empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...




Bruno’s Indian said something wise as I was leaving but, like so much of the wisdom that has come my way, I have forgotten it. He was a tall, slender young man, the foreman of the gang of Gujarati illegals who picked Bruno’s apples and pumpkins, but even his natural authority could not make them work on festival days, nor on the days when, for reasons that were obscure, they became spooked. I saw him in the rearview mirror, dressed in white, standing with my sister and her husband as I drove away from the sheds on the rich river flats down by the Tuki Tuki and then on out of the valley.

The back seat of the rental car was full of crisp red apples and my sister had given me some of the strong dope they grew in a favoured spot in the orchard. I was going to Wellington for an art opening, via south Hawkes Bay and the Wairarapa, intending to stop in a town of my youth to visit my father’s grave. I was happy to be free and untrammelled on the road, but throughout the morning and the early afternoon, a troubling image kept surfacing and floating before my mind’s eye: the bones of my father’s skull coming through the flesh down there in the earth where we'd buried him a couple of years before.

After I left Masterton I smoked a joint rolled previously which, while it did not banish the visage of the skull beneath the skin, did overlay it with intensely nostalgic images from my boyhood; so that when I crossed the bridge over the Waiohine, just north of Greytown, and saw kids swimming as I used to do in the swift green waters between the piles, I turned off the road and drove down the short track to the stony river beach where they had left their piles of clothes and their towels draped over gorse or broom bushes. But it was no longer possible for me to join them, so soon enough I reversed and turned about and bumped back up to the highway and on.

The graveyard is south of the town, with curiously shaped concrete wings over the gate that do not meet to make the arch they suggest. I had never explored it properly before, and was surprised to find it segregated: a small Jewish section and then the Catholics there on the right as you went up the drive, with a row of truncated macrocarpas on the left, behind which my father lay. Over the cattlestop and into the main part of the cemetery. I stopped the car near a small wooden shed built next to the boundary fence, climbed out, stretched. I was feeling strange already, otherwordly, perhaps trepidated, if that’s a word.

It was a still, partly cloudy afternoon, alternately bright and shadowed, and quiet except for the carolling of magpies from the tall pine trees up the back and the seemingly grief-stricken, intermittent cries of sheep from the surrounding paddocks. I walked over to the Sexton’s shed and peered through the dusty, spider-webbed window. Its floor was uneven, a turmoil of earth, as if someone had tried to excavate within. A broken shovel lay sideways in the dirt and there did not appear to be any back wall to it. That chaos of scumbled filth went forever. It was like a vision, not so much of hell, but of some brute vacuum beyond both heaven and hell. I felt myself being pulled into that vortex and it was an effort to drag myself away. The illusion so strong I went around the back to check if there was in fact a wall there …

A low hedge grew over the fence on that side of the graveyard and from in amongst its tangled greenery, its twiggy darkness, I could hear the rustling of some small animal or bird. There was another shed further along, I walked towards it as if impelled by the foreboding atmos around me. It was more miniature barn than shed, with double wooden doors, one of which was half open, the other secured with a bolt. The open side held more tools, a mower, fuel cans and so forth. I shot the bolt on the other door, it creaked open. Inside was a pile of yellow straw and laid on the straw, unaccountably, was the mummified body of a whippet or a small greyhound. The roar building in my ears became louder, I swayed, dizzy, faint. The body of the dog filled me with horror, the rustling in the hedgerow likewise. I closed the door and stumbled away.

Up the back of the graveyard, under the huge, raggedy pines, is a rectangular field in which are a couple of dozen massive, elaborate, nineteenth century graves all set on a diagonal with respect to the parameters of the enclosure. As I walked into that field, the sun went behind a cloud, the magpies flew up, with loud cries, out of the pines and away. The roaring in my ears crescendoed and I seemed to hear, above or below or amongst it, the grumbling voices of the dead town fathers and mothers buried here, a stern and heartless rehearsal of the Anglican pieties that ruled the town. The graves were disposed, I thought, on a ley line that stretched, past the brown hills to the northeast, over the manifold ocean, all the way back to some dim, occulted village in England.

No! I said, or shouted, though not out loud. No, no, no! I would not submit to their dread authority, I was not subject to their haunting, they could not own my soul the way they thought they owned the soul of the town. Their dead hand could fall where it would, but not on my sleeve, nor my shoulder, not on your life. I walked among the old graves, reading the names, muttering my refusals, and heard the ancient voices diminish to a murmur of discontent then die away into the dark and bright light of the afternoon.

Whatever it was, or had been, was over. I left that baleful field and made my way back through the military section to where my father lay. When we buried him I brought two stones for his grave, one from each of the two rivers that run through the town where I was born. The round one, like a skull, that I found at the bend in the Mangawhero where we used to go swimming, was set in concrete at the head of the grave, but the wide flat footstone I pulled out of the Mangateitei on the slopes of the mountain was missing. I stood where it should have been and spoke a few words out loud to him; then was quiet. The decay of his body no longer worried me. I even felt a kind of peace descend, neither profound nor momentous, but ordinary, mortal. In that silence, that peace, I heard the ticking of his watch on my wrist.


The morning after the opening, I hit the road again, driving back to Auckland via Taranaki. I had someone to see, a rich art collector, in New Plymouth. I stayed the night in a motel at Waitara, then continued on up Highway 3, which runs along that wild coast as far as Mokau. I smoked another joint of my sister’s strong dope as I left town which, again, might explain the experience I was about to have. On the other hand, things like this have happened to me, unpredictably, when I’ve been unstoned, or stone cold sober.

I was barrelling down a wide empty sweep of highway towards a river bridge when I felt a sudden urge to stop. I drove over the bridge and turned off to the right, onto an obscure country dirt road. No, this wasn’t it. I turned the car around, went back, re-crossed the bridge and took another road that ran along the side of the river towards the sea. There was a carpark and picnic area about a kilometre along. I left the car there, intending to walk out along the tidal riverbed to the sea.

It was mid morning. A fine day. The tide was out. I took off my shoes, left them where I could easily find them again and set off across mudflats towards a high ridge of black iron sand, glinting with mica. It squeaked as my feet sank into it, leaving behind sighing holes that soon filled up with sand trickles. Past this ridge I could see a curiously truncated headland made of yellowish-brown sandstone, capped with tough grass. Fragmentary islands of the same rock out in the sea. I thought if I could get around this promontory I might find an ocean beach beyond.

The walk was longer than I expected, and as I neared the head of the headland I saw that it was riven through by a cave that might or might not go all the way to the other side. The dark aperture of the cave mouth seemed forbidding or forbidden so I plodded on, round the point and out onto a wide beach that stretched away south for kilometres. There before me, at the back of the high tide line, stood a strange, weather-beaten structure, shiny and white as bones. It resembled one of those stages that were made to lay out the bodies of the dead until all the flesh had gone from the bones, which would then be cleaned and gathered together and hidden away in some cave.

It even looked, from a distance, as if there might be bones upon it, but as I moved closer I saw it was not so: just a platform made out of driftwood, about a metre tall and two metres broad. Lashed together with baling twine that was already pale and fraying. What on earth was it for? Who had made it? Why? It was as foreboding as it was mysterious. I sat down next to it and wondered; then, since the day was warm and there was no-one around, took off all my clothes and went down into the surf.

A perfect set, seven waves, rolled in as I walked out, and I caught the last of them and shot shoreward in a hiss and bubble and surge of white water. Beautiful. Out again I went, and in on another perfect wave. And again, and again. I was as if drunk with exaltation and it wasn’t until, shivering with cold, I finally, regretfully, left the water and went back up to where my clothes were that I realised the tide was coming in—fast. The sea was already lapping at the base of the stubby yellow-brown headland where, moments ago, as it seemed, I’d walked across crunchy dry black sand.

In a panic now, I threw on my clothes and started back. It was too late to return as I had come, the only way was via the cave which did in fact go right through the headland. The premonitory fear I’d felt before was still with me but the urge to reach the other side before the tidal river became impassable was stronger. Sea water was sliding into the cave mouth as I entered, starting to run. So it was that the markings on the cave walls, the ancestral figures with triangular heads and slanted eyes, the chevrons and the double spirals, and, upright along the walls, the many stylised feet, three and four and six and seven-toed, the toes made of holes drilled in the rock, passed in the blur. And yet I seemed to hear a hiss of voices as I ran, a jostling, archaic, sibilant chorus which might just have been the waves of the sea, advancing.

It was hard to move at speed across that long black reach of glittering sand, and exhausting too, and by the time I was over it, the tidal river was knee deep; when I’d waded back to where my shoes were, under a flax bush on a clod of earthy bank, my trousers were wet to the thighs and my heart was going like billy-o. But that was alright; I was safe.

It wasn’t until I got to Auckland and looked at the catalogue of the art opening I’d attended in Wellington, that I realised where I’d been: Tongaporutu, Tony Fomison writes in a 1980 essay reprinted towards the back of What shall we tell them?, is the largest rock art site in Taranaki. Here wayfarers, or war parties, paused on the main Waikato to Taranaki track. Here, perhaps, the ceremony called uruuruwhenua was performed. Fomison quotes James Cowan: If you wish to avoid heavy rain or other obstruction or inconvenience on your day’s journey, you must pay due respect to Tokahaere (a ‘walking rock’ in the King Country) by pulling a handful of fern or manuka and laying it at his foot, reciting as you do an ancient prayer to the spirit of the rock …

I did not of course have the time for such a ceremony, even if I'd known what it was. All I had was a glimpse of an antique mystery, a once sacred place that is now a curiosity and will soon disappear under the inexorable rise of the ocean, as so many other sites that existed along that coast already have done. Yet I drove away over the bridge and up the wide sweet highway on the other side with a clean feeling, as if the sea, though not perhaps the cave, had scoured my skin of the accretion of those half-formed, half-unadmitted residues of the flotsam we pick up as we live through our days. As if I had been, momentarily, serendipitously, reborn.

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