Light Year by Edward Hamlin


            Anne Sweigart sits in a Cleveland diner crowded with grim truckers and Elvis memorabilia, gazing down upon the sort of breakfast she hasn’t allowed herself in years.  After one look at the heaping platter she caps her drafting pen and calls for more coffee, knowing she’ll need the extra lift just to gut it out.  In her long career as a photojournalist Anne has eaten in every manner of dubious establishment, from bullet-riddled falafel shops in Gaza to filthy noodle barges plying the Mekong River, but while in the States she’s always followed a stricter regime.  She has preferred to cook for herself and dine alone, to exert total control over what enters her body.  Nothing fried; no dessert other than fruit; red meat in sparing doses only.  It has been her way of girding for the next assignment.  Having sweat out malaria in back-country Afghanistan and dengue fever in Dakar, she’s known for years that physical preparation is key to her success and, on occasion, her survival.

            Yet now she faces a ziggurat of pancakes slicked with syrup and buttressed by four stout sausage links, the whole pile glistening with menacing appeal under the green billiard lamp above.  This childish breakfast would have been an abomination to her a year ago, but now she finds she can forgive herself such indulgences.  Perhaps it is the years of subsisting on rice and lentils and gristly goat, on curries of suspect provenance and fruit gathered from chicken yards behind roadside squats, but she has decided that she will eat as she pleases and give it no further thought.

            And so Anne carefully removes her thick glasses, puts away the printout of climatological statistics, and begins her solitary breakfast, the featureless white morning sky entirely consistent with her program for the day.


            Down by the lake it is bitterly cold, as cold as any day she’s endured in Khost or Lhasa or Baffin Bay.  Her hands ache with arthritis as she unzips her camera case and splays the legs of the heavy tripod.  She has already chosen her vantage point, having reconnoitered the dismal shoreline the morning before like a soldier walking the ramparts, assessing fortifications, looking for points of exposure.  She is very interested in exposure, as it happens, but of a different sort: it is all about the light now.  The grey scalp of the water; the cold phosphorescence of cirrus clouds as the sun lurks behind them; the slow reefs of ice that slide through a spectrum of bony whites as the morning inches forward.  She is interested too in the absence of light—in the harsh way that a glowing cloud, for example, is bisected by the dark rule of a smokestack.  In the crevices beneath the tumbled breakwater rocks it is as black as a starless night.  All this she knows at a glance.

            She shoots a hundred pictures quickly, then leans back on a frigid rock to smoke a cigarette, killing time while the light evolves.  There is nothing of traditional photographic interest here, but she has not come to Cleveland to create a thing of beauty or to render social commentary.  If she juxtaposes a factory’s smokestacks with the glazed face of Lake Erie, it is only to register a particular flux of light.  She needs this datum, this observation, just as in an earlier time she would have sought out the face of a particular child as a window into a war.  The fragment reveals the whole.  She holds a bundle of smoke in her lungs, mostly for the warmth of it, and wonders whether the bone-deep pain in her right wrist might hint at a larger pain.  The fragment, the whole.  Exhaling with a burst, she nods at her taxi driver, who idles nearby chattering on a cell phone in some East African tongue—Somali, she thinks.

            Her approach to her art has always been holographic.  Her most famous picture, the picture that won her a Pulitzer, focused on the smoke unfurling from an exhausted firefighter’s cigarette as he prepared himself to go back into the smoking Ground Zero pile.  The cigarette’s tiny plume said everything about the huge cowl that overhung the death scene in the deep field of the photograph.  She no longer likes the photo—there is a whiff of Schadenfreude about it—but she does recognize her signature in the composition, the universal concealed in the weft of the particular.

            The French love this about her work.  Floating somewhere in a bottom drawer of her life she has a reprint of an article by the French critic Dufour, who long ago convinced himself that her work is based on the mathematical theory of fractals—another system, she has learned, in which the part stands for the whole.  It is ridiculous, of course, and all the more so because Dufour has never contacted her to ask in plain terms whether his hunch is correct.

            A long rill of cloud is beginning to take on an umber edge, possibly just a pollution effect but a variant that interests her nevertheless.  She stubs out her cigarette on the stone breakwater and gets back to work, locking the camera upward like a telescope, targeting the open sky.  A wind is kicking up over a dirty ice floe on the lake; she gathers her collar against her neck, calculating her settings, thinking it through in the new way.  The old instincts no longer apply, because making classically correct photographs is no longer the point.  With a few turns of the camera wheel she dials in her aperture and begins to shoot, clicking the remote methodically in the harsh wind.


            The close study of light is enough to reveal everything of interest to her now.  Faces, steel or stone edifices, bodies of water are useful only as its interpreters, translators of the sun’s patois.  She has chosen Cleveland as her first stop because it averages only nine days of sun from December through February.  It is the death of light.  The shots she takes here will give her a baseline, the narrowest possible spectral band against which all other landscapes might be judged.  The perpetual gloaming of this tired city is the dark matter that reveals itself by perturbing the space around it, expressing itself much as she does.


            In the evening, on the airplane, the crew dims the lights and suddenly her visual field contracts to the diameter of a salad plate.  There is nothing before her but the tiny television screen with its commotion of chattering faces, hectic graphics, parodies of war: once again her world has narrowed intolerably.  Only by turning her head might she be sure that she is not alone in the cabin.

            Her peripheral vision has been worsening over these last weeks, outpaced only by the total collapse of her night vision.  Without ambient light, her eyesight all but vanishes.  She is staring down a dark tunnel into a dark night, unable to register whether she is an inch or a mile from the walls that enclose her.

            With the fading of her eyesight, her feeling for exposure has changed.  She began to pay serious attention to her failing vision, in fact, only when she noticed that she was nudging her apertures wider, shooting at f/5.6 or f/4 in situations where her instinct might have been f/8.  Her shutter speeds were slowing too.  She needed to let more light in: when shot with her old techniques the photos felt dull and lifeless, even on the bright display screen at the studio.  For a run of terrible months she puzzled with rising anxiety over her errors—for this is what they seemed to be when she inspected her work—worried that her judgment was slipping.  But the fact was, she had been a professional photographer for thirty-five years; she could not have forgotten all that she once knew.  It took time for her to realize that she was simply compensating, unconsciously, for a decline in her eyesight.  The problem was not in the shooting, but in the eye of the beholder.

            That spring, at the insistence of her friend Darra, she saw an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn and learned that she was suffering from the same degenerative disease that had blinded her mother at forty-two.  It seemed that a tiny defect in her rods and cones was destroying her ability to do what she loved most.  She knew without being told—knew as an article of primitive belief—that there would be no cure.  It was not about the science, which had surely advanced since her mother’s day; it was simply a circle closing.  Long ago she had realized that her drive to become a photographer had begun with her mother’s blindness, with those afternoons when the two of them would sit in the garden and she would describe the roses to her, the salmon petals, speckled canes, leaves the green of gunpowder tea.   This is where it had begun, and this is where it would now end, the blind leading the blind.

            Educate me, she told the doctor.  But keep it short.

            That night Darra tried to seduce her, then made do with listening from the depths of an armchair while she talked nonstop about her work, her plans and projects, the large-format camera she’d been enlisted to test for Nikon, the possibility of embedding with an Army Ranger unit in Mosul.  It was as if nothing had happened.

            Anne, said Darra eventually in his neutral voice.  Everything changes now.  You should think about the places you want to see while you still have your sight.

            She liked him, to the degree that she did, for just this factual plainness.  But in the moment she was unable to bear it.  She gathered her things and was back on the subway in under fifteen minutes.  Over the next three hours she smoked an entire pack of cigarettes, tipping open the hotel window and exhaling into the blurry night.  The lights of Manhattan flared beneath her, but her memory told her more of the cityscape below than her eyes could.  It was like being stopped in mid-descent while losing consciousness, the world half-filled with blackness, the mind half swallowed.

            Anne wore her clothes to bed that night and dreamed of nothing and of no one, the day a total loss.  Upon waking it took her a long time to recall what had happened, and this delayed reaction gave her some strength, as if her diagnosis were not the central fact of her life.  Only later, as the sun escaped and the light around her faded with its new suddenness, did she allow herself to collapse, drawing a bath and drinking room service whiskey until she fell into a leaden sleep.  She awoke some hours later still drunk and chilled to the bone, the bath gone cold, and threw on all the lights, inspecting her gaunt body in the bathroom mirror as she slaked the water from it.  Her fallen breasts were indistinct mounds, her pubis a dark smudge, the scar from her gall bladder surgery a faint white comma: soon she would lose the ability to take her own measure, to discern her own anatomy.


            Anne Sweigart could not have said which was more distressing, losing her eyes or losing her art.  It was an impossible choice—a cruelty—and in the last analysis the two things were one and the same.

            Her diagnosis had come while she was off assignment for a rare stretch, the magazine that was her usual outlet having been acquired by a company with more interest in paparazzi than photojournalists.  The summer gaped before her.  She did not know quite what to do with her pain, which at times edged into desperation, an emotion she knew mostly from observing others.  And so she installed herself at the family summer house up in Alberta, spending whole days in silence, smoking before the prim little lake and trying to think her way through her situation.  At dusk she would switch on a halogen lamp and write down whatever she had learned that day, then would cook a gradual dinner, listening to Shostakovich or Górecki and pausing at intervals to top off her scotch and write some more.  In the evenings she felt a sort of stirring loneliness that she could not expect others to understand.  Her companions were the placid water, the indistinct stars, and a less familiar presence, the disease she pictured as an ocher stain spreading across her retinas, pulsating with arterial blood, no larger than a freckle but fully capable of exploding her life.

            In August the decline in her vision seemed to pause, and as autumn slipped in she began to photograph the lake in a desultory way.  By night, bringing the photos up on a computer screen in the complete darkness, in the stillness broken only by loons and killdeer, she studied the images without putting on the reading glasses that were now her constant companion.  The pictures hovered before her not as photographs but as color fields, studies in the values of light, spectral abstractions.  She watched them warily, like prey, and eventually they began to change under her unfocused gaze.  After the long shapeless summer she felt her curiosity piqued—an idea forming—and by first snowfall she was back in New York, laying plans, studying books on the physics of light, filling notebooks with ideas in a large hand.

            By the time she left for Cleveland she knew that her new art was to photograph not the things of the world, but the light that whispered through them.


            She is traveling as lightly as a serious photographer can: a simple backpack for her clothes and books and computer, the battered aluminum hand-carry for her gear.  By the time spring arrives she has lugged her bags through eleven airports, following her luminous itinerary through the pellucid light of the Caribbean, the smog of São Paulo, the prismatic display overhanging a cataract in the Paraguayan rainforest, the carbon black light fused into the rocks of the Atacama Desert in Chile where it has not rained in hundreds of years.  She has also been struck by a scooter that roared out of the blackness; cheated out of small change because she couldn’t read the denominations of coins; tricked into hope, in Santiago, by a temporary rally of her vision.  But she has kept going, and by the time she wanders at dawn through the cavernous modernity of the Houston airport she has shot fifteen thousand pictures.  With a plane change she arrives in Denver, where she is greeted by her old AP colleague Peter Dawes.

            Annie, he says, standing in a sunny nimbus behind the arrivals cordon.  Over here, Annie.

            She turns her head to target the familiar voice.  The tunnel vision, severe now even in good light, forces her to pivot her head, owl-like, toward whatever she wants to see.  Peter’s wrinkled forehead enters her narrow lens first; she tracks downward to meet his blue eyes, which have not failed to note the effort it takes her to locate his waiting gaze.  Any photographer knows the dance of composition, the sweep that frames a shot.  For her, every glance is a composition now.  It is a frightening burden, but it forces her to focus on what matters.

            Peter’s embrace is long and sincere.  She has known him for thirty years, since Phnom Penh.  In close-up his skin is a stained map: he has grown old.

            How long? he asks as he steers the Land Rover across the high plains.

            Since we’ve seen each other?

            No.  Until you can’t see at all.

            Anne considers this, the central question of her life.

            Months.  Or even weeks.  There’s no guarantee that I won’t wake up blind tomorrow.

            Dawes weighs this information and says: Then we’d better get to work right away.

            They arrive at his mountain home in the late morning and the light is everything she has hoped for.  This stop on her journey was carefully chosen: she plans to study the shots she’s taken so far in the clear, unbiased mountain radiance, borrowing her friend’s trusted eyes before moving on to shoot the raw radiation of the Utah desert.  She has plotted her odyssey so that the lowest-light stops would come first, when her vision is at its compromised best; the brightest light is for last.  Dawes leaves her bags in the guest room and begins downloading the work onto his computer.  In the early days of her career it would have taken weeks of darkroom time to harvest it all, but now it flows quickly, effortlessly, the computer ingesting her photos with a burbling sound.  They lunch on the sun-drenched stone patio, saying little, and by one o’clock are reviewing the Cleveland set in his studio.

            They cull fifteen photos and run them through a spectroscopic analyzer, fingerprinting Lake Erie’s friable light.  Dawes tacks a print of each and its spectral graph to his cork wall, gathering evidence to test a hypothesis she cannot yet put into words—she has tried, but it still sounds too abstruse—and they move on to her sojourn on Anguilla, trading grey ice for azure.  The spectra widen, unlimber themselves toward cerulean blue, the irregular hump of the curve shifting toward the ultraviolet.  This light is more complex, says Dawes, and though his science doesn’t ring quite true his perception seems dead on.

            By late afternoon they are in the rainforest, but the natural light is failing and her sight is shutting down.  It goes without saying that to continue by artificial light is out of the question.  And so Dawes puts the computer to sleep and opens a bottle of bordeaux and cooks her a fine steak.  After dining on the patio they move to deck chairs and lower them so that the whole sweep of the sky is overhead.

            Can we see the Milky Way? she asks casually.

            Yes, it’s slightly toward your feet.

            She cranes her head forward obediently, scanning the muddy heavens.

            I can’t even see the Milky Way, she says quietly; I will never see it again.

            Dawes can’t think of any comforting words to say, and so lets the silence speak for him.  After some minutes he hears the sound of a stifled sob.  She has been shot at in war zones, has nearly died in filthy backwater clinics, has lived a rootless and lonely existence for years, yet only now does he sense fear in her.  At nine he puts her gently to bed, asking only harmless questions.  Like Darra and all the friends she chooses, he is not one to demand explanations.  Only as he is turning to go upstairs does she reach for his hand and squeeze it.

            Do you want me to stay with you? he asks.

            I know you’re here, Peter, she replies after some thought.  And I know you appreciate what I used to be able to do, the eye I had.  That’s more than enough.

            Anne sleeps peacefully in the crisp mountain air and awakes ready to continue with the work.  But over breakfast Dawes convinces her to take a short walk to a promontory where the light is, he says, extraordinary.  They walk the gentle slope up his blacktopped road and he takes her by the arm to divert her toward a granite outcrop overlooking the canyon.  Her vision is worse today, periscopic: she scans the valley through her puny aperture, the land horizonless.  In the shadows below, a long flank of evergreens is scarred with dead trees the color of a cicada husk.  As best she can see, the light here is simple, obvious, of little interest.  Dawes pivots her toward the east and she sees a sand-colored rill spotted with intrepid pines, hangers-on, the whole array washed in morning sun.

            Do you see what I mean? asks Dawes quietly.

            She does not.  This light looks just as simple to her.  She studies it as closely as she can, trusting his vision, but cannot see what he sees.

            I don’t see it, Peter, no.

            The rock?  The ochre, white, moss-green of it, with a charcoal undertone?  Something massive about it?  Look again, Annie.

            Dawes, she says—and then, without warning, she is crying.  She squeezes her eyes shut and leans into her old friend, her knees wavering.

            Oh god, Peter, I can’t see any of it.  It’s all flat.  Underexposed.  Dead.

            Annie, he says, pulling her close.   They have not held one another like this, hip to hip, since Phnom Penh, when they were in their thirties.  She rests her chin on his shoulder for a few heartbeats and then pulls away, drying her eyes.

            They walk back in silence, her field of vision contracted to a few feet, her steps unsteady.  Dawes walks half a pace behind her, ready to take her arm if she should trip or lose her balance, though he is careful not to reveal this.  The silence between them seems to rouse the birds, to awaken them in every tree.  The smell of pine sap is strong in the heat.  It would be a pleasant walk were it not for her condition.  After a time she says: I’m like an accident victim who wakes up and realizes, only little by little, that she no longer has legs.


            Somewhere in the midst of the afternoon’s work—they are scanning the images from the Chilean desert now—she realizes that her sight is failing in real time, hour by hour.  Something is changing quickly and for the worse.

            In the year or so since her diagnosis she has harbored an imagined scene in her mind, one in which a woman awakes one morning to find that she has gone blind in the night; Anne has revisited the scene many times, wringing the fear out of it, until it has become nearly harmless.  But a different scene is playing out on this sunny afternoon in Colorado.  Now she is watching her sight drain away like water from a pool, swirling down into blackness, and it is the difference between dying in one’s sleep and dying with full awareness of the event.  She has never wanted to be awake for this final descent.  Peter, she says suddenly, this isn’t the right thing for me to be doing now.  I’m sorry.

            She pushes away from the work table and gets to her feet, disoriented.

            Annie!  What’s going on?

            I’m going blind now.  Right now.

            She looks frantically around the cluttered studio, scanning the wall with her prints and spectrograms, barely able to resolve the boundaries of things.  The diameter of her visual field has shrunk to a few degrees, as if she is looking down the wrong end of a telescope.  She automatically translates it into an f-stop: her aperture is now just a few clicks short of f/∞, the negation of light, its complete denial.

            She reaches for Dawes and says in a whisper, Peter, do you realize that yours is the last face this girl will ever see?  She turns her dim eyes toward him, then touches his skin.  After a time she says, Help me get to my bag.

            They pick their way downstairs to her room.  He stands beside her and supports her, sensing that she is losing ground to plain fear.  Clumsily she digs through her road-worn backpack, throwing socks and panties and three pairs of readers onto the bed with abandon, frantic to find something...until, from a zipped inner pocket, she draws out a small brown bottle capped with an eyedropper.  The label is stained with a viscous liquid and engraved with an ornamental script.  She regards it for a moment as if she could read it, but it is he who reads the words Tintura de Belladonna.

            Belladonna, Anne?

            But she is still rummaging, coming up this time with a plastic bag that holds pressed white wildflowers half disintegrated into powder.

            Anne, what is this?

            Peter, I need you to help me out to the patio.  To the sun.  Right now.

            He doesn’t know what is happening, exactly, but he does as she says.  Together they get her situated in one of the deck chairs and lower the back so that her face is inclined toward the sky like the sight of a sextant.

            They are at altitude and the sun is scorching, flamelike on exposed skin; there is not a cloud in the sky.  Let me get you a hat if you insist on being out here, Dawes says, and ducks back into the house.  When he returns he sees the plastic bag with the dried flowers in her lap, empty now, then notices that she is chewing something.  She swallows before he can speak.  Annie, he demands, what did you just eat?  What’s going on here?

            It is as if she has not heard him at all.  Anne unscrews the top of the little brown bottle, draws an amber liquid into the dropper, and carefully places three drops into each eye.  An instant later she screams in pain, covering her face.

            Damn it! she says, her eyes tearing profusely, her cheeks shining in the sun.

            Annie!  Talk to me!  Dawes bends over her, squeezing her shoulder and giving her one brisk shake.

            Rather than answer, she draws her hand back and exposes her eyes, opening them slowly.  He sees that they are swollen and very dark, then realizes that her pupils are hugely dilated.  He has never seen pupils so wide: they give her eyes a blank aspect, like the pupils of a cartoon character.  But she is groaning softly now, making an animal sound, and on instinct he takes the hat he has brought and covers her face.

            Peter, let me, she says, gently moving the hat away.  Dawes realizes that she is staring directly into the sun.

            Anne, no!  What are you doing?  You can’t look straight into the sun!

            It’s not the sun anymore, she says, and then laughs at the notion, suddenly lighthearted.

            What the hell are you talking about?  Dawes places his body between her staring eyes and the dangerous star above.

            Peter, in the name of our friendship, out of respect for me, move out of my light.  Please, Peter.  I know what I’m doing.

            No, Anne, plainly you don’t.  No sane person...

            Move! she commands him, and in her tone he hears the grit he has seen her exhibit countless times over the years, the irrefutable resolve.  The Anne Sweigart he has always admired lies before him on his patio, close-dancing with her own blindness, and he knows he cannot outthink her.  Dawes steps back, releasing the sun to drill down onto his dear friend.  Good, she says simply.  Thank you.

            He watches her for what seems an eternity, her head turning a few degrees left or right from time to time as a chef might turn a filet to sear it evenly, small sounds of wonderment or pain escaping her as the sun scorches down.  The light is so strong that the back of his neck is burning.

            Anne, he says, his voice no louder than the burbling traffic of sparrows in the myrtle.  Tell me what you see.

            She smiles and says, I knew you would want to know.

            With this she reaches for his big dry hand and takes it in hers for a moment, swinging it, squeezing it.  He feels a lightness in her, an ease he can’t account for.  A jay caws, scattering the sparrows, and this makes her smile again.

            I can hear everything now—everything.  It’s extraordinary.  I can hear your heart beating, for example.  Tok...tok...tok.

            She is right: she keeps perfect time with the rapid throb in his chest.

            But that’s not what you asked, she says.  You asked what I could see.

            She considers for a moment and says: I see pure heat, Peter.  I see the sound of birds.  I see the color of this conversation.  I see the scent of the pines.  I see the edge of the sawgrass.  I see you, Peter.  I see you very clearly.

            He looks at her eyes and they are wide open, the lids rolled back, the pupils matte black and very dry now.  Anne regards the sun without pain, with no reflex to withdraw.

            The light is all mine now, she says calmly.

            With this she turns toward him and flashes an old smile, the smile he hasn’t seen since the early days in Cambodia when they thought, briefly, that they might be in love.  Dawes kneels beside her.

            It’s done, Anne says simply, and traces the contours of his face as if it is the map of a country she once knew but has long since forgotten.



Edward Hamlin is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals. He was winner of the 2013 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, runner-up for the 2013 Nelson Algren Award, finalist for the Mary C. Mohr and Press 53 Awards, and semifinalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize.