Ekphrastic Challenge 13

Before Dawn, by Jan Price



We could have hauled our load up the stairs
as high as we could go in that pretty pale moonlight.
We would have dressed warmly for the chill ahead.
And sensible shoes too, the ones that felt familiar
and could take us on adventures.
Shoes that knew our steps so well.
Climbing stairs that we could have mistaken
for smudged finger prints,
highlights flicked upon the whorls:
smudges of oil paint on glass.
We could have packed for our journey
with fiction novels, pages thumb-leafed,
and cinnamon scrolls with sugary topping
that crunched between our teeth.
With coffee that smelled better than it tasted.
We would have laughed at silly things,
and the moon would have too.
We would have stopped on step seven,
or nine … or your choice.
We would have chosen our favourite number
or the one that nearly won us the lottery.
And laughed till we ached.
Or, what if we could have slung over our shoulder,
bags made of hessian filled with globs of sadness,
and bits of broken joy? Those bits of memories
that sit just behind your eyelids
and flicker into view at surprising moments,
then blinked away. And, we would be bent
by the burden of it all as we stumbled and trudged,
thumbs of night pressed against our eyes.
We could have risen noble in our plan
to seek a lofty future, eyes bright.
Where we could hurl our bags of sorrow
from that highest point as
the whispers of the moon curled about us.
And we would watch as each torn piece of us
fell to another realm.
And we would see our hearts break free.
But, what if the steps were not a corridor to our hope,
our future plans scale-drawn?
What if they were a meandering path
to times we had bungled and broken,
and things we had lost along the way.
And, what if we could lug all our faults, apologies, regrets
as well as sunshine in a jar?
And take these precious gifts to give away
like tiny sweets returned to the seed of pain or joy.
And, what if it was not a pathway at all,
but the hand of a long-lost friend
and we could start again, unmasked?



Like a vagabond
wandering between the stars
I follow my dreams.
Taking only what I need
I step out towards the moon.


the blue hour
jo curtain

beanie. and dress. nobody knows. the step. the black. the beanie. the blue hour. between. the black dress. the step. the blue hour. the beanie. and the blue bag. hang. on. to. the black. half-step. then another step. black boots stepping. the steps. the blue hour. between day and night. and the. stairs and. the moon. the girl. the stairs. the step. and. the half step. then another step. nobody knows her name. the stepping and the moon. hang on to. the girl and. the moon. the. girl. step. stepping. and. the blue. the girl and the stairs. and the. half step. then another. to. the blue hour. the step. the step. black boots stepping. and the beanie. the black dress. the blue bag. the girl. the blue. the blue. hold. on. the moon. uh-huh. yeah. the blue hour. the stepping. the step. the moon. the end.


Point of Departure (poem 3 in Navigating by Stars Trilogy)



She’s not Dorothy and there’s no Toto
And this is not the Yellow Brick Road
Although she would love to find
The easiest way to
The Emerald city

Evicted from
Her warm street roost
All possessions a’shoulder
She mounts the first of the 21 steps

The moon beckons
Will its light show her the way
Or will destructive dawn
Shed harsh light on
Her situation



This is not working anymore
And I don’t know if it ever did

And loss of those even with jobs
Is proof
The rules don’t work

Told to be anything you want to be
But how without a home

I have to turn away
With no faith or respect
I can’t do this anymore



I shine my torch on the headstones, then run my fingers lightly over the mottled, frayed inscriptions.

We each choose a narrow, grassy spot on either side of a large granite headstone. We’re close to the church wall, hidden away from sight.

Rolling out our sleeping bags, backpacks as pillows and wrapped in plastic groundsheets from top to toe, we settle in for the night.

It feels surprisingly cosy wedged in between the graves. On one side of me lie Thomas and Maryanne Kilbride, victims of tuberculosis in the 1890s. On the other is Bartholomew Williams, a missionary and early pioneer of Paihia.

Who would have thought we’d be sleeping in a graveyard, Tess?

She titters nervously:

Please don’t mention séances, ghosts or your latest theory on the afterlife.

I see the toes of Tess’s hiking boots peeking out from the other side of the granite tombstone. It’s comical and I laugh out loud.

The cold soon sets in. Darkness is complete. The moon rises.  Rows of headstones, tombs and vaults appear as silhouettes in the moonlight.

My mood begins to change. Our hitchhiking holiday in New Zealand has suddenly taken a dramatic turn for the worse. I quiver and tremble.

Is it the damp, cold grass beneath my huddled body? Or thoughts of the silent company that troubles me more?

The night wears on. I envy Tess’s ability to sleep soundly. I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable on the hard ground.

I check my watch. It’s only ten o’clock. There’s a slight movement near me and my imagination roars into overdrive. A rat, a mouse? What sort of nocturnal creatures are there in New Zealand?

Frightened, cold and homesick, I steer my mind away from the skeletons nearby. But when I let down my guard, such thoughts seep in through the cracks.

It’s well after midnight when Tess lets out a blood-curdling scream. I sit bolt upright alert as a meerkat.

An inquisitive small creature has brushed against her face, foraging for food in her backpack.

Tess is soon asleep again. I try mimicking her rhythmical breathing but I’m too wide awake for sleep. Menacing shapes and ghostly apparitions float between the tombstones; cherubs, skulls and trumpets take on animated forms.

I remain upright for hours, leaning into the side of the cold, smooth granite. I feel less vulnerable this way.

Close to daybreak, the drizzle ceases. The breeze off the bay builds and sends the temperature dropping even further. I fall into a fitful sleep.

A short time later, I’m woken by the high-pitched cawing of rooks. They are welcoming the first light of day. It’s already morning and I’m far from cheerful.

We are still prostrate on the ground, trussed up in flapping sheets of wet plastic like poorly assembled Egyptian mummies, when the minister finds us.

I feign sleep. He peers down at us incredulously and nudges my leg with his shoe.

Have you ever slept in a graveyard?



Sasha once dreamed there was beauty in the world. Instead, her world turned into a desert of a life lived without love.

What her husband, Dmitri, didn’t do to beauty and her dreams, the war did. The explosion that ripped through her building left something worse than a desert. It left nothing.

Sasha worked hard all her life. Dmitri was fond of telling her she didn’t work hard enough.

Ten children, Dmitri? she asked that last night she fought off his advances when he’d come home stinking of drink and demanding sex.

How many is enough?

She bolted the bedroom door against him.

He roared and smashed the few sticks of furniture they had left before he staggered off and fell asleep.

Sometime in the early hours, he left. Good riddance. At least the smashed furniture would come in handy as kindling.

Her mother was no help. She sighed and said it was a woman’s lot in life to work and have babies. It’s what we were made for, she told her daughter. That and to please your man. The church …

Church, Mama? Sasha snorted and spat the words at the old woman. There were no words bad enough for those peacocks in the church. Where was the Church when Papa left?

Her mother sighed again and shrugged. She was a better shrugger than sigher.

But all that was before the missile.

Now all she had before her was a stairway. It looked like a wonky ladder they once owned–and about as unstable as her life had turned out. Not her death though. She heard rather than saw the thing that crashed into her building. It didn’t take prisoners.

This time it was her turn to shrug. She supposed it better than the pestilence that took so many of her friends a couple of years before.

Now she, her babies and her mother were dead. What had she to show for her life? This nothingness, that’s what.

In the sky above there appeared something resembling a star. She took a strange comfort in its beauty. The wonky stairs led upwards. She was alone but didn’t feel lonely. She didn’t miss her babies or her mother. Somehow, somewhere, she knew they were all right. Like her.

As she put her foot on the first rung of the ladder, she felt comfort in its firmness. The star called to her. It is to this your life has led you.

Was she surprised when she looked around to see no green fields, no meeting with old friends? Heaven? Hell? God? She sighed. Not like her mother. It was more … relief. If this is all there is, it can’t be all that bad. That thought gave her courage. What will the peacocks do when they get here?

Another step, another rung.

Sasha moved up and onwards. Towards that star.

One step at a time.

She felt … almost happy.



Biddy Mulligan chose to avoid lunch at the hospital cafeteria, preferring to eat sandwiches on a bench overlooking the pond in the park while reading the paper. She fed the ducks her scraps until the day she noticed a man watching her from a nearby bench. His clothes were threadbare and he wore a woollen beanie over his shaggy brown hair. Maybe he’s homeless. He’s probably staring at my food, not me, Biddy thought.

From then on, she ate only one sandwich. When it was time to leave Biddy placed the uneaten one on the newspaper and walked away without looking back to save the man the embarrassment of her seeing him collect what was possibly his only meal of the day.

Today the October sunshine was warm and she was finding it difficult to focus on the crossword. She glanced around. The man was on his usual bench clutching his khaki backpack. She dozed. The sound of a twig snapping woke her. She opened her eyes as a man in a hoodie snatched her handbag. He didn’t get far. Biddy’s homeless ‘friend’ timed it perfectly. He tossed his backpack beneath the feet of the thief sending him sprawling. The would-be robber scrambled to his feet and bolted off.

‘Here, Nurse Biddy,’ her saviour shoved the handbag at her.

He knows my name, she peered at him more closely. ‘I know you. Aren’t you Robert Kelly? I nursed you a few years ago. Thank you for coming to my rescue.’


Mick Mulligan put his guitar down. He was tired after a long night of performing. The lounge room light was off but the telly was on with the volume low. Biddy was lying on the sofa, a blanket pulled up so only a lock of wavy brown hair was showing. He eased the blanket back to kiss her. A bearded figure gave a gentle snore and slumbered on as Mick replaced the blanket.

His wife was reading a book in their bedroom.

‘Who’s the hobo?’ he asked.

‘Robert Kelly. He was an IT expert working for ASIO during the Gulf War. A jeep he was travelling in was blown up. He was the sole survivor.’ She closed her book. ‘Shame on the government! Robert was injured while serving his country and now the poor man is homeless.’


Mick organised Robert with a job interview at the Geelong Harvey Norman store. ‘We’ve given him a start but he needs to learn to manage his own life.’

‘I wonder how he’ll go, he’s not exactly chatty.’ During the weeks Robert had lived with them he rarely spoke.

‘I’ve explained about him. They were happy to help. It’s good PR.’

Robert sat in the back seat of the Mulligan’s car gazing out the window.

‘My sister lives in Geelong. I haven’t seen her for a long time.’

Mick and Biddy looked at each other. A long speech for Robert. A breakthrough?

‘Would you like to visit her later?’




She wanted to stop but didn’t know how–too scared to live,
yet too scared to die, confidence long gone.
An abundance of darkness, shadows, gloom–numbness,
beset with rock bottom despair.
Alone and homeless–a rudderless existence,
with no fixed abode.
Disconnected–from family and friends,
adrift in a sea of addiction.

Alcohol. Drugs–drunk or high,
blurs, blanks and brain fog.
Dressed like an outcast–clothing in tatters,
hair all dishevelled, unrecognisably thin.
She hungered for love–devoid of happiness,
felt unwanted, abandoned.
On the brink–more than once,
no one to catch Her, no safety net.

Forgotten by everyone–or so She thought,
Daddy’s little girl.

Estranged, He reached out–heartbroken onlooker,
ready to help.
He knew the risks She had taken–the fight,
to keep the Black Dog at bay.
He opened His heart–a warm embrace,
gave Her a sense of belonging.
His offer accepted–She finally agreed,
to be rescued and rebuild Her life.

A doctor’s referral–the journey was launched,
a detox process begun.

A lonely ride–a harrowing ride,
hallucinations, delirium.
She fought tooth and nail–Her body battered,
assailed with seizures and spasms.
Headaches and tremors–hot and cold flushes,
blood pressure dangerously high.
Nausea and vomiting–dehydration, diarrhoea,
anxiety, depression.

She hung on, fighting hurt and pain–cast aside the mask,
breathed a deep, deep sigh.
Fewer sweats and tears emerged–Her runny nose dried up,
Her memory, concentration back.
Muscle tension, aches and cramps–dissolved,
with former strength returning.
Her intuition, Her will to live–She listened,
to Her feminine wisdom.

Little by little, day by day–Her confidence improved,
an inner light, it flickered.

No longer restless, irritable–more positive and bright,
hopeful, sanguine even.
An increase in appetite–a kilo gained, a kilo more,
a clear, less-haunted countenance.
And slowly, absolutely clear–amid the tears and sobs,
pain and addiction abated.
Recovering, then, a stint in rehab–ample time for reflection,
a self-esteem remake.

Demons conquered, healed and healthy–no longer a victim,
an inner light rekindled.
She stood erect, proud to be triumphant–raised Her eyes,
and saw Him.
Before dawn–arms outstretched, beckoning Her forward,
unconditional love.
Towards the eternal light of Her life–ablaze with love,
Daddy’s little girl.




Your future, depends on one last roll
Seven not thrown, I’lI take your soul
You’ll not taste heaven, no not one slice
No hope, against my well weighted dice

Took on the devil and I let you choose
But you can’t win, you’re destined to lose
Gambled with only your soul left to sell
Prepare yourself sucker for taste of hell

You simply assumed that God awaits
Sadly for you there’ll be no Pearly gates
Only gates you’ll see are gates of Hades
For mistreating children and raping ladies

Taught right from wrong, but refused to learn
Now straight to Hell where you’ll surely burn
You were meant for Heaven, didn’t go to plan
God dealt the cards, but I had a better hand

You gambled your soul on one last toss
Unfortunately for you my friend, all is lost
Majority of people become to me, I must tell
Only a stairway to heaven but a highway to hell


  1. Jo Curtain

    Such a cool image Jan – that invited a variety of fantastic responses. Jo 🙂

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