Why Were You Sighing?

Get the Flash Player to see this player.
audio: Why Were You Sighing?
audio of Lynda Sexson's story, Why Were You Sighing?

Re-Size Text: A A A A Comment

RSS blog print


Lynda Sexson

Why Were You Sighing?



A snapshot loosens from oblivion, floating into the present and onto the carpet. Long ago, when it had been unworthy to fit into an album’s little black mounting corners, the photo was tossed like Cupid on a Bicycle into a stack of paper.
     Maybe third cousins. Or old next-door neighbors. Not from the Irish clan or the Italian hillbillies, they must be the Norwegians. Two heftig women stand with a tynn young man between them. A still life of two rutabagas flanking a carrot. Two radishes and a scallion. Two crosspatches and a rapscallion.
     The women forget to tuck one heel against the other instep, the pastor’s wife’s recipe for a flattering look. Their platform sandals point like hands on a clock at ten to two; from the camera’s view, twenty to five. Inside a photograph the hands of a clock refuse to tell time, but the picture always gives away instant and era. The shutter opens and closes on a moment in mid-twentieth century.
     Maybe they never saw the picture, which remained undeveloped in the camera until another subject came up worthy of the last two shots left on the roll.

    Memento Mori

    They are saying I didn’t go in for the noisy pleasures. They hunted around and only came up with this snapshot. I didn’t even have wedding pictures made; thought to wait until I wasn’t showing and then it seemed beside the point. Oh, yah, I didn’t want to be in a photograph that day. Now it’s the last sight of me. They are saying I made the coffee strong. Bønner er bønner: Prayers are beans.

The women cross their arms under their bosoms, their hands tucked away out of sight, tension in their forearms.
     The boy has put his arms around the women, his hands spreading over their shoulders. Fingers like feathers. A great bird with two angry frogs.


    The one on the boy’s left had worked in a candy factory where the women took up smoking because of worms in the candy. The boy’s outfit reminds her of the white jacket and hairnet she wore while plucking little visible white worms off the candies.
         The one on the boy’s right will fall sick. A young man, almost like this young man, all in white, will come to her room. He will tell her that her breast has been removed. Her glasses are missing. The boy in the doctor’s coat will resemble the dear boy who used to win every time at Crazy Eights, who once stood with them in the sunlight.

Smiles straight as rulers. The stretched skin of the women’s smiles leaves no leftover flesh for upturns. They forget to say cheese. The boy says cheese. Their noses sundial late-afternoon, bulbous shadows across their lips.
     The young man in the photo is scrawnier than a Norski. But he is handsome, with generous, big eyes. If he’s related to these women, the Italians had been at the Norwegians. Maybe the Irish.
     A goose urges two hens toward the sky. An angel teaches two souls to levitate. The souls stumble, chucking their image like a photograph into the angle of today.


    For an Angel appeared, coming with the clouds through the firmament of sapphire. He walked up and down upon the earth, his sandals leveling the mountains. And his wings gathered to him scattered souls like chickens.
         The angel sounded as a trumpet, why were you sighing? And the angel asked them, what do you see?
         The souls turned and answered, we see sunflowers higher than angels.
         And the angel asked again, what do you see?
         The souls turned and answered, stones are as a wheel round about the flowers. The flowers are as wheels within the wheel of stones.
         And the angel called out again, why were you sighing?

Sisters. Or mother and daughter. They shyly, bravely, wait for the camera to shoot them. The boy gives them the tenderness they might offer him.


    . . . the course taken by mental events is regulated by the pleasure principle. Mama had given her Eskimo kisses and butterfly kisses and bird kisses. Then she stopped.
         Mama had taught her a verse about a hyrden og feen: a shepherd and a fairy. The girl learned to recite nonsense words, never learning what the verse meant, except that the poor shepherd’s arm var av. Mama never went on with the lesson of how to count past en, to, tre, or how a shepherd might be hakket opp by a fairy. Years later the girl could not name what she feared or what she desired.

One dress from J.C. Penney’s. The blue one from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The boy is dressed in white for work. White shoes. A thin black belt.
     An uncanny duplicate of the picture shows up on Facebook, defying photography’s claim to capture an unrepeatable moment. Foreshadowed by monkeys at typewriters, Facebook digitizes time’s unique events into patterns of infinity, like seeds on sunflowers.
     Another slender young man is also a head taller than another pair of plump women. He also clasps their shoulders with fingers like feathers.


    Just a post to our friends that we are now married in the sight of the law, legal in both the state where we live and the state where Mom lives. Coast to coast. This is our nephew. We used to make Lego castles with him. Now so tall. We are still grading papers, logging birds, defending wetlands, and now married. From sea to shining sea.

Though the Facebook image commemorates love, erotic as well as filial, the nearly identical old snapshot does not, in any daft combination, configure lovers. But the night before, the women in the snapshot had put up each other’s hair in pin curls, dividing the rows with a rat-tail comb, setting each curl with sugar water for a coiffure stylish since the Venus of Willendorf.
     The boy and the women take up the lower half of the snapshot that rises into a Kodachrome sky.


    Fresh from the sea and into the room came the handsomest man on water or land. The girl would say, I loved his scrinchy little Norwegian eyes.
         He saw her eyes before he noticed she was knocked up. He asked her to marry him.
         The mama and the auntie were glad enough he was done with the lady who dyed her hair and had hit him over the head with a frying pan. This one, loyal as a Collie dog, would never dye her hair.
         They were glad he was off the tugs to work his dad’s dairy. He put the girl in the little house up the road and gave her money for curtains.
         The mama and the auntie worried what they would call a stranger’s baby.
         The stork dropped his bundle and they called the baby their darling dumpling dandy big boy. They gave their baby Eskimo kisses and butterfly kisses and bird kisses.
         One day the mama, thinking of the baby, asked, how is elskling; the handsomest man at sea or on land, thinking of his new wife, said he liked her wide-bottomed yellow skirt. One turned rosy, the other turned pale.

Sunflowers, within an encircling border of stones, stand behind the three figures in the photo. Sunflowers stand twice as tall as humans, with bigger, blooming heads. As sunflowers go, these won’t be going to the fair. They’re roadside flowers, not a roadside attraction. Nothing in the picture is for the record book or an album. But the flowers put forth the impressive surge of a single season, offering whole platters of birdseed in Fibonacci spirals.


    Once the river dried up and stranded two turtles on a stone. A heron came and knocked on their shells with his long, thin beak. Why don’t you move to the mountain lake of shimmering blue water? The turtles said they didn’t know the way; they’d just make do. They crossed their arms inside their shells. I will take you, offered the heron. The turtles knew about the appetites of herons. I cannot eat you; your shells are much too hard, he said, tapping on them again. He put them in his basket and soared toward the sun. Too high, too swift, too far, they cried. In another story, in another time, the heron would overturn the basket, tumbling them onto the rocks, cracking them open and feasting. But in this picture the heron embraces the turtles as birds of a feather. When they reached the shining mountain lake the heron set them out to bask upon a log. The turtles pulled in their heads asking, when will you take us back to our stone?

In the old photograph a young man enfolds two women as summer dries up behind them. The heads of the sunflowers spiral both left and right.