Rosalind Palermo Stevenson: Excerpt from The Absent (a Novel-in-progress)


The early morning air is still cool. Traces of the night are more absent than present. Suddenly, as though out of nowhere, the Indian returns from the ruins; he starts giving water to the animals and appears to be the same as when I left him. All the equipment is packed and the Indian loads it onto the mules. I feel the temperature rising. Soon it’s scorching. When we arrive back at the base camp it’s like reaching home.


Mr. W_____ hands me something that looks like bread, a dark substance, made from the supply of flour that remains. Before night falls we examine the negatives of the ruins. I can see he’s pleased. I point to the place on the negative where the two rope lines show black against the cliff wall and explain that we used them to climb to the upper ruins. I remind him that the ropes will show white when they are printed. The dwellings will also show white. It was a settlement, I say. The cliff wall rises another 1000 feet above the niche that holds the dwellings. Ladders used to be let down to the base of the cliff so that those who lived there could climb up. It’s eight or nine hundred years since they’ve been abandoned. It’s something to think about, Mr. W_____ says. And then he moves the subject of the conversation to the composition of the rock face and the geometric planes; to measurements of distances and altitudes, and to the camera’s inability to measure. I talk about compensating efforts and point to a negative showing the Indian guide looking like an insect on the face of the rock. And here in this one the same view without a human figure. I mention the ability of photography to deliver different states of time. He finds the idea worthy, but not of primary interest. He picks up the plate and examines it. It looks docile enough now, he says. I’m not certain it’s docile, I reply—oh, it’s true the Indians in the region have become quiet because we have treated it as war. In any case it’s a kind of ghost delivered on the photograph.


Tomorrow you’ll go to Santa Fe, he says.

Yes, I reply, and begin wrapping the negatives in flannel.

Well, goodnight then, he says.

Yes, goodnight, I reply.


Instructions from Mr. W_____:   Proceed to Santa Fe for the purpose of obtaining views about military headquarters…and then continue East to the Survey’s headquarters in Washington.


Angeline, there’s nothing but desert and rock. You will see everything when I return home and print the negatives. Forms that rise abruptly from the earth. Ancient ruins. Indians. It is said the Indians are superstitious, but then who can really say what’s superstition? I have had dreams here that did not seem like dreaming…


The old church at Santa Fe.


The beams called vigas and the roof-supports.


The Church of San Miguel. When the streets were walked by the Tlaxcalans.


River. Ward of Analco. The Tlaxcalans.


At night I sit on the wooden stairs of the flat-roof inn. There’s the sound of cattle and talk of the fighting between the ranchers and the herders.


…there are pigs on the streets here allowed to run free. The public place, the Plaza, is filthy today from the wagon trains that have just left. It’s rough, and a little lawless, but compared to where I’ve come from it’s civilization. There is a telegraph office, Angeline. I sent a wire to you an hour ago. I will wait for your reply as a means of touching you…    


I entered the city with the mules hauling the wagon loaded to breaking with boxes of plates and equipment. The Indian entered with me. I looked like an Indian myself. My hair grown long and a band of cloth around my head to keep the sweat from my eyes. A bath was provided at the inn. It brought me more to myself. Moving out from Fort Wingate the main party will be collecting specimens and taking measurements.


Angeline, many questions are being asked about the survey.  There was a gathering given in my honor last evening at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Dubich. Theirs is the only brick house in Santa Fe. It makes me think of Philadelphia. There was violin music and a piano. Mrs. Dubich asked if I would give a short presentation.


Today I took photographs of the Church of San Miguel. Saint Michael the Archangel, conqueror of Satan. The church is on the south side of the Santa Fe River: the area that used to be called the ward of Analco. Analco is an old Aztec word meaning on the other side.


I photographed the old church today, My Wife. It’s called the Mission of San Miguel, named for Saint Michael the Archangel. The word angel, like your name Angeline derived from angel. The church is over 200 years old. A long history for this country. Though the ruins are many hundreds older. And the rocks of the region millions. The bell from the bell tower rang all the while I was taking the photographs.


A long history. The bell from the bell tower. I made exterior and interior views.


The exterior of the church has a triple tower diminishing in size each layer up. The huge bell in the bell tower is bronze. Some say it was cast in Cerrillos, while others say it was brought from Spain.


As I listened to the bell I wanted you to listen with me. It rings more sweetly than our church bells in Philadelphia, and with greater sonorousness. The sound seems to echo throughout the entire city. 


The triple tower surmounts the entrance. The church is narrow and very long. There’s a painting above the altar that shows Saint Michael hurling Lucifer down.


Angeline, The church is said to be haunted by souls of the dead who refuse to leave. All parts of the city make claim to hauntings.


Inside the church I burn magnesium wire to produce sufficient light for the views of the altar.


The souls of the dead. When do we not have them with us? They are always with us. But you well know that. You have lived as my wife these full ten years accompanied by my dead. The altar of San Miguel is adorned as it was two centuries ago: the colors muted with occasional deep reds and ochre. The dominant painting over the altar is Saint Michael, the Archangel, hurling Lucifer down. When I was in the canyon ruins I found several prayer sticks. I didn’t know what they were until the Indian guide told me. Angeline, I believe you have understood necessity.


The magnesium throws its light enabling me to seize in my view the double set of railings; the first of them has its gate open towards the pews; and directly in front of the pews is the altar railing. There are carved beams on the ceiling and framed paintings of the saints on the walls; the old Spanish frames are hanging at odd, exaggerated angles. A small cross sticks out from the top of each of the frames. I have used the stereoscopic camera. The magnesium throws a light like a flash of lightening.


A painting of Saint Theresa of Jesus hangs over the altar. She is shown as young. Her hands are clasped. Her eyes dominate the portrait. The background is dark, as is her robe; the darkness is broken by a white cape worn across her shoulders. And by the white flesh of her face and her hands. One bare foot is exposed at the base of her robe.

I will be home soon. I love you hard; it is a hard love. You understand.


 I have tucked a human figure in my view. It’s one of the Christian Brothers kneeling in prayer in a front pew. He is seen only from behind and wears black so that his figure disappears into the dark wood of the pew.


The magnesium stays lit only for the time it takes to expose the plate. Afterwards the church is again in semi-darkness. The Christian Brother approaches me as I’m putting the equipment away. He asks about life back in the East, he’s originally from Boston, but he’s not been home since he joined the Order. He was assigned with the others to establish the educational work here in Santa Fe. He tells me that initially some of the others resented being assigned to this wild and dangerous place. At the time he had been a little resentful himself; he found he had to struggle for the sake of his soul with his resentment. But now he has come to love it here despite its roughness. That is the work, he says, to educate, which in turn civilizes.


The souls of the dead.


The church.


The souls of the dead are said to influence the city.


The noise of the city. Only days ago the canyon silence. That last image of the mules standing packed and ready for the journey out. Strapped onto their backs the barrel-shaped crates containing the photography equipment and supplies. The glass plates wrapped in flannel to protect them. The images reversed in negative of the cliffs and the canyon.


This morning in town there have been complaints of bush wolves on the outskirts preying on the sheep. Someone said jackals. Someone else said bush wolves.


I photograph a view of one of the narrow main streets. The sun is strong; the street is empty except for two figures in the shadow of a building. They are at a distance and therefore show small and a little indistinct. Many of the buildings, not the adobe, are three, sometimes four stories high. The streets are noisy in the day, but even noisier at night. All night long there’s the drinking and the prostitutes.


All night long.


The drinking and the prostitutes.


The names of the prostitutes called out in the night:


…Queen; Spanish Queen; Rose; Gold Dollar; Peg-Leg Annie; Little Dot; Belle; Emporia Belle;  Scar-Faced Lillie; Oglala Shorty; Jack-Rabbit Sue; Four-Ace Dora; Razorback Jennie; Annie; Big Annie; Sallie Purple; Squirrel-Tooth Alice; Hambone Jane; Galloping Cow; Big Minnie; Rowdy Kate…


To be breathed out. Dead. As in the flowers of the dead.


Read Rosalind’s Interview with WIPs about her novel-in-progress, The Absent.