Mathias Ford watched the clock on the white wall. It read eleven fifty in the morning. He sat on a brown metal chair at a worn wooden desk near the entrance to the hospital morgue. On the desk stood two neat stacks of forms: one stack filled out, the other blank. The blank forms had a second yellow page for carbon copy. Mathias watched the clock and his knees hurt and he was hungry. He smelled the bread from the cafeteria. Once, the chemical smell of the morgue had been pervasive, but over years he had learned to ignore it and now most mornings he could smell the bread from the cafeteria as if he were in the kitchens instead of the morgue. In the mornings the women in the kitchens baked small frozen baguettes that came in by truck once a week in iced crates. If you bought the soup from the cafeteria you received one half of one baguette and a pat of butter in wax paper. The smell of the bread brought him through the mornings. The soup would be cream of mushroom because it was a Tuesday. It came frozen in the same truck and also was thawed in the mornings but Mathias could not and had never been able to smell the soup until he entered the cafeteria itself, on the third floor of the hospital, where he would go at twelve o’clock for his half-hour lunch. The hospital contained one hundred and fifty beds and was the second-largest hospital for thirty miles in any direction, with three above-ground floors plus the morgue. The door to the morgue was unmarked and remained locked. Mathias kept the key in the desk by the door. The door marked one end of a corridor. At the other end was a wide freight elevator. All that was in the corridor was the freight elevator and the desk and the door and Mathias himself.
At eleven fifty-seven the elevator doors opened. Inside, a young attendant, Miguel, leaned against a gurney. On the gurney was a person covered by a sheet. Miguel wheeled the gurney out of the freight elevator. Another, he called. He sang as he wheeled out the gurney. He was maybe twenty-two and suffered from cystic acne. Where his face didn’t have deep pockmarks or scars, it bulged with white-peaked boils. Mathias took a black pen and rubber stamp from the top drawer of the desk and slid one of the blank forms from the top of its stack. Miguel pushed the gurney up to the door. He handed the chart for the person to Mathias, singing quietly in Spanish.
Mathias looked over the chart. Then he filled out the rest of the form, signed it and handed the pen to Miguel. Miguel signed it, then Mathias stamped the form and put it in the other pile. He took from the drawer a toe tag, filled it in. He took the key from his desk and unlocked the door.
Inside the air was cold and stale. Mathias pulled a cord to turn on the fluorescent light. In the middle of the room stood a steel bed with a drain set in it. The north wall contained nine refrigeration units. He and Miguel wheeled the gurney up to one of the units, and opening it, brought out the slab. They took the sheet off the corpse. The corpse had been a middle-aged woman with a flabby belly and a caesarean scar. From the neck down the right half of her body was blackened by burns. The smell of burn lingered on her. Her mouth was a little open.
Miguel, is it correct to sing at times such as these? said Mathias.
Today, said Miguel, I will sing whether I bring one body down on the gurney or a hundred. I make no apology. Last night I became engaged to be married.
I didn’t know you had a girl-friend, said Mathias.
She’s no one you know, I’m afraid, said Miguel. But you will come to the wedding? You must come. We hope to marry soon. Perhaps even next month.
I’ll be busy here, said Mathias. Our blackest days are yet to come. All Europe is crumbling.
He put the tag on the body and they lifted her in and shut the door. Miguel folded the sheet and turned and resumed singing. He sang as he placed the folded sheet back on the gurney and as he wheeled the gurney out of the room up the hall to the freight elevator.
Mathias washed his hands at the sink and dried them. He turned off the light, shut the door and locked it, and got his coat from the back of his chair at the desk. The time was five past twelve. He took the lift to the third floor.
From the queue, Mathias spotted his sibling Laramie, who sat alone at a table in the center of the cafeteria, spooning soup. Laramie worked also in the hospital pushing a broom around, and was younger than Mathias by nearly a decade. Laramie saw Mathias and raised his spoon in the fashion of a swordsman’s salute. The smell of bread filled Mathias’ mouth. He was very hungry. At the front of the queue an argument broke out between the girl in the paper hat who collected the money and a young man in a corduroy jacket who had refused to pay for half a baguette. The girl explained that if the soup were not purchased, the bread cost extra. The young man could not accept this. He argued that his hard-boiled egg and half a ham sandwich cost the same as the soup and he should therefore be in receipt of half a baguette for no additional cost. The queue grew long. At the peak of the argument the girl tried to interrupt the young man by inviting the next customer up and the young man threw his half-sandwich and hard-boiled egg on the floor and stomped out of the cafeteria. When he was gone the queue began to move forward. At last Mathias paid for a bowl of soup but was told that no more bread would be ready for a half an hour. Mathias said it was all right. He took his tray, and stepping over the mess, crossed the cafeteria and sat down with Laramie. He tasted the soup.
I can’t taste the difference between this soup and mother’s, said Laramie. Do you suppose mother used the frozen soups, when we were boys?
Back then, they didn’t have the frozen soups, said Mathias. And this requires salt, he said. Hers did not require salt. There is your difference. He opened a paper envelope of salt and sprinkled it in the soup and stirred it.
You heard about the synagogue? Beljmar?
Yes, said Mathias.
Brought them here?
Why not St. Helene’s?
The new unit, said Mathias. They want to show it off. They’re trying to graft them with pig’s skin.
There’s a joke, said Laramie.
Mathias tasted the soup again. It tasted good and thick and warm.
I’ve got something to show you, said Laramie.
I don’t have long, said Mathias. He spooned the soup.
Take a look, said Laramie. He took from his breast pocket a photograph folded in half. He handed it across to Mathias. In the photograph a boy stood leaning against the trunk of an enormous tree which rose out of the frame. The tree was three times the width of the boy, with a deep reddish bark. The boy stood on a huge jutting root. Beyond him lay a stretch of manicured grass and a low brick wall, and beyond the wall the white spire of a church reached skyward.
Why, it’s in color, said Mathias. I don’t believe it.
Our astonishing modern age, said Laramie. Brand new. Rich folks only. He showed his square teeth, smiling, leaned forward, and said, Know the place?.
The Water Fir, in the Colonel’s Botanical Gardens, said Mathias. Who is the child?
Some kid. French kid.
Well, said Mathias. I’m impressed. He held the photo back out to Laramie but his brother did not take it.
So tell me what you see in the photo, said Laramie.
Mathias looked again. Saint Eustace’s?
No, said Laramie. Look again.
Mathias looked at his brother. Then he said, If this is one of your games, I don’t want to play.
I see a boy standing by a big tree. That’s all, said Mathias. He held out the photograph with two fingers. With his other hand, he dipped the spoon into the soup.
Supposing you’re right, said Laramie. Still he did not take the photograph.
Mathias drew it back.
But supposing, Laramie said, someone else may be in the photo too.
I don’t have time to play, said Mathias. He put the photo down on the table between them and lowered his lips to his spoon. The sound of a dropped basket of cutlery from the kitchen crashed through the dining-room, briefly hushing the diners, whose heads turned and craned for a moment.
Listen, said Laramie, as the tide of conversation rose again. Supposing I am also in the photo.
Mathias leaned on his elbow and peered at the photo again where it lay on the table.
You aren’t in the photo, he said, settling back. Now let me eat.
Behind the tree, said Laramie.
Don’t be funny, said Mathias.
Listen, said Laramie. Supposing I were to tell you that when this photo was shot on Thursday afternoon, I was standing right there behind that tree.
Mathias brought a spoonful of soup to his lips and blew gently on it. The soup steamed. Well, were you?
As a matter of fact, said Laramie.
The steel spoon was vaguely spade-shaped and annoyed the corners of Mathias’ mouth but the soup was good and hot. Nurses in white uniforms swanned through the cafeteria.
What I want to know, said Laramie, is whether or not I am in the photo.
I don’t see you, said Mathias.
But am I in it, said Laramie.
I have to go back down in fifteen minutes, said Mathias. I won’t get into this with you again.
Posh, cried Laramie, laughing. I’m only asking whether or not I’m in the photo. Listen—I’ll give you my bread if you answer. He leaned forward.
Your bread is cold now, said Mathias.
Don’t want it, then?
Cruelty does not suit you. How did you get the photograph? said Mathias.
You don’t have time.
I want to know, said Mathias.
Laramie said that he had been walking on the morning of the previous Thursday, on the hill in the botanical garden. He’d been looking at the big Water Fir when a young well-dressed mother had come up the gravel path with the boy and an infant girl. The family had not seen him, Laramie said, but he had seen them and seen the mother with her hand camera and the boy approaching the tree and it hadn’t been difficult to predict what was about to happen. They hadn’t seen him so he stood in the lee of the tree and listened for the camera’s shutter. Then the boy went away, calling in French. The family had left then but when Laramie had returned home in the evening he’d begun thinking about the photograph and the question of whether or not he could be considered as part of it had first occurred to him.
Mathias, Laramie said, I admit I was unable to stop thinking of it all night.
In fact, he said, it had so troubled his sleep that his wife had become cross with his constant shifting beneath the bedclothes and had demanded that he sleep on the floor. On the floor he had spent the night in a troubled state but by the morning the thought of the photograph had become somewhat more distant and became more distant still as the week-end progressed. He said that almost he had forgotten it completely until Sunday afternoon when by dumb chance he had again seen the mother and her two children walking along the bypass road near the canal and had followed them into town where they had gone into the photo-development studio. The fool assistant, Van Huis, had given him a copy of the photograph for a quarter wheel of cheese and two bottles of ginger wine.
I have to go soon, said Mathias. His bowl was empty.
Am I in it or aren’t I?
Give me the bread first, said Mathias.
Laramie handed across the bread and Mathias took it. It was cool to the touch.
You are not in the photograph, said Mathias. Photography is the science of capturing an image based on reflected light. If you were to take into account all of the things that could appear in a photograph but are obstructed—
But I know I was in it, said Laramie. I am aware both of the existence of the photograph and my place in it.
Even so, said Mathias. He split open the bread. It was still a little warm inside and smelled good and the middle was very soft. Butter?
Laramie handed him the waxed paper with the pat of butter inside. It had been resting on top of the bread and had softened. Mathias opened the paper and spread the butter over the bread. He wiped the bowl with the bread and ate the bread in two bites. When it was gone he wiped his hands on a napkin and said, I have to go.
Not fair, said Laramie.
You are not in the photograph, said Mathias. I’m not getting into it with you again. You’re too prone to this wash.
You are a coward, said Laramie. A coward.
Not everything is about death, said Mathias. You act like a child. Terrified. Banking on some idea of persistence or constancy. Let me tell you what is constant. Work. I have to go back to work. You should as well.
Our poor kikes, said Laramie.
When Mathias stood, Laramie said, You will walk away from the first color photograph you have seen in your life?
To this, Mathias had no response.
Rising, Laramie picked up the photo from the table and said, If it means so little, why not keep it? and tucked it into Mathias’ shirt pocket and patted it with his palm, smiling with his square teeth. Then he touched Mathias on the cheek and said, A gift for my brother.
Mathias took his tray to the counter and put it where the washboy could pick it up. Laramie followed close behind. At the lift Mathias waved him off and returned to the coolness of the morgue.
In the afternoon, while processing four bodies burned beyond identification, Mathias asked Miguel to teach him the words and tune of the song from that morning. By the time they reached the third body, he had joined in the singing of the chorus.
You are a good singer, said Miguel. Did anyone ever tell you? You sing very well.
As a boy I was in the church choir, said Mathias. And later I sang for my mother and brother and sister.
I know your brother, said Miguel, but I have not met your sister.
Or my son, to whom I also sang, said Mathias. He did not look at Miguel. You know, I could sing at your wedding, he said, lifting the final body, alone, hauling it onto the slab and pushing it in and banging shut the cooling unit. One really should sing wherever one pleases.
Yes, said Miguel, after a moment. Of course I would have to ask my fiancée. But yes, of course. It would be an honor to have you sing at the wedding, my friend.
My wife will swoon, said Mathias, laughing, walking toward the door. She may decide she wants another little singer in the house after all.
Yes, said Miguel, following after. One can hope.
When his shift ended, Mathias walked up the hill beyond the hospital. A warm wind blew out of the south. He went to the gate of the Colonel’s Botanical Garden and let himself in and picked some of Renata’s Sorrows, then walked along the gravel path until he came to the place where the Water Fir stood. He walked around its big trunk and stood in its long shadow. It was taller than any other tree in the garden by two-thirds. He smelled its earth smell, leaned into it, and placed the palm of his hand against its smooth, cool bark. The tree pulled at him with its density. Reckoned him by the life moving in its core. Above, stars appeared, floating dimly in the creeping blue of coming night.
He walked home. His wife sat listening to the invasion on the radio. He gave her the Sorrows and she put them in a blue glass vase on the table. Over supper, Mathias told her what Laramie had said and showed her the photograph and asked whether or not she thought he was in it.
Who cares whether your fool brother is in the photograph, she said, indifferent to the photo’s many colors, chewing, her mouth full.
It is Laramie’s question, not mine, he said. Humor him. What do you say?
What’s the point, she said, cutting her potatoes into slices. A photograph is only captured light. Nothing more.
I agree, said Mathias. He set to eating. The food was warm inside him even after he swallowed it. I told Laramie so myself, he said. He is young and prone to this wash. That’s all.
They ate and listened a little longer to the radio. In bed, later, Mathias’ wife put out the light and went to sleep, then awoke in the still-dark hours of early morning to find Mathias not beside her, but in the drawing-room sitting at a small table smoking cigarettes by the strong light of the electric lamp. The photo lay face up in front of him.
There’s no sense thinking about all of this, she said, standing in the mouth of the corridor, robed, barelegged. She came and stood behind him and leaned down over his shoulder, her hand on his chest, smelling of night-breath. What difference does it make. If he leaned even a little to the right or left, he would be in it. You always get yourself so tousled, but you know that is all the difference there is. Almost no difference at all.
Mathias put the photograph into the pouch of his wallet. He offered his wife coffee and they drank it and watched the sun come up. Then he walked up to the hospital for his shift, and with Miguel’s assistance, processed three children. At midday, in the hospital cafeteria, he returned the photo to Laramie. Laramie did not want to accept it, but Mathias insisted. I never want to see that photograph again, he said, his face lowered to his soup, spooning it swiftly to his lips. I don’t have time to play. I don’t want to see the photograph again or even think of it, he said. You are cruel. You are cruel.
© Conor Patrick
[This story was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Conor’s interview]