I took my Nikon N2020 SLR out of its prodigiously padded bag and screwed in a wide-focus lens. Draping the camera’s strap over my neck, I peered at my surroundings through the device’s rectangular viewfinder—the cemetery looked no less dreary this way than it had via the naked eye. A crooked row of tombstones stood nearby, most of them cracked to varying degrees, some missing their upper-halves and others intact but stained in sprawling graffiti. Above them, the sun slipped down the cloud-cloaked sky, dropping toward one of my two favorite times of the day.
I framed the scene before me with care—a task governed by inches, angles, shadows, and depth—and clicked the shutter button down, breathing in deeply. As my view went black, and as the shutter gave its glorious cla-click, I knew that a copy of the slice of world before me was being imprinted on emulsion—a nearly magical transcription of reality onto a hidden curl of film. A shiver bolted through me as it did every time I captured a segment of the universe.
Encircled by little more than drifting fog and the long-dead, I searched for my next shot, looking for worthy compositions in the slants of half-seen trees and in the reach of shadowy stone crosses.
“Hallo!” a voice called out from behind me.
I jumped at the sudden noise, and spun around. A man stood there, taking a bite of a burrito sticking out from a cocoon of aluminum foil. He was surrounded by a pulsing, pale white nimbus, calling to my mind the glow of a celestial body. Or atomic-bomb-levels of radiation. Dressed in a black sweater and black jeans, he had a tall, gleaming weapon attached to his back: a scythe, I believed the word was.
I took a step away. A misting of rain slashed the sky. “My God,” I muttered.
“Hmmm?” The man’s lips lifted into a smile within the carpet of stubble occupying the lower half of his face.
I spoke the words in a muffled voice, with a lump of fear lodged in my throat: “Are you… Death?”
He took another bite of his burrito, salsa dripping down his chin. The eerie light clinging to him shimmered. “Nah,” he said. “I’m his brother.”
“Death has a brother?”
“He does. I’m him.”
Somewhat shocking myself, I found I believed him. “And who are you exactly? I mean, do you have a, er, job like your brother does?”
“I do.” His face further brightened. “Guess! Guess who I am.”
I studied the man more carefully—the hole in the shoulder of his sweater, and the way the bottoms of his jeans were frayed. Short and a bit overweight, he looked like a second-rate, dime-store Death, hoodless and embarrassingly non-menacing. I frowned. “Are you… I don’t know… ‘Serious Illness’?”
He laughed. “Nope. We’re nothing alike, my brother and I. Think in the opposite direction.”
“But you have a scythe.”
“I know, I know. Father buys us all scythes. It’s a thing with him.” He shook his head. “Just trust me, here—think the opposite of death.”
I stared some more, lost. That’s when he waved his hand, palm-down, through the air. Beneath him the grass lurched up five inches and I gasped.
“Life?” I ventured.
The man scrunched up his nose as if smelling something offensive. “No. Life’s a sister of mine, though. Spoiled little prick. She’s insufferable—I’d steer clear of her if I were you.” His stare grew more intense. “Although, you do seem rather alive, so I suppose you and she already crossed paths at some point, even if you don’t remember it.” He sighed. “I’m, well, I’m actually Death’s and Life’s half-brother. My father was the Creator of this entire galaxy, and of some of the more interesting pockets of the larger universe, and my mother was a simple, unassuming cavewoman.”
“Yeah. During the Paleolithic. Really nice lady, great at skinning bison.” He thrust the hand not holding the burrito toward me. “Anyway, I’m Growth. Pleased to meet you.”
I shook Growth’s hand. It was warm and firm and slightly wet with salsa. “I’m Braiden Stenley,” I said. “Not to be rude, but you don’t look much like the embodiment of growth.”
His eyes narrowed. “Is that a joke about my height?”
“No… it’s your clothes, mostly. They’re all black. I think of bright colors when I think of things growing.” My gaze drifted to the top of the scythe, visible over Growth’s left shoulder. “And I still don’t get that.”
“Yeah.” Growth held up a single finger. “First, black is slimming. It’s a wonder color. Don’t knock it.” He lifted another finger to join the first. “And second—you know how some parents like to dress all their children up in matching outfits? The Creator is like that with us, only instead of identical puppy sweaters, we all carry scythes. Death’s is for slicing down lives and reaping souls, of course, and mine is supposedly for severing chains holding people back from blossoming to their full potential.” He scratched his head. “It’s a stretch, I know. But the scythe is an agricultural tool, at least, so it kind of makes sense for me. You should hear Father try to rationalize why Life has one.”
“Oh.” We stood in silence. The rain stopped and a crow cawed from high up in a nearby tree. “So… in what area of my life are you here to help me grow?”
Growth chuckled. He swallowed the last of his burrito and licked his lips. “Oh, Braiden… Cinderella complex-much? I’m not here for you, my friend. My mark is a woman. Due to arrive at the cemetery in two minutes and twenty-two seconds.” He raised his eyebrows. “Why? You finding the need to grow in some aspect of your life?”
I shifted my feet uncomfortably. “I… no,” I said. “I’m good. Thanks.”
“You’re good? Good. Well, I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ I’m a people-person like that. Nice to have met you, Braiden.”
Growth turned and shoved his hands, and the empty burrito wrapper, into his pockets. As he walked away I could see his scythe fully, its silver blade curled like a crescent moon. I rubbed the back of my neck, trying to make sense of what had just happened. The further away Growth walked, the harder I found it to believe him. When he had been standing right before me, glowing, it had seemed so natural to trust he was who he said. But now… he was probably just a mentally-ill guy carrying around an eccentric weapon, I decided. A weirdo with his body slathered in some strange new brand of glitter-lotion.
I turned away from him. Before “Growth” had interrupted me, I had been nothing but a photographer, my surroundings a hunting ground in which to track the faint footprints and trembling whispers of my Muses. But now, I felt like myself again—complicated and conflicted, still an artist, but also so much else that the artist part of me had become horribly diluted. The cemetery around me had fared much the same; its status as an immersive landscape of artistic interest now lay buried under a thousand other things comprising its complete identity.
My gaze drifted to the corner of the graveyard, to the top of the hill there. I cursed my eyes for this movement. I turned, and walked.
This place, myself, that stranger and the stench of his now-consumed burrito still lingering in the air—I recoiled from all of it. My heart thundered in my chest, and I forced down a long, controlled breath. I lifted my camera again, closing one eye and letting the other soak in a reality circumscribed by black borders. The beat of my heart slowed somewhat as I let myself drift back into that smaller, more organized, and more creatively sublime world.
I snapped another picture—a gravestone that had been partially swallowed over the decades by a growing oak tree, the two of them now a mix of death-marking granite and living, still-growing wood—and became utterly, blissfully lost for a second in the shot.
Voices reached me, and I was pulled all-too-quickly out of the viewfinder and back to the broader panorama of reality. On a bench under the sagging, shaggy leaves of a weeping willow, Growth was sitting with a middle-aged woman who was gesturing wildly with her hands, her voice rising. Growth sat calmly, his scythe propped up against the bench at his side, and said something to the woman that I couldn’t hear.
She sprung up off the bench and pointed a wavering, accusatory finger at Growth. “You!” she screamed. “You have no right! Just leave me alone!”
The woman stormed past tombstones and out the east gates of the cemetery. Growth sat there on the bench, alone now, a frown on his face. I shook my head. Definitely just some crazy person, I thought with increased confidence. I pushed him from my mind once more. Pushed everything from my mind except the cemetery as a kind of giant palette holding the colors and shapes that were my raw materials. The art was already there, simply waiting for someone like me to combine the right hues and frame the right angles. I walked down a narrow path where grass peeked up between cement slabs. Tombstones lined either side of the pathway, most of those on my right side from a single family: individuals spread across centuries, all finding a common end in this small, shared radius of concealing earth.
This cemetery, behind the old Presbyterian Church with the white paint peeling from its blocky bell tower, had long been a sanctuary of sorts for me. In its plentiful plant life and rolling hills I found a wondrous escape from the city’s cement landscape, and from its countless markers of death I always took a refreshed appreciation of life. For years, I had been coming here with my camera. I was here today because I wouldn’t have a chance to visit again for quite a while.
This place was special. And I wasn’t going to let what had happened recently ruin it for me. Not a chance.
Much of the fog had lifted, and, in sinking, the sun had escaped the cloud cover that had obscured it for much of the day. It was one of the two times of day photographers call the “golden hour”—those rarefied periods right after sunrise and just before sunset, when sunlight takes on a softer, almost otherworldly, glow. It was a time where the sun turned from a brazen spotlight, intent on scorching, to a mystical lantern, desiring only to effuse. Intoxicating redness crept up from the horizon, spilling into the cemetery, creating a shimmering quilt of lambent illumination and long, mingling shadows cast by tombstones and trees.
A leaf fell from one of the elms above the row of tombstones all from the same family, flitting down through the glowing air so slowly it seemed to get stuck at several points during its descent, as if snagging on bits of shadow or shafts of fading sun. Eventually it landed on the top of one of the tombstones—one of the few fully intact ones to occupy this part of the cemetery.
I brought my camera to my face. Through the viewfinder I could see that the carved stone read “Tony Irving, 1845-1882.” Tony Irving, now wearing an askew leaf hat, brown and green. I found the ring on camera’s lens with my thumb and forefinger, twisting it to the right.
“What are you doing?”
I pivoted my whole body toward the voice, still with the camera to my face, still looking through the viewfinder. There, I saw Growth.
“Cheese!” he said, smiling.
“I’m not a portrait photographer,” I said.
“No.” I kept looking at him, with that stunning aura around him, and the scythe again on his back, and realized that he was too good a subject to pass up. I snapped a quick picture and then turned back to Tony Irving. “I’m adjusting the aperture,” I said in answer to his earlier question, resuming my task of turning the camera’s ring.
“Aperture?” came Growth’s voice.
“It’s like the camera’s pupil. The more I twist this ring, the wider it opens, and the more light gets let in.”
“Interesting. It sounds a lot like what I do for a living.” He burped loudly. The burrito didn’t seem to be agreeing with him. “The process of growth is mostly about letting things in, you know,” he continued. “Opening yourself to new ways of thinking and seeing.”
Cla-click. Tony Irving’s final resting place had been captured.
I lowered my camera and turned toward Growth. “That process doesn’t seem to have gone too well with the woman you were talking with.”
“No,” Growth said sadly. “Sometimes it doesn’t. The woman I was here for recently found out her son is gay, and she’s having a hard time coming to terms with that, accepting it. She has a… well, a broken ‘aperture ring,’ I guess. Won’t turn no matter how I try. Won’t let anything in.”
I nodded. On some distant highway, a world away, a car horn blared.
“Growing, changing, evolving—it’s all hard. Our souls, and minds, and spirits outgrow their shells sometimes. It’d be great if all parts of us simply grew equally to accommodate whatever change we’re going through. But it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes some part of us grows so big and so fast it ruptures another part of us. It’s like a snake shedding its skin, but for us, it hurts. We feel like our bones have stretched too long, and are tearing through tendons and flesh; or like our thoughts are jabbing through the squishy matter of our minds. Our insides don’t always wait for our outsides. They often just burst through.”
I turned, looking up the hill.
“Braiden?” came Growth’s voice.
“Why are you here?”
My camera hung against my belly, and I tapped it with a finger. “For photos.”
Growth sat down, right on the grass. Green blossomed up around him, punctuated with blue and red from long-stemmed flowers that hadn’t existed a moment ago. “You live near here?”
“Yes… well, I used to.” I blinked, my eyes burning with their proximity to Growth’s constant gleam. With him close again I hastily started to revise my impression of the man, steering wildly away from the “random crazy guy” perspective I’d been developing. “I grew up down the road,” I said. “But I’m going to college in a different state now. In Florida. I’ve been back for a while, for winter break.”
“Visiting your folks?”
My stomach muscles tightened. “Visiting friends.”
“Why aren’t you with them? Your friends?”
“They’re at a club. They wanted me to join them, but…”
“But you came here instead.” Growth lifted his scythe and laid it across his lap. “Did your parents move away from here too? After you went off to college?”
“No.” My mouth felt dry. “Your brother has met them.”
Growth tilted his head, quizzically.
“Death,” I said.
“Ah. I’m sorry. When?”
“My dad when I was ten years old. And my mom… more recently.”
Growth pointed at me. “Did you know him?”
He jabbed his forward again. “Him. The one you just took a picture of.”
“Oh…” I turned toward Tony Irving’s grave. “No. I just liked the look of his tombstone.”
Growth stood and brushed off his pants. “Photography truly is interesting. I don’t know much about it, but I’m fascinated by what it can do. It’s tied intricately to time and remembrance. It keeps powerful company.”
“It belittles the impermanence of the world… like a stubborn child who refuses to understand the rules of nature, somehow yanking shards of solidity from its mercurial flow. Tony, there—whoever he once was—has been dead for quite some time.” Growth squinted, peering past me. “For over a century. But now he’s part of one of your pictures, plucked for a spell from the river of time. Even if his tombstone should crumble to dust tomorrow, and even if there isn’t a single person still living who has ever heard of him, Tony’s secured a place in the world until the photo you’ll soon have developed is lost to age or mishap. In my estimation, you’ve given Tony a great gift.”
Again, I glanced up the hill. My hands were sweaty. I could do this for a random dead guy, I thought, but not for her? I suddenly didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know why I had come here. I turned back toward Growth, and let my eyes settle on him—on his short stature, his all-black outfit, the golden-hour-glow of his sparkling scythe, and the knowing smile rising on his face. “Excuse me,” I said. “I need to go. I… I have more pictures to take.”
“Indeed,” said Growth, bowing toward me. “Best of luck with those, Braiden.”
I walked, quickly, passing through the section of the cemetery where most of the tombstones belonged to people who had died in the mid-1900s. There were unassuming grave markers laid flat against the earth, and towering pentagonal monuments twice as tall as me.
I thought about my eventual dying moment as I went, imagining I’d be holding a camera when it happened. I thought about taking one last photo during that one last second of living. I wondered if, in those final moments, as my soul left my body, if I’d perhaps be able to emblazon onto film a tiny piece of heaven, or hell, or whatever awaits as it opened wide before me to engulf, and to end, me and maybe to start me anew.
Had she started anew? Was she somewhere else now? Anywhere else?
I shook my head angrily. I didn’t want to think about this. I wouldn’t think about this. I lifted my camera in front of my face again. The viewfinder-enclosed world stared back at me, blurry. A tear was forming in my eye, and I bristled at this revelation, enraged. Tombstones glistened and trees trembled and merged. Everything in me clenched—my rows of teeth grinding into each other, my muscles tightening, and my chest heaving with pressure like it had caved-in. I tried to shove it back, to shove it all back.
I thought it was working. I focused on the scene before me, and took a shot. But then it surged forward again. It all surged forward. And it broke through.
Tears burst from both eyes, and emotions exploded into my gut, shattering my surface stillness like a school of fish all leaping from the deep darkness of water at once. The tension clamping down on my body collapsed and I shook, sobbing. I lumbered forward. I knew where I was going, but couldn’t think about it. The part of my brain currently behind the wheel had to shut itself off from the rest of my mind and drive blind. The tombstones I passed became newer and newer until they were all whole, all still tended to and graffiti- and moss-free. I climbed the hill, walking over bodies that had died thirty years ago, five years ago, one year ago, and just months ago.
I stopped before one grave-marker. It was modest-sized and decorated with a pot of fresh flowers—lilies, just starting to droop.
It was my mother’s grave.
For a long time, I stood there. My mother had been buried a month ago, and this was my first time visiting. “I’m sorry,” I said to the stone.
My mother and I hadn’t been close for a great while. At the best of times she had been a distant woman, and at the worst of times a horrifically cruel one. During my early years of high school, my mom and I had become outright enemies. And then, we transformed into something even worse—nothing. My mom had started to mean nothing to me, and I nothing to her. I had been at school when the call came that she had died in a car accident, and I simply decided not to go to her funeral. My mom had been like a stranger to me for such a long time, I rationalized, what point would there be in me going?
So, I didn’t go. And I didn’t mourn. I didn’t even think about her.
Except that I did. All the time. I thought I had been shutting her out, but in reality, she had lurked in my every thought and drifted within each shadow spread across my every day. I hadn’t forgotten her. I had turned her memory into a festering virus of guilt and regret. At the moment of her death I thought I was facing her passing, and dismissing it; moving on. Instead, I now realized, I had mired myself in it.
Through still-crying eyes, I looked at her name engraved on the stone—RENEE STENLEY. Just letters on granite, but they were what remained of my mom now. She existed here, and in the minds of the handful of us left who had known her, and in the physical remnants of her expired life. I lifted my camera, for she could exist in one more place, in one more way. Drying my eyes, I looked through my viewfinder. It had gotten dark—the golden hour over—and I turned the ring on my camera’s lens, widening the aperture. I let more and more light into the camera until it was at its maximum. This would also have the effect of blurring the background of my photo, focusing in only on my main subject and giving it importance. That was exactly what I wanted.
I took one picture of my mother’s grave. Her name, her stone—the light of it was bound to silver and the passage of time was paused. I touched the side of my camera and almost felt it vibrating there, inside—a single frozen moment, coiled in darkness, deep in the plastic husk of my camera. It would remain there in its state of pure potential, unrevealed until I was able to drop the film off at CVS to get it developed.
I wondered about that moment. I wondered what the photo of my mother’s tombstone would look like when I went to pick it up in a day or two, when I’d pull the glossy rectangle out of the paper envelope under the drugstore’s harsh fluorescent lights. I imagined I’d have that picture until it was my turn to die, and in that paralyzed slice of an ever-moving world I’d possess something unchanging which I’d be able to view in a slightly new way every time I picked it up. For pictures aren’t only what they show—they’re also what you see in them. There would, I knew, be days spread across the years yet to come where I would look at the picture and cry. Other days where seeing it would make me angry. Many times where glancing at it would make me feel nothing at all.
I looked down at the camera, desperate to get its roll of film developed. The club where my friends were was near the CVS, I remembered, and was suddenly desperate to be there too. I turned and walked away from my mom’s tombstone and whatever remained of her beneath the soft green grass. I left my mother behind, and I took her with me.
And as I passed through the cemetery’s wrought iron gates—the place now empty save for myself—I couldn’t help but think that Growth had lied to me. He had come there for me after all.
Jeff Metzler has fled, and sought, throughout much of his life, living in suburbs, deserts, farmlands, cities, and forests across many different states. He currently resides in the woods of New Hampshire with his wife and son, and works as a college librarian. He’s now done fleeing, although still seeking.
His short fiction has also appeared in magazines such as Silver Blade and Allegory. Find out more about him at jeffmetzler.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Aperture”:
Good stories, in our opinion, don’t try too hard to be good, a problem we find with a lot of the literary writing today. The authors try to “explore” themes and often end up with a mediocre story.
Jeff Metzler’s “Aperture” is definitely not a mediocre story. It’s simple on one level, yet complex on others. It uses a simple object, a camera, to reveal the character’s conflict, despite Braiden trying to avoid it. Adding the amusing element of Death’s brother, Growth, keeps the story from being as gloomy as the setting, and it all works perfectly. We’re given a satisfying ending that makes a strong point after all.
What a remarkable story so well-written. The ending was beautiful.