Martha sat with the photo album in her lap, a thin layer of dust drifting from the faded leather. She flipped it open to the first page. Behind yellow plastic she caught a picture of three children—the oldest 7—staring dutifully into the camera, solemn looks on their faces.
She lightly touched the face of the middle child, a girl with braids and dark eyes, before glancing at the photo to the right. In this picture, the solemnity of the moment was gone, the formality of the scene broken as the camera caught the older boy tugging his sister’s braid, her head jerked slightly to the side. The three-year-old had slid off the chair and turned his back on the scene.
Slowly she flipped through the pages, pausing here, lingering there, absorbing images of children at birthday parties, swimming in the lagoon, saying prayers at their bedside. Mostly the pictures reflected a happy time. After closing the last page, she set the book carefully on a settee, then turned to a pile of similar, dusty-leather-bound books and picked up the next one.
For hours she sat there, going through page after page, book after book, until the last one was closed on her lap. The children in this volume were older, 27, 29 and 31. In this one, joy was the exception.
Even when a smile was present, it felt fleeting, ephemeral, glimpsed; captured on the edge of the lips, like a bird pausing on an overhead branch, before flitting off. In those photos—where many frozen faces peered out—the smiles were few.