The air that he breathes

On their way to the school bus stop his boys run ahead to an adventure of burnt logs they call The Fires beside a huge Australian river red gum stump they clamber up, inventing games.  An old dad, he swings them – apart from the eldest building courage to leap unaided through dappled low sunbeams – arms outstretched, ritually in turn, from the transfigured stump, pretending they are parachuting from a plane or a burning building, spinning around, around, defying gravity before floating gently back to earth.

Cigarette smoke fretted above his ashtray’s perfect grey cylinder of ash like holy incense.  On a board, panthers arced fangs, claws, skulls with bones crossed for luck behind hideous grins stared down serpents sinuate around daggers badged in blood.  Mother, a mermaid, Eternal Love, and Death before Dishonour, competed for choice in crimson, turquoise, deep rich blue.  My first nervous visit to a sordid tattoo parlour at sixteen, the estranged son of war-scarred migrants scratching his lone existence in the big smoke.

Pirouetting, replete with love, mocking pain that has long racked much of his body, he imagines that stump in its prime, glimpses a glorious overarching canopy in days before the godsend of rural electricity, the likely reason for its felling, before waving the bus off, then returning home to shock news: an aircraft has pierced a building, defiling the joy of sky above New York City.

That tattooist wore carpet slippers, his own inky relics camouflaged by a dense mat of middle-aged body hair.  Did I remind him of his tough past when I longed to plunge into make-believe after my wretched short-lived childhood?  Peering through thick-lensed glasses, vivid inks at a low table, he leant forward from a round-backed chair, glittering needle buzzing with hollow promises poised over my skinny white arm.

Fixing lunch, further horror news: the daughter of a friend has gunned her car over a cliff.  He twirls now cold spaghetti on a fork for minutes without raising it to his mouth, senses all these people cleft, sorrowing, as he lumbers on through helpless hours of grace until collecting his boys.  Passing the Parachute Fires, gulping Yeats’ mouthful of air, he remembers an inmate in the Boys Yard prone on concrete, blood pooling around his head, filling cracks, knows he shall always remember this day so terribly different, heart clinging to happiness, brief, love harnessed to, and veiled by, grief.


Ian C Smith ‘s work has been widely published. He writes in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.