The Lost Image
By Aadhiya Tulsi
Four black birds, arranged in a kite, hovered in the overhang above the sea. The sky was a liquid grey reflecting into a dark metallic ocean; everything was ensconced in a fog. We were driving. Leaving.
Travelling out of serene vistas and dreamy landscapes and back into rectangular-scapes and shimmering city lights.
On the road, we were all silent companions, absorbing the strange lighting, the winding road; winding ourselves, into and out of wistfulness. We were listening to a collaborative album between an ambient electronic musician, saxophonist and an orchestra. The sounds were intersecting in an erratic and melodious arc. The birds, too, were gracefully engulfing distances with their own arcs, seizing the unknown in flight.
Sitting in the cushion of silence I’d wondered how silence factored into life. While life is constantly in motion, silence seems to imply stillness; but silence also moves.
What better way to showcase that than through a photograph? The only artistry I’ve ever known.
The album’s narrative sounded out its final chapter and suddenly, I was pulled out of the gradients of blue that splintered across the ocean surface and then, more abruptly, out of the dark crevasses of my mind that the hypnotic scenery cast me into.
I’m ready to excavate images again.
I’m a fickle creature; a mere blink, vision interrupted and any object, any person disappears from my mind altogether. Like a shutter closing in. Maybe this is why I have always been drawn toward photography, the art of capturing the ephemera, so that I may later remember.
It’s been a week since I’ve returned from the photographer’s retreat, although a lifetime has passed since then. It was the idyllic before. Before the image arose in my mind, before my ginger kitty went missing, before the only cafe I had ever loved burnt down, before I singed my whimsical maroon beret, before you left town with only a whisper of a note saying that you wouldn’t be back, and probably the last time I felt any clarity or soundness of mind.
In the wake of all of this uprooting, everything has flipped on its head.
My mind is trapped in a dark room, where only one roll of film can be developed. Film consisting of an image repeated.
I cannot stop thinking about this image.
Has it been unearthed from memory? From dreaming? From imagination? I can’t be sure. It has been growing like an insidious weed in my mind’s garden; suffocating any other plant that might bloom there.
Is it a muse? A divine inspiration? Oh no, this feels far too unholy for any of that. Far too obsessive.
With all this in mind, I’m not sure I should be seeking it out.
Slowly, I wind down the mountain. Rolling down my car windows, I let the gentle breeze whisk me away. The sun is melting, giving way to the velvety and sticky darkness of night. Perfect for the nocturnal hunter that I am, in search of another image to drown out all the noise in the foreground.
There’s something about the sound of driving on asphalt that ebbs me into a kind of meditative state. A perfect white noise emerges from this movement, like a metronome along which to set the tempo of my thinking. I’ve turned the radio down precisely for this reason. I like to hear when my thoughts begin to sound out their notes; at present they are in a jazzy kind of discordance.
Life, in the wake of all the stark changes that have come about, has taken on a kind of erratic jazzy tone too. In the face of making sense of this infinitely splintering personal world, maybe my single focused task was a necessity. Or perhaps I am justifying madness after the fact.
On this crisp morning, dew settles and condenses on the faces of boulders sticking out amongst a thicket of emerald shrubs. Redness rises with the sun’s movement, soaking the surrounds in its syrupy-warm glow. I’m awash with a cleansing kind of energy, the kind that only a morning could bring about.
Last night, at an exhibition opening, peppered with old friends and colleagues, was the first time I was forced into confronting my new reality. Life had suddenly become so lonely of late and in conversation, I was, to my disbelief, asked to frame my new narrative. I am a lady of few words. My cells, instead, are made of pixels, fused together to form the granular and constantly reshaping image of a ‘me’.
‘How have things been going on your end?’ The simplicity of the question sent me into a shameful internal unravelling.
Saph was the first to ask, her caring and inquiring gaze bored into me, it was both revolting and entirely arresting. How was I to explain the romance and then subsequent non-romance between Xeno and I, and my direct role in destroying it for artistry (more explicitly the retreat). How could I explain that the visible image over the invisibility and beauty of love, would always triumph in my twisted mind. Worse still, that this fact only bothered me tangentially, affecting more of my sense of self than anything else.
During my time with Xeno, I was starting to become a little more likeable to myself. When we were together, I felt a palpable sense of growth, a silken softness that I never knew myself capable of feeling or expressing. With the loss of her presence, I felt my edges callous and harden again.
Romance for me was always more fleeting than forever. Maybe I lost her because of this belief. Of course, I foresaw her eventual departure; she’d said much to me before I left for the retreat. Even so, I didn’t think she would actually leave. Things always had a way of working out for me, no matter the recklessness and brashness of my decisions and I wasn’t accustomed to this loss and the resulting bruise to my ego.
I plied myself with cigarettes and absinthe and told Saph half-truths, keeping my real thoughts veiled under equivocations as I’d learned to do, so diligently, since childhood. I ventured out with a simple ‘Xeno and I didn’t work out. Worse, Suki is lost, and my house is still covered in her ginger fluff, it’s like the beginning of a crime scene.’
Saph had always been disarmingly honest, I’d always admired and feared this quality and she was no less vulnerable last night. She said she was sorry because Xeno seemed good for me and then told me of her own troubles. She had lost funding on her film which was on the verge of completion and had been on a week-long bender that was about to bleed into tonight. Naturally, I tagged along and invited her for a drive with me over a weekend.
I snapped out of reverie and gave my attention to the morning painted in red. The waking plants, the white noise slowly lulled me out of last night’s revelry and into the momentum of the new day and my task ahead.
I felt a new determination to cast my restless energy into searching and seeking.
There are many images to be captured in passing. Images that are impossible to transfer into the stillness of a single frame but are themselves animated by the motion of the car.
The image in my mind, however, hovers and scarcely leaves me alone. Like a monolith that cannot be moved until I find it. It is me that dances around it frenetically, me that is pulled into its orbit.
Memory is a funny thing, a shapeshifter that alters its form when you begin to look it directly in the eye. Did I just cut and paste, in mosaic-fashion, extracting from my imagination or a dream and transposing it into memory?
I suppose it doesn’t matter much. I tamper with reality every day. Capturing a moment and altering its contours in the darkroom, playing with light contrasts and exposure with chemicals; turning the ordinary into something surreal.
‘Thanks for coming along,’ I said rather gingerly. It had been a few weeks since our bender.
Saph smiled pensively, ‘Of course, Luna, I’m so happy to finally be leaving the mania of the city. The pressure of trying to be someone is really getting to me, it feels good to be out here. My perspective is already shifting. How’s your search been going?’
‘I agree, the city can be so constraining and cloying sometimes. I often just feel really aware of the awkwardness of my identity. It’s like I’m constantly caught between curating a self for the city and trying to find a spot for me within it. It’s been kind of therapeutic to be faceless and on the road. I’m a little caught up on how I should go about searching, I haven’t found anything yet really. I’m not sure if I should be looking for someplace to create the image or for the exact place where it will be found?’
I had lied to her, of course, about the specific image I was looking for. I’m not sure why. Or rather I do know, and it scares me. Exposing it to the world and its natural lighting, even in plain conversation would degrade it. I barely want to articulate it in my thoughts. Whatever, it didn’t matter, did it? My thinking had been so concrete of late, torn amidst dichotomies and I wasn’t sure how I was coming across. I wasn’t able to think straight; time and purpose seemed to warp around the image in my mind leaving everything else smeared and distorted. I had barely even noticed that I’d been on the road, that I’d been in conversation, my eyes were peeled for only one specific purpose sharpened for the hunt, the unusual piece of rubble across this landscape of stone.
My recall was much sharper and cleaner a few weeks ago. I’ve been feeling for a while now that my memory has been recoiling, reverting to a less powerful state. To put it plainly, I cannot remember in detail as I once used to. I’ve lost the ability to quickly pull a pristine memory from pond to surface; retrieving a memory now means its remains are eroded and covered in detritus. For example, I have been trying to remember some of the images that have haunted me throughout my life. One that I remember vividly, from my childhood, is a large-mouthed white cave with an underground lake near the seaside. Its water was crystal clear, allowing a clear line of sight into the heart of the cave, or so I had imagined. Past this image, things become murky.
In particular, I’ve been struggling to remember an image or rather the destination I would reach through guided relaxation tapes edging me toward what I’d imagined as a paradise for myself during my adolescence. It has vanished altogether from my memory, try as I might to reimagine it, it remains cloaked. The last month, too, has been concerningly hazy. I cannot recall how the four weeks passed, much less who I conversed with, what I ate or what I wore. It is only my time on the road and the image that is illuminated. This is new for me, I used to thrive off details and specificities. I can no longer wind the memory reel tightly, no longer project it.
‘To answer your question,’ Saph thoughtfully replied, ‘I think images are a combination of something created and something found. An image that is found still needs to be framed and so I think that it’s only really created when you cast it through a specific lens.’
‘Yeah, that’s a great point,’ I said a little too dismissively.
Saph had always been too good of a listener, always a little too perceptive and I didn’t want any of that right now, in the face of such a precarious mental state. I needed to distract her, and better yet get out of my own head.
‘How have things been going with you. Any luck with new funding?’
Saph sighed, ‘No, but I think I’m going to go ahead anyway. I’ve got all the footage and I think it could really be my breakthrough into the surrealist short movie scene.’
In classic surrealist style, the film was about the subconscious and lucid dreaming, the protagonist was of course asleep throughout, which was equally as intriguing. From the few snippets I had seen, the cinematography was mesmerising and novel, I was really impressed.
‘You really could with this film!’
‘You think? I’ve actually had a change in the way I’ve been dreaming recently. I usually dream wordlessly, but lately all my dreams have been narrated and I’ve been waking up to strange riddles. Transient amniotic experience popped up the other day, it’s my favourite one so far.’
I giggled and was lightening up in spite of myself.
‘That’s a perfect name for your film. I haven’t dreamt at all since the retreat.’
‘That’s heart-breaking. I’ve got some cyano tea in my bag if you’d like.’
’Of course you’re carrying psychoactive dream-tea in your bag. I’ve actually never tried it before.’
‘Really? It’s excellent for inducing all kinds of dreaming. Lucid dreaming, vivid dreaming, daydreaming and kind of just feeling dreamy! You should try some. Here.’ She took out a tiny vial of indigo, vaguely shimmering loose-leaf tea and popped it into my jacket pocket.
She winked and said, ‘Drink it before bedtime. It’s like watching a film while you sleep.’
We drove on, through an avenue of trees toward craggy cliffs with dormant faces. Saph pulled out her camera and began filming.
I’ve unintentionally been logging some images that I’ve left arrested and abandoned on the roadside. They float by, in passing, when I’ve an absence of thought, sometimes as preludes to my dreams or when I let my mind slowly wander.
Photography rarely relies on imagination at first glance, but what of the images that the mind captures, the pictures that we store within memory? Are these images not equally as real as a photograph? I’ve decided to jot them down to keep the scenes with me. I want to stow them away safely at the shore of imagination and away from the relentless sea of memory. I’d like to exhibit it and allow the audience to imagine with me and create the image instead. I’ll call it The uncaptured image:
Mist quietly curls along the road, the road winds onward carving through trees, trees emerge outside of the mist and reach into clear ether that lies above.
Fields of dying sunflowers, cattle grazing so slowly they appear frozen and a special kind of light leak that illuminates mountains that lie beyond mountains.
Driving through the lush, undulating hills, two elderly women, on separate hills, dressed in dark green billowing dresses with white matronly hats adorning their heads.
Entropy encroaches and the cyano tea was an inciting agent of chaos. I’m sitting placidly in my car at the highest viewpoint in the city, watching the sunrise and the sleepy city wake.
Some cities rest whilst others never encounter the sweetness of somnolence. They stay awake for aeons, absorbing and remembering. The cities that never sleep steal quietude only ever on Sunday mornings, over public holidays or in the face of citywide disaster. I often wonder how those cities feel, and what kind of history that leaves behind on its landscape, if it’s at all visible.
Cascading like a waterfall, the lights slowly begin to turn on along the uppermost contours of the city’s sheer vertical face. Shadows start to fall again, but the kind that marks the beginning of the day, occupying their scarcest form. The sleep spell breaks slowly at first and then all of a sudden, cars begin to whizz up and down the city’s triangulated facade, the ocean begins to lap with more vigour, people scurry about in their houses and then shuffle about out in the streets. Placid to chaos in the matter of minutes.
I, in a strike of defiance or lunacy (as of course a Luna-named person would do), have destroyed any semblance of a sleeping pattern altogether. I have been either in deep excessive dreamless sleep or in a state of agitated insomnia over the last month. Maybe this tea was long overdue.
Cyano started off as a soothing balm for my neglected dreamscape and soundless sleeps. I dreamt and dreamt, and vividly watched until I managed to kick up some magic dust in my mind’s eye. All sorts of strange waves began to surface in my mind, things that I’d previously drowned out, something akin to my original voice began to narrate my dreams. I saw Suki and Zeno having a picnic on a lilypad, I watched myself in monochrome on an infinitely projected 90s television set with my maroon beret on (in colour), I grew small and napped in the centre of a daisy and daydreamt within that dream that I was floating above myself.
Cyano threw me into perspective again and it was a welcome reprieve to feel that I was inhabiting my shell again. Still, I couldn’t have that, at least not now when another competing me with a defined purpose and outstanding task existed. This new version wouldn’t be spooked so easily.
The sun has risen and with it the new day. It was time for me to wake up and to break my own sleep spell.
Coffee, cigarettes, my essential pack of licorice sticks and I’m out again, scouring the roads.
In this way life passes and routine replaces some of the nebulous grasping I’ve been doing on my drives thus far. I’ve been isolating myself from the real world here in the bubble of my car, hiding all my mirrors lest I catch sight of my feral gaze. The unwanted muse has been extending its gravitational field.
I lost an opportunity to exhibit The Uncaptured Image to this Sisyphean task. Or rather, I let it pass right by me, as if in a night terror where you watch the bad thing happen but cannot seem to react to it. It’s becoming harder and harder to juggle real life and being a person these days. Sometimes I wish life was just composed of my solipsistic car bubbles where nothing else was demanded of me.
I turned on the radio to drown out the sound of my own thoughts. Reaching through a thick veil of static, a gentle voice pierced the silence, ‘Breaching the shores of Lim beach for the first time in a decade, the bioluminescent violet algae have surfaced to make a reappearance. Be sure to make a stop there this week. It’s an unforgettable sight.’
I turned cold, I couldn’t quite believe it. This was it. I felt panic and then a crazed elation. I stopped the car, took a breath, met my gaze in the mirror and nodded.
I drove with purpose until I could see the outline of Lim. The beach was awash in a deep sepia and I felt as if I stumbled into a memory. I rolled down my windows, and the light seeped into my car. No, seeped is too passive a word for it, it crawled in. I lifted my hand up and looked at it, it was as if my hand was trapped in an old photograph taken with a roll of nitrate film. There was a kind of sentience to the lighting. A leaden, heaviness overtook me, I was slowly being washed into it.
How old am I? How long have I been walking along this shore? How did I get here? Who am I?
The waves on this beach glow with a luminous, vibrant violet. I look ahead at the horizon, blue into blue, a mirage simmering. Even the sand glitters, I pick some up, only to discover that it is in fact not sand at all but a kind of fine white rock, as reflective as glitter.
I walk a little further inland to get a better view of the vista and to recapture my bearings. A deep yellow hue bathes the surroundings. As I approach, I see a black object poking out of the sand. I keep my distance but kneel gracefully to get a better view. I lean forward perplexed and inquisitive.
A wave gently crashes around me and suddenly the shutter clicks; an image forms.