Swords, sorrow, and stone fruit

Sunday morning breakfast. You’re in the kitchen peeling skin off peaches. You despise the hairy coats, but the ripe fruit is perfection. You scrape the flesh off the last of a mango pip, yellow, sticky and delicious, then quarter a few strawberries. Not so great today, despite the season. Their centres are hard under a glorious red outer coating. You suspect they’ve been raised in hot houses then stored underripe in cool houses. Left out later to ripen. Artificially matured. 

Still you’re enjoying this breakfast preparation – summer fruits and yoghurt – when your daughter tells you the sad story of three Bedouin, Jewish hostages somewhere in Gaza who managed to escape only to be mistaken for enemy. Despite waving a white flag, they were shot down by Israeli soldiers. 

Your morning’s joy is eroded and you’re back inside a world of paranoia and hatred. 

‘It’s so sad,’ your daughter says, even as she adds, ‘There’s one hell of sadness everywhere at the moment.’ The sadness punctuated by what was otherwise a bright and cheerful morning.

It plunged you back into thoughts that grip you much of the time. The horrors of war. 

Your twelve-year-old grandson asked for a katana, a Japanese sword, for Christmas. Even as you explain to him, these things are weapons and illegal in this country, without a licence, he keeps the request up for days. 

Something to do with Samurai and ninja, the anime games he plays on his computer. Something for show. 

Japanese dress swords remind you of your father’s military serve sword which he kept in a wardrobe high up in his bedroom. You liked to take it down when he was away at work. Sneak into the forbidden room, lift the heavy sword in its decorative sheaf from behind the winter blankets and feel its weight in your hands. 

The sword is blunt, deliberately so, for dress purposes only, but still as a long metal stick it could do damage. And you tell your grandson, even as he tells you yet again, he’d settle for a blunt blade. He wants to display it on his mantel piece along with all the rock samples and Lego figurines he has collected over the years. 

Even blunt katanas are useful, he says. For cutting up watermelon. ‘You can hack into a melon from above and the force even from a blunt katana will split it in two.’ 

He tells you then how he missed an experiment in science at school where the teacher pulled an elastic band over the belly of a melon and the class waited over time to see what would happen. He missed seeing the melon explode but can do it himself with a katana in his possession.

As much as he knows his grandparents aim to give him his heart’s desire, you are now more circumspect. You will not buy things willy nilly. Especially not for this grandson who is a joyous companion, especially hiking through hideous shops like K-Mart, full of cheap, throwaway, and potential landfill. 

Every second item on every second shelf he sees, he’d love to own. 

‘It’s so cheap, Grandma,’ he tells you as he holds up an oversized travel bag, or a large squishy pink thing of indeterminate shape. He’d enjoy sharing his bed with it. 

You relent at the gigantic Toblerone stick, one for him and one for his older brother, but only for Christmas. 

It’s not a katana. That he cannot have. It’s against the law to bring them into the country, you remind him. And your husband nearby, adds ‘People use them to chop off other people’s arms.’

‘Why would I want to chop off someone’s arm?’ your grandson asks rhetorically, and you believe him. But still no katana.

Another daughter tells you in state of bemusement, her four-year-old son asked for a gun. He’s her first born and they never talk guns in her household. Another rhetorical question: Where did he hear about guns?

And you remember another young boy, your nephew from thirty years ago, when he was around the same age. His parents had a strict no-gun policy in their house, so he improvised. He collected coloured pegs fallen from the washing line and pinched two together to form makeshift guns he could hold shoulder high to shoot the baddies. 

You finished reading Alison Flett’s essay on death, and in it you read about the superstitious significance of magpies.

One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told. Magpie, magpie, why do you sigh? I sit so alone as the world goes by. Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten for a bird, You must not miss.

And you think about the number of times you’ve encountered a lone magpie and did not realise the superstition surrounding its solitary arrival. 

You’ve always been careful around magpies, careful not to disturb or trouble them.

In the Magpie Park of your childhood, the one you crossed each morning and afternoon on your way to and from school in the 1960s, the magpies sat high above in the gum trees and if you were unlucky, one swept down to warn you away.

I have read in recent years, magpies are not merely sources of superstition, they are intelligent creatures. They hold grudges and can recognise a person who has upset them or threatened their nests for years. They go for the enemy. 

You can’t remember a magpie going for you. Though one swooped once, when you were hanging out clothes on your washing line in your back yard, soon after wreckers had been working in a nearby plot to demolish a few abandoned houses to make way for a grand styled retirement village. The wreckers chopped down trees and most likely disturbed the magpies’ habitat. 

Perhaps they mistook you hanging out washing for a wrecker. You heard the swoosh of wings above your head and feared for your scalp, but it was only once. 

Not a magpie. A crow that appeared on the beach where relatives threw the ashes of a beloved niece who died when she was far too young. The bird was he’d from on high and companioned you through this sad event. A lone bird, as harbinger of death.

Your imagination has long been a companion whose creations you value but cannot trust, rather as the forces that killed the escaped hostages could not trust the people coming towards them were innocent escapees. 

Innocent people do not deserve to be treated in this way. 

There’s something hideous in a story of escape success that ends soon after in tragedy. We want to hear stories of people who make it in life, not stories of people who lose their lives heedlessly.

And so, your morning has begun in sorrow despite the season and glorious stone fruit and mangos. How you wish life could be different. But it’s not.