Ars Moriendi

“Dead,” said Ostermeyer.

“Sleeping,” said DeBurgh. “I still say sleeping.”

“Face it.” Ostermeyer grinned at him across the light table. “You’re too soft for this.”

Illuminated on the table was a glass photographic plate circa 1870, an eerie negative image of a girl in her mother’s arms. The mother stared straight at the viewer, the contrast reversed so her eyes were pinholes of light. She gripped the child as if protecting her from something predatory behind the camera. That desperation infected DeBurgh, who scoured the picture for optimistic evidence. “Look at the way her neck is kinked, and she’s got her little feet pulled up under her.”

“That’s rigor mortis, baby.” A moment ago, the girl had looked sweet, but as soon as Ostermeyer said it, the angles looked odd.

It had become DeBurgh’s mission to find at least one photo without a dead person in it. So far, the odds weren’t good. An hour earlier, he’d been utterly deceived by a portrait of a girl standing between her parents. One hand held her mother’s, the other was draped casually over the back of her father’s chair. Ostermeyer pointed out the edge of a metal apparatus that held her upright, poking out behind her dress.

DeBurgh lost a second bet because he didn’t want to believe that out of the three brothers playing together in a photo, one was dead. But he’d known, really — two of the siblings were blurry and indistinct, while the third was perfectly sharp. As Ostermeyer put it, the dead don’t fidget. Children usually gave themselves away, but with adults you could never be quite sure. Nineteenth-century exposures took so long even the living turned out corpselike.

“I like her hat,” Ostermeyer said, wiggling his finger at the plate. “You’ll see when we get it on the computer and make a positive. Those are definitely mourning clothes she’s wearing. And see those withered flowers in the background? Symbolism 101.”

“Let’s shoot it and see.” DeBurgh laid a cardboard frame around the plate to prepare it for digitizing.

The collection they were archiving came from a dead man’s attic. His estate had donated it to the museum, where the curator pronounced it a goldmine of post-mortem photography. She brought in Ostermeyer, an early photography historian, and gave him their summer placement student, DeBurgh. The latter admired his new boss but found him something of a zealot. The provenance of the pictures was still a mystery, and already Ostermeyer was raving about a feature exhibit entitled ARS MORIENDI. DeBurgh couldn’t see it drawing a crowd.

“I just had an idea,” Ostermeyer said. “There’s no reason to just make a few prints for the gallery. What if we offered to make custom prints through the gift shop? Say customers browse the whole collection, but then we do up their favorites to order. We could call it the ‘Own a Piece of History’ program. Bet we’d make a killing.”

“You’re sick,” DeBurgh said.

“I’m not kidding.” Ostermeyer scratched his beard with a blue surgical glove. “You know what your problem is? You’re looking at the dead body. I’m looking outside the frame.”

“That’s very Zen of you.”

“It is,” Ostermeyer agreed. “You take a picture of a cloud, or the place you ate lunch. Who cares about your picture? You don’t even care. That woman probably had only one picture of her little girl, and this is it. There’s tremendous feeling here.”

“For somebody’s dead relative,” DeBurgh said.

“Even the live ones are dead.” Ostermeyer shrugged. “It’s all history now. You think this is weird? I have a thirteen year-old daughter. We had to take her phone away because she was sending photos of her boobs to all her friends. Let’s see what they think of that in a hundred and fifty years.”

“Maybe they’ll sell prints of them at the gift shop.”

“She should be so lucky. Alright. Fire the Hasselblad.”

DeBurgh went to the keyboard and triggered a camera mounted over the light table. The mother and daughter appeared on the monitor, positive now so he could see them clearly. The mother’s shining eyes had become inky, her hands white-knuckled. The daughter’s eyes were turned to the ceiling, her mouth slightly open. Her pale braids hung towards the floor.

She was dead and it was obvious, though Ostermeyer mercifully said nothing. DeBurgh turned back to the light table. He would never admit it, but he felt a strange reluctance to touch the plate. The sorrow it emanated seemed somehow contagious. Rather than confess his apprehensions, he removed the frame and picked the plate up by its edges. With a last look at the mother’s penetrating stare, he slid it into an acid-free envelope and filed it in an archival box with the rest.

Tonight, DeBurgh would dream in sepia.

• • •

In a patch of dirt by the side of the road, children played dodgeball with a dead pigeon. They squealed and raced after it, then scattered when one of their number picked it up and brandished it with a mad grin. A little boy let fly just as a wagon happened to be rumbling past, and struck the driver in the neck. The children waited to see how the man in the frock coat would react.

The wagon jounced to a halt. The driver was impeccably dressed but gangling, folded up like a mantis as he stared at the dead bird between his feet. “Beautiful day,” he said, though it was overcast. “Would you boys be able to direct me to the Green residence?”

“It’s that one,” said a boy with a dirt-streaked face, pointing to a white house near the crossroad. “You family?”

“Business call.” Penhollow tipped his hat. He kicked the pigeon back to them and flicked the reins.

In front of the house he stopped. He might’ve guessed it without asking, since all the curtains were drawn. A crab apple tree stood on one side of the walk, a stump on the other. Under gray skies the grass looked strangely verdant. The dwelling itself was spacious, with a barren veranda. Penhollow stepped down and tied his horse to the post. He retrieved his camera, equipment bag, and stand from the back of the wagon and swayed up the front step, leaned his burden by the door and knocked.

A woman in widow’s weeds answered. She wore her hair in a gray bun drawn tight as the rest of her, the only concession being a dewlap that made her look older than he’d expected. Her eyes were black and lusterless as bombazine, recessed until they seemed about the size of marbles.

“Good morning, madam.” Penhollow swept off his hat. “My name is Adrian Penhollow. A Mrs. Spraigue told me the household wished to engage my services?”

“Saw your advertisement.” She looked him up and down. “I want you to take a picture of our Alice.”

She held the door while Penhollow lifted his equipment over the threshold, ducking to allow for his height. It was much hotter inside than out, and he immediately began to sweat. He set down the cases and wiped his brow. He had expected at least a hint of decay, but caught only mustiness and potpourri.

“Am I to understand you are Mrs. Green?” he asked.

“No one else here,” Mrs. Green said. “We’re from out east. I can take your coat.” He handed her his hat and coat and blinked in the gloom while he waited for her to hang them up. He was standing by a staircase, red roses blooming up the wallpaper all the way to the landing. In the hall was a longcase clock, stopped. Without the sound of its pendulum, the house was very quiet, even by the standards to which he was accustomed.

“Come into the parlor,” she said. He followed with his equipment, but was surprised to find no casket, nor anything else. The room was empty except for a fireplace, and their footsteps echoed strangely off the bare walls. A cross section of dust motes shimmered between the gap in the curtains. Mrs. Green stopped in front of the mantle and waited until Penhollow drew closer.

“I want you to do it like these,” she pointed to four small cards on the mantle. “This one is Lewis. We lost him almost a year ago.”

The cards were examples of Penhollow’s trade. The first picture showed Mrs. Green standing beside a man with a slack white face, enormous hands palms-up on his thighs. “A fine-looking fellow,” he said.

“He was drinking that patent medicine,” she said. “For a stomach complaint. Stiffened up and died in his seat.” She pointed to the corner where her husband’s chair had been.

“A disingenuous cure. And these are your little ones?”

Mrs. Green moved along the photos. “That’s baby Harland, he passed the week before Lewis. It was croup. Benjamin got dragged off by the bloody flux a month after his father. I’m lucky to have this picture at all. Our eldest Cole had smallpox, and we burned everything he owned.”

Penhollow appraised the photos a moment longer. “Unconvincing postures,” he said, “And the lighting is only adequate. My contemporaries have not strained themselves in the quest for verisimilitude. Madam, I am certain we can meet or exceed the quality of these images. Show me to the deceased.”

The camera stand had begun to dig into his shoulder, but Mrs. Green gazed awhile longer as Penhollow waited. She stared so insistently it was not hard to believe the four departed were floating in the ether nearby. At length, she led him into the adjoining room.

The dining room was larger, and Penhollow guessed this was why it had been chosen for the funeral. He noted approvingly that the light was better. A few cane-backed chairs were scattered about, and a low settee. The dinner table had been pushed against the far wall to give the second half of the room over to the dead girl in white ribbons.

Her coffin rested on two end tables. Wax tapers burned on the edges, while below sat two buckets of melting ice, scuds of sawdust floating on top. A white ostrich plume stuck in the coffin dandled over the girl’s face, stirring in a faint draft from the kitchen. Penhollow set down his equipment and massaged his palms to restore the circulation.

“This is Alice.” Mrs. Green stood at the foot of the coffin, and Penhollow joined her.

“If earth has lost a flower, heaven gains an angel,” he said, looking down at the girl’s serene face. The coffin was an ordinary pine box, in contrast with her ornate dress. Whoever prepared the body ahead of him had done an excellent job, for something in the girl’s appearance was sublime and restful. “How very pretty she is, even now. Was she about seven, Mrs. Green?”

“Seven years and fifty-four days, praise the Lord.”

“Such a tender age. My Emily learned her letters at seven.” Penhollow cleared his throat. “Will this be a waking portrait, or sleeping?”

“Sleeping,” Mrs. Green said.

“Are you certain? I would be remiss if I did not mention my apparatus for holding the subject erect, with which I can attain images of startling authenticity. A touch of the paintbrush once the print is made, and her eyes could even be made to return your gaze.”

“Sleeping.”

“A portrait of final rest. Excellent.” Penhollow returned to the table and began to unpack his things. “Perhaps we could lay her on the settee, wrapped in a favorite blanket?”

Mrs. Green said, “I’ll hold her.”

“Very good.” Penhollow secured his camera to the stand. “Might I inquire the manner of death?”

“Fell off a horse cart,” Mrs. Green said.

“Small luck her wounds are not severe about the face. I do see that her hands have begun to darken. Shall I powder them?”

Mrs. Green sat in a nearby chair while Penhollow took a pot of talc and a brush and whitened the girl’s hands. As he dusted he asked, “How recently has she been moved, Mrs. Green?”

“Not since the funeral yesterday. The minister and undertaker are coming to nail the coffin this afternoon.”

“Then we shall have to take care against any remaining fluids.” From experience Penhollow had learned some bodies reacted to the touch as if they had been issued an emetic. He gently brushed some bluish veins in the girl’s cheek and recapped the talc.

“I guess you’ve done a lot of these,” Mrs. Green said.

“Countless,” Penhollow said.

There was no more cooperative subject than the recently deceased. Infinitely poseable, unmoving, and entirely without affect, they made ideal companions in the pursuit of the photographic arts. He brought the talc back to the table and placed his hand on the wooden camera box. “In fact, I reserve my camera for the especial purpose. A veritable window into the afterlife.”

“Awful thing to be proud of,” Mrs. Green said.

“It is precisely my detachment which permits me to take portraits of exceptional taste and quality. I believe this window faces northeast?” Penhollow strode to the window nearest the head of the coffin.

“Leave those curtains,” said Mrs. Green.

He had already laid hands on them. “The light is too dim otherwise,” he said. “And even so, we may have difficulty with the starkness of the shadow on the darker side.”

“There’s a curse over me,” she said. “I don’t want it spreading to the neighbours.”

“Curses are vain.” Penhollow spread the curtains and blinked. “They won’t resist a chance to be photographed. Have you a white sheet? We could hang it as a reflector.”

“I’ll get you one.” Mrs. Green rose and went to the door.

“Also a hat — the one you wear to church would do well.” Penhollow listened until he heard the stairs creak.

The reflector would be useful, but its real purpose lay in getting a few moments alone with the subject. This part of the procedure was the most unpleasant of all, and few witnesses had the stomach for it. Sometimes they even objected, for which reason he usually forwent the explanation. In order to achieve the illusion of life, the joints had to be rendered pliable. Penhollow rolled his sleeves as he stood by the coffin. For all his experience, the dead still seemed to be breathing whenever he gazed too long. Little girls were the most disquieting, even when the final photograph justified his attentions.

Gingerly he raised the girl’s wrist, and when he was satisfied the fluids he feared were not forthcoming, he began to work her elbow. He flexed each arm gently but firmly, first at the elbow and then the shoulder. He put her at around three days dead, since there was little resistance to his efforts. He repeated the procedure with her legs, then lay the girl down and smoothed her ribbons.

Penhollow wiped his hands with a handkerchief and returned it to his pocket. He listened again for Mrs. Green’s steps, but the whole operation had been performed swiftly. He cleared his throat and paced the room, swinging his arms to release the tension. On one of the chairs rested a book entitled A Mourner’s Manual, and he picked it up. It fell open to a page that read:

While they are often summoned hence, as it seems to us, prematurely, and cut off suddenly in the course of sin, yet even here, in the midst of salutary warning to others, there is an act of mercy to the sinner himself. It is foreseen that if he were long spared, he would plunge deeper and deeper into sin, and so he is removed at once. Miserable comfort this to survivors, yet still vindicating the compassionate disposition of Him, Whole Justice is ever tempered with Mercy.

The same mercy that brought this book into a grieving mother’s hands, perhaps? Penhollow scoffed and snapped the book shut just as Mrs. Green was returning with a folded bedsheet, a lacy black hat on top. “Are they seeking to console the bereaved, or punish them?” he asked. “I was browsing your manual, and I’m afraid I see little to recommend it in your case.”

“Mrs. Spraigue left it,” she said. “She’s from our church. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her. She helped make all the arrangements. Do you go to church, Mr. … I think I forgot your name.”

“Penhollow,” he said. “I sing tenor. I enjoy choir practice a great deal.”

She seemed not to have heard. “I forget too much. That’s why I’m grateful to you.”

“Think nothing of it,” he said, as she handed him the sheet. “Shall we bring your chair towards the window here, and affix the sheet between doorframe and casket?”

She dragged her chair to the window and sat. “I’ve been warned five times,” she said. “You’d think a person would remember when the Lord warns them five times.”

“You mustn’t speak so,” he said, unfurling the sheet and fixing it to the lintel. “These thoughts poison the arrow that has wounded us.”

He blew out the candles, tucked the loose end of the makeshift reflector beneath the casket, and stepped back to survey his work. Stained glass panels above the window cast yellow and lavender shapes on the sheet, which faded as the clouds drifted by outside.

This was evidently the most sun Mrs. Green had seen in some time, for somehow she looked less alive than her daughter. “Warned five times,” she said as she put her hat on, “And you don’t see a message in it?”

“I see a distinct lack thereof. Will you be returning out east when your affairs are concluded, Mrs. Green?”

“I reckon I’ll burn the house down for the insurance,” she said. “Or stick my head in a barrel and drown.”

Her voice was so utterly bland he thought he may have misheard. “It’s my understanding that is impossible,” he said.

“I think I could just about manage,” she said.

Penhollow did not doubt her statement, and he felt a surge of dread. “I believe you could,” he regained himself, “but I would be much aggrieved to find myself taking your portrait in a week’s time.”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I haven’t made up my mind.”

It occurred to him this was going to be an exceptionally fine photograph. His greatest yet, perhaps, the highest expression of his mastery. Mrs. Green emitting a rare agony, he the vessel to translate and refine it. His sensibilities had only to remain alive to it, to keep the moment crackling until the photo was taken.

He removed the lens caps and ducked beneath the black focusing cloth. Mrs. Green’s watery image appeared upside down in the viewing plate, sharpening as he slid the camera forward and back. “A little to your right, if you please,” he signaled from under his hood.

She shifted her chair. Penhollow folded the focusing cloth on top of the camera and straightened. “The sunlight is indirect, which is good, but on the other hand it is a trifle dim. We shall have to choose our moment when the clouds open slightly. A tricky business, because once I prepare the plate…”

“The devil walks in this house,” she said. “I can hear him upstairs.”

“If I had known, I would not have asked you to brave a trip to the linen closet,” Penhollow said.

“Only at night, I can hear his hooves on the ceiling. I’ve been sitting up and keeping cold cloths on her so she wouldn’t turn, and he paces until dawn. I called him to me with my black thoughts since Lewis died. He won’t come downstairs on account of her sweet spirit, but when they take her away it’ll be just him and me. I’m sure she’s all he’s waiting on.”

“Madam, one’s grief finds vent in manners that can seem absurd. Anyone will hear the devil if they don’t sleep for days.”

“I hear it plain as you please,” she said. “It’s no fancy, I can tell you.”

He looked at Mrs. Green, who was staring into the camera with sallow gravity. He looked at her daughter, and wondered what kind of life the two had led before the girl fell off a cart. “Mrs. Green, I’m afraid I must step out to my wagon a moment. The plate must be prepared in complete darkness, and once it is sensitized we will have only a matter of minutes, ten at the uppermost, to…”

“I’ve been through it four times,” she said.

“Of course. Please keep still as possible.” Penhollow bowed and excused himself.

Crossing the empty sitting room, he looked over his shoulder at the four tiny pictures on the mantle. Mrs. Green had just confessed to contemplating a crime — was it incumbent on him to report her to an authority? Surely there were friends and neighbours who could recommend her to the asylum. Penhollow routinely encountered customers in the throes of crisis, and only a strict policy of non-engagement permitted him to retain his equilibrium. When one became entangled in other considerations, it was next to impossible to complete the task at hand, which was to take a fine and consoling photograph.

The squalor of the room repelled him and he went into the hallway. The staircase, too, gave him a sense of queer horror before he stepped outside.

He stood looking toward where the children had been playing, but they were gone. No one was visible in either direction. His horse whinnied, and he stepped down from the porch. From a bag under the wagon seat he retrieved an apple and fed it to the mare. He patted her neck before he went around back and climbed into the darkroom.

He left the door open for light and arranged the necessaries before him on the table. First, he dampened his sharpening block, then took a glass plate from the case and sanded its edges. This precaution would prevent the emulsion from peeling with age. He secured the glass in a vise and polished it with rottenstone. He removed the plate and brushed it carefully, mindful of any blemishes that might mar the clarity of the exposure. Penhollow unstopped the collodion — a mixture of bromides, iodides, ether and alcohol he had prepared the week previous — and poured it out. He flowed the plate, and when the glass was coated evenly he held a corner over the vial to let the excess dribble back. This done, he opened the silver nitrate bath, slid the plate in and sealed it. He laid the plateholder out beside it so he could make the transfer easily in the dark, and was surprised to find his hands shaking slightly.

Penhollow closed the wagon door, as the plate would soon be light-sensitive. The wagon was admirably well lightproofed, and he leaned against the counter watching vague shapes play across the darkness. The devil rummaging around in her bedroom — well, he was a photographer, not an exorcist. Spiritual comforts were not high on his list of qualifications. His compensatory gift was a willingness to work where the squeamish would not. If he lacked warmth in the moment at hand, his contribution was paid out in years of solace after the fact. Why burden him with arson, suicide, and devils, as if he did not have another appointment at three o’clock this afternoon? Was it not difficult enough traveling from town to town encountering exclusively the bereaved, the wretched, and the inconsolable? His heart went out to them, but really they were among the world’s most selfish.

He was forced to recoup some of what they demanded for the sake of his sanity. In his career, he had captured images of such formal elegance and emotional brilliance, he clawed back some of what death took away. Some photographers took commissions with distaste, or recorded the images as mechanically as they would a prizewinning horse. Not him. His images were crisp and edifying, a balm to the soul.

He was not a dilettante and he knew what grief meant. Anyone who thought his interests were prurient was sorely mistaken. Yet for the very reason that Mrs. Green had already lost so much, he felt guilty taking even a little more. What exactly was the appropriate response to cataclysmic loss? Four death portraits occupied a place of honor in her house now, and brought her small comfort. If Mrs. Green’s photograph were bound to be the pièce de résistance of his own collection, would it thereby be less important to her? No being of perfect compassion had presented itself to console Mrs. Green in her empty house. Whatever his faults, they had brought him here, and he was the one who did not look away.

In the darkness, he unlatched the nitrate bath, slid the plate out and transferred it to the holder. He wiped the excess silver nitrate off the back and closed it, then felt his way to the door. The sudden rush of light left him dazed and he stood there a moment before he stepped down.

He returned through the foyer, through the empty parlor, and back to the dining room where Mrs. Green sat just as he had left her. “Time is of the essence,” he said, laying the plateholder aside. “I’ll bring Alice to you, if you’ll permit me.”

Mrs. Green nodded, and Penhollow went to the coffin. He slid his arms under the girl’s body and lifted her out. Her arm fell loosely out to her side from his ministrations earlier, though her head canted strangely on her neck. Her weight was cold and not as light as Penhollow had anticipated. Part of him wanted to carry her upstairs, to believe he was only bearing an exhausted child to bed. But he brought her to Mrs. Green, who accepted her daughter into her arms and brushed a stray hair off the girl’s forehead.

Penhollow walked back to the camera and slipped under the focusing cloth. “Best fold her hands in her lap,” he said, and Mrs. Green arranged the girl’s trailing arm. “Very good. Bring her knees up.” He made minute adjustments to the focus.

“Now look at me,” he said, and Mrs. Green lifted her eyes from her daughter’s face. Even in the washed-out, refracted viewing pane her gaze was piercing. “Excellent.”

Penhollow strode swiftly to Mrs. Green, placed his hand beneath her chin and raised it, then nudged her cheek a fraction to the left. Squatting now, he pulled at some of the ribbons which had caught beneath the girl’s body. “Something’s missing,” he said, casting about the room.

His eyes landed on a vase of withered flowers in the corner, and he brought them to the windowsill to balance the composition.

“They’re dead,” Mrs. Green protested, as Penhollow pushed the stalks this way and that.

“Hush,” he said. “You mustn’t move now.”

He returned to the camera and restored the lens cap. He removed the viewing pane and replaced it with the plateholder. Once he had drawn out the dark slide, the camera was ready — he had only to remove the lens cap and the plate would begin to expose.

“You must hold absolutely still,” he said. “I shall remove the lens cap for perhaps ten seconds, since the light is poor. We have a minute or two, so I will wait to see if it improves.”

Mrs. Green did not nod, as some subjects were wont to do. The fixity of her stare was impressive, and few people in Penhollow’s experience could equal it. At the same time, it was absolutely fierce, as if the proscribed length had impressed her with a determination to hold her daughter as tightly as possible.

Penhollow looked at the reflecting sheet. The appearance of the stained-glass colors on it would signal a ray of sun, and he watched intently. “Hold now,” he said. “Hold.”

Mrs. Green did not stir. Perhaps he should remove the lens cap now, before the plate dried completely — but still he waited.

“It will be a fine photograph, Mrs. Green,” he said. “When my Emily was drowned, we searched the river for two days. Without a final farewell, one always searches the crowd for her face. It will be a fine photograph.”

She gave no sign of having heard. He checked the sheet — was it his imagination, or had two pale purple and yellow spots begun to grow? Before his eyes the colours deepened, as the sun moved out from behind a cloud and cast a stronger light through the window. Penhollow pulled the cap off and began to count.

As the colours faded he replaced the cap. The exposure had taken no longer than a few seconds. Penhollow went to Mrs. Green’s side.

“It is done,” he said.

Mrs. Green relinquished her grip, and Penhollow bore the girl back to the casket.

• • •

Jeremy and Norah ambled through the museum, past dozens of photos of dead people. Despite a morbid premise, the exhibit was tastefully appointed. The palette was white, black and crimson, accented with decorative touches like music boxes and snuff tins. Enlargements of post-mortem photographs lined the walls, with cases in the middle of the room full of explanatory detail.

It was an odd place for a first date, but he thought it was going pretty well. Norah was an art student, and she lingered over the elegant wooden cameras and darkroom tools. She said a friend of hers was learning wet-process collodion and he acted impressed, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. All he knew was she had expressed a distaste for popcorn movies, so he’d chosen the most profoundly serious alternative he could imagine. He wanted to talk and share an experience, and ultimately discover that they were both old souls. So far, Norah was committed to reading every single plaque but paid his ruminations little attention.

They wandered from the cameras to a room dedicated to Victorian dress. Standing by a faceless mannequin in full mourning attire, he learned that the twilled fabric had a silk warp and worsted weft. Jeremy moved to the wall, where a placard claimed that historians had been able to date one photo using a corpse’s centre-parted hair as the only clue. At the same time as he was impressed by the attention to detail he was repulsed by its blandness. He waited for Norah to catch up and asked, “Do you think they noticed he’s dead?”

Norah read the placard. “So?”

He couldn’t tell whether she was joking. He glanced at the other patrons, who were scattered about the room staring at photos or bending over cases. “That’s kind of my point,” he said.

“It said at the front, they don’t know where they came from.”

“I know, but still.” He searched for an example to prove his point. “Look at this.”

He pointed to a photo hanging in the corner. It showed a woman slumped in a chair, her eyes heavy lidded and her mouth agape. It was the least convincingly lifelike image so far, yet there was something accusatory in her dead eyes. She sat in front of a fireplace, and on the mantle above her head were five evenly-spaced cards. They gave the photo a formal symmetry, an intensity that was almost occult. “It says here those are probably death photos in the background,” Jeremy said.

“Meta,” she said.

It was not a word that would’ve occurred to him. For the first time, he wondered at the depth of feeling behind Norah’s laconic answers. Maybe she only looked the part. With her black hair and clothing, she could’ve passed for someone in the photos, except for her tattoo and her ragged purse with the stitched-on owl and oversized buttons. They continued to gaze at the woman’s portrait. “It hurts to look at it,” he said. “Don’t you find?”

She studied it a bit longer. “It’s got the sticker.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you can buy it in the gift shop.”

He thought of the sixty dollars in his wallet. If the print was forty, he would still have enough to treat Norah to a cappuccino after the exhibit. It was a serious outlay, but it was a serious picture, one he could look at whenever he wanted to be reminded of eternity. He made a mental note of the purchase number. “I might do it,” he said.

“That’s morbid.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But I like it.”

She shrugged, and they continued into the next room.


Matt Snell is a writer based in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. His work has appeared in publications such as in Existere, Punchnel’s, Hamilton Arts & Letters, and PRISM International. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.