Who is it knocks at my door?
Last night the wind was loud as the sea
I could get lost in any direction.
Said the ruru:
I think I lost my eyesight when I flew
into the headlights
In the windy morning dark.
Still and silent, then
Thick feathers cannot keep your mauri warm
I will watch the stars for you
And carry on.
My grandpa was a rural vet in Hikurangi, Northland. When I was little he came and looked after us while our mum was in hospital. My main memory is of him buying us Jimmy’s mince pies from the dairy, and not letting me put tomato sauce on my piece of luncheon.
He visited again when I was thirteen or so. We had an owl chick we were looking after that had been abandoned. The owl flew around the house and liked to have its head scratched. My grandpa called it ‘Wol’. It liked to sit on his bald spot and try to gaze into his eyes.
We stayed up late, spent the evenings catching moths that battered against the brightly lit windows. My English teacher said it didn’t matter that I hadn’t done my homework.
We took the owl outside one night, and it took off over the neighbours roof into the deep blue of the night sky. I was sad, so sad, to have let our friend go. But what life, for an owl, to live in a house? I turned to go back inside.
‘Look’, called my dad, in the hushed sort of voice one uses at night.
The owl swooped back to us, in a silent graceful dive. It seemed full of excitement. Its wings had soft burrs along their edges. It didn’t make a sound.
After that, we left our windows and doors open all the time, and the owl would come and go as it pleased.
The owl liked teasing cats. My dad went out one night because all the neighbours’ cats were yelling in the street outside his window. The owl sat on top of the streetlight, bobbing its head, a threat display. The cats sat on the footpath caterwauling. When Wol saw my dad it knew the game was over, and took off into the trees.
It would fly in my window at 7 a.m, and peck on my face to wake me up. I liked the feel of its whiskers, but its breath smelled like meat and dirt. It would leave owl pellets behind the sofa.
My grandpa liked doing cryptic crosswords. We would do puzzles from the paper together, but I never could get the cryptic ones. Now I can, but not all the time.
One of our hens we called Little Goose. She was grey and white speckly and had a top knot, and she honked like a goose. She laid green eggs. She had a prolapsed oviduct while Grandpa was visiting, and he did surgery on the picnic table with a bit of detergent and got the egg out and her insides back in. He was very calm and matter of fact about it. My dad tells stories about going with his dad to various callouts. I think it was usually cows and horses, but we don’t have those here. Chickens will do.
We called him Grumpa, because he always had something to say about something. He had strong opinions about climate change. So did I. He was good at telling people off. I sulked. He had the complete Transactions of the Royal Society. They are big dusty books, bound nicely, full of tiny writing about everything in the world, and live in our hallway.
I went to see him in Northland while he was dying. He was skin stretched on bones, nothing in between. He couldn’t move much except his face. He smiled when I came in and gave me a wink when my parents were being embarrassing. I told him I climb mountains now and study alpine invertebrates. He said ‘EH’ a lot to try and follow what we were saying. He made sure we knew he was still with it, by saying words like ‘parabola’ and ‘hydration’ at relevant moments. He slept most of the time.
I think he was scared to die. But maybe that’s just me superimposing my own feelings. The Fyfe’s are a stubborn bunch.
The last day I saw the owl it woke me up at 7 a.m on a Saturday morning. I was tired and grumpy and picked it up and threw it out the window. It looked taken aback and betrayed. It flew into the trees all ruffled. Then we went to the island for the weekend, and when we came back it didn’t fly in our windows again.
My grandpa died yesterday morning, at 2.14 a.m.
I was in a tent in the North Branch of the Routeburn, Te Komama, as a Nor’wester front blew in. Sheets of wind and rain funnelled down the valley. I woke in the early hours and couldn’t get back to sleep for a while. My body ached from climbing Somnus. My eyes were puffy from squinting in the white clag on the bright snow. Feet too hot, sore right leg, sore teeth. Tent shaking, the wind and the rain. Our tent is a good one and withstood it all. Held safe in the middle of mountains ‘til morning.
Still and silent then, grandpa.
Stubborn bones will break down after all.
I will watch the stars for you,
and carry on.
In Dunedin, it just started raining very heavily. I didn’t get the washing in on time, and now everything that was almost dry is soaked again. But I do not want to close the door.