Fire. Walk With Me
Winner April 2013 TED Writing Competition
Coming to terms with the fact that my son is a murderer was not easy. I had held this child. I had watched him play with his sisters and saw how gentle he was. I had watched him play with our pets. I just could not accept that this boy, this child … this baby … had killed five people.
Always I was tempted to qualify the story … with a mumbled ‘by accident’, as if that made it somehow better. It did not, and never would, change the fact that he had murdered three adults, two children. Two children … they lost their lives because of my son.
Was it really an accident? Did I bring him up not knowing consequence? Could it be that he truly didn’t have any understanding of cause and effect? We had focused on it, from such an early age we held the kids accountable for their actions – how could we have missed him?
Yes. There was a warning. Yes. I saw the signs. When he was arrested I almost threw myself into the police car as well. I knew of my compliance with his deception. I had stood, in front of the police, hands damp from dishwashing, and almost offered up my sudsy wrists for cuffing. I had been in denial. I had been complicit. I was co-conspirator, through my lack of action. Not a lack of action about the fire, of course, a lack of action as a parent.
In our lounge room there is an open fire. For years we have sat around the hearth. It was the heart of our home. Even in the summer, on those odd chilly nights we have here in Victoria, we would seize the chance to light it, imagining a chill or a bite in the wind. It lies completely dormant now. I have not lit it.
I cannot bear to even imagine the sound.
The crackling of the kindling. Even the scent of a struck match makes me nauseous.
The house is empty now. Since the murders, my family has split. Divided. Every now and then one or the other of us reaches a tentative and unsure hand out to the other, only to snatch it quickly back again, as if scalded. We have closed in, filled the void left by my son. Left by what we were.
We had camped as the children grew up. We would all love the noise and the stink of family holidays. The tents. The sleeping bags. The marshmallows around an open fire. Burning our mouths on the mallows, blistering tongues on the sticks and still going back for more.
Stoking and stabbing and believing we were taming the fire.
Yes, I remember. All of us in a primal circle around the campfire blazing comfortingly from the metal barrel of our old washing machine. Each of the kids with their own ‘poker’ stick they’d scavenged from the wood gathering expedition. Wielded like a weapon in front of them. The embers flickering in their eyes (had there been an extra special glint in my boy’s eyes then?) and that ghastly moment when one or the other of them singed their hair – the stench of burning hair that lingered for hours.
It was always my son who volunteered to set the campfire. To strike the match. To poke and poke and to put in the hard work that the girls simply would not do. He and his Dad would spend hours caught up in the ritual, in which I had no part, no understanding – was this one of the first clues?
There was always a distance between us; between him and everyone, really. His emotions seemed to always be mirrored or acted. He was an active, inquisitive boy. Sneaky at times. Not as thoughtful or insightful as his sisters, but I thought that was just him, just a quirk.
Then the fire at the school. I had been boiling the kettle when the phone rang. Wiping the bench. Humming to myself. Thinking of shopping the next day. The principal spoke. Suspension. Police involvement. Meetings. The words all blurred. I had premonition blazing in my stomach as my son blundered through his excuses, he’d told me it was a prank, a silly thing for him and two mates to have done, the grass at the back of the oval had been set alight. No damage to property at all. And he wasn’t alone. I had no reason to doubt him at that point.
I’d asked him why, then.
And I’d asked him again after the murders. After the big fires that destroyed the northern most tip of our town and wrenched five people … oh, those two children! … from our community.
He had no answer.
I see him. I visit him once a month. I travel an hour each way. I try to distract myself by turning the radio up, driving through for take away, or losing myself in the distance between us. I have to admit to the dread in my tummy when the clock radio heralds the start of those days I am scheduled to visit. It is only me that goes. He needs me to believe in him. He needs me to mother him.
He needs me to be there and to see the good in him. I go through the motions, smile when he expects me to, listen when he needs me to. I greet the guards politely, they look at me the same way they look at everyone. The detention unit is cold and unwelcoming, despite the colours on the walls. Everybody is wary with each other. Once a month I live his life with him, for an hour. He is imprisoned, as he should be.