THE PHOTOGRAPH • by Nikesh Murali

My father is a photograph. He smiles in his uniform, medals pinned to his chest, a flag in the background.

He was with us in the living room for the last three years, but when Uncle Jim started visiting Mum regularly, she insisted that I build a shrine on my bedside table.

I told her both of us needed a shrine and not a distraction. She told me that Uncle Jim was not a distraction. I told her that was not what I meant, even though that was what I meant.

Uncle Jim was a mechanic who smelled of gas and I was not particularly fond of him.

He bought me a couple of video games for my birthday and I made sure that he saw them in the bin, when he took the trash out after the party.

We frequented the movies on Saturdays and I refused to sit between them. I didn’t need a false impression of security; I wanted my father munching popcorn in my ear.

Every morning, I would leave the photograph on top of the television and Mum would return it to my room when I went to school.

I have moved on, she said, when I asked her about it. We have to adapt.

I remembered how in the beginning she would cry herself to sleep every night with me holding onto her. It was like those candlelight vigils people held. We did not adapt, we wept.

You will not understand, she said.

Is it because of his face? I asked.

She did not reply.

I caressed the photograph. I kissed my father. His face was charred, his nose was missing, his eyelids were absent and his scalp — the surface of a bloody moon. He was beautiful.

The house felt alien now that there was a trespasser living in our midst. Some nights, I listened to the vast gulf of silence that separated me from the secrets in mum’s bedroom. I dreamt that I was locked in a closet while a creature of fire and smoke, barely visible through the gap in the door, paced my bedroom.

One Sunday morning I was informed that Uncle Jim was moving in, and in response I spat out the piece of toast I was chewing on and went straight to my room.

A few hours later, Mum knocked on the door. She wanted me to say hello to Uncle Jim and help him set up his large screen TV. She said that he was even happy for me to play my Xbox on it.

She banged on the door.

I could hear Uncle Jim say, let him be, but Mum persisted.

The door stayed locked.

I listened to the sound of things being moved, to conversations that were meaningless and irritating because I was considering my unfortunate situation.

What would become of this new ‘space’ that I shared with the intruders and traitors?

I would not join in Mum’s delusions. I was not going to let their fake antics, especially the touching and kissing, spoil the memory of my father.

So later that night, when Mum announced that she was going to drop some stuff over at her friend’s place, I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to express my displeasure. I waited till I heard her drive away. Then I grabbed the can of gasoline from Uncle Jim’s workshop truck and burned down our home.

Strangely, I felt no sorrow for the burning structure that housed my memories. It occurred to me that a home was a creature of change, like a butterfly. A home perhaps at some stage in its lifecycle could be a bonfire for what it once contained and now cannot be revived.

I stood watching the flames, my body bathed in its heat and light, and when I had seen enough, I took the frame from my pack.

My father is a photograph and I am a reflection.

Nikesh Murali‘s poems and short stories have appeared in ebooks, ezines, anthologies, journals and magazines all over the world. His works have been translated into several languages. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He has completed his Masters in Journalism from Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia for which he was awarded the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence in 2005, and his Masters in Teaching from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia and a Bachelors degree in English Literature and World History from University of Kerala, India. He is a tutor and researcher at James Cook University and is working towards his Doctorate in Creative Writing.

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