My name is Elizabeth. This is what happened to us – to Tom and me. But mostly to me. You might not believe me, and that’s OK. But just listen.
Tom’s uncle was a farmer. He had an old shepherd’s cottage right up in the high country. Tom and I went there to try and sort things out between us. There was no phone, no electricity and the nearest house was more than ten miles away. He dropped us off there and told us he would be back in three days to collect us.
The only reason I won’t be back, he said, is if somebody dies or somethin’. Then he laughed.
It was just us and the hills and the magpies, with the sky close and grey above.
When we opened the door to the cottage, one solitary magpie flew out, scaring me half to death.
One for sorrow, Tom mumbled. He found the broken window and covered it with newspaper, sweeping aside spears of glass as he went. The thin paper was nineteen years old, same as me.
Probably the last time anyone was out here, said Tom.
We didn’t talk much that first night. We built a fire in the old stove and heated up a can of soup for dinner. The wind sucked at the newspaper on the window. Tom held my hand and stared at the fire in the open stove and I could tell that he was sorry for what he had done.
I woke up early. The light was murky. Something had woken me up. A yell.
Didya hear that? I shook Tom’s shoulder, but he made a face, grunting, and turned away.
Tom. I shook him again. I felt like I could crush his small bones with one hand.
What? he said. He didn’t open his eyes, just bunched his eyebrows up.
I heard a yell, I said.
You dreamt it, he said. Go back to sleep.
It was the magpies that led us to him. They were hanging around in a crowd, waiting. They jumped out of our way when we got there, but they didn’t look happy about it.
The man lay on his back, at the bottom of a quiet grey cliff, his head lolling off to one side and his leg under him in a complicated dance. His eyes were blue, with clouds in them, and his hair was gold. There wasn’t too much blood. His skin was the colour of a lily. Don’t ever let anyone tell you a lily is white. It’s not.
Oh, Jesus, said Tom, and then again: Oh Jesus. He hopped around the body, pulling at his face and his hair and his clothes.
We went back to the cottage and found a huge black sheet of plastic in the shed. We carried it back, our breath hot and foggy. As soon as we reached the body, Tom started muttering to himself again as we spread the sheet out and rolled the man onto it. He was heavy: a real strapping sort, and I imagined his muscles under his clothes were fine and taut and hard. I gave his bicep a small squeeze, just to make sure. I was right. Tom didn’t see me.
He looked like a German tourist. His coat was purple and yellow, like an old bruise. He had a small backpack, with a little tent strapped to it, and a billy swinging from one of the straps. We didn’t like to look any further.
We dragged the body all the way back to the cottage, through the stillness. On the way I gave a shout, just to hear some noise bouncing down from the craggy hills. Tom started and twisted his face at me, before continuing with his pulling and his heaving.
We were tired out and it was too far to walk to the nearest house for help. Tom’s uncle was coming to collect us in two days anyway. So we wrapped the plastic around the man and propped him against the side of the shed. The top of his head was showing. If there had been any sun, his hair would have shone.
I named him Hans.
Tom had brought his wind-up clock with him. For two days it was all we listened to. I think Tom thought that by coming out here with me, and by sitting very still and very quiet, that I would forgive him.
The walls of the cottage leaned in towards us, close enough to touch.
The first night after we found Hans, I had a dream.
Hans came and stood in the doorway of the bedroom. He was looking at me.
The second night, he came into the room and stood by the bed. He reached out his hand to me. I waited a moment, then put my hand out, but he was gone.
Tom’s uncle didn’t come the next day.
All day we listened for the sound of the ute on the gravel road. Just before evening, I thought I heard a wailing, winding up the narrow valley like a song.
When it was night-time, we opened our last can of soup.
What do we do now? I asked Tom.
He shrugged. He’ll be here, he said.
That night, when Hans came into our room, he came right up to me and knelt in front of me. His hand touched my face. It was cold. He bent forward and he kissed me.
I woke up, flushed and warm.
I got up, while Tom still slept, and went outside in my white nightie. The mist clung to the hills and my bare feet sank into grit and mud. A magpie hopped out from behind the shed where the body was.
Get outta here, I said, as menacing as I could be.
I peeled away the plastic from his face. He looked straight ahead, his mouth slightly open. His lips were blue and had just a dot of blood on them. The clouds in his eyes had become a bank of storm-clouds.
I touched his cheek. It had a fishy coldness to it, like a plum still on the tree, caught in the morning dew.
It was ten past five. We sat on the couch, side by side but not touching. The ticking of the clock, if we thought about it, filled the whole room. It took our minds off our stomachs.
If he doesn’t come tomorrow, said Tom, I’ll start walking. We can’t go on like this. We can’t go on.
I nodded. I thought about my chance to be alone with Hans.
I lay all night in Hans’s arms, while Tom slept beside us.
I have never felt such silence as we had out there. Apart from the magpies.
The newspaper on the window had come adrift in the night. Tom lit the stove as soon as he got up. I stood outside in the yard and watched the smoke fall from the roof and drift off up to the hills.
We heard the ute from a long way off. It was some time before it got to us. The sound hummed in and out as it made a path up the valley.
Somebody died, said Tom’s uncle. One of the local Maori kids. Couldn’t leave while there was a tangi on. You understand.
We gathered together our belongings. Hans’s backpack was beside the door. I picked it up and fingered its straps before giving it to Tom’s uncle.
We found something, I said.
When we rounded the shed, there was a flash of movement from the body. He had fallen over on his side and there were six, no, seven magpies on top of him. Pecking at him.
Tom and his uncle covered their eyes and their mouths, but I gave a yell and rushed forward, throwing my bag at the magpies.
His eyes were gone. No more clouds.
I was crying now and I plunged my hands into the plastic and brought my arms around him. I rocked him on the ground while Tom tried to pull me off him. His uncle just stood there, staring.
After we had been to the police, Tom’s uncle dropped us off at the railway station.
We had driven into town, three abreast in the cabin. We had stared ahead and not said anything, just listened to the sound of the ute on the gravel road, and to the body knocking around on the back with the tools.
When the train pulled in, Tom got on. I stayed on the platform and waited until it started moving. I lifted my hand to him, but he just stared at me a moment then looked away. I waved good-bye to his disappearing profile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rachael King has recently left her job at Wellington’s wonderful Staple magazine to write full time. She has had several short stories published in anthologies, magazines and online, including at The God Particle. She is currently working on a novel about a butterfly collector, which, all going well, she expects to finish by mid-2005. She once won an award for selling advertising and her father said to her ‘Ah well, it’s not a book award, but well done anyway.’