2012 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition | Runner-up

 ‘A Certain Hardness’ – by Collin Minnaar

 

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The prosecutor asked about his demeanour.  Was there anything about the way he acted in the days before the incident that sounded a warning? I suppose the prosecutor wanted to know if Jimmy was sane.
 
He’s in jail now, has been there for many, many years. Rotting in jail.  Because that’s what you do in jail, you rot away, your mind, your heart. Believe me, I know, I did time too, but that was all before I learnt to use my brain instead of my fists.
 
I’m the only one that goes out there to see him.  I take him things. What bothers me sometimes is that I might have been able to stop it, could have stopped it.
 
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I would always put up a paper on the local notice board by the dairy. Men wanted.
 
Now I can tell you it takes a special breed of man to do this work.  A certain hardness, drive and heart.  You have to get up at five and drive into the forest.  You work a full day, six seven days straight, with half an hour’s break, if you want.  At home you pack your sandwiches for the next day. 
 
Sometimes we remained in the woods for almost three weeks.  Just you surrounded by giant trees in the filtered light, and the smell, the eternal smell of freshly cut wood. 
 
We would always gather at the edge of the forest before dawn on Monday.  They would materialise out of the dark, raising the chin in greeting.  I could always use extra men.  Boys who needed money over and above the benefit.
 
The work attracted a lot of jailbirds somehow.  I suppose it was a lot like jail.  Men only, you’re locked up in the forest all day, and the rules are clear. 
 
So I would pick them carefully.  Often guys would come up from some hard place where they’d been sleeping, only one bottle away from relapse.  Or they’d be fresh out of the big house looking like they’d rather be back.  Others were ready, willing, but not able. Or able and willing but not ready.  You need all three.  If a man shows up on Monday morning before dawn with overalls on it’s a good start, but you know what they say about good intentions.
 
Some guys got picked straight away.  Others you felt sorry for, or something about them spoke to your heart.  Jimmy Ginepri you could not help but notice.  He stood with his hands in his pockets, eyes averted, sideways, shivering a bit.
 
Jimmy was a string bean.  Perhaps a few eyebrows were lifted when I gave him his gloves and told him to get in the ute.  I asked him where his name was from, that’s an unusual name, Ginepri, for this land, and he said he didn’t know but it turns out his dad had been a boxer of some description, and his mum a passing admirer.  She gave him up when he was little and he had been in and out of the system since then.  Jimmy didn’t tell me, I heard.
 
But you could see it in his eyes, or the way his shoulders turned bony when you approached.  He had black curly hair then and was almost Italian looking, with the dark brown eyes. 
 
Yes, Jimmy’s eyes.  Boy, what a drawback.  It was as if he couldn’t hide what he held inside.  Most men can, they’ve got ways, we all develop our outside face, the world’s too hard to walk around so exposed, so open.  
 
Sometimes things went wrong, that’s normal.
 
There are tensions, a few fights every year.  The worst that ever happens is someone breaks a limb.  The guys are keen to behave like men.  That’s what men do when they’re together. That’s natural; you sort things out amongst yourselves.  We’re tribal and it becomes a lot more obvious when things are pared down. 
 
We worked with axes and chainsaws, chains.  You got right into it, first day.  It’s not the Siberian gulags that I’ve been reading about lately, but close.  We didn’t fuck around.  You knew what it meant to be in my gang.  I paid well, I always did, but I wanted to see the fruits of my labour. That’s the only thing that makes a man stand on his own two feet on this earth at the end of the day with a sense of being somebody.  If you can feel the muscles in your body talk, that’s when you know that you have weight and substance. 
 
Some guys would struggle to keep up so then I’d have to decide what to do.
 
After a while Jimmy couldn’t hack the pace so I put him higher on the slopes. I hid him away a bit and made him do odd jobs.  Maybe there were a few more sideways glances, but no one ever, ever messed with me.  I demanded loyalty.  I could have broken every one of those men back then, big brutes as they were, men who had known only heavy work. They knew all about me.
 
I don’t know what happened, but of course, a man gets lonely. You’re away from home for far too long. 
 
Jimmy did not do a full day’s work but I paid him a full day’s pay. At night his tent was set apart.  How else was he supposed to pay me back? 
 
I guess Marsh heard us when he went for a piss early one morning.  He saw me coming out of the tent and his eyes held mine in the late moonlight, the dark trees bending towards me.
 
A few days later we were high up on the slopes, a difficult job.  We’d just got a beast of a tree down and I walked to a clearing to get some air, standing there with my flask open, drinking.  I hadn’t even noticed Marsh up ahead, regarding me.   He moved closer until I could hear his breathing.
 
He was quiet for a long while and I stood there waiting.  Some boys want in, he said to the side of my face.
 
I remember looking up, up, through the canopy to the clouds building, before turning to Marsh.  His eyes were hard.
 
I headed back.
 
I didn’t go to Jimmy again but saw him, in the mornings, haggard.  The guys tried to cheer him up at breakfast, jostling him, messing up his hair, a team mascot.  He would disappear during the day and slink back at night like a fox looking for food.
 
One morning I felt him staring at me and when I turned he stood there motionless, framed by two giant pines, confident, and the look on his face made me turn away, so odd and twisted, but smiling.
 
That’s when I should have stepped in.  We’ve all had moments, forever frozen in time like comic book pictures.  I might have been able to make things right, I had the power.  He would have listened to me, I’m sure of it.
 
Anyway. So he walked away. I watched him all the way up the hill between the trees, flickering in and out of existence, until all that remained was the image of him imprinted on my brain.
 
You’ve heard the expression going bush?  I’ll tell you.  They say when you crash it’s all trees and shadows. 
 
It was almost time to pack up and go back. It had been a long stretch of work.  We were just about finished with lunch when he came running down the slopes, blood eyed.  He jumped onto a dead log above us, feral, chain saw in hand, teeth circling.
 
I saw him cock his head, animal-like, light slanting in shards. Standing there above us like a statue on a plinth, all powerful.  When he jumped, I swear I never heard a sound like that from out of a man.  Raging, cutting and killing.
 
There were three bodies before we could get to him. He swung the saw at Marsh, and that’s when I jumped him, with the saw buried deep in Marsh’s leg. He was crazy strong clawing at my face, a beast on those slopes.  It took four guys to hold him down. 
 
I still carry the scar above my eye.
 
When he finally went slack and his eyes grew glassy we were able to tie him to a tree.  In the hours before the police arrived I waited for him to look like he could hear.  His head was sort of slumped to the side but his eyes wide open, as if he was dead.  I spoke urgent words into his ear, kneeling next to him. I said those words over and over so they became the only truth.  He didn’t move, didn’t blink, but I knew he understood.
 
When the police had left I gathered the boys. They were compliant. I spoke slowly with a low voice so that they had to lean in. I looked from face to face.  This is a circle, I said, it’s a chain.  There should be no weak link in the chain. What’s inside the circle shall remain inside.  Jimmy is different, we couldn’t have known.
 
Just to make sure I made us all stand in a circle, holding hands, arms across our bodies, eyeing each other.  Nobody said a thing. 
 
Nor did Jimmy in the Courthouse.
 
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Was there a warning? Maybe in dreams. Maybe that’s why you dream, to sort things out.  Your brain needs to shuffle the cards, the pictures of the day. Reorganise the events, fill in the missing pieces. 
 
Maybe. But this is what I’ve learnt.  Acts of madness have their own logic, their own beauty.  All you are left with is raw fact.  You can try to piece things together all you like. And then make high-minded pronouncements which mean nothing.  There is no need to justify.  Whose justice?  I can’t justify, shouldn’t have to.  I took the good with the bad.  I followed the internal design, played my part. You view it through your eyes, your law, feel free. 
 
The strong man acts.  He slakes his thirst. He does good things and terrible things.
 
I take Jimmy things he needs.  Nobody else cares about him.  He’s an old man now and we share the past. Sometimes he doesn’t come when I visit, and sometimes when no one is looking I hold his hands across the table.  To show I care. 
 
But it’s also in case he forgets that he is part of the circle.  His hands are limp and unresponsive, his eyes down and he never speaks apart from yes and no.
 
It’s not surprising I suppose.

 



 

Collin Collin is a legal and policy contractor for government and mostly writes policy papers for Ministers.   He lives on the Kapiti Coast and thinks of plots for short stories on the train from work.   Stories of his have made it onto shortlists but he has never won anything. 

Collin spends most of his free time with his kids consequently not getting as much time as he would like to write.   One day he would like to complete a novel, which he has started.




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