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The Awful Thing We Did to Eliza

Estimated reading time — 6 minutes

Dad said a man was coming from the city to photograph us tomorrow. I never had a photograph taken of me before. My parents had one taken with James when he was a baby. Eliza and I weren’t born yet.

The picture sits over our mantle, embroidered in a gold frame. Dad always promised he’d have one taken of all of us when he had the money. He’d say we’d have one of our whole family, together. Now he says it’s better late than never.

James and I are in the living room, drawing. Mom and Dad are seated at the kitchen table, drinking water and tea leaves. Mom is crying quietly.

“Catherine…” Dad says, “we can’t let this kill us. It’s the best we could do.”

“We could have done better,” Mom mumbles, “a better doctor, something…” She trails off.

“There isn’t anything we could have done differently,” Dad says. “We did what we could with the time we had. The Lord needed her back.” Mom lets out a moan.

Upstairs, Eliza is in her best Sunday dress. My mother made her look very pretty. Like she’s sleeping.

Dr. Coffett came to visit a few days ago. Eliza was moaning for hours before. My mother had come in to take care of her, and I was to move to James’ room. All night I heard her retching.

When Dr. Coffett was leaving the next day, I asked him what was wrong with her.

“Well, sweetheart, your little sister is very sick, but I promise you I’ll do everything I can.” He smiled a lazy smile at me. I counted two gold teeth.

After he leaves, Mother tells me Eliza has a bad fever. She tells me I can go up and see her if I like, but not to wake her. The stairs creak as I climb. It’s dark upstairs, and very still.

I reached our room and quietly opened the door. The two windows on the other side of the room had the shades drawn, blocking out almost all of the sun, even though our room was facing it. Tiny rays fell at the foot of Eliza’s bed where she lay, hidden except for her face. Her forehead was red and wet, her dark hair matted against it. I touched it. It was so hot. She was breathing quickly.

The man from the city is downstairs. He and dad talk about how much a “daguerreotype photograph” costs. Mother and I are in Eliza’s and my room. She is brushing Eliza’s hair. I put the flowers we picked today around her. I don’t like looking at her.

I’ve seen a dead person before. I was at my Uncle Jed’s burial. He was killed by two men who robbed his house. He ran after them and they shot him dead. But even with those little holes in his cheek and the black circles under his eyes, I could tell there was something certain, definite about him. Eliza didn’t have that. She very well could have been alive, except for that stillness.

It was the stillness which scared me. All the signs of her sleeping were there, save for the gentle up-and-down motion of her chest, and the light whistle of air from her nostrils. When you see a behavior so many times, you begin to expect all the signs to be present. Seeing such a vital few missing was disconcerting. My mind tries to make sense of it, but the effort brings on a slow, tired, nauseous feeling. I want to leave the room.

“Catherine, are you ready?” Dad’s voice echoes from downstairs.

“We are.” Mom’s voice breaks and doesn’t carry.

“Yes, Dad,” I finish.

Footsteps begin on the stairs. Dad enters, followed by the man with the camera. James slips in behind them, looking as though he didn’t think he should be here or didn’t want to be here, I couldn’t tell which.

The man with the camera is very tall, like Dad, with dark hair and a thick, dark beard. His face could have been whittled from wood, it was so lined. He looks from me to Eliza, and steps over to the bed to examine her.

“If, as you say,” he says in a thick German accent, gesturing to my father, “you would like to make this a picture of the family rather than a memorial, I will need to decorate the girl to make her appear alive.” He takes a small paint set from his pocket. “I will decorate her eyes, to make them appear open, if this is acceptable.” My father looks to my mother, who, holding a tissue to her eyes, nods.

Turning, he descends to one knee beside Eliza’s bed. His back is to us.

A few minutes later, he stands up and says, “I believe she is ready.”


We look behind him at Eliza. The man had painted a set of eyes onto her eyelids. Thin black paint outlined the shape, in the middle of which sat a brown iris around jet black pupils. He had also drawn thin flecks over the eyes for eyelashes.

They weren’t grotesque or frightening. They were just… off. Eliza’s eyes were blue, not brown, but that wasn’t it.

Mom once said between life and death was a barrier, a wall which we cross over only once. The eyes on Eliza seemed to bring her back over that wall, even if the eyes were a little abnormal. I felt a mixture of hope and uneasiness.

The man asks if we’re ready.

As we group together around Eliza’s bed, the man, now behind the camera, says, “One more thing. The exposure will take forty to fifty seconds, so, if you will, please remain as still as possible in order to minimize any blurriness.”

I supposed Eliza’s face would come out crystal clear.

“On the count of three.”

Eliza was buried the next day.

We held a funeral for her at Saint Catherine’s church, and buried her in the graveyard next to it. Mom howled when the casket was closed. I guess it’s because that’s when she knew she wouldn’t ever see Eliza again.

The tiny coffin looked very odd to me. James, my dad, and two men I didn’t know carried her outside. I could tell James was struggling with the back corner, but he still did all right. A lot of people came out, all wearing black. Eliza was in white. They washed the paint off her eyes before they put her in. She still made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know why.

We put the photograph in its own gold frame. It was put right in the middle of the mantle. It was always nice to walk by and look at. It was helpful to remember what she looked like. You stop seeing a person and for some reason, their face begins to fade. You can’t quite remember what they looked like, or the specific features that made them, them.


A few weeks later, I was looking at the photograph again. I did it less often now, but I still stopped from time to time. I was looking at Eliza, but I was also looking at myself. I liked seeing my face. I knew what I looked like, but somehow seeing my face in the photograph was different from looking in a mirror, or seeing your reflection in a pond.

I also felt badly, because I knew Eliza would never see a picture of herself. She would never know what she looked like when she was younger. She would never watch herself grow up. Hot tears burn in my eyes as I look at her. Painted eyes behind the gray of the picture. A look on her face, an almost sad…

I stopped.

I didn’t know what it was, but I could feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I started to feel cold. Something was out of place. Something was wrong.

I stared at Eliza’s face, just above the blankets, looking for the thing that had registered growing dread in my subconscious, but which I couldn’t readily focus on. It was something instinctual I felt; I knew fear, but I didn’t know why.

I squinted at the photograph, at the thinness of her cheeks made even more apparent in the light from the camera, at her pursed lips and her drawn-on eyes. I knew I was looking right at it, but I couldn’t see it. I felt as if I were lost in the woods at night, knowing there was something just beyond my eyesight, something monstrous and heinous, glaring back at me, grinning as I frantically searched for it, knowing I can’t find it. As I stared at the photograph, my fear turned slowly to dark, clammy terror. Nausea rolled over me, my hands quivered, and for my own life, I did not know what was wrong!

And then I saw it.

I saw it because I remembered what the man with the camera had said that day, what I had thought, and that fact slid slowly into place in the forefront of my mind like a heavy gray stone. The idea clicked solidly with my fear of something terribly unnatural, terribly wrong, and my primal fear was suddenly explained. The room spun as the realization dawned upon me, as numb, raw shock crashed into me. I wondered how I couldn’t have noticed it before, as I recalled how many weeks it’s been since the burial, and how tired or drunk Dr. Coffett had looked the last time he came by, as wrenching disbelief crept up my spine, and every nerve in my body fired blank terror.

Eliza was blurry.

Credit: Colin’s Home for the Damned

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