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The Language of Light

I lie awake, studying the moonlight spilling over the foot of the bed I slept in as a girl. The soft splash of light is carved through with hard edges of shadow, vacillating lines of light meeting dark. I try to imagine capturing the image with my camera—how long could I leave the lens open to the subtle light before the crisp silhouettes of the bare branches outside the window blurred to murky gray? The image isn't possible to capture in this light, but I can't help thinking my father would have caught it anyway.

At two-fifteen I slip from the bed, feeling on the nightstand for the brass skeleton key Dad gave me when I was ten. The key is small and hard and cool in my fist, and the house is dark, the wood floors cold on my bare feet as I make my way to his study. The room is drafty––it always has been––but sitting at Dad's desk, I feel warmed. When I try to remember what he looked like sitting here, though, no image comes to mind, and I panic, the way I sometimes panicked after my husband, Wesley, died and I couldn't remember some small detail about him—what color tulips he liked best or how he marked his place in a book or whether his crooked smile tilted to the right or to the left. But then I remember Dad in motion; he was always in motion. I feel his fingers gently squeezing my shoulders as he stands behind me in the communion line. I smell the coffee on his breath as he whispers to me to move in closer for a better picture. I see his large hands wrapped around Ned's and Charlie's little ones as Wesley's casket is lowered into the ground, his lips whispering that it's okay to cry, that he was a grown man and still he cried when his daddy died.

Though I don't remember that; my father's father was dead before I was born. I don't remember ever seeing Dad cry except in the darkness of his darkroom, and I'm so young in that memory that I'm not even sure it's real.

On the paneled walls around me, framed magazine covers and photojournalism awards—all my father's—hang everywhere. Others rest against the books overfilling the bookshelves or lean against the walls. Some simply stand in stacks on the floor. A package with a New York postmark sits on the desk in front of me, addressed to my father. It arrived the day after he died. Inside it I find another framed magazine cover, this one showing a line of refugees walking down a dirt road. It's a haunting photo, the endless line of exhausted, starving people carrying mattresses on their heads, babies on their backs. I find myself wondering what Dad had been thinking as he took it, and whether there are other photographs of these people, ones Dad might have kept for himself in his box.

Across the room, the closet where Dad stored his cameras and gear is nearly empty—only one empty film canister and his metal file box, which I pull down from the shelf and set on the hearth. I start a fire in the fireplace and sit on the floor in my pajamas, rolling the key between my fingers. First the newspaper, then the kindling burns.

The logs are burning hot, glowing red by the time I unlock the box and pull out a thick stack of photos. A large envelope at the back holds the negatives, all sheathed in polyethylene. As I take a fistful and lean forward to the heat of the fire, Dad's words come back to me, the words he spoke years after he first gave me the key, when he asked me to use it to open his box and burn the photographs in it after he died: "Those photos weren't ever meant to be published," he'd said. "I don't ever want them to be."

But his photographs are all I have of him now. In some ways, they're all I've ever had.

"A glass of wine would be nice right now," I whisper, as if Dad can somehow hear me, as if he were here. In the bookshelf cabinet, I find a few glasses and an old brown ice bucket with no lid, all covered with dust, and Dad's scotch too, though Mom's sherry is gone. Dad must have removed it sometime after she died. But I find an almost empty bottle of it on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet, next to the serving platters and bowls we used on holidays when I was young. They were Grandma's, and then Dad's. Now probably they'll be mine.

With the last of the sherry in hand, I sit down to burn the pictures as I promised Dad I would. I begin to look through them first though; Dad never asked me not to, and I never volunteered. Maybe I'll even keep one or two, keep some part of him for me. Surely he'd indulge me that. I'll make my boys promise to burn them when I die so that, in the end, they'll all be destroyed, as Dad wished.

The first photo is of a young man—a boy really—in uniform, army fatigues and a helmet, in a trench next to some type of large gun. He holds a letter in his hand, yet his eyes stare blankly. What could provoke a look like that? A lover gone? A brother killed? A mother dead?

I force myself to set the photo on the fire. Its center turns black, then melts.

The second photo is of a child, all ribs and bones and swollen belly. Huge, haunted eyes stare out from her dark face, her hair in tufts, patches. Her mother curls up on the dry, hard dirt beside her, eyes closed. She might be sleeping, but this photo is in Dad's box; the mother is dead.

Staring at the child, the mother, I try to imagine why my father kept these photographs only for himself. I close my eyes, trying to remember the sound of his voice, some few forgotten words that would give me the answer. I can remember the feel of my eyes adjusting to the red darkness in the darkroom; I can smell the chemical smell—that distinctive acid smell; I can see the ghost of a picture seep out of the submerged paper in the tray. But I hear only the pop and sizzle of flames.

I put the second photo on the fire and watch it melt.

The third photo is of a young woman—nineteen or twenty, maybe, barely more than a girl—in black-and-white. She sits at a cluttered wooden table, in a pub perhaps, surrounded by half-empty glasses, full ashtrays, empty chairs. She leans forward over the table, her arm stretching to grasp something just out of reach. The camera? She does have that self-consciously rigid posture of someone who doesn't want to be photographed. And then something catches my eye and I move the picture closer to the fire, to see the woman's face. The look in those eyes. Humor. Delight. But with some melancholy, something unforgettable underneath. I move closer, study the picture more carefully: the arch of the brow, the shape of the lips, the set of the chin. Some part of me wants it to be someone else. But even so many years younger, I know that face. It's Emma Crofton's face.

Part One

Chapter 1

Emma Crofton was sixty-nine when I first met her, in the autumn of the year Wesley died. I'd just packed up our belongings and moved to Maryland with my two sons: Ned, who would tell you he was not just eight but rather eight and a quarter, and Charlie, who'd just turned six. We'd come to live in a simple stone house my great-grandfather had built on a hundred acres of horse country ninety years before. The farm belonged to my father by then and though he hadn't visited it in years it was full of warm memories for him: swimming in the muddy-bottomed pond and following deer tracks through the woods, capturing turtles and frogs and snakes my great-grandmother allowed him to keep in large pickle jars when he spent summers there. For me, though, the farm was an empty place, full of other people's histories, surrounded by other people's friends living other people's lives, a thousand miles away from the life I knew. A life that had seemed to close in around me in the wake of Wesley's death.

That afternoon I met her, the sky was overcast, dreary, but the boys were outside anyway, down by the pond skipping rocks, Boomer, our golden retriever, barking at their heels. I was inside, sitting at Wesley's old desk, sorting through a messy pile of my photographs. Just as I glanced up to check on the boys, the sun peeked through the clouds, shooting rays out, fanlike, through the gap, and that's when I saw her: a stranger riding across my bridge on horseback, wearing a hat.

Emma wore hats generally, not just at Saint James's Church, where all the ladies still wore hats in the old-fashioned way––and, quite frankly, not that kind of hat. You'd never catch Emma Crofton in a timid little pillbox or a floppy sunbonnet. She sported bold hats that marked her approach from some distance: men's felt bowlers in bright colors with feathers tucked into the ribbons; wide, strong-brimmed hats that blocked your view from behind; or, when she was perched on her tractor cutting her fields, the old brown suede hat that, Willa later told me, had belonged to Emma's husband before he died. When Emma was riding, though, she wore a simple black riding cap with a hunting coat and black britches, as she did that day. Her back was straight, her head motionless, as she bobbed smoothly up and down on the chestnut horse. She made her way up the gravel drive, looking as if she belonged a hundred years back in time, on an English country estate. Only the spatters of mud on her polished leather boots seemed to belong in my life.

I watched her through the window with a great deal of curiosity and a small measure of hope, and when she'd ridden nearly to my front porch I came outside to greet her. She dismounted, moving as gracefully as a young girl though her face was weathered and deeply lined. She brought the reins over the horse's head and tied them to the lowest branch of the maple next to the drive. The horse snorted lightly and stepped forward a few paces, leaving horseshoe shapes of compressed grass where his hooves had been. Emma clicked her tongue twice and tapped him with her crop, coaxing him back up onto the drive. The animal smell of him mingled with the smell of decaying leaves.

"I'm Nelly Grace," I said, offering my hand, realizing only then that I still held one of my photos.

Emma nodded twice, sharply, and in a voice not quite perfectly American—English, I thought, or something English-like—she said, "Yes, of course you are."

She'd come to welcome me to the neighborhood, a "country neighborhood" that stretched across five square miles of land. Her place was one hill over to the south and slightly east, she said, and I wondered where that was in terms of streets (which only later did I come to call roads) but for fear of appearing ignorant did not ask.

I pointed out Ned and Charlie, their skinny bodies no taller than the remains of the pussy willows at the pond's edge, only their nearly black hair—my straight, thick hair—setting them apart, and she said she had a son, too, though he was grown now. He lived in a house on the farm they worked together, she said. That was done a lot there: siblings of families that had been in the area for generations lived on farms that bordered each other, family compounds in which the eldest child moved into the parents' house when the parents died, one of their children in turn getting their house, the cousins growing up together, leaving for whatever Ivy League college their family had attended forever (Princeton, generally), but always coming back. "It's rather nice," Emma said, "grandparents hunting with their grandchildren." Foxhunting, she explained; she was master of the hounds, then, the first woman ever to be master, though she didn't tell me that.

"Nearly everyone here rides," she said. "We put them on horses even before they're your Charlie's age."

She said she hoped I'd consider leaving my farm open to riders; the hunt club had taken care of clearing the paths through the woods for years, and would be happy to continue to do so if I'd let them ride through. "Why don't you join us at the races Saturday, and I'll introduce you around?" she said. She had a spot at the finish line, and we'd have a tailgate party with my neighbors, Willa Jenkins, who lived up the road on the left, and Kirby and Joan, who had that pretty yellow house on the right.

"You'll enjoy Kirby," Emma said, "though you may not know it at first. He's an architect, but he designs sailboats, writes music, and plays the cello just as well as he builds buildings. He sings light opera in a local theater troupe, Gilbert and Sullivan and that type of thing, and he makes the most marvelous scones, though he's not even English." She leaned toward me and lowered her voice. "But he's rather odd-looking, to be honest. I'm afraid his features don't quite go together somehow."


"Not quite symmetrical, I suppose. But don't let his looks scare you off. Or his manner either. He tends to be a bit flamboyant, but it's all for show and he's quite a fine sort underneath.

"Now, Joan… well, she is what she is. A lot of people don't like her—they say she's opinionated and bossy. And she is. But I like her anyway. She was kind to me when I first came here with Davis, when…when she might not have been.

"You'll love Willa," she continued as I shot a quick glance at Ned and Charlie, still skipping rocks.

"Everyone does," she said. "Particularly the married men, though even their wives can't seem to help liking her."

I said I'd love to go. 

Emma, glancing toward the photograph in my hand, suggested I might bring my camera. I pulled the photo closer to me—almost a reflex—then made myself look at it with forced nonchalance. It was an old photo: a bell-bottomed, sign-carrying woman shouting angrily as she marched in a teacher's picket line. I'd thought when I'd taken the photo that I would submit it to my school newspaper, but on developing it, I'd seen I should have looked for a better angle or moved in closer—something about the shot wasn't quite right.

"That is your photograph?" Emma said. "I thought at first it was one of your father's, but it's yours, isn't it?"

And perhaps it should have struck me then that she knew my father's work, but so many people did that it never surprised me. Or perhaps I was simply too wrapped up in wishing I'd moved in closer for that shot, or in realizing how much that woman's angry face looked like Wesley's that last time we'd argued, I do remember thinking that. But in any case I only nodded reluctantly and said yes, the photo was mine.

Emma smiled warmly, showing slightly gray teeth. "Yes, do bring your camera," she said.

She pulled a small Mason jar from her jacket pocket then, one with a plain, white sticker on the top that read Emma's Peach in barely legible blue ink. "I don't know if it's good," she said. "I've never made it before."

"I'm sure it will be wonderful, Mrs. Crofton," I said.

Emma hiked her boot up into the stirrup and swung her free leg easily over her horse. "Please, Nelly, won't you call me Emma?" she said.

"Emma, then," I said, and I stood on my front porch, waving a little half-wave and watching her ride off . . .

Excerpted from The Language of Light © Copyright 2004 by Meg Waite Clayton. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

The Language of Light
by by Meg Waite Clayton

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312318014
  • ISBN-13: 9780312318017