December 24, 1932
In the heat of a suburban Hawthorn street, the young man stood defiant, welcoming the scorching sun on his neck. He cast a formidable shadow for his age, and he paused there in the favourable light to admire his silhouette. Broad shoulders tapered to a lean waist—hauling carcasses at the abattoir had packed muscle onto his hulking frame. He twisted a fraction to give the sun a better angle from which to project his image. His garnet eyes turned cold at the unwelcome sight of his withered left leg. He was inspired to rip it from his body as he had done so many bovine limbs, but a familiar sound pricked his ear and stirred his loins. A child’s laugh pierced the shriek of cicadas. Peace returned to his gaze; an actor pulling down a mask.
He slipped into the cool of a laneway where, in the stone amphitheatre, the shrill din combined with the tick-tocks of his limping gait.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
He cursed and wrestled the leather-and-steel leg brace to scratch an itch. It emitted a familiar rustle and clink that had always reminded him of saddling a horse. He emerged from the shade, and, raising a hand against the glare, inhaled the putrid-sweet perfume of roses past their prime. His stomach fluttered the way it always did right before the act.
He stalked past an open window and closed his eyes at the surging choral strains of “O Holy Night”—his favourite carol.
“Fall on your knees!” the choir demanded. A lump formed in the man’s throat, and his eyes dampened.
In the emerald shade of the home’s manicured garden, a boy played with a toy bear.
The man’s shadow lurched across the grass, his proximity
silencing the cicadas.
It was the boy who spoke first, a chirp that barely penetrated the thick air. “You all right, mister?” he asked.
The man flicked the moisture from his eye. “Oh, this?” he said, following the boy’s gaze to his callipered leg. “Doesn’t trouble me too much. Had it since I was a little tacker like you. What’s your teddy’s name, sport?”
“A fine choice. Say, you live around here. Would you show me where the playground is? I’m supposed to meet my little brother there.”
“It’s down the lane, mister.”
“Mister? I may walk like an old man, but I’m not yet twenty!” The man chuckled, though he grew impatient. He checked the window of the house, then limped to the gate at the rear of the garden. He was pleased to discover he was obscured from view by a large rosebush. “Young as I am, I’d be mighty grateful if you could give me a hand. I get my lefts and rights in a twist. Never was too good at school. Not like you, I’m sure!” He leaned on the gate, easing the ache in his back. “You look smart as a whip, don’t you? Come here and let me get a gander at you.”
The gate latch clicked, springs squeaking as it opened.
“That’s a good lad. Now, which way are we heading?”
The gate squealed as it closed.
“Here, young fella—take my hand. That’s it.”
Tick-Tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
In the empty garden, a cicada shrieked, then two, the crescendo rising to a thousand deafening screams.