When he picked up the paper that morning, there was no accounting for what happened. He was a well known photographer. He had a show coming up. The stent they had put in his heart four years ago had worked fine. Why on earth (or anywhere else) would words suddenly make him dizzy? Not only that but the words themselves behaved badly, became images that had nothing to do with their meaning. One minute “words” might be a table, the next a chair. And for “images” there was first a sleeping body, off-red, and then a drunkard’s nose, cerulean blue. Half an hour later, “street” had become the pale, peony-pink neck of a woman he had loved, and in the afternoon, “sunset” suddenly rose up as a yellow mob scene in a primitive country. So meanings changed, rainbows shivered, prisms cracked, and though it used to be a talent, he no longer knew for sure exactly what time it was.
Over the next few days, the photographer did everything to regain his senses. He drank. He went for walks. He smoked again. And stopped smoking again. He had a love affair. He ended a love affair. He almost had another love affair but got shy when he thought about the words his possible lover might bring to mind. Why would “warm” “infinity” “open” and “murmur” prove any more resilient than “street” or “sunset”? Nevertheless, love being what it is, he imagined Violette, the only woman he had ever truly loved posing for each of the words anyway.
It was a disaster. Immediately “Infinity” became a cloud, “Open” a painting by Goya (a little boy who was a prince with a pet dog on a leash), “warm” a pond. “Murmur” was a self-portrait that glowered back at him. His skin was light brown, his eyes orange, and his features floated in and out of each other as though his soul was a pirogue floating on a tropical river without banks, and without an outlet and without purpose.
Maddened, the photographer put his cameras in a drawer. He put his light meters there too and since he favored analog, silver plate, black and white work, he pushed his films under the rest of the debris. He had been to art school years before and found some old brushes. He bought new ink and determined to shatter the spell that had him in its grip, he handwrote all the words that came to mind on the walls across the street from his studio. And told himself he would take pictures of them when the light was right. Just to prove they were words and no more than that.
Vowels first, he thought, brush and paint pot posed, street clear, weather good. “Apple,” “dig”, “dog”, “balcony,” “horse.”He had some coffee. And wrote that too on the wall just outside the café: “Coffee.” “Butter.” “Morning”. But as usual, when he considered his handiwork the words considered him back, and made him feel like it was the end of the day, not the beginning. “Morning” had become a broken lampshade, “butter” an evocation of a bad scene on a bus headed cross-town a week before. Even poetry tried its hand but failed to raise its lovely head. He couldn’t remember a line.
Fighting the good fight, he blew caution to the winds and wrote the word “God”. But that didn’t work either because the next day, when he went downstairs and looked at his “God” again, he discovered that wishful thinking wasn’t the same thing as real doing. A trickle of water from the sluice above the wall had washed away the letter G. Now it just said “od” which figured in his mind’s eye as a bouquet of wilted daffodils. He got back to it anyway, first on a chair, then on a step ladder but something in the word in question finally left his right hand hanging over the first centimeter of the new capital letter G. Better return to the task some day when he didn’t have a stomach ache, a head ache, when his heart was beating less rapidly. Some day when his vision wasn’t quite so blurred. Some day when she (Violette? Louise? Emma?) had called. What had he been thinking anyway?
Two more days in bed gave him courage. He washed his hands. He scrubbed his fingernails. He shut his eyes. He opened them again. He considered working blindfolded but felt like that would be ceding to the enemy. Finally he decided just to work himself to the bone.
The vowels came readily, a e o and u, aureoles that he would dot with punctuation points, only to discover their resemblance to breasts. Then consonants all of which had a razor edge and so frightened him he was led to wall-write life-size letters so large they became statues with lives of their own, lives that fled from his imagination. Are you crazy? one of them said. And another, No, he isn’t crazy, just can’t remember anything anymore. So he has to make it all up. And yet another, Come on Pappy. Tell yourself the truth. You were never a great photographer. And an only so-so art student. Why don’t you go into real estate?
The pace slowed, but his heartbeat remained irregular, and even soothing how-tos from a Buddhist class Violette had once encouraged him to take, headed out the window, on their own. In his own hand, the word for “star” left him with nothing but a vanishing point in the middle of the paper, a vanishing point that had no end. And the noun for something concrete, and real, like “wheelbarrow,” when deprived of anything except its own letters and transformed into a large fresco on the wall, became a dance of all the pains he had ever known, the ‘ees’ like a skin disease, attached to the ‘rrs’ that he heard crack like bones.
Perhaps another language, an unfamiliar voice suggested, so he tried Arabic which went backwards, and from right to left, but once he had mastered the intricate curves leading into the narrow and charged space of twelve Islamic dialects, the same thing happened: not only did he not know how to pronounce the combinations of strange letters, but he had to duck and step out of their way when the scribbled forms came flying back at him with their oriental curves like scimitars and their stranger serifs like rakes. Or birds’ beaks. About to give up, he decided he would write so small, nothing but his own sense of things would survive in the circumscribed space described by his hand.
A for apple it said under the white magnifying glass, b for baby, c for caress, d for Daddy, e for elegy, f for fingers. But there too, it was beyond hope. When he set the work aside and came back to it, he couldn’t find the magnifying glass anymore, his handwriting had been reduced to what looked like dust, and his fingers trembled. He clenched his fists. He heard a scream coming to him from afar and remembered “the Scream,” that famous painting by Munch. Munch had saved himself from going crazy by doing the same painting over and over. Maybe he could do the same thing with his camera. After all, he was still a photographer, wasn’t he? Where had he put his equipment? In which drawer? Down with his shoes, at the bottom of the closet? Answers didn’t come and when they did finally relent, they served his bewilderment with suggestions — on that beach in Spain, twelve years ago – that clearly meant he was losing it.
Finally, to clear his head, he took a nap. The nap was profound. It only lasted twenty minutes but that was enough for the dream. In his dream he was blind. An old woman came to read to him. She was equally at ease reading from the book she had brought or from his face. She read from his face by touching his cheeks which were, she said, “hands,” and his knees, which were, she said, “trumpets.” In the book she also discovered “a rich man’s cane,” a “vintner’s press,” and the “mane of a horse.” He asked her to describe the rich man’s cane. It was topped with a silver knob, itself gnarled like the burl of a tree and apparently extremely heavy for there was no place on the cane where one could balance it on a finger, without the cane tilting toward the ornate bulb. This excited him and he asked her to describe the other words. The “vintner’s press” was heavy, about three feet high and two feet broad, softly shaped by the resistance of a century of grapes and the ceaseless clockwise and counter-clockwise twisting of its ancient purpose. The “mane of a horse” was white, thick and wild, inseparable at first from a winter storm that blew about it as the rider of the horse plunged along the crest of a low ridge, and then, when viewed from afar, the woman said, reading out loud, though the storm had not subsided, the same flakes were silent and hung on the night like flakes that had already fallen in a storm from another season.
The man woke. He stared at his hands but only saw them as “hands.” He tried to read a book but put it aside because it was boring. Of course that meant things were changing again, he really could read but now he didn’t want to anymore. He found himself cursing analog, black and white film. Perhaps that was at the source of his problems. He wished he had had a career taking color photographs, with a digital camera. The wish was strangely, and so it came to him, dangerously and immediately fulfilled. Vast landscapes unfolded, canyons and forests and prairies and jungles stared back at him, as it was given to young people to say, “in his face”. Everywhere flowers bloomed and animals strayed. Children played. Elephants wandered in pairs. Violette’s legs danced. No words danced with them. At the same time, he knew that regrets were the second mistake, and this in turn led him to wonder if he was not perhaps simply — always his greatest fear –going blind at last.
He turned over on his couch. He was thirsty but he did not go to get the glass of water he had left by the sink. He returned to lying on his back and didn’t answer the phone though it rang six or seven times. It occurred to him that from blind to dead it wasn’t far at all after which he realized that “death” was a word which had never had an image for him before. Yet there it was, right in front of him now and as he stared at the “blank white page,” (it didn’t even have the black frame that usually held his images together) slowly, very slowly, so slowly it took all morning, (bells from a nearby church rang ten times and then eleven too) he turned that image over, and over, from right to left and then the other way around discovering that it never changed no matter how he tried to imagine it, and, suddenly with an extraordinary sense of terror and relief, realized no word would ever frighten him again.
Roger Salloch, an American living in Paris, has published stories, photographs, and poetry in the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Fiction, The North American Review, Works on Paper, L’Atelier du Roman (Paris) and Sud, an Italian bimonthly in Rome. As a photographer, he has had exhibitions in NY, Paris, Hamburg (Germany), Vologda (Russia), Delhi (India), Zurich (Switzerland), Naples and Turin (Italy). In September, 2016, Miraggi edizioni in Turin, Italy translated and published a novel, Along the Railroad Tracks (Una Storia Tedesca). The same novel was translated into French and published in October 2017 by Editions Nadeau in Paris (Une histoire allemande). Miraggi has also just translated and published the novel, Vanilla Ice Dream.