I study the photograph, pressing my fingers gently upon the flat shiny surface, willing it to tell me its story. Was this the aunt who used to part the heads of chickens from their bodies with a blow from a sharp and shiny axe? The aunt who delighted in telling my mother tales of the headless chicken zipping round the farmyard until she could catch it and suspend it, feet first, from the clothesline, while sightless eyes looked on in astonishment and beak jaws flapped in protest?
I flip the picture over.
No words are written there.
The next photograph. A man. Perhaps the man who was roped like a dog to a tree by his mother. Her son was full of wildness and endless energy and she sometimes needed a moment…a respite…to catch her breath.
Another man. Perhaps it is he who was beaten so thoroughly by the Mafia that after, he could no longer speak and sat for long stretches of time in a folding lawn chair looking on. I may have him confused, blended, so to speak, with another man of silence; a man who, with his jackknife, coaxed rough animals from the limbs of trees, signing his work in ballpoint pen, so that the splintery mule in my mother’s house wears a signature saddle.
Was this the woman who rode a camel through the desert?
Was this the child who nearly got kidnapped on the streets of Chicago? The child who was approaching a stranger beckoning from a car, and nearly got there when a woman bustled in and grabbed her arm and gave her a thorough talking-to?
Was this the child who died too young of polio, her life frozen in time while the lives of her siblings marched forward?
And here. The boy who ran away to Texas, ran beneath the shimmering stars while his parents slept in an extra hour the morning of his departure?
Each picture tells a story, a story passed down in quiet tones, again and again, over meals and steaming mugs of tea; while children are being tucked in beneath quilts stitched by great-grandmothers. The oral history of a family. Each story a picture of life past.
A life passed. A life passed down and built upon.
Stories passed down through the generations.
But then we stopped listening.
And the pictures no longer speak.
I shall have to content myself with their silence, staring into the eyes of my forefathers as they gaze into the eyes of their future, revealing nothing.
This is half-true/half false: All but one of the above stories comes from my family. And, thankfully, I can identify most of the people I write about. I’m in the middle of doing hours of research for a non-fiction piece and I’m re-learning the importance of preserving family stories for the future generations and the frustration of tracking down old stories, long-forgotten.
This was written for this week’s Write on Edge prompt:
“When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”