There are times when it hurts to be alive. Times when the only person who could possibly see how much it hurts lies so far away from the skin into which you are sunken so deeply that they cannot see what you are feeling or that you are even feeling at all. A real friend, a true friend, would not be behind the camera adjusting the shot, making sure everything was in perfect focus, a perfect focus that nonetheless fails to reveal the enormity of your pain. No, a true friend would bring himself very close, would press his ear to your throat and listen carefully, attentively, until he began, finally, impossibly, to hear your voice.
Help, this ear would finally hear you say, Help, help. It would not matter to a friend, a true friend, that nothing comes out of your mouth: he would hear the words anyway, would hear how they lodge in your throat, the vibrations buzzing there.
A true friend would not affix a clamp to the back of your head, making it even harder for you to turn and move. A true friend would not direct the glassy eye of the camera so that the light bounced off the lens and into your unblinking eyes. A true friend would, from time to time, moisten your eyes with a little water so that they might continue to work as eyes do, so they would not, as your eyes most assuredly have begun to do, begin to fail.
Above all, a true friend would realize that, despite all appearances, you are not dead.
Paralyzed, can’t move, you try to say. Help, help, you say, but nothing comes out. Perhaps even if someone, a true friend, say, were to press their ear to your throat and hold their breath and listen, really listen, they would hear nothing. Even then, they would not realize you are still alive, that, motionless, you are nonetheless screaming inside.
At least this is what I am counting on. It is right for me, your brother, to preserve this moment, to commission this last remembrance of you before you are buried. It is expected of me, even if my true reasons for having it done are very much my own. Only you and I know you are still alive, and in the end only your mute suffering will be preserved in the photograph, not my pleasure.
I stand discretely to one side, pretending to grieve, relishing the photographer’s failure to realize you are still alive, watching the camera’s merciless eye record only what is visible on the surface. This will take only a few minutes: the photograph will be completed well before you begin to stir, well before the tincture administered to you wears off. Soon, I will unscrew the clamp from the back of your head and with the help of the photographer carry you back to my wagon and drive you home. Along the way I will rein up and clamber into the back of the wagon beside you, will press my ear to your throat and imagine you screaming inside, and then I will administer a further dose. By nightfall, brother, you will be nailed in your coffin and interred behind your house, and all that you have will belong to me.
But for now the photographer works with care to try to make you appear alive, not realizing that all along you are alive. Help, you are screaming, help, can’t, while in my head I am preserving this image, of you helpless and ignored, while I, your brother, but not your friend, watch.
BRIAN EVENSON is the author of a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World (2019). Earlier books include A Collapse of Horses (2016) and the novella The Warren (2016). He has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award five times in three different categories. His novel Last Days won the 2010 ALA-RUSA Award for Best Horror Novel. His novel The Open Curtain was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.