In this new story by the author of The Tao of Humiliation, a photograph heightens the mystery around a strange childhood memory. ♦
The retrospective exhibition was in honor of forty years of my father’s documentary photography, in tribute to the breadth and seriousness of his interests. Some of those in attendance were the same people I had met at his funeral. We were now celebrating what the exhibition catalogue called “a life dedicated to an art of consequence.”
A window behind us was open—the heat was bad—and early evening gusts sent napkins fluttering on the table against the wine glasses. After a while I was ignored, and grateful to be able to travel the room and look at my father’s photographs at my own pace.
I was staring at a sequence in a corner of the gallery when I saw it: my temple. It had to be my temple, although just a corner of it was visible. There were the same pink, winding staircases and, in the foreground, the same pool that I had seen all those years ago. The background was fuzzy, but clear enough—I too find it hard to believe, but it is true—and there you can see a woman leading a child by the hand, and I am that child.
There I am, walking toward the pool, my hand held by that woman, although at first it appears that two children are holding hands and walking together until you look closely. And in the foreground: the pool that held both my father’s and my attention.
In the photograph nothing at all appears on the surface of the pool but, horrifically, piles of children’s sandals.
I remember the temple with such clarity because that afternoon I lost my father. It was while searching the grounds for him that I came across a long line of flowering bushes, like a tunnel of bushes. When I gave up trying to find my father I returned there and crawled under the branches, breathing in drifts of pollen that smelled like nutmeg. Around me, white and yellow trumpet-shaped blossoms hung, and underneath my bare feet the ground was as smooth and cool as talcum powder. Through the branches I could see if my father came near, while I imagined I was invisible otherwise.
From my hiding place I watched a man and a girl in the distance, most likely his daughter. The girl walked behind her father, although the two of them appeared connected, as if roped. Every few feet the man turned to make sure his daughter was there. Watching them, I was sick with envy, although I wanted to call what I was experiencing a word that I respected: heartache. My father’s—and my own—experiences convinced me that I didn’t deserve to complain of envy, given the nature of the sufferings we witnessed everywhere we traveled.
Only a week earlier I had heard the word heartache when a British woman applied the term over dinner to how much she missed her children, and it was a word that made sense to me. It seemed like a medical condition; I had heartache, as if there was a space where my heart should be and that space ached. When I was bored after trips and came home to my dolls I peered into their arm sockets or the creases at their necks and envied how clean and simple their bodies were. Often I wished that human bodies were like that.
Right after the daughter and her father passed out of sight, scratching noises flittered inside the branches around me. The scratching grew frantic. Whole branches thrashed as if an animal was trapped and fighting to get out. In panic I scrambled to the opening through which I had crawled. It was then that I heard my mother’s voice.
I saw the woman’s flowered dress first, flowing over her knees. The woman pulled me up by my arm. When I stood I saw that her face was broad and bunched with gray knots. She had my mother’s voice, even something like her intonation. But she spoke in a language I didn’t know. Nevertheless, it was clear she was scolding me.
By then, my mother had been dead for almost two years.
A small crowd gathered around us. The men wore clothing like my father’s—dark pants and short-sleeved shirts that breathed in the moist heat. The women were swathed in long dresses like silky banners that shook in the breeze. It was as if the men were the background from which the women emerged like brilliant watery flowers.
The woman scolding me was hardly taller than I was, although the power rolling off her was immense. She pressed her face to mine without looking into my eyes. She smelled like old onions, and vaguely like an Australian woman my father and I had met at a hotel that month. I twisted in every direction to find my father.
Soon the woman and I were passing into the bright sun, and then into shadow. I was passive, limply accepting the disorienting whims of an adult as inevitable. I had a habit of taking off my sandals and running barefoot no matter how many times my father warned me to do otherwise. Soon my feet started to hurt. None of the people followed us. Now it occurs to me to wonder if she had lied to them, saying I was her child or that she was in charge of me.
When at last the woman let my arm go, we were at a temple.
The walls glowed in the late afternoon light, pink staircases curling on the outside walls. I was spun around and pushed forward. The woman’s breath beat against the back of my head. Then, just beyond the tips of my feet, the temple pool flickered. As I stared harder, shadows crawled in the pool. Miniature breastplates that tiny soldiers might wear were moving just past my feet.
I wondered if I was dreaming, if I was really seeing what was there. The clouds moved off the sun and then I thought I understood. I was looking into a pool of turtles. The pool was filled with turtles, turtles stacked upon turtles, shining as if polished. And below them there had to be more turtles upon which those turtles crawled. So many turtles squirmed in the pool that it was impossible to see where one turtle began and another ended. Some turtles, like horseshoe crabs on the beach, were upside down and looked blown out from inside.
The woman pushed at my shoulder, shooing me forward. The pool turned black and white like pixels. I knew that I could fall forward and never stop. I pressed my feet hard into the earth. I stiffened, holding my ground.
It must have been a long time before my blouse moved softly on my back as if it had been pinched and lifted. There was a breeze, and I knew that, at last, no one was behind me.
That evening the lights from the parking lot shot through the edges of the window shade in our hotel room. My father lay sleeping in a narrow bed against the wall. He had a tendency to whimper in his sleep—my mother used to complain to him about it—and so he kept on the television to cover the sounds he made. The walls flickered as if we were in an aquarium. From far below on the walkway a radio jeered. I remember not being able to sleep and feeling I didn’t deserve to sleep. Who was I to complain? Nothing had happened to me, really. And yet I felt that my life had been changed.
Never once did I tell my father about the woman who took me away. Somehow I thought he knew and approved.
At the reception for my father I endured more strangers’ curiosity as well as the kindness and sympathy of some well-meaning acquaintances. And then, after everyone but the curator left, I asked to be alone with my father’s photographs. The curator allowed me the privilege with such courtesy that my eyes stung.
For a long time I studied the final image in the sequence. There was so much horror in the world, why would my father have set up his own tableau? Or was I the one who misremembered everything? Never did I see children’s sandals in the pool.
Did my father see the truth whereas my imagination betrayed me, or protected me?
As you must already know, I’m incapable of recording truth as my father did. To capture a child’s face numb from terror. To let the shrubs behind that child fade off into the background while the child’s eyes demand to be looked into.
My father often said that reality was worse than whatever he could capture in a still image. On that afternoon so long ago, had my father been dissatisfied with how little he could find as evidence of a greater truth? Had he planted images upon duplicate images to suggest—to horrify—to illustrate what he knew to be true and to make us imagine what we could not witness? Had he created an art of consequence? Had he faithfully documented a dimension of the truth that would otherwise remain invisible?
I stared into the photograph of the temple pool, knowing what I might find among those children’s sandals—given that the transformation would have been so easy for him, so convenient for him. How could my father be guilty of manipulating both the visible and the invisible worlds?
I told myself again that my own life was slight and safe compared to anything my father had witnessed. Whatever I discovered about the photograph, it would not change the fact that my father had created an art of consequence.
Still, I looked at the temple pool until my heart jolted as if it had been stuck for years. Could I even remember my sandals? Didn’t they resemble any child’s sandals? They were ordinary, weren’t they? Brown and scuffed and ripped near where the heels rub and worn away there into small pale circles. Why should my sandals be in the temple pool?
And yet, of course—of course they were.
"My Temple" from The Tao of Humiliation, copyright 2014 by Lee Upton, BOA Editions, Ltd, www.boaeditions.org