We arrived on the mail boat – a flat-bottomed boat with peeling paint that snaked its way slowly around every bay in the Sounds. The island was the last stop. Annie and I climbed off, jumping the gap between the jetty and the boat, and the mailman handed our backpacks and box of research equipment down after us. He tooted twice as the boat moved away.
The two rangers, a man and woman, met us at the end of the jetty. They stood there quietly, blending into the pohutukawas; we didn’t even notice them at first. The man, Steve, was probably in his late twenties. He was tall and had long muscular limbs and curly hair that looked like it had been cut with kitchen scissors. The woman was perhaps five years older. I didn’t catch her name. There was something reserved about her, a stillness. When she talked her face hardly moved; it was as if her words were coming from somewhere a few inches above her. She touched my arm lightly as she helped load our gear onto the quad bike.
“Do you think they’re like, together?” whispered Annie as we followed the quad bike up the track.
A few hundred metres from the jetty was the bunk-house where Annie and I were to stay. It had a large wrap-around verandah and solar panels. A Swedish woman who had volunteered on the island a few years back had painted bright yellow daffodils all over the cupboards in the kitchen. The rangers had a separate house further around the side of the hill, in behind a grove of pohutukawa. Annie and I walked past it the first night when we were heading off to do our fieldwork. It was after ten and at that almost-dark stage where white objects glow. There was an amber light coming from the porch.
‘I wonder if they’re, you know, doing it,” whispered Annie. She turned around and her head-torch illuminated the ground around me in a wide, golden circle. I wanted to tell her to grow up but I just smiled instead. I hardly knew Annie; she was in the same lab group as me and had the same thesis supervisor, but that was all.
It was a long walk to the first site. We had pegged it out in the daylight, when everything seemed closer, more compact. Annie began to sing softly as we walked. The words were all jumbled up, a soft mess of noise.
‘What are you singing?’
‘It’s a song from church,’ she said, ‘but I can’t remember all the words. You wouldn’t know it.’
Annie sat down on a tree trunk when we got to the site. We were in old-growth forest, the canopy high above our heads. Creepings and crawlings and rustlings all around us. A morepork in the darkness up ahead began to call.
‘Let’s start searching.’ I switched my head-torch to a sharper beam and looked up at the shallow slope rising through a grove of juvenile nikau palms. We were looking for giant weta to take back with us for the zoo. It was part of a research project the university was doing on translocations. Annie and I weren’t being paid; it was just something we had volunteered for.
‘Nah, let’s have a quick break,’ said Annie and she began to pull items of clothing from her backpack, folding them into a pile on her lap.
‘We should really get searching.’
Annie turned off her head-torch. ‘I hope we get to see a takahe.’
The thick kawakawa bushes all around us murmured in the wind.
‘I really hope we get to see a takahe,’ said Annie again. She started to sing.
It rained the next day, pounding against the corrugated iron roof of the bunkhouse. After breakfast I went out in my jacket and waterproof pants and began to walk around the island. The track was slick with mud. The island rose up steeply above the track on one side and fell away to the sea on the other.
After an hour of walking, everything flattened out and the track began to climb, higher and higher above the sea. I came to a gate, beyond it a low wooden cage. I sat on the gate for a while and looked down at the sea. It was all grey-green and choppy, little white-capped waves appearing and vanishing. In the distance I could hear the sound of the quad bike; it was getting nearer and nearer. Soon it came into view. Steve was behind the wheel. He was wearing an oversized orange jacket with fluorescent strips, like the kind that road workers use. Several metres from the gate he stopped the bike and climbed off.
‘Do you want to feed them?’ He nodded towards the cage.
‘Sure.’ I climbed down from the gate. ‘What’s in there?’
He opened the gate and I followed him through. We walked over to the cage. Quietly he opened the door and passed me an ice-cream container which was filled with a brownish-reddish grain.
‘Throw in a handful.’
The mother appeared first; she had a bright red beak and green and blue feathers on her back. She came into the open part of the cage, rain dripping from her feathers like mercury. Then the chick appeared from deep inside the cage – a black fluffy bundle with a white beak.
‘They’re black like that when they hatch,’ said Steve. “It’s to keep them camouflaged so predators don’t notice them. They don’t get colourful feathers until much later on.”
It continued to rain for the rest of the week. Annie and I didn’t get much fieldwork done. On Saturday night the rangers went off in the boat to another island for a meeting. Steve came over before they left and told me and Annie that we could go over to their house and watch DVDs while they were away, if we wanted.
We went over after dinner. The house was bigger than I had thought it would be. And it was modern-looking, just like a normal house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs somewhere, yet it was here, on the island, in the middle of nowhere. A skink darted away under the couch as we opened the sliding door. Inside everything was tidy. Annie sat down on the couch and started to hum. ‘I could get used to living here,’ she said.
On the wall above the couch was a row of photographs of Steve and the female ranger. In the first one they were standing on a jetty, holding hands. She wore a blue sarong tied behind her neck. Steve was pushing a pram in the next photograph – she was there too, but standing in the background, her face out of focus. The pram had a sky-blue blanket draped over it. The final photograph was of a baby. Its eyes were closed. I looked closely; it looked unreal, its features waxy, almost like a doll.
‘It looks like it’s dead.’ Annie looked at me as she spoke.
‘It can’t be. It’s probably just asleep or something.’
‘Who would have a picture of a dead baby on their wall?’
‘Let’s watch a DVD,’ I said.
The weather cleared in the second week. The January sun returned, watery and languid, dripping down on the forest, the strips of golden beach, the vast ocean all around. Annie and I started working long hours to make up for the time we’d missed. We worked from ten every night until around five the next morning. Because of the heat, we didn’t sleep much during the day and fell into that sleep-deprived, dreamy state where you feel slightly outside of your body. We sang loudly as we worked at night, everything and anything – and then we began to make up songs.
I fell first. It was Tuesday night, or maybe Thursday, all the days seemed to have blended together. All I remember was tripping, then tumbling, briefly, into the dark. Then lying there on the cool, damp earth. Annie fell right after me; she landed on her hands and knees, her right arm grasping onto my left ankle.
‘Are you okay?’ she said, starting to laugh. I laughed too. Then we started to cry, not because we were hurt or anything, we just cried. Around us the forest whispered and crackled and all these pinpricks of light appeared – glowworms. They lit up the bank we had fallen down in a pattern of spirals and mazes. For a long time we just lay there and looked at them. Eventually we sat up and knelt beside the bank. Our head-torches were off – without light the sounds of the forest became louder and three-dimensional.
‘Tell me a story,’ said Annie. I could hear her wiping her nose with her sleeve. ‘Something you’ve never told anyone. A secret.’
‘Okay.’ I thought for a while, fiddling with the hood on my jacket. ‘When I was seven, I released all the birds from the cages in the park around the corner from my primary school. I used my dad’s hedge trimmers to open the cages. I thought I was doing them a favour. But the next day, when I went back to look, there were three dead parrots on the cricket pitch, all bloodied and stuff. I think a dog must have got them or something. They probably had no fear after living in captivity for so long. It was horrible. I never told anyone.’
Annie wiped her nose on her sleeve again and sniffed. ‘A few years ago this girl at the school my brother was teaching at back then, said these things.’ She picked up the leaf litter with her hands as she spoke, then let it fall back to the ground. ‘She said he was doing these things to her.’ Above us a branch rustled. ‘It wasn’t true, of course.’
Annie stood up and turned her head-torch on, the glowworms disappeared. ‘I haven’t seen a takahe yet.’ Her voice was louder. ‘I hope I get to see one before we leave.’
When the two weeks were up, Steve took us back through the Sounds on his small motorboat. It was a windy day, the waves rocking the boat back and forth and side to side. He dropped us at the jetty and motored off into the wide bay. We watched him turn the corner and disappear behind a peninsula that fell away into the sea.
Annie and I caught the six o’clock ferry from Picton. We sat up the front. Right up by the sea-stained windows. Between us was a grey cardboard box with tape around the sides, inside the weta we had collected to take back to the zoo. There were fourteen of them. The box had tiny pin-pricks in the top. Every now and then one of us would reach up to steady it, even though the ferry was hardly moving.
When we arrived in Wellington we shuffled towards the exit amongst a mass of tourists. Annie carried the box with the weta and the research equipment and I held our backpacks, one in each hand.
‘I can take care of them – the weta, I mean. For tonight. I don’t mind.’ She looked at me sideways. ‘You should come over to my place tomorrow and we could take them to the zoo together. If you want to that is. I don’t mind.’
‘You should come.’ She smiled and put the box on the ground at her feet.
‘I’m quite busy tomorrow.’ I handed her backpack to her. ‘I might head off now. See ya round.’ I started to walk away.
‘Hey,’ said Annie. I turned and looked back at her. She looked younger from a distance. Her pony-tail pulled high on top of her head. ‘Hey, I’m still pissed off you got to see the takahe and I didn’t.’ And then she started to wave, using her whole arm and smiling at me, painfully, as if her face was about to break open.
When I got to the exit I turned back. She was still standing there, watching me and smiling, as if nothing I could do or say would hurt her.
‘See you round,’ I called. I couldn’t tell if she had heard me.