1000 Words

"1000 Words"
Dennis Humphrey

Images mean in ways that defy definition, the way that words can be pinned to dictionary pages like dried moths in a child’s science project. Pin down an image and before your eyes it willwriggle free. It will pop in and out of meaning like a quantum particle, altered by each act of observation. It will twist in the eye and in the mind like a Rorschach ink blot, meaning anything and nothing. Would that words could do all that.

I have a picture in my mind now, a photograph that was sent to me about five years ago. I don’t have to wonder what the circumstances in the photo were. I know the photographer, my former mother-in-law. I know the child, my daughter. I know she was waiting for her daddy to make one last trip home, two days at Christmastime, before a year-long deployment to Iraq. She had turned two years old in August. She stood by the window in her mamaw’s front room, with the window open to hear my truck coming. Her mother was not there. She did not wish to be. My daughter was just spinning around to look back at mamaw when the shutter snapped.

In the following March, when that photo caught up with me in Iraq, tucked in a letter from my in-laws, I felt the distance in the wonder in my daughter’s eyes—hazel, like her mother’s eyes, everycolor that eyes can be, all in one gaze. The wonder alighted in my mind, and there it fluttered, day and night for weeks, until I took pencil and sketchpad in hand. In stolen moments, between trips to the bunkers, on late watches when the intel said we could expect trouble but there was nothing to do but wait, when I should have been sleeping, the wonder took form in graphite on paper. You see, I had an idea. Her mother’s birthday was in May. I would send the drawing to her, to reach across an even greater distance. I even wrote a poem to go with the drawing:

She is spinning
and her mind is turning
days and weeks for memories,
her whirling hands and feet moving in time
as still she waits,
with the window up in winter
to listen for an absent
body dancing now
but mind grown quiet
as fresh snow
on the ground.
She is spinning

I would send the drawing and the poem to my mother-in-law, and she would have them matted and framed and wrapped and delivered to my wife, her daughter, my daughter’s mother, on the birthday I was away. I knew the drawing could not survive the trip through the mail from Iraq to Arkansas if I did not treat it with some fixative to prevent the graphite of the pencil from being smeared into a uniform gray blur by the friction of the envelope that carried it. I also knew that my likelihood of finding a professional art matte spray fixative in central Iraq was a longer shot than the one I was taking to change my wife’s mind. The closest I could find was a can of hairspray on a dusty shelf in the makeshift PX they’d put in a commandeered building from the old regime. Of course the shelf was dusty. Everything was dusty in that place.

Since the hairspray was not intended for use in fixing anything but hair, I was leery of the effect it might have on the drawing, more especially the paper. If there were any oils they might stain the paper or render it translucent, like an antique lamp shade. I made a test drawing. I’d be lying if I said that I remember what it was. A Rorschach ink blot would do just as nicely. I tested the hairspray on the control drawing. It fixed the graphite in place against all smudging, and it had no adverse effects on the paper. Success! I couldn’t believe my luck. I treated the drawing, printed the poem and sent them both, after taking a digital photo of the drawing just in case the plane carrying the original out of Iraq were shot down, you understand.
Six weeks after my return from Iraq had reunited me with my daughter, by then a precocious three and a half going on thirty, before any decision had been reached by my wife on the future of our marriage, my wife was killed when she lost control of her car and crossed the median of I-430 into the path of an SUV.

Nine years later, the original drawing, still matted and framed with the poem, sits in a box for safekeeping. I will give it to my daughter when she is old enough, whenever that is. The digital photo I took in Iraq I have saved on at least three hard drives and two flash dives. I have used the image as the background for my desktop on every computer I have owned since then. Others have seen and commented on it. Those who know and recognize my daughter wonder at its detail, even more when they ask who the artist was. In time, however, there were things to add. It became the centerpiece of a collage of pictures of all my children, and my new step children, and my new wife, and the new baby we had together five years ago. One of the IT techs at work was helping me with a software bug one day, and she said that, in her opinion, I had the best desktop background on campus. That picture vibrates now in a context that did not exist when its first meanings branded themselves on a seething mind in the crucible of war on terror. Those meanings are still there, indelible, but now ghostly images in a multi-layered palimpsest, which even now takes on another layer, as I wonder what it might mean, to me or anyone, without the thousand words.

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Author biography: 

Dennis Humphrey teaches English at Arkansas State University–Beebe and has served two tours in Iraq in the National Guard. His fiction has appeared in storySouth, Southern Hum, Clapboard House, Prick of the Spindle, BloodLotus, Toad Suck Review, SN Review, and Fried Chicken and Coffee.

The picture described in the essay “1000 Words” started out as a way for me to spend time with my child while I was in Iraq. The picture existed for many years before the essay, during which time it had to speak for itself from its frame on the wall or from my computer desktop background. I wrote the essay partially due to people’s out-of-context interpretations of the drawing, especially after I had remarried and had been sent off again from my family to the war in Iraq. It was also partially in response to the saying 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' I wrote an essay of exactly 1000 words to show how these thousand words make the picture tell a story no other thousand words can tell.