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Photgraphic Memories

Angela Acosta (she/her)

is a bilingual Mexican American poet who holds a Ph.D. in Iberian Studies from The Ohio State University. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at Davidson College. Her creative and academic work center on imagining possible worlds and preserving the cultural legacies of women writers. She is a Rhysling finalist with speculative poems in Shoreline of Infinity, Apparition Lit, Radon Journal, and Space & Time. She is author of the Elgin nominated speculative poetry collection Summoning Space Travelers (Hiraeth Publishing, 2022) and forthcoming chapbook Fourth Generation Chicana Unicorn (Dancing Girl Press, 2023).

I awake to the gentle pull of my optic software downloading the details of the room in which I ensconced myself after the revelry of a stormy September evening. Misshapen moth insects drift around the window outside, as if inspecting my poor excuse for houseplants before moving along.

Once my eyes and implants adjust, I remove my satin night shift and don the less comfortable work jumper and synthetic burlap apron. Every time I put on the stained coarse fabric, I think about my bisabuelo’s work uniform and those hands that once held animals known as chickens and picked strawberries out of real soil back on Earth.

Crow’s feet meet my reflection in the mirror, reminding me that though I am still young, I am no longer a child. I never bothered much with makeup or face mods, but I think of myself as appropriately feminine for a woman. For someone who relies on augmented sight for her job, I usually only look at myself long enough to put on sunscreen or apply ointment to my eyes. Vanity feels unnecessary, like the plastic bottles our ancestors left behind for future archeologists.

The photo studio is as I left it but there is no constant flurry of Julián printing and sorting the latest batch of photos from Earth. These data packets are ferried across the inhabited galaxy all in the name of cultural preservation and historical record-keeping, perhaps to add some moral value to this job. The photos stain my hands and uniform black as we synthesize ink from local plants to gift these little legacies of Earth to our children. Today, they tell us to take extra care of this shipment lest we lose large swaths of our past. It is not the first time I wonder if they are losing some planet-wide war. Why else would they put in the effort to send this type of data to our small world? They assure us everything is fine, but we must have other concerns to deal with like broken synthesizer machines and a dwindling population. Ever the benevolent parent, Earth nourishes us with her rich history.

My hands twitch on the console as if I can already tell the printing machine is having trouble. It stops sputtering, and I notice that these photos are different from the usual digital images. They are grainy and creased as though they were repeatedly folded and then stored in a pocket for a long time. Did my grandparents do this when they brought lockets and small photos with them from Earth? Even with augmented vision, I know studying these old, washed-out photos will give me a headache. They taught us about these in training, a mere hypothetical possibility should we ever scratch beneath the detritus of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I slept across enough centuries to mistakenly think humanity’s even recent memories are relics of the past and I dare not maintain that assumption.

They warned us that those with darker skin would be harder to see in these images, sinking into the background of spaces taken up by settlers and their hierarchies and contradictions. Back in the days of Jules Verne’s flying machines and the pipe dream of space travel, humans on Earth developed ever more elaborate means of documenting moments in time yet light skin always shined brighter on these images.

Snapping out of my stupor, I stop a frantic Julián from shutting the whole thing down altogether because of how these photos are taxing our machines. It’s just another workday I tell myself, trying to steady my breath. We’d never had a need for double-sided printing before today, every photograph was one-sided with a separate caption created by the archivists on Earth. We have always just been custodians of their work, until now. 

 We have our editing work cut out for us, but even with the deteriorated quality of the photos, the resemblance is uncanny. The people in these images look like us, even if for the moment they are anonymous and posthumously viewed. They wore their hair in thick braids, sometimes styled with additional adornments like beads or feathers. I have stared at photos of all types of light-skinned historical figures hundreds of times before, but these incomplete photos are the most beautiful ones I have seen. On the back, we could make out loopy penmanship, distinctive accent marks, and names that resembled what I knew to be from my ancestral line.

Even if I could never form the letters with a writing implement myself, my eyes made quick work deciphering the cursive script: “Mi’ja, estas doñas son tus tías Mirta, Berenice e Isabel en el rancho en Guanajuato. Espero que nuestros caminos crucen en el futuro y que nos veamos de nuevo al terminar tus estudios. Cuídate mucho en los Estados Unidos y no te olvides nunca del amor y el orgullo de tu familia.”

Those words took me back to the open skies and quiet deserts on the only planet I had to call home. I couldn’t imagine leaving my family now, and I often think about what my bisabuelos and tatarabuelos would say about the life we’re eking out for ourselves around a star close enough to be Sol. Would they be proud or judge me for modifying my body? What would they say of me cutting my hair too short for the braids they so valiantly wore during many centuries of conquest?

Julián and I get back to work, exchanging few words yet I can tell we’re both shocked. I don’t know this girl, but she must be one of our ancestors who made our journey here possible. We send our thanks to Earth, of course, for their continued gifts of memories. When I tell my kids about the places they came from, I know I’ll show them these photos and my mind’s memories of today. For as much of a blessing as it is to have photographic memories, experiencing this day was more than I could ever ask for.

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