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Experiment 9



I cut wet scrub for the fire and blew like hell to get it going. I boiled the last of the rice and made tea. Then I lay down with my head on the ground so that I could dodge beneath the puffs of smoke that gusted back every time the westerly whistled around my camp. I abandoned myself to the sort of ruminations you get from lonely old booze artists who keep clowning on about their failure and stupidity, until physical pains and senile pangs jerk them into belated confrontation with the moral issues they have been evading for so long. Usually they start to snivel and repent.

Old Douglas must have meditated like this many a lonely, wet night, until he died, neglected and fearful, in the bleak Hokitika Hospital. But what did he hear as he went?

Blackness behind the fire and a wind as cold as death. I went over my wretched little case history—my alcoholism—the collapse of my marriage—the failure of my civil service career—all made plain to me now. How typical of the Department that it should send me down to South Westland to get me out of the way, while it carried on an intrigue to reorganize my job and take away the fragment of administrative responsibility that still went with it— and, in the process, forget to send me any tucker.

Well, if I didn't bloody well get the air drop they'd promised, I'd go down the gorge and get on the wallop again, and to hell with the consequences.

I fell asleep in a corner of the big overhanging rock that Charlie Douglas had used for a bivouac. Perhaps he wrote some of his journals here—remembering what it was like when he was luckier, younger, frightened of nobody, didn't have any rheumatism, and though he could drink the district dry.

Appeal to the United Nations, said the Political Kea.

page 24

Get up a Deputation to the Minister, said the Organization Kea.

Take out a Writ of Mandamus, said the Legal Kea.

Write a Stiff Leader, said the Journalistic Kea.

Get up a Subcommittee and Report Back, said the Local Body Kea.

Purify your Hearts and Pray, said the Religious Kea.

Conduct a Poll of Ratepayers, said the Civic Kea.

Use our Aerial Superiority, said the Strategic Kea.

Compulsory Military Training, said the Middle-aged Kea.

This Court will not Condone Violence, said the Judicial Kea.

Birch Them All, said the Deterrent Kea.

Consult the Treaty of Waitangi, said the Racial Kea.

More Discipline, said the Authoritarian Kea.

Better Public Relations, said the Advertising Kea.

F'em, said the Ordinary No-hoper Kea.

This is not getting us Anywhere, said the Chief Kea.

I woke to find thousands of birds mustered in the clearing on the edge of the bush round the big overhanging rock, arguing.

The Chief Kea perched on a piece of wood left over from my fire and glared round the ranks. The birds ruffled their feathers, screamed, and pecked at one another, rolled a few loose stones around on the ground, and scratched little heaps of dirt in the air.

"When I called this regional conference," he went on, "I had hopes that something constructive might emerge, but I have been disappointed. All I can suggest is that we continue in the hope that some enlightenment might come to us. Perhaps there might yet be an inspiration in the shadow of our historic shrine. Perhaps, if all else fails, the great Ruler of the Keas, the Controller of the Universe, might give us guidance . . . might grant us wisdom and courage with which to face these difficult days."

"Is that the best you can do, you moaning old dummy?" interrupted the Cynical Young Kea.

"Well, if you think you can do any better, you're welcome to try," replied the Chief Kea.

"Aw, balls," said the Cynical Young Kea. "I'm not arguing about your policy, it's just this old square shit about God I object to."

I couldn't miss a chance like that.

"I Am God!" I yelled at them from the back of the rock.

They all shrieked away behind tufts of snowgrass and turpentine.

page 25

"In the name of the Great Charlie Douglas, speak!" commanded the Chief Kea.

"I am the spirit of the Great Douglas," I replied as solemnly as I could.

The Chief had guts. He hopped into the shelter and started ripping questions into me like a Crown Prosecutor at a murder trial. It didn't take him long to find out who I really was and what was biting me. I asked him where he got his speech gimmick from. He told me his ancestors had picked it up by listening to old Douglas in the d.t.'s reciting classical and Old English poetry when he was laid up in camp.

"Let's hear a bit of it."

The Chief condescendingly screwed up his face as if he were about to recite a Government film script, and unloaded the first book of the Iliad. It was Greek all right, with a funny Scottish accent. Then he did the fight in the monster's cave from Beowulf in a rousing Northumberland dialect.

Next he gave me the Kea point of view. It was really an indignation meeting I'd been listening to. Too many Keas had gone out the monk or got crook through eating poisoned carrots and lethal handouts of raspberry jam, which the Government had been unloading in the valleys as part of a drive to exterminate deer and chamois. It had the survivors rattled.

"What you want to do is to fly up to Wellington in mass formation and drop a lot of shit on the head office bastards. Give them a taste of their own medicine and tell them they'll get worse if they don't leave you alone. Advance on the citadel's the caper— win glory in the fight or let death take you. You're not the only one around here who can quote Old English poetry. That's a piece of advice old Treader-of-the-Wasteland Douglas himself would have enjoyed giving you."

When we'd finished talking about tactics, the Chief gave me the score about my air drop. Some mug pilot had heaved it down the valley behind the wrong ridge and the Keas had been doing it over. I located the place and swagged up some of the tinned stuff they hadn't made much impression on. I got stuck into the best feed I'd had for a week. I sat back with my mouth full of tinned stew while the birds picked over some packets of biscuits and rummaged round the camp.

I'd discovered that some of the tins that were dropped con-contained 1080 poison. I was supposed to use it on the opossums if I came across any. I didn't want to hurt the Keas' feelings by telling page 26them I had enough of the stuff to wipe out every animal in the valley, as well as the occupants of a good-sized town, so I put it on a rock behind my pack, intending to bury it later when nobody was looking. But before long a bunch of young Keas had knocked one of the tins over. They rolled it along the ground, the lid flew off, and before I could stop them they were poking their beaks into the powder. Soon many of them were stretched out, flakers, on the ground.

I felt pretty bad about it—so bad I had to open the bottle of rum which had come with the provisions. The Chief Kea and I knocked it back by the fire as we morbidly contemplated the dead and wondered where it would all end.

The floating ones came swaying and bobbing as the wind groaned through the gullies under the helmet of night. They threshed their wings and stabbed with beak and talon at the mocking moon. They tumbled and howled in the matagouri branches and pranced at their shadows glistening on the naked rocks. Each one wailed his own song of grief and hatred to the mountainous images of decay and fear who had enthroned themselves all around.

The Chief Kea and I staggered out from the bivouac.

"Have faith and follow!" he cried.

He spread his magnificent wings and glided gracefully from the headland. I followed. Yes, I became a bird and followed the fiery, flickering underplumage where it floated and darted into the air-tides of the gorge. Wing-to-wing we soared towards the peaks. We spiralled through the shadows under the creaking ice-cliffs and we shrieked with glee as we clambered into the morning sun on the silver summits. Inland through the ranges we roamed all that day, peering where the sun winked into the valleys, wheeling and coasting through the clouds that steamed above the snow fields. When we grew tired of swapping folklore, we exchanged quotations from Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Rousseau, Whitman, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Lawrence . . .

That night I completed my initiation. I danced with the flock round the entrance to the bivouac. We feasted on the rest of the airdrop stores, and we slept till dawn, snuggled warmly in the dry tufts of snowgrass that waved in the clearing. I nuzzled my shiny new beak in the sweet, downy feathers of a plump young female Kea, a grand-daughter of the Chief, and I plunged my handsome head under her delicate wings as she gave herself passionately to me, again and again.

page 27

Up in Memo-land the Supervisor was yelling into the phone.

"Get that damned old fool Willis! I don't care where he is. Find him and bring him back here. It's him that's behind all those requisitions for extra food—enough to feed a regiment. What's he doing with the stuff? All this trouble we've been having down South. I'm certain he's at the back of it. Why wasn't I consulted before he went down there? Now he's missing and the papers have got hold of it. Eh? You sent him. To get him out of the way for a while? What the hell for? What? A good rest! What do you think you're running? An old men's home? Well, that's all right about that. I can't help it if Willis is an alcoholic. Let them damn well have him certified. We've carried him long enough in this department, haven't we? A mental hospital is the proper place for him. Do you know he's been spreading crazy yarns that the Department's been trying to victimize him by promoting other people on Grade II over his head. Ridiculous! Everybody knows how scrupulously fair I am about matters like that. Scrupulously fair. You've seen his last report, haven't you? Oh, neglect of duty, drink, and a lot of other complaints, too. Now the Minister's asking for a report. Nice lot of fools we're going to look if I tell him we've sent a man who's a certifiable lunatic out into the bush on his own and he's gone and got himself lost and perhaps killed for all we know. Imagine what a board of inquiry would say about it! You make sure the area's thoroughly searched and Willis is found—dead or alive—I don't care. But you find him, or it'll be the worse for you. I'm holding you personally responsible for this whole mix-up. Let me know as soon as you've got some news. And see you don't let anything out to the newspapers."

From where I was perched behind a downpipe just outside the Supervisor's window I could hear all this and I could see that there was a real panic on. Good. I climbed up to about 6,000 feet until I hit the right airstream, then I played spaceman for a while and headed back South, planning my revenge. Certifiable lunatic! Oh, the bastards were smooth. But how wrong I'd been about old Jonesy. Fancy him trying to save me by sending me down to South Westland. And I'd been blaming him for it, and accusing him of trying to get promotion over my head. It just showed you; you never knew who your real friends were sometimes.

Back in camp I trained contingents of Keas for guerrilla warfare. Picked squads began to terrorize the towns. We went to a lot of trouble with Wellington. Some of us did general ravaging in the main streets while picked teams carried out special operations. page 28One lot kept ringing up the security police making subversive statements while their cobbers were dialling 111 and alleging that fearful obscenities were in progress in a policewomen's hostel. Half a dozen with a fondness for ripping up paper got into the vaults of the Supreme Court when they were open for an airing, and pulled all the red tape off the judgments and wound them round the Government Buildings. Another formation hurried through the university like a plague of locusts, blotting out the sun and causing the physics department to begin vast, costly, and useless investigations into non-existent astral phenomena. They put the wind up the grants committee by shrieking ferociously: Kahaaa! Kaheee! Kahooo! We're Watching You, so that that body nervously shelved its plans to treble the fees again and build more rural universities at Featherston, Otaki, Upper Hutt, Naenae, and Makara. They drowned out even the sounds of the amplifiers in the classrooms as the professors droned their lessons into the well-drilled civil servants stacked inertly before them at early morning lectures like layers of grey, uniformly creased, institutional blankets.

The main body flew straight to the grounds of Parliament and settled in a threatening mass on the steps. They gazed like pensioners at a society wedding, on the red carpets, the officials gliding to and fro, and the fat Parliamentarians strolling in and out of Bellamys.

The Chief Kea and I directed operations from the top of the Bowen Street Memorial, then I did a metamorphosis and walked into the Minister's office.

The administrative clique were all there, talking about flamethrowers, fire hoses, more poison, increasing the bounty to £1 a beak, tying explosive charges on tree tops, laying bird lime, more committees of investigation, and sending some bludger to England to study the problem. The Supervisor just glared at me when I said I could fix the whole thing in five minutes.

I called in the Chief. He perched on the back of a chair while I explained that the birds wanted all poisoning to stop and Keas be put on the list of protected birds.

"Take that stinking creature out of here, Willis, and get back to your desk; I'll deal with you later," said the Supervisor.

"You'd better be careful," I told him, "this is the Chief Kea, and if you don't treat him right he'll get his outfit to pull this old heap round your ears like a Maori whare in the Napier earthquake. The winehalls will crumble all right, and the rulers lie dead too, if you're not careful. You haven't seen anything yet."

page 29

"Get out! Go, get out!" said the Supervisor, jabbing at the Chief with a heavy ebony ruler.

"Eeeeeehhyaaa! Who do you think you are!" screeched the Chief. He skipped across the room and settled on the open window sill.

"What did that bird say?" asked the Minister. "Have you been training them like parrots by any chance?"

"No, they've been training me."

"Don't tell them anything more," said the Chief. "I can see how it's going to be. I don't like any of this lot."

I looked around the room, at all the known faces, at the stack of files on the big table in the corner (some of them were ones I'd worked on myself), at the picture of the Pink Terraces just above the door, the cabinet alongside the desk where the Minister kept his personal supplies of whisky, the chair with the loose leg that people he didn't like were usually told to sit in, the worn patch on the carpet where he practised golf swings in the lunch hours, the big leather armchair with the cigarette burns on the arm where old Jonesy had fallen asleep during the party we held one election night . . . I could see that they would never understand, and I felt my loneliness coming back again.

"Come on," said the Chief.

"I can't."

"You are letting us down. You are breaking your promises."

"No I'm not. Give me a bit more time. Don't go without me!"

"It's no use."

"Don't go yet. Stay here and talk to them. Tell them the whole story. Help me to tell them."

But the Chief Kea was gone.

"Listen!" I shouted to the people in the room. "Get somebody up to the base camp at Douglas Rock! Don't argue about it—get cracking quick and lively. There's a drum full of bags of 1080 I've left there, and there's a plan for the birds to fly back here with them and drop them in the waterworks reservoir. It's true, I'm telling you. Get somebody up there as soon as you can."

I struggled to get to the window so that I could take off myself, but by this time the party of cops, who had rushed to the building as soon as the Minister's secretary phoned, were grabbing me. I was dragged back in a hammerlock, still trying to explain.

The duty attendant looks up from his turf guide and says he is picking Mickey Finn and Castro for the double. Then he throws across the bunch of keys.

page 30

"Put him in M.I.5."

"Better watch this bastard," says the charge attendant. "He's a bird, eh! Hears voices!"

They open the heavy padded door and I scurry in. There is only a mattress on the floor to perch on. You can't tell whether it is day or night except by the patch of light from a small aperture with a wire grille across it, high in the back wall.

I keep flying up to that patch of light. But I only tear my beak against the wire mesh. I fall back exhausted and go to sleep.

When I awake, something is scratching at the window and staring in. It is the Cynical Young Kea.

"So you broke your promises."

"No, I didn't. Help me out."

"You ratted on your mates."

"No, no. Help me to get out."

"But you won't get another chance."

"I'll do anything to get out of here."

"You'll never get out."

"Help me. They think I'm mad."

"You are. That's why you're in that cage, man."

"Let me out! Help me! Somebody! Quick! Help! Help!"

The attendant comes in. "Shut up!" he says, and gives me a kick.

I wait till he's gone and then I yell up to the window: "All right, you bastard! All right then! I'll get out of here on my own. But you wait. I'll fix the lot of you when I do."

I try to reach that window again. But unfortunately I can't fly any more. And now there's never anybody there."