BREATHING DEEP (originally published in LiNQ Dec. 2013 Edition) There is air. Thick. Full. She does not notice it on other days. Does not notice its thickness. Its taste. The river here is a crooning thing. It, like the air, is full. Is thick. Any other day she would kick off her shoes, leave them on the pebbled bank and skirt forward in a lacy spray of water. But today her arms are full with curling and uncurling. A large striped bag, recently emptied of musty winter clothes, now filled with the warm and arching bodies of young kittens. She stands on the pebbles, aware of her breathing. The shallowness of it, swimming in her lungs. Each breath a stroke on a windblown surface when she longs to dive the air down into her belly. The peace of deep breathing. The still pool of it. But her tension is a sort of floundering. A mirroring of the arching in her arms. She can feel her pulse quickening, the drumming of it against her ears. Around her the gum trees rustle the sounds of Saturday afternoons and, somewhere a little further off, a kookaburra curdles once and then falls silent. She heaves the bag a little higher in her arms and a kitten within lets off a mew. She stands there a little while longer, mesmerised by her breathing. The skirting way of it. She sets the bag down, decisive. A plastic bag will not drown kittens. A plastic bag will keep them in a cocoon of warm and muddled air. She had grabbed a plastic bag, when she knew to grab a cloth one. She sighs. Still by the river. Still here, with the kittens now resting by her grubby sandals. She could peek in the bag, but to peek was to add something to the submerging of a striped and stuffed bag. To peek in would be to smell David, the boy who is not her son. Who, she imagines, is still curled and crying. Grieving this impending submerging as deeply as a parent grieves the loss of a child. She had never dreamt of falling for a man who had already been married. Had not anticipated being somebody's stepmother. That is how she introduces herself. Hi there, I'm David's stepmother. Although she and his father are not yet married. Her ring finger tingles like a tongue touched to copper. She sometimes has desperate and gloomy dread that the proposal will not come. That her ring finger will continue to tingle like she has read that ghost limbs do. David, sitting at the kitchen table with his feet shadows on the floor and a glass of chilled orange juice in his hands. 'Are you guys getting married?' His voice looped with thrill and shyness. She had noticed this, the silver breeze as sweet as spring. His eagerness at having her officially in his family. Officially his stepmother. His eagerness over a ring tight around her finger, no longer tingling. No more. But she had felt no answering thrill. 'No,' she'd snapped. Humiliated that this little boy, only eleven, was welcoming and loving in a way that his father seemed incapable. What treacherous pain was more wounding than love painted so closely against what she sometimes feared was indifference? The bag crinkles by her feet. Maybe she can drown them individually. In her hands. There is more dignity in that, perhaps. She will stumble from here shouldering a deeper weight, at least. A shuddering sadness. And is there not a certain dignity in being grieved? What else can she possibly give these pitiful little creatures greater than her sadness? She unzips the bag. A mess of colours. Four of them. She lifts out a tabby kitten with a coat like a carpet. Its eyes are slitted open and it yawns a pink mouth at her, its ears twitching. She reaches out a trembling finger and scratches under its chin. shhh... She thinks it is choking, but then realises it's purring. The stupid thing, carried in a bag to a river and dragged out into blazing light only to purr and go limp in her hands. Such trust! She sits back on her heels and nurses it in her lap. Mark had gone very still when he'd found the kittens and mother cat snuggled in the back of the garden shed. 'What the fuck is this?' he'd yelled at David. Had made David watch as he kicked the cat out of the shed and dragged the bed apart, the four kittens spilling onto the concrete. 'Get a bag,' he'd snapped at her, standing in the doorway. She'd handed it to him, trembling. She had often thought of leaving him. It is a fantasy she curls close when Mark grows quiet, grows angry. But alone she trips into numbness. Alone, she grows cold in beds too large, winces at the sound of too-many leftovers hitting the side of the garbage bag. When Mark is silent, she anticipates his speech. When he is angry, she anticipates his calm. The anticipation is gentle and oddly sweet. A routine that she finds odd comfort in, if only because it is danced with another. Sometimes, she thinks of herself younger. Of herself smoother and rounder and smaller. Had she even then been marked by this union? Tainted, so quietly, by the tingle of her ringless finger? She closes her eyes against some thoughts, lest the glumness of her now stain the brightness of her memories. The buttery warmth of them. Maybe this is why she does not breathe deep, for fear of being saturated by the glumness of her now. 'Drown the buggers,' Mark had said, dropping the bag into her arms. Sometimes, when she meets his eyes, she is shocked by the blankness of them. She thinks that a part of him may have died along with his wife. Been drowned with her in the deep part of the river, the driver's side door jammed in. 'Why can't we try and find them homes?' she'd asked, David nodding vigorously behind his father's back. 'And what'll he learn from that?' Mark had asked, nudging gently past her on his way back towards the house. Learning, lessons. Everything Mark says or does for David is about What David Will Learn. She cannot decide whether it is a cruel or kindly thing. Whether he gets joy in trying to better the boy, or whether it is a pleasure wrought from finding fault. From bullying. Either way, it seems to calm him. Brings him back from anger, calls his words back from the quiet. And because of this, because she foremost is here for Mark (not David) she does not intervene in What David Will Learn. David had followed her out into the garden 'Please,' he'd whispered. David, so like her when she was young. A creature so quiet that loud noises startle him sideways. Seeing the world through watchful eyes. He is narrowly built with dark hair that flops heavily across his forehead. He had scuffed his feet on the verandah, let his arm drop from the crook of her elbow. Are you guys getting married? Floundering in water. She brings the other kittens out into her lap. They arch and flop, rubbing up against her hands, her arms. She lifts one to her nose and breathes it in. A young smell. Somehow similar to a baby, to a puppy, to all things young and newly bloomed. Mark, months ago, coming in through the door, his steps careful and slow. 'I did it,' he'd said, his eyes set and peculiarly blank. But had there not been a flash of something like pleasure? A flash of something that spoke of a deep satisfaction? A joy in punishing her (again and again) over the simple fact that she is not somebody else? The same look, sometimes, when he stood over the pale curve of David's arched neck. Over some misspelled word or miscalculated sum. A picture drawn without perfect proportions. Played out to the scratch of an eraser, the brushing of white out painted with trembling fingers.