Occasionally I write inspired by images or photography. While searching for material to produce a submission for a creative writing contest with the theme of “frontiers / boundaries”, I came across a Holga camera photo contest (WIRED.com: Top 10 Wired Holga Photos, Decided by You) and was instantly drawn to one submission. Under and Over (Dupla expo ponta-cabeça) is a double exposure of artist Damiao Santana’s family.
I mixed in a bit of inspiration from Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics; this was 2007 / 2008 and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea had just turned 10 years old. Years later, I submitted the short story version and it ended up a contest finalist and published in an anthology.
Holga Ghost – poem
When we were young
you were the queen of leggy eggs
the first to start dotting
We went up on the ridge
DANGER! EXPLOSIVES! sign
and lay in the grass
while the dynamite going off in the pit
shook the ground
so they could harvest the mountain as pebbles
There were craters of abandon
collecting rainwater and little fish,
and we and the ducks would visit
You threw a soaked, clumpy tissue and showed me
how it sank in spreading clouds of menstrual red
One picture remains, of you
standing upright at the crater shore,
slightly leaning to the right in green shorts
Your hair is done up in a knot,
you’re barefoot on that spidery white legs of yours,
and the yellow tank top one size too large
(your brother’s hand-me-down, I assume)
allows for two slight protuberances of puberty
to assert themselves tentatively yet firm
as more nipples than breasts through the fabric
You’re resting a dark blue inflatable beach ball
on your left hip, the five-letter-logo
of a popular moisturizing cream printed across
and in your right hand you’re holding a thin stick
pointed at the ground,
the way a pirate queen would hold a saber
she didn’t need to raise
the bottom half of the shot is filled with white clouds,
reflected in the surface of the shallow pool
By virtue of some Holga double exposure
you’re robbed of your reflection,
and you’re left standing there as a ghost
not yet grown old enough to haunt
Holga Ghost – short story
You were the first to start what you called dotting. From one afternoon to the next, you proclaimed yourself the queen of leggy eggs, and I didn’t understand the self-appointed title. The miracle hadn’t happened in my family yet, my elder sister was yet to have her first period, and no one ever took the trouble to explain anything to me. But your enthusiasm was contagious and took me prisoner like the childhood games you had used to invent. Ovulation had the ring of revelation – I could sense the inherent rite, which I somehow believed to be lying in wait for me, too, once I had bridged that gap of one year between us.
My mom counted you among what she called trailer trash, so we were stealing away secretly, on different sides of dusty streets, only holding hands behind the first boundary, the fence. The chicken wire was rusty and easily yielded to our persistent breach, so that over time we’d furnished a comfortable hole. Besides your friendship, that afternoon I counted my dad’s Holga among my treasures, a plastic camera imported from China strung around my neck. I had taken it without permission, and swinging on its strap it was beating against my chest with every step, offset from my heart and only further increasing my sense of trespass.
We followed the path we had trudged up the hill on countless previous excursions and were moving up the slope in single file, past the second boundary, a weather-worn metal sign announcing DANGER! EXPLOSIVES! until we lay flat on our bellies above the pit. Below, deep beneath the hill, the dynamite went off, and the blasts weren’t nearly as loud as the preceding siren. The explosions set off a tingling in our stomachs. A rumbling shook the ground, as if the hill itself meant to tickle us.
We used to dangle long lines of spit into the pit until they seemed to stretch endlessly. Yet they tore with the explosions. When our tongues dried out, we pressed and rubbed them one against the other, continued spitting and dangling and rejoiced when the threads of spit entwined like our tongues.
I could sense we hadn’t come for that, though, and nervously I crawled backwards on all fours, away from the edge. I knew the afternoon could not remain suspended indefinitely. The moment wouldn’t last, just as the hill wouldn’t last since they were harvesting it as pebbles. While my anticipation gave way to tension I slowly turned to you, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and looked into your face. You, up in a start, already pulled me to my feet and urged me on to the lakes.
We called them lakes, craters of abandon, a lunar landscape left after trial blasts aboveground. Rainwater, tadpoles and mosquito larvae gathered in these holes of varying depth, and we and some ducks were the only ones to visit. You selected one of the more shallow pools, a mere puddle, and I understood the gesture: I was the only one you wanted to share with. Not even the inhabitants of these stagnant waters should witness what you wanted to show me.
On your mark I crouched down and stared out at the water. I could see your reflection behind me in the surface. You threw a soaked, clumpy tissue into the water. It gave a little splash and sat hovering close to the shore. I stared at it and somehow registered what it was, but failed to comprehend. A piece of rolled up cotton, already soaked before it even hit the surface. Half submerged, floating, it slowly changed shape, grew to bulky, bloated size, then started sinking in spreading clouds.
I had already grown too old for them but still remembered a particular mail-away toy: a sealed seashell you put in a jar of water which would eventually sprout a paper flower, if only you were patient enough. Just like that I was waiting for some effect. You, always eager to move on, picked up a stick and speared the tissue like a fish. Thus gored it disappeared in hues of red.
I felt stung as when during one of your invented childhood games you changed the rules on a whim, in unfairness and to my disadvantage. I smelled a foul – blood followed injury, flowed forth from a wound. Reflected in the water, I had witnessed the brief acrobatics behind my back, you briefly reaching into your shorts. The clue hit me: this was part of something larger not meant for me, a rite I couldn’t pass.
As I slowly got up from the ground, the camera strap was tugging at my neck, and you stepped back. I don’t remember snapping it, but one picture remains, of you standing upright at the crater’s shore, its contained little lake now tainted. Your hair is done up in a knot, you’re barefoot on those spidery white legs of yours, and the yellow tank top one size too large (your brother’s hand-me-down, I assume) allows for two slight protuberances of puberty to assert themselves tentatively yet firm as more nipples than breasts through the fabric. You’re resting your left hand on your hip, and in your right you’re holding the thin stick you’ve just used for poking, pointing it at the ground, the way a pirate queen would hold a saber she didn’t need to raise.
Behind your back, clouds are towering in the blue sky. They’re reflected in the shallow pool and fill the bottom half of the shot so that you’re all alone on a thin strip of land in a sea of blue and white. But by virtue of some double exposure of that faulty Holga, you’re robbed of your reflection and stand there as a ghost, not yet grown old enough to haunt.
The short story version of Holga Ghost was first published in Let’s Heat our Minds with Open Books: Selections from the Daniil Pashkoff Prize 2012. Writers Ink. e.V., Braunschweig. ISBN 978-3-9813742-1-6
Featured image (c) Damio Santana.