THAT DAY I SAW THE DRAGON.
I was teased/tempted out by a drizzle of rain which moistened the dust and came with a brief rush of swimming pool smell. I was/on my bike/off. Half way along the Mahuri road I saw the dragon with a warm wind flapping at its fangs. Anastasia’s dragon, Chrissie told me, making us a both a cup of tea we drank on her porch, the whare more or less emptied out for a paint job. Joe, with his ladders/brushes and pots, a meticulous worker, he was, that morning next door painting Roly’s bedroom. Tommy’s snoring came through the wall. Looking behind her Chrissie said, “He’s very tired, he works too hard.” You do too/don’t we all.
Pete wandered across the yard leaning one elbow on a post, asking Chrissie, “Do youz want me to get anything in town?” “You could get me some tobacco,” Chrissie replied, handing over the money from the back pocket of her jeans. The kindness/the awhi awhi of neighbours who live close. I told Pete he was looking good, I liked his hair long. “Going to cut it soon, getting too hot,” he replied, with one hand dabbing the back of his neck.
That evening as the sun dropped behind the maunga on the Punguru horizon I plucked late broad beans from stringy stalks, leaving a few plants wilting over their stakes. The stalks would darken, pods would dry for storing. Fava for falafel/faba/field beans/bell beans/tic beans, but left them too long after a fall of rain, beans all soggy then shrivelled, dried to a crisp when the sun shone again, their pods as black as tar. Sign of summer, tiny balls of tar blistering on the seal. “Not a good idea,” I had once said to the moko, putting his finger in a melted blob of it, just to see. Found out how long it takes to get rid of tar from your skin when summer is on the boil.
That morning was unseasonably cold. I walked without enough clothes on, should have worn a hat/gloves. Walked past an old rock wall, cleared of scrub and vine, a beauty, like them all, snaking around this part of the country in fits and starts — what’s left of them. Near the letter box of a whare I called out to a woman opening the gate as her car idled in the drive, “Brrrrr, it’s cold today, eh?” With a laugh, she called back, “not for me it isn’t, I’ve got the hot flushes!” A passing moment, of intimacy between two women who don’t even know each other’s name. “Not me,” I called back, “I’m over them.”
That morning on the rise of the bridge I counted eighty four possum paws. Within a few days they would begin to smell. Within a month they were hard to spot at a glance with small leaves from a taraire on the river bank blown over, all dried up and brown. It had happened before people say. Ae, I remember, though on that occasion I didn’t stop to count or go back later to gather some up, bleach in the sun. No one knows the who or the why of them, though Mick suggests if a trapper feeds the carcass to their dogs they’ll take the paws off first.
Later, grass blew across from the balage/silage cut in the big field where the road rounds a bend. The machinery ran all day, a distant, rumbling hum and late into the night, working with lights on. Busy-ness and industry, the short clipped field next morning glowing a bright, light green. Done and dusted/all cleaned up. Before long a herd of young dairy cows moved in, starting a fresh. An elderly ewe, recently shorn, has been running in that field with cattle for as long as I can remember. Does she know she’s a sheep? Does she know she’s not a cow?
On any given day there might be bones, on the edge of the road, down the banks. Bones/bones/bits of bones/and birds. Carrion. Road kill. A dead dog one morning, no one seemed to know whose it was. I had a look, checked it really was dead and ran home humming Neil Young. Gone later that afternoon.
That morning Wairimu zig zagged towards me, raised a smile and pulled over at the top of the hill. His bare brown arm was warm resting on the open window of his waka and I wrapped my hand around it as far as it would go, fingers not nearly touching. We talked about the tangi on, about Maori and death. I told him what happened when my mother died, the incremental steps we took, what a lot, still, we have to learn. Wai murmured, “ae, ae, that right sweetheart, that right.” Slender, beautifully woven plaits down both sides of his jaw. He didn’t move his head so I couldn’t count how many more there were. No one else I know does their hair in the way Wai does.
When someone dies — “We just do what our tupuna did,” he told me. Matter of fact. I don’t even know what my ancestors did.
I’m not a cheap drunk, but I cry at the drop of a hat. I smudged the tears, sniffed a bit. See ya later darlin’, said Wai, and took off, back to the Marae, where he is so often to be found, working in the kitchen, zig zagging a little down the hill in his two colour car. On my way home I walked slowly past his whare where Angel, with her back to the road was hanging high-viz and socks on the line. The bulked up hydrangea on the fence line were in full bloom. Petal/upon petal/upon petal/powder blue. Remind me of the hats my mother and her mother wore to a wedding in 1964. Hats too big for their heads. Dahlia flowering too, lollipop pink/beacons/light bulb bright.
No sooner the bridge weight restriction signs go up, 44000kg, the trucks start up/down our narrow metal roads. Up the dust, another pine plantation coming out to leave behind rugged, haphazard violet scarring across the hillsides of the back country. Relentless some days, a health hazard/traffic hazard, people up and down the valley talk of white-outs, near-misses, the smell and taste of dust/gets up the nose/cloys at the back of throats. And all this, before the timber trucks have even begun their journeys in and out, it’s metal spreading for now, carving roads inwards through farmland to access the trees. There is talk too of protest/petitions, mutterings to council/nah, they don’t give a stuff/just pass the buck. People question where the profits will end up. I overheard a woman saying her fella asked why she hadn’t cleaned the house lately. Not much point, she said. Bloody trucks. Bloody dust. (Bloody men!)
When the potato patch was still young Zoe had asked if I might pull a few for her little darling. “I’ll have a look,” I replied, “and bandicoot if I can.” And so I did, kneeling at the base of a mound and dug my fingers in, twitching like the marsupial itself, looking for grub. I would bandicoot any day for that baby! Potatoes/peruperu/cliff kidney/jersey benny, the rogues I didn’t plant which, tenacious, come up year after year. “Mama,” Zoe tells me a few days before Christmas, “I’ve made a bandicoot salad for dinner.”
All those days as the year flew/stalled/bolted to an close, the seasons swapped themselves around, there were long days of silence, no one to be seen, and other days when there was a creaking/creasing up the drive, never sure who. Welcome/welcome/haere mai. Jim Jim, home from the city where he’s been driving trucks, Jim Jim ebullient with urban stories, his working life. Back up north for a few days, got himself a new boat and had been out to Rangitane with cousins. He bends over his boot to scoop out oysters in their rough, speckled shells from a bucket, “Have more, have some more,” he nudges Mick who was saying, “enough/that’s enough Jim. Thank you mate.”
All those days when real life feels as if it has been put on hold. People talk a lot about food, where they’ll be and with whom come Christmas. Mick puts the first bottle of his rhubarb champagne in the fridge to chill. Who knows who might creak/crease up the drive, welcome/welcome/haere mai.
Yesterday the sun rose a few minutes before 6.00. A gate had been left open for the young dairy cows and they followed one another through. An extended quail whanau scattered in alarm as an empty cody can rolled and rattled across the road, the babies have grown but there are fewer of them now. A kotare watched Punakitere Road from a post, looking this way and that as if waiting for traffic. Ducks in tandem skimmed the surface of the river and above me, small birds giving chase, like bullets with wings. Good morning, last day of the year.
Yesterday Wai and some of the fellas had one last urupa to spray, Wai was packing up his waka while I leant on my bike talking, asking questions.Would he stand in front of his hydrangea for a photo. I tell him about my mother’s hat, same blue/petal/upon petal.
Yesterday afternoon I gathered horse manure from a small farm down the road, took Mick’s van, a dozen old buckets, a pile of feed sacks Shirley-egg gives me for the job. The farmer came down his front steps, his bare arms folded across his chest, telling me he is, at years end, bushed/in his bush singlet/too much to do around here/never enough time. He works too hard/don’t we all. The horses kept their distance while I shovelled up the shit layering it with well-dry/cut grass in the raceway, manure/grass/manure, will all go straight into the compost when I get home.
Last night/was the best of nights. Two hours, I thought, two hours down at the Horeke pub. “Two hours? we’ll see about that!” said Eru on the forest road, pointing out the hill he had climbed every day as a boy, saying all the names along the way. Two hours, ha, we stayed all night, too busy talking/working the room/too busy dancing to notice the tide turn — forgot to look for the setting sun behind the mission house at Mangungu and its small white church, the urupa where a friend was buried not so long ago. One of her grave diggers, a man with only one tooth sat smoking in the porch and told me he cried that day. “You don’t cry/you know/you don’t cry,” said his mate, reaching across their beer bottles and fags to squeeze the gravedigger’s upper arm hard. “I cry,” I said, and the man with only one tooth gave a gappy smile, a nod of his head, his eyes filling up.
Between bar stools Mick’s school teaching past caught up with him. Sir/sir/good to see you sir/you haven’t changed a bit. You don’t have to call me sir/call me Michael. They’ve changed, they are mothers/fathers now, big girls/boys grown up, back home from Aus for the holiday, they tell sir/life is pretty peachy/got a few tamariki/their school yard romances still going strong. Tyrone/BJ, asking after our boy Joe. No kids/how come/gotta have a Mrs first!
Last night/was the best of nights. A woman who sells Turkish carpets/a woman who teaches children to swim and ride bikes/cyclists, lean and whippet thin/first timers/a gravedigger/old rugby foes recalling their last game/who broke whose leg/who won/returned daughters and sons/born and bred here/blow ins/cousins/whanau/perfect strangers/not strangers for long in this place.
The tide was full without me seeing/the sun sank. Francis went home and came back with smoked kingi, for Eru and for us. Ka pai/tau hou hari. Happy new year.
Last night/was the best of nights.