Waiting for the Light by D Dignam
The winter sun was rising over the mountain but the light was wrong. I wouldn’t get the photograph I wanted. I needed the special light you get when the sky is clear and there is frost on the ground. I put the camera back into its case and folded the tripod.
I only photograph landscapes these days. I used to go to war zones and my pictures won awards. The money was good and I was getting lots of commissions. One assignment changed everything. I tell people I discovered something terrible on that trip. They assume I mean the mass graves and the mutilated bodies.
It was years ago but I can remember every detail. We were due to fly from a small airstrip a few hundred miles from the border. It was raining as we waited to board the plane. The wind was twisting the clouds into strange shapes over the control tower.
I was going to a civil war that had been dragging on for years. The world had lost interest in it. I was afraid my photographs wouldn't sell but Vicky Taylor from the aid agency promised there would be things too terrible to ignore. That was just what I wanted and she agreed to show me round.
It was a short flight and Vicky was waiting at the terminal building when I got off the plane. The city had changed hands numerous times and there had been a lot of killing. Now there were terrible stories about what was being done in the villages further down the valley. Everyone seemed to be on edge. The weather didn't help. It was the time of year when the desert wind blows towards the sea for month after month. The locals believe that it can affect the minds of people and animals.
I hadn't been there long enough to know if that was true but something else was worrying me. I was taking anti-malarial pills and I’d been warned about the side effects. It could be anything from intense dreams to hallucinations. I didn’t have much choice about swallowing the pills. The local strain of malaria could be fatal. On the first night I had a weird dream about being on holiday. I was alone on a beach and when the tide went out it revealed a line of corpses playing volleyball in the surf.
The next morning Vicky showed me the local attractions. Down on the beach, a row of rotting bodies stuck out of the sand. They were tangled in an old fishing net and being eaten by the crabs. The incoming tide moved their limbs up and down as if they were trying to throw something over the net. It wasn't exactly like my dream but it was a little unsettling.
After that we went to the ruined cathedral. There was a pile of human bones behind the pulpit. No one knew which faction had done the killing. I noticed a piece of stained glass on the floor. It was the face of an angel from the window in one of the side altars. Vicky was a little shocked when I rearranged the bones to get that fragment of stained glass into my shot. I tried to explain it was all to do with composition but she didn’t seem to understand.
Later we went to a food hand-out at a warehouse in the port. I photographed a woman in a green dress holding the hand of a small boy. He was staring right into the lens and reaching towards me. As I was refocusing he grabbed a pen from my shirt pocket. It had my agency logo running along its side. The mother apologised and told him to hand it back. I had lots of those pens so I told him to keep it. Everyone smiled.
I snapped away for another few minutes but I was getting frustrated. I had taken some good pictures but it wasn’t enough. I needed something more dramatic; something that would really get attention back home. The people at the hand-out were close to starvation but that wasn’t good enough for the camera. They didn’t yet have that hollowed out look of famine victims.
I went to bed early that evening but that desert wind kept me awake. It was still blowing towards the sea and I was starting to understand why the locals feared it. It was getting on my nerves. It seemed to scrape through the trees like the claws of an invisible predator. It never stopped.
When I finally fell asleep I had another of my strange dreams. I was alone on the beach again. Suddenly, the sand turned to copper and mechanical ants started swarming across it. The insects started moving towards me. I tried to run away but my legs were sinking into the ground. I woke up sweating and went to the water filter. After a few big gulps I lay down again and waited for the dawn. I didn’t want to fall asleep again.
A couple of days later the army let me join one of their foot patrols. As we approached the centre of the city I felt the surface of the road change. It was like walking on a shingle beach. When I looked down I saw the road was covered with hundreds of copper cartridge cases. One of the soldiers told me there had been a big battle there and lots of machine gun fire. Insects were swarming over the spent cartridges looking for dried blood. I remembered my dream and the mechanical ants. It felt creepy but I kept taking my pictures. We got back to the compound late in the evening. I swallowed my pills and the last of my Scotch. I was really tired and I staggered off to bed and fell asleep.
The dreams started again. I was looking into my viewfinder photographing the woman in the green dress and her son. I was behind them but as I was framing a shot they turned to face me. Blood was spurting from their throats and splashing down onto their clothes.
The boy was pointing at me and suddenly he stepped forward and poked his bloody fingers into my camera. They passed through the lens and touched my eye. Somehow I continued taking pictures but there was blood on the lens and I couldn't wipe it clean. My photographs were ruined. They were smeared with blood. It was still dark when I woke up. I was shaking. I took my camera out of the case to check that there was no blood on the lens. I felt stupid doing that. I knew it was just a dream but I couldn’t help myself.
In the morning we heard that one of the army patrols had found another massacre site. They were claiming there were hundreds of corpses in a pit on the other side of town. I forgot about the dream. This was the big story I had been hoping for. Vicky drove me to the neighbourhood so I could photograph the bodies before they were buried. I soon realised it was going to be something special. We could smell the corpses the moment we stepped out of the car.
They hadn’t been exaggerating about the number of dead. All of them had been hacked to death with machetes. I know it sounds strange but I couldn't think of them as people. Through the lens they seemed more like broken statues. I got down into the pit to shoot the bodies really close up. It was a little overcast but I was getting some great images.
Suddenly Vicky screamed. I didn’t know what was wrong. She was pointing down at my shoes. I’d stepped onto a dead woman’s face. She made me get out of the pit. I wasn’t too put out. I knew I already had enough material to impress the picture editors in London.
Vicky asked me if I wanted to stay for the burials but I shook my head. The images of the bodies in the pit were right on the money. I was about to pack up when things got even better. The clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight fell onto the body of a young girl. Her hands were clasped together as if she had been praying when they butchered her. I snapped her from several angles. When I finally put away the camera Vicky bent down and picked up a pen. She looked at me and asked if it was mine. It was covered with blood but I could see the agency logo on it. It was the pen I had given to the little boy.
When they pulled some more bodies out of the pit I saw the remains of the woman in the green dress. Her son was lying beside her. Their throats had been cut. Of course, I took out the camera again took a few pictures but I wasn’t feeling well. I slipped and my camera fell on the boy’s body. There was blood on the lens when I picked it up. That really spooked me. I knew it was time to leave.
Vicky drove me back to the compound but I found it hard to have a proper conversation with her. She was upset about the massacre. She had known some of the victims. I was still trying to make sense of my strange dreams. I kept telling myself that I had my pictures and that was all that mattered but I felt sick. Vicky asked me if I was alright. I told her the anti-malarial pills were making me unwell.
I managed to stay awake for the next couple of nights but I knew I couldn’t keep going much longer. I was desperate to leave. I thought the massacre pictures were as good as it was going to get on the trip. I was relieved when Vicky said an aid plane was coming. She said she could get me on the flight out.
She was supposed to take me to the plane that afternoon but she was late. There had been some gunfire on the other side of the river and she had been forced to take a different road to the compound.
Vicky finally turned up and we set off. My camera with the telephoto lens was on my lap as we drove towards the airfield. I didn’t think I needed any more pictures but I started taking shots through the open window. We were close to the airfield when I saw a woman lying in the grass about fifty yards from the road. I focused was my lens on her. The woman had suffered a fatal gunshot wound to her temple. A dark, red halo of congealed blood had formed around her head. There was a little bundle at her side and when I zoomed in I saw it contained a baby. The child’s eyes stared back at me. I took several pictures but I didn't say anything to Vicky. I didn’t want to miss the plane.
When it was time to say goodbye, I told Vicky about the dead woman and the baby. She looked shocked. She wanted to know why I hadn't asked her to stop the car. I didn't know what to say. She said she would try to find the baby on her way back to the city. I stepped onto the plane and slumped into a seat. The hum of the engines put me to sleep almost immediately and, of course, another dream started.
I was back in the car with Vicky, photographing the dead women by the airfield road. Her baby started crawling after us. No matter how fast we drove it still followed, getting closer all the time. Finally, the child was close enough to grab my camera strap and soon I was being pulled out of the car. Fortunately, the plane made a bumpy landing and it woke me up. I was sweating and short of breath. I tried to persuade myself that the dream meant nothing. I had gone there to take pictures. No one could expect me to rescue babies.
A few days later I was back in London. The massacre pictures were syndicated everywhere but the image of the dead woman lying with her baby on the airfield road was the most popular. I made a lot of money from that shot.
A couple of weeks after I returned home I called Vicky. I asked her if she had found the baby. She said she had searched the road but she hadn't seen any trace of the dead woman or her child. She said the airport road was quite busy and there was a good chance someone else had stopped to help.
Vicky asked me if I was feeling better and I reassured her that everything fine now I had stopped taking the anti-malaria pills. I couldn’t tell her the truth. I was afraid she would think I was mad. My weird dreams haven’t gone away. At first I wanted to believe there was nothing unusual about them. I told myself they were just a side-effect of the pills or maybe something to do with that desert wind. I try to be rational about things but the same nightmare returns most nights. I am driving along the airfield road and that baby is crawling after me.
As I said, I got big money offers to go to other wars but I turned them down. People thought I had lost my nerve. Maybe they are right but I wasn't worried about the bombs and the bullets. I discovered something terrible about myself on that last trip. That's why I'll be back on the mountain tomorrow waiting for the light. The forecast isn’t good so I expect it will be another wasted dawn.