by Peter Nelson
A brief excursion off the sheep station. Exploring the area, courtesy of my experienced thumb. Richard and Susan and me driving through Mt. Aspiring National Park. On an allegorical journey deep into the deepset forest. Dark green, moss green, velvet green and ancient orange rusts. At first the trees are solemn and withdrawn, but mile after mile their unfriendly branches creep closer to the road. Twisted mossy fingers thrust out clutching at the car. Heavier into the gloom. Bony claws clamp together and grope blindly above, join and sag low. Veritable darkness at midday. Gloom and green and dripping, an oppressive weight upon the spirit. Which turns me on something fierce. No longer just a forest but a heavy crouching audibly-breathing green-eyed shaggy Presence.
“The wood is full of shining eyes,
The wood is full of creeping feet,
The wood is full of tiny cries,
You must not go to the wood at night.”
Mist heavy and getting heavier. Difficult now to see the road in front or behind. Susan and me drawing elephants rampant on the steamy car windows. Swooping down into a sudden clearing. To ford the River Jordan. And on to Paradise. Which is the next village upriver from Glenorchy.
Actually my luck was amazingly good getting back to Rees Valley Station. Got an early start, headed south and got a lift with this chap who turns out to be a helicopter pilot. Who turns out to be heading to Milford Sound. Would I like a chopper ride right to ReesValley. Hmm. But then I’d miss seeing Jocelyn again. Ah but it would be a once-in-a-lifetime flight over some of the most awesome scenery on the planet. Ah but how can I pass up a chance to see once more that glowing face. So I made it back to Dunedin, saw Jos that night and the next night was back in front of the hut fire.
Checking out the sheep in the high country this morning. Wheeled up to Rough Creek, as high as the Land Rover can go. Check my haversack — binoculars, thermos of hot tea, extra jersey, egg sandwiches. Fording the icy water. Mountain forest looks very Scandinavian. Full of trolls and elves no doubt. Entering the hall of the Mountain King. Dusty shafts of sunlight paint yellow columns between the black trunks. Tooling along clicking my walking stick against the occasional rock. Too bad I never learned to yodel. Wouldn’t do anyway. Probably stampede the sheep.
Up, up, higher and higher. Above the trees finally. Then above the bushline. Into snow. Old snow, still crusty. Fairly easy walking once you hack out your steps. Over there a goat. Three goats actually. Magnificent billy. Huge black and brown, most beautiful goat I’ve ever seen. Not that there has been a large number of comparators. Bloody hot up here in the sun. Blindingly bright glare off the snow. Face burning. Dig down in the haversack and come out with a pear crisp and cold. Bite into the taut skin and the flavor just explodes on your taste buds.
Okay. Here we are. Everybody looks healthy. Can’t get too close. These high country sheep don’t see people much. So they’re even shyer than the flatlanders. Rest on this spur and sweep the valley with the binocs. Ummm, what a beautiful place. Could gather some friends, build a cabin, grow apples, chase sheep, carry water from the creek, sit back satisfied in the late afternoon sun. Satis-FIED. Hallelujah the hills.
What’s this. Are you coming so soon. Listen. I don’t live in town any more. I’m out on an isolated sheep station. No more cottage with actual bedrooms. Much smaller quarters, a lot harder to get rides into town. A phone, yes. Glenorchy 8G is the number. Two longs and a short. But the switchboard closes at 9 o’clock in the evening. Graham or Iris will answer and come to get me. About 7:30 we will be eating. That’s the best time to call. But I thought you probably wouldn’t be coming until August. I planned on leaving Glenorchy in early August and getting to Invercargill before you did. So I could decorate the town in celebration. Hire a band. Bake a cake. Put on a meke. But this is no good. I can’t leave Glenorchy on short notice because there’s no transportation. Everything has to be arranged a few days in advance. Neither can you get here easily. Unless you get to Queenstown on one of the days when the tug comes here. I hate to think of you being down here somewhere and me not able to see you. I’d start walking. Into the lake to end it all.
A phone call. Is it you? My nerves shatter. And a horrible connection. Sounds as if we’re yelling at each other from opposite ends of some huge aviary. Standing in the kitchen hollering at you while Iris is chopping mutton on the table. Your voice twixt the thuds and the tweets. A beacon in the wilderness. ‘And the skeleton keys in the rain.’ Sad knobs of rust.
Yes. I am getting all your letters. I presume. Let me explain why I’m so strangely incommunicado. Simple as this: I cannot get to the bloody post office. I told you we were isolated out here — well the young chap who used to drive me down to badminton every Monday is on holiday. And I have no other way of getting in to mail letters. True the post office is only six miles away, but by the time I walked in to town after work, it would be closed. And there’s no mailbox outside. So here I sit with my empty hands in my sad pockets. Even the bricks in the fireplace are losing heart and crumbling into the fire. And can I blame them.
Like roses need rain.
Well what can we do, the daylight is burning, fading. The song of the wandering albatross. Sadly somehow when I leave this place it will feel as if I’ve left New Zealand. And the remainder of my travels in this oh so beautiful country will not be a holiday but a good-bye. Sadly so. And now will you be gone when I get to Auckland. Will you. Question mark. Surely this world could not let you be gone. If it is, then I turn my back on it, and will live out my days whirling through space on some small distant asteroid forsaking all ice cream and all flowers. To gaze upon the unseeing emptiness.
‘And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.’
Well I told Graham and Iris I’d be heading down the road on the 25th. Saying good-bye to this monastery of the spirit. They took it rather sadly. Making me feel a proper bastard. Well what else can I do. Live here six more years while waiting for these country girls to grow old enough. Buy a paddock of my own and start growing cottage cheese. Watch the moutons nodding to sleep evenings. As the birds return to the rivers to feed. A time of peace. Not this time. Maybe next time.
Saturday night. Scorpio rising. Dum-de-dum-dum. Iris and me cross-legged on the living room rug. An occasional harrumph from Graham in his corner easy chair. Listening to Judy Collins. Iris is a folk music buff. So we have lots to talk about. She’s been so nice since I told them I was leaving. Rhubarb pie. Fresh pumpkin pie. Offering to do my mending. She’s one of us for sure. And she rides horseback like a poem. Mira’s mane and hers too flashing in coils of sunlight.
People descend. And the fullness of gloom is drawn over the sky. Only at the very last minute of the day in the far corner of the heavens do the clouds unzip to frame a stage starring the sun in a shower of golden dust.
And now tis the morrow. A little bird on the white railing. His feathers grey and brown and entirely unruffled. I like his philosophy. To him it is not a beautiful morning it is not a depressing morning it is only a morning and he responds with a factual sort of chirp.