Dark­room, Day­dream

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - MATTHEW HOLLETT

I SAW THEM YESTERDAY, HUNKERED AT THE EDGE of the lake. Canada geese, beaks tucked un­der their wings, feet nowhere to be seen. Feral pil­lows. This morn­ing they’ve trans­formed into alarm clocks, all go­ing off at once. Half-awake, I lie in bed and lis­ten to their honk­ing, to the heater’s slow tap, to rain­wa­ter drip­ping off the roof. The rain ended as I slept.

Red and yel­low space­ships bat­tle over ev­ery square inch of bed­sheet. Aside from the bed, the lamp on its pink ta­ble and my pack in the cor­ner, there is just the win­dow, wide open. With­out lift­ing my head I watch chip­munks scur­ry­ing up and down tree trunks, sun­light glint­ing through broad branches that shift in the breeze. I can smell the damp pine nee­dles car­pet­ing the sides of the road. The geese’s brass sec­tion is a pre­lude to the rest of an orches­tra: flutes tun­ing up across the creek, a flock of clar­inets pass­ing over­head, now and then a tam­bourine. I re­mem­ber where I am. I wish I’d brought a tape recorder.

I did bring a cam­era. My Zenit EM is a mon­ster, an in­de­struc­tible Rus­sian-built con­trap­tion handed down to me by my dad. It has an enor­mous dent in its metal and a se­le­nium light me­ter that, mys­te­ri­ously, does not re­quire bat­ter­ies. My pack is heavy with it, and with can­is­ters of black and white film I rolled my­self in the univer­sity dark­room be­fore leav­ing Cor­ner Brook. I also have a binder full of pho­to­copies de­scrib­ing dark­room chem­istry and print­ing tech­niques, things I’ve only re­cently learned but will spend the sum­mer teach­ing dozens of seven-to-sev­en­teen-year-olds. Dad

dropped me off yesterday morn­ing, then turned around and drove back to the bor­der. On the map we dis­cov­ered that Camp Canaden­sis is very near a town in Penn­syl­va­nia named New­found­land, al­though I’m told they don’t pro­nounce it the same way.

I study the frag­ment of canopy and sky framed by the win­dow and think about my Zenit, its viewfinder roughly the same pro­por­tions as this win­dow, its dark in­te­rior roughly the same pro­por­tions as this room, and me ly­ing here ap­prox­i­mately where the film would be. I’m ner­vous. I’ve never been a camp coun­sel­lor be­fore. I don’t know any­one here, and some­times I find it hard to meet peo­ple. I know I need to open up in a way that does not come nat­u­rally, to find ways to make my­self re­cep­tive. I think about the way my cam­era’s aper­ture blades scis­sor light so pre­cisely. The way its mir­ror flips up to let light in. I jump out of bed.

Wind shakes shad­ows loose from the for­est as I walk around the lake for the first time. At ev­ery turn in the trail, white ex­cla­ma­tion points of deer van­ish as soon as I spot them. I count at least twenty. Chip­munks are too nu­mer­ous to count, and birds seem less an an­i­mal than an am­biance, a layer of at­mos­phere. In just a few days I’ve also seen a sala­man­der, two ground­hogs and a bear.

Last night was the first I closed the win­dow, and this morn­ing there was snow on the ground. Late May, and the lo­cal coun­sel­lors grum­bled at the un­sea­son­able cold, al­though to me it made the place feel more like home—not so much the snow but the un­pre­dictabil­ity of the spring weather here, high in the Po­conos. Brian joked that I’d brought the snow from Canada.

Haven’t taken any pho­tos un­til to­day, but as I fol­low the path around the lake, Zenit in hand, I think about how I’ve been mak­ing pho­tos in other ways. My note­book is not un­like a cam­era. Even this cut on my thumb is a kind of vis­ual record. The pock­etknife slipped and my body opened briefly to ad­mit it, like a photo snapped by ac­ci­dent. It will leave a scar. Ev­ery­thing feels pho­to­graphic, even my footprints, mud on my san­dals, my breath in the morn­ing air. The way the overnight snow melts last from the shad­ows. It’s cold enough for snow and yet sev­eral of the coun­sel­lors have sun­burns al­ready. I never burn, but tan lines trace a neg­a­tive of my clothes on my skin. At the end of ev­ery day my face feels like a candle set alight by the sun and wind.

Spent the day bounc­ing along back­wards on pickup trucks. Odd jobs all around the camp, mostly clear­ing away last year’s leaves: scrap­ing gunk out of gut­ters, rak­ing the base­ball di­a­mond, vac­u­um­ing de­bris from the pool.

Hav­ing been one of the first to ar­rive, I’ve been watch­ing camp slowly fill up. Ev­ery day there are more peo­ple in line to use the staff com­puter, or wan­der­ing in search of cell re­cep­tion. They’ve moved us into the old in­fir­mary tem­po­rar­ily so we can clean the cab­ins be­fore every­one ar­rives. The roof leaks in heavy rain, and we placed fris­bees around the room to catch drips. Mike joked that we should just drill a hole in the floor un­der ev­ery drip. There’s still only a few dozen of us so far, but there will be more than 200 by the time we start ori­en­ta­tion. Then, soon af­ter­wards, 400 campers.

Yesterday I came across Sharon and Mika hud­dled in the shade by the din­ing hall. They had an egg car­ton cradling a tiny bird they’d found at the base of a tree. The bird was curled into the shape of an egg. Sharon was feed­ing it yolk with an eye­drop­per. “The sun is too bright for it,” she said. “It’s not ready to be out in the world. It would be warmer in­side but I won­der if it might rather be out­doors, when it goes.”

Why is my first in­stinct to pho­to­graph the bird? It didn’t feel right to take its pic­ture, so I re­sisted. Its eyes haven’t even opened. It’s a soft oval of nerves and veins, al­most an eye­ball it­self, its pale skin slightly translu­cent. Its mouth blinks open and shut, ac­cept­ing drops of yolk like yel­low light. Sharon is the only sun it knows.

I spend an af­ter­noon set­ting up the dark­room, plug­ging light leaks with garbage bags, rig­ging up a guard for the light switch, im­pro­vis­ing a safe­light out of an old light ta­ble. I glue a pa­per ar­row to the clock’s sec­ond hand to make it more vis­i­ble un­der the safe­light, fig­ure out how to con­nect the en­larg­ers to the timers. I wash and rinse trays, beakers and tongs. I open all the win­dows in the out­side room and set up a fan to flush out the stale chem­i­cal smell.

What is a dark­room? A place where we dis­sect dead light, per­form pre­cious au­top­sies. What if, in­stead of block­ing out the sun, we chan­nelled in as much light as pos­si­ble? Maybe, once camp be­gins, I can con­vince every­one to help gather all the sun­light fall­ing on the cab­ins, the pool, the base­ball di­a­mond. Coun­sel­lors can rip out bathroom mir­rors, po­si­tion them in care­ful ar­rays. Kids can string up clothes­lines, hang­ing all the plates and cut­lery so they gleam, and the

kitchen staff will un­roll a sum­mer’s worth of alu­minum foil. We’ll drag the green­house into place to wel­come all that light. We’ll get the rock­etry kids to fire warn­ing shots at any clouds, and at night we’ll ca­jole the sun back with bon­fires and sin­ga­longs.

While we’re chop­ping up wa­ter­mel­ons, Brian tells me about Lake Le­nape. The creek was dammed in the mid-1800s, like many in this part of the coun­try, for ice har­vest­ing. This was in the days be­fore re­frig­er­a­tion. They’d let the ar­ti­fi­cial lake freeze to a cer­tain depth, saw the sur­face into blocks, then pry up the ice, pack it in saw­dust, and send it to New York City by horse-drawn cart. For­tunes were made and lost in the ice trade. There were ice wag­ons, ice ships, ice barons. Fred­eric Tu­dor shipped ice from New Eng­land to the Caribbean, to Cuba, even as far as In­dia.

The sound of the rain here is star­tling. It pen­e­trates the cabin so eas­ily, and I woke up think­ing there was a wood­pecker on the out­side wall. Rain al­ters the colour of light, the den­sity and weight of air, the patterns of an­i­mals. As we hiked around the lake this morn­ing, the last drops teased out a pair of drag­on­flies, then a glit­ter-green bee­tle that one of the campers squished so she could get a bet­ter look at it.

My cam­era is ut­terly in­ad­e­quate. Even colour film wouldn’t make a dif­fer­ence. It omits sound, touch, smell, taste. It cap­tures a toad in my hand but not its fran­tic heart­beat, nor the wet, clammy prod of its knees against my palm. This lens doesn’t even un­der­stand depth the way my two eyes do. When Charise and I peered at the lit­tle in­sect she’d swat­ted out of the air, its com­pound eyes glit­tered with se­crets. It seemed so much bet­ter equipped for in­ter­pret­ing the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of things. How can I pho­to­graph the world that way? I imag­ine all the leaves of a tree folded into pin­hole cam­eras, mak­ing long ex­po­sures in the wind. A swarm of bees each re­turn­ing to the hive with pollen of a dif­fer­ent colour, wrig­gling out a map of nearby botany. Or find­ing a way to fo­cus wa­ter droplets so that, in­stead of a rain­bow, they pro­ject a pic­ture of the land­scape as seen by a cloud.

On overnight duty, I tend the cabin like a camp­fire as it slowly burns off en­ergy. Even af­ter lights-out there’s the in­evitable hour of chat­ter, curs­ing, con­fis­cated flash­lights, thrown pil­lows. The campers even­tu­ally fall asleep, and I sit on the deck out­side, writ­ing. Last week an­other group of campers toi­let-pa­pered their cabin, and Brian

and I spent an hour pres­sure-wash­ing dried pa­per from shin­gles. My note­book fills up with ball­point ink and the blood of flat­tened mos­qui­tos. A ma­raud­ing skunk wan­ders over to a nearby garbage can and I grab one of the Su­per Soak­ers from the cabin roof to fend it off. We started stor­ing the wa­ter­guns on the roof af­ter Danny and Alex put bleach pow­der in one of them and chased Rory all the way to the lake. Mike bawled them out. You could have blinded him!

Four of the boys smug­gled a video cam­era out of the me­dia lab and pointed it at a mouse­trap overnight. They man­aged to catch a mouse be­ing bi­sected by the trap, and Sharon and I caught them play­ing their snuff film over and over, hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing. They paused it to show us the frame-by-frame, pin­point­ing the ex­act mo­ment the crea­ture’s eyes went from white to not. Two bright dots in the grainy black and white. Sharon made them bury the mouse.

All this hap­pens, and then I pick up a scrap of pa­per from the photo lab floor to find my­self hold­ing a photo of one of the campers, a girl I don’t rec­og­nize. She’s crouch­ing in a mot­tled patch of grass and shadow, ex­am­in­ing a leaf or a flower, some­thing too small to make out. One of her hands cra­dles the ob­ject, the other just touches her chin. She seems ut­terly ab­sorbed and yet con­scious of the cam­era, and the blur­ri­ness of the photo be­lies the skill of who­ever thought to press the shut­ter at just this mo­ment. We print black and white neg­a­tives in the camp dark­room, but we send colour film to CVS. This photo was from a colour batch that got pro­cessed im­prop­erly, so the girl and the grass glow other­worldly orange. It’s a beau­ti­ful, lu­mi­nous ac­ci­dent.

To­day Rory punched holes in a card­board box: two for his arms, two for his eyes, and a mourn­ful mouth. Of all the kids in our bunk he’s been home­sick the long­est, and the oth­ers pick on him re­lent­lessly. He wore his home­made suit of ar­mour all morn­ing, at­tract­ing a gag­gle of ad­mir­ers. When he left it be­hind the pav­il­ion I took a photo, but what I re­ally wanted was to bor­row Rory’s ar­mour for my­self. We’re just a two-hour drive from New York City, and nine months ago the Twin Tow­ers fell. Some of the campers lost fam­ily mem­bers in the at­tacks. I’m the only coun­sel­lor in our bunk who isn’t Amer­i­can, and the kids all call me Canada in a way that makes it clear I’m dif­fer­ent. Most of them have spent ev­ery sum­mer here since they were seven. Some­times I feel like I know less than the campers, and it feels odd to hear my own voice ad­vis­ing, warn­ing, giv­ing ul­ti­ma­tums.

I showed a group of older campers how to make a pin­hole cam­era out of a Pringles can. With enough black plas­tic and elec­tri­cal tape, any

box can be made light­proof. Brass shims make the sharpest pin­holes, but pok­ing holes di­rectly through card­board works al­most as well. We make the aper­ture in the side of the tall cylin­der. I ex­plain that by wrap­ping photo pa­per around the in­side of the can, the pin­hole will cap­ture light from a very wide an­gle, mak­ing a fish­eye image. We use photo pa­per in­stead of film be­cause it lets us de­velop a pic­ture im­me­di­ately af­ter mak­ing an ex­po­sure.

Of course, ex­pos­ing di­rectly onto pa­per means the images come out in neg­a­tive. All our pin­hole pho­tos show an alien land­scape, stark white trees against a black sky, and are dis­torted like the world seen through the wrong end of a te­le­scope. The hori­zon is an ex­ag­ger­ated curve, as if we’re stand­ing on a planet too small to hold an at­mos­phere. But Canaden­sis feels that way some­times. As if you need a pro­tec­tive suit to breathe.

Last night they turned off all the lights across camp, to give the astronomy club a clear view of the stars. Sharon and I were both off duty, and we went for a walk, away from the hub­bub of cab­ins and bob­bing flash­lights, across the bridge to the quiet side of the creek. We lay on the old merry-go-round and kicked it into a spin with our feet, watch­ing the night sky whirl. The Milky Way was a glue­stick smear of glit­ter on cheap black con­struc­tion pa­per. The moon was just a pencil scratch, a glint of graphite, and when we switched off our flash­lights we could barely see each other’s eyes. We found the North Star and spun the merry-go-round so our feet pointed north, mak­ing our­selves a com­pass. Sharon kissed me, quickly at first, a six­ti­eth of a sec­ond, then half a sec­ond, two sec­onds, four. With each lin­ger­ing ex­po­sure I felt an image tak­ing shape in­side my head, a blur of shad­ows and move­ment that I will spend the rest of the sum­mer try­ing to de­ci­pher.

Some­times, es­pe­cially sit­ting out­side the cabin at night with no one else in sight, it’s hard to be­lieve I’m re­ally here, sur­rounded by all these flash­lights and fire­flies, spi­der­webs and bad­minton nets, deer that blink in and out of ex­is­tence, ten­drils of smoke from Fourth of July fire­works, neon pink and yel­low moths, life­jack­ets and snap­ping tur­tles, and now and again a yawn or cough from some un­seen screen win­dow. In aerial pho­tos Canaden­sis looks like a raft barely held to­gether, tan­gled path­ways lash­ing cab­ins to ob­long propane tanks, a thin fil­a­ment of bridge keep­ing the ten­nis courts and base­ball di­a­mond from drift­ing away en­tirely. On sunny days, es­pe­cially, it all

seems so frag­ile. The sun burns right through the leaves, and the hills full of ferns are tram­pled by kids who de­sire mostly wa­ter­guns and base­ball bats, mice snapped in half, burn­ing in­sect wings.

When I was younger, Dad col­lected bugs. He traded spec­i­mens with col­lec­tors from other coun­tries, mail­ing swal­low­tails or whirligig bee­tles to Malaysia and re­ceiv­ing enor­mous at­las moths in re­turn. On clear sum­mer nights he’d hang a light trap by the back door, and we’d watch the white con­tainer slowly fill with shad­ows. There were shad­ows that bris­tled with spines and legs and an­ten­nae, shad­ows as sharp as pins, shad­ows that flut­tered so fast you couldn’t tell what they were. Was it the warmth of the bulb they wanted, or the bright­ness? Later Dad and I would sift through their brit­tle bodies, pick­ing out the rarest to pickle in vials of al­co­hol. Un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass—the same one I used to melt ants in the drive­way—I could see they were made mostly of glints of light: the iri­des­cent scales in their wings, their shiny bodies, their com­pound eyes.

How many times in the last few days have I been told by one of the campers, “You smell like dark­room!” At night, if I’m not on duty, I sit on the photo lab porch and write. In­sects flut­ter around the out­door light, and I can hear moths bat­ter­ing them­selves against glass, the oc­ca­sional mos­quito whin­ing past my ear, and, be­yond the edge of the porch, the end­less pulse of crick­ets. I can smell the stained wood of the porch, chlo­rine from the pool at the bot­tom of the hill, dark­room chem­i­cals and sweat cling­ing to my shirt. Some nights are so hu­mid that Scotch Tape will hardly ad­here to the page. I scrap­book ev­ery­thing: Po­laroids, pages torn from a song­book, scraps from the photo lab floor.

I’ve run out of brass shims, so we made pin­hole cam­eras with pop can alu­minum. Some­one told me that the cham­bers of a shell are called cam­erae, and I found my­self won­der­ing if it might be pos­si­ble to con­struct a kind of cam­era us­ing only nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als. A pin­hole pierced with a thorn through bee­tle-shell or birch­bark. A small cham­ber, per­haps a wasp’s nest or a hol­low log, sturdy enough to hold a hand­ful of dark­ness. Then you’d just need some­thing in­side that was sen­si­tive to light. A thin film of mud smeared on a leaf. A sliver of sea­weed or ice. A but­ter­fly chrysalis.

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