issue sixteen

art gallery
past issues
current issue
(5375 words)
Leah Erickson
Camera Obscura
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
Her heart raced as it always did when the doorbell rang. But when she opened the door, it was only a girl in a gasmask. The dress she wore looked vintage. Navy with white dots, and a quaint rounded collar. Over it she wore a long shawl collared sweater. The gasmask was leather one with metal studs. The mouthpiece was brass and too narrow to be practical, but that was the style. The eyepieces were large and placed far apart like goat's eyes. That was the impression she gave off: she looked like a friendly goat, a cartoon fawn.

"Hello, ma'am," she said, her voice only slightly muffled. "I'm from an advocacy group that is raising money to help the victims of The Sickness. Until there's a vaccine, any of us can be a victim. It's the most insidious weapon ever used against us in time of war. It could happen to you, to me, or someone you love."

Corinne sighed sadly and motioned her in. She watched the girl tug and pull to remove the mask. Everyone wore the things now, especially the young people. They came in all sorts of different versions. They came in patent leather, they came encrusted in crystals. They came covered with high-end designer logos for those who could afford it.

At last, the girl's hair tumbled out, reddish-blonde and shoulder length. She was snub nosed, with pale eyebrows and lashes. But her cheeks were rosy. She put the gasmask into her satchel. She smoothed her hair, sighed, and gave a small, sheepish smile. Corinne returned the smile, faintly.

"Ah. So! Anyway. My name is Jordan. I'm a student at the university. I'm in the philosophy department. And your name?"

"Does it matter, baby? I'm as old as dirt. A crone. Blink and I'll be gone."

This threw off the girl, made her stammer and blush. "You - you're not that old!"

"I'm fifty-five. What about you?"

"I'll be nineteen next month."

"That's funny. My son will also be nineteen next month. He's in the army. Working as a photographer. Theoretically. But it sounds like he's gotten a lot more than he bargained for."

The girl paused, feeling unsure. "We're trying to raise money for the victims. You might even see them walking around your own neighborhood. They look like they don't even know where they are. They are empty inside. So full of despair. It's like their soul has been…erased. Until there's a vaccine for the Sickness, there will always be new victims. Do you…wear a mask?"

Corinne sighed. "Listen, hon. Want me to tell you something?" She leaned close, gripping a shoulder, and said quietly, "There is no Sickness. The people who run this country tell you these stories. But "The Sickness?"… It's in ourselves. It's not from a poison gas. Not a biological weapon. It's not from without. It's in ourselves."

The girl looked at her, lips parted. "But… I've seen these people myself. I know in my gut that it's a real thing. These people are not right. And I feel for them. It fills me with pain. That's why I want to do something…"

"Jordan." Corinne drew back. She knew she might scare the girl. Corinne with the long white hair, the paint on her jeans… her tendency to lurch forward and touch people too much when she was making a point. But the point had to be made. "Jordan, I didn't say it wasn't real. It's just not… I think the problem with people your age is you don't know your history. This has happened before. This has ALL happened before. You came of age when print was dead. You came of an age of no history books."

She touched Jordan's black rubber bracelets, her chunky silver rings. "Look. You're a mish mash of different eras. Dress from the nineteen forties, a seventies sweater. Eighties bracelets. Trends keep recycling faster and faster, there's a gathering of speed…" Then why am I not going anywhere, she thought. "You don't know what you're doing or what you're wearing because you live in a vacuum! Well, I don't mean to lecture. And I shouldn't. You may as well go because I'm not giving you any money. You're working for a meaningless cause. You've been tricked."

She could see anger flare in the girl's face briefly, or maybe it was embarrassment. She reached into her messenger bag for a pamphlet and handed it over. "Well, here's some info about our cause. Even if that's the way you feel, you might still want to look at it. And I guess I'll be on my way."

She took the pamphlet, and it felt cool and slick in her hands. All at once she felt regret for having been too hard on the girl. At least these kids were trying, making an effort. She wondered when she had become such an angry, lonely person that she had to snap that way. Corinne was a woman who took pride in living cut off from the rest of the world. But what was it turning her into?

She walked the girl to the door, as she tugged the mask back onto her face. "Listen, no hard feelings. Don't mind me. Don't let me get you down. Maybe it just wasn't a good time. I haven't heard from my son, and I'm scared…"

"I understand. Don't worry. I'm sure he's fine. Thanks for your time."


She stood for a time, watching the girl go back down the street. There was something tremulous and hopeful about the way she walked, mask on her face, messenger bag strapped across her chest. No, she did not break the girl. She couldn't if she wanted to. Oh, well.


       Corinne returned to her kitchen table, where her son's letters were out of their box and scattered. He always insisted on writing letters on paper. He had always been in love with the antiquated. Vinyl records, fountain pens, typewriters, camera obscura…

She liked to let her eyes wash over the letters in no particular order, letting certain phrases jump out at her: constant rumble of aircraft…banshee wail of a siren…ragged children waiting for the motorcade…the soldiers draped the corporate flag on the statue's face.

She could not get back into her state of meditative mournfulness. The energy of the girl had sent ripples reverberating through the room that would not go away. And the coincidence of the girl's birth month being the same as her son's… for some reason it nagged at her.

So she began to look through the pamphlet. It was the least she could do. And it was nicely, expensively done. Slick paper, color photos. An effort had been made.

She did not read the words, just looked at one photo after another. A lot of them were of people in ragged clothes, the "victims," eyes either wild with despair or dead and blank. And then some of the photos were from the warzone. Soldiers in combat, fighting the enemy, the supposed source of the Sickness. These photos all looked retouched. Digitalized. She felt that if she looked closely enough she could see the pixels. The world broken down into ones and zeros.

She turned the page, and what she saw made her heart stop. It was a photo of a soldier sitting in a small, dingy room. He seemed to be comforting a family. The family was obviously poor, obviously native to the land that they were attacking.

It wasn't the subject of this photograph that struck her. It was the style of the composition. The light. This photograph was a thing of beauty. There was the large pink-skinned soldier with his huge hands resting on the family members' shoulders. There were the family members themselves, draped in scarves, their skin a dark honey color, eyes dark and liquid. The child, a little boy, stood at the window, holding aside a burlap curtain, spilling sunshine over the whole room. It looked like a Rembrandt painting. To her, it was unmistakable: The photograph was definitely the work of her son. She ripped out the page with the photograph and held it to her heart.


       Mother, there is detritus blowing in the wind and an orange glow in the sky. I've lost track of night and day. Space and time have been altered where I am. Do you think a soldier has free will? Does a soldier have a moral responsibility? It occurred to me that my actions here have irrevocable repercussions. I feel paralyzed by the thought.


       Corrine arrived at the office building to meet her client for their two o'clock appointment. She sat down in a low-slung chair of molded plastic. The building was large, airy and light-filled. Full of plants and fountains. All surfaces lines were clean and modern. As she waited she could look across the lobby and up a short flight of wide stairs into the big glass-walled room. Her client was in that room, giving a presentation. She was a small woman with a doll-like face and a blonde bob. She was moving her lips, but making no sound, talking to a roomful of men in suits.

As the woman spoke, her eyes scanned past the audience, and spied Corinne waiting. She smiled slightly, nodded, mouthed "one minute." Then she went on speaking, perhaps giving some concluding statements. It was like watching television with the sound turned down. Finally, everyone in the room stood up and dispersed.

The blonde-bobbed woman walked down to Corrine. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Shall we?" Then they walked together down a hallway to the woman's office. The door had a plaque that read, "Donna Bassett, CEO." The room was high ceilinged with large windows. Everything in it was white.

"How are you, Corinne?" she asked in a clipped voice, a small slight smile on her face. Her eyes had a distracted look, as though she were still thinking of what went on in the glass room.

"Just fine, Donna. Good meeting?" As she spoke she got the props ready. The props. Over a white chaise lounge she draped a great swath of red velvet. On the side table she arranged the crackle-glazed bowl of paperwhites. Donna Bassett disappeared behind a tall white screen to change into the outfit that she wore for the sittings: a long grey silk dress with a deeply scooped neckline and cap sleeves. There were grey velvet slippers. There was a choker of garnets and onyx.

Corinne took a seat at her easel, which always stood angled in the same spot. She had been painting Donna Bassett's portrait for the past two weeks. She was about a quarter of the way done.

"Oh, the meeting was OK." Donna settled into her pose, leaning back languidly, hands folded in her lap. Gazing out the window. Her face began to soften and relax, so that she looked like a whole different woman. "Looks like we need to hire a new security company." She lowered her voice. "We think one of our shareholders in Italy is laying the groundwork for a takeover." She wagged her eyebrows, gave Corrine an impish smile. "And then of course there is the matter of Our Friend." The "Friend" that she joked about was a foreign dictator that the company wanted to take down for reasons Corrine couldn't grasp. "We have a lot of new information on Our Friend. We've got our people bribing his Secret Police. We have an asset search on that asshole and you wouldn't believe what we're finding…"

Donna Bassett, CEO of Globecom Telecommunications. Over the past weeks, Corrine seemed to have become a confidante. Donna spoke of usual, mundane things, like vacation plans, fights with her mother, men she dated. But there were also tales of international intelligence, assassination attempts… always told to her with that quick sideward peek, that little smile.

Corinne merely concentrated on the curve of her jaw, the shadow of an eye socket. The patrician bone structure with its bright planes and sharp angles.

"But I don't know… sometimes it all seems so… unreal, what I do. Sometimes I don't feel truly real, truly myself, until you paint me." She spoke hardly moving her thin lips. "I work all day in data. Data feels like a living thing. Like a river, or a lightening bolt. I work to herd it, I work to shape it. But - can anyone truly do that?"

Donna's eyes tried to seek hers again. Corinne was hardly listening to her today. Her son's photograph was in the pocket of her denim work shirt. She had been unable to sleep the night before. She had turned on the TV. Flipping stations randomly, she found a television movie about a woman whose little boy had been kidnapped. The woman tracked the boy down on her own and they were reunited. The movie was far-fetched and corny, not the type of thing Corinne watched. But the boy in the movie had the same name as her son. Which gave her the sensation of a clear, gentle chime going off in her head.

She had always been a spiritually lost woman, but things seemed to be changing. Whereas the world once looked chaotic to her, now she sensed an underlying pattern. A pattern of coincidences. Leading to…what answer?

"Well, anyway, Corrine, it is only when you are painting me that I feel like I'm truly real. You are painting me into existence. You have such a gift. And not everyone can say that."

"I don't know if I believe it, Donna, but if I make you feel real, than I guess that is a testament to my abilities."


       When Corinne exited onto the streets, the sun was lower in the sky. A little breeze was picking up the dead leaves and swirling them down around her feet. She stepped lightly, nearly skipping, on the way to the train station. She arrived just as her train did, and there was an open seat in the back corner. Her favorite spot.

But when she got into her car in the station parking lot and started to drive home, she found herself not making the turn down her own street. She went in the other direction, to the University. She drove slowly down the streets of the campus with its brick walkways and enormous trees aflame with autumn leaves.

Students were everywhere, strolling, sitting on the grass, enjoying the Indian summer day. Only some of them wore gasmasks. Some days she felt used to seeing them, but other times she felt taken aback by them. Against the backdrop of this beautiful day, and these brick classroom buildings, and these friendly signs with arrows…the gasmasks just didn't look right. The scene looked like a surrealist, altered photograph. Those masks came in all colors, like perverse spring flowers. Acid green, heather blue, tulip pink. What are they so afraid of? she thought idly to herself. When I was that age, nothing frightened me. I thought I would never die.

She strained her eyes, trying to find the mask with the brass studs and the goat eyes. She looked for a flash of auburn hair. She wanted to find that girl, Jordan. But none of these kids was her.

Disappointed, she headed back off the campus, back home. Perhaps if she just waited there. She would come back, like she said.


       Mother, when I can't sleep at night I like to remember scenes from my past. I was ten years old and you and I were living with Sid in that warehouse. Back when you did junk sculptures. Remember that fight you guys had when you were drunk, where you threatened him with that knife you had with a sapphire blade? The spider plants that you threw out the window? I wonder if your old boyfriends are still in love with you!


       Sometimes late at night she would be unable to sleep. She would light a candle and stare into her bedroom mirror until she went into a kind of trance. It was unremitting consciousness that pained her. Her own thoughts never ended, they were relentless. Panic would cascade through her synapses like a shower of sparks. By the time the sun rose the tide of her mind would let out again, leaving her exhausted, beached on jagged rocks.

It only comforted her when she would do things like open a book and point blindly, and the word would be "forgiveness." Turn on the radio. It would be playing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," the song that she had just been thinking of. Everything was interconnected. Everything seemed laden with meaning. Wheels of karma, wheels within wheels within wheels.


       She found the university directory online. She scanned it for every undergraduate named Jordan until she found one listed as a philosophy major: Jordan Churchville. That had been the name of the road she had lived on when her son was a baby. Churchville Rd. Where she had been so restless, so unhappy. Why couldn't she have enjoyed her young family? Why couldn't it have been enough?

Churchville, Churchville. The wheels are turning. Yes, I am on the right road. She looked up "Jordan Churchville" in a search engine, feeling like a stalker, a spy. Normally she never went on the Internet at all. She had lived the recent years cut off from technology's bombardment. But here she was, wading into what Donna Bassett had called a river of data…

And yes, here was the girl, her name the byline in the school newspaper articles. She reviewed rock concerts, reported from feminist rallies. There were photos of her in other people's photo albums, exuberant, drinking beer, dancing in clubs…Such an ordinary college girl, full of fun and life and righteousness. Someone's cherished daughter, for sure…but where was the girl leading her?

There was a phone number. The girl answered. From where she was she sounded like she was being blown by wind. Hello?

"You might not remember me. Or maybe you do because I was so rude! The cranky old woman with the long white hair who lectured you. I just wanted to say I was wrong. Please come back. I would like to make a donation."


       Mother, you've always been emotive to the core. You find emotive content in everything. Dark nebulous forces, cosmic evil, mythology. I always thought you just needed your superstitions. But I'm finding that evil is real. They shut up grown men in boxes, seal them up, and shout questions at them until the men break and go mad. They want to train me as an interrogator, too. I will not do it. If there is one thing you have taught me it is that I have to draw my lines. I have to have my boundaries.


       She mixed the hue to paint the tiny rim of light above Donna Bassett's blonde head. Time always seemed stopped here. Donna in her same pose, in the same dress, endlessly looking out the window as if in expectation of something that never came. Today there was music playing, music with chanting and gongs.

Donna's eyes slid slowly her way. There was something shy, pleading in her face. "You look tired, Corinne. You are quieter than usual."

"I am tired. I couldn't sleep last night." She had been up all night, making charts. Charts of events in her life that seemed to be forming patterns. It felt like archetypes and coincidences were everywhere, beckoning to her. She had labels in the chart such as "car events," "illnesses," "unexpected visitors knocking on door," "love affairs," and "deaths." There were patterns to be seen. The "unexpected visitors knocking on door" was always followed quickly by either "love affair" or "death," alternately. And when she studied the data, she saw these event patterns moving closer and closer together. It made her panicky.

"You should try magnesium before bed. It helps me sleep." She looked languidly out the window, at the view of the building's manicured courtyard, its walkways forming an axis. "How many more appointments do we have until we are done?"

"Maybe two more."

"I will miss you when we're done. Maybe I can use you again. You could paint my dogs, since I have no family. Ha." She was quiet for a few minutes. "Maybe next time I can tell you some news about Our Friend. We are making great progress in that respect. Let's just say… his time is coming. And things are going to change. In ways that you can see and ways you can't."


       Jordan did come, this time wearing a short, tight-fitting jacket and a skirt with some kind of bustle. It actually suited the leather and brass mask.

"Thank you for coming. I wanted to make up for last time. I was under some stress, but anyway… I even baked. I have some fresh zucchini bread. I have tea, all kinds…" She realized that she was fidgeting and stammering nervously. The girl was going through the same motions of tugging off the gasmask. Once again the reddish blonde hair tumbling out.

Together they sat in the tiny kitchen with its broken-down antique chairs, the herbs growing leggy in pots on the windowsill.

"Well, I'm glad you read the pamphlet and changed your mind. I know our organization doesn't make a huge difference. But if we can help just one person get by, you know? The Sickness is such a terrible thing. It's scary because it's invisible. And silent. And it creeps up on you…"

The girl was eating a hefty slice of the zucchini bread. Her eyes were shining and alert, darting around the kitchen. "Hello, sweetie!" she cried when Corinne's cat jumped into her lap.

"Yes, it is insidious. This whole war is… insidious. My son, as I said, is in the army. He's deployed right now. He signed on to be an army photographer. But it seems… he's getting involved with all kinds of… aspects. I just don't think he was meant to be a soldier."

"Oh. Why did he join?"

"Well. Ostensibly it was to get photography training. That is his passion. And there was no money for college. I don't know. I probably could have saved some college money. But I didn't."

"I'm sure he'll come home soon. And the experience will make him a better artist."

"I hope so. The thing is, I haven't heard from him in weeks. His letters have stopped. And I don't know… what's going on. And… if something terrible happens, I blame myself…" She began to sob dryly, her face grimacing.

Nothing was going as it should have. The girl looked stunned, out of her element. And then sadness swept her features. Her lips parted in tender concern. Just the way she had looked when she spoke about those people with "The Sickness." She thinks I have The Sickness!

Corinne could take anything but pity. She quickly got herself back together, cleared her throat. "Yes. I've changed my life. I've done my penance. But I was a horrible person, a bad mother. I was an alcoholic. The things I did have irrevocable repercussions."

"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself. Everything has repercussions. The wing stroke of a butterfly has repercussions…"

Corinne looked into Jordan's eyes. So clear. Their color blue as an unclouded sky. A place Corinne could never return to again.

Silence stretched on. This meeting felt pained and awkward. She could feel the girl straining to get back outside again, she wanted to put on her gasmask and go to her meetings, see her friends, live her life.

She brought out the photograph from where she carried it, folded up in the pocket of her work shirt, and handed it to the girl. "I saw this in your pamphlet. I think my son took this photograph. The coincidence is amazing. I thought if I talked to you…"

The girl looked at the photograph. "Oh yes. This one is really good, isn't it? But this photo came from the Associated Press. Not the army. If you read the back of the pamphlet, we gave credit. See?"

Associated Press. A public domain image? Probably altered as they all were. The pattern of synchronicities, which had seemed perfect as a pearl necklace, seemed to come unstrung and rattle to the floor. So all of this meant nothing at all?

"I'm sure your son is fine. Maybe you just need to get your mind on other things. Do you work?"

"I guess you could call it that. I paint portraits for a living. Portraits of our ruling class. So they can hang them in their mansions and feel real." She spoke duly, as though in a trance, looking straight ahead.

"Ruling class?"

"The people who run the companies who are waging this never ending war."

"Like who?" She could tell she'd snagged the girl's interest. Probably she should not tell her these things…

Corinne hesitated. "Right now I'm doing Donna Bassett of Globecom."

"Wow! I just saw a story on her. The blonde lady, right?"


"Wow! What is she like?"

"Well. She's OK, I guess. She likes me well enough. She talks to me about things."

"Like what?"

She paused, considered. At least they were conversing now. She'd brought the girl here and taken her afternoon, for which she felt badly now. She may as well give her something in return. "Well, about how other companies are always plotting against them. Lots of secret agent stuff. I don't even understand half of it. Right now they're doing a hit job on this dictator if you can believe it." She surprised herself by saying this. She knew it was wrong.

"Like, kill him? Can a corporation really assassinate someone?"

"Well, they're searching his assets, bribing his police…" Corinne felt nervous now. Best just end this whole unfortunate thing, what a mistake.

She stood up, and took some bills from the wallet she kept in her back pocket. "Here's a donation. I'm glad you kids are doing such a good thing."

Jordan stood up, shook her hand.

"I'm glad you came around. And I appreciate what your son is doing. Even though I'm against the war."

"Thank you." Once again she tugged the gasmask.

This time the mask reminded Corinne even more of a fawn. She had dreamed she was chasing one the night before. So delicate, so fragile, it stopped her heart. As she waved goodbye from her doorway, she said, "Good luck. In everything."


       It was another two o'clock appointment. The days were shortening. The afternoon sun reflected harshly off of the building's glass exterior, blinding her as she approached the large double doors.

Once again she sat in a molded plastic chair and looked up the wide stairway, watching Donna Bassett giving a talk, moving her silent lips. Funny, this time she was talking and there was no one else in the room. Then she realized that she was talking to a screen mounted on the wall. Teleconferencing. She could not make out her interlocutor, except that he was male, grey haired and ruddy skinned.

At one point Dona Bassett turned her way. When their eyes met, she wore a funny expression. Her jaw looked tight. She did not smile, did not gesture.

When the conference was over she walked down. She did not say hello. She said, "We need to talk. Now."

Corinne felt a tingling in her hands and feet, a precursor to panic.

Donna shut the office door. "We are done. I don't want you coming back. I want your security card. I know we have a contract. I'll pay you the kill fee. And that's that."

"What is the problem?"

"The problem is that there has been leaked information that could be detrimental to our mission here at the company!"

"And you think it's me? I'm only a painter."

"Oh, bullshit." It was amazing how anger had changed the planes of her face, the planes that Corinne knew better than anyone. The lips were pulled back in a grim little smile. The muscles around her eyes were so tense that they seemed to suck her eyes into their sockets, and they looked gaunt and shadowy. "Utter bullshit. I shared certain confidences with you, and you alone."

"But I didn't ask. I didn't want to know…"

"Only you could have leaked these things. There has been chatter that has come to our attention. Remember, my work, my life, is data."

"Then why did you tell me?"

"I thought you were my friend."

"I'm happy to be a friend. But it wasn't wise. It's your own fault."

"Take the damn painting if you like. Give me your card. And get out."


       Lost at sea. Those words rang through her head as she rocked back and forth on the train, gripping the large canvas. The only person who looked at her was a little girl in a grimy t-shirt. Written on the shirt in hand drawn magic marker letters was the word "Joy."

She felt limp. She felt dumbfounded. All this past week she had felt like she was about to round a corner, circling around and around, like she was almost there. Somewhere. And now she realized she was going nowhere. Before the girl in the gasmask came, she had been snarky and bitter. But at least she felt definite in what she believed was real.

Coming out of the train station, up into the parking lot, she was dazed by the sun. She saw spots. For a moment her vision went dark and shadowy around its edges. Just part of growing old?

That moment of illusion brought back a memory. When her son was twelve, he built his own camera obscura out of cardboard. All by himself, from instructions in a library book. He snuck up on her with it one day as she was lying hungover on the couch.

When the image came out, it was blurry and mysterious looking. There she was, head angled away but eyes tilted up. Long tangled hair, a stained bathrobe. It was the eyes that frightened her. They looked like a feral cat's. She looked wild, desperate, inhuman. It was then that she decided to get sober. She started going to meetings. And she never had another drink. The recovery was long and painful. It had been hell. And it never stopped.

The painting was huge and cumbersome. She was starting to be sorry that she had taken it. She was barely able to wedge it into her car with the seats down.

Once home, she didn't know where to put it. So for the time being it was propped up in front of her TV. She never watched it anyway.

She took a good look at the painting. It was actually very good work. This was Donna Bassett. It was like her soul was trapped just below the surface, like a thing that could almost be touched. All at once she had a feeling of giddiness, as though she had stolen something. After all, Donna had said that only this painting made her feel "real." And now Corinne was in possession of that realness. And it felt rich and strange.

From her pocket, once again, she took out the photograph that she thought was her son's. She held it up in front of her, to the side. From this perspective, she saw an amazing symmetry: the dirty, poor, but beautiful child, holding the burlap aside to look out the window. On the other side, like a mirror image, Donna Bassett looked out her own window. It was as though they were gazing at each other from adjacent rooms.

A funny thing, these patterns. Once you notice them, they exist everywhere, with no linear path forward or backward. You just have to appreciate the beauty for its own sake.

The thought made her smile, and there was a moment of lightness and relief in her being that she had not felt for a very long time.

It took her a moment to realize the sound that was her phone ringing.   


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Leah Erickson. All rights reserved.