April 15, 2024

The Unbearable Weight of a Photograph

by Jelena Dunato

““According to the Shifter Control Act, you’re required to wear these.” The officer hands them silver pins in the shape of a wolf’s head.”

Roza runs down the corridor towards the bursar’s office, unladylike, her freckled cheeks red with exertion, auburn ponytail trailing behind her. Leather soles of her new oxfords slip on the polished floor and she skids past the door, flailing, gripping the doorknob in the last moment. Locked. She checks the clock above the notice board. Two minutes past four.

She sighs, ready to try again tomorrow, when a leaflet pinned to the board catches her eye. Secret Society of Shifters and Their Nefarious Protocols it proclaims in thick, greasy hectograph ink.

“Roza!” Lena’s footsteps echo in the empty corridor behind her. “What are you doing? We’re all waiting for you!”

“Reading,” Roza says softly, catching her breath as a slow, viscous shudder travels down her spine like a fat slug.

Lena, in a man’s shirt, her flaxen hair shorn by some mad artist, twists the corners of her mouth downwards as she glances at the leaflet. “Not that rubbish again. Why are people so obsessed with shifters?”

“They’re afraid of things they don’t understand,” Roza says.

“They’re everywhere around you, hiding in plain sight,” Lena reads from the leaflet and laughs. “Nonsense. I don’t think I’ve ever met one. Have you?”

“I don’t think so,” Roza lies in a smooth, well-practised manner. Her identity card is a fake, the genetic test that got her a place at the university a forgery. Can’t be too careful, her Papa always said, and she’s glad she listened.

“C’mon, don’t waste my time.” Lena grabs her hand and pulls her down the corridor. A minute later, they’re outside, running down the gravel path leading to the immense lawn. Hundreds of students sit on colourful blankets, enjoying the June afternoon.

“Lena! Over here!” somebody calls, and the two of them find themselves among Lena’s usual motley group of painters and actors and architects.

“I think you know everyone,” Lena says, “except maybe…”

A dark-haired young man is sitting on a yellow blanket, peeling a hard-boiled egg, his white shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up. He’s broad-shouldered and lithe in an attractive sort of way.

“Franz, this is Roza,” Lena says. “Roza, Franz.”

“Sit down.” He pats the empty spot beside him. Roza takes her oxfords off and kneels down awkwardly, her pencil skirt too tight for lounging. “Egg?”

“No, thank you,” she laughs. Somebody pushes a paper cup filled with spritzer into her hand.

“Smile!” Georg, Lena’s photographer boyfriend aims a bulky instant camera at them and clicks. The camera whirrs, producing a slightly blurry image of Roza and Franz. She tucks it absentmindedly into her purse.

“So what are you studying?” Franz asks. His dark eyes gleam, focused on her face.

“Biology.” She pulls a carrot from a bag of vegetables and takes a bite. “You?”

“Mechanical engineering.” Still holding the egg in his fingers, he flicks his wrist, waves his other hand, and the perfect white ovoid suddenly appears on his neighbour’s plate. “And magic, obviously.”


The conversation between them flows without hindrance. They chat about their plans for the future the whole afternoon, impervious to sunburn and strange looks from Lena’s crew.

“It’s time to go,” Lena pronounces when the sun slips behind the Arts building. “We must get ready for the play tonight.”

“Ah, sure.” Roza brushes the crumbs off her skirt. She’s not really into the avant-garde art of Lena’s circle, but she likes the relaxed crowd. As the others turn and leave, Franz touches her hand.

“A quick drink?” he asks.

She’s had enough to drink, but still she follows him, feeling like a naughty child. They amble through the winding, cobbled streets of the town till they reach a small cafe with live music. It’s packed, but she doesn’t mind standing close to him. His hips attract hers like a magnet, and half a dozen cigarettes and two glasses of wine later, she finds herself glued to him, dancing to a slow tune. He bows his head, she lifts hers, and their lips meet in a long kiss.

She should go home, it would be the proper thing to do, but there’s something strange in the air that night. The sky above their heads is shiny and brittle like a glass bauble, the laughter is too loud and nervous and everybody is drinking as if the world is going to run out of alcohol. Beneath the glare and din, Roza senses a deep, slow thrumming; the fate marching towards them. So when Franz says, “Come with me,” she follows once again, light-headed and giggling.

He has an attic room in the old town, five creaky flights of stairs leading up to a lopsided door. A single bed, a sink, an ancient armoire and a desk — good enough for students, poets and rats.

His slim fingers unbutton her blouse and slide under her bra straps. She pulls his shirt out of his trousers and over his head and inhales his scent, entirely human, yet intoxicating. His lips slide down her hot skin, the tip of his tongue writes passionate verses. Her flesh is light and supple under his gentle hands, and she lets him touch her, feel every inch of her, slide inside her.

For one dizzy, blinding moment, she wonders if he can see what she is, if her skin is transparent like a parchment before a candle, revealing the foul secret of her shifter genes. She shudders, and he pauses immediately.

“Do you want me to stop?” he asks.

But no, humans have a poor sense of smell, and they have no way of telling a shifter from a human without genealogy or a blood test. It’s a ridiculous fear fuelled by those cursed leaflets appearing all over the campus. She banishes the thought and pulls Franz closer, skin on skin, mouth on mouth as their bodies merge, sailing the waves of pleasure together.

Afterwards, they share a cigarette, and she briefly considers shocking him with the story of her childhood, of running on four legs through the ancient green forests, of cuddling with her sister beneath the earth, safe in their den. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind. But she doesn’t know him, not really, and is unwilling to break the gossamer bridge of affection between them. There’ll be time enough for awkward revelations.

They remain bunked in that room for a week, darting out to get bread and strawberries and cheap wine. Running up the rickety stairs to fall on the narrow bed, breathless, and make love again and again.

While he sleeps, she searches his desk. Engineering, math, some history and poetry. No incendiary pamphlets, no tractates on the treacherous nature of shifters. No hate. When she slips back under the sheets, she feels guilty and mad. Franz sleeps; silver moonlight plays with the sharp shadows on his face. He is gentle and funny and talks about machines as if they were live creatures. He’s a great dancer and an even greater kisser. In a kinder, more normal world, she’d be wondering if he were The One.

Humans cannot marry shifters; it was outlawed a year ago.

As dawn pours its golden light over the rooftops on the eighth day, someone knocks on the shabby door. “Roza? Roza are you here?”

Franz groans in his sleep, but Roza recognizes the voice. She rushes to unlock the door.

“I travelled for two days and turned half the town upside down to find you,” Hana says, flushed from the climb. She looks leaner than before, and fiercer, her red hair in two perfect plaits, her eyes burning. “Papa wants you home immediately.”

“What? Why?” Roza bristles.

“Haven’t you heard the news? We need to report to the census office by Sunday.” Hana peers over her shoulder, curiosity softening her features. “Oooh, I see. Handsome. Does he know?”

“Shut up,” Roza hisses, pushing her sister out. “Wait here.”

She gathers her things quickly as Franz yawns and rubs his eyes. “Family emergency,” she says.

“I’ll call you.”

She kisses him quickly and manoeuvres out of his arms trying to pull her back to bed. One last glance at his unshaven face and she’s out, running down the stairs with her sister.

* * *

Things sour quicker than Roza can follow. The peaceful, happy village she left to go to university is grey and quiet now; the villagers’ eyes cautious and hard. The school is turned into a temporary census office, but instead of the kind old headmaster, a young uniformed officer sits at the desk. As Roza enters with Hana and her parents, she sees the local genealogy register opened on their family page, their real identities written down in a meticulous hand.

“According to the Shifter Control Act, you’re required to wear these.” The officer hands them silver pins in the shape of a wolf’s head. “Don’t leave the village, or you’ll be arrested.”

At first, Roza remains shut in her room, refusing to accept this new reality where people stare at her from afar but cross to the other side of the street when she comes near. The other shifter families sometimes visit furtively, and she hears her father talking to the men late at night. She refuses to socialize with their daughters; they have nothing in common but the cursed blood.

Hana is laid off from her teaching job. Roza knows how hard she worked for it and how much she loved it, but faced with her sister’s furious eyes, she doesn’t know what to say.

“They can’t do this to us,” Hana fumes, as she reads the smuggled newspapers aloud to Roza. “The Government now says they want to intern us for our own safety.”

Roza wonders if she should write to Franz, explain the situation, but words fail her. What could she say? I’m sorry I forgot to mention that I’m an animal. She could only get him in trouble.

The Government starts taking shifters away to an unknown location and the first bloody uprising breaks out – and is brutally put down – in the capital. All shifter families receive Government-issued pills “to restrain their dark nature.” A girl in the village bleeds to death, but the rest of them are forced to report every Sunday to the hard-eyed officer and swallow the pill before him. No one can shift anymore.

A young man Roza went to school with spits the pill before the soldiers. They drag him into the yard unceremoniously and shoot him.

The shot echoes in Roza’s ears for hours afterwards, rendering her numb.

“They’re coming for us,” her father says one evening. “It’s time to move.”

Roza fills her backpack. Warm clothes, a toothbrush, soap, some food. Leafing through her notebooks, she finds the photograph. The two of them, sitting on the yellow picnic blanket. A long-lost version of Roza, laughing into the camera, a paper cup in her hand, her hair a flaming halo. And Franz in half-profile, holding a hard-boiled egg, looking at her. It weighs almost nothing, so she pushes it into the secret pocket in her backpack.

Two days later, their father wakes them up in the middle of the night, and the whole family trudges across the fields, into the woods, to the old forest track. A van with its headlights off waits there. Hana and Roza enter and squeeze themselves between the silent people sitting inside.

“Aren’t you coming with us?” Roza asks her parents, her voice suddenly very small.

“We only had enough money for two,” her father replies. “Don’t worry, we’ll stay here in the woods.”

“No, you mustn’t—” Roza tries to contradict him, but the driver shuts the door and cuts her off.

She cries holding Hana’s hand as they move through the night forest. When the pills wear off – if they wear off – their parents will be able to shift again. But they can only stay in their shifter bodies for a day or two. A shifter who stays longer risks forgetting their human self and turning into a real animal.

Looking at the indifferent moon through the dirty window of the van, Roza thinks that’s not such a bad fate.

* * *

They get new identity cards and jobs at an ammunition factory in a drab industrial town where nobody cares who they are, and new machine fodder is always welcome. Hana joins the resistance immediately, slipping off in the night to attend secret meetings, whispering about propaganda and diversions and shifter troops in the mountains.

Roza pretends she’s normal and ignores Hana’s rage. She stubbornly treats this life as a nightmare that will pass soon, if only she remains small and silent and keeps her head down.

While Hana disseminates illegal pamphlets that attack the Government, Roza wears her one tight dress and goes out with other factory girls. She lets men with greasy hands feel her up in filthy bars that reek of stale cigarette smoke and piss. She thinks of Franz as they shove their tongues down her throat. Soon those men are replaced with boys in badly fitting uniforms, and then they disappear as well. What began as a cleanse turns into a war that spreads across the borders. A general draft spares only those too old or too crippled to fight.

Her beauty fades and so does Hana’s. Their glossy hair becomes brittle and dull. Hana hacks it off, Roza brushes it every night, crying, and hides it under a scarf during the day. Their bodies turn gaunt and tired, their bones creak in protest as they move. Their faces are hard and unfamiliar. Roza struggles to recognize her own reflection.

She sometimes wonders what happened to Lena and her artistic crew. Are they still at university, protesting this madness, producing sharp, furious art? Or have the boys been mobilized and girls sent to factories, so now they look just as harrowed and hopeless as Roza?

One night, the factory explodes and when Hana comes home, her face is bruised and her clothes torn and dirty.

“Close call,” she says, grinning. “They don’t know who I am, but they soon will. Time to move.”

As Hana packs her bag, Roza feels rage flaring in her chest. “Why do you always have to go and do something dangerous?” she says. “We could have stayed here, safe.”

“You want to stay here?” Hana asks, incredulous.

Their tiny room at the boarding house has mold growing in the corners and perennially smells of cabbage. A prison cell would be more cheerful.

Roza hisses, refusing to answer, and grabs her backpack. It’s winter outside, she dresses for the cold and tucks the photo in her breast pocket.

“Why do you keep dragging that stupid thing around?” Hana asks.

Roza wants to hurl back something sharp and hurtful, but in the end, she just says, “Because I liked him. Because it was real.”

The pity in her sister’s eyes cuts her deep. “That world is gone,” Hana says. “And everyone who inhabited it. Those people are dead.”

“No. I’m not dead. And neither is he, I know it.”

Hana shrugs and pulls on her boots.

“Where are we going?” Roza asks.

“There is a base in the woods,” Hana says. “For those who have nothing left to lose.”

* * *

They meet a group of desperate men and women before dawn. Roza keeps her head down, avoiding their eyes. She doesn’t know who they are, she doesn’t want to know. They leave the town and head straight for the woods. It’s freezing cold. The untouched snow reaches up to their knees and there is no path, but Hana leads them with grim determination.

When the sun rises above the mountains, they hear barking in the distance and know they’re being followed.

They trudge on stubbornly, hungry and exposed.

“We should shift,” Roza says. “We’ll move faster on four legs.”

“No,” Hana retorts. “We leave no one behind.”

Roza looks around and makes a quick tally: the ragged fugitives look half-dead in the morning light. Perhaps not all of them are purebloods, and some of them might be too old, too exhausted, or too poisoned by the pills the Government fed them to shift. So they continue slogging beneath the snow-laden pines, armed soldiers hot on their trail.

This deadly landscape in the sharp claws of winter terrifies Roza. Her toes are numb and every muscle in her body screams at her to stop. In order to keep moving, she slips away. The blurry photograph in her breast pocket, tucked under five layers of clothing, pokes at her ribs. She thinks of Franz’s kisses.

The photo is the only vision of the future she can muster. An unfinished business of the two people who fell in love one summer night. Perhaps she’ll find him again, in the next town, next rebels’ base. And then it will be easier to live through this evil, and fight it together.

She doesn’t realize she’s sobbing until Hana’s hand finds hers and squeezes it hard.

“Almost there,” Hana says, her breath a white, frozen cloud. “Up this hill and across the old railway bridge. The rebels should wait for us on the other side.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I have my sources.”

Roza bites her lip and pushes on. While she wasted her time torn between daydreaming and despair, hundreds of grim, stubborn people fought the Government.

“This base in the mountains has a new leader,” Hana says. “A hero, determined to take back what is ours. It’s time to turn around and bare our fangs.”

“I’m scared of fighting.”

“They need other skills too. Nursing. Cooking. Teaching.”

The idea sounds more optimistic than anything Roza has heard in months. There are people like them, organized, led by someone who has a plan.

A shot pierces the silence and Hana falls with a gasp, pulling Roza down, a bloody rose blooming in the snow beneath her.

“Run!” someone screams, as the soldiers pour out of the woods, with their dogs and their guns.

Roza still holds Hana’s hand, though her sister’s eyes are empty, the side of her head blown up. She forces herself to let go and bolts behind the pines, running for her life. She expects a bullet any moment. It doesn’t come. Five seconds pass, then ten, then twenty.

She almost dares to hope she escaped, when a voice says, “Stop.”

He stands before her, a soldier with a raised gun. She closes her eyes and says a quick prayer. Time trickles away.


She opens her eyes. The soldier removes the scarf that covers his mouth.

“Franz.” She gasps.

The gun shakes in his hands. “I always hoped I’d find you, but…” His eyes study her face as if there’s something crucial written on it. “Tell me you’re not one of them.”

The anguish in his voice breaks her heart and she finally manages to tap into Hana’s rage. She wants to tell him he’s an idiot poisoned by the Government’s lies. A brainwashed fool. A murderer.

But the snow and the blood and the gunshots echoing in the distance wipe away all reasonable arguments. Her sister is gone and Roza is too furious and desperate to care what he thinks when she says, “I’m not a monster, you are.”

And then, keeping her eyes on the barrel of his gun, Roza wills her body to shift. As her clothes fall to the ground, the photograph slips out. It lies on the snow, a perfect rectangle of fiery colours.

She stands lightly on her four feet now, a sleek young fox. Thick red fur protects her from the cold. She waits for the bullet.

Instead, Franz lowers his gun and picks up the photograph. He presses it to his chest.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I never—”

Shots thunder among the trees. Eyes locked on each other, they both know no words are powerful enough to carve a future for the two of them.

His gaze follows her as she turns away and dashes into the woods.


* * *

About the Author

Jelena Dunato is an art historian, curator, speculative fiction writer, and lover of all things ancient. She grew up in Croatia on a steady diet of adventure novels and then wandered the world for a decade, building a career in the arts.

Jelena’s stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, and Mermaids Monthly, among others. She is a member of SFWA and Codex. Her novel Dark Woods, Deep Water is coming out from Ghost Orchid Press in September 2023.
Jelena lives on an island in the Adriatic with her husband, daughter and cat. You can find her at jelenadunato.com and on Twitter @jelenawrites.

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