[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1620326582″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51nzXULlYlL.jpg” width=”214″ alt=”Paula Huston” ]An excerpt from the new book…
A Land Without Sin: A Novel
Hardback: Slant Books, 2013.
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of this novel in our current print issue
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Tikal, Guatemala, 1993
I was looking for my brother. Whether or not Stefan even wanted to be found, I did not know. By now he could be the neo-Che of the Lacandon jungle, or lying in his own filth in a Chiapan jail, or even dead. Because of the way our family is, we’d only been in the same
country at the same time on a very sporadic basis for the past sixteen years, the most recent occasion being his priestly ordination, so it was hard to say what was going on with him. But I was ready for anything.
In my clothes were sewn a false passport bearing a two-year-old photo of him, the best I could do, and a one-way ticket out of Mexico, in case we had to scramble. And because I didn’t know whose list he might be on, I had a fake passport of my own, one of several made for me when I dated a USIA man stationed in Burma. This USIA man’s theory was that no American female could be overly prepared for extended stays in international hotspots, and since it looked like that’s where I would be spending most of my time, I took him up on his offer. A helpful fellow indeed, he also taught me how to throw a knife, a handy trick he no doubt picked up in CIA school, even though he would never admit he’d been.
Besides the false passport, I had a false job, thanks to a fellow freelancer I first met back when I was still schlepping my cameras through war zones on behalf of the Associated Press. I bumped into Dirk a month ago in Burundi right about the time I heard about Stefan’s disappearance. Dirk told me that a Mayanist named Bource was looking for a good photographer who was used to roughing it and used to the jungle and didn’t care about making campesino wages for the next couple of months. Given the annual income of most freelancers, this could have been almost anyone—under normal circumstances, it would have certainly been Dirk, who would go anywhere, anytime, as long as there was a good chance of dying in a heroic manner and/or securing himself a book contract with a major publisher. But Dirk was getting married, a recent trend among my footloose cronies. “I’m thirty-eight,” he said, as though that would explain it. However, thanks to Dirk’s new direction in life, I now had my cover and an airtight excuse for snooping
around in Central America, where I had not been for nearly ten years and which I had not missed in the slightest.
My false boss for the false job, Bource, turned out to be a bespectacled, formerly-handsome Dutchman in a red baseball cap who asked me, in a gloomy, preoccupied way, to please call him Jan. He, of course, did not know he was helping me in my scam, and clearly was not the kind of man who would understand the need for duplicity. He’d told me to meet him in Guatemala, in the island town of Flores, which was not exactly where I needed to be. But we were at least pointed in the right direction, and I could afford to be patient.
Jan’s son Rikki, a mere sixteen but already, I noticed, a stunning young pre-man, was extremely efficient and not at all gloomy, and the family truck, as his father had requested, was loaded and ready to roll at 3:30 that afternoon. We were headed for Tikal, perhaps the only Maya site in Guatemala with 100 percent name recognition, though I myself, being more focused on current events than dead civilizations, had always vaguely supposed it to be in Honduras. I’d been set straight on this by my Aviateca Airlines seatmate, a bearded Berkeley rainforest savior headed for the Biosphere Reserve, and his lecture pretty much covered my knowledge of the Mayas.
I spent the hour before we left doing a final check on all my photography equipment. Though I still had only the haziest notion of what my new job would entail—Jan had been stubbornly close-lipped about it—over the years, I’d learned what you should haul into the jungle if you were going to be there for a while. For instance, you never foray into boonies of any kind without your spare camera; in my case, that means hauling a second Canon EOS-1. Besides the two cameras, I had packed a tripod and a tiny can of WD-40, plus silica gel to protect the film from jungle rot.
Next, I pulled out my lenses. For an unsentimental person, I have a strangely passionate relationship with my lenses. First, there’s my workhorse, the 50mm macro for up-close work. Some of my best photographs over the years have been headshots, particularly of children, particularly in dire circumstances. I’m drawn to those faces. Somehow we click, those skinny kids with the big, sad eyes and me. Which is maybe why my one and only award of any consequence was for a shot of a baffled Afghan toddler—two, maybe?—standing in front of a just-bombed, still-burning house.
But I don’t confine myself to close-ups. There’s also my beloved f2.8 Ultrasonic, a slick 300mm lens for distance work, at which I’m not bad. I’ve found that if you’re willing to plant yourself in front of a scene, foregoing any fussy instincts to “arrange” the elements to suit yourself or other people, things turn up in the darkroom later you could swear weren’t there during the shoot.
Last, I dragged out my two trusty zooms, the 28-105 and the 100- 300 Ultrasonic, which is great for daytime photography. Based on the infinitesimal amount of information gleaned from my taciturn boss, I didn’t know how much of that there would be—outside daytime work—but the circular polarizing filter went into the pack anyway. Taking photographs at the equator is tricky business. The humidity level is so high that you might as well be shooting through fog, and that problem gets amplified by a persistent, jungly sun-glare that turns the sky silver; the polarizing filter is just about your only recourse here. Another reason to add my Minolta 4F strobe meter to the pack, which is good, I’ve found through years of jerry-rigging in the jungle, for measuring ambient light.
Light was actually going to be the biggest problem. One of the few things Jan let slip was that a lot of the shooting would be in the dark, either night shots of carved inscriptions, where raking lights could be used to bring the glyphs into sharper relief, or inside the pyramids themselves. I’d done some of this during a project involving Thai temples, my one major credit and a plum that would probably not fall out of the tree again, thanks to the precipitous end of my relationship with Robert, professional adventurer, poetic genius, photographer extraordinaire, and, as it turned out, major jerk.
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com