When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with photographs. That swirling polaroid capturing a moment in time. Our memory, still, preserved behind the film – frozen in celluloid but nonetheless real, existing in a tiny pocket of space-time, experience pinned on a sheet like a butterfly in a museum. I wondered how many photos I appeared in the back of, an unknown intruder in other people’s memories, my image filed away with care among their loved ones. Some peoples have a taboo of being photographed, believing it steals a part of your soul.
There is something innately terrifying about photography, an unease that we push down every time we open the shutters. There’s a power to the capturing of an image, pre-existing the ubiquity of the blackmail photo trope, in fact begetting blackmail photos. A primal terror to being represented starkly, our own image, unadulterated. A vulnerability.
Una knows this. That’s why when we see cooing, gurgling, giggling babies, Una sees only a twisted evil thing. An eldrytch sinister creature, with a gaping, grasping maw. Ever since Una was a child herself she’s seen photos as they really are. We see a photo, pinned neatly in its place, showing the moment it’s supposed to show. Una sees the gaping potential of infinity, as the flimsy thumbtack of space time shows itself to be an insufficient anchor. In the raging, red maelstrom of forever, Una stands bowed beneath the whipping wind and sees all. In every infant she sees its life, its death, its potential. She sees its wizened blackened skin slough off to replace with pink newborn glow, but only for an instant. And when she looks into the photo, really looks into the photo, she can see the child’s eyes. And in there, only the infinite potential for sin. The regrets, the lies, the disappointments, percolating like a black sludge behind the retina. When Una looks into your eyes she can see all your misdeeds and missed opportunities, collecting like a curse behind a lens.
Babies are the worst, being the closest to time. Before the baby comes to recognise itself, to divorce itself from time through the vision of its own reflection, all there is is potential. Before the discipline of reflection, of mirrors and apertures and all the other objects that we use to define our ‘selves’, babies stand with only time as its companion. And Una cannot bear it. Every day on Facebook is a constant anguish. Seeing the constant reminders of human frailty. Her close friend posts a picture of a three-month old. Una can only think of the time he will use a racial epithet when he’s twelve. A cousin posts a short video of her baby girl’s first steps. Una knows that the child will sell a dodgy ecstasy tablet when she’s 15, putting a classmate in hospital. All this knowledge is a crushing blow.
The effect fades over time, as the child becomes disciplined by constant exposure to lights and mirrors. A three-year-old looks vaguely humanoid, Una can only barely detect the fact that it will kick a tramp to death after an Students’ Union coke binge. Una watches on, terrified to act to prevent the predetermined order, feeling the terror of what might live within the cracks. The world on the other side of the celluloid is a barren, swirling wasteland of infinity – and Una fears opening it up. We all live in a maze, constructed out of polaroid snapshots, stretching out into the future. We can choose which turns to take between the snaps, but ultimately we are all within the maze. Are those choices? Una’s afraid to find out, feeling the darkness slide around the limits of our worlds.
Una lived this silent horror until Sunday. Then something happened that shook her world to its foundations.
While sitting on a beanbag scrolling through her Facebook feed, all Waterford Whispers articles, inspirational quotes shared by aunts, pictures of latte art, she spotted a new arrival. Instinctively she flinched away, trying not to see the child’s destiny, to know it more intimately than its mother ever could. But something drew her to this child. Something made her stop scrolling and pay it attention. But when she looked into its eyes, she tilted her head back and screamed. For she saw the death of the whole universe in its eyes.
Being a writer is a lonely curse. The need to connect but the obstacles; of ability, of precision, of time; being so often insurmountable. But Una is a writer, so she decided to write. To write in such a way that would convey her existential horror, finally. To explain to the world why it is she is filled with such dread. But Una remained aware of the barriers between worlds. Knowing she had to be careful, she sat on an outcropping piece of wall and started to type.
And as the words started to emerge, Una knew that she wasn’t doing it justice. She couldn’t express the true horror of the sight she had seen. It was like a black fog descended every time she wanted to expound on the secrets of the universe, the fragility of time. But, sitting on a bent pole cemented into the wall about three foot up, she kept trying, kept trying to encode a message that would let us all know of our doom. And with one last racking sob, she emailed it to her editor. Hoping, we would read it. Doomed to know that there’s nothing she could do.