The bird song sounds mechanical. The stitchbird Morse code. The weka is a hammer, its thorax belting against the back of its throat. The fantail squeaks like gears in need of oil, and the wood pigeons wing span sounds like pistons breathing in and out. I enjoy their industry. They call this place Restoration Island. It lies to the west of the mainland. There is no pier so boats wedge their bow into the shingle bank. There is white driftwood scattered on the stone shore where jellyfish cast themselves in sunshine. On some afternoons I sleep on the stones. I lie on their absorbed sunshine and it warms and soothes my back, reaches through to my bones. If I lie there long enough my bones will be as bleached as the driftwood. Sometimes, in that moment before I fall asleep, I feel like I am sinking.
The traps are not working. The bait is gone but the bite is sprung. It’s only recently that the possums have worked it out. The ones who went before them I stripped of their skins which I left to dry until they were as stiff as the southerly. I will need to get the rifle otherwise I believe I will never be rid of them, though I don’t like shooting so much. I don’t like spotlighting and seeing the fluorescence of the possums’ eyes because of the gluttony revealed in them. They look at the rifle as if greedy for lead.
Some days the trees creak. It makes me think of the villa and how its timber talked in the night complaining of the ills its inhabitants inflicted upon it. Floorboards bound upon by bare heavy feet, doors slammed which made the gaps between the sills widen. The gaps were stuffed with any scrap of paper or material come wintertime to stop the draught, whose elusive source was my mother’s main source of contention. It made the house look like a damsel in distress whose mouth was tied with cloth.
Today the clouds are full of showers. I wait inside for their passing. The rain hammers on the roof, reinforcing the nails through the iron and onto the four by twos. The possums sometimes scratch at the roof at night and breathe their old man breathing foretelling what I will become; old and wheezy. On other evenings there is wild fire flashing and I get out of bed and look out at the night to make sure the bush is not alight. The wild fire lights up my hut: the wooden table and the water jug that lies upon it and the single wooden chair, the lounge chair high backed and rips where fingers have gripped. The coal range with a pot, the stew cleaned out by my tongue and hands. There are rugs on the dirt floor littered with wood chips and splinters from carting in fuel for the stove. When the wild fire lights my house it feels as if I am not in it, that I am seeing it for the first time, never having lived there. It is an unnerving experience, like having a picture taken and not recognising your own image.
Your hair was brown but it had rata running through it. In youth, not that I have seen you truly old, you came to the villa. You were quiet and cold. My mother fed you. You eventually talked, small words at first and then bigger as your belly warmed with food. You grew tall quickly, and so did I, I suppose. You had calculated that I was twenty-six months and two days and seventeen hours older than you. One day I said that such calculations were not necessary after years of skiting about my maturity, which is enough to show that I had none.
The mud weighs my boots but there are some places on this island where the rain hasn’t penetrated. The canopy shelters the floor and leaves it hard like the backyard in summer. We would bounce a ball in the yard – see how high up it went – but when we looked our sight would be stolen by the sun. I would shut my eyes and wait for them to adapt to normal light, and hear the ball bounce until it rolled away. I can still remember how the sun beamed through your gingham skirt, filtering its rays through the pinpricks in the fabric. The heat was such that cracks would appear in the earth and we would dig at them with twigs, imagining we were enlarging river arteries. The rivers never flowed; we tried pouring water into them but the earth swallowed it quickly and we could not get enough water to sate its appetite.
I slept fitfully last night. It must have been the rain and thoughts of wild fire and yet I dreamt. There was a window; it was open but who opened it and what they could see was not revealed to me. It wasn’t until I had pulled the cloth away from my window this morning that I remembered the dream. Some say dreams are premonitions but nothing I have dreamed has come true. I have dreamed of you on this island, waiting for me in the hut, your hands dusting flour onto your pinny when I walk in, and you ask me about the traps. These are very ordinary dreams, so ordinary they appear attainable. But what I saw out the window this morning was a fresh water green slick of a forest that was looking sorry for itself, wallowing in its misery.
There used to be sheep on this island – trees were felled to make feed. Now saplings grow. I tend them. I have attached their thin stems to pieces of kindling to make them stronger in the elements. This morning the trees lean a little to the north but otherwise they are intact. It is the rats that will do more damage than the weather. The rats gnaw at the tree leaves and trunks and will eat until there is nothing left. If I let them, the possums and rats would eat this island away. Rats used to run inbetween the walls of the villa and up in the ceiling to build a home for winter. The ol’ man laid poison and the rats would run to it as if it were a feast. You could hear their feet scurry as if they were at a barn dance. A few days afterwards I could smell their bodies rotting.
The road up to the villa was lined with kowhai trees. Tall and yellow like an earth-bound sunshine reaching up to the sky where it belonged. We would hollow in the spaces at the very top of the root stem. We dug like the roots extended to the other side of the earth and we could hold onto them for guidance as we followed their path. Once, we filled the hollows with autumn leaves and put in a praying mantis, thinking we were making a safe warm home for it, but in the morning it was gone and the leaves had scattered.
I was lying on my back looking up at the sky, thinking how the pattern of the clouds looked like shingle in a braided river, when you said you were moving on. My mother had done enough for you, you had two feet to be standing on and sturdy farm-reared thighs no less. You had laughed. The loudest sound at the river was the wind in the trees and not the water. Nursing, you said, up the Hacka. Visits were promised in spite of the miles. You pushed my ribs trying to make me agree to your plans and make me laugh but it didn’t work. You told me not to be like that, that we could enjoy the time we had left. You tore at a stem of dried grass and pulled strands from it. I looked away, not wanting to see it whittled away to nothing.
The breast of the bird pumped up and down. Its green foliage fluffed out in distress. It swarked and jumped from one foot to the other. It looked mechanical, you said, as if its insides were wheels wound up. You drew me a picture of a kea with steel plated insides and cogs’ teeth biting into each other. Your pencil was sharp and the lines precise. The bird had a round belly and a wing extended with plumage of intricate metal. I asked you where the heart was and you said it was the biggest wheel that made the rest of the bird work. It’s a mechanical heart, you said.
We worked in the sheds picking fleeces off the floor, pulling off the daggs. The sheep sat like slouching infirm old women inbetween the legs of the shearers and had their bellies shorn. The air was full of shit and sweat and wool. The shearers stood and arched their backs inbetween sheep. Blades poised in their hands. You were full of talk about nursing, and the house where you were going to stay, and the people there who were meant to be nice. This was to be your last shear at the farm. You attempted to look nostalgic but the gleam of your new life shone through. You weren’t fooling anyone. You were the bird with the mechanical heart and you were ready to fly away from me.
The shearers went back to the house for beer and dinner and you collapsed on the floor in exaggerated exhaustion. Your hair had splayed onto the timber and seemed to merge into its groove. It made me think of the kowhais reaching to the sun and thinking they would make it. You went to get up but I pushed you back down. I heard your head hit the timber. I reached for you and your limbs pushed me away. You shouldn’t have pushed me away. I held you down and entered you. Afterwards you sat on the floor and drew your long hair into your mouth like a gag and stared at the blood.
They advertised the island position through the Herald. The advertisement was as small as the income but as the manager said, there’s nothing for you to buy on the island and the board and food are free. He told me how they were trying to restore the island like some piece of furniture stripped back to its grain and polished afresh. Well, that’s the best way I can describe it. There’s a long way to go but the kowhais look promising. I will plant rata next.