Breton countryside.
Entering, at first just black. He blinked several times. His pupils dilated and the black flooded away from shapes of reason. There were stairs, up, like a powdery skeleton. He wouldn’t try them. The kitchen had been ransacked a long time ago. Unopened cans of wax beans and corn, from defunct companies, lay on their sides. Cupboards, partially open, revealed a few remaining dishes and a lot of dust. The oven gaped out of habit. People used to feed it cookies or roasts but it wasn’t hungry anymore. He noticed the weak tendrils of light stretching from the window. It might be enough. His camera pointed toward the oven, he started snapping. The film advanced and he thought he may have captured the moment. He’d try a few with a flash for safety. He snapped quickly, hoping to catch whatever he could. He’d find out what was worthwhile later, after developing the negatives.
He’d picked up a lot of skill in the past years and made up for gaps in his professionalism with experimentation and quantity. Once in a while he framed that feral bastard image—the sort that astonished those unable to imagine such things issuing from his camera. As he turned toward the dining room, blades of grass bowed the air, moving as though their backs were stiff. They didn’t move much. Only three or four had been able to poke through the floor boards. Near a segmented foot of the table, missing a corner, some newspaper bit had papier machéd itself to a wooden plank. The grass would welcome that foothold in the near future. An overturned candle holder remained on the table but no plates. He snapped at it, the camera superficially recorded the scene like a first introduction. The photographer remembered he wanted to hike back to his car before the clouds let loose with what they would.
Taking cautious steps toward the door, something flashed from the corner of the adjacent room—just inconspicuous enough to almost miss his attention. He stopped. Turning to the missed room, he walked in carefully, not wanting to trigger unexpected collapses in the floor. He pulled off the lens cap, maybe the light would be ok. Though the room seemed mostly empty, he was sure something had reflected a bit of light. Then in a corner he saw, barely, dull shimmering. He walked forward, still aware of the unsure floor. After a few steps he stopped, heart pounding, and realized that something other than an old object in the midst of decay, emitted the shimmering.
A young woman stood there breathing quietly and appearing wary but not frightened. Her shirt was covered with many pieces of differently-sized reflective glass and she seemed sure of her place. The photographer put his camera aside knowing this would be a more involved discussion than those in which he’d politely ask if he could take a picture. Normally, he didn’t truly ask. He just said “Don’t mind if I take a picture, do you?” with his camera poised, ready. The rhetorical question implied automatic permission. The tactic seemed inappropriate for the moment. She stared at him. She didn’t smile. In her eyes, deeply far back, there was an undelineated question. He saw it and knew she didn’t or wouldn’t say if she did mind.
The room was under a somnolent spell. He gestured for her to come forward. Although he tried not to disturb anything, he’d taken little care of the house itself and didn’t have the impression that he was tresspassing. He didn’t think of himself as being unwelcome in her place. In spite of her presence, he didn’t think it belonged to her. But he didn’t think these things either. He just wasn’t conscious of the possibility, and so he didn’t worry. He didn’t think he was frightening her, not exactly. She stood in temperance and clarity without exuding fear. Usually people recognize fear in one another. It’s a contagion for some and a calling to others.
The photographer gestured, wanting her to step forward, away from the wall. He desperately wanted her in a picture. The light-starved house made the best of her shirt of mirrors. Its small fount of light flowing from the kitchen window reflected from her unusual shirt and brushed tentative touches at the walls. Though she moved slightly, the light occasionally touched the photographer. She didn’t come forward. He put the lid on his camera and gestured again. Giving up the shot might be the only way to get it, he strategized.
“Who are you?” he asked. She didn’t respond. “I’m Phil—short for Phillip” he continued. She stepped forward, unhurried. He noticed she was holding a blue sweatshirt in her left hand. It was the kind with a hood and zipper. It had been worn frequently. “I’m Phil. I thought this place was abandoned.” He said, hoping that the name repetition would impact, hoping she’d introduce herself. He was suddenly ashamed that he hadn’t knocked or called inside the house before entering.
“I don’t know,” she said in an absent-minded voice, “I don’t know what to call the place.”
“Do you live here?” He was coming to his senses and manners.
“I wouldn’t say that. No, it’s not mine, not my place.” Her voice trailed off half way through the sentence as though another thought occupied her. Phil felt relief, which surprised him because he hadn’t been conscious of needing relief.
He was dazzled by her shirt, which shimmered. “I, I’m just taking some pictures. I’m an amateur photographer. I’ve had a few photos published in travel magazines so I thought this might go with a piece on the local history’s undiscovered places.”
“I can see that.”
“I drove out from my hotel in town. I passed by the other day. This house, barely surviving, modestly bears its history. It has the right losses to make its character dear. That’s my hope, err that’s my hope if I can capture one or two good shots.”
“You think this is the character of this town? Of your visit?”
Eschewing a direct response, he continued “It’s not that I expect lots of people will suddenly come here on holiday. It would be the type of story that pushes a bit of adventure during the main trip, it’s an experience is all. People usually get caught up reading that sort of thing and then think they’ll have a surprise adventure just by going on any old trip in the area.”
“Not much surprise here.”
“You surprised me.”
She began putting on her sweatshirt. One arm draping it to the side, the other slid through the well worn sleeve, hoisting it onto her shoulder so the other arm could repeat the process. Suddenly she’d dimmed the shimmering mirror bits and was a dull presence in the corner.
“Permit me to take your picture?” His voice inflected more statement than question.
“Go ahead,” she said.
He alternated between several conclusions. She could be a vagrant. She was probably homeless and chose this house as a convenient place to sleep on her way elsewhere. She’d want money in exchange for the picture. How long had she been there? “And I thought the picture could be in that mirror shirt.” Phil replied.
“Does it matter much?” She asked.
“I’ve never seen one like it.” Needing to charm her, make her receptive to his way of thinking, he set about sharing ease through banter. “It makes an impression and speaking of impressions, if this house doesn’t belong to you, why are you here?”
He just wanted her photo. It had become essential to his trip so the closing clouds weighed lightly on his urgency. His imperative had shifted. He’d probably neglect her story, though the site of her would add gritty sparkle to the article.
“Your camera gives you reason, I however, seem to be at a loss.” She looked sleepy and spoke carelessly. She let on little, offering nothing. She looked him in the eyes but emoted neutrality and keeping his gaze steady, she dragged a brown, chipped chair that propped the wall or (vice versa) in front of her and sat as a neglected bureaucrat might, with indifferent purpose. “I’m a detail.”
Her uncanny gaze felt important but in its neutrality he was confused. Invested with one goal—he had to get her picture, dressed in the mirror shirt. Surveying the room, he noticed other objects. A hammer with its broken handle lay on the ground, broken picture frames were close, and a dust-ridden set of ancient headphone remains lay coiled in the dust. It didn’t take long to notice these items. But in the short span that he did, the woman looked different. Her considerable hair thickened slightly. Maybe it was the light. Not to be thrown off course, he asked for the picture again. “Would you stand in your incredible mirror shirt instead of the sweatshirt?”
“I could. I don’t mind. A funny thing is—I should tell you, when I wear that shirt, I feel like crowds of people are rushing past me. Do you know the feeling? Like on a busy street, where a crowd of everybodies goes somewhere at the same time.”
He got it—all the fragments of reflection surrounding her—a point of reference in the common gush of detail that was the house. It dawned on him that he’d taken many pictures. He savoured hopes of stark images, the broken characters of gone objects, and the uninvited views of loss that he may have framed. But these framed images would exclude real context. They’d lack the broken feet of the table they were placed upon, the cobwebs connecting those feet, the defunct duster sitting nearby, which once would have been used against the cobwebs, which would only have been noticed when sunlight hit them from just the right angle of the window and the boughs of the apple tree outside were being blown to the side, not blocking the sunlight. Instead the images’ only context would be the context he defined, it was his frame. All-of-a-sudden he felt himself a traitor.
Details implicitly entrusted their dimensions to him. Lifting the details’ existence, he passed their images to blank pages and walls. Those images—represented and rerepresented—on every repetition and viewing, their freshly vulgar presence strengthened the treason of one existence for the structure of another. But, he argued with himself, there were no laws or social pressures against pictures. Photo art was loved for its creative treason. Where most people did not or could not go, a few could quietly or quixotically trample and pass their tramplings off as revered artifacts. Occasionally money or museum walls represented such artifice. He was a traitor.
In the space removed from the edges of his clicking frames, scraps of house fell away like shreds of photographic waste from master cutsmen. Could he capture an image with more than his frame? Could he inveigle the space that would border it, potentially empty, with less emptiness? Even so, outside of the house, peoples’ experience of it would be, at best, a bit of essence, and at worst, counterfeit. Framing any image left no choice but to betray it as something new. He’d have to betray the objects’ presence, all their wonderful placement within the connections of context.
She removed her sweatshirt. The edges of her shoulders defined the room in glass, reflecting rather than absorbing as the sweatshirt had. The mirror shirt reflected the crossing wooden beams that spanned the ceiling. The mirrors tossed glimpses of the table, dirty bronze door knobs, curled magazine covers, the mute blend of chlorophylled greens that leaked from empty window panes, and walls. All shimmering upon the rhythm of her breathing. In reflecting borders of the space, her mirrors communicated. Fluid and slow, her movement suggested the desire of stasis.
“Maybe I won’t share the photos.” He offered.
“No, don’t neglect this place. It’s not just a ruin, not just abandoned, but also not just adventure.” She said. “Your pictures will be passed from eye to eye, people appreciating their edges and shadows. The house is falling. Trees and obnoxious weeds climb it, growing roots and branches and occupying it themselves.” Encouraging his haste, she continued “The rain is coming down and you’ve spent an afternoon talking to me. Now you’ll get wet as you leave.”
He uncapped his camera lens, raising it to his eye before her presence. The difficulty of framing her burdened him. How could he show this to a crowd so that in passing, people would not see the framing as anything but an absence? What did she say, her shirt, to them? Her mirrors revealed tell-tale leaks of his treason, every photo recording it for common knowledge.
Then he needed his photos, rapidly cast, clicked and captured, to tell her story, the story of the house. That which catches peoples’ attention at first, with luster, becomes familiar and covers its luster. People lose interest or don’t appreciate the details that originally stood forward. The old house, its history presented with details of adventure to unknown travellers ahead, would be like that. And perhaps that was what drove him to snap her picture.