Kaleidoscope by Kerry Ashwin

The box had four gold handles and the wood smelt new. It was polished and gave a lacquered black mirrored view of the front parlour. Emily watched as her relatives went up and looked inside. She saw Aunt Maud's black dress in the wood and its changing shape reminded her of the hall of mirrors she had visited at the Royal Agricultural Show in the school holidays. She knew what was in the box. When it was her turn, she let go her mother's hand and walked purposefully up to the box and stood on tip toes but all she could see was white material. Her father offered his shoe and she stood on his foot as he raised his leg slowly bringing her face up to the rim.

Grandpa Bright was very still. His big whiskers lay flattened on his upper lip and his eyes were shut.

Emily had seen him sleeping many times in his veranda chair but this wasn't sleeping. This was stone dead. It was the first time she had seen a dead body. Oh there had been plenty of dead animals. Kangaroos in the bush with a haze of blow flies, possums killed by her father, rabbits every spring, but this was different. This was grandpa. She clung onto the side of the wood wishing he would open his eyes and wink, or that his whiskers would blow in and out as he breathed but he was still.

"Emily?" her mother said in a soft velvety voice. Emily looked up and noticed a tear begin its journey down her mother’s cheek. She had only seen her mother cry once before, when her father came back from the Great War. Those were tears of joy her mother said. He had come home and her mother dropped the tray of scones right in the middle of the kitchen and began to cry. Great sobbing heaving gasps that scared Emily. Now her mother remained silent as the tears welled in her eyes and made their way to the front of her black dress.

Emily wanted to cry but her eyes refused to obey. She wanted to feel the pain on the outside like her mother but her tears stubbornly wouldn't come.

"Come on, Em," her father said lifting her to the floor. She stood in the parlour next to her father and listened to the adults talking about Henry Bright as a work mate, a freemason, a church goer but no-one talked to her about him being a Grandpa. A big bald man with dirty shoes said he would live on, one lady in a large coat and with a shiny handbag said he would always be with them, and then Emily heard her Grandma say he’d believed in reincarnation.

“What’s reincarnation?" she asked her father. He was reticent to answer.

“Not now, Em, Later," he said. Em knew that meant probably never. She slipped away and went over to her Grandma and held her hand.

“What’s reincarnation, Grandma?"

“Oh, darling," Grandma began, “It’s when your soul," and here she pointed to Em’s chest. “Your heart, what makes you you. It is reborn in something else. One of God’s creations."

“Reborn. As a baby?"

“Maybe," Grandma said and then she turned and quietly wiped her nose put her hanky up her sleeve.

Emily looked at the coffin and wondered when Grandpa would be reborn. He looked very dead. She wondered if he knew who he was when he was born or did he have to start all over again.

“Will he know me, Grandma?" But Grandma just smiled and then kissed Emily on the forehead. She fossicked for her hanky once more and wiped her eyes, which were glinting and glassy with tears. Then Emily leaned forward and kissed her Grandma on the cheek. Grandma had been a part of her life and Em hated to see her so sad. Grandma Bright bit her bottom lip and then her eyes lit up. She slowly rose from her chair and went to the sideboard. Pulling both handles of the big bottom draw she opened it carefully and then felt about for something. Emily went over to see what she was doing.

“Emily, dear. Grandpa said to me that you could have this," she held the present out.

Emily took the brown cardboard box knowing she was getting something so special, so favoured she could hardly believe it.

“Me, Grandma? But won’t he want it when he is born?"

“No, Emily, he wanted you to have it," Grandma said, placing the box in her hand.

“He said you were the only one to really understand it." Emily nodded.
Grandpa Bright’s kaleidoscope was the most treasured thing in the sideboard. Emily could play with the pick-up-sticks, do the wooden cube puzzle and look at the old photo albums any time she visited but the kaleidoscope was different. It came with certain rules and the first one was Grandpa’s permission. He had bought it when he went to India as a young man and the box had squiggly writing to attest to its origins. The box slid open at one end and revealed a wooded tube with bright colours painted over the outside but it was the inside that held the surprise. Emily opened the box, put the eye piece up to the light and turned.

“Beautiful isn’t it, Em?"

“Yes," Em whispered as she watched the patterns form and move. Grandpa had told her that she could see the universe in the kaleidoscope. The entire world was there, she just had to look.

“Thank you, Grandma." Emily put the toy away in its box and went to find her father to tell him her good fortune. She saw him talking to her mother and stood at his side waiting to break her news when a man in a black coat appeared and after whispering something to her Grandma, she saw him pull the coffin lid shut and Emily knew it would be dark in there. Then all the visitors filed out to their cars and her mother pulled her to their waiting Ford. Grandma usually sat in the back with her but this day she travelled with Uncle George. He had come down from the city in his big black car with plush seats. Grandma looked so small in that big car, so lost and alone that Emily wanted to rush over and sit next to her to take some of the room but her father was already shifting the gears ready to leave. Em thought about telling her mother her news but when she saw her pull out her hanky and blow her nose Emily thought she had better wait.

The funeral cortege wound its way out of the small town and within ten minutes they arrived at the cemetery. Emily had been there before many times to clean Great Granny's grave and fetch water for the flowers that her Grandma had planted. They would walk up and down the aisles reading all the names and dates, some foreign, some in Hebrew talking about how people used to live their lives. Now Grandpa was going to be just a name. She left the kaleidoscope in the car and followed her parents as they walked up the main aisle.

The earth had been freshly dug and as she stood to the edge of the hole she saw a beetle scurry down the side of the mound. Would he be the one to get inside the box with Grandpa? Would he be the first to walk over her Grandpa's whiskers? She held onto her father's hand and he squeezed hers tight as the minister threw some dirt over the coffin. It rattled down the sides, the little pebbles rolling around like water on a scalding stove top. And then they walked away leaving her beloved Grandpa all alone, in the dark, underground with no way to tell them if he was scared, frightened or already in heaven.

She walked with her father into Grandma’s kitchen and Aunt Chrissy gave her a drink of lemonade in one of the glasses Grandma kept in the crystal cabinet.

"Thank you," Emily said, wondering if Grandpa ever got to drink out of that very same glass. Grandma always kept the glasses for special and Emily couldn't ever remember a time when it was special enough to use them. The crystal cabinet was out of bounds to children but it held the allure of the forbidden. But just once when Grandma was out, Grandpa opened the cabinet and let Emily wind up the porcelain ballerina and she watched her twirl around pirouetting on her dainty pink silk slipper to music that sounded like fairies.

"Want a cake, Em?" her father asked, rubbing her back and bending down low to stroke her hair. "Yes, please." The cakes were arranged on Grandma's china, all fancy and with fly doilies over them.

Aunt Chrissy was obviously in charge of the food and she took her duties seriously. She gave Emily an old saucer and picked off a small lamington finger, placing it on the plate with a linen napkin.

"You better eat it over there, dear," Aunt Chrissy said pointing to the small stool Grandma used to get to the top shelves of her preserving cupboard. She sat down in the corner and balanced her saucer on her knees and watched. People gradually populated the kitchen and dining room all talking, eating and drinking tea. There were men she didn't know in starched shirts and black trousers, and women with black dresses and fancy hats all talking and it made her feel sick. These people, these strangers in Grandma and Grandpa's house eating their food and drinking from their special cups and saucers almost enjoying themselves while Grandpa lay stone cold in the ground. It didn't seem right. Grandma sat at the window and talked to everyone but Emily could see she wanted to be somewhere else. For a moment she thought Grandma wanted to be in the ground with Grandpa but then their eyes found each other over the crowded room and Emily knew she would be alright because she knew Grandpa would be coming back. She thought it was a bit like when Father went away to the war and they didn’t quite know when he would return. Mother was sad but she assured Emily everything would be back to normal. They just had to be patient and pray to God.

The drive home in the dark was quiet. Her parents didn't talk and she sat curled up on the back seat watching the moon out the window. Its white shine illuminated the back of her father's head and Emily could see the silver threads ofhis hair bristling near his neck. Grandpa had those same bristles only there were more of them. Grandpa's neck was deeply creased from years of working outside and Em used to trace the lines all the way around his neck to his whiskers tickling him until he could stand it no longer and would burst out laughing making her feel safe and loved and alive. She held onto the little cardboard box thinking she would keep it until Grandpa wanted it back when he was reborn. It would be their secret.

She sat up as the headlights turned their attention to their driveway and rested on the garage doors. "Home," her Father said matter of fact. Home. Emily thought that sounded nice but somehow sad. Like a piece of the home jigsaw was missing and would never be found. Her mother gathered the basket which had had the little pies and jam tarts that she had baked the day before, and then ushered Emily inside their house.

"What about a hot drink, Emily. I know it's late but just this once." Her mother looked at the clock and then busied herself in the familiar surroundings of their kitchen. She put on her pinny and began to stoke up the stove with small kindling. Her father had promised her a new stove, one of the modern appliances advertised in the paper but as yet it hadn't happened. The old brute as her mother called it crackled into life and a warm glow spread over the room. Soon the kettle was whistling and her cup was waiting.

"Oh hot chocolate is it?" her father said as he came in from putting the car away.

"Just sit down Bill," her mother said and Emily watched her fuss over the chocolate putting a spoon of thick cream from the ice chest in each.

"Well this is nice isn't it, Em?" Emily nodded and giggled at his cream moustache. She licked her lips and sipped from her cup watching her mother who was looking into the space between them letting her drink grow cold and gradually form a puckering skin.

That night in bed Emily could hear her parents talking. Their familiar voices muffled by the walls of the house rose and fell and once she heard her mother quietly sobbing. She imagined her father rubbing her mother’s back and stroking her hair to comfort her like he did when she fell off her bicycle. She didn’t want to think of the dark and the beetle, so she closed her eyes tight and prayed to God that Grandpa would be reborn soon so they didn’t have to miss him too much. Then she pulled out the kaleidoscope from under her pillow and studied the moon from her bed, imprinting its luminosity on her eye, a ray of light in the dark.

Grandma sat next to Emily in the car as they drove down to their shack a Cuttlefish Bay. Em looked out the window waiting for the familiar landmarks. The broken tree that looked like the giraffe in her school book about Africa, the big rock perched on an even bigger rock and then at the turn off the old rusty tin barrel that had their name on it painted by Grandpa when he first bought the shack. Emily perked up at the turn off and held her school bag tight. Everyone had brought things to do when there was nothing to do. Her Father had his fishing rod stuck out the side of her mother’s window, Mother had her books, Grandma her knitting and Em had her school bag which held her swimming costume, her colouring-in books and pencils, a book from the local library that her mother insisted she read and the kaleidoscope. The family had been coming to the shack forever it seemed to Emily. Every summer school holidays they would spend two idyllic weeks away from home and in another world but this was the first time they had been here without Grandpa and it felt strange. As the car pulled up to the yard her mother went through the dos and don’t like she did every year. Em listened rolling her eyes. She knew the litany off by heart. Don’t go to the beach without telling someone. Don’t use the water willy nilly, there is only one water tank. Don’t throw things down the dunny. That was easy as the out house was scary, full of spiders, and creaking corrugated iron.

“And," her Mother ended with, “ don’t walk bare foot." That would never happen Emily thought as the three corner Jack prickles were vicious and all over the place. Her Mother finished and Em shot out of the car to help her Father open up leaving her Mother and Grandma Bright to bring in the food, the bedding, and all the rest of the luggage.

Em followed her Father as he went around the house opening the windows, shooing any birds from the chimney, and running the rusty water from the taps. She looked around the main room and saw Grandpa’s chair. It still had a large indentation where the leather had stretched over the years of sitting. She went over and ran her hand over the leather trying to conjure his memory.

“Em, come on you can help," her mother said and Em went to the car to fetch and carry. After several trips to and fro it wasn’t long before the place felt like home and the kettle was on the boil. Grandma Bright set the wooden table for morning tea bringing out a plate of scones and the family sat down and began to talk about things that didn’t interest Em in the slightest. She sat still for a minute or two and then asked to go to the beach.

The track to the beach was narrow and the spinifex grass brushed her legs as she walked. She felt a slight apprehension as she made her way knowing there might be snakes poking their noses out at any moment. Em swung a stick back and forth singing a song from her school music lessons to frighten any creatures that might be on the path. As she neared the rocky shore a wind tried to take her hat and she clamped it firmly on her head with her free hand for the last few yards before the pier. Grandpa Bright had built a little jetty which jutted out into the bay just beyond low water mark. Em ran to the boardwalk throwing her stick in the water and raced to the end. She imagined herself a stranded mermaid pining for a sailor. Then she was a pirate looking for treasure in the water below. She lay flat on her stomach and hung her head over the last plank. She took her hat off and her blonde hair escaped its ribbon and blew free. The water was crystal clear and Emily leaned right over to study its depths. She spat at a passing fish and then saw something that made her remain still. A cuttlefish swam around the pylon and then found her shadow and hovered within it. Emily moved her head and the cuttlefish moved with her. She put up her hand and the cuttlefish spread out his legs. Then he seemed to disappear only to reappear when he changed colour. Emily watched fascinated as the cuttlefish seemed to be watching her. She let her hand dangle almost touching the water and the cuttlefish began his magnificent display. Colours pulsed across his body, a wave of blue and green, and then he turned to a mottled pattern and back again to green with a rim of pink. Emily held her breath watching, not daring to move. A cloud brought its shadow over the sea and the cuttlefish vanished. Em searched -- till her eyes ached but he was gone. She sat up and grabbed her hat and ran all the way back to the house, forgetting about snakes, spiders, and three corner Jacks.

She burst into the kitchen looking for an audience but no one was around. She looked out the back but the yard was empty. They must be at the wood shed she thought. She skipped to the shed to find her Father chopping wood. He held up his hand to tell her to stay back and swung the axe at a malley root. She watched his strong arms as they glistened in the sun with sweat. His shirt clung to his back and she could see his war scar, a puckering slash on his back through the cotton. He had said it wasn’t serious but she had seen the red welt just a few times and it always looked raw and very painful. The axe came down and Em heard the thwack as the wood split and it made her jump. Her Father brought out his handkerchief and wiped his face.

“What is it, Em?"

“A cuttlefish, at the jetty. It..." she didn’t know how to explain the thoughts that were forming in her mind.


“It...was changing colour," she said thinking she might have to talk to Grandma first about her cuttlefish. Her father nodded and promised to take a look after he had done a few chores around the place and Em went o f in search of her mother and Grandma Bright. The women were half way down the paddock pulling up potatoes. Em walked down and watched them talking and pulling. Grandpa had planted the potatoes and let them loose as her mother used to say. Every year they self seeded and by the time they arrived for their holiday there was always a crop waiting in the ground. Grandpa used to say they were wild uncontrollable animals that lived underground and only Grandma could find them. Emily watched her study the ground looking for their dead straw or animal scratching and always found a clump.

Her mother stood up and put one hand up to her eyes squinting into the sun and rested the other on her back. Em thought she looked like the victory posters that were on her walls at school when the war was on.

“Back so soon, Em?" Emily nodded and then her mother pressed her into service carrying the basket of potatoes to the shack. “Take your Grandma with you, Em, I’ll finish up here." Her mother began to collect the spade and fork to take back to the wood shed. Emily picked up the heavy basket and then waited for her Grandma to straighten up. They fell into a slow walk up the paddock and Emily thought she had the chance to ask her question.

“Grandma," she began. “Do you think Grandpa is back yet?" Grandma Bright stopped walking and looked to the horizon. Em waited for her to answer but she seemed far away.


“I think, Em, he is always in our hearts. So in a way he never left." Emily hated it when adults talked in riddles. She tried another way.

“If he comes would he try to let us know?"

“I’m sure he would. You know how much he loved us all." They reached the house and Emily put the basket on the floor. She looked over to Grandpa’s chair wishing for a sign.

Her mother appeared as she and her Grandma were washing the potatoes ready for tea. Emily watched as she ran her fingers through her hair and pulled at her clothes making herself tidy. Her mother was always fussy with her appearance and Emily liked watching her do her face or her hair. Her compact had a little mirror and a small puff and her lipstick was a light pink that wound up and down from a small silver vial. The routine was always the same. She would powder her face and then lick her finger and wipe the powder o f her eyebrows then making sure her lips were dry she’ d wind up the lipstick just enough for the colour to show and open her mouth ever so slightly. The top lip was first then the bottom and then she pursed them together and rolled them around. Then with her little finger she would wipe the corners of her mouth and looking in the mirror check her teeth. Emily used to copy the actions and her mother would sometimes give her a little powder on her cheeks. Her mother looked up through the kitchen window and smiled when she heard her father whistling as he walked up the path to the back door. They looked at one another and he winked at her and then he laughed and winked at Em. Emily imagined sometimes falling in love with a man just like her father. She thought her mother was so lucky. Em had been to other girl’s houses and their father’s hardly took an interest in anything that happened in the house, whereas her father was always interested.

The rest of the day and the evening was a mishmash of sorting out the cupboards, re mothballing the blankets, airing the mattresses and general cleaning. Emily liked to dust with the feather duster. The feathers would fall out and she’ d stick them in her hair and sashay around like a fan dancer or a movie star. After their dinner when everyone sat down to read or knit or snooze Emily stole into the kitchen and found a scone from morning tea. She hid it in her school bag and then feigned tiredness and said it was time for bed. That night she brought out the kaleidoscope and watched the moving shaped and colours against the kerosene lamp thinking of tomorrow, the cuttlefish and the beach and knew it was a sign.

The morning was clear and bright when Emily woke up to the smell of toast and bacon. She peeked around the curtain of her alcove cum bedroom and saw her father kissing her mother. They just stood still in the kitchen and she could see her mother had her eyes closed. Emily watched silently and when they parted her father stroked her mother’s hair and then he caught a glimpse of Emily.

“Morning sleep head." Her father bounded over to her bed and began to tickle her until she screamed to stop. They were laughing when her mother announced that a cup of tea was waiting and if they wanted breakfast then the shenanigans had better stop. Over breakfast the plans for the day began to formulate and Emily said she wanted to go to the beach. Her mother reminded her ofher duties including making her bed and wiping the dished before she disappeared and made her promise to come back for lunch when the sun was high.

On the walk down to the beach Em thought of a plan. She had brought her school satchel and when she reached the rock pools started to collect little crabs and put them in her bag. At the jetty she lay down and waited. It wasn’t long before her wait was rewarded and the cuttlefish came into view. Once more she dangled her hand and wriggled her fingers. The cuttlefish whooshed away but slowly returned as it had a curious nature. Em broke up the scone and threw some in the water but the crumbs turned to mush and floated away in a soupy mix. Then she pulled a small crab out and held it by its tiny nipper. Lowering it to the water she waited. As first the cuttlefish ignored her then as the crab tried to gain its freedom the movement made the cuttlefish take notice. It glided up to the morsel and displayed its moving stripes and vivid colours of blue and white and black. Em let go the crab and it was snapped up before it had a chance to swim away. She pulled out another and repeated the process. Each time the cuttlefish displayed its kaleidoscope ofcolours. Now she knew for sure. When her supply of crabs had ended she watched the cuttlefish change back to blend into the rocky sea bed. He was so clever at disguising himself she had a hard time following him, but it didn’t matter because she knew he’ d be back so long as she was there.

For three days Emily stuck to her routine feeding the cuttlefish, talking to him and watching him. She couldn’t be enticed to go to the shops with her father for fence wire. She didn’t want to learn how to knit with Grandma and she hadn’t even opened the book her mother said she should read. Then on the fourth day he didn’t come. Emily waited at the jetty until hunger drove her home. After lunch she raced back down the track to the water and lay on her stomach, looking, searching but he didn’t show. Slowly a tear formed in her eye.

One big drop hit the water followed by another and another until she was sobbing, crying for her loss, grieving for Grandpa. Her eyes stung as she wiped them with sandy hands. How could he just leave her she thought?
Now she knew how her mother and Grandma felt and it hurt. Slowly she stood up and dragged her feet over the planks and dawdled along the track back to the shack. Her mother was sitting in Grandpa’s chair and her father was perched on the arm. Grandma was sitting in her chair topping and tailing beans and they were all talking and smiling and it seemed wrong to Em. She rushed past them and flopped on her bed burying her head in her pillow.

“Em?" Her mother came over and sat down on the camp bed. Emily turned and looked at her mother. “We have some good news Emily." Emily sat up and wiped her eyes. Her mother pushed a stray hair from her face and smiled.

“I’m going to have a baby. A little brother or sister for you, Em."

“A...a baby." Emily stammered. Her mother nodded and then kissed her forehead. “A baby." Em repeated.

“Yes, Em." Emily knew then it was a sign. She looked over to her Father and Grandma and then back to her Mother.

“And his name will be Henry," she said.


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