She gave gifts.
Nobody really knew why but without fail each afternoon she would shuffle along the sand with a grey smeared cotton bag that may have once been white but one couldn’t really tell, slightly paunched, slack mouthed, in a constantly infantile gumsmile. She’d hand small trinkets to the beachgoers, their brightly coloured towels in petulant salute against the grey slates of metal sea bruising black sand, a child pulling the fingers behind his mother’s back.
A broken Frisbee to the small boy with the urchin eyes and a string of shells threaded with a tangled nest of fishing line to the newly engaged couple stealing each others breath from the lips of expectations not yet disintegrated and without so much as a word, just that gumsoaked grin and a pat on the arm of the sunbride, met with an awkward shuffle to the back of the towel but phew there she totters off down the shoreline and around the point.
Nobody went round the point. It was tapu or something, an old ghost story about a scorned lover, Papatûânuku mother of all creation who, in a jealous rage committed infanticide on all the bush creatures so all the seas and skies might be warned and never cross her again. Or something like that, an ever-changing myth that the locals told with embellished vigour to the city slicked summer trade that rolled in like clockwork –
It’s a real bad spot.
Nobody goes there since them Maoris were marched off the Pa back in the land wars and it’s hell of a dangerous anyway those waves just rip round the point and punch the bushline punch punch punch til the bank’s lip is bruised and bleeding a little from the side.
And when nobody was paying much attention the local surfers would sneak over the hill and catch the best right hand break but apart from that, not that they’d care to admit it, they half believed their own tales and collected their pipis from the other end of the beach. But always, always protecting their own from the infestation of those fucking yuppies that threatened their microcosm of a generation sighing their way into the tide.
Yep, for as long as anyone around these parts could remember she gave gifts. Junk mostly trinkets and jetsam and mute with that slack smile she would hand over her prizes give a pat or a gurgled chuckle and shuffle off, and nobody really knew why. They just watched and tolerated in that supportive community way, keeping just enough distance so that one might embrace a sick child but not catch it’s flu.
Ahh goddam it all to heck and hellfire, I spit next to the skeleton and the black sand opens and swallows the globule with the unquestioning absorption of a blind devotee. Tâiko chick, most likely just hatched before the cold got to it.
Hmm. Strange that the egg was so far from the colony. Stoats maybe, fuckers but why steal a hoard and leave part of your dinner behind on the dune? The piece de resistance perfectly ossified into a foetal spiral, beak tucked into spine tucked into claw. That makes five now, all separated from the nest. All pristine in a final frozen shrink toward themselves, almost as if they were guarded in their isolation from predators, protected until they hatched and left to die.
I take out the logbook from my thermal pocket with my left hand as the steel claw on my right scissors open slightly and I slot the pencil in and hook my arm round to the angle I need to scrawl numbers into the grid. My left index finger brushes the cruel silver of the metal and a shiver webs down my chest. It is a cold that I still haven’t got used to, but at the very least my writing is becoming almost legible.
I’d been here for seven weeks now. DOC had me signed up to fieldwork I didn’t want to do for a thesis I didn’t know how to write on some butthole West Coast peninsula, the most scathingly cold and raw piece of coastline I’d seen outside of sunny California. I was pretty much in isolation out here but it wasn’t a biggie. Research of avian malaria in coast-dwelling birds was always a conversation killer with the ladies anyway. Always an obligatory –
So what is that, like bird STDs? Followed by a round of guffaws or feigned interest by those conversational martyrs that swoop in with their thinly veiled compassion -
Ohh, yeah that sounds really interesting. I never was much of a bird person myself; my PhD is on the social effects of Theatre in diasporic communities …
How fascinating! I’d simper and raise the hook to my chin as if in beguiled awe. That’ll fuckin’ learn ya, I’d think as they’d all slightly retract from the physical space around me, look everywhere else, drinks feet tits, anywhere. And then I’d just get drunk outside, smoke a joint on the deck where there was always one willing to look past the herb for the trees. I didn’t mind so much. It made things less complicated.
Today I saw her again. I crouched very quietly over the chicken wire I was cutting to make a shelter for one of the nests. There was something about the way she pottered around the point and across the small bay to a track leading into the bush that made me feel as though I was invading her privacy somehow, like I was whispering a dirty secret about something I didn’t understand yet but I knew it was dirty and shouldn’t be spoken about. Of course I had heard the rumours down town –
She’s an odd one that one, definitely not the full lunchbox, if you know what I’m talkin’ about -
I heard her old lady was a, you know, entertaining lady but then she just up and left one day, left that wee miserly scrap of a girl collecting junk from the beach –
I reckon it was cos she’s, you know … simple, not that I have a problem with them but I don’t know if I could handle it all on my own –
So she’s just been living round the point in a shack they got there. Oh sure she copes on her own, comes in to town each week to get her groceries. Scares the tourists sometimes, I think they don’t know what to do but then they wouldn’t –
I heard she’s one of the women who got attacked by that sleazy pig of a tourist last summer, but that’s all just gossip -
And the way she’s always smiling and gurgling like that, some say she’s possessed, you know with the spirits up there on the ridge from the war -
But I don’t go in for the small town small talk bullshit. That’s why I stick to birds; they listen without sharing their opinion. I actually quite like working with the Tâiko colonies though I haven’t found out the English name yet.
Tae ee iyah koh, the syllables feel chubby and swollen on my tongue and I’m sure I’m not getting it quite right but oh well. The locals looked as though they weren’t going to forgive my accent until I took off my hat at the pub to reknot my gauze of flaming dreadlocks. The universal trump card, a dude with dreads. And the fact that they are unashamedly orange usually makes people feel at ease, like they’re not on the back foot or something. But mostly I keep to my hut behind the dunes, halfway between the simpleton and the simple town. A fine balance between hope and despair.
The Tâiko inhabits much of the same breeding range as it did prior to human habitation. For some reason, I kind of respect this stubborn refusal to migrate and save itself. The academics wank on that the survival of its species therefore has great significance to the bird world, since they are the last remnant of a unique ecosystem. Whatever lets you sleep at night, right. My job as brave warrior for its survival consists of taping a fence around the nests, setting stoat traps and sitting atop tussock-speckled dunes smoking cigarettes, audience to the dying grey on grey sun over the ridge that separates the village and us, my hundred-and-four leg-banded, sex keening brothers and sisters.
But it was kinda spooky. Something was making me feel as though the soles of my feet on the gritty shore were covered with tiny electric tendrils rippling over the surface of that hallowed hour before dawn when the mind becomes both lucid lover and vulture circling the bones of the soul. As if I were being watched. And in that teetering and fragile half moment before the sun splits the seams between then and maybe, as the ocean takes a pause between the sharp inhalation and it’s crashing fist, the lines of the mind cease to trace hook edges around routine. There are no hands, there is only salt.
Ahh hell, this place is getting to me.
As I trudge back up the sand toward the promise of porridge and a cigarette, something in the sudden stillness of the wind makes me stop and turn toward the wall of pohutakawa. A flicker of light but now, nothing. Just the solemn interlaced fingers of the bush standing guard. But it calls me forward, away from the shore, away from the nest. And then it sees me.
Another one. About equal distance from the nest, but in the other direction. The skeleton of an infant. Perfectly frozen in an inward curl, fist-sized skull tucked into spine tucked into foot.