A Smile in the Sky | Gary Couzens
When he was a little boy, his father lifted him on his shoulders to look up at the sky. His was a childhood away from the crush of city light and noise, a childhood of birdsong and clear, star-encrusted nights.
Look, said his father. Look there. There's the Plough and there's the Pole Star and there's Cassiopeia...
But he wasn't listening to his father, nor looking where he pointed. What he saw, for the first time, was this: two curved lines, one a deeper arc than the other, stretching through ten degrees of the sky. The two curved joined at the ends and were further connected by straight vertical lines. It was faint then, but it would grow clearer and brighter as the years passed.
There was a smile in the sky.
It was there when he grew up, became tall and strong, when he moved away from the country into the city. It shone bright over city nights as he sat by his window, struggling with his homework.
It was there too when he took his girlfriend with him in his car and made love to her on the back seat. Afterwards he gazed out of the window at the smile in the sky. Can you see it? he said. See what? said the girlfriend, intent on pulling up her knickers and straightening her skirt. Up there, he said. She looked where he pointed: dutifully, or to humour him, he didn't know. For her, he sensed, there were merely stars.
And it was there when he fought for his country. Smiling, a statement that never varied, one in which he could read judgement or indifference, sincerity or sardonicism. When he levelled the enemy in his sights, he wondered if the smile he saw at night would approve or disapprove. But it gave him no easy answer. It did not change. How much easier it would be if it did change, so he would know if he was doing right or wrong. But no, he would have to work that out for himself. He wondered if the man he killed saw his own smile, and what happened at the moment when his head jolted back and a gout of blood spurted from his throat. Did that man's smile disappear, wink out of existence as if it had never been, or did it finally descend and devour him?
Now he is a man it is still there: brighter and sharper than it was, a rent in the fabric of the sky. It hangs there, a mouth without a face or head. A smile.
He has seen two children emerge screaming from his wife's birth canal. A girl and a boy: he has watched them grow from messy squalling babies through toddlers to now, when he takes them to their first day of school. Nowadays he doesn't go out at night and closes his curtains as soon as night descends: he knows what he will see. He curses its invariance, but every oath and profanity has no effect.
Why me? he cries out.
Why him? Why has only he been selected to see the smile in the sky? Or maybe others see it too, or see their own vision. It would take just one person, just one, to say what they saw for another to say, Yes, I see it too. Better that than the silence, and the ridicule he would invite if he said what there was in the sky.
And still it shines, as his children grow older and leave home, as his waist thickens and hair thins, as his wife becomes greyer and more distant. In the past there was his life – his wife, his children, his friends, his job, his home and his worldly effects – to place between him and the Smile. But little by little they have been worn away, a little bit here and a little bit there, until finally there is nothing between him and it. The smile in the sky, still unchanged.
You don't dream often now, but last night, this is what you saw in your sleep:
You dreamed that finally, unexpected, the Smile did change. One night you look up to see that the mouth has opened a gap, making the smile less forceful, more equivocal. The head you've imagined must be there had tilted back. It seems larger, as if nearer. The next night –and this is all the same dream – it's closer still.
And the next night you open your curtains to see one of the Smile's teeth filling the whole window. You go outside. The Smile stretches from horizon to horizon, blotting out any stars. You scream, but you know there is no-one else left, nothing but you and the Smile. The gap between the teeth widens still, the top row stretching up and up and up and out of sight and comes down again, splintering your house like matchwood and crushing your head like a grape –
You haven't died in your sleep. You're lying in bed. You're very weak, very old, eyes dimming, no teeth of your own. In a watchful semicircle around your bed are your wife, your children, your grandchildren.
As you feel yourself slip away into unconsciousness, a soft velvet blackness, you see out of the window that it will be dark soon. And you'll see the Smile again.