Some cultures believe each photograph can take a little part of your soul. If this is so, imagine what a thousand selfies could do. Ellie is past the point of imagining now. She’s living the theory, and no matter how obscure and dark her collection becomes, she just can’t find the will to stop taking photos, and she never will – as long as she exists within them.
About the AuthorLavie Tidhar is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning and Premio Roma nominated A Man Lies Dreaming, the World Fantasy Award winning Osama and of the critically-acclaimed The Violent Century. His other works include the Bookman Histories trilogy, several novellas, two collections and a forthcoming comics mini-series, Adler. He currently lives in London.
In one of the last pictures I am running. I am running down the street and it is dark, the street lamps are dim and the light oozes down sickly and yellow. I can feel my heart almost bursting in my chest, the taste in my mouth of something sour and unpleasant. I’m running as fast as I can. I have to get away.
The moon is a sickle moon. Its cheek is pockmarked with acne scars. It looks down on me, it hangs overhead like a malformed knife. They’re running behind me and they’re gaining. They’re not even running hard. They spread out around me, they match their pace to mine, easily, without effort. They whisper my name, Ellie, Ellie. Just ahead is the rusty iron gate to the old playground. I used to play on the swings here when I was a little girl. They crowd me here. I don’t know if kids still use it. I stumble through the gate and into the playground. I just have to keep running but I take a picture then, I can’t help it, I take a picture and it’s just me and the gate and that sickle moon, and no one at all behind me.
* * *
‘I heard this story about a girl who went mad a few months ago.’
‘Her name was Ellie and she was in my year at school. I didn’t see much of her after that until they found her dead at the bottom of the old playground down my street one night, a few months ago.’
‘Oh, I’m really sorry.’
‘It’s all right, I really didn’t know her that well. What was funny was, when I saw her, it was only for a moment before they zipped up the bag and took her away. It was her face, see. It was the scariest thing I ever saw, her face. Here, look. Just before they zipped her up I took a photo.’
‘I didn’t put it on Facebook or anything.’
‘Are those eyes?’
‘What is she doing with her mouth?’
‘I think she’s screaming. She was still holding her phone when they found her, even though she was broken up pretty bad. My cousin Dan works in the lab and he said there were thousands of pictures on her phone. Thousands and thousands.’
‘He said the police could construct her last few months almost moment by moment following the pictures. They were mostly selfies. But some of them were pretty weird. Dan said maybe someone photoshopped them. After a while they didn’t even make sense.’
‘That’s pretty vain, though.’
‘You know what the really weird thing was, though?’
‘A couple of days later I was in the supermarket and I thought I saw her. She was standing in the aisle by the cereal shelves and she was talking on her phone. She was holding a box of Crunchy Nuts. I had this really queasy feeling when I saw her. I mean it couldn’t be her, right? Then it was, like, she knew I was standing there and she turned and she gave me this smile. She had these uneven white teeth and she had her hair in this sort of fringe. She used to be really pretty. But when she turned she looked directly at me and it was her eyes. They were like eggshells, without pupils or an iris, they were just entirely white and empty and flat and she smiled.’
‘You’re making it up.’
‘I had a can of Coke in my hand and it fell down and burst open, and there was a mess. When I looked up again she’d disappeared.’
‘Did you pay for the Coke?’
‘Yeah, I paid for the Coke. They buried her a few days later. I didn’t go to the funeral. I mean, like I said, I never really knew her all that well, anyway.’
This is right after I buy the phone. The shop behind me has a sign that says Previously Owned. I don’t know if that is its name or just a description, but it is accurate all the same. I’d gone to the mall, just browsing. At the back of the lower level, all the way back, the shops turn dusty and dark. There’s a baby clothes store that hasn’t seen a baby in years, and a shop for vegan supplies, and a video store that’s permanently shut. I’d not noticed this particular shop before. I go in and it is filled with strange objects and all sorts of knick-knacks, like weird clockwork devices and creepy voodoo dolls and paintings of grotesque creatures like something on the cover of a paperback. At first I don’t see anyone in the shop but then I hear a cough and this weird old guy with a long, almost horse-like face, and pale watery eyes, appears behind the counter, almost like he’d just been somehow cut out of the shadows and given form and pushed into the light, and he coughs again and says, ‘Can I help you, miss?’
I say, ‘I’m just browsing,’ and I see his face frown in displeasure and it makes me feel uncomfortable. ‘You’re very pretty,’ he says suddenly, and I think I blush, and I shrug a little uncomfortably. ‘No, no, really,’ he says.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘Here,’ he says. He brings something out from behind the counter and it’s so startling in the shop among all the old and dusty objects: it’s a brand new phone. ‘Do you have one?’ he says.
‘A phone like this one.’
‘No, no,’ I say. ‘I just have this old thing.’
‘Then take this one,’ he says. ‘From me.’
‘You mean, for free?’
‘No,’ he says, and looks at me like I’m dim. ‘Of course not. I don’t run a charity here.’
‘Oh. I mean…’
‘Very cheap,’ he says, and he pushes the phone at me aggressively. ‘Take it. Take it!’
He scares me so I take it but as soon as I hold the phone I feel better. It feels so smooth and warm, and it fits snugly into my palm. I swipe across the screen and the icons blink back at me. I barely hear that awful man when he says the price and like in a dream I take out some money and give it to him. He said I was pretty but I guess I never thought of myself as pretty. I mean I didn’t give it much thought one way or another. I step out of the shop and suddenly there is light around me, and air. My finger itches. I hold up the phone in front of me and press the camera button and it’s like something in me wakes up for the first time and something inside me dies – I can’t describe it. I don’t need to. I press the button and there’s the image, instead.
In the last picture, I’m dead.
Funny thing is, I go back to the spot where the shop was a few days later and there is no sign of it. Here’s me standing with a Cinnabon behind me and the guy behind the counter said it’s been there for the past year. In the picture I’m biting my lip and looking worried. I had to keep clicking. I had to keep taking pictures, but the pictures were beginning to lie.
‘That was amazing, Ellie!’ Noah says. He looks hopped up or something. He gives me this beaming smile.
I say: ‘What are you talking about?’
I snap a picture. Me standing there looking vaguely irritated, in his kitchen. He has petunias on the windowsill. I don’t like the way the light catches them. They look ill, and the sunlight is all blotchy.
‘Last night! You were amazing!’ Noah says. ‘I never even…’ he blushes. ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ he whispers. Comes close and puts his arms around me, and I can smell him, the smell of sweat and sex. And I push him away, and I can feel the tears coming, even though I don’t want them too, and I say, ‘But I wasn’t here last night, Noah, don’t you remember, I went to the movies with Shelly and I stayed at her place,’ and he says, ‘What?’ and his hands drop to his sides and then he smiles and says, ‘You’re just fucking with me,’ and I burst into tears and he stands there looking confused and then angry, and he comes to me again and I push him away and I run up the stairs to his bedroom and see the rumpled sheets and, pinned to the mirror, a photo, it must have been taken last night, and I am posing for the camera, naked, one hand held suggestively between my thighs while the other is out of sight, holding the camera. In the picture I am grinning into the camera and my teeth are a predator’s teeth and my eyes are – but there is nothing in my eyes. And I pull the photo from the mirror and I tear it up, into tiny pieces that fall to the floor at my feet.
Dinner with mum and dad and Noah. We’re all smiling. Noah has his arm around me and he’s grinning stupidly into the camera and so am I. I’m feeling like there’s a fire inside me, burning from the inside out, like light falling on a negative, and it’s reaching everywhere, it’s touching everything with light.
Me in front of the mirror, but the picture is all wrong. This is after I left Noah’s place and gone home. I’m crying as I press the button, but the me in the mirror is smiling.
This photo’s a little blurry because I’m running. I’m on the street and a man is pursuing me.
Blurry as I turn away from the man, who’s still speaking.
He has a nervous excited voice and he keeps shouting about my phone. We’re both caught in the photo and for a moment his face is both almost erotically excited and incredibly terrified.
A man approaches me in the street but he’s not in the photo. He wants to buy my phone. I can’t really understand what he’s saying. He is tall and thin with a straggly beard and he smells as though he hasn’t washed for a few days. He says his name is Farnsworth and that he’s a collector. He keeps asking me where I got my phone and do I know what it is. I tell him it’s just a phone but he doesn’t really listen. He says something about mimic objects, and parasite mechanics, and things that look like other things.
Dark Chamber, he keeps saying, Dark Chamber, a camera obscura. I don’t know what any of it means. I start to turn away from him. I think, from the corner of my eye, I catch my reflection, standing on the street corner, only there is no mirror there.
There is someone standing outside my house under the street lamp but I don’t dare look.
It’s so quiet. It’s so quiet and nothing moves. Nothing moves but I know it’s there. The silence is like a living thing or the echo of living things. It’s like a dark chamber in my room and the only illumination comes from outside. The light presses against the curtains.
Something is standing outside under the lamp.
I pull back the corner of the curtain and I don’t look out but I take a picture.
In the picture something with my face is standing outside and it’s looking back at me and it’s smiling.
Someone had slipped an envelope under my door in the night and when I open it I find a piece of paper inside torn from a book. I’m holding it up next to my face. My eyes are puffy. You can just about make out the letters. It says The mad Jesuit, Father Alfonse, in his 16th century manuscript, Umbra Autem Ex Tempore, first wrote of the curious properties of a certain kind of light, or rather shadow, or shadows – it is unclear in view of sometimes contradictory translations. He wrote the manuscript while incarcerated in a monastery in the bogs of Scotland, where he was held for blasphemy for some several years. In it, he describes a device which he claimed to have constructed, a sort of optical instrument or camera obscura, that is to say, a dark chamber, for the capture of such anti-light or shadows, or perhaps, in some translations, notably the French Géroux Manuscript of 1653, a soul.
The mad Jesuit committed suicide, or perhaps was killed, the record is obscure, by falling from the top of the monastery to the bogs down below. How he made his way from the stout walls of the cellars that imprisoned him, to the top, undetected, is unclear, nor was there sign of his device found after his death. Though he himself was eventually found and buried, for many months afterwards local peasants reported the unsettling sight of a man answering Father Alfonse’s description being seen far and wide, sometimes in the midst of night and sometimes, plainly, in the height of day. But the figure never spoke or, if it had, none had recorded its words. I don’t know what it means, it’s gibberish.
It’s blurry because my hand is shaking so much and you can’t make out anything.
Farnsworth again. I point the phone at him and he shrieks and runs away before I can take his picture so I take mine instead.
And another and with each one I feel better and worse like I am being cut up into a lot of tiny little pieces like bits of me are lost like there is me and me and me and me and another.
Standing in the park in the sunshine with my new phone and I’m so happy and everything is going to be all right.
Me with a crying face. Dark. I have red eyes. It’s night and I’ve just been woken. Farnsworth is outside shouting. An ikiryō is a spirit torn from your soul by a curse, who now lives independently.
In some cultures they believe that every photo takes away a little bit of your soul.
‘I’ll pay you anything!’ he says. I can hear a dog barking. ‘Give it to me!’ His voice is so lonely and so desperate. Then the dog stops barking suddenly and Farnsworth gives a high-pitched shriek. I don’t have to look outside to see what he sees.
Outside the supermarket.
I go into the supermarket and I bump into another customer and I mumble, ‘Sorry,’ and then when I look just for a moment she looks back at me and she smiles with my face.
My hand is shaking. A shot of me against supermarket shelves. Shoppers pushing carts loaded with food and tins and cereal. One by one they stop and raise their heads and look up at me. They smile with my face. They have no eyes.
Someone whispers my name, Ellie, Ellie.
In one of the last pictures I’m running. The road spreads out ahead of me, and the sleeping suburban homes. The moonlight is sucked into the asphalt. I run, the only sound the beating of blood in my head. The air is scented with jasmine. Ahead of me is the old playground where we used to play. I don’t look back when I take the picture, but I know they’re there.