This is where photography and creative writing find a common platform. Short fictional pieces woven around the photographs presented and for this month, all the stories will be connected in a series, ushering in Thanksgiving and Advent.
Award-winning designer Ed Bannister’s heart and soul of photography lies in the American Southwest. His exquisite extraction of light and shadow in landscapes bring out the emotion of the skies, the tears of the rivers, and the passion in the snow. He sees the landscape for the messages and the timelessness, not just for the pursuit of beauty.
5. Heart of winter
The silence was deafening in the dark apartment and Alexander felt completely out of place as the shadows of the covered furniture engulfed him. This was her sanctuary, a perfect world only a selected few were ever allowed in, and even then, one had to earn the privilege. In spite of her fame, Stefanie was known for keeping her private life almost hidden from the world, and justified it by her fierce need to create a haven for her soul in order to recover from the horrors she had to cover on assignment. He had been there for some of her worst moments, having been assignment partners on more than one occasion. She always bounced back, always ready to face the next challenge without hesitation. This was the first time, however, that missed an appointment and had gone missing. Her office had no additional information to share, and to confound matters even more, they weren’t even sure where she was supposed to be. The last time she had touched base with them had been ten days ago, and that was highly irregular for a journalist of her caliber.
Working with the last light of the day filtering in through the curtains, Alexander opened all the drawers and filing cabinets he could remember. She had once shown him around the apartment and told him how she drove the carpenter mad with her “hidden-in-plain-sight” requests for cabinets to be built into the walls. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for, but his instinct told him he would find the clues to her whereabouts here. Like him, she accepted the stories nobody else would, because there was no spouse or child to take into consideration like their other colleagues did.
Just when he was about to call it a day and stop his rummaging, Alexander’s eyes fell on an old wooden box in the kitchen that had once contained some traditional Spanish butter cookies, now obscured with age. Her mother had always sent her one each year without fail. After her mother died, Stefanie gave all the boxes away except the last one, claiming it was the Memory Box, her special place to go when everything seemed to be falling apart. His hand reached out towards the box, not really wanting to find what he suspected he would, knowing her. Nevertheless, Alexander held the container firmly with both hands, closed his eyes and took a deep breath before lifting the lid.
At first glance, the only things were symbols of a quiet passion belonging to a woman who had come to terms with her single blessedness. There were mementos of holidays, places where she had left traces of her soul and perhaps even a relationship in some obscure city in a distant country. Alexander felt like like an interloper intruding on something excruciatingly private. It was one thing to investigate and uncover details to a story that the world did not know about yet, but when it came to a friend’s privacy, this was an entirely different situation. He stared at the box for ten minutes, hesitating to plough through the items, but then he noticed a crevice in the corner.
Moving the mélange of matchboxes, rings, ribbons, and corks aside that seemed to be screaming “we are the memories, we are here!”, Alexander noticed false bottom and tried to open it. After a few failed attempts, he muttered with vexation “Damn! I should have known she would have had a special mechanism built in. It wouldn’t be Stef if it were too easy. Think!” Then it struck him. Remembering the very first assignment they collaborated on in Yucatan that seemed like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, Alexander looked at the designs outside the box, found the two items he had a hunch would be the right ones, and simultaneously pushed in with his left thumb, and slid down with his right index.
True enough, he heard a small click and smiled, “Good girl, you remembered the veil inside the secret chamber of the cave!” But his amusement was short-lived when he peered into the bottom of the box. There were two letters, one addressed to him, and the other to a photographer based in Thailand who was one of Alexander’s best friends. This was the moment he had dreaded all along.
“My dearest Alex,
If you are reading this, it means you figured out the ancient art of the box mechanism, which I don’t doubt you will. The light is fading, and the taxi is about to arrive to take me to the airport. It is November 15, 2015 and I am headed for New Delhi, India and Mumbai via Uzbekistan, but only the Uzbekistan leg of the journey is sanctioned and will remain the official version. I am on the verge of breaking open a story that will rock the world, but could very well cost me my life and the magazine’s reputation. But hell, we only live once, right? I am fully aware that he world I am about to enter is a dark tunnel. If I do not meet you at Bryce point as we agreed on last Spring, then take the other two letters and courier them for me please.
In the event of my death, I want you to take my place and work on the story yourself. My initial research encrypted in a USB hidden in a small matchbox among my treasures in this box. I’m sure you’ll crack the password.
It has been an honor to work alongside you Alexander, and consider my life complete because of the friendship we share. Be safe and be well.
In eternal friendship, Stefanie”
He put down the letter, walked to the window and stared out to the thin ice that had formed over the river that seemed black at this hour. Wiping away a tear, he pulled out his phone and typed two coded messages, one to Brussels and another to Thailand. Darkness had descended in the heart of winter.
4. thanksgiving wings
Standing alone in the empty office and what used to be his living pace for a while, Alexander surveyed the stack of boxes in the middle of the room and the solitary black couch. The movers were scheduled to pick up all his equipment and files that morning to be shipped back to Germany. Some of the items would be sent to Brussels and be kept in the vault. He had moved so often over the years that this was routine to him now, but in spite of that, it was unavoidable for him to feel that sense of loss each time he vacated the premises. There was something therapeutic in packing though, giving a much needed closure that you wouldn’t get with simply walking out and away. Packing and moving entailed sorting out and categorizing, which in his line of work was never a bad idea. After so many stories, contacts and notes, storage space became limited and he could not continue to rely on the generosity of friends on the long-term. They had their own files to keep and Alexander did not want to encroach on private space.
As he boarded the plane for London, he was suddenly swept away by a wave of nostalgia. It was Thanksgiving weekend and although it wasn’t his holiday to celebrate being European, it was one of the American traditions he had come to appreciate. He envied the effort people put into flying home to be with their loved ones. In some cases, families placed greater importance on Thanksgiving than Christmas, Hannukah, or New Year. The choice of career did not lend itself to family and making promises to be home on or by a particular date, so while others were gathering around the Christmas tree or dinner table, Alexander was caught up in some exotic place that had no holiday trimmings. At best, if he got lucky and happened to be in-between assignments, Alexander grabbed his camera equipment and drove up the mountains, regardless of what country he was in. If holidays were about being in peaceful solitude and counting your blessings, five meaningful days in nature were far better than any church service or family reunion he could ever attend.
Long intercontinental flights were usually the time to catch up on his work, draft articles, and if he allowed himself the luxury, to read a book. He would change planes in Chicago and New York, so that eliminated the sleep option. He was too hyper to close his eyes at the moment anyway, with a million things on his mind. His mind drifted towards an old friend and photographer partner on certain assignments whom he hadn’t heard from in a while. Officially, Stefanie lived in Madrid but like him, she moved around on assignments and was never easy to pin down for a dinner date. There were times when they collaborated on assignments and could share pizza-and-comedy evenings to relax and de-stress.
Unlike Alexander, Stefanie was a stickler for order and was the ultimate gadget and social media junkie. There was no way of dragging her up to the mountains or even home on the range somewhere in the Rioja valley to be disconnected from the world for even 24 hours without her fidgeting about not finding a signal to check on emails. They worked well together and could read each other’s movements without even speaking, but there were also limits to their friendship that they both respected. When time allowed, they also teamed up for charity shoots in children’s hospitals together with another friend when he happened to be in the same hemisphere, something Alexander treasured. She had dropped off the radar completely for the last month and that was never a good sign.
There had been no time to escape to Yosemite National Park or even Joshua Tree before leaving. He had set his sight even to a photo shoot in Bryce Canyon in the hope Stefanie might join him there to say his favorite line he had ever heard her utter the first time they went there together: “loved the cheese, adore the sunrise but could you pass the eons please?”. But she had not contacted him as agreed, which could only mean she had not made it back to the United States from the last assignment in Uzbekistan. His body stiffened in his seat as he suddenly remembered the envelope she had thrust in his hands the last time they were together. “If I don’t make it to our appointment in Bryce Canyon as agreed Alex, take this to my lawyer in Brussels, he will have further instructions for you.”
3. twilight solitude
Slamming his laptop shut, Alexander felt as though he had just been kicked in the stomach, draining all energy from him and leaving him gasping for air. For the next few moments he sat with his hands griping the steering wheel tensely and stared out into the darkness, not looking for anything in particular. The film clip was a montage of videos smuggled out of various countries from Eastern Europe and Asia but all covering the same topic of child trafficking. It took him over a year to establish the contacts throughout Asia and Eastern Europe and and another six months to convince them produce the material he needed. This was the visual evidence he had been waiting for to plan his next story and organize the logistics involved to do so. This was definitely not a glamorous issue to tackle, but someone had to do it before more innocent victims ended up entangled in the evil web.
He had somehow completely lost track of time and as he reached out to take one last sip of his drink, Alexander realized that daylight had broken and he was about to witness Sunrise at the Mittens, something he had not done in a long time. This is exactly what I need to do, he thought to himself, work in the dark until the sun rises and a new day begins for those who have forgotten what a sunrise is all about. It was going to be more than just a story, and he would need to call in a team to do so. Much as he preferred to work solo on most assignments, the magnitude of this situation called for a trusted team of experts and a supporting network. He wasn’t even sure which country to start in, since the video had listed several possible countries he could begin his investigation in. Research was of the utmost importance to him for the next week, checking up on information and cross-checking validity of sources. Not too many informants were willing to talk to journalists, so he would have to tread carefully as well.
It took Alexander less than 13 seconds to choose two names from his inner circle to add to his team. These were names that were practically non-negotiable and men whom he could trust to go with him to Hell and back. They had, in fact, already done so in the past and were not afraid of anything he threw their way, except perhaps the lack of food or the loss of valuable equipment. In special cases like this assignment, Alexander communicated through encrypted emails, using a code they had developed over the years and needed to further explanation. The ten-hour drive back to his temporary office in Los Angeles gave Alexander the time he needed to contemplate the various countries and primary contacts he had in each one, and their supporting networks in turn. By the time he pulled over for gas in Palm Springs, not only did he have his team established, had made assorted phone calls from the road, and even managed to book a flight to Germany. That familiar rush of excitement and apprehension before any major story coursed through his veins and he was ready to go. But was the world ready for him?
The assignment in the USA was over now, and he had done what he had been sent to do. It was now time to wrap things up, cancel the lease on the car and the office, and say good-bye to his small circle of friends and colleagues. He would miss them, yes, but the words of his Columbian photographer colleague rang in his ears: “This is not our town, and this life of glamour and modern conveniences is not our place. You and I belong back in the field, back where we never know where to find clean water or the next place to catch a WiFi signal.” He was right, there was nothing here would not mind leaving behind, especially the broken dreams.
The road seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of him, but Alexander did not mind it one bit. He enjoyed driving for the sheer pleasure of driving, indulging in that intangible thrill of movement and landscape fused into one. The moment he obtained his driver’s license at 18, he discovered that a firm grasp of the steering wheel, eyes on the road and a large bubbly drink within reach was the best combination that had allowed him to do some of this best thinking over the years. It really didn’t matter whether he was stuck in traffic in a large metropolis somewhere around the world, or bouncing around in a four-wheel-drive in the middle of nowhere, the main thing was that he was driving and felt in control, something that could easily go awry. As the ocean remained a distant memory from his last stop, Alexander relaxed and focused his attention on the barren land before him. “It reminds me of myself somehow” he said out loud, “devoid of eccentricities.” He grinned at the thought of his best friends objecting violently to that particular self-assessment, but he didn’t care and stopped the car again, took off his socks and shoes and stepped onto the hot sand. Eccentric or not, this was a ritual he indulged in, embracing the desert awe.
This was no ordinary escapist joyride for Alexander today. The informant he was meeting requested a location as far away from civilization and modern conveniences as possible. All Alexander had been given were GPS coordinates and nothing else, so he had no clue if he about to meet men at the edge of the canyon or women at the foot of a waterfall. For all he knew it could well be just a tent pitched under a tree, and since all the arrangements had been made via encrypted email, there were no guarantees for what he was walking into. But that was what his life was all about, dealing with the unknown and drawing out the best of a rotten situation in order to present it in an objective manner. Sometimes a little tweak here and there would spell all the difference between life and death, or as another friend put it, the fine line between stupidity and bravery.
He released his foot from the gas pedal and slowed down to a crawl, keeping a close eye on the navigation system. This was one meeting he could not afford to mess up. Alexander parked the car two meters away from the exact location and looked for any surreptitious movements, both animal and human. His danger sensors were on full alert, knowing that it was more than just a story or his reputation at stake. The lives of hundreds of men and women could be saved if he did his job right and positioned his contacts in the right places without blowing anyone’s cover.
Squinting his eyes to compensate for the glaring sun, he pulled out the binoculars form the glove compartment to have a better scan of the area. One couldn’t be too careful in a situation like this and since he had no idea what to expect, the further the line of vision the better. Half an hour had passed, and the only company he had so far had been a nonchalant rattle snake and two vultures that seemed to be in a hurry to beat the others to a fresh carcass. An approaching noise above him drew his attention away from the predatory birds and Alexander’s jaw dropped in amazement. There was no fancy helicopter, or outlandish military vehicle, not even a state-of-the-art drone that dropped the package on the hood of his car. He had never seen anything like it before, and the sight of four messenger pigeons flying straight towards him, each attached to a corner of the small package, left Alexander completely stunned. The informant was going through great lengths to cover up his or her tracks and left nothing to chance in terms of digital footprints.
The birds had been specially trained, that much was clear. They were definitely not run-of-the-mill messenger birds and had been taught to release the mechanism attached to the package. Once the birds released the item, a small built-in parachute burst open and the package glided gently towards it final destination. Once Alexander managed to close his mouth again, he jumped out of the car to retrieve the small box. Inside it was a small flash drive, which he quickly plugged into his laptop and eagerly awaited the revelation. Was this the information he had been seeking? Or were they instructions to another location? When the screen came to life, Alexander stared in horror and disbelief.
1. in search of wings
Alexander slammed the door of his jeep shut and placed both hands on the steering wheel, mentally wishing it were someone else’s neck. Waiting until his breathing normalised again, he glanced quickly around the car to check that his bags and equipment were there before starting up the engine. There were days he wished he could simply pack up and disappear into the mountains forever, never having to deal with taxes, deadlines, lawyers, and worst of all, editors. Up there the only element there was to contradict his decisions was the weather, and Mother Nature was the one female in the world he allowed himself to be bossed around by. He was passionate about his work, and good at it as well, as the shelves of awards proved, but he did not often have a choice when it came to assignments. This latest bombshell that his editor had dropped on him was going to send him to hell and back, and there was no guarantee of coming out of it alive. At least he had been given carte blanche for putting a team together, and no expense was to be spared. He grinned at the thought of his accountant and insurance agent blowing their tops again when he submitted his receipts for auditing or claims. Being the best in his field came with pitfalls, being constantly on the road was one of them, and never knowing if he would see the morrow was another. Airports and highways were like a revolving door to him, given the frequency with which he travelled.
For the last assignment, Alexander had taken no notice of the rhythm of the seasons as they came and left. They were like silent ghosts passing through his life without really making a difference one way or another. In fact, he couldn’t even remember in which hemisphere he had witnessed Spring this year, if at all. The only thing was mattered was maintaining his cool in order to remain objective when investigating and later putting the facts together for a comprehensive and in-depth piece. That was easier said than done though, since the subject matters he specialised in were always taboo, controversial, and pushed him to the verge of insanity each and every time. Not that he was a cynic, but there was no such thing as a correct side, and the pursuit of truth was something that often came hand-in-hand with peril and sacrifice, not necessarily his own. This was the age "artificial information" as he called it, the internet providing more confusion than truth for those who sought it, and Alexander was not about to succumb to second-hand research done in front of a screen. He knew the strength and value of a solid step, a grip on the side of the mountain when you did rock climbing, and transferred these values to his work ethic.
There were still a few days to spare before leaving and Alexander decided to seek strength and inspiration in the only place that offered his body and soul the solace he needed: the mountains. His friends often laughed at him for preferring the seduction of the rough terrain to the bright city lights, but the open spaces, the embrace of the mountain air, the welcoming soil beneath his trekking shoes, and the kiss of the morning sun were the priceless romance his spirit needed when things got rough. He could close his eyes and be transported back to his favourite places when need be or he felt the onslaught of another anxiety attack. The remedy his soul yearned for during such moments could be found at dawn at 10,000 feet.
As a young boy, Alexander often joined his father on long drives and endless camping trips. It was during those isolated escapades to the desert or the mountains that he learned to appreciate clouds and what they did to the sky. Father had made it a point to teach him to be mindful of the graceful movement, the mystery of the colours, and the humour or drama of the shapes. Clouds were the language of the soul he said, not just meteorological physics or puffy manifestations of evaporated water. Legends and philosophies were woven around clouds throughout the centuries, and one could always pin flailing hopes on the silver lining on a gloomy day. His mother was more of the opinion that it was never good to have one's head in the clouds all the time, but over the years Alexander found the right balance and his peace with the clouds.
After three hours of driving, Alexander realised he had automatically taken the coastal road and was about to witness a spectacular sunset. Although his heart was in the mountains, the power of the ocean drew him in just as strongly. He pulled over to the side, switched off the engine, grabbed his camera and tripod and walked down a trail to the beach. This was a much needed moment to collect his thoughts and map out his life for the next six months. A permanent home would be nice, and so would be a partner to share life and the quiet moments side by side with, but fate had other plans for him and they were just about to unravel his organised life in the most spectacular manner. Certain dreams would remain elusive, but that was the only way to give wings to others.