Hunger sang in my bones. Morning fog hid me, the edges of autumn gripping my seared skin like fingernails against burned paper. I peeled away, layer by layer, until all that was left was a red wound. The bike seat pressed against my thighs, the wooden housing of the camera banging against my deformed spine. I was grateful for the misty shroud over my face. Were the neighbors to see me, they would whisper. I did not want them witnessing the shade I had become—transparent, silvered, blistered. Safe only under the drape of a photographer. More leper than woman. So much like cracked glass.
They had long stopped allowing the deformed woman at the end of the street to take their images. Worse, the squabble of gossip followed me like smoke, filtering through all my cracks. They could smell fire a mile off. Too many damaged people, destroyed after greeting me, allowing me to be with them. Their mouths hung open in silence, their eyes studying their photographed outlines, over and over and over again. And yet I survived them, one by one, as they dropped. Buried in the ground as I stayed young.
They could find no fault in me.
The rubber of the bike’s wheels thrummed over cobble, then hardpack, then grass. My legs would not quit, just like my heart. The muscles worked, dogged and angered by my early morning rising. My stomach rumbled, portentous as distant thunder. I could not keep on without this dangerous feast.
I reached the end of the county in three hours, late enough in my endeavor to set up my booth. The sign, folded waxed paper, affixed to tree branches, painted in crimson with my father’s fine copperplate. It still looked fresh, though it’d been made in 1894: Daguerreotypes, 25¢.
If you’d like to know how people found me, it was all word of mouth. They didn’t even use my name. A secret slipped from hand to hand like mercury. Shimmering and dangerous, madness incarnate. The people who came to me whispered ‘witch,’ ‘ogress,’ but they always went away with stars shining in their eyes, no longer able to act as the humans they once were. Their powers of reason depressed, their life sapped to nothing. Their pupils blown wide as a ruined aperture, they could only stare at the image of themselves. They were lesser than, and I was more.
The girl—for that’s what she was, really, a girl playing at being a woman—recoiled, nearly dropping the blanket draped across her shoulders. The threadbare bodice of her purple dress gathered in slapdash stitches at her trim waist, and I felt an uncanny twinge of desire. What would it feel like to close my fingers around that flesh?
But she was afraid of me. I could see it in the shine of her eyes and the way her lips narrowed when I turned toward her. I hated her for it. None saw me, not truly. I would have to be content with a simple photograph, as my father taught me.
And now was not the time for hesitation.
“Yes?” I replied, dusting the top of the camera with my reddened, chemical-stung hands. “Are you here for a daguerreotype?”
She gave a nervous giggle. “I am.” Her voice shook at the edges, the softening outlines of a picture taken on a shaking camera. “If I may say, you chose such a strange place to sell your services. I am surprised you do not do this in the city center.”
She did not know, then, who I was, and why my photography skills were no longer welcomed. Not from around here, either. I let my gaze wander her form, enjoying her blush as I lingered at the swell of her hips.
“The lighting is better here, as you must see. How did you hear of me?”
She dug her toe in the hardening muck. “Some friends told me your process is quite different. And,” she added, her voice low, “that you do not require a chaperone like the others.”
I cast my eyes around, feigning surprise. “What, no beau to accompany you? You’ll think it forward, but a lady as beautiful as you should not be alone in this photograph.”
She blushed, her skin dewy and precious as a new budding rose. “I… I am sending it away to my special friend. He is in the Army.” She played with the lace of her sleeve between two ungloved fingers. My hands itched to pull the buttons, one by one, and see what whiteness throbbed beneath.
Instead, I settled for words. “The Army. How gallant.”
The girl wouldn’t meet my gaze. She would soon enough.
I set up my camera on its tripod, turning the burned side of my face from her when she cringed. There was a time I’d worn a mask, but it became clumsy as my skin blistered further, as the growth blossomed and unfolded, a sick and malignant flower opening down my neck. I wore a permanent hunch, however, and that could not be disguised no matter what dress I donned.
The girl tipped her head to look into the trees, her forehead tightening, her throat bobbing. Her pulse quickening. No birds fluttered. No rabbits scampered. And yet, she did not run. Stupider than a prey animal. A singular silence crept through the glen like a cancer. I cleared my throat.
“And who shall I make this print to?” I raised a sharpened pencil, graphite tip spearing sky.
The girl looked all around herself, into the forest, as if she was watched by some absent companion. But the girl was alone. She seemed to realize it all at once—she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, peeked over her shoulder at the road to town, too far away by half. I could see the goosebumps raising along her arms, could feel the brush of fear like a cold wind at her back. I knew I had better act fast.
“Miss, your name?”
“I—Mary. Mary M—just the letter is fine.”
“Oh, no,” I replied, placing the pencil down. My fingers found the edge of the black drape, and I made as if to fold it back up again. “I must have a name. A true name. Unless you don’t want your image taken.”
“Can it not just be an—”
“No, no initials. I am sure you have heard I am a very… particular kind of artist.”
They were always wary at this stage of the process. No young girl was permitted to come to me, never. Boarding houses and madams and husbands alike eschewed me. They had good reason. But I was like a tempting flower with poison for nectar. The girls could not resist. Especially not if they had a beau. They were moths to a flame. They put on their finery and came to me as though blushing brides. This one would be the same. A delicious one she was, pretending to be wealthy, when really all she wanted was to keep her image for herself. No one waited for her at home, and of course not. Her secondhand clothing confirmed she was no kept woman. The fingers cheating to the crucifix at her pale throat betrayed her nerves.
But I would not expose her nakedness, her need. Not like that. I only watched her.
“M-Mary Murphy,” she finally stuttered, tucking a snarl of copper hair behind her ear. “Murphy,” she repeated. “My father’s family name.”
“Well then, Miss Mary Murphy.” I struck her name with a flourish through the wax coating the outside of the glass. “This will be brief. Won’t your father be proud to see this photograph for your husband-to-be?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” She wrung her hands not slyly enough, but I pretended not to notice. It wouldn’t matter soon.
The birdsong died as I stepped through the grass. Poor Mary had not seen the yellowing of its fronds, the scattering of hares as I walked my bicycle through the shadowed groves. Only the fog would caress me. Nature itself knew me for what I was.
“Stand wherever you’d like.”
Mary shifted on her feet like they hurt her. Her pain would be mine. Her soft skin a negative against my soul.
“Here?” She pulled the woven blanket across her shoulders closer yet, staving off the chill curling through the air. Her hand tucked her pinned curls, tapping the sun-bitten waves into something neat and primped. How demure and prettily proper she stayed. Desperate for it, for her beauty to be immortalized.
She needed not fret. We were all of us dying.
“That’s fine. Now, it’ll only take a moment. But you must be very still, do you understand? Otherwise, the photograph will blur. Your skin should be free of error—not at all like mine, of course. Wouldn’t your beau be simply devastated to see your beauty marred?”
The joke curled my lips, pressing the folded scar tight around my eye, a reminder of my deformity. I knew the tone girls like Mary took when they saw me on the street, the words she had yet to speak about my appearance. She was not any different. I'd heard them my whole life, since my father’s final rage. Their petty mockeries. The best knives cut the smallest wounds.
Ducking under the black shroud to hide my sneer, I slid the frosted glass into the camera’s back and peered through. The knobs slid under my fingers, and a shiver of excitement crested in my chest as Mary came into focus. There, I could see her hazel doe eyes, the nervous set of her jaw. The thrum of her jugular just below her skin. It thumped a tattoo, so palpable I could almost taste her essence. My mouth watered as I removed the glass and inserted the tin plate.
Through the viewfinder, Mary fiddled with the fringe of the blanket. No. No, she had to stay still, or this would not work. I could not capture her like this. The camera was sensitive.
“Stop it!” I barked. “Stop moving!”
Her face froze into a mask, like a thread pulled too tight. “I’m—”
“No. Do not speak.” I would have her silence, the softest and most tender part of her. She did not know she bore it to me, and me alone. She did not know the meaning of sorry.
Mary froze against the trees, the waning heather a-crackle with the first coming of winter. The insects and vermin tucked into their dens, glutted after a long, hot summer, the air fetid with the decay of corpses. Snakes writhed deep into their holes, bellies full from eating. What was I if not a blood-bloated snake, still hungry and thrashing in the cold air of this town’s hatred? No den for winter. No permanent home, beyond the rime-bitten woods. Slithering, perpetually. Hunting. No stolen energy could hide my terrible form forever. I would always need another feast, another mark.
A finger of ice knifed my spine, and I whetted my gaze to Mary.
“Mary Murphy, Mary Murphy, Mary Murphy.” Her name danced on my tongue, sharper than the frost hovering at the edge of the horizon. Her true name, her full name, written on glass. Her essence a part of the photograph. Yes, she was a delicious one. So pure and needful and vain. So young and all mine. I would devour her.
I opened the aperture. One minute, maybe thirty seconds longer, would be all I could take from her. She was already so frail, the wasp-thinness of her waist not prepared for a long winter. I could not afford to be careless.
Already, I watched her heart slow, her breath clouding before her face as the air cooled. The camera, made magick under my hands, did its work. Her eyes opened wider, and I could tell she scrambled for composure. Like a poison, working through her veins, the sensation came bit by bit, and then all at once.
The camera pulled her in.
A fevered heat rose from the base of my pelvis, something animal and untamable. Mary struggled, her face tightening and fingers twitching. Ah, her knees trembled, sweat beading and dripping, darkening her secondhand silks, her yellowing, dusty lace. Her cheeks formed two high spots, the color of the most intimate parts of us, the pinking viscera just barely beneath the skin. Her lips blued.
And I, I could take a deeper breath. The skin on my face and neck knitted together, covering my pulsing, depthless wound. Each second that passed, I felt the burn seal. The terrible flower blooming across my cheek slid away, molting. Everything healed with Mary’s delectable energy. I would take as much as I wanted of her. I took her youth, her beauty. I took the part of her that walked through town with her head held high. Nobody whispered when she stopped at the market. No children crossed the street to avert their eyes from her face.
She was good, she was whole, and I hated her for it.
A formula in glass and chemical, an exchange in beauty solidified in silvered image for the rest of time. Butterflies pinned to a board, fragile things. My fingers on the needles, my hands poised above their trembling joints. Beneath my photographer’s shroud I was god. Inside the frame of my father’s camera, I imprisoned her.
I should have stopped. But she tasted so sweet on my tongue, I could not have noticed when the second minute ticked past. The sky’s light took a different slant, clouds shifting overhead to reveal a robin’s egg blue. The dusky purple of Mary’s dress became mottled gray, striped by spilling sweat. She buckled as I did, but I was in rapture, every nerve on fire, every breath a-shimmer as I pulled her life to serve mine. My vision went black, then the silky patina of the colloid emulsion. A snap of pleasure rippled over my skin, a breathless cry escaping my throat. The aperture clicked closed beneath my fingertips, still sparking with Mary’s force.
The curse I hissed came too late. Mary was on the ground, her fingernails a soft gray blue. She seized up, her breathing too shallow. My hands sought her neck, to feel the galloping, weakening blood coursing there. Shallow, shallower, a bed of sand drying at low tide. She looked up at me with those hazel eyes, pupils wide with disbelief, her lips trembling with unshed tears. She had only come for a photograph to keep for herself, and I had taken it all from her. The cost was too high.
But of course, she could not speak. Not anymore, just like the rest of those I’d left as husks of themselves. The others had been happy, though, their fingers grasping their daguerreotypes. Their eyes a vacant white.
But not Mary. Mary was fading, overexposed. The shutter opened too long. The light too vicious.
Damn this hex, that this sweet ecstasy would not be the last—but I felt strong. I lowered my vital lips to Mary’s pale ones, brushing them, but not in apology. I should have been horrified, but what was one girl, lost to the forest, to this power? I flexed my fingers, crackling and stinging with the newest blush of energy, and stroked her chin. The camera saw the deepest fears in all of us. I could see hers writ large on her innocent features. Frozen forever, clutched cold in glass.
“Sweet Mary, you do not fear the infinite, do you?”
She strained against my grasping hands fixed hard against her throat. Her arms weakened, her breath stoppered, the vessels in her eyes bursting like stewing currants. She flailed, she bucked, and then Mary was only in my camera, preserved immortal.
I packed my instruments and left her there, cradled by the soft earth floor, her body cooling in the first exhalation of autumn. Her daguerreotype would be mine, and mine alone.
The snakes could have the carrion.
In the darkness, the negative of Mary showed her undoing, her failing body releasing a haze of energy from her chest. Mine, now. She did not fight me now; she curled deep, tucked inside my chest, her nervous eyes closed for good.
I turned to the window of my mean rented room, crossing the floor on lightened feet. In the chemical developer, the print of Mary stared up at me. Every time I looked at it, I felt a flush of excitement. My hands always found their mark, each time I remembered the click of the camera’s closing eye, winking away the last of Mary’s life. I hung it on the line, next to the others.
I went to bed with a twinkle of pleasure beneath my rough sheets, turning the sterling-framed photograph of my father away. Crumpled, much like poor Mary, in his hospital bed. He had not thanked me when I stole his last hours, but then, he was fated to die of his curse, in his own way. It had been a mercy. He had been dying anyway, when he threw the acid onto me. And so I took the thing dearest to him. I used the camera better than he ever had. I knew it in a way he never did.
I came into the life of a photographer the same way a snake sheds his skin: slipping free of the strictures and morals of one life, flailing new and wet into the next. It did not mean my father’s faded eyes could watch me from the past while I dreamt of Mary’s body, hot and vital and mine.
But every time I went to touch her, she dissolved into the air. Rage boiled deep behind my sternum, searing as a brand. Too lovely for me, even in death. I would dream forever to capture her again. But I knew when I caught her, it would be a fleeting moment: she would be beautiful for time immemorial. I would fade and wilt and go to seed. And yet, I hungered for her. I chased her. A ghost of herself, elusive, always running from me. All I wanted was for her to run to me.
I did not know that I would regret that wish. Perhaps you knew.
My deep sleep in my newly whole body ended with an abrupt rap on my room’s door. I sat up in bed. All knew not to bother me here, in this cave of the lost, their negatives shining on the walls. They feared this space.
The knocking came again: tick-tick.
“Who is it?” I looked at the print of Mary, its edges dripping fluid pink as thinned blood into the tray. Her name in my neat hand: Miss Mary Murphy, 1901.
I lit a flame in my lantern.
I rose from my bed, slipper-shod feet catching on badly planed wood. None came to the studio of this witch without a reason. None touched the cheap tin plate at my door, my name inscribed and mottled by time.
My hand caught the cold brass knob of the door. The hall was silent, dark.
I blew out a breath, the shiver of a laugh in my throat. A brush of a breeze fluttered the curtains, a nudge of winter. It must have been a branch, tapping the thin walls of this old house. I closed the door and went to the stove. A kettle of tea would settle me again, and I could go back to dreaming of Mary.
I hastened to the window, heart jumping in my chest. The tree at the glass was still. I turned to my camera. Perhaps it was only the aperture timer, releasing the coil of the spring as the weather became colder. My fingers brushed the crimson bellows, black as newly let blood in the half-darkness. No, the camera was still. The flame inside my lantern guttered. The sound was nothing but a draft.
I turned to my looking glass and stared through the spots of mercury. I touched my whole face, the ripple of scar tissue swallowed by Mary’s youthfulness—my youthfulness. My joy. My supple spine, my neck only bearing the shadow of my injury, the devouring chemical solutions of the photograph laboratory. My father had marred me, but he had paid the price. He himself had taught me to use his camera, his abomination.
The title of ‘witch’ was my own. All mine.
I turned back to the mirror. In the reflection, Mary’s print stared, empty, white eyes wide.
“That damnable girl.”
Gone was the pleasure of her panicked gaze. Gone was the new flush of excitement of having another within me. Now, I was left with the curdle of fear, bitter on the back of my tongue.
My fingers found the edge of her print’s paper.
I tore it from the line. It crushed beneath my hands. The negative glass wobbled on the table, fell and shattered on the floor. Good riddance. I could not sleep with her staring. Good. That was good. She was gone now. I took a breath, thinking that sound had rung its last.
“Who’s there?” I called, the hammer of my heart obscuring the croak of my voice.
The lantern’s flame died in a thread of cold air. Smoke coiled like a rising snake.
The voice hissed like steam. “Stop moving.”
I froze. The animal in me did not know this game. Not for many years.
My fingers trembled at my temple, brushing the dark hair away like it might make my vision clearer. “Who—”
“I said, stop moving.” The voice became clear as a bell tolling a funerary dirge. No longer fragile as dried butterfly wings. Growing stronger with every passing second.
My feet crunched over the broken glass of the shattered negative. “I’m—”
The camera’s legs unfolded itself, glass crackling under soft soles. The scrape of lace hemming on splinters.
I must not have taken her all. I must not have devoured her completely. A thread of warmth left where there should have been nothing but frost.
“No. You do not know the meaning of ‘sorry.’ But now you will.”
The camera’s aperture opened, the tick-ticking of the timer running. My body shuddered, weakness breaking like a tide. Mary’s lovely face, in the silver moonlight, a shade of herself. I clawed at the air as the shutter cracked closed, my breath stilling in my throat.
The ghost of a laugh, the flutter of the prints on the line. Floating, floating, my true self rose to the surface, a negative of my body. A curled, bloodied, broken thing, a wastrel. Skin bubbled and torn, ripped by heat and hatred.
Mary Murphy’s shadowed face stood over me, her mouth a razor thin smile. Her fingers jabbed the pencil into my flesh.
A voice like fresh grave soil, whispering in my ear. “And who shall I make this print to?”
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Taylor Grothe is a queer, non-binary, Autistic writer of Adult and YA horror fiction, on submission with a psychological horror novel set in Iceland. Shorts of theirs can be found in Coffin Bell Journal and Bag of Bones Press. Taylor is the graduate Assistant Managing Editor of Brevity Magazine and an MFA student at Fairfield University, as well as an Author Mentor Match Round 9 Adult Horror Mentor. They are represented by Larissa Melo Pienkowski of Jill Grinberg Literary Management.
Copyright ©2022 by Taylor Grothe.
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