a haunting

Cold air filters from the south like ... cold air filtering. The transient blue flees through fish bone cloud, through mackerel skies, going nowhere. Where are the snows? Where the songs of spring? Ou est la porte? The one through which you went that freezing Saturday a lifetime and a half ago now. Strange how the years of your death continue to grow; strange, too, that I can see you still, hand to throat, dark hair falling down, turning in a characteristic manner, tentative, half-wild and yet about to smile if a smile should be allowed. No. Something rattling on the desktop, each keystroke jars a memory, grinding against each other the way ice is said to grind way down there in the Antarctic. I move things around, the noise does not stop, a prosaic haunting I'll probably eventually get to the bottom of ... unlike this other, that'll never leave, never be resolved. Perhaps it's the table itself, slowly disintegrating into its constituent parts. Yes, wiggling that bit stopped it. The mailman's just been, I heard his scooter outside. The clouds have that clotted, that whipped look that means snow. If we weren't so close to the sea. Stand up, walk around my chair, peer through the blinds like a private eye - Frank Libra, maybe, in the Linton version. Another anniversary, five years. And why has Mark gone quiet? I've been meaning to ring him up for days but I don't do it, fearing what I'd find. Or not find. Those who haunt us are useless to us / And those who haunt us most are the most useless. Baxter. I might be misquoting, the lineation may be wrong but the thought is accurate. And yet I feel like challenging that uselessness: useless for what? Train whistle blowing, the rattle of wheels through the station, going west, it didn't stop. Stand up again, go to the shelf, the book almost leaps into my hand: Runes. Word and line perfect, how's that? Aug. '73 I've written on the flyleaf, it's a book you knew, perhaps you even read this copy, it's possible. And, this is certain, you wrote lines from the poem on the facing page into your Journal. It's as good a place as any to end. By which of course I mean go on:

Where can we find the right
Herbs, drinks, bandages to cover
These lifelong intolerable wounds?
Herbs of oblivion, they lost their power to help us
The day that Aphrodite touched her mouth to ours.

from: Summer, 1967 by James K. Baxter



I recently read an article about a retired accountant who uses a metal coat-hanger as a dowsing rod with which he can locate the exact position of walls, windows and doorways of churches that fell down long ago and are now covered by grass and earth and forgetfulness. Sometimes he might sketch out an area where stones and bricks should be lying but when the archaeologists come to dig they find nothing there. This can be simply because he has made a mistake, but often it has turned out that he was locating a part of a building that had lain there concealed and undisturbed but was then dug up and removed many years ago. This phenomenon, of finding a memory of something that has vanished and left no trace of itself, is called by dowsers 'remanence'.

from The Emperor's Last Island by Julia Blackburn


Reflection Nebula in Cepheus; or the gown of the Queen of Night



It was the progress of an enchantment. In a crowded way near the dance floor, I meet and embrace an old friend, who congratulates me on the mechanical device I've just trialed. Despite the complexity of the engineering, it's really just a kind of balloon that, launched into the air, includes a trapdoor that opens so that lollies fall in a scramble for the kids below ... we move on from there towards other amazements and next I find myself in the loft of an old church, looking past an upright, golden slab of sandstone into a wide bare room beneath the peaked roof. My sons are with me and we are aware that the spell we've cast has been successful, the black and spiky demons that haunted this belfry have gone and in their place there is ... a pure white heifer, Io or Europa, her delicate hooves tapping across the wooden floorboards. Time to go, I say, we will climb through the window and down the ladder leaning outside against the wall, rejoin the rest of our party. The rungs of the thin metal ladder are far apart and my youngest boy is nervous about his ability to reach from one to the next but there's no time to waste, the heifer has been replaced by an enormous, dew-lapped, hump-shouldered white bull, Zeus no doubt, not malign but threatening in his magnificence and unconcern ... we tumble safely down the ladder. Now it is time for us to take our seats on the buses for the journey home but first I have to choose a book to read along the way. There are so many books here! In heaps outside along the ground, stacked on shelves inside. And they are so dull ... there is not one I want to read. Everyone else is already on one or other of the two buses, they'll leave without me if I'm not careful but I can't get on until I decide what book to read, and I can't ... decide. Anyway, I think, I can always catch the train. Finally I see, open on the floor, in landscape format, an illustrated volume of Kafka's Diaries. The pictures are extraordinary, they show fantastical figures, angels, nymphs, golems, pixies, fairies, elves, trolls, disporting in the skies above the roofs of Prague. Beautiful in their pale, airy blues and greens. This is the book for me but it belongs to someone else, an artist, she has been using it to make the figurines I can see on the coloured cloth spread out on the floor in front of the book shelf. I look closely at these tiny mannequins, they are only an inch or so tall, incredibly detailed, a commedia d'ell arte of grotesques out of Hieronymos Bosch. No way I can take this woman's book, it has to stay here with her clay gallery, I'll travel on alone and unaccompanied by any reading matter. Outside, the church has disappeared, the buses have gone, I'm alone and not in the least perturbed, I'll catch the train from Ashfield station back to Summer Hill ... just then I see my sister, not as she was, but the age she would be now if she had lived. Except everything about her is wrong: a bad wig of the wrong colour, dusty gold instead of black, smeared make-up put on all slapdash, frumpy clothes, an ugly voice. And unhappy in a lifelong kind of way. Yet it's clearly her, I can tell from the set of her shoulders, just the way our mother held herself. I square my own, I take her by the arm. There's nothing else to do. We will go back home together.


detail of The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymos Bosch. Full picture here.


things have changed

Storm still. I cannot find my crocodile letter opener or my black-handled scissors. Can do without one, not the other; can replace the other, not the one. My kids can't get through, there's trees across the line at Wondabyne. Feels strange, this space and time I keep open for them, empty ... except for me. Storm still. A ship aground at Nobby's Beach, a chasm at Somersby has swallowed five people, power out on the Central Coast, kids can't get through. Maybe they hid the scissors and the letter opener, it's the sort of thing they might do. Maybe I hid them. One once pretended to be about to cut my throat from behind with the tail of the crocodile, sharp enough to draw blood. Storm still. I'm looking at pictures of the Makatote Viaduct, among them is this

mysterious image in the State Library of Victoria, Ruapehu from Makatote Viaduct it's captioned, the library requests more information should anyone have any. It's one of a series of railway postcards from the early 1900s, there's lots of them on the web, what more can you say? Storm still. It must be because of this weather that I'm back in the King Country, it's like this a lot of the time there. What is that shape in the sky? In the lovely soft saddle between Paretetaitonga and Ruapehu proper? Like some mechanical ghost or outre ski lift. Pylon or poltergeist.

The last few days I've been obsessed with a song, running it over and over in my head, guess who wrote it, one of the verses starts out: I've been walking forty miles of bad road / If the bible is right the world will explode / I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can ... This place is too small to lose things in, only three rooms not counting the kitchen and bathroom, how could you lose anything here? I take the sofa and the two armchairs apart, am rewarded with three dollars and a lot of unidentifiable muck I don't want to identify. No crocodile, no scissors. Storm still.

My kids ring up, one says it's a doomsday day, sounding quite cheerful about it, the other says, it's a bad day, sounding doomed. Trees fell on their school. The waves on the beach, just down the end of their road, are six metres high. On the plus side, they've built a radio out of a game they got in NZ years ago now. They're listening to SeaFM by candlelight, by firelight. The power might come back on tomorrow, they're a little bit freaked out by it, no TV, no stove, no electric light. I don't ask them about the crocodile or the scissors, they wouldn't understand.

Storm still, I should stop writing that, it's getting boring. Finally I find the scissors at the back of the spoon drawer. The crocodile ... I don't know. Crocodiles are unusual, their embryos don't have sex chromosomes, gender is determined by temperature, males are produced at around 31.6 degrees celsius, females at slightly lower and higher temperatures. Does this mean boy crocs are steady but the girls either hot or cool? Or both at once? Lorca's The King of Harlem begins: With a spoon / he gouged out the crocodile's eyes / and thumped on the monkey-rumps / with a spoon ... but the crocodile is not in the spoon drawer and why would s/he be? And I don't have any letters that need opening either.

some dreams

... are very persistent. One from long ago: I must have been less than ten, we are driving along in the Hillman, in the King Country, somewhere west of Ohakune. My mother is at the wheel and my father, in the front passenger seat, is not happy about this. Us kids are in the back, me and an indeterminate number of my sisters, who total five in all but I don't think we're all there ... anyway. The road leads to one of those enormous, wonderful, terrifying viaducts that span rivers and bush-choked gorges in that dissected hill country west of the mountain. Viaducts made of girdered steel. Hand built, at the beginning of last century. That are not for vehicular traffic but for trains to cross. As we approach the approach, for no apparent reason, the car veers off the road to the right then soars into the vast, eerie space spanned by the viaduct. My father says, in exasperation rather than alarm: Oh, Lauris, I told you ... while I, seriously alarmed, cry out: Everybody, put your hands on the floor! In the belief that putting our hands on the floor will somehow parachute the free-falling car to safety. Much later, the Hillman does settle, unaccountably, on the grey river sand beside the silvery twisted skeins of the Manga nui a te ao, the great river of dawn, where thin green weed grows slinkily on the downside of boulders, streaming in the flow. There is the silence that follows catastrophe and catastrophe averted alike. We have survived. Above, the brown-black steel span of the viaduct still leaps across the chasm the family car could not manage. But we have survived.


wild strawberries

Yesterday on my way to work I thought I'd check out the Bosch Berry Trees again. Walking up that end of the street, I saw a woman coming towards me. She had a handful of fruit that she was eating, berry by berry. I don't usually stop total strangers in the street but this time I did. Do you know what they are called? I asked. She was Asian. Her English wasn't very good. Oh, no, I used to know but I forget. Australian? I asked. Native? She looked confused. I get them just there, she said, pointing at the trees. I was nodding. Yes, I know. There was a brief pause. Her face cleared. Wild strawberry, she said. I think, wild strawberry.


forbidden fruit

At the other end of Smith Street, five identical houses, rising along the rise towards Prospect Road; outside four of them, a small tree, each of which, in this mid-winter season, is flowering and fruiting. As is the robust sugar cane planted in the front garden of the first of the houses, the first, that is, if you're walking west, as I was that day. Had I never looked before at these trees, had I never gone along this side of the street? Natives, surely, nothing so strange could have come from anywhere else. As strange in their way as the wooden pear tree is, with its silver and golden fruit. The flowers, a profusion of them, are small, a bell-shaped calyx about the size of a fingernail enclosing two or three tiny red stamens; creamy coloured on one of the trees, a waxy rose pink on another; the other two somewhere in between. On the footpath below the last, fallen fruit: round, spiky, from greeny-yellow to a bright seductive red. Like something out of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Or should that be Heavenly Delights? Boschian fruit, scattered before me. I could not help myself, I picked one up, the reddest, the ripest. It was soft, slightly squishy, not hard as I expected, not like the tiny unpeeled lychee or rambutan it otherwise resembled. Sniffed it: a faint, sweet odour, as of something lost. O god I wanted to eat it. To eat the fruit of the tree of whatever it is. I touched it to my tongue where a bruise was leaking juice. Yes, sweet. It had lain on the footpath how long, amid what toxic detritus? I glanced around, stupidly guiltily, then popped it whole into my mouth and walked on. Melted to a sweet, sticky paste, gritty, that was the stipples on the skin. A sweetness without sharpness, just a slightly flat, greenish undertaste, like you often get in wild things. Crunched on the grit for ages, wondering if, and if so when, poison would begin to cramp in my belly. Yes, there was a slight feeling of unease but that could as well have been psychosomatic as purely physical, who knew? Went on into the cerulean of the afternoon. There was a storm blowing from the sun. Way out west, beyond some hidden horizon, a pink twist of cloud like a tornado, drifting upwards into the empyrean. Days the rain came in, I thought, over and over, a line from a poem I'd been reading. Days the rain came in ... as if in a narcotic haze, though I wasn't, I was just walking with that sun-storm blowing in my hair, tight-roping out along a blue and lost horizon, drifting and turning in a rose madder twister, searching between my teeth for the last grains of paradise.


Luca nominated for Montana Book Awards ... in the History category.