Sport 42: 2014
Lawrence Patchett — from Inland
With his back set tight, his pace brisk, Rau led the way south through the swamps. Ava still burning behind us, her smoke huge. Unavoidable, that communiqué to the gangs, hanging on the blue up there. Here are men weakened. Grieving. Rau’s injury wrapped in a length of shirt I’d knotted with my teeth, the bandage not wide or neat enough, so blood leaked at the hems and fouled his forearm. When I offered to fix it he just grunted and walked on.
A dark pond fingered alongside us for some time, then changed course and widened, jutting inland behind abundant harakeke. Rau stopped and threw his belongings on the ground. Rolled up his clothes, tucking them into the waistband and belts that crisscrossed his middle.
I looked at the water. ‘Not this one, Rau.’ Unspeaking, he continued his preparations.
The pond rich and stinking. ‘Look how dark it is. You can’t know what’s in that.’ ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘But we’re using it.’
I scanned the scrub we had come through, the dunes behind. ‘We can stick to land. No one’s followed us.’
He snorted and bent to his foot and unlaced, then held the muddied rags of his shoes towards me. I sighed. It was my turn to carry them. I looped them over my neck, then unlaced my own and hung them there too. The combined reek of shoes and swamp was not pleasant.
‘It’s times like these,’ I said, ‘I value our friendship most.’ ‘Enjoy the shoes,’ he said. ‘Stay close.’
The first steps were warm, the water sliding thick over my ankles. Then a long sink into hidden mud. Wheezing, I went in deeper. The water stole to my groin, then up round my chest. My breath louder. Ahead of me, Rau pushed deeper into the murk, his few wrapped belongings held over his head, the water almost to his armpits. Far away a single pūkeko picked on the shore, but no other birds worked page 68 the pond, because it was bad mud, bad water.
No sooner had this thought passed than I stood on something and recoiled. At a complete standstill, I cast a sick look over the brown all round me. Sensing my hesitation, Rau turned and looked at the shore we’d left behind, scanning the far reaches of mānuka and dune. I followed his gaze and saw no one, but understood his warning. Pushed on, stepping over the obstruction and into what surely were more human bones, ribs, by the feel of their spongy give under my sole. After the first attempts to navigate round them, I gave up and simply stepped forward, and the ribs cracked under my feet and sank deeper in mud. An unknowable number of people down there, pushed into this swamp God knows when, at the point of blades.
Then on the northern shore the pūkeko took fright and wheeled up. Ahead of me, Rau plunged through the remaining swamp and then up the shore and into the scrub. I tried to run, still with thirty paces to the shallows. Through the scrub Rau flitted north in the direction of the disturbance. Then he was up the bordering slope, getting altitude on whatever it might be.
I sploshed into shallower water and ran up the shore, then climbed and went north, working higher than Rau to give cover from above. My clothes sodden, flicking water as I ran. Wheezing. From my waistband I withdrew my blade and bar. One in each hand. The scrub broke into a clear patch at the height of the dune and I ducked down, running in a crouch toward a stand of tī kōuka. Far behind the swamplands, the ocean glistening and the island standing darkly off. Smoke rising out there on the island from fires at the northern end, and the south. Changing direction, I worked lower, stalling at a point almost directly above where the pūkeko had frighted from. The prickle of dune plants under my feet. Below me, I could see Rau at a crouch, watching the shore with a length of mānuka in his hand, an impromptu weapon wrenched from a tree as he ran. Ducking down, I tried to silence my wheeze by blocking one nostril. It was an old trick of Ava’s but now it stifled me, pricking sweat in my knees and eyes.
Rau still motionless in the scrub, watching. After some time I gave my cicada click and he nodded, then stole forward almost to the shore, still in cover. Walked parallel to the water, checking the shore page 69 for footprints or sign, then came back up the slope towards me.
‘There was no one to the north,’ I said. ‘I got right up high.’
He nodded, still searching the scrub below us. ‘False alarm, I think. Maybe an eel spooked it. But let’s keep moving. Our smoke’s still there.’
Neither of us looked that way.
Back at our belongings we got under cover and stripped and wrung out our clothes, then dressed again. The shoes still mostly dry, still stinking. Before relacing his foot, Rau dropped to his haunches and worked spit into a small cut on the ball of his foot. Then he straightened, ready to leave.
I pointed at his arm. ‘I’ll fix that first.’
He frowned, threw a cursory glance at the mess of bandage and blood leaking in a watery line, released by the swamp water.
‘It’ll leave sign, Rau,’ I said.
He shrugged and I saw that keeping the wound raw and untended was to have been some act of faith with Ava. Reaching into my clothes I ripped a wide band of cloth. Then I took his arm and removed the old bandage, washed the sliced-apart flesh, and tried to squeeze it together. The meat of his arm was reluctant to close up.
‘Pinch it,’ I said. ‘Make it tight.’
With his free hand he clamped the wound and I bound it snug with quick loops of the fabric. Then Rau’s original bandage back over the top to disguise the wound’s freshness, and I sensed that it pleased him, this filthy wrapping, though he tried not to show it, scanning the landscape over my shoulder. For my part I kept my eye focused on the bandage as I worked. The damp and the run had made my chest worse and before gripping the last knot with my teeth to pull it tight, I had to pause for a few good breaths.
‘We’ll camp at the Macros tonight,’ said Rau. ‘Are you serious?’
I looked at him, waiting for the wheeze and haw of my breath to make its case to him.
But his expression didn’t change. ‘I think it’s safest.’ Holding my eye for a moment, he dared me to contradict him. Safe to camp within running distance of a fire like that. To sleep again in your favoured page 70 old camp for the sake of catching Ava’s scent on the crushed mud, perhaps, on some handful of old raupō snapped and scattered for a bed.
‘I can’t take another night,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to get out of the swamps.’ ‘You can do one more,’ he said. ‘I’ll keep watch.’
I watched him a moment longer, then shook my head. ‘For God’s sake, Rau.’
He looked away. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Thanks.’
He jerked at his clothes and bags, making them tight, but waited a moment before setting off, as if to acknowledge the sacrifice I would be making. Then he turned and plunged into the scrub.
Someone had been there. Someone had defiled it. Rocks were blackened in a circle under the ancient macrocarpa trees. In the ash of the dead fire, bird and rat and possum bones piled and strewn around. And among the raupō not far from the fire, human excrement picked over and scattered by birds.
Standing still while my breath came back, I felt my energy drain away. A sick dread of what this meant; what it would lead to. Not speaking, Rau stood by the ash and toed the bones. A dark look in his face. I sighed, turned into the border of trees, and froze.
Sensing it somehow, Rau turned. ‘What is it?’ ‘Nothing.’
He barged back towards me. Stood in front of the picture in the bark, studying it. ‘What the fuck is this.’
It wasn’t a question, really. I left him there with the crude picture. Taking a half-burnt stick from the fire I spread dirt over the mess the gang had left, then heaped it high with more and more dirt. From the fringes I gathered mānuka and raupō for bedding, piling it high in my arms. Then a mosquito whined up by my ear and I reeled back, cursing. Dropped the bedding and went straight towards our belongings. In the shock of finding the camp soiled we’d forgotten.
‘Rau,’ I said. ‘Kings.’
While I worked he’d been stalking from one defilement to the next, as if unable to settle his rage on any one of them. Now he was again by the carving in the tree, staring at it.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Kings.’page 71
He turned my way and shrugged. ‘So use some drink.’ ‘Have you had some?’
Again that distance in his reaction. His mind not focused, dwelling instead on the picture and who’d left it there. ‘Use the drink.’
I swore, went to his belongings and dug into them. Wrapped tight in rags at the bottom, Rau’s mosquito solution. Each canister wrapped individually, then bound to the next with plait, the vessel itself as precious as the drink inside, traded long ago.
At a noise I looked up. It was Rau. He’d broken from his entrancement and now swarmed towards the fire to stomp on it. Swearing, he cracked the bones and kicked them away. Then he scooped a great armload of bones and ash and stones and walked with it all to the water and hurled it. It wasn’t a good idea. Some of the bundle splashed a short distance out, but much of the ash drifted back to catch in his eyes and mouth. He spat and coughed, then whirled again.
‘Where are you going?’ I said.
He was barging back out of the camp. ‘Water.’ ‘We have water,’ I said.
‘Wash my face.’
I stood and began to run after him. ‘Hey, the drink. Kings.’ He was gone.
I shook my head and finished with the solution, then laid out my sleeping things beneath the trees, Rau’s down the slope and nearer the water. Ava was gone but I doubted that he would want to give up his position out there—the guard’s place. I placed a canister by the head of his bed so he would remember to use it. Even as I worked I heard another King whining round my head and froze, then clapped it dead in my hands. I dabbed more drink on my skin, pulled my clothes tight, and returned to my work. Tried not to look at the wreckage of the camp all round me—Rau’s last night of sanctuary. The gang had done their job well. Cut out Ava’s throat and ripped her skin with whatever that message had been supposed to mean, then returned to this place to insult her memory.
The sun was almost gone now, but a glow was just beginning behind the inland hills. Another good moon. A few pukeko squabbling late, harakeke rustling in accompaniment to my chest’s inward wheeze. I page 72 felt among my belongings for my hook and plait, then dug with my blade for grubs. Baited the hooks, then sploshed a short way into the water and nicked the back of my hand, aiming the blood onto the hooks and into the water to attract eels. Going back to the camp I laid the hooks by the foot of my bed, ready for eeling when the moon was up.
Then I went with my blade to the tree. At eye-height the bark had been chipped away to show a picture in silhouette. Two stick figures outlined, a third female figure suspended between them. Her mouth at the first man’s groin. The other man entering her from behind. In between them her upper body suspended, crude triangles cut to represent her breasts dangling.
In the last of the dusk I began to chip the picture away. Scraped and dug at the bark.
By the time the moon was fully up the stick figures had disappeared into a blank square, and Rau was still out in the dark. Washing his face, as he’d put it. Standing by some stretch of swamp, scooping water at his eyes to wash her away.