A Lantern in the Window
© David Campbell
Winner, 2019 Laura Literary Awards (Open Bush Poetry section), Laura SA.
There’s a lantern in the window, shining brightly through the night
as a symbol of a refuge that can offer warmth and light,
bringing comfort, food, and friendship, all the things that we love best,
so a traveller who’s weary might enjoy a good night’s rest.
It’s an ancient kero lantern, stained with rust that shows its age,
a reminder of an era torn from some historic page
when the bullock teams hauled timber from the mountains to the plain,
or were gathered at the railhead loaded up with wool and grain.
She appears, your smiling hostess, and she asks about your day,
making cheerful conversation: “Have you come from far away?
Did the weather treat you kindly? Was the traffic not too bad?
Would you like to have some supper, as it’s quite a trip you’ve had?”
When you’ve satisfied your hunger you might stay and chat a while,
for you wonder at the story that is hidden by her smile,
and the hand-sawn timber cabin — what’s it doing way out here,
where there seems no other dwelling, or at least not one that’s near?
If you’re lucky she’ll make certain that there’s nothing you require,
then she’ll settle very slowly in the armchair by the fire
and convey you on a journey to one hundred years ago,
to the day her mother’s father marched away to fight the foe.
“It was he who built this cabin as a home for his young bride,
where they spent six years together, with my mother by their side,
but the war then cast its shadow, taking toll upon them all,
for although he hated bloodshed, he responded to the call.”
“I recall my mother weeping when I asked her what she saw
at the station on that morning when her father went to war,
and she talked of crowds of people, of the sound of hissing steam,
of him waving from a carriage, of it seeming like a dream.”
“She remembered someone singing, and his kiss upon her cheek,
as he held her very tightly and she struggled hard to speak.
Then his voice became a whisper as he said I tell you true,
keep a lantern in the window and I’ll come back home to you.”
“As the weeks and months were passing they were desperate to learn
what had happened. Was he wounded? Was there hope for his return?
But there’d be no happy ending, for he vanished in that hell,
just one more among the thousands lying buried where they fell.”
“Try to picture it, the waiting, as the months slip into years,
as the doubt becomes conviction, and the hope is lost in tears,
but the lantern is kept burning by my mother, for that flame
is a beacon in the darkness, so he’s more than just a name.”
“If it burns then he’s still living, in her memory at least,
and her faith grew even stronger, a belief that never ceased,
for she used imagination to create the life they had,
a whole world of joy and laughter so she didn’t feel too sad.”
“Then I promised I’d continue with the practice she’d begun,
and I’d keep the lantern burning, just as she had always done,
so no matter where you’ve travelled, you’re my soldier in the night,
and my battered old bush lantern bids you welcome with its light.”
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