I found the photograph deep in the woods, half-hidden in a rough porridge of dead leaves and dirt and bits of wet bark. It was a damp, chilly day, and my dog and I had been walking for an hour or two. I swung my black stick as we walked. I’m an old man, and old men like sticks.
I have a little habit of collecting discarded things I find: letters, homework assignments, notes passed in class. Once I found a whole notebook someone had been keeping as a diary. It was half-waterlogged, the fat blue ink had run, the pages were dirty-wet and stained, and person who wrote it was alternately hopeful and heartbroken about a boy.
But this day it was a photograph I found. It’s odd to see a photograph in the woods. It’s such a made thing, a human thing. Coming across an old black-and-white photo on a carpet of dead leaves, while the trees loom around you, watching—it’s like finding a broken doll sitting up against a stump, staring at you.
I picked up the photo and carefully brushed the dirt and leaves away. It was old, almost as old as I am, perhaps. The paper felt soft and thin, as if it had been handled many times over many years.
All the more surprising that someone had thrown it away. Or had it simply been lost? How did it get so far into a forest, on an old path I have walked since childhood, where I rarely see another human being?
I looked again at the photo’s deep blacks and soft grays. It showed a little boy in shorts and a shirt wearing old-fashioned brown leather lace-up shoes and white socks.
I had a pair of shoes like that myself as a boy. So the photo must be old, as old as I.
The boy is sitting in a square stone frame—perhaps a doorway or large window, in an apparently abandoned, crumbling building. The ledge, if it is a ledge, where he sits is thick with dirt and dead leaves. A single bare branch protrudes into the picture from the upper left.
Behind the boy is darkness and stone.
The strangest part is that the little boy is wearing the mask of an old man. It is a full head mask, and much too big for him, a man’s head sitting on the shoulders of a boy. The old man of the mask is wrinkled and balding with thick white eyebrows, but he doesn’t look unkind.
And in his hands, the boy holds a little-boy doll.
I stood in the forest, among the whispering leaves and murmuring branches, among the scents of mulch and mushroom and earth, looking at the photo. It was . . . beautiful is not the right word, perhaps, but compelling.
It was hard to take your eyes off it.
Rusty gave a sharp bark. We had been standing still a long time, The gray clouds above us no longer looked inert, but ominous, heavy and dark with something. A cold wind came up, and the smell around us changed to rain.
I tucked the photograph in my jacket pocket, and we turned back towards home.
Over the next few days, I found myself drawn to the photo again and again. My old fingers traced the lines of the stone that framed the boy. I looked more closely at the doll he held—even got out the magnifying glass I must use now for reading the warnings on medicine labels.
That doll, that doll. Something so familiar about that doll. Did I have one like it, as a boy?
There was something familiar about the whole scene, to be truthful.
Or was it only now becoming familiar, because I had looked at the photo so many times?
One day a repairman working on my balky furnace noticed the photo on the table where I had been studying it the night before.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
“Was that you, some Halloween or something?” he asked.
“Yes, it was me,” I said. “But it wasn’t Halloween.”
After he left, I asked myself over and over: why I had said it was me?
But wasn’t there a time when I was wandering my forest path until it took me to the old, abandoned mill, and wasn’t there a man . . .
The mill. That was where that photo was taken, I was almost sure of it. The old abandoned mill. I’d forgotten it existed, if it did still exist. Hadn’t it been torn down years ago? Surely it had been, to build some new something or other, a strip mall or a hospital or a school?
I put the photograph down. I made my dinner, a small baked potato with cheese, and went to bed, thinking.
The next morning, I shaved myself carefully. In the mirror I saw a balding man with a wrinkled face, thick white eyebrows, not unkind.
Then Rusty and I set off, I carrying a bottle of water in one pocket and a sandwich in another, for it might be a long walk out to the mill.
Not the mill, of course. Where the mill used to be. The mill was gone, it was long gone, I was sure it was.
It was hard to remember the way, after all these years. We walked for hours, Rusty and I. As the sun began to drop away, he whined and tugged at me to come back, come back. I made many wrong turns and had to double back often.
But in the end, we walked through a brambly thicket across our path, and found it: the old abandoned mill, favorite lonely playground of my boyhood. The great thick stones of it, each huge square a half-ton at least.
I walked around. The sun was low in the sky, all the colors were clear and strange. I had walked too long, I would have to walk home in the woods in the dark. Rusty cried at my feet.
In a great square opening that had once housed a grain chute, now long gone, a little boy sat.
Yes of course, that’s right, I thought.
He wore shorts and old-fashioned leather lace-up shoes with white socks. In his hands was little-boy doll. He turned it idly, back and forth in his hands.
I wish I had a camera, I thought. Oh but wait: I have my phone.
I pulled out my phone and found the right little colored square to touch. The camera sprang up, and I took the picture. I thought the little boy didn’t notice me. But as I brought the phone down and looked up, he was looking straight into my eyes.
It’s dark now. Rusty is pacing fearfully, up and down, up and down.
I am sitting, now, on the ledge where the little boy sat. I am looking on my phone, at the photo I took. I can’t stop looking at the photo I took.
Because something went wrong, when I clicked that picture, the boy must have moved, or the camera must have double-exposed, can phone cameras do that?
In the picture, the little boy’s head has been replaced by what almost looks like a great mask, that covers his whole head, and is much too big for him: a mask that almost looks like me.
I sit leaning against the stone, knees up, looking at the picture of the boy in my hands, just the way the boy in the photo looks at his boy-doll.
I sit here, an old man holding a photo of himself as a boy, wearing a mask of himself as an old man, who is holding a doll of himself as a boy. I sit here, I sit here.
And there is no one in the world, now, but me and all my many selves.
Somewhere a dog is barking, over and over, trying to get my attention.
But the sound is getting farther and farther away.