Memories are linked by the thinnest of strings. One filament connects to another—not by a straight line of cause and effect or any logical array of sense—but an embroidery of knots and gaps, splices and fissures, where all threads eventually and erratically cross.
Estes Park, Colorado. January, 2021. Yesterday, a mob storms the Capitol. Today, I stand in the bathroom with a mascara wand in hand, studying my eyes in the mirror.
Boone, my eight-year-old, walks in and asks—What are you doing? Are we going somewhere? There’s an eagerness in his voice. He turns up his smile at the end of the question. We’re in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. We haven’t gone anywhere in ages.
No, I say. Sorry, bud. I’m getting ready to take a picture of myself.
Oh, he says, crestfallen. Why?
Because, it’s my creative process, I answer.
What I don’t explain is my sense of self remains unsteady these days without making visual contact with my body. I have trouble writing if I don’t first acknowledge myself as a physical being. It has to do with feeling real in such an unruly reality. Nothing is normal here. Nothing holds my bearings, except the camera.
For a long time, the measurement I use to know something is real is to see if it casts a shadow. If it breaks the light, then something is there. A shadow is always whole, even when it is the silhouette of something broken.
Knoxville, Tennessee. December, 2004. I kiss a man I don’t know under a streetlight, our shadows extending behind us on the pavement. Cold and memorable—I can still see his eyes. They are empty and wanting as much as I am empty and wanting. He pulls my hand, says come have a drink with me. I don’t follow him long before breaking away, returning to my friends at the bar on the opposite side of the street. They are a comfort, perched at a tall table, warm light raining down from above. When I sit, my shadow pools in front of me. Someone asks if I want a beer.
Knoxville, Tennessee. June, 1997. Once, as a child, I awaken on a summer morning to find our patio door shattered. The pane remains intact, but the web of cracks lends the glass a wrinkled appearance, as though someone wadded it up like a map they found too difficult to refold. Eventually, humidity bursts the door onto the concrete, where the shards turn to prisms, flinging a million tiny rainbows into the day.
Estes Park, Colorado. January, 2021. As I set up the tripod, I recall a passage from my morning reading, where in his essay, Ghost Museum, Elvis Bego articulates: “A work of art is only truly independent when it is destroyed. Only then is it reduced to its essential self, being no longer parasitic on our gaze and consciousness, and no longer cannibalized by the gaze and consciousness of copyists. That is the essential paradox: it is most itself when it isn’t, when its air has been disembodied.”
Bego’s words are somehow meant for me. I intercept them, let them sink in, before I reread them, begging for help understanding something of myself, my whole self—whom I have never known, except in my own breaking. The same way I have never known ice, until it spilts and melts and refreezes in the cold dusk. Nor have I known a calm mirror of water until my own body—under the wide, western sky—shatters its surface.
Suddenly, the completeness of memory is in its breaking. My history doesn’t make sense unless told in its parts, like pieces of glass strewn over the patio. The order doesn’t matter. The fragments fall where they may.
There is a sense of interruption in my dysphoria. I can’t imagine myself—my body—in a specific place or time. I have to see it, photograph it, so I understand my being as an entity beyond its pieces.
Later, in my bedroom, I stand in a shaft of light carving its way through the south facing window. My body is illuminated, my face obscured by shadow. The timer blinks, the camera clicks. In the photograph, light dismembers my form. The splintering of self is what I fear, but for whatever reason, I need to see myself framed this way, by the darkness.
My shadow is proof I exist.
Knoxville, Tennessee. March, 1993. I lay on my back contemplating the ceiling fan above my bed. I’m 10, and I can’t sleep. Anticipation. The weather prediction is for snow. I drift off and awaken later to rushing wind and thunder jarring the walls. The glass menagerie in my mother’s curio display tinkles, a bright sound as the dark house shakes. My heart sinks. It’s just another spring storm, maybe hurling tornados through the flat land west of here.
Immediately, I’m disappointed. No snow, then, I assume. There will be school in the morning. The meteorologist was wrong. I think: Snow and thunder cannot arrive simultaneously. I nod back to sleep.
In the morning, I jolt awake, thinking I overslept. My eyes adjust to the brightness behind the closed blinds as I make my way downstairs. Dad sits at the kitchen table peering over his glasses at a book, coffee in hand. It’s a book, I notice, not the newspaper spread in front of him. Have you looked outside? he asks.
Heaped against the bottom half of the glass door, there is two feet of snow and more falling. No one has been able to deliver the paper.
If anything is true, it’s that Southerners fear snow. They’re afraid to drive in it, so the world goes quiet, shuts down. The aisle of bread in the supermarket is empty. Milk is gone, too. For a full week I’m off school, to play in the snow and read books and let myself conjure sparkling daydreams in this winter world I have never seen before.
I remain amazed by the thunder. It’s years before I move to Colorado and learn the term thundersnow. There are many types of snow, and even now, I don’t know the names for most of them. But, thundersnow catches. It’s like a connection with something divine, this violence and grace coming together like death and feathers, this clashing of seasons. Winter and spring breaking and mending and clanging together. Thunder is the language of invisible shattering, the scene of some unseen rupture, and snow is the white blanket darned to put the world back together.
The snow lasts a long time—this much does not melt quickly. Grimy piles clog up parking lots, linger on the edges of roads. Before dinner one night, we play in the snow by the lake down the hill from home. It is one of those evenings—the sky turns opal and the fringe just above the horizon unrolls violet velvet and fades to pink.
A pond has formed in the low field by the road at the front of the neighborhood, where a collection of snowmelt lingers and refreezes as the sun goes down. My brother, Matt, and I stand at the edge of the pond, debating. Nightfall is coming. We will head home soon. He thinks the ice will hold if he tries to cross. I don’t. He ventures out, but the surface can’t bear his weight and collapses. Instead of coming out the way he goes in, he wades through the waist-deep water, bisecting the pond.
Behind Matt is a frozen wake, slivers of ice sloshing together, glowing purple in the twilight. He walks up the hill quickly, home, to get warm.
Near Laughlin, Nevada. August, 2011. My husband, Nolan, and I have friends in Las Vegas who are moving back east. We agree to fly out to Nevada and drive their car to Kentucky for them. My parents offer to babysit, gifting us the luxury of a kid-free road trip. We plan to camp along the route, keeping our sense of adventure high.
Our first night out of Las Vegas we drive toward Lake Mohave, a reservoir on the border of Nevada and Arizona. We cross the Hoover Dam, marvel at its size, how its smooth, massive wall creates a sense of interior, how the entire canyon is filled by space.
We drive far that day, deeper into the belly of the desert than I’ve been before. It’s hot, dry. Within hours, my skin begins to peel and flake. The land is barren—just scrub grass and sage and sky. So much sky. We find the road to the reservoir and begin switchbacking down the steep grade, as if we’ve been on a mountaintop without knowing it. As the road snakes toward the water, I notice the number on the dash thermostat climbs. It’s getting hotter as we descend. Ninety-seven. One hundred two. One hundred six.
By the time we step out of the car, it’s a hundred and ten degrees, and I wonder if I will be able to camp here. I wonder if my blood will boil. It is like stepping from the car directly into an oven. A dry, windless oven.
Nolan sets up the tent, and we seek relief. The water sparkles below, welcoming us.
There’s a congregation standing in the lake, water up to their shoulders, feet buried in the muddy bottom, laughing and joking in rapid Spanish as the sun sinks toward the horizon. There are no strangers here—we all seek refuge. We smile across the water at each other, wave.
The surface of the reservoir is a slightly darker shade than the heat-washed blue above. I float face up, staring at the endless sky, studying the way the hills ring my periphery. The sky is empty, but for the blue above and the blue filling this hole in the hills. I steep in the cool paint of this place.
Nolan and I stay in the water until dusk, when we get hungry and emerge to buy food at the marina. We eat inside, silently, watching each other chew. Neither of us can face the idea of the stifling tent. It will easily reach one hundred fifteen degrees inside. There’s no way we can sleep under the stars without the threat of who-knows-what desert creature scurrying here and there. Eventually, we decide.
It’s dark as we pack our things, bound for a roadside motel thirty miles away. It has a neon sign glowing the words air conditioning into the deep desert dark. My sense of giving up mingles with a relief so strong that I sleep well, lulled by the hum of the window unit by the bed.
Estes Park, Colorado. January, 2021. There is an entire body of knowledge I haven’t yet taken up or understood—how you can’t know the wholeness of something until you observe how it ends, until you see it destroyed. How a work of art is complete when it is fragmented.
You watch the creation of an image, an object. Or, you are the creator. Whatever you’re making materializes—it is there—then, somehow, either by some legitimate means or some arbitrary way of things, it is torn apart. In the fragments lives the whole story—the entirety you wished to convey, but couldn’t until it broke. As the pieces grow still, you examine how they intersect each other.
This becomes important. Like flecks of confetti floating to the sidewalk after a parade or the fractals in a kaleidoscope ceasing their dance when the operator stops turning it—whatever these remnants are in stillness differs from what they were in motion. You study the mess, how the scraps overlap, how they quiet again once swept up, mingling in the dust pan. There is no hierarchy in the rubble.
Crested Butte, Colorado. June, 2005. It’s just after sundown. I sit with him on the Ferris wheel at the rodeo. I’m beer-buzzed, in a short denim skirt and white t-shirt, flip-flops dangling from my toes as we rise into the air. The jagged horizon comes closer as we move toward the earth, away. We watch the daylight burn itself out like a discarded cigarette behind the mountains.
I wonder what magic lies between us. He kisses me in the sky, takes my hand, and from there, I begin to think of the future. Our clasped hands reconcile us to the night as it falls over the chaos and sparkle of the festival below. A sense of calm radiates up my spine, a sent message traveling from the focus of the wheel, across its radius, to the seat where we swing—and into me. There is gravity here, its line continuous.
A year later, the spoke breaks, and we go crashing to the ground. He tells me he doesn’t love me—he never did. And, despite my held image of the wheel intact, we shatter, spin away from each other, crumbling with the light.
Estes Park, Colorado. January, 2021. A friend comes to sit on the couch across from the desk in the office where I work.
How have you been? I ask. How were your holidays?
She’s quiet for a second, turns her head far to the side, like a child hiding in plain sight. When she speaks, her voice cracks. It reminds me of the way you can see the river’s current through holes in the ice this time of year.
I’ve been having a hard time, she says. I was dating a man from the Midwest, and we had just decided to commit. To go for it. That was two weeks ago. I was happy.
She gets silent, looks down, then to the side again. Her voice crumbles, and she spits out the words—Just after that, I got word he’s dead. His aorta burst. He’s gone.
The thought occurs to me she is left with the whole, wide completeness of his vacancy—the entirety of her future without him.
Yet, he is the only whole in this narration, this briefly-spoken story. His is the only lived life. But, my friend—she is left with her own wrecked elements of catastrophe. She is left with her self.
Knoxville, Tennessee. June, 1997. Even months after it shatters, we find shards of the patio door in the shadow edge between the grass and the concrete. When the sun shines just right, a little gleam bursts from the darkness. One at a time, we collect the sum of its parts.
Estes Park, Colorado. October, 2020. Fire splits this place I love. Spurred by high autumn winds, the East Troublesome Fire jumps the mountains and bisects Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park. The blaze stops a couple of miles from my home.
Studying the wasteland, there is an uninterrupted seam where the burned matter meets what is now shriveled in the cold but was once golden and holy. I wonder if fire has made this place whole, even though its severing tears me apart.
I wonder, too, about contradiction. Do both spaces live in me? Is there a line between body and soul that defines me as me? Am I complete because some full circle has been drawn? And shattered?
On Instagram, I stumble across a caption describing the Harmattan winds as they batter west Africa. I think of photos I’ve seen of the Sahara—huge dunes rolling out into the endless sunlight, and how the crease at the top of the longest dune is a demarcation—light rippling on one side, neat shade on the other. Snowdrifts do this, too, here, in the spring when evening light leans in at an angle and cracks the world in two.
I anticipate the camera’s click, longing for some event, some collision—for thunder to come rolling across the mountains. I am waiting for a line to present itself like the sharp miracle of thundersnow, for the beginning of the next season.
 Bego, Elvis. “Ghost Museum.” The Best American Essays 2020, edited by Andre Aciman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, p. 17.
Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she’s not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long’s Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal, Causeway Lit, The Maine Review, decomp Journal, The Festival Review, and Split Rock Review, among others.