The Godwits Fly
Chapter Eleven — Broken Trees
Timothy, straddling the big pohutukawa root thrust out from the cliff, flashed his cleaver through manuka and tough scrub that had to be hacked away where the tunnel was going through. Each time the blade swept, three-foot white arc, it carried his whole force with it, and his mind sang ‘One-two, one-two,’ like a kid going up and down in a swing. Cut manuka, bleeding sap, fell in piles to make a green mattress twenty feet below, its clean wounds staining the air with pungence. Gripping the root with his knees, Timothy swung round to see Birkett ten yards on his right, Martinovitch on his left. Sweat rolled down the Dalmatian's matted chest. Martinovitch came from the gum fields, and worked as if God were in him. The two men, and others out of sight, sat in slung board seats, and thought Timothy a fool to work unroped; but he found pleasure in knowing that he might break his neck if he were clumsy, or with a wrong shy of the cleaver might take an arm or leg off, clean as a whistle.
The world behind and beneath was all green, clear, sharp-edged, impaling on little stakes a pale bubble sky. It brought tears to his eyes, it was so raw and zestful of conquest, springing up slopes, ringing the few old trees left broken on the ridge. This was burnt-off country, black-and-green on top, blue papa underneath, too poor for the grass to be more than a bristling crop. Raupo, the nearest station, was one of those little shows where you never see anything but a red tin shed, a tank, and a train gulping down water, her steam ghostly, her passengers, drugged with sleep and their own vapours, staring out of the window like doped flies. None of them ever got off at Raupo, but sometimes Timothy thought one should—a good man gone wrong, worth pulling into the bracken.
People, white and native, lived in the landscape, though you didn't see them. A bawling sheep or goat, a ribby cow eating its living somehow among the manuka, were the only signs of tenancy except on Saturday nights, when a shed a mile from the station was unlocked, and the pictures flickered on. It was Maori country, which meant no licensed hotels, but plenty of sly grog—the good stuff down to page 129 de-rail, denatured alcohol and meths. The only common ground besides the pictures was the post office (rumoured to house a new girl, a goodlooker) and a shack store kept by a tight-lipped Ulsterman who did more with sly grog than with his groceries. The linesmen lived in tents, with a board cookhouse. Timothy had been there six months, and liked the life.
He turned from fledged grass back to cliff-face, and worked for half an hour, sun grilling him through his cotton singlet. When the Boss called, ‘Smoke-oh,’ the men scrambled down like baboons, sprawling themselves out on the thin, tender grass, their muscles relaxed, their throats scalded by the black tea stewed up every few hours. Timothy pulled a wad of paper out of his pocket, and began to scribble. Birkett called, ‘Hey, what're you making, Sonny Boy?’
‘Writing to my girl.’
‘Christ. Fancy turning in a smoke for a bint. What's her name?’
‘Christ. That's the hell of a name. Not too much my fancy. I like sumpin a bit flossy—Rosie, or June, or Vi'let. Bit o’ the hot?’
‘Not much. This one's my proper girl. She's only sixteen and a bit.’
‘Christ. Well, young or old, my old woman or the next, it's all the same in the finish. A tart's a tart.’
Birkett's broken nose, his short jockey legs and frizzed chest smudged the clear green of the young grass. It was wrong to spoil colour.
‘That's a foul way to talk about women, Birkett.’
‘Oh, come off, lad. Bint's a bint, isn't she? I wisht you'd a known what I'd a known—’
‘And I wish you hadn't known what you say you've known. Only a lying, foul-minded swine like you would have made it up, anyway, if he'd never been off his mother's back door. That's life for you, Birkett—dog-brag.’
‘Them's harsh words, laddies,’ said One-Armed Dutton, rolling his long body between them. Birkett wiped his mouth.
‘Christ—getting cocky, aren't you, Sonny Boy?’
‘Better than get just plain stinking, like you.’
‘Well, this to your tart,’ said Birkett, and spat. ‘All right, come on,’ said Timothy, suddenly happy again and losing all his dislike of Birkett.
The men formed a ring, Dutton on a stump as time-keeper. Larry Kirst said, ‘Sock ’im in the brisket, Kid, ’e's all wind downstairs,’ and Timothy nodded. He stepped into the ring, liking Birkett's square chest, his short arms jolting back, swinging cut again like flails. But page 130 the ex-soldier was slow and out of condition. When he landed a jab it was like iron, making Timothy's breath stop. It was easier and safer to play with him, step back like a cat, then barely tap nose or mouth. Shadow-boxing made Birkett mad, and he hurled himself like a wild boar against the stump where Timothy should have been, jagging a long rent in his slacks. ‘That nearly done ’im, where girls was concerned,’ remarked Larry's unfeeling voice. Birkett pasted hard on Timothy's ribs. Timothy countered downwards, reaching the solar plexus, and Birkett, gasping, sat down on the grass, shaking his dogged head from side to side as if he had water in his ears.
‘Had ’nuff?’ asked the Boss, puffing up blue rings. Timothy, panting but not really winded, thought of the doped faces in trains; no air, no bracken, no love-your-enemy, no working or living in rhythm, poor cows. He caught Birkett by the shoulder.
‘Spell-oh, Boss. We're going to drown our troubles.’
Timothy gripped Birkett's arm. ‘Come along. Run. Run.’
‘Oh, Boss,’ whined Birkett, ‘will ya clean off this mess?’ But the Boss only grinned, and Timothy, handcuffing Birkett's wrist with his fingers, tugged him across the gully to the black swimming-pool.
‘Strip, will you?’
‘I'll see you…’
‘Oh, no, you won't. This isn't Cairo. Will you strip, or will I beat you to a sheet of tin? I'm going to wash some of the dirt off you. Not without dust and heat… there's too much dust and heat on your grubby body, Birkett.’
Timothy grinned. Birkett, saying, ‘You're either mad or else sissy,’ eased his sore body out of his clothes. They hit the water in two white splashes. Timothy stood neck-deep, pouring it over his head.
‘Oh, man, isn't it glorious? Doesn't it sting?’
‘Oh, man, don't you sound like one of them creeping things from the Y.M.C.A.?’ Birkett's stubby body, blunt face became friendly, like a gnarled potato offering its flower. ‘See here, kid, I don't bear no malice. You get wise to yourself. Don't go flossing around girls, they'll do you in. They hang about, see? And the so-called nice ones is the worst. They're the same when it comes to brass tacks, but they looks different, so you've got to behave nice and not make ’em cry. That's rot-gut, that is. If you'd a known what I'd a known.’
‘My girl's not like that.’
‘The soldier's dream,’ said Birkett. ‘Virgins in Egypt, which wasn't also a bit of clinging vine.’
‘You're right.’ Timothy poured the water from his cupped hands, page 131 baptizing himself at the shrine of some ancient derisive Maori god. ‘You're right, Birkett, and I'm right, and my girl's right, and most of all, God's right. Listen: I've just thought of a new definition of God.’
‘Don't look so shocked. I ask you to tax your imagination to the extent of endeavouring to conceive such an entity as this. Take every good impulse that has ever stirred you from the depths of your own heart, and that residual modicum of good that you feel is always present, and can't get out: add to this the feeling that the thought of your mother gives you, and the similar thoughts and feelings of everyone in the world, and the love of a little child, and all the beauty that Art ever called into being: collect this into one big space, add something that will contain and transcend the whole, and there you have what I think God is.’
‘Speaking of mothers,’ said Birkett, ‘strickly between ourselves, I'm a bastard.’
‘We're all bastards. We're the illegitimate sons of God out of vanity.’
‘Oh, I give up,’ said Birkett hopelessly. ‘Now God's a womanizer too.’
They scrubbed themselves dry of the peaty water with handfuls of grass and rush. Birkett thought, ‘There's always something funny about chaps with them very white skins. Either they're bloody killers, or else they go out like a glim.’ They strolled back to camp, and Timothy caught a Maori pony to go down for the mail. When he got to the post office, he found that the yarn about a beautiful new girl was gospel, and fell in love with her on the spot. He had already been there with the Raupo schoolma'am, but the water was very cold, deep and wet, so he fell out again. This girl—Shelagh—had blue eyes, golden-brown hair, and white teeth all her own. Timothy dated her for the pictures that night—it was a Saturday—and jogged slowly back, reading his letters as he went. Damaris Gayte's made his blood run cold. It wasn't so much what she wrote, but a steely exasperation, a steely longing between the lines. Eliza's, twenty pages on blue paper to match his own, was a different story. He laughed over it, and made a memo. to write to her, ‘You're the one little glowing spot in my heart.’
Landing back at the tents, he was chipped by the boys, who wanted to know why he had to shave himself in the afternoon, and were divided between envy and amusement when they found he had already dated up the new post-mistress. They had supper—bacon and eggs, beans, huge flat scones fried in pig-fat and served sizzling hot, black tea—and when somebody spilled milk on the table, the Boss lifted up the camp mascot, a tabby cat, and told her to lap while the lapping page 132 was good. She mewed and drank thirstily, her body pulled out of shape by a batch of kittens, just about due. She was a draggled thing, with beautiful furtive eyes of amber. Timothy was nice to her, caressing her throat until she relaxed, and came softly butting her head against his legs, jumping into his lap, shining on him from huge glowworm eyes.
After supper he added collar and tie to his suit, brushed back his hair, and sat down by candlelight to write the first few pages of his letter to Eliza. Twice or thrice in the week he wrote to her, enormous letters. It was a relief to talk, to get away with somebody young and far-off, interested in books and poems, half-fledged theories, in anything but the hard acceptances of this man's kingdom. Before more than half a dozen moths had time to crisp in the candle-flame, Birkett put his head round the flap, saying, ‘If you want to catch that bint while she's still piping hot, you'd better hurry.’
The men watched him ride away.
‘Too many skirts,’ said the Boss, removing his pipe from his mouth.
‘Too much potry and God, if y'ask me,’ responded another. But Birkett, his eyes beautiful as the cat's in his ugly face, said, ‘Ar, you leave the kid alone. Too young, that's all the trouble is with him. He'll grow up.’ ‘Oh,’ said the Boss, ‘like that, is it?’ Everyone felt this was a final comment, and settled down to show-poker.
When the flickering screen at the pictures showed love-embraces, the Maoris, who had ridden in from from twenty miles around, squealed ‘Kapai, Kapai.’ and made plopping noises, sucking their lips in and out. An enormous Maori, his stomach bagged in his puce jersey, put his hand on Shelagh's knee. Timothy, hearing her little startled, ‘Oh,’ in the darkness, picked the hand up and neatly dropped it back where it belonged. Sometimes incidents of the kind started a free-for-all, but the Maori merely grunted, sagging back in his seat. When the serial began, the Maoris got really excited, and shrieked and moaned as the Iron Claw set fire to the building with the white heroine on the roof. Shelagh whispered, ‘Oo—don't they smell fishy? Is it mussels?’
‘Partly. Partly it's just Maori. You'll get used to it.’
She said, ‘In a way, I like it,’ looking up at him with a round white sixpence of a face whose only clear features were its big eyes, like the cat's. Women did like this country. It gave them enough trouble and hard work to beat their brains out, and brains—half-brains—were what ailed most of them.
On the way home, with Shelagh behind him, the horse's hoofs trotting softly through swishing bracken, Timothy felt a sudden tense de- page 133 sire to make love to the postmistress. He had known all along that this would happen, but now, ardently, he wanted it to happen of itself, because Shelagh said so. An edging of new moon on the fern made the hillside a place of rime and shadows, moth-like and faintly sinister. Each stalk of grass was alive to its delicate tip, the bracken spat out little witch-words in its dry cracking. Shelagh tightened her arms around his waist, let herself go heavy and limp. He halted the horse, and for a while they lay in the fern together. The crumbling soil with its mat of growth-fibres, its sooty black of old burn, was lovely to touch; lovely Shelagh's body, its skin warm and beating. When he looked again at her face in the vague moonlight, he saw that she had been crying a little. The tears were beautiful too, like the tracks of wet silver a snail makes on a dark leaf.
‘Little girl… little girl…’
She said inconsequently, ‘I must look a sight, I don't know what came over me. I was lonely, I guess. It's that big out here, and the old broken trees look that funny. It looks as if somebody had died here. I had a baby once, Tim. You won't tell any of the other boys, will you? I don't mind telling you, because you're a gentleman. You wouldn't let anything like that happen to me again, would you Tim?’ He kissed her eyes. ‘Of course not, dear.’ Then, ‘What happened to the baby? Did it die?’
‘No, I boarded it out. I used to go and see it a lot, but what's the use? The woman was an old cat to me, and when they grow up they don't like you any the better for it.’
Queer, the premonitory pang that sometimes shot into his mind, the absurd thought, not to be exorcised until he had said it aloud. That lifted the tapu.
‘Somehow I don't think I'll ever have a son.’
Shelagh said indifferently, ‘Oh, go on,’ but he could see she didn't care; that a man should actually want children was incredible to her. He was sorry for her, as for a little grey moth in a web, or the draggled she-cat at camp. Sorry no less because she lay in the shadowy grasses, as easily picked as a stalk of bracken, and comforted now; and her tale was so little, unless the flame came down from Heaven which makes it magically more. With the loss of desire, he had lost Shelagh, lost everything except a shadowy girl who was tired and opened her mouth in a little yawn, longing for sleep. Timothy shivered for Shelagh, as well as for himself. Oh, the dividing loneliness of life. She was contented. Back in the saddle she swayed softly and drunkenly. She said good night at the door of the shack behind the post office, page 134 her mouth passive as a child's. The bitter lines of Iris Tree came into Timothy's mind:
It yet is something to have cheated God
And bored the Devil, with so easy prey.…
Half-way back to camp, he dismounted by an old paddock that had been an orchard once, but had failed for want of deep soil, deeply rooted hopes. He dropped rein over a paling, jumped the fence, and started to hunt for windfalls for the boys. Suddenly a deep sigh in the apple-thickets froze his blood. He felt his hair rise, and taking tight grip of his courage kicked out into the bushes, routing out not a ghost, but a scoffing herd of Maori pigs, preposterous lean-snouted Calibans of the moonshine. Timothy laughed and laughed; then, a little shaky, stroked his horse's blaze, and told it to stay cropping where it was. He ran the rest of the way to camp… his panacea for everything, flinging himself into the wind, making rhythmic contact between the soles of his feet and the hard earth. The stars blazed bitterly white.
Birkett came in when the others had doused their lights, and tried making up to Timothy. Timothy refused, but not ungraciously.
‘It's not that I don't see what you mean. But I've got a girl.’
‘Christ,’ said Birkett, ‘she must be some girl, all right. Take my word for it, Sonny Boy, you'll be sick of girls before you're through.’ He said this not bitterly but sadly; his ugly veteran's face had all the pain of living, in the candle-light his middle-aged wrinkles showed up like trenches, and the dead lay unburied. Then he blew out his candle and went away.
Much later, Timothy awakened from a dream, a vague, rambling, nightmarish dream; the worst of it was that he couldn't tell wherein the terror lay, and yet it still pressed down on him, breathing heavily, blackly. He could only repeat to himself softly, ‘It's terrible. I'm lost. It's terrible. I'm lost.’ His fingers found the matchbox. The sparkle showed nothing but black and grey, the land of broken trees. He saw Eliza's letter lying where he had thrown it, put it into the pocket of his pyjama coat, lay down again and went off to sleep, quite happily, having circumvented whatever threat was in the air. Outside the trees glistened skeleton white, a ghostly army. It needed only one trumpet note to bring their silent company together, ready to march down for an inexorable revenge on the men who had murdered them, and left their broken bodies standing, a mock for sun and moon.