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13 Crybabies

His name is gone. He understands that this is his own fault. He took a pen to paper and changed it, canceled his ancestors, and now his grandchild-Codis child-has been erased like something in writing too, rather than flesh and blood. He knows shes no longer carrying it. Hes aware of the signs.

The red darkroom light burns like a dying sun, very old: red dwarfs, they call them when they reach that stage. He sometimes reads astronomy now, when he cant sleep. But at this moment, outside this sealed room, its daytime. He considers carefully the time of day and of year, and his daughters ages, a ritual he performs a dozen times daily to keep himself rooted in time. That was nearly twenty years ago, when Codi lost the baby. He has photographed the eyes of so many babies. He gets lost among years now, the way he used to lose track when he sat in the dark movie theater for too many hours. He has always loved the dark.

The liquid feels cool on his hands, though its a chemical bath, not particularly good for the elasticity of human skin. He should use the Piper forceps from the kitchen, but he has misplaced them. He moves the photograph into the fixative and stares at the lines. And frowns. They are a precise copy of what the real world offered his camera, and nothing more: the branched shadow of a cane cholla falling across a square of pale, cracked ground. He found the image while walking in the arroyo, and immediately saw the illusion he could draw out of it: a river in the desert. Hed seen exactly this sight, in aerial view. It was years ago, in wartime-they had taken him in a small plane over the bombing range near Yuma; a soldier lay wounded out there and couldnt be moved. They flew the quickest route, over the Algodones dunes, a dead ocean of undulating sand. The pilot said it was harder to fly over dunes on a hot day than through a tornado; the plane shuddered until its rivets creaked. Then suddenly they were over the Colorado River agricultural plain. He marveled, feeling lucky as a spaceman. Surely no one had ever seen this amazing sight, a complex river fretted with canals cutting an unearthly path through the bone-dry land.

He cant remember the wounded soldier. He closes his eyes and tries, but he cant. Possibly some chest wound, a punctured lung? No, he cant bring the soldier back. But he remembers the vision of that water. He gently agitates the photograph in its stop bath, lost in technical possibilities. He knows there must be a way to transfigure this cactus shadow into that other vision, which no longer exists outside his mind. All his photographs begin in his memory. That is the point. He might be the only man on earth who can photograph the past.

He stops suddenly, feeling a presence outside the door.

Codi? He listens. Im printing, it will be a few more minutes. Codi, are you there? He hears nothing. Its a Monday morning, she cant be here. Shes teaching school. He drops the print into the fixer, annoyed, and goes back to the enlarger to try again. He should lock that door to guard against accidents. What a shock that would be to the girls, a locked door. They have always had rules about this; a closed door is a sacred thing. Privacy is respected. There is no call for bolted doors in the Noline household. But she still locked him out-she was in the bathroom that night for more than four hours. When he walked by he could see that the upper bolt was turned. Shed gone in right after dinner. There are rules about this.

Codi?

He listens again, but there is no sound at all.

He knocks. I just want to know that youre all right.

Im all right.

She is crying softly. I can hear that youre crying, he says. Your sister is concerned. You could just tell us whats wrong.

Nothings wrong. Im just a crybaby. Youre always telling me Im a crybaby, so youre right.

That isnt true, he doesnt use that word. He tells them they should try to be grown-up girls. But he hasnt needed to tell them that for years.

In another minute she calls out quietly, Is Hallie out there? I need to talk to her.

Hallie is in her room, reading. She doesnt seem especially concerned; Codi has been so moody of late that Hallie leaves her alone. They dont argue but there is a new distance between them. A gulf. Codi crossed over into adolescence, leaving Hallie behind for the time being. They both seem lost. All three of them, really: a marooned family, shipwrecked on three separate islands. Before, when the girls were close, he worried about what would happen when they lost each other. Now they have.

Hallie. He stands in the doorway to their room and repeats her name quietly. Hallie. She is reading in poor light, ruining her eyes. She looks up, her eyes nearly marble-white under the small, high-intensity lamp above her bed.

Your sister has asked for you. Can you please find out what she needs?

She puts her open book face down on the bed and gets up without a word. The two of them confer through the bathroom door. He tries to hear their whispers from the kitchen. He sees that Codi is not letting her in.

The black one. That old one that was mothers.

Hallie is gone for only a minute, then comes back. I cant find it. I got your green jacket.

No! Codi says something else that he cant hear. He washes the cast-iron skillet and sets it on the stove on low heat, to drive out the moisture. He goes into the living room, where he cant see but can hear better. Hallie glances up as he walks past her in the hall, and she lowers her voice.

Why do you have to have that exact sweater, Codi? Are you going outside? Its not even cold.

Just bring me the black sweater. I mean it, Hallie, find it. Its in the bottom of one of my drawers.

After a long while Hallie comes back with it. He hears the bolt slide back, then lock again; the door was not open even for a full second. Hallie returns to her reading.

In another fifteen minutes he hears scrubbing. She is cleaning the floor. The toilet has flushed more than two dozen times. There are rules concerning all of these things.

Much later he watches without lamplight from the living room. The house is dark. Her curtain of hair falls as she leans out, looking down toward the kitchen. She comes out. The small bundle in her arms she carries in the curl of her upper body, her spine hunched like a dowagers, as if this black sweater weighed as much as herself. When he understands what she has, he puts his knuckle to his mouth to keep from making a sound. Quiet as a cat she has slipped out the kitchen door.

He follows her down to the arroyo. She takes the animal path that cuts steeply down the bank. Round volcanic boulders flank her, their surfaces glowing like skin in the moonlight. She is going down to the same dry river where they nearly drowned ten years ago, in the flood. This tributary carved out Tortoise Canyon; it would be the Tortoise River if it had a name, but it never runs. It did years ago when he was a boy, hiking these banks to escape his mothers pot-black kitchen, but now it does not run except during storms. The land around Grace is drying up.

He stands a hundred yards away from Codi, above her, in the shadow of cottonwood trees. She has reached the spot where the rock bank gives over to the gravel and silt of riverbed. Even in the semi-dark there is a clear demarcation where the vegetation changes. She stoops down into the low acacias and he can see nothing but her back to him, her bent spine through the sleeveless cotton blouse. It is a small white square, like a handkerchief. In better light he could photograph it and make it into that, or into a sheet on a clothesline. Its shaking just exactly that way, like a forgotten sheet left out in a windstorm. She stays kneeling there for a long time being whipped like that.

Then her head pushes up through the fringe of acacias and she moves toward him, her face shining beautifully with its own privacy of tears. He sees how deeply it would hurt her if she understood what he knows: that his observations have stolen the secrets she chose not to tell. She is a child with the dignity of an old woman. He moves back up through the cottonwoods and into the house, into his workroom. He cant know who she has buried down there but he can mark the place for her. At least he can do that. To save it from animals. Before he goes to bed hell cover it with a pile of stones, the heaviest he can move.

He pretends for a long time to be busy in his workroom, periodically coming out to feign a need in the kitchen. Where has he put the Piper forceps? Codi is emptied out and exhausted and still stays up half the night doing homework. Six volumes of the Britannica lie open on the kitchen table; she states that she is doing a report on the marsupial mammals.

So many times he comes close to speaking, but the sentences take absurd forms in his mind: I notice that youve been pregnant for the last six months. I meant to talk with you about this earlier. He would sell his soul to back up the time, but even if he could do that, could begin where he chose, he cant locate the point where it would have been safe to start. Not ten weeks ago, or ten years. If he has failed his daughters hes failed them uniformly. For their whole lives, since Alice died, theyve been too far away to touch. Its as if she pulled them with her through a knothole halfway into the other world, and then at the last minute left them behind, two babies stranded together in this stone cold canyon.

He cant think of anything more to do in the kitchen, and shes still working. There are dark depressions under her eyes, like thumbprints on her white face. She tells him she has a headache, asks for aspirin, and he goes immediately to the closet where he keeps the medications. He stands for a long time staring at the bottles and thinking. Aspirin would increase the bleeding, if shes still hemorrhaging, which is likely from the look of her. But he would know if she were in danger, he tells himself. It was probably uncomplicated as stillbirths go; it would have been extremely small even at six months. She is so malnourished, he could have predicted toxemia, even placenta abruptio. He continues to stare into the closet, tapping a finger against his chin. He cant even give her Percodan-it contains aspirin. Demerol. That, for the pain, and something else for the cramping. What? He wishes he could give her a shot of Pitocin, but doesnt see how he can.

He returns to the kitchen and hands her the pills with a glass of water. Four pills, two yellow and two blue, when shes only asked for aspirin, but she swallows them without comment, one after another, without looking up from her books. This much shell take from him. This is the full measure of love he is qualified to dispense.


He bends down again over the developer bath, his face so near the chemicals that his eyes water. The picture slowly gives up its soul to him as it lies in the pan, like someone drowned at the bottom of a pool. Its still the same: plain shadows on dust. Damn. What he is trying for is the luminous quality that water has, even dark water seen from a distance. There is a surface on it he just cant draw out of these dry shadows.

He straightens up, his eyes still running, and pats his pockets for his handkerchief. He locates it finally in the wrong pocket and blows his nose. He has manipulated this photograph in every possible way, and none of it has yielded what he wants. He sees now that the problem isnt in the development; the initial conception was a mistake. He fails in the darkroom so seldom that its hard for him to give up, but he does. For once he lets go of the need to work his will. He clicks off the old red dwarf and turns on the bright overhead light, and the unfixed prints lying in the bath all darken to black. It doesnt matter. The truth of that image cant be corrected.


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