They had been seeing each other for several months. He had lost his wife and child in a car accident on their way to a birthday party. He had been across town when it happened, working late. She only knew what had happened because someone else had told her, or perhaps she had read about it in the paper. He had no interest in the past, his own or others’, which suited her fine. She had her own secrets and was relieved to be able to keep them.
They were at a party at a friend’s house when somebody started talking about the years when they had been at university: the parties, and the drinking and the politics they had shared. He stood and started clearing away the dishes. She caught the expression on his face in a mirror as he stood, his arms full of dishes, and turned towards the kitchen. His face was bereft: a closed and blasted landscape. She stood, collected an armful of plates and followed him. She ran a sink full of hot, soapy water and he found a tea-towel. While they worked, he told her that he no longer wanted a family; that sometimes, late at night, he felt relieved to be free of the burden of being a husband and a father. He would not marry again, he said.
That night they drove back to her house in silence. She was watching the moon follow them, remembering how as a child she had wondered why it was tethered to her. She still couldn’t explain the way it sailed alongside the car, peering in the windows, as though it was waiting for her to say something, do something. Its vast face contained a question she could not answer.
They went inside without turning the lights on. She asked him to stay the night. She had never asked him to stay before. They walked over to the bed. He unbuttoned her shirt and slid it back over her shoulders. He eased her pants down over her hips. He folded his own clothes neatly and put them in a small pile by the side of the bed. They lay down without saying a word, and made love.
At midnight he said, ‘Come outside,’ and in the darkness they saw the sky of September bend down towards them with the stars held in its outstretched hands.
They had a small wedding at the registry office. She and a friend from the office made lavender cupcakes to serve at the reception, which was held at her house. They had two daughters in the first three years.
In the fourth year of their marriage they travelled to the saltpan of Lake Ballard. They left their hotel in Menzies while it was still dark and drove in unrelieved silence, both of them content that their daughters were safe, back on the east coast with her mother for the holidays. The girls were small and noisy, and would not have appreciated the beauty of the saltpans, or the long drives between country towns. When they reached Lake Ballard they parked and got out of the car. They were wearing hats and sunblock, and had brought bottled water. At first they walked together, but soon they found themselves attracted to the feeling of space between their attenuated bodies, to the sense that their intimacy was being stretched and enlarged as they moved away from each other.
She turned and saw him standing face to face with one of the sculptures that spotted the expanse. The heat of the day had started to shirr the air and it was hard to tell which of the figures was her husband and which was not. She watched as a valley opened in the earth between them and houses appeared, towns scrawled like Braille on the flanks of a white mountain. The moon rose up out of the earth near her husband’s feet, its great, round head shouldering aside cakes of salt. She waited a moment, tipped back her head and felt the early sunlight pour down over her face. The sky was so near. Discovery. The end of things.
They found a depression in the brittle earth in which to sit and eat their breakfast. There were still no other visitors to the lake. When he had finished eating he put his head down in her lap and she held the weight of his skull in her hands. They made love, something they had not done for a long time. She fell pregnant with their third child.
Back at home, she found she had missed her daughters more than she had understood while they had been away, and was touched by the urgency with which her husband held them when they were reunited. Both she and her husband looked forward to the birth of another child, and hoped perhaps it would be a boy this time.
There were complications throughout the pregnancy, and finally the child had to be delivered by Caesarean section, under general anaesthetic. The woman and her husband waited in a hospital room for the nurse to bring them their child. The nurse, who had been present at the delivery, and who had been the one to clamp the umbilical cord and wash the child—like a soft, dense plate—in the sink in the delivery room, swaddled him in a blanket and presented him to the parents. The mother looked down at her son’s face and made a small, sharp sound. They had been told what to expect. Before the nurse came in, the woman had been determined to love her son in measured scoops. One scoop of her flesh for each year he was expected to survive.
The husband put his hand on her arm. The woman pushed the edge of the blanket away from their son’s head so that her husband could see. For the first time in several years she saw that look slide up and over his face: that private hollow into which he curled.
‘Hello, little man,’ she said to the child in her arms, and he turned his great head towards her chest, his mouth open and urgent.
The little girls came running in from the waiting room, where they had been sitting with their grandmother. They were careful not to clamber up onto the bed, but they were anxious to see their sibling. One of them made her father lift her up, and the other pushed the visitor’s chair closer to her mother’s bed and stood on it. They were both wearing new, polished shoes bought for them by their grandmother. When they saw their brother’s face the older sister frowned and reached out to touch it with the tip of her finger, like an exotic fruit. The other got down from the chair and pushed it over to the window, where she sat throughout that first visit, watching the cars in the car park many floors below.
At first he didn’t seem very different to other babies. He attached to the breast easily enough, but had to stop more frequently than was usual. He would fall back from the breast, his small face pink with effort, and take a series of deep, considering breaths. He would look at her as though he knew something she didn’t yet understand, and pitied her.
The little boy turned out to be very quiet. When he woke up from a nap he played in his crib without crying until someone noticed he was awake. He would lie on a blanket in the shade while his mother gardened, watching her move from bed to bed with interest. He often appeared to be concentrating. At kindergarten he made a few friends, and enjoyed taking part in the school play each year. He particularly loved to dress up. His mother spent long hours making his costumes, and was always deeply touched by the pleasure her son took in them. One year he was a Christmas beetle, in a costume made of shimmering green organza underlaid with black silk. His father made beetle-legs out of plastic, and sat his son on a stool in the garage to watch while he spray-painted them.
Another year the boy was a bee, with wings that opened and closed all on their own thanks to a special motor his father installed in the striped belly of his costume. One year he arrived home with a note indicating he was to play the moon, but his mother refused to go along with it. They waited until their son was up in his room to call and discuss the matter with Mrs Dempster, who was in charge of the school play. He tried not to raise his voice when he spoke about the bullying, about the school’s ineffectual attempts to get the other children to stop calling him Moonface. About the cruelty of casting him in this role, which could only feed the children’s cruelty.
While the father was on the phone, sorting things out, the mother went upstairs to check on the children. The girls were each tucked up in their beds. One of them was reading aloud to a small array of paper dolls, pegged on a line she had stretched from the end of her bed to the window. The other girl had fallen asleep on the floor with her colouring-in book scrunched under her cheek and a blue crayon still grasped in her hand. Her mother picked her up and tucked her into bed. Then she went into her son’s room. His room was neat as a pin. His light was out, and he had tucked himself in. She sat on his bed. She could tell by the way he was lying that he was upset about something. She had learned how to know that much. She pushed the sweat-damp hair back from his forehead and kissed him good night. He pretended to be comforted, and closed his eyes as if to sleep.
On the day of the school performance the children’s mother had to work, but their grandmother had agreed to pick them up from school. One of the girls had a speaking part in the play, and the other was singing a solo. The little boy was to dress up as a polar bear. His costume was made out of synthetic fur with silver threads in it. He had a silver crown to wear, which his father had made, dotted with glass diamonds.
The grandmother had made fresh biscuits to give the children for afternoon tea, which she served with glasses of chocolate milk. The little boy finished his first. The girls sat at the kitchen table with their grandmother, telling her all about the play, and about how one of the boys at school had wanted to have real kissing in the final scene, and how another of the boys had sprained his wrist rehearsing for the scene in which Joseph and the shepherds perform a rap version of ‘Jingle Bells’.
The little boy had gone up to his neat-as-a-pin room. He had plenty of books and toys, but he was too tired to play. His polar bear suit was hanging on the outside of his wardrobe, and his polar bear crown was sitting on his desk. He ran his hand through the fur of the suit. It looked at him reproachfully, as though he had skinned a small animal in order to disguise himself inside its skin. He put on the silver crown, but that didn’t feel very good either.
He went downstairs, past the kitchen where his sisters were helping his grandmother with the dishes, and out the back door. It wasn’t far to the shops, where his oldest sister sometimes took him to buy lollies or ice-creams with the pocket money they earned for doing chores.
He walked past the shops to the school. It was mostly empty and unlit, but he could see a cleaner working in the grade four classroom, and the doors of the other rooms were still open. He went into a room he had not been in before. It was the staff storeroom. There were aisles of paints and canvasses, coloured and foiled sheets of paper and cardboard, scissors, glues, paint pots, newspapers and egg cartons. One aisle had bins filled with Styrofoam balls: the kind that his class had used to make models of the solar system. Large balls for the outer planets and the sun, smaller ones for the nearby planets. He looked around for the cleaner, but she was vacuuming the classrooms and emptying the bins.
He opened one of the plastic bins of Styrofoam balls and sank his arm into the slithery, squeaking mass. A few of the balls puffed up and fell onto the floor. He took out a few more and arranged them in a series of elliptical orbits on the carpet tiles. It wasn’t like a solar system. There were too many large orbs, and they were all the same: enormous, featureless white globes; moons scrubbed clean of their craters and dunes. He was very tired by now, and regretted not wearing the polar bear suit, which would have been warmer than his shorts and T-shirt. He lay down and closed his eyes. His breathing was hushed and irregular, punctuated by a slow hiss like the air escaping from the pinched mouth of a balloon.
The cleaner was about to leave. She had turned out the lights, put the key in the lock of the staffroom door, and was pulling it closed when she heard the little boy’s breathing and wondered whether one of the teachers had left something turned on in the storeroom.
When she saw the little boy lying on the floor, she thought at first someone had left a costume behind and she would have to carry it over to the school hall. But then she heard that sound—his peculiar breath—and saw his chest effortfully rise and sink. She knew who it was: she had never seen him before but it was clear to her whose boy she had found.
She called the boy’s house, and the mother and father, who had arrived home and were just deciding whether to call the police, came straight to the school. The cleaner stood outside the staffroom and waited. She didn’t turn on any of the lights in the staffroom or the storeroom. She left everything just as it was when she had found him. The mother came running across the school playground in bare feet; the father not far behind her. They hurried past the cleaner into the dark storeroom, and held their son close. The father carried him home, the mother’s hand stroking their son’s wet cheeks as they walked.
At home the mother ran a bath for her son while the father called the boy’s doctor to tell him what had happened. Then he made the boy something to eat. A good meal, the kind of thing he had liked to eat as a boy. He took the food up to his son’s room on a special tray. His son was washed and clean, his wet hair still clinging to his forehead. He was wearing his polar bear outfit, including the crown, but he didn’t want to go to the school play. The mother lay down on the bed beside him and looked out the window at the moon, and told him a story about a tower and a bear and a princess. The father sat on the floor near his son’s head. Every now and then, he would add something—some small, practical detail—the kind of thing they both knew their little boy loved.
Outside in the hall, with the door pulled mostly closed and her hand still on the handle, the mother and the father agreed that one of them would stay home with him as the doctor had recommended, and the other would go with the girls to the school performance. They flipped a coin to see who would stay.
When the father came home at midnight, he carried his girls one by one out of the car into their bedrooms. He slipped their shoes and socks off their feet and their costumes up over their sleepily extended arms. He pulled their sheets up over their shoulders and kissed their hot, happy faces. His wife had fallen asleep in front of the television. He kissed her too, and when she roused sleepily he kissed her again. It was the kind of kiss a man gave his wife in the dark, when she was sleep-rumpled and hot-breathed, and they had not yet said a word. It was dark and quiet in the house. They held hands and went up the stairs to their bedroom, stopping outside their son’s door for a moment to listen to him breathing.
By the time they had finished making love, their son was dead. While they were in their room, he had come downstairs and turned on the TV, with the volume turned down very low. He was lying on the lounge with his soft head turned into the cushions. The father had come downstairs to get his wife a glass of water, and when he saw his son lying there, at first he smiled. The boy was still wearing the polar bear suit and the silver crown, but when the father gently shook his son’s arm, the boy didn’t feel right. He didn’t feel firm enough. The father turned off the TV. He listened for his son’s breath. There was no sound. No sound at all. The father wished he had left the TV on: even that would have been something. He buckled onto the floor beside his son and pulled him close. How long had it been since he had held his son so close? Since he had smelled the milk-hot skin of his head and kissed him? The father stroked his son’s silver and white fur, and felt the soft bones underneath the fur. He adjusted the crown on his son’s head and cried and cried.
When his wife came down to find him, wondering what had taken so long, the husband felt ashamed and furious. He could not let go of his little boy. His wife knelt beside him on the lounge-room floor and tried to take the weight of them both; tried to steady them and separate them, and make sense of their bodies. So similar, so separate. Her husband; her son.
The moon was outside the window, peering in, still tethered to her, still asking whether she loved him.