Cover image for Yellow jack
Yellow jack
Russell, Josh.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [1999]

Physical Description:
250 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Hailed by reviewers as "an electrifying debut" (Baltimore Sun) and "perhaps the best evocation of New Orleans ever to appear in print" (Richmond Times-Dispatch), Yellow Jack has given Southern literature its own intoxicating hybrid of Caleb Carr, Flannery O'Connor, and Vladimir Nabokov. Russell's "virtuoso storytelling, evocative prose and original conception mark [his first book] as a significant work that we can only hope will be followed by many more" (Chicago Tribune). Yellow Jack is a ribald, picaresque trip through an 1840s New Orleans saturated with sex, drugs, death, and corruption. In this "luminously haunting" (Entertainment Weekly) portrait of decadence, daguerrotypist Claude Marchand becomes hopelessly entangled with both a voodoo-adept octoroon mistress and the erotically precocious daughter of a prominent New Orleans family. "Russell has distilled the New Orleans of the mid-1800s, the terrible fever of the title, and the savage lives of the characters into a novel of terrible beauty."--Nashville Scene

Author Notes

Josh Russell teaches at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Yellow Jack is his first novel.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Buoyantly detailed, briskly paced and masterfully sad, Russell's debut follows a fugitive apprentice photographer through the shops, bedrooms, newspapers and streets of antebellum New Orleans. In Russell's imaginative account, L.J.M. Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, had a 15-year-old apprentice who assisted in his discoveries. In 1838, this apprentice ransacked his master's Paris studio and fled to the New World, bringing his as yet unheard of "magic portraits," along with one of the cameras used to make them, to New Orleans, a city then threatened by recurrent epidemics of yellow fever. The narrator, taking the name Claude Marchand, has wild success as a portraitist. He has an octoroon lover, Millicent, who offers her sexual services to the gossip columnist of the Daily Tropic to protect Claude's secret after Daguerre exhibits his process in Paris. Vivian Marmu, a sassy, hypnotically attractive 10-year-old and the subject of one of Claude's first commissioned "soliotypes," competes with Millicent for Claude's attention. When Vivian falls ill with yellow fever (the "Yellow Jack" of the title), the Marmus seek exile in Boston for four years, leaving Claude and Millicent to their unsanctioned partnership, during which they finagle the adoption of twins and live a relatively wholesome domestic life. But the Marmus' return sets the plot reeling again Vivian, heretofore presumed dead, resumes her monthly portrait sitting and seduces Claude, launching a courtship that remains under wraps until it grows clear that, at age 16, she carries his child. As New Orleans authorities deny that Yellow Jack has returned, an appeal to Claude's mercenary instincts convinces him to document its presence in a series of memorial portraits. Eventually, the fever kills Vivian's New England-born fianc‚, the obstacle to Claude's union with her. Can they marry? What will become of Millicent? Will the city authorities clean up its open sewers to fight the disease? The reader's excitement and interest come from negotiating three versions of the same story: Claude's first-person narration, Millicent's diary entries and a modern art historian's study, in dispassionately academic language, of Claude's neglected daguerreotypes. The three strands telegraph, diverge and ultimately dovetail to a full set of wrenching and satisfying conclusions. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Plate 1 --Louis Jacques Mandé Marchand, 1845. Half-plate daguerreotype . IT IS A MYSTERY why those chronicling the history of photography have chosen to ignore Claude Marchand. This assistant of L.J.M. Daguerre (after whom the subject of this portrait was named) was the first American daguerreian. Marchand opened his New Orleans studio in the fall of 1838, and in November of the same year he staged the first public display of daguerreotypes. That these dates precede Daguerre's official announcement of August 19th, 1839, may be explained by the fact that Claude Marchand, a name so common in the Paris records of the day that an accurate biography is impossible, once admitted that he and Daguerre had been working on the invention together, and that after a spat with Daguerre he left the city "with one of the earliest cameras and as many of the silvered brass plates as [his] pockets could hold." Out of fear of prosecution, or out of an odd respect for the European rights to the miracle that would lead Paul Delaroche to declare on the event of its unveiling, "From today, painting is dead!", Marchand made his way via sail to New Orleans. There he and the marvel he called soliotype were warmly received by the French community and the city at large. Of the hubbub that arose when Daguerre presented his camera obscura and its shimmering trapped moments to the Académies des Sciences et des Beaux-Arts, the New Orleans Bee opined, "It is no great surprise that the Europeans are aflutter about a miracle we have had for these many months. Once again America stands at the forefront of Science and Art." Marchand flourished in the '40s as a photographer of varied stripe but he was best known as a portraitist. It was not purely novelty and the vanity of New Orleanians that led to his success. During the yellow fever epidemics that annually plagued the city it was common for doctors to recommend that the very ill be transported to Marchand's studio so that a last portrait could be made. In the middle four months of 1845, one of the worst summers of yellow fever the city ever saw, Marchand estimated photographing over 400 terminally ill and recently deceased fever victims. (For an example of his landscape work see Pl. 45-- Trees Being Felled Near Lake Pontchartrain to Combat the Yellow Fever. ) Because of his constant contact with the mercury vapor used to develop daguerreotype images Marchand had lost all of his teeth and was reportedly mad for the final months of his life. A short note in a Daily Tropic gossip column written by Felix Moissenet describes the day Marchand closed his studio: "The artist flew into a rage and struck a woman when she, made moronic by grief, claimed the infant in a memorial portrait was not her child. He then sent a long line of portrait sitters away after standing on a chair and explaining to them that they were philistines and fools, none of them worthy of his art." His wife died in childbirth a week later, and Moissenet's column reports that Marchand spent his last hours wandering the streets "crazed by grief." On the morning of September 22nd, 1845, his body was pulled from the turning basin of the Carondelet Canal. He was twenty-five years old. It is assumed that this portrait of his son is the last daguerreotype he made. It holds the only known image of Claude Marchand, his right hand. The hand rests gently on the infant Louis's head, steadying the child before the camera. * * * FOURTEEN YEARS AFTER my mother died giving birth to me my father followed her into the dirt because he paid a girl to fellate him in a shop's doorway. Halfway through the act she clenched his balls in her fist and mimicked the whistle of a swallow. He wept while her friends came from their hiding places at the signal and ransacked his dropped pockets. When my father split the girl's lip with his kneecap, one of her comrades stuck a short, rusted kitchen knife into his belly. That night I answered a frantic knocking and found him standing with the knife quivering in his navel, an apron of blood over his lap. He lived just a week after the doctor came and jerked out the stubby blade.     Before he was stabbed my father and I spent our Sundays in the city's gardens and parks admiring the clean lines of paths and the precise curves of flower beds. He was a cobbler, and we dedicated evenings and early mornings to making our already orderly shop even more so. He could not stand clutter and he taught me to hate it. We walked with our eyes on our shoes. When I looked up, I saw the city as he saw it--a mess. He taught me logic, and to him the labyrinth of God and Hell and all the rest was illogical and as much a mess as was the city of Paris. "Death is no more than a line drawn through a man's name," he told me one day while we watched a gardener pepper a furrow with poppy seeds. His wound changed his views. There were blue flames when he closed his eyes and he was sure his pain would never end. Even full of laudanum he would promise me Hell was waiting for us, we all deserved it and it simmered below. I was still convinced there was nothing inside a man but twists of guts. Death, I assured myself in the kitchen, was a line through a man's name. Above me in his bed my father yelled "A mouthful of nettles!" as if he could hear my thoughts, and suddenly I shared his visions of fiery mazes, meals of thistle, streets paved with red-hot cobbles.     The day he died my father grabbed my wrist. "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboureth under the sun?" He looked at me as if he wanted an answer. "To spend your life making another man look ten years younger and fifty pounds slimmer is vanity. God wants you to be a cobbler. There is no vanity in a shoe."     A portrait painter had come to my father's shop and noticed, tacked up above the laces and tongues, one of my drawings of trees. I was a prodigy, he swore. I begged my father to let me apprentice myself to the man. In three weeks the artist had me painting still-lifes with a steady hand. He needed only to tell me that the face was five eyes across--a third where the nose hangs, an extra from ear to eye socket--and I became a portraitist of high talent, or so he claimed. I adored brushes and the palette with its thumb-hole; I loved poking an egg's yolk and watching it ooze a slow line of viscous yellow. I adored the way things could be left out in a painting, others made more vivid. It was only when my father died and I could no longer pay for my lessons that the truth came out--I was competent, but no prodigy. My painter had a small army of similar students.     Debts took the shop from me. Sure then that my father had been right and that my true calling was hammering shoes, I found a job with another cobbler, a kind man named Richard, an old rival of my father's. I suffered only a week before he said to me, "I see the way your eyes dim when you speak to customers. You should never do what you hate. What do you love?" I told him about the flush that came over me when my brush replicated the curve of an aubergine's purple skin, about the joy of transforming a bowl of fruit into a single pear. I told him about my father's threats. He closed the shop and took me to a café, bought me sweet rolls and let me cry over my dead father, the first time I'd been allowed such weakness.     Richard made Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre's boots, and because of his cobbler's recommendation, Daguerre took me in as a houseboy. * * * In less than one year I graduated from carrying Daguerre's coal and fetching his groceries to serving as his assistant. He introduced me to art in ways my painter never had. My former teacher's was an art of imitation and reverence for what was loved by critics. Daguerre's was art of spite and overthrow. He taught me to see the flaws in paintings others considered perfect. Daguerre was father to the life my true father had cursed on his death bed. He introduced me to poets, sculptors, prostitutes. When he found I knew no Latin he was so upset he paid a tutor to pour the language into me. I read Horace to my new father and we laughed together at the most obscene poems.     I was a split boy, one side God-like, tallying every sinful move, the other paying what may have been the same girl my father had paid to perform the same service on what may have been the same dirty doorstep, my friend Claude, a tailor's apprentice, standing lookout for thieves and waiting his turn. Most days pleasure outweighed my dead father's promised punishments--I was fifteen years old and stronger than threats--but there were times I found myself unable to breathe under the guilt, then Daguerre would offer a party, a glass of wine, an edition of Ovid, the name of a new girl to be found at Madame Sigrid's, and I would be cured. * * * Daguerre's diorama was loved by all who saw it, but his urge to make sunlight draw a picture was so strong that the praise in the papers and the money he made from diorama shows meant nothing to him. Late into the night he and I toiled like alchemists, boiling quicksilver and iodine, soaking paper in albumen, brushing bromide on squares of plated copper. Faint forms appeared, their edges like smoke. Only because we'd aimed the camera obscura at the apple could we recognize the blurred globe.     One morning the answer came by accident. A silvered plate of copper had been stored in a cabinet in which I'd hidden a broken thermometer. An image resting invisibly on the plate was touched by mercury fumes and appeared as if by magic--a sunflower hung its round head.     We stood amazed by the sight. I saw instantly that a man's faults would be impossible to hide if his portrait was made the same way. A weak chin would be weak, small ears small. I fell in love with that sunflower, with its heart of seeds and its petal-tongues. It was more perfect than a painting. Even the best painting adds something to the subject, either by its flawed attempt at replication or by vanity's demand that nature be expanded, but the picture the sun had drawn had no such flaw. I wished I could have made my father's portrait in the same way. I began to cry. I suggested we call the miracle soliotype . Daguerre ignored me and named the marvel like an explorer would an island-- daguerreotype .     We did not sleep for days. I arranged fruit and jugs of flowers for dozens and dozens of still-lifes. When the mercury vapor magically filled a blank mirror with a scatter of apples and pears I felt like screaming out my joy. Daguerre laughed and slapped my back each time the process worked. When it failed we mourned. It seldom failed. He was sure to be wealthy beyond measure, but the secret had to be kept.     I suggested he make a portrait of a skull taken from the catacombs one drunken night by my friend Claude. I stacked books and balanced the thing atop them. Daguerre gave me the portrait and I gave it to Claude, who gave it to the young whore he visited the evening we filched the skull. That night Claude waited until she undressed, then demanded the skull share the bed with them. I heard her yell from a bed down the hall. The gift was intended to make up for the fright.     Claude's whore was so proud of the skull's portrait that she ignored Claude's directions to keep it to herself and showed the plate to everyone, including Daguerre, whom she met while he was buying coal in a café carbon . I was drinking with Claude, the reason Daguerre was fetching his own fuel. My master hunted me down and beat me with his cane in a barroom full of men.     Claude's tailor dreamt of the day he would be insulted by a gentleman; he kept a brace of fine small-bores in anticipation of the wished-for disgrace. At dawn Claude fetched me one of the pistols and I went to murder Daguerre. His rooms were empty. I stood waving the pistol at a bowl of pears like an idiot. The concierge told me Daguerre had left the city to visit a sick friend, she did not know who, and that he would be gone until the next noon. I went to Claude and had him make me a coat like a chest of drawers. It took him all day to cut and sew the remarkable thing, guilt over giving the portrait to the foolish girl hurrying his shears and needle.     The sun burned an orange trail across the Seine as I filled the coat's many pockets with Daguerre's things. I put a camera in a burlap sack, then took a hammer to the others. I crushed the pears and apples and their bowl, then knocked the skull to bits. I was far from the city when dawn began to tear the clouds. * * * During my destruction of Daguerre's studio I toppled his prized orchid from its windowsill. Coins pooled on the floorboards when its pot broke. Under the left arm of the miraculous greatcoat Claude had installed a pouch which accommodated the take. The money was enough to get me to Calais and across the Channel, but proved too little to transport me further. I owe my escape to New Orleans to the fact that Americans are enchanted by shiny objects. In return for passage across the Atlantic, I made a dozen portraits of a sea captain named Sylvester Lune. All I remember of him is the fact that his surname and quarter-moon chin were a perfect joke.     I remember the voyage more precisely. While on the Atlantic I vomited my weight several times over. I emptied myself into the sea so often I soon became convinced I'd gone hollow and I learned why fasting saints witness such wonderful things: Angels mobbed the rigging, some swam alongside the ship like burning fish.     We took on supplies and cargo in Haiti, then crossed the Gulf of Mexico and aimed up the Mississippi. I became ill in a new way--drenching sweats, black vomit, visions even more vivid than those I'd experienced on the open sea.     As soon as we neared a dock in New Orleans, a plank ran from it and a man waving a ledger rushed aboard yelling about landing tariffs and a tax on bananas. The heat was unbearable and his shrieked oration stopped suddenly when he saw me in my huge coat. The look in his eyes made it clear he feared he'd made the bad choice of trying to swindle a ship of fools. The sight of an idiotic but sane sailor hiding bananas under a tarpaulin restored the cheat's voice. He demanded we line up and pay up. I walked down his narrow plank, ignoring his threats.     I counted the bells ring ten times. Stinking smoke cocooned the lamps and I wondered if I'd died and gone to the Hell my father promised. When I finally met another man in the street he was masked. For a moment I was sure he was a bandit, but he crossed the narrow avenue to avoid me. I was watching his back fade into the fog when the cannons began to boom, rattling the boards covering the windows of the shop I stood before. The mask and guns and fire made sudden sense--it was July and I had arrived during America's violent celebration of independence. * * * I spent my first night in New Orleans hiding in a looted tobacconist's. In the dark I was seized with the belief that I was to be sacrificed as part of the festival, my corpse used to fuel the reeking fires. In the hours before dawn I reminded myself of the coat's contents--the hammer I'd used in Daguerre's studio, squares of copper plated with silver, a snuff box of iodine, mercury shuddering in a vial, a lens plump as a swollen coin. I fingered the talismans, eyes closed so tightly that Paris lit inside my head like a scene inside one of Daguerre's dioramas.     I heard the bells ring five and worked up the courage to light a match. Showcases held broken pipes and a fine dusting of fragrant tobacco. From the corners of one case I scraped enough to fill the cracked bowl of an abandoned meerschaum so small it must have been meant for a baby. Smoking my busted pipe and watching the sun tint the tar smoke I fell into a sleep so deep that the hot plug of tobacco fell from the pipe and burned a moon-shaped scar onto my hand without waking me. I slept for half the day and woke swimming in my coat, the fever broken. The sun had fallen. When I took to the streets I felt a chill and huddled deep into my blessed greatcoat, the camera slung over my shoulder in its sack. People stared as they passed, all but their eyes and brows hidden behind kerchiefs and under hats. I was weak from hunger and thirst. No café presented itself.     I walked and walked, the bells' count climbing to eleven, then twelve, then beginning anew at one. Just after they sounded four o'clock I followed my nose down an alley and found a baker stacking fragrant wands of bread into his cart. Swooning from the brown smell I begged him for a batard and he spat at me. I produced the pistol with which I had intended to murder Daguerre. I felt no guilt, the weapon was harmless: I'd fired its only ball at an angel who stuck out her tongue at me. The baker cried out as if shot, then fainted. I took as many loaves as I could carry. Hidden in my tobacco shop, I gorged on bread, the cannons giving cadence to my chewing, and the sun rose dully behind black clouds. * * * I memorized and recited my apology. I identified myself as an artist, holding aloft the camera in its sack as proof. Consider yourselves not victims, but patrons, I said. I learned my English from listening to tourists in Paris and then the sailors during the crossing. It was jagged and filled with curses, so I offered my speech in French. In New Orleans it did not matter if they understood me; when I gestured with the pistol my patrons promptly handed over their money. The pocket under my arm filled and I walked tipped to one side.     I returned to the tobacconist's one morning to find the lock snugly replaced. I took a room near the waterfront. The room's other occupant was a stevedore whose taste for whiskey bankrupted him and he let his bed to me from dawn to dusk in order to afford his habit. Through the night hours I roamed the narrow avenues with my pistol, earning my keep.     The first portrait I made in New Orleans was of the stevedore sprawled across his tattered scrap of carpet. My hands shook as I coated the plate with iodine. I had no tripod, so I balanced the camera on a stool and aimed it at the snoring drunk. I expected the portrait to hold no more than indistinguishable smears, but the pattern of the carpet looked as if it had been drawn with a rule. I tried to call the portrait soliotype in an attempt to regain my sovereign claim--it was my hiding of the cracked thermometer that had engendered the marvel--but it was no use. Calling the daguerreotype by another name was as ineffectual as calling New Orleans Paris.     Each night the stevedore shook me awake and made me watch as he carefully inventoried his possessions. He wanted me to know that I could not get away with robbing him of his pornographic etching, his spy glass, or his Chinaman's robe. * * * In middle-August, a month after I'd come to the city, the cannons were still firing, the barrels of tar still burning, and those brave enough to walk the streets still wore masks, not props from an independence celebration but futile attempts at fighting the fever that'd rattled in my chest and come forth as coughs of inky syrup. I read in the French editions of the papers that the epidemic was in full fury, all that could save the city was October's cold. Almost half-a-thousand were dead. The papers claimed only the foolish or the mad would be out-of-doors at night, the time, it was agreed, during which the Fever was most likely to be acquired. The English editions, as I understood them, claimed news of an epidemic was a hoax, a lie, an attempt to slander the mayor.     I hid in the gloom and waited for fools, madmen, and subscribers to the English papers. When I caught glimpses of myself--in a shop window, in a pool of stagnant rainwater--I realized people must have feared the camera, which in its bag was the size and heft of a man's head, as much as they did my useless pistol.     One night I spotted a couple on a corner. A man was laughing, his head tipped back, as a woman cursed him. She wore a deep purple gown that lightened her skin. The man was narrow at his hips and had a head of honeyed hair. They were dressed for a ball and I imagined my armpit pocket filled to overflowing.     "Forgive me," I begged, "I am an artist." I aimed the pistol at the man's back. The woman stopped yelling and looked at me impatiently. The man turned. His eyes were glazed and he smiled dreamily, traces of a laugh still at the corners of his mouth. His pants were unbuttoned and he held his cock in his hand. Startled, I tried to begin again. "Forgive me--"     The woman stomped off. The man began to button his pants with slow care.     I shook the pistol below his nose to bring it to his attention. "Forgive--"     "An artist!" He yelled, looking up as if he'd just remembered I was there. His smile was fixed on his face as if painted. "Brother!" He lunged forward and embraced me. My coat creaked as his hug tightened. "Brother artist!" He linked his arm with mine and pulled me along. * * * My new brother was a painter of miniatures. Every shelf and sill in his house on Toulouse Street was mobbed with portraits and landscapes all smaller than a child's hand. He pointed to himself and announced "Peter" as if instructing a savage. I borrowed the name of my lost friend the apprentice tailor and claimed Claude Marchand was me. I was afraid Peter would hear the lie in the name, but if he did he did not show it. Instead he nodded and smiled, then asked me if I had anything to drink. " You invited me to have a drink," I reminded him, glad to converse in comfortable French, even if it was with a madman.     He shrugged and left the room. I picked up a landscape and could find no fault, a miracle in a work that small. Figures so tiny they must have been painted with a single hair were detailed perfectly--noses no bigger than commas boasted exquisite nostrils. It looked as if he had painted over a daguerreotype. "Soliotype," I told myself.     When Peter returned he was carrying a pipe, a spirit lamp, and a carved ivory box.     "This is remarkable," I told him.     He took the painting from my palm and squinted at it. "Yes," he agreed, "it is."     I followed him along a narrow hall to a room appointed with a high bed and stacks of newspapers leaning at dangerous angles. A door opened onto another room no larger than a pantry which held a tin tub and a huge kettle. A final door let us into a small, roughly paved courtyard. Flowers in uneven rows filled haphazard beds. Peter sat cross-legged on the flags and patted the stone beside him. The ivory box held little pots of opium beneath its frieze of elephants. He lit the lamp and we passed the pipe, orange plumes from burning barrels of tar visible in the distance.     "It looks like giants are smoking pipes over there," I said.     "A giant's pipe!" Peter jumped up to see the fires better. "Yes! A giant's pipe!"     The bells rang a dozen times and he yelped a dozen times in response, then yanked me to my feet and dragged me into the bathing room. Once there he took the coat off me and hung it on a peg. I stumbled, unsure of my footing when freed of the weight. Peter jerked my shirt's buttons from their holes. My pants fell and I assumed he aimed to push me to the floor and bugger me. The prospect was hazily thrilling. Peter helped me into the tub and poured cold water from the kettle over my head. My teeth rattled. I peered at him from behind the opium as he used a brush on me, then toweled me dry. He led me, staggering like a cripple, into the bedroom, then dressed me in a clean shirt which felt like wind on my shoulders. He guided my legs into a pair of trousers, put a jacket on me, then pulled me down the hall, out the front door, and into the street. "I am a mixed-up man," he sang as we dashed along. "I am part of many things and whole of nothing." He stopped suddenly and grabbed me about the neck, put his mouth to my ear as if he meant to kiss it. "My father's father was an African." Then he did kiss me, once on each cheek. "My father's mother was French." He laughed and took to his heels. I happily followed, more and more convinced the opium had put me to sleep and I was enjoying a dream.     To a black dressed like a magus Peter handed an invitation. We were ushered into a room filled with familiar faces. For a moment I thought the door had led me dreaming back to Paris, then I realized I was in a hall peopled by men I'd robbed in New Orleans. I saw one who had cried, one who'd laughed as he paid me, one who had said "That's made of glass" when I aimed the pistol at his eye. Peter began to introduce me. My patrons smiled and shook my hand; none recognized me. They were a jolly gang; an epidemic was not enough to make them sad.     Daguerre once took me to a similar banquet in reward for a second fluke discovery I had made--the plate develops better if tilted at an angle over the mercury vapor. In a rush I remembered the wrongs I had done Daguerre. My lungs tightened, so I read to myself from the long list of wrongs Daguerre had done me.     I followed Peter as he navigated the crowd, leading me to a table piled with food. He popped a radish into his mouth. I picked up a date and saw a wiggling toe. "Is this the opium?" I whispered. Peter laughed and pointed. A naked girl was prone across the table, covered with meats and fruit. She balanced a cake on her navel. I took a chop from her thigh, a few olives from between her breasts. Her skin had a hint of purple. I stood chewing lamb and admiring her face. She looked as if she were adding figures in her head.     Peter called, "Claude, you have already met Millicent," and then buried his face into the cake on her middle. A cheer went up from the room; men rushed forward and began to eat like dogs. Peter wore a mask of custard.     I bent and passed her an olive in a quick kiss, observed her chew, amazed by the hinge of her jaw. Her eyes were light gray, almost white, the pupil dark as ink. Each of them looked like a soliotype of an eye. "Soliotype, soliotype, soliotype," I chanted, the word growing less and less odd in my mouth. * * * I opened the top louvers and as soon as the light allowed I posed Millicent and made her portrait, then posed Peter and made his. He closely observed the process and demanded I stand so he could make a nude of me, my neck and ears hot with embarrassment.     I heated the mercury in its shallow dish, making myself concentrate on the flame and the wavering vapor so as not to gawk as they sat naked and drank coffee. Millicent never addressed me. She spoke only to Peter, even when we three were in Peter's bed and I was licking sweet custard from her belly. I was removing the plates from the developing box when she spoke her first words to me: "Claude, you turn red when you think of me." Peter laughed when I colored, Millicent stretched like a cat.     I handed Peter the portrait of Millicent and he quit laughing. Millicent looked up from the portrait of Peter and said, "Let me see the one of myself." Peter traded and then paced the room looking at himself, the only man I have ever seen who looked dignified out of his clothes.     "It is two mirrors at once," Millicent said. "Tilt it one way and you see the past, tilt it another and you see the present."     A frown pulled Peter's face. He bit the portrait like a shopkeeper testing a coin. "I brought him to the party solely because I thought we would enjoy him," he confessed to Millicent. Peter gazed at the soliotype, then at me, his eyes sparking. My heart rang.     "I had no idea," he said. * * * Peter and I went to a battered door on Marais behind which a courtyard lay green as an oasis. Stone walks wound between beds of garish flowers, fish ponds were canopied by palms. A parrot stood on a perch and muttered hello in French, English, Italian, what I guessed was Greek.     Peter had an appointment to paint a woman's portrait. The small ivory lozenges that were his canvases looked like pieces for a game. A servant brought us a tray of tea and cakes and Peter poured. "Madame demands I arrive promptly at ten so I can sit and wait," he told me under his breath.     "Why bother?" I whispered back.     He rubbed the tips of thumb and forefinger together, then used a brush to measure the parrot's height. With rapid strokes he drew the bird's outline. I set up the camera, desperate to further prove myself. His brush made chiding noises while I worried over the light and prayed the parrot would stay still. I removed the lens cover and counted carefully to myself.     Peter looked away from the bird and said, "This soliotype of yours provides a perfect representation of Nature."     Soliotype! --Peter's praise made the marvel mine.     "There are those who believe such perfection is an insult to God." He turned back to his small masterpiece. "Church doors have a botched hinge, rugs have a dropped stitch. There are those who believe only God should make a perfect thing."     The parrot he made of paint was as perfect as the one I had inside my camera.     "But color," I argued, pointing to his handiwork. "The soliotype may render the line perfectly, but it cannot reproduce color."     With a flick of his brush he flawed a wing. "Color is nothing."     Madame Dupin appeared beneath her parasol. Peter kissed her hand and introduced me as the man who would make her portrait. I was startled. She was annoyed. Her smile was forced while she sat in the sunlight and I made her likeness. I hid in a dark pantry and finished the plates of the parrot and Madame.     Her smile flattened when I handed her the portraits. She spoke to them. "In Natchez, a group afraid of the city summer has asked me to send a diversion." She could not look away from the portrait of her parrot. "I had intended to send you alone, Peter, but this marvel must go as well." She gestured to the camera and to me, her eyes still on the likeness of the bird. "What is it called?"     "Claude," Peter said, as if naming an odd style of dog.     "Soliotype," I furthered. The word hung in the air. I wished the parrot would repeat it. * * * Peter hired me a horse that afternoon, bought me a leather-and-canvas valise that accommodated my camera more elegantly than the flour sack. He had too many things to do in the coming weeks, there was no way he could justify a trip to a den of fools hiding in the woods, but such a trip would be good for me. The fools were members of New Orleans's finest families. They would pay well for portraits and tell everyone they knew about me and my miraculous soliotype. It was the situation I needed to quickly establish myself. I agreed. I would have agreed to anything he suggested.     That night Peter, Millicent, and I smoked our pipe while the giants smoked theirs in the distance. We played a game of cards in which the winner of each hand was allowed to remove some of the losers' clothes. We undressed each other and then tumbled onto a rug which covered the courtyard's flags, the figures on the scattered playing cards our audience. Copyright © 1999 Josh Russell. All rights reserved.