Photographic Memory #10

by Hun Ohm

She keeps that night in the white garage cabinets filled with jars of ginseng roots. Patiently, it leans behind the brethren rectangles of Prestone and Kikkoman, presses against the cardboard coffin for gardening tools used two seasons and then forgotten. Barbecue skewer sentries, coat of dust. Somehow, she brought it with her intact. The only one. See the fading dress, the Brylcreemed hair. Read the gilt writing in the bannered banquet room, inscrutable characters too grand for the eye to misunderstand.

What can begin to explain the heart? Who can know its palimpsest, the soft palpitations it cannot cease? There is only her shallow breath that accompanies the handling of this picture, then her lips' faint crescent. And in the air, suddenly, rises the sound of strings. A series of speeches, careful laughter. Ballads and oaths. A toast.

This night of her engagement, she was still young, there is no question. She was scarcely the age of her father's first wife when that one was sent away. She would not smile but only stared solemnly at the expanse before her. She held the fiancé's certain hand, white-gloved, unyielding. But notice the reluctance of her shoulder, a hollowness between their bodies that only the camera captured. And over there, another hand afloat, its thin owner dwelling beyond the frame.

All around them there were strings of faces like blushed pearls, smiling, red with rice wine. The fiancé led her to the elevated table filled with dishes: rice cake and pear, an ox's ribs ringed by four fish stews. All his favorite foods, she knew, she had learned the lessons well from his household. But throughout the reception she sat silently, without expression. She did not touch her food.

There were whispers from each corner of the vast banquet room. Rumors passed from plate to plate, each mouth hungry to show its tongue. Strange, they would say. Perhaps she is already with child. See how full her belly is. Even her father could not help it; she caught him staring at her silk-wrapped midriff.

And those words, they bit into her as if tipped with blade. She was young, but there is no question she had keen ears. Slowly, she rose from her seat and gazed at the disaster of tables before her. Heads turned, a disturbed murmur swept through the room. Silence. When she spoke, her voice was a distant bell at night, fallen upon slumbering ears.

"Not this man," it rang, and she stared at the astonished eyes. "Not this man," she said again and sat back down. No one spoke. She placed her hands into her food and squeezed.

BIO: Hun Ohm is a writer and intellectual property attorney. He lives in western Massachusetts.