"Collodion" is currently being edited by my editors! It #2 of a 3 book companion series.
Two people on the autism spectrum—a postmortem photographer and a Union army embalmer fall in love in this unusual, quirky, and sometimes dark, civil war era romance
Henrico County, Virginia
The two men, one dead, one alive, sat alone and across from each other in the great room so cavernous it would’ve echoed if they had spoken. Instead, the thunder of distant cannon fire and the tinkling of crystal from the swaying chandelier filled the space. Dust and bits of ceiling plaster floated about the air as the two men coldly regarded each other through the legs of a tall tripod where a large camera rested. The dead man’s icy smile sent a shiver down Osborn’s spine. It had been sewn in by an embalmer. The lips had been pulled together with a well-concealed thread knot that made him look like he might be jealous of Osborn for breathing. The embalmer had also opened the dead man’s blue eyes. They stared at him, but Osborn could not return the favor as he found eye contact with anyone difficult, even a dead man. Removing his oval-shaped blue steel spectacles, he blew the dust off them.
Osborn jumped when the door flew open. “Are you all right?” said his seventeen-year-old nephew, Ray.
“I am fine, I am fine,” replied Osborn, flapping his hands up and down from the fright.
“I’m sorry, Uncle. Did I frighten you?”
“Just a bit, just a bit. I’m fine.” Osborn shook off the surprise and walked behind the dead man slumping in his richly upholstered Fauteuil armchair.
“Are you ready yet? The cannons are getting closer.”
“No, not yet, not yet.” Taking the dead man by the armpits, Osborn sat him up and readjusted him. Bits of ceiling plaster had fallen into the man’s grey hair. Osborn bent down and blew some off.
“What are you doing?” Ray asked in a loud whisper.
“There was dust in his hair, dust in his hair, yes,” replied Osborn as his fingers flicked off the large white specs from the hair. “Is the glass plate ready?”
“I was working on it. I just wanted to see if you were…well, you know, that was a loud one.”
“Bring me the plate, bring me the plate, Ray.”
“Fine, I’m doing it. Can I let the family in? They are all out here.”
“No, no, no. I must work alone, must work alone.”
“Fine, I’ll be right back,” Ray replied before closing the door.
Osborn flicked off the last spec and adjusted the iron stand embracing the skull. Reaching down, he tightened the cleverly hidden fourteen-gauge wire affixing the wrists to the wooden chair arms. Walking around to the front, Osborn stepped back, tilting his head side to side like an artist critiquing his own painting. The man’s family had dressed the sixty-eight-year-old Union army general in his finest uniform to prepare him for his first and last photographic portrait.
“There, now, you look better,” he said before ducking under the black camera shroud. Osborn peered through the viewing glass, displaying a blurry, upside-down image due to the lens’s refraction. As he pulled apart the bellows of the camera, the general slowly came into focus.
The room shook from another volley of cannon fire, and the door flew open. Ray hurried in with a cough and waved away the plaster dust from his face. In his hand he carried a thin wood box containing the glass plate negative. Ten family members of the dead man followed him, all filing in behind the camera.
“We have to get out of here. I have the glass plate here.”
“Yes, yes. Put it in. I am prepared, yes,” Osborn said from under the shroud.
Ray blew the dust off the camera before sliding the box in. “All set.”
Osborn came out from the shroud and wrapped his thin fingers around the brass lens cap. “Please hold still,” he told the dead man as he pulled the lens cap off for ten seconds, ensuring the gentleman’s likeness for posterity. He replaced it softly with a twist. “Thank you for your patience.”
As soon as Osborn and Ray removed the various posing accessories from the general, the family members whisked him away to the funeral procession waiting outside. A tall man walked over to them. “Mr. Roche, your fee,” he said with money in hand.
Osborn raised his hands as if being robbed. “No, no! Give it to Ray, give it to Ray.”
Ray leaped over a footstool, jumping in front of his uncle. “I’ll take it. Thank you.” The man studied Osborn’s face with an odd expression before handing the money to Ray and walking off. Osborn shuddered and dropped to the floor from the sound of another explosion. A cloud of dust fell from the ceiling, covering them both. Osborn rose and shook it out of his hair, brown with gray at the temples disclosing his age of forty.
“You all right?” asked Ray.
“Fine, fine,” Osborn said with disgust growing on his face as he tasted plaster dust on his tongue.
“Eww, eww, eww.” Osborn tried to wipe it off with his dusty hand.
“The dust, it’s…yuck.”
Ray also shook the dust from his head and said, “We can pack up the wagon and head back a bit away from the noise if it’s bothering you.”
“No, no. If I am prepared for it, I’ll be fine, fine. We need to be first on the field after the ruckus, the ruckus, yes.”
They loaded the equipment into their fanciful red wagon with O. Roche Photography, Portraits of All Kinds painted in yellow on both sides. Osborn climbed up on the wagon’s bench and took the reins of their mammoth jackstock mule, Hoady. “The general was prepared by an embalmer,” said Osborn as he slapped the reins to move Hoady along.
“One of those doctors that make a body last longer?”
“I seen the sign back at the camp. Big ol’ tent on the south side. It said embalming.”
“Yes, I had read the President authorized it to send the unfortunate home. Replacing blood with chemicals, they do. Blood with chemicals.”
“Not a job I would want.” Ray picked up Moby Dick from the bench next to him. The latest novel from author Herman Melville.
“The smile was quite good, quite good.”
“I suppose. So, we were at chapter seven, if I’m not mistaken,” said Ray. “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
“Yes, yes, we were,” replied Osborn with a smile.
The wagon pulled up on a Union forward observing post atop a grassy knoll, a half a mile away from the battle raging in the distance. The staff members of Brigadier Major General John Sedgwick stood some twenty yards off. Osborn climbed down, turning to them for some sign. Their arms pointed here and there, and their mouths anxiously twitched and flapped, but that gave him no clue.
“Can you hear me?” Ray shouted.
Osborn turned to him with a blank expression. “You say something?” he asked, pulling his tobacco-filled nose plugs from his ears. He invented them for his nose, but they did double duty dulling loud noises from his ears.
“Oh, did, when did you…? Did you have those in the whole time? Did you hear the last chapter?”
“I did not. The cannon fire was too much, too much,” he said as he put the nose plugs back into his ears.
“Could’ve told me,” said Ray as he wiped the salty rivers of sweat under his red hair with his shirt sleeve.
General Sedgwick sat twenty feet from them atop his brown stallion, field glasses to his eyes. Osborn had met him a few times in the past. “Quite a fine uniform he has. So clean, so clean,” said Osborn, smoothing own his shirt and straightening his bowtie.
“What’s that?” asked Ray.
“The general. His uniform. I like it.”
“Osborn!” called a sharply dressed man with a gold pocket watch and a red tie walking toward them. Ray waved at Osborn for his attention, pointed to his ears, then pointed to the man approaching them.
Osborn turned and recognized him. “Mathew,” he replied as he again pulled the nose plugs from his ears. Mathew had an impressively waxed mustache, and light brown hair slicked back with pomade. It looked a bit like melted chocolate ice cream.
He stuck out his hand to Osborn with a grin. “Good to see you on the field, Osborn. How have you been?”
Ray jumped from the wagon bench. “Uh, I’m sorry, sir, my uncle doesn’t shake hands.”
Osborn sharply turned his head away. “He knows. He’s only doing that to make me angry.” Osborn twisted his wiry goatee.
Mathew pulled his hand back. “Naw, it’s a little joke between us, son, that’s all.”
“How is that a joke?” asked Osborn, pushing up the spectacles on his nose. “You know I do not like to touch. I do not like it.”
“Come on, now, Osborn. I didn’t mean it like that. So, how have you been?”
“I have been well,” said Osborn, snubbing him as if searching for friends at a party.
Ray flashed his eyes at his uncle and turned to Mathew, saying, “And… how…are you…?” with a glance back to his uncle and confirming nod at the end.
Mathew stuck out his hand for Ray and said, “Very well, thank you. You are his nephew…?”
Ray’s face brightened as he replied, “Ray,” and he shook Mathew’s hand.
“Ray, nice to meet you, Ray.”
“Very excited to meet you, Mr. Brady. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Thank you, young sir.” Mathew turned back to Osborn. “So, Osborn, I saw your book for sale while I was in New York. Excellent work. Is it selling well?”
“It is, thank you,” replied Osborn with disdain.
“Yes, I saw it while I was there for the exhibition of my daguerreotypes from Shiloh. I called it ‘The Forgotten Dead,’” he said, wiping a hand across the sky. “I plan to turn it into a book as you did.”
Osborn’s eyebrows jumped. “Humph.”
“I also saw your daguerreotype of Willy Lincoln—”
“God rest his soul,” they all said.
“Portrait. Portrait of Willy Lincoln, yes.”
Mathew glanced up to the wagon’s painted signage and pointed to it with his hat. “Ah, yes, I see you prefer the term.”
“Yes, yes, I prefer the term portrait to daguerreotype, yes.”
“What about photograph, Osborn? Everyone seems to be using that term now.”
“Portraits are of people; photographs are of things. I do not take photographs of people. I make portraits of them, portraits of them, yes.”
“It’s the same thing,” said Ray as he rolled his eyes, having heard this from his uncle a thousand times.
“Portrait is a more beautiful word, beautiful word, yes,” added Osborn.
Mathew pointed again to their wagon, half again larger than a typical wagon and decorated with gilded wood carvings on red sides that sloped outward toward the eaves of the arched roof. “Still with the Romani vardo, I see. What’d we call it? Big Red?”
“Yes, yes. Big Red, you called it. Big Red.”
“It’ll be quite a field today. Got to get out there quick. My carts are fast and light.” He pointed to a line of six portable hand-pulled darkroom carts in the distance. All, the size of four stacked hay bales with two eight-foot poles jutting out in front for the photographer to pull and maneuver. Inside they contained all the chemicals needed to develop a print. He had painted “Mathew Brady & Co. Daguerreotypes” across the side of each one.
“It won’t be how fast you get there. No, the better photograph will win, not the fastest. It’s never the fastest,” said Osborn.
“Yes, but the carts are far more nimble in rough terrain,” said Brady putting his hands on his hips and eyeballing Osborn from head to toe.
“We have one like it in the wagon. We used it at Shiloh,” said Ray.
“You should pull it out and use it now.”
“Our dark cart is used only for special, special circumstances. The Romani vardo allows me to have all the tools at my disposal, at my disposal, yes,” added Osborn, continuing to look around as if Brady weren’t there.
“And we can sleep in there. It’s real comfortable,” added Ray.
“The Romani vardo can float across any water. I sealed all the joints with tar, with tar, yes. Not a speck of light comes in if we don’t want it to.” The light was his most significant ally to take a photograph and its biggest foe to develop it.
Brady rocked back and forth on his heels. “Anyhow, I also employed three runners to take our daguerreotypes to my publisher right away.” Brady cleared his throat, and raised his chin. “You should have come to work for me. I’d have your ‘portraits,’ as you call them, out in a jiffy.”
“You always use that word, jiffy, jiffy. What is that word jiffy?”
“Mr. Roche, good to see you again, sir,” called General Sedgwick as he approached atop his horse, his staff following close behind.
Osborn tipped his hat. “And you, General.”
The general turned to Mathew and said, “Mr. Brady.”
“General,” replied Mathew.
The general turned back to Osborn with a grin. “I understand you are now a captain, sir. Congratulations are in order.”
“Captain?” asked Mathew.
The general nodded. “Yes, appointed by General McClellan himself. It’s an honorary rank, but that still deserves respect.” The general turned back to Osborn. “Are you still his personal photographer?”
“He prefers me, but I needed to seek other endeavors and photograph the grit of war, the grit of war, yes. The general appreciates my contribution, contribution to the historical record of the rebellion.”
General Sedgwick nodded his approval. “Very good. I suppose that is needed.”
“Photography is my contribution…” continued Osborn as Ray looked to the heavens and covered his face with his hands. “…It’s the way I fight a battle for us all.” The general’s brows furrowed; interest piqued. “I fight time. Time is the enemy to all men, an ally to none. My portraits and photographs are the only weapons to fight it, to fight it as they capture a moment of it like capturing one soldier from time’s endless army, time’s endless army.”
The general clapped his hands with pleasure. “Bravo, sir!” he said, a great smile upon his face. “Well played! I would like to see some of your captured soldiers later in the day.” The general raised his field glasses to the battlefield. “Let’s move to see our right flank,” yelled the general to his staff. He turned back to Osborn. “Good day to you, Captain. I wish you luck in your endeavors with time!”
With a surprised expression, Brady said, “Well, Captain—”
“Will you be photographing today?” interrupted Osborn.
“Well, no, I am only here to supervise my employees and—”
Osborn walked away mid-sentence. Brady rocked on his heels, hands on his hips, and turned to Ray’s confused face. “Go on, boy. Go get him,” he said in a slow, disappointed tone toward Osborn’s back.
Ray ran off and caught up to his uncle. “What happened back there? Everything we’ve worked on for years. After he asked you how you are, you ask him how he is. And you didn’t introduce me. How many times have I explained that one to you? I had to introduce myself. The worst part was you walked off without saying a word! That was very rude, Uncle.”
“I remembered all that. I just didn’t want to do it. I don’t like him, don’t like him.”
“Mathew Brady is the most respected photographer in the world.”
“He is not a photographer.”
“He is a photographer. He has just escalated his business and now employs other photographers.”
“Which he takes credit for. That’s unfair. It’s cheating.”
“Yes, but it was still rude, and I can see he likes you. He admires you enough to want to hire you.”
“I work for myself. It’s my art.”
“I know, I’m saying if you want friends like you say so often, you have to play by—”
“Different rules, different rules. Yes, I remember. I will work on that, but not with him, not with him, no. The best kind of friend to have is one you respect.”