Thursday, March 31, 2011

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Portrait

Another flash fiction challenge at Chuck Wendig's blog. Participants are asked to write a short story based on the picture above. It's pretty ghastly, so I concocted a horror tale set in the 1860s about a photographer and a special little boy. A departure from my current writing style, I evoked the tone of Poe and Lovecraft in a story I call "Say Cheese". Hope you enjoy this creepy mo'fo.

Say Cheese

Why do you think I’m mad, officer? I’m as sane and as rational as you, perhaps more. My mind is lucid and competent, especially after the ordeal I witnessed. One need only review the day’s events in a logical fashion to preclude I’m not some raving lunatic but a citizen who witnessed a blessed event.

A transformation.

Such things are rare these days. Science, free-thinking and rationality have dampened the miraculous beauty of God’s graceful masterpieces. Nature is dissected and studied under the glass of a microscope. Why there’s even that chap Darwin who’s claiming mankind wasn’t perfectly formed by our Creator, but evolved over millennia from lowly primates.

What of the natural world, the one not in the textbooks or scientific treaties? Though majestic and sublime, it’s not all beautiful. Nature is a dark mistress, one with her tawdry, vile secrets. Sometimes she subtly lets out horrible entities which defy the imagination. I’ve witnessed one of these abominations first hand, officer.

It all started with the boy.

He was a harmless lad, of no more than seven, with an impishness about him. Children are so filled with wonder and prattle on about this and that, making up fanciful tales and whiling away the hours in the throes of play.

As to the boy’s origin, nobody really knew. My landlady, Mrs. McCleary, said the lad was from a broken home, and his father a common laborer who’s fallen to drink. The boy’s mother was imprisoned in the sanitarium after she tried stabbing the boy with a knife.

Why anyone would have wished bodily harm upon this innocent cherub filled me with disgust, and I immediately went to befriend the boy. He was wary of strangers, so it took time before he trusted me. Mrs. McCleary said the boy was “a little off” and “one strange lad” who often played alone outside the boarding house.

I invited the child in to dine with Mrs. McCleary and I. We spent many nights feasting and talking; me about my job as a photographer and he about his troubled past. How a tyke could part with such troubling accounts is shocking, and many times Mrs. McCleary excused herself from the table under a pretense she needed washing up to attend to or to make the coffee. Yet I knew her constitution wasn’t strong enough to handle the boy’s woeful stories.

The boy would not reveal his name to me, no matter how hard I pressed. I decided he wished to remain anonymous, so I addressed him plainly as “lad” or “boy”, labels he didn’t protest.

I showed the boy my photography equipment, by bulky tintype camera, the collection of iron plates and jars of chemicals such as silver chloride and silver iodine. Curious, the boy began peppering me with questions about photography and how images are recorded on the tin plates. I launched into a dry explanation of Tintype photography, of creating images on a sheet of glass painted with a chemical solution, then using an emulsion process to clarify the final work.

Proudly I showed the boy portraits I made, of widows who lost their husbands, of soldiers in full uniform, of children looking pensive and uncomfortable in their Sunday church clothes.

“These people are small,” the boy said. “Do they live in these portraits?”

“No, my lad,” I said. “They are afterimages taken. They are not the actual persons.”

“Are they all alive?”

“What a queer question, my boy. Some are alive, while some have died. That old woman there, the one dressed in black, she’s passed on.”

“Did you know these people?” he asked.

“Some I’ve known, while others hired me to take their photographs,” I said.

“Does it hurt? When the photographs are taken? Did they suffer much?”

I laughed at this question the way an understanding father laughs at the innocence of his young.

“No, it doesn’t hurt at all,” I said. “Do these people in the portraits appear to be in any pain or discomfort?”

The boy scrutinized the portraits and shook his head.

“Photography is a painless profession,” I said.

“Could you take my portrait?” the boy asked. “I haven’t anything to pay you, but if you need compensation, I could borrow a penny from Mrs. McCleary.”

“I would be honored to take your portrait, boy. Cost is no charge. We are friends,” I said.

At this, the lad smiled and I directed him to be seated on a divan positioned against the far wall of my studio. The boy complied and sat perfectly still, like a Grecian statue, mute and motionless.

I prepared the iron plate and treated it with a collodion solution of ethyl alcohol, cadmium iodine and bromide. When the plate was wet, I put it in a silver solution, then carefully slipped it into the box camera.

A tarp covered my head to shield any light from the rear of the camera as I stare through the tiny pinhole.
“Say cheese,” I instructed.

A reverse image of the boy was refracted back at me and I flicked the switch. The lens opened and light poured in for an instant.

When I’m through, I submerge the plate in a developing solution in a dark room off the studio.

The chemicals slowly revealed the boy’s portrait in front of my eyes, appearing as if by magic. However, what revealed itself to me wasn’t a smiling lad but a horrific monster, whose terrifying visage burned into my mind as the chemicals burned it onto that plate. The creature – there was no other word for it – had lifeless, hollow eyes, jagged fangs and no lower jaw. Wiry whiskers protruded from the beast’s head and the thing caused me momentary nausea.

I gripped the plate and charged into the studio, my body convulsing.

The boy appeared normal, with the same youthful visage. He stared up at me innocently.

“What the Hell are you?” I demanded and thrust the plate at him. “Look at what the camera revealed!”

The boy merely smiled and replied, “Mortal, what can a pathetic wretch like you do about it?”

So you see officers, I really had no choice. The boy had to die. I couldn’t let something that special live. The world could not accept someone like the lad. He was beautiful in his ugliness, in his horrific nature. A boy transformed, altered by whatever force created the world and breathed life into man.

If you don’t believe me, look at the photograph. It’s here, somewhere, among my many portraits. In this confused jumble of lives, you’ll find one unlike the others, the very manifestation of evil.

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