Joe spent his childhood on the road, traveling with his family’s voluntary group to refugee camps and schools across Europe and southern Africa. He now lives in Wellington, where his guilty pleasures include bad horror movies and writing down stories. takahē is his first professional publication.
Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere.
Ant moved the words around in his mouth, under his breath, trying out the unfamiliar syllables. They rolled out towards him from the page and he caught them on his tongue (like a snowflake), where they hung, shapeless, until he closed the guidebook and set it beside him and dropped the words out of his mouth into the fire.
Shouldn’t read in this light.
The English girl nudged him, passing him the spliff. He took a drag, held the smoke in his lungs. Counted backwards from ten. Mechanical, unpracticed, but at least he didn’t cough when he passed it along.
“Kösz,” said the Hungarian. He closed his eyes when he drew on the joint, furrowed his brow. The firelight picked up the red in his beard, burnished copper, the glow of a forge. Ant looked away.
He asked the girl where her friend was.
“She got tired. We’re goin’ up the glacier tomorrow, if the weather’s sound. We’ve booked a helicopter thing.” She smiled at him, took a sip from her beer. “You been up yet?”
He shook his head.
She smiled again. “I’ll let you know what it’s like, then.”
“Tessék.” the Hungarian said, passing the joint. “Cold, no? Brrr.”
It was August, a backpacker’s in Franz Josef – and yes, it was cold, even with the fire pit. It was only the three of them outside. The hostel held a feeling of waiting, for summer, for the tourists it would bring.
The phone call was still buzzing in his head.
Jamie, Jamie, Jamie.
“You ok, man?” the Hungarian said, holding Ant’s gaze.
Ant nodded. He could feel the weed kicking in, the girl shifting closer towards him on the wooden bench. He caught a hint of citrus, and with the smoke from the fire it became a burnt orange smell, like an offering. She leaned her head against his shoulder, closed her eyes. He let her be. The Hungarian winked at him.
“You are Kiwi?” he asked.
No, Ant said. South African.
“Ah, Dél-Afrikában. Mandela, yes? Oscar Pistorius?” The Hungarian grinned. “How much time you are in New Zealand?”
He’d arrived a few weeks ago, he told him, making his way slowly through the South Island.
“Good country, eh? Good place for life.”
They looked at the flames.
He stood up, too quickly. The English girl gave a little yelp of surprise. I gotta go to bed, he told them. Gotta go to bed.
He left the fire.
He had the room to himself. It was a six-bed dorm: three bunkbeds, awkwardly placed, crowding a dirty carpet. There was a wall heater, which he’d turned to full blast. He lay on his side under the thin duvet, the rustle of the sheets too loud in the quiet, and stared at the wall.
The call had come a few hours before. He’d been on a couch in the common area, reading a book he couldn’t remember the name of, when his cellphone rang. It was Sarah, his sister, named for a Dylan song. An early call from Cape Town. He hadn’t spoken to her since first arriving in Wellington, and answered with a laugh.
It took her some time to get the words out, to tell him what had happened. He wondered, afterwards, whether there was a part of him that had expected the call. Her thickened, strained voice, her blank statement of the facts. He wondered whether he’d known when Jamie had dropped him at the airport. Not quite a breakup; not quite a goodbye. A see-you-later, Ant had said. Keep your chin up (meaning: keep your demons at bay). Come and visit (meaning: don’t let yourself fall, don’t lose yourself again). The airport was busy and he was running late.
They’d kissed, once, quickly. I’ll call you when I arrive.
And that had been it.
Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. He’d read the story by firelight, about the girl, Hine, who’d left her mountain for the love of a man down below. It was in the air, that story, in the coolness of his breath. The shaking of his hands. He’d only meant it as a break, he told himself. A let’s-see-if-distance-helps kind of thing. But he’d been tired, after eighteen months of trying. Convincing someone that they had a place in the world, that there could be a lightness, a reason, if they let themselves find it. And failing that, convincing them to try the doctor, try the pills, despite their mother’s railing against them, with her crystals and homeopathic cure-alls. He’d succeeded, or thought he had. Jamie had seemed happy, when he’d left, had seemed to understand that he was just trying to make things better for the two of them. That he wasn’t just running away.
Jamie’s sister had found him, in his Vredehoek house. It was her who’d phoned Sarah. They’d been friends before their brothers had met, after all.
Had he expected it? He couldn’t have. Nobody could have. His mind sent smoky tendrils into the crannies of itself, into its hiding places, but still gave a resounding denial, a no no no to the idea – because, (he thought), expectation could only lead to responsibility; responsibility, to guilt. Guilt would destroy him.
No. He’d tried to help. That was all.
Jamie’s beard had been red as well, like the Hungarian’s in the firelight.
He managed a few hours’ sleep, in the end.
Pulling on some clothes, he made his way to the kitchen. He found a mug next to the sink (a torn sheet of paper was Blu-Tacked to the wall: YOUR MOM DOESN’T LIVE HERE – PLEASE WASH, DRY AND PUT AWAY YOUR DISHES!!!). Three heaped teaspoons of instant coffee, a fourth for good measure. Two sugars.
As he waited for the kettle to boil, the Hungarian walked in, taking an empty coffee cup to the sink.
“Jó reggelt. Good morning, man.” he said. He left his cup, ignoring the sign, and held out his hand over the wooden table. “I am Marcell – your name?”
Anthony, Ant said. Good to meet you.
“You disappear last night.”
He said something about being tired. The Hungarian – Marcell – nodded. His eyes were very green.
“Shit,” he said, and spread his hands. “I am sorry, man. I hear, yesterday, you…” (he held a mimed phone to his ear) “…and, shit news, igen. I am sorry.”
Thanks, Ant said. Thanks. Yes. Shit news.
“You will go home?”
Ant shrugged. Said he didn’t know.
Marcell wrinkled his beard, put his head to one side. Quizzical; dog-like, almost.
“We all of us come from something, eh. We walk walk walk and run run run and fly fly fly, far away as we can – but home run faster. Home always catch us up.”
He smiled through his beard, moved around the table. Gave Ant a pat on the shoulder.
“No escape, eh. Just love. And another day.”
Ant went for a walk.
He planned first to head towards the glacier, spend the day getting to the viewpoint and back. It was bright outside, sunny; still cold, yes, but a good day for a hike. He looked at the rocks beneath his shoes. He heard the stream, that once must have stretched to the trees on either side, murmuring questions in a far off language, the pattering of distant feet.
Had she run this way, when she was returning to the mountain? His mind felt cloying, numb; he clutched at the story with his fingertips. Her eagerness to go home, her beloved’s stumbling pursuit. Let me show you, she called perhaps, not noticing how far ahead she was, that she had left him. Only realising her mistake when the mountain itself rose up behind her and swallowed him whole.
Her tears were frozen into the river of ice ahead, and they gave it its name. Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. The tears of the avalanche girl.
He had an image, suddenly, of blood on the stones.
Deep breath. He ran his hands down his face.
Ant left the riverbed and took a path into the trees, next to a small bridge suspended over the stream. The bridge was closed (a slip on the trail, it said), and he turned to walk the other way, back through the forest.
He left the glacier to its own devices. Somewhere, up there, an English girl and her friend were laughing.
The path carried on a long way. He walked slowly, on soft earth and bark, through dappled ferns and banks of moss, wet and shining green. It smelled of damp and age, new and old life, a soft turning of existence.
Jamie was gone. He saw it in the crisscrossing shadows in the path, his breath that steamed the air. Jamie was gone, like the river of ice behind him would one day be gone, like these trees and insects and the small things scratching in the undergrowth would be too. Endless and ended; small monuments, forgotten to all save those who held them dear.
But the voice was there, in the back of his head. Had he known? Had he expected?
Expectation was responsibility; responsibility was guilt.
Onwards he walked, through that gentle passage of life, until he came to the hole in the mountain.
It stood there, dark and impassive, a rough hewn opening framed by mossy rocks. LOW HEADROOM, a sign beside it read. An old mining tunnel, perhaps. Abandoned, but kept as an attraction, for the tourists.
He walked down the steps and stood at the threshold. He could see no end to the tunnel; it led to a complete darkness, a mystery, an absence of light.
The sun was shining on the back of his neck, and he could hear the birds singing.