Title: A Candle on a Leaf

Author: Lynn Davidson

In: Sport 5: Spring 1990

Publication details: 1990, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 5: Spring 1990

Lynn Davidson — A Candle on a Leaf

page 103

Lynn Davidson

A Candle on a Leaf

I had been careful with this baby, after losing the last one. It still haunted me, all the anticipation of fresh fragrant baby flesh, the drawing of my world into a tiny perfect focus, lost, after one painful night shuffling between the toilet and the bed, parcels of red unwrapping themselves into the toilet. It seemed so irreverent. I waited for retribution.

This one, big enough to push my belly into a creamy hill, was like a small candle on a leaf, pushed out into a river where people came to pray and immerse themselves in the holy water; a light at night, over a river where corpses slid by and flesh-eating creatures lived; where all was mystery, reverence, silence, death, fear, silence. People gave me good food, like flowers to a shrine, it moved from my mouth to the placenta, where it slid along the stem and opened out into a wide red flower. My centre of gravity had shifted. I was clumsy and mute.

After I had lost the first one, after that night, he drove me to hospital in the neighbours' car, cramps biting at my stomach. They examined me. The placenta hadn't 'come away', I would need a 'd and c'. They put me under. I fell out of pregnancy. It was supposed to be an adventure and a discovery. It was silent, and I moved through clouds. When I woke in the recovery room, a nurse, about the same age as my mother, told me it was God's plan, God's way. She crept around the people drifting out of the fog of anaesthetic, in her silent shoes, spreading this message. My sister and a friend came to see me, as I slipped off the bed to have a shower, I left a stripe of blood on the sheets, I was ashamed.

The Monday before he was born I walked to Kerry's house. We sat at the window, watching the road, eating, drinking tea, watching each other's faces as we told stories and news. Laughing. Kerry fed her youngest baby, a boy, he pressed his round face into her breast, she pushed down with one finger by his nose, so he could breathe. Such is the kindness of women.

Kerry had lost a baby. Her daughter had been three months old, the phrase 'cot death' had been thrown over them like a net, they moved page 104uncomfortably under it, they waited to be released, to be spoken sense to. Their daughter had died. No one else they knew had lost a child this way.

Kerry's oldest boy talked with his friend.

'What's this?'

'It's just a gun.'

'This is a big rocket launcher.'

'This one I made at school.'

'Do you know what a bayonet is?'


'This is what I showed at school.'

'Are these your toys?'


'Are they?'

'Mum, all the kids at school tipped my game out and they wouldn't help me pick it up, not Lewis though, eh Lewis, not you.'

'No not me ... Hey! men can't get babies, eh?'

'No, but they can get cats.'

There had been an autopsy. Then she was dressed in her christening gown and sealed into a coffin the size of a good bread board.

Kerry and her husband, Robin, sat by the grave for four days, sharing a brown paper bag of lunch between them. They would sit there, he peeling a mandarin, she chewing a piece of grass, looking out and seeing what was very far away, or very close. They knew they must take time to believe and adjust, if not understand. At the end of each day they would wrap crusts and fruit skins in the bag, stand up, ease up cramped limbs, weep to leave and weep to return again the next day. She told me all this.

From Whenua Tapu green hills fold one on top of the other, woven tighter together the farther away they get. The cemetery and the hills are separated by a railway line slightly above it on one side, and a road down a little on the other. On sunny days the hills are bright green and the trains slide by, blinded by sunshine. On the dull days the hills are a dusty grey-green like an ancient tablecloth, dirty with crumbs, and no one in the house with enough energy to shake it clean.

On the dull days, Kerry said, the trains slid by slowly, and people looked down on them through the windows, observing the ritual of grief and loss. Kerry and Robin resented those commuters looking down at page 105them, seeing the tops of their heads. Laughing, crying, they talked about bombing the trains. On the good days they knew they were learning. On the bad days they were half buried themselves, feeling for each other's faces and arms as if they were blind, and they couldn't breathe, couldn't bear it when they held each other. On the worst days, one would want to bomb trains and the other to lie face down in the grass; on the worst days they would horrify each other.

On the fourth day it was cold, cars slipped by, seemingly underfoot, Kerry sat in front of Robin who held her inside his large grey coat. She nearly slept except the trains and cars were as sly as thieves and she couldn't quite sleep while they were there. She laid one hand on the damp grave, he laid a hand on top of hers, she closed her eyes.

At four o'clock on the fourth day I stood at the iron gates of Whenua Tapu looking up at where Kerry and Robin sat. I knew this was their last day, they had told me. I had a flask of soup for them, for their last hour, I held it against my chest, trying to decide if this was the worst or best thing to do for them in the last hour of their last day of vigil.

They had asked me to help them leave, not in words, but silently, nothing dramatic, just a gentle interruption. I felt that I understood. 'Time to go home,' those words that kids hate but need when the whole wide world and the infinite is their playground.

On that walk up the rise to where they sat, amongst the slabs of stone, I wanted to run away.

I sat down with them for a few moments, there was nothing to say. From the macrocarpas, magpies swooped down and looped up again like transient decorations, impatient for us to go, they called out in hostile voices. 'Time to go,' I said quietly, alarmed at the smallness of my voice. Embarrassed at the hugeness of my voice. I held them both, wept with them, walked back to the car and waited.

They left. It was hard to leave, Kerry told me, thinking of the trains and the cars and the birds. They heard themselves walk, felt the brushing past of air on their faces, like cold cobwebs, yes, they were walking away.

Being pregnant, I laughed and cried more easily. It was important to me that I lived on this earth, this particular earth with its blue open sky and its colourful surface. I walked on ground that seemed holy. Whole. I think that I believed I would give birth not to one fragile fern, but to a forest, that I would give birth to environment, purpose, meaning.


page 106

The boy slowly butted his way out of my body at six-thirty on Wednesday morning. On Tuesday I had noticed how quiet the child was inside me, I walked gently around the house, my movements slight, I felt as though it were somehow broken. Birth was like a landslide. First the strange silence and stillness. Then the pain of separation that started miles and miles away, as if in someone else's body; but I listened and was restless. Then the large loud close pains, and the injection, and the feeling of being underwater and being a strange creature breaking in two. And then the power and the excitement as the landslide gathered momentum, whole hillsides slipped into valleys and the child slipped out and up to meet me.

The child. The boy. A person after all. More than a fern, less than a forest. I put his tiny face to my breast. His arms moved jerkily, his fists unfurled, wrinkled fingers with tissue thin nails, he opened the fingers one by one, as if counting the seconds he had been born.

A person after all, desire, dependence, hunger, the temperature of air; the having or not having of shelter, clothes, parents, hunger and hunger and hunger; small soft play-dough arms and legs; the thin fragile far away bones. All this needing, requiring noise and movement, stuttering into staccato limbs and shellfish mouth. The clean division between sleeping and waking. All new.

He sleeps for two hours during the day. I soak one lot of nappies and hang out another. Then, if there is time, I read, or take a record of his growing, pick mint to put in his busy fists when he wakes, so he can see and smell, possibly learning that green smells like this. It seems important to do this, against the day I know will come, when I find myself either excluded from the minute details of his growing, or no longer so impressed by his fragility.

When he sleeps I rest one of my hands across his chest and stomach, and through the pure wool cardigan knitted on hair-thin needles by my mother, through the cotton nightgown and the cotton singlet, I feel the pulse of his heart, like a tiny fish flicking in a shallow rockpool.