My mother gave me an indirect, covert education. Our lessons were conducted in the wan light of country afternoon and the velveteen absence of light in her darkroom. Her photography bore the odd angles and blurred sun dogs of the enthusiastic amateur but she worked at it with a dogged focus that lent our lives an amiable chaos.
I was a quiet child, open to instruction and taking everything in with wide bright eyes that my mother stared into and declared luminous. I was trusted with handling the negatives, the tangible reversals of the fundamental.
Bleached, pure white.
Utter, relentless black.
We captured wilderness scenes, candid and unguarded moments which were fed into the darkroom and came out as photographs in the way that pigs went into abattoirs and came out as sausages. Her missteps were as fascinating as her triumphs but the lessons she passed to me were considered elitist and prosaic, a reality I had to go into state education to realise.
It was just the two of us. When her body started to prepare itself for the second and last living thing she would host, our roles were reversed. I cared for her, lifting and changing for me until she was an insensible abstract, a twitching nerve rooted in sweat and foulness.
She held me when I was helpless and I returned the favour. The funeral service was sparse and perfunctory as per her wishes. The idea that a single ceremony could put the loss of someone you loved into any context was like holding a shell to your ear and expecting to get wet.
I stayed on in the nest of my childhood, forever outside the eggshell and missing the kiss of mother’s beak.
The house was swollen with emotional resonance for me but it had been built on a considerable amount of debt. Sentiment and sympathy held no import over the demands of my mother’s creditors so I was forced to start the process of clearing and selling the house. It was akin to being a stand in for the cancer, killing her memories rather than her flesh.
Any decision considered adult held its own agony. The ache came to me from the past, a child’s anguish fitting wrong in my woman’s body.
I had to sort through her things. She had laden the house with photographs, oddments and scraps that pleased her eye. Feathers from birds including some massive black variations that I had always held to be fake but she would never answer.
I found her journal, a patchwork quilt of concerns, lists and tentative explorations of her craft and her feelings towards it. She was her own cheerleader in so many things because she had to be. The words blurred before my eyes but I continued to read. I had not known this woman, only the mother she became.
Her tone changed as her expertise grew, becoming more technical and impenetrable with each month that passed. Then one entry drew my eye for its lack of detail.
He landed at the bottom of the garden. He flew back before I could get the camera.
A chill prickled down my back and I read it again, tried to figure out what she meant.
Code to avoid questions about her actions.
The next month’s worth of entries returned to the prosaic and technical.
He likes shortbread. Cries at the taste of tap water. He doesn’t speak English but I understand him perfectly.
A week later.
I can’t put down into words what his touch feels like. There is strength there, but he controls it. I know I shouldn’t. I don’t even know if he can.
The next entry was a drawing of a winged heart, done in HB pencil and shaded with red ink.
She did not mention him again. She began to talk about her body, the changes she was experiencing. It became as terse as her grasp of photography and the dates of the entries represented some interesting possibilities.
My intuition blazed into life. She would have photos of this man. I tried to stop flipping through the calendar in my head and actively looking for something would have helped me do it.
They were in a small album. Carefully pasted photographs and the negatives next to them. I tucked it under my arm with the journal and left the darkroom.
My life had never overlapped with anything uncanny or mysterious outside of the human heart or a good book.
The figure crouched, rendered indistinct by the bushes and shadows at the bottom of the garden aside from a pair of luminous eyes, open and soft like the cap of a mushroom. Black wings stretched out from his back that gleamed with oil, their dimensions softened by the night.
I put my hand to my mouth and the kitchen lights flickered. The album fell from my hands and I ran to the window. Night had fallen and the whole world was a darkroom now. I looked outside and wondered what might develop.
The windows rattled in their frames with the gust of wind that came. I opened the door with my heart thumping like I was running a marathon.
‘I know you’re there.’ I said.
I sounded frightened to my own ears but my nerves sharpened my senses and I saw him at the bottom of the garden, his wings tucked behind him.
His pronunciation was careful. Not someone speaking a language they lacked fluency in, but the care of someone whose voice was capable of great and terrible things.
He was taller than any man, with lean black limbs and a taut midsection. He carried a scent that combined leather, damp wool and incense. His face wore a perfect mask of surprise as he cocked his head and looked at me.
His lips curved into a smile, revealing perfect white teeth.
He bowed at the waist, the gleam of his bald head caught the moonlight like blood on glass. He looked up and his smile fell away.
His voice had become low, stretched out on the rack of grief.
I told him and when I had finished, he put his hand on my shoulder. It was difficult to breathe in his presence, the weight of faith made tangible pushed at me from every direction.
I reached out and put my arms around him. He held me with the detached care of a cowboy with a calf, a detached gentility that became more humane with each moment. He put his warm, dry lips to the top of my head and I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, he was gazing at my face.
I had his eyes.