Floating in a Lantern’s Glow

Jack Shanahan considers the grief of change in a stirring creative piece

It’s lying on this little fishing boat off the coast of Ende as the ocean’s edge rises and falls to the promise of the moon that a thousand lanterns leave our hands and I feel the emptiness of her shadow next to mine. The reflection of these rice-paper lanterns find depth to the water’s surface. They dance to the melody of a light autumn breeze as I once danced with her. Only now could I see life through the eyes of Monet; the sky and water blurred so that we existed in one space – a nebula of lanterns where wonderful eyes watch them drift into fireflies. It’s the first time that I have floated since she left and in this moment of weightlessness, it is as if the doors of perception are cleansed and everything appears as it is.

Lanterns become but candles burnt to wick and our collective silence is soon to break as onlookers take a last deep breath and a last brief glance at something so beautiful that is now out of reach. I glance at her shadow once more – that emptiness beside me. I’m unsure what it is about that last breath. Maybe a feeling of renewal – some type of forgiveness. Almost as if nothing else matters or will matter for that brief moment when you’re under these stars and beneath these lanterns, entranced in their beauty, imprisoned to their sight.

The feeling reminds me of a night before I had moved to Indonesia and while we were flirting between the lines of friendship. We sat on the cliff-face of Ben Buckler overlooking that white light of Icebergs turn the contours of rolling waves to what she thought was that same inky blue smeared onto the side of my hand from writing. I had tried to wash away the stains. She asked to read my stories a million times over. I was long out of excuses to hide my fear of vulnerability and at the brink of honesty before I lied from compulsion by telling her that I cared too much of her perception to let her read a draft.  Tenderly, she turned over my palm and tried to differentiate between the imprints of smudged letters before lying back and rolling her eyes.

“You have no idea how much confusion you cause me.”

Silently, we lay there; her head nestled into the grooves of my collarbone and neck. There was comfort between us. That feeling of content I had long hoped to find from achieving what was beyond me. She said the southerly wind had risen and started to quiver. I wrapped the beach-towel that we had used to wipe away the drips of ice-cream melting down our cones around us as a blanket. I remember thinking that the wind hadn’t really changed and that she had a cardigan in my car and that it was more or less an excuse that allowed us to become closer without the romantic implications we had promised to avoid. Just us, the sounds of gently breaking waves and a groomer running laps of Bondi to level out the sand. The depth of the sky seemed to narrow after one a.m. then widen at two as the sun was readying to rise for the speedo-slinging swimmers swallowing the ocean’s breath at dawn. She was telling stories that I didn’t believe and interrupted herself with silence before smiling and telling of the falling star that had just melted into dust before her.

“Did you see it? Did you see it?

A shooting star!”

I hadn’t the heart to speak of meteors or comets and the idea of a shooting star sounded all the more romantic when exhaled with the air of naivety.

“A shooting star? Really?”

“Yes really!”

“I can’t believe I missed it,” I said as if I hadn’t seen its reflection in her eyes. A white sparkle that drifted from iris to iris as I exhaled a deep breath. I’m unsure what it is about that last breath. Perhaps this feeling that she could heal whatever was broken inside of me.

“Isn’t our world incredible?”

I wondered what we were still doing here at two a.m. as friends while she repeated the question a second time and I couldn’t think of any words worth my answer so looked through her notebook until I found a sentence she’d ripped from Ishiguro and glued into the margin.

“It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity.”

The loud hum of a commercial aeroplane above us turns to the breath of a charter plane as the sensation of floating ends and I feel the pressure between my flesh and the world beneath me. The lanterns have disappeared and families pack away their blankets while children practice handstands on the shore before piling into utes and resuming the mundanity of schoolwork, baths and bedtimes. Their trance turns to reality and our world seems all the more artificial. The Ende’s begin to empty and I see a young girl tug the tail of her father’s shirt so that his neck twists and eyes look downwardly, lovingly, towards his daughter.

“Kenapa dia belum melepaskannya, Ayah?”

~ Why is he yet to let go, Dad? ~

I can’t help but feel a tinge of self-pity as I feel the glow of the lantern warm my chest while her shadow grows cold and I realise that I’ve yet to let go, this lantern cradled in my arms alone amidst the darkness of night.

Slashing through Indonesian syllables, I mutter to her.

“Kalau saja saya tahu.”

               ~ If only I knew. ~

This illness of mine – so long outrun by witty responses to serious questions and drowned by gin, poisoned by cigarettes – is scratching at my chest as though the shell of my ribs weren’t there for protection. I’m yet to confront what this illness truly is, although it has something to do with my mind falling apart and some feeling of absence whenever I catch my reflection. I’ve been hiding from mirrors lately. All at once I look like a man on the brink of boyhood, a boy on the brink of manhood. The longer I look, the more I hate that face in the mirror. I hope that other people see me how I really am, or at least how I’d like to be. Without her, I have no way to know.

A week ago by a deckchair in Maumere, the New York Times read Just a few billion years left until the building blocks of atoms will dissolve from under us, leaving space populated by a thin haze of lightweight electrons and a spittle of radiation.” In the same way that my writing desk starts clean then clutters, that the kettle steams and weeds overtake Edens, the universe naturally leans into disorder. We combust from within: your lightbulb, our solar system, this little scratch of mine. Although, watching everything dissolve beneath us sounds oddly peaceful; it’s a far sweeter Armageddon than the broken wall, burning roof of Troy. When Vesuvius melted artisans’ shops and taverns, merchant’s brothels and baths, what remained was a mere shadow. One hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings was released that day. One-hundred thousand times. A city “in darkness like the black of closed and unlighted rooms,” one witness wrote. Moths drew to the lantern by my chest– hovering, turning – circling their sun in this little solar system of mine. One moth draws closer to the sun and lights the way for others to incineration, their little life now rounded by a sleep. The flame of the lanterns will soon burn through its fuel and the air inside will cool so that it is heavier than the surrounding air. We won’t gather to watch the lanterns fall; there is no flame to illuminate the night. Over the following days, they’ll wash up on shores with the twisted wire frame wrapped around the necks of sea-turtles or fragments will open on a dinner plate within the guts of fish. As the children are told to pick around the pieces, maybe one will see their name that they excitedly scribbled onto a section of the lantern and feel the hopefulness of that last breath fasten to a panic. Although there’s no reason to feel any more guilt than when handing Rupiah to the seller, that sense of renewal in their breath will fade and that moment will recategorize itself from one of spiritual incandescence to embarrassing naivety. “Matter is neither created nor destroyed,” the New Yorker reads.

“It’s cyclical, our world,” she said beneath an autumn tree.

I looked up from a book of poetry at the time, “whatever is begotten, born and dies,” Yeats’ said to me.

“It’s liminal. Between summer and winter, life and death,

grief and gratitude. The days are getting shorter and the nights

are getting longer, crossing into a perfect balance

 at Equinox.”  

Although over a year ago, I still remember that what sunlight remained tapered between slits of clouds and through the translucent skin of falling leaves, imprinting a shadowed pattern onto her face that must have inspired Marimekko.

“What we let go of becomes the compost of what we’ll soon grasp,” she said while planting seeds into plastic soda bottles picked from the shore on her morning walk that line our garden as pot plants and remind myself of what beauty I’ve missed by sleeping in until nine. A bandana made of pink and white threads was tied around her head to hide the patches where hair was falling out for reasons which her and I were yet to know.

At dinner the following night she hadn’t touched her glass of red wine and was particularly shy while I strung through conversation before, she interrupted, “In other news, I’m pregnant.”

Four months later while lingering before Picasso’s Death of Casagemas at a gallery, she said “it’s cancer” and nothing more – we’d been waiting for the call. The candlelight beside Casagemas’ face began to fade and the off-white walls of the gallery turned to that of hospital wards. Although, at least to me, they appeared in Picasso-blue – that same blue smeared onto my palm that night beneath the shooting star.

“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” the stethoscope said while her face flickered green beneath a beam of radiation.

I made sure that all the flowers were planted in plastic soda-bottles at her funeral. Those closest to her had a service at dawn before the official proceedings. Although our child inside of her never saw the light of day, we wrapped a blanket in her arms. Never is there a sadder sight. In the dark folds of that blanket lie the uncontainable experiences that our little cannot have. The coffin lowered and we exhaled a collective last breath. I’m unsure what it is about that last breath. Maybe a feeling of utter brokenness.

I spent the anniversary of her next birthday unable to become comfortable in a hospital bed and eating dinner with a plastic knife – they said that I was a danger to myself. A nurse had placed W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn on my bedside table and I was unsure whether it was from a place of compassion or sick irony. A few pages in, he vocalised my pain; the artificial silence, the artificial white walls. The feeling that reality could not exist beyond me when all I saw of the outside world was filtered through a two by two window without clouds, without planes. Life was colourless, food was tasteless. I felt some concoction of pain and optimism drip through the IV that was weaselled into my arm as the narrator placed himself in the shoes of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who likely sat beside him in a copy of Metamorphosis, and dragged himself from the hospital bed to raise his face along the glass. Just as Samsa no longer remembered the quiet street of his family home and the satisfaction that looking out the window had once given him, the narrator saw an utterly alien place and I wondered too if there was nothing for me beyond these white walls. The few hundred dollars the scrapyard gave to me in exchange for my crushed Subaru was unable to fill the scripts for ongoing medications, let alone the ambulance ride – this little attempt of mine had come at a net loss. In a dreary, half-hallucinating state, I left the hospital. After almost three months of lying horizontal, my body nearly crumbled beneath its paper-weight. In those first steps beyond the automatic doors, I became aware of the traces of my destruction as past memories flowered before my eyes and lay like a palimpsest on the sandstone structures of this city. My world may be as artificial as Sebald’s and Sansa’s although it is not so foreign; I see her everywhere.

The fluttering sound of moths bring my mind back to the present and I see the lantern’s flame coming to an end. Without a conscious effort, my palm lets the lantern free and into the air it goes, dancing to the melody of an autumn breeze like I once danced with her. On the exhale of one last breath carries the endless opportunities of what our lives could have been. I can’t help but reminisce to the time we stood before a painting by Austrian symbolist, Gustav Klimt where an elongated grim reaper shadows an architecture of human bodies, where young and old, generation after generation unite in the warmth of mosaic like colours. What I saw was the life before me, a life of parenthood and grandparenthood that has now been stripped away. As the lantern turns to the black of night sky, I can’t think of any words worth my thoughts so look through her notebook until I find a sentence she’s glued into the margin.

“These transient forms of nature alone are reflections of eternity.”

And all at once I’m overcome by the feeling of levitation, that scratch within my chest fades, and it’s as if I eternally float with the thought that her name I wrote on that lantern will wash up on the shore for me to find on my morning walk collecting plastic soda-bottles for the garden.

Jack Shanahan is a second year Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney. When he’s not writing, you’ll find him surfing, snowboarding or appeasing his wanderlust.

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