Danilo found the camera on the beach. It looked expensive, left by one of the wealthy backpackers. He pressed each button, but the screen remained dark. Before he left school to work on his father’s fishing boat, he learned the English adage, “a picture is worth one thousand words.” Peering into the blank screen he couldn’t think of one, though he felt the weight of thousands, like all that water on his back when he dove among the corals.
That day Danilo felt as if there were only two places in the world: where he was and where he should have been.
Where he was: the Gallery, an alley where the villagers’ broken things collected. There was the boat Pawi rowed into a storm to save Jago and Maggie. There was the red TMX moto Armando used to take the Reyes sisters to the doctor across the island when they had dengue fever. Each generation replaced the last’s broken, sentimental things and only Danilo knew the stories of all of them, now that his father was gone.
Where he should have been: his father’s funeral procession. He heard the mourners sing and imagined tourists gawking, his grandmother without a hand to hold. Pawi would have stepped up, while her own grandson hid in Pawi’s old boat, digging through piles of forgotten electronics for something that might bring the camera, if not his father, back to life.
Danilo’s father came from the north where they hang the dead in coffins high upon the cliffs, closer to God. He didn’t believe in God, but his father did. Their village didn’t have cliffs, but his father loved it because his mother loved it. Danilo hoped they were together now. He squeezed his eyes shut and body tense as if he could take his cynicism and compress it into belief like the rocks that became gems under the weight of mountains.
He strung the camera around his neck and pushed the TMX to the petrol station. He didn’t know if it would run, or exactly where he would go if it did, but if this was belief, he needed to test it. Before he left, he stuffed a handful of chords and adapters in his pocket.
The bike ran through the night. Before dawn, Danilo pulled over onto what would have been the shoulder of the road if it had much of an arm to speak of. He laid the moto in a patch of vines, then rested his head on the ground, what would have been a shoulder if he had somebody to lean on.
He awoke in the shadow of a hill, cut into a stepped lattice of rice patties. The entire community worked together, harvesting the crop. All around him grain had been piled on banana leaves to dry, blocking the road north.
“Boy,” said a woman approaching him with a plate of steaming rice. “Eat, then help.” Danilo did as he was told.
He worked through the hot afternoon, copying a girl his age. She was tall with strong arms and stronger focus. They didn’t speak while they worked so not to interrupt the rhythm of the harvest.
In the south, little grew in the salty earth. Instead, they fished, and fishing was all talk. Row, talk—scout, talk—dive, talk—talk more, dive again. The greatest fishermen were only as great as their tales. This too, his father loved about the south, and it occurred to Danilo that he must have harvested rice as a boy in the north. Maybe that’s why he left: the quiet.
“What’s that, around your neck?” said the girl, as they walked back to the road.
“Can I hold it?”
Danilo pulled it over his head and handed it to her.
She smiled. “The turistas have them,” she said. “My mother says if they catch you in a picture, they steal a part of your soul. Do you think they can?”
Danilo almost said that he didn’t believe in souls, but said, “I don’t know,” instead.
“Does it work?”
“It might. Does your village have power?”
The girl led him to a house behind thick trees, and started the generator under the stairs. “We can’t use too much,” she said, “or we’ll get in trouble. Only enough to see if it will turn on.”
Danilo emptied his pocket and tried each chord and adapter until he found a combination that fit. A red light flashed on top of the camera.
“Turn it on!” said the girl.
“I’m Tala,” she added.
“Where are you going?” said Tala.
“My father’s village.” He peered into the screen, the image of darkness beyond words he’d come to know.
“Are you going to visit him?” she said.
Suddenly, the screen flickered on, and they huddled to look. Danilo pressed each button again until an image appeared. It was of a sunset—or sunrise, Danilo considered—over mountains, like those his father spoke of in the north.
Danilo decided it was a sunrise. It lit the peak of the tallest mountain, with sheer, gray, cliffs, close-to-God-cliffs. He decided—no, believed—that he had glimpsed his father’s village, and Tala must have too because she said, “that’s it, isn’t it? Where you are going.”
Every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, Danilo charges the camera enough to see the photo again. He showed it once to his grandmother, who wanted nothing to do with it. She was superstitious like Tala’s mother. And so, Danilo never showed her the next photo, the one Tala took of him on the moto, about to continue his journey north.
“What about your soul?” she had said.
“I want a part of it to be there, in the camera with my father’s mountains,” Danilo said, though he felt a part of it already was, just as a part of it would always be in the southern reefs and in the Gallery with all the other broken things.