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


At Pukapuka Road


The house at Pukapuka Road had a golden floor. Like pale fire or liquid honey. Planks of kauri, sanded back and oiled so you could see the close regular grain glowing all the way from the window onto the orchard at one end of the room to the tiny kitchen and bathroom, side by side, at the other. We never cooked in the kitchen, only washed up in there; the flat round metal elements of the electric stove flaking with rust. Instead we burned wood in the coal range, a cast-iron furnace with red and yellow lights within, to boil up our porridge in the morning, to bake bread or roast the goats we shot, or the thin wild turkeys we sometimes caught, to stir fry vegetables, if we had any, with field mushrooms in their black juice in the wok. Or just to sit around smoking roll-your-owns or joints and throwing the butts on the hearth to be pulled apart later and the contents rolled up again when, inevitably, we ran out once more. My friend loved that floor. He swept it every morning when he got up and sometimes in the afternoon as well. If it was stained with mud from people walking across it in their boots, or with wood ash or beer or wine spillages, or when the chooks had come in and shat on it, he washed it with soap and water and a mop; then he’d oil it using the linseed oil with which he mixed his paints. He painted in his bedroom at the front of the house, down the other end of the hallway that led off from that room in which we mostly lived. There was also a small dark sitting room with an open fireplace where we sometimes huddled in our coats on winter evenings; my own bedroom across the hall from it, with a chaise longue and desk and typewriter and not much else; and a larger bedroom on the other side at the front that wasn’t used until someone took pity on me and gave me an iron frame three quarter size bed so that I didn’t have to sleep tossing uneasily on the chaise longue any more. The house was halfway down a small open valley; from the creaky veranda at the front you could see the mangroves growing along the blurred shores of an arm of Mahurangi Harbour. Glints of silver light on the blue water. At the back, you walked straight out off the floor onto a flat broken concrete area that had been some kind of courtyard. There was a crumbling barn where the farmer kept a few supplies, sacks of grass seed for instance that the chooks ate, then a long rutted drive climbing under enormous raggedy macrocarpa trees to the road. Another line of trees straggled straight up the valley towards the farmer’s house and it was under these that we dug small holes in which to crap because the outside toilet was blocked and unusable. The orchard would never again bear fruit: aging plums and peaches and apples, bearded with grey-green lichen, whose small further branches were just knobbled sticks where, in spring, a few tiny blossoms might struggle from the bud before being swept away by wind or rain. Everywhere the sound of water. Masses of arum lilies grew in clumps among the marshy clods and along the streambeds, flowering that May in such profusion that we could gather them by the armload, day after day, and never see a gap in the ranks. White trumpets with a golden spike within. The pollen dust falling on the creamy spathe, the green arrow-shaped leaves with the curl at the end like the tip of an elfin shoe. We were artists; the idle poor; we subsisted on what we could gather or else upon the skinny cheques we sometimes earned slashing down manuka on the rainy hills for local farmers. Or on the charity of friends, whom we would entice up from Auckland to visit then shame into handing over their cash so we could hitch hike to Warkworth and buy more supplies of flour and rolled oats and tobacco and alcohol. No telephone, so that you wouldn’t know anyone was coming until you saw them walking in their bright clothes down the drive or cutting across the paddocks towards the house.

You were one of these, appearing unannounced at the door one Tuesday afternoon in your saffron tights and long red coat. Your slender hesitancy. Who else was there that time? I seem to recall a fourth, perhaps even a fifth, roistering on the broken patio outside after nightfall, when the acid had begun to work and we were delusively crying out the splendour of our transient immortality. Or putting on our boots and going off into the marshy paddocks to pick more lilies. Or listening in the room with the golden floor to: The kings of Tyrus with their convict list / are waiting in line for their geranium kiss / and you wouldn't know it would happen like this … I did not really know who you were but that was at least partly because I did not know who I was either. And yet I knew you all my life. All your life. You were quiet, reticent, self-contained; not unobtrusive, too beautiful for that with your pale oval face and long black hair, your changeable eyes; that buried intensity. Your grave voice which I can still sometimes almost hear, conflated forever into the lines you quoted to me once, in a letter, with scorn: ever soft / gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman. So much I cannot remember, so much lost. If you don’t see it when it is happening, it cannot come back in memory; unaware in the present, you destroy both future and past. The future in the past and the past in the future. You began to eat a lily: I remember that. Tearing off pieces of the plump white flesh of the spathe with your fingers and putting them in your mouth. They are poisonous: swelling of the tongue and throat, stomach pain, vomiting and severe diarrhoea. Severe swelling or gastric irritation may become life threatening. Perhaps it was the beginnings of toxicity in your system that made you start to cry. Your face swollen, suddenly ugly with grief. Did we even know they were poison? I can’t say. You blamed yourself, anyway; a characteristic self laceration I would not even now comprehend, had you not written about it afterwards; writing I would not read until long after laceration became fatal. The lily was my friend, you said, over and over, sobbing: What kind of person eats her friends? We gave you water to drink and you drank it. We took you inside and sat you by the coal range, with a blanket around your shoulders; we looked after you in so far as we were able. I recall seeking out the flower with its nibbled edge: not much was gone. Later, and I do not know how much later, we discovered you had gone as well; and we did nothing. You would have got up from the divan where we’d laid you down and walked across the paddocks, up to the road, then along that pale thread of gravel to the turn off, to wait until a car stopped and took you the thirty miles or so back to the City. Days after, when we made our ritual weekend visit to town, I would have found out you survived, never suspecting how brief that survival would turn out to be; not understanding how the lily marked the beginning of your end. That night, after we had all gone to bed and the house was quiet, I woke and sensed a rushing in the hallway, soundless and yet with great tumult. As if some immense conurbation of souls had gone through. It was not the first time I felt that in this house; but when I opened my eyes and saw a tall woman shrouded in antique dress sitting on the end of my bed, that was something that had never happened before, nor would again. She too was weeping out of some unutterable sorrow. Again, I did nothing; but watched her stand up, lean and angular and frail as our grandmother was, and move towards the door; seeing the old splintery timbers of the bare walls of my room through her transparency as she drifted out into the hallway and disappeared along the golden floor.

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