Kate Railton-Jacks

Kate lives in Brooklyn, Wellington with her husband, two children (and many furry four-legged children!) She is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in English and Anthropology at Massey University, with a plan to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing next year.

“I struggle, sometimes, with the Blank Page. Harnessing and shaping sensations and memories, weaving these into sentences is dizzying, and sublime. To me, the Blank Page is organic; it grows, reaching out, inspiring others and creating connections.”


In the Far Paddock

I could have lain listening to the rain plapping on the tent for hours. Gathering, glistening, then falling from the tips of the pōhutukawa branches we’d pitched under. Tinika said being inside the tent was like being inside someone’s belly. All crimson and glowing. Dark but light, filled with our own breath.

We stayed up late the night before, curled in the blackness listening to the whooping morepork. Mozzies threw themselves against the canvas, desperate to find our torch. They’re not like those little ones you get back in town; they’re big, with wings of spilt oil, coiling legs. Shadow puppets on the tent walls.

 

Mum’s cries carried across the paddock. “Pip, Tinika! Move your butts!”

I groaned, rolling out of my sleeping bag. The zipper of the tent was cool and chunky between my fingers as I pulled it up slowly, not to wake Tinika. Teeth clenched, unclenched. Puffs of cloud scudded across the bruised sky, my bare feet padded over the damp grass to the house. Toes curling and white. Mind the cowpats. Piwakawaka dipped catching their breakfasts. This was my favourite time of day. Still, with the edges all fuzzy. Mornings laid themselves out, making you think you’re the only person in the world that’s alive. The smell of beans and sausages hung in the air.

“Hey, lazybones, your sister awake?” Mum spied me peeking through the holes in the mesh screen door that led into the kitchen. Her swelling belly was covered in a brown and green floral apron. Her pink, muscular arms hugged the stovetop, as her head, a mass of golden corkscrews, bent over, intent on the pot.

“Nup, Tinika’s still asleep.”

“Well, go wake her then!” Mum jerked the wooden spoon in my direction, spraying sauce over the floor. “Today’s gonna be a long day, Pip. All hands on deck. Jeez, you know this.”

I rolled my eyes, spinning on one foot, heading back to the tent.

 

Tinika was already slipping on her jandals when I poked my head through the flap.

“Hey, you take my Walkman?” Her small hands searched through bundles of clothes and blankets, grey eyes flaring.

No. Far out. You can’t live without The Bangles for one second!”

“Can, too! Just can’t find it, is all.”

“Jeez, you’re such a baby. Look in the house, duh. Brekkies up, then I’m going hunting.”

“You wish.” Tinika pushed herself up off her sleeping bag. “Mum said we’re gonna have a picnic. Uncle Curly’s not going till tomorrow.”

“Whatever. Just hurry up, ok. Mum’s in a bad mood.”

 

We sat in the dining room at the round rimu table. Flies lingered, circling the ceiling. Banana boxes surrounded us, stacked and teetering.

“Like us,” Mum liked to say, “all on top of each other.”

The house was stuffed with our belongings, all the furniture squeezed into the one room. The couch was pushed up against the telly making it impossible to watch. The coffee table was on its side against Mum’s drawers, and Tinika’s bedhead was wedged in between our folded squabs. The chairs stood at attention along the far wall, linked together like building blocks. One day I’ll unpack, Mum kept saying.

“Where’s Uncle Curly?” I said through a mouthful of beans.

“Hunting.” Mum eyed her plate.

“But, he said he was going tomorrow!” I dropped my fork with a clatter, grating my chair back on the lino.

“Mind the floor. Well, he’s gone today, hasn’t he? Left here, knowing full well I’m about to burst at the seams.” She rubbed her bulging stomach, belching softly. “He’ll be back later; gotta get some meat to the markets tomorrow.” She looked out beyond the window to where the sheep stood idly chewing in the nearby paddock.

Mum hated Uncle Curly hunting. But she liked the meat, so it was a double-edged sword, she said. Uncle Curly’s favourite spot was in the hills above the farm. He’d go bush for days, emerging sweaty and panting with a pig slung over his shoulders, rabbits and kererū strung from his waist. Mum would stuff them in plastic bags, filling our chest freezer until Uncle Curly had to sit on it to make it close. Feeding us for months. Uncle Curly said he’d take me with him when I turned 12. That was still over a year away, and Mum swore to us girls that we’d never ever go, so I shouldn’t keep dreaming of it.

 

When we moved here last summer, Uncle Curly was pretty happy to see us. All packed up in our Kingswood, a hunk of purple metal freckled with rust. Ploughing in on a cloud of gravel and dust. The place needed a woman’s touch, he said, striding over to us with his arms open wide for a hug. Tinika and me had camped in the paddock every night since. Mum allowed it because we didn’t have room for our beds yet, but we liked camping, so we thought we were lucky. Uncle Curly’s house squatted in the middle of two paddocks, beige and peach weatherboards peeling like old skin. A few straggly horses and smudgy sheep dotted the paddocks, and in May ducks bickered in the pond, hiding out from shooters. We’d hear their shots ring around the hills in the early hours. Pop. Pop, Pop. Pop. One day, I was going to be a sharpshooter.

Beyond the heavy iron gate in the far paddock were some calico cows and old Bully-Boy. Me and Tinika would play a game called Push the Gate. The rules were pretty simple. I’d open the gate and Bully-Boy would trot over to us, thinking we had food. Tinika would push the gate towards him, standing on the railing, putting all her strength into her small arms. The old bull would lower his head, stopping the gate as it squealed on tired hinges. We’d wait; ready, as he nudged it back to us. Whoever missed first, lost. Clang, clang, clang. It was great fun. Until Mum saw us one day, and ran over screaming blue murder. So, instead we splashed in the river that cut through the farm, running straight to the beach. I explored the paths knitted with gorse, ponga and fern, making huts and traps, and imagined living there.

 

“So, Mama, we goin’ to the river, huh?” Tinika’s blonde curls bobbed, tomato sauce smeared over her left cheek, toast crumbs dusting in her fringe. Tinika always had a way of making Mum’s heart melt.

“Aw, hunny, we sure are. I’ll get on to a picnic after I clean up this mess.” Mum stood wiping her hands on her apron, groaning and flexing her back. It was getting harder for her to do anything around the place. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Phaw, its gonna be another hot one. Ow, feel this.” Mum flinched, reaching for me and Tinika. Her large hands covered ours, pressing them to her belly. Firm. Warmth, coming from within. Movement so sharp and robust our eyes widened. I imagined inside her belly was like a balloon filled with water. Baby, feebly slushing about. “Your new brother or sister. They’re kicking.”

Tinika giggled. I felt queasy.

 

The sun hung high and white in the sky as we wove our way through the tussock and cowpats to the river. The sandy bank had a crisp layer on it that you could pull off in chunks, and Tinika kept running over with her palms splayed upwards holding cracked mud cakes that turned to dust at Mum’s touch. Mum sat under a huge orange hat, its brim shading her eyes. Her tan swimsuit was like second skin, oily and glistening as she stretched her head back, eyes fluttering. Toi toi ran their fingers through the air, and I lay on the muddy bank making leaf-boats, watching them spin and twist down the open drain that ran from the house. I taught Tinika her numbers there. When it rained heavily, we’d sprawl out on our bellies, heads hanging over the slick edge, counting the rats as they came rushing past in the current. In the distance a car backfired, a dog barked. Heat crinkled in waves.

A shadow blocked the sun momentarily, and over the stopbank stepped a blocky figure, swanndri and rifle slung over one shoulder.

“Uncle Curly! You get anything?”

“Ah, no booty this time around, Missy. Come back to see how ya Mum’s doing.” Uncle Curly hadn’t had much luck hunting lately.

“Oh, how thoughtful of you,” Mum said. “My hero.” Her voice was strained, but I could see the corners of her mouth curl upwards, fighting off a smile. “Gotta sammie here for ya.”

Mum opened the picnic basket, rolling onto her side. Uncle Curly dropped heftily onto the towel. His face, wide and ruddy, took in Mum’s languid body.

“Dry as a bone up there,” Uncle Curly sniffed, eyes watery and squinting.

“Well, you gotta get those animals sorted this arvo in that case. Got mouths to feed.”

“Yep. I know too well, with you reminding me every five seconds.” Uncle Curly grunted, shifting his weight. He daubed his chest with his towelling hat, droplets of sweat clung to the soft silver hairs curling up from his collarbone. Damp patches ringed the armpits of his white singlet; his thick freckled shoulders were turning a steady crimson, hiding last years’ tan marks. “Doug’s coming out with the truck at half four. We’ll have the beasts done by then. With me and Pip both doing them it’ll be done in no time.”

“God, Curly, she’s too young.” Mum sighed.

“Ah, lovey, it’s what we do.”

“Just don’t get her hurt.” Mum paused gazing out across the paddock. “I’ll pack some up for the freezer.”

“We’ll get some younger cattle, start over.”

“I know. It just feels like a waste. And Pip thinks she’s all grown up.” Mum pressed her fingers to her lips. Uncle Curly shuffled closer. He ran a calloused hand across her back. I looked away.

“I’m going hunting,” I said, shoving myself off the packed mud. I grabbed a nearby stick and held it to my chin, aiming at the sullen sheep that dragged themselves around the paddock.

“Alrighty, but don’t be too long eh, Missy? We’ve got a job to do this arvo, and I’ll need your sharp shooting.” Uncle Curly winked.

 

I scrambled up the grassy bank towards the far corner of the farm where Bully-Boy lazed in the parched grass, his tail flicking off fat bottle-green flies that collected on the patties in droves. I paused to scratch his upturned belly, bristly and warm in the afternoon heat. The old bull snorted, tongue lolling at the side of his mouth. I raced across the rest of the paddock, plunging into the bush. Yellow tangles of gorse grabbed at my skin and hair. Brown leaves crunched, my bare feet pounding them into the sandy track. Under every bush there seemed to be a rabbit hole or crumpled beer can. Piwakawaka pitched and fell, snipping at clouds of gnats. Leaves rushed together around me. My heart boxed, my face prickled with heat. I slowed, as the dense brush opened out to a patchy clearing. Pieces of curling wire attached to homemade traps twisted amidst the foliage. A pile of powdery ash, encircled with charred stones sat in the flattened-out grass. There’s always a story left behind in debris: a scrap of fur, bone and blood, a shower of feathers, boot-pressed into the mud.

With a leafy roof of kōwhai, a mossy stump rubbed smooth, this place held its hush and warmth like nowhere else could. I hadn’t been there in nearly a week. Tucked amongst ferns a few feet away sat a wire cage. A muted blur of grey moved within. I crept over, peering through the rusty bars of the trap I had set. The rabbit was lying on its side, flip-flopping. Its hollowed ribcage rose and fell rapidly. Its delicate skull looked too small for its ears, one hung ragged and bloodied against the cage floor. Occasionally, it punched its back legs against the flap that had fallen blocking its escape. Wide black eyes, glinting red in the light, held my gaze. The bush suddenly seemed so vast. I sat back on my haunches taking in the rabbit’s feeble kicks. I bit my lip.

“Some hunter you are,” I sighed, reaching over to lift the opening. The rabbit bolted, disappearing through the undergrowth. I wiped my hands, leaving copper smears on my shorts, listened to the distant whine of a truck, and Mum’s voice, shrill and urgent, carrying over the trees.

 

The house sat cool and still in the late afternoon. Long shadows splayed themselves out on the flowery aqua walls. Plastic strips of the fly curtain hung limply over the back door. Mum was starting tea, pots clattered and I could hear her swearing under her breath. I stood at the window watching Uncle Curly march towards the house, whistling for the dog and shooing sheep away from the gate. His wide, ruddy face parted the curtain and smoke from the rollie stuck to his bottom lip and coiled about the door. He squinted, eyes adjusting to the light.

“So, you ready to shoot something, eh Missy?” He grinned.

“Yeah, ’course.” My stomach dipped, as if someone had pushed me too high on the swings. Mum came out from the kitchen with a tea towel draped over one shoulder and flung Uncle Curly a dark look.

“Tea’s in an hour,” she said stiffly. “If you’re not back, ya get nothing.” Uncle Curly chuckled, raising an eyebrow.

“We’ll make it quick then. Start in the far paddock.”

 

Cows lifted their heads around us, blinking. The sun had begun to dip behind the hills, and the tūī conked and plucked, filling the crisp air with evening song. Uncle Curly strode over to the fence where he had propped the rifle.

“Remember what I showed you? Aim for the brain.” He tapped his forehead, offering me the gun. My fingers quivered as they closed around the wooden butt. “Bully-Boy’s turn first.” He pointed to where the old bull stood, tail swishing.

“Bully-Boy?” My breath felt tiny and sharp; a small bird caught in my chest.

“Ah, lovey,” Uncle Curly looked into my face, frowning. “He’s just too old to make us any more calves. He’s worth more at the works. Don’t worry; Mum’ll bag some of him up for our freezer.”

I watched as Bully-Boy scuffed his hoof along the ground, sending clumps of dung and grass flying. He shambled towards me, dropping his huge head ready to nuzzle my hand. Frothy saliva, tinted with green, dripped from the corners of his mouth. His short, coarse coat shimmered, a deep indigo. His horns carved inwards from scruffy mounds on his head. Smooth and creamy, flecked with black. His eyes, deep voids speckled with broken blood vessels. I could feel his breath, peppery and wet, as his head lurched forward. Warmth, coming from within.

I stepped back towards the gate, where me and Tinika had played the day before. Lifting the rifle, I pressed the gunstock against my cheek. Cool, smooth, smelling of linseed. Peering through the sight, I squeezed one eye shut. My finger brushed the trigger. There was a sudden stillness as the breeze dropped away. The world seemed to hold its breath, and the pōhutukawa pressed their leaves against a fading sky.

 

 

First published takahe 88
December 2016