Bethany Tiddy (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
The bus driver raises his eyebrows in the rear vision mirror.
“You guys still wanna do this? You know it’s off peak season, right?”
Mum nods her head firmly and we all tumble off the bus onto the gravel road. The driver speeds away and disappears into the dust. Everything we need for the next five days we carry on our backs. Dad hoists my pack onto my back and I stagger under the weight.
“You sure about this, Dad?” I ask.
“Of course! We’ll get the huts all to ourselves!” he tells me as he buckles up his own pack. For the next five days it’s just the four of us. Four huts, 46 kilometres, one lake and one family.
“This time of year is quieter,” adds Leo. “The forecast actually looks pretty good.”
I shrug and follow Leo into the thick forest. His chirpy whistle leads us along the carved pathway below the giant trees. His bulging calf muscles nearly pop out of his tanned skin as we start the ascent. I haven’t seen Leo for a couple of years. We lost touch after I moved away to study. We didn’t get on that well at home. He’d get mood swings and disappear for days. Mum had told me over the phone that he’s past that phase. Leo and I start chatting to distract ourselves from our burning thighs. I ask if he’s been on any dates. He laughs and tells me it’s none of my business. He asks me if I’ve been on any. I tell him maybe.
It’s just Mum and Dad back home now. I talk to Mum all the time but Dad is always too busy working. Before I moved away I told Mum and Dad to go overseas, to get away and sell the house. It’s too big for them now. We’ll think about it once Bella dies, they told me. Bella got put down one year ago. We’ll think about it once Leo is steady, they told me.
After a few hours of climbing uphill, we stop at moss-covered logs for lunch. Mum hands out bread, salami sticks and dried fruit to each of us, plus our own jar of Pic’s Peanut Butter. She doesn’t realise I’ve changed from smooth to crunchy since moving away. I take the jar and have a few spoonfuls anyway. Leo has packed his own food. He’s on a diet of chicken, boiled eggs and green jelly. He carries most of our food including fresh water and gas cylinders. He is three weeks from his first body building competition.
Dad bites into a salami stick and looks up into the trees.
“Have you kids heard about The Children of the Mist? I reckon they’re still up here hiding in the mountains.”
“Dad, we’re not kids anymore,” I snap.
Dad readjusts the contents of his pack and mutters something to himself. I look down at my jar of peanut butter and fiddle with the lid.
Dad got really into Maori language classes last year. They decided to pick up a new hobby together. Dad’s gone on to the advanced level but Mum decided to stop.
We put our packs back on, a couple hundred grams lighter. Three more hours uphill to go. Leo tells me he’s thinking of buying a house. I tell him about my new job. Mum and Dad walk behind us, Dad humming and Mum panting. Thank God I moved to a city with hills. I’m used to climbing and arrive at the first hut shortly after Leo. The hut is nestled amongst huge flax bushes. There is smoke coming from the chimney. I stomp up the wooden steps and the door squeaks as I enter. Leo is kneeling in front of the fireplace loading wood inside. Water boils on the gas cooker. I shuffle to the table and sit on the wooden bench, sighing as I free my arms from stiff straps. My shoelaces are crusted over with mud and twigs. I pick them apart and slip out my throbbing feet, massaging each foot with my numb fingers. I lie back on the bench and relax into the hard wood. My neck and spine straighten out and my feet hang off the edge of the bench. The fire crackles and the small hut creaks.
Mum and Dad eventually arrive, with smiling pink cheeks and wobbly knees. Mum unloads four dehydrated meal packets from her backpack. She tears open each packet and fills them with boiling water. We wait ten minutes while the dried meals soak up the hot water. Dad disappears into the forest with his pocket knife to look for kindling. Leo bench presses dead Punga trees. Mum pours the contents onto plastic plates. A mush of rubbery beef curry. We let out satisfied sighs and stretch out our tired limbs. After dinner mum and I wash the plates in boiling water and huddle around the little fireplace that Leo has roaring. He’s always had a ‘red thumb’ he likes to tell us. A special touch with fires. Dad and Leo dry the dishes and start flicking wet tea towels at each other. I squeal and hide behind Mum. They toss away the tea towels and race outside to the wet grass. Mum pours me a hot water and drops a Berocca inside. It fizzes and pops, disappearing into the yellow bubbles. We sip our hot drinks from tin mugs and watch Dad and Leo through the small window. They scramble on the grass like boys.
“So, is Wellington looking after you, love?” Mum asks, breathing zesty air over her mug.
“Yeah it’s alright, thanks.” I take a sip of the fizzing yellow liquid. “How’s home?”
“Oh you know, same old same old.” She stares down into her mug.
After half an hour they come inside and Dad pulls a pack of cards out from his pack. Four faces light up. We haven’t played Five Hundred for two or three years. As usual, Dad and I team together against Mum and Leo. Dad was always bold with his betting, and I was always shy. Mum and Leo used to win every week when we played together years ago. But they don’t know how many tricks I’ve learnt in the last few years. Three sets of eyebrows shoot into the air when I place a high bet.
The kitty is mine. A jack of diamonds and two low hearts. I lead in strong starting with an ace of spades. The others follow suit. Again and again I lead the rounds, sweeping up each set as I win. Dad and I finish, winning nine out of ten tricks. Mum and Leo’s jaws drop. They fake frustration, tossing their cards at me. We keep playing game after game into the early hours of the morning until we are all yawning. The mist rises around our cabin, closing in on us as it gets darker and colder. Mum and Leo pack the cards away, defeated from their loss. They slip off to bed. Dad goes out onto the deck with his toothbrush and a cup of water. I wander out to join him.
“Good game, Dad,” I whisper. I look down at my clenched toes and hold out my bare toothbrush. “It’s been a while. Since we’ve all played together.”
“We make a good team, we do.”
Dad wraps one big arm around my shoulder and squeezes toothpaste onto my toothbrush. We scrub our teeth side by side and spit into the darkness.
Mum and Dad take one of the bunk rooms and Leo and I take the other. One long bunk bed stretches along the whole room, space for about 20 trampers to sleep. I get the whole thing. I climb up the smooth wooden ladder and slip into my sleeping bag. My shoulders ache and I roll them around in their joints. I shiver and focus on my breathing. Leo has always been a snorer. I let my breath fall in sync with his until it forms one rocking hum.
The next morning I wake up to Mum’s squeals. The bunk bed below is empty. I kick my legs free from the sleeping bag and plod down the ladder. Dad and Leo are shivering and dripping wet. They have sandwiched mum in a giant bear hug. Leo looks over at me with a grin.
“You’re next!” He thuds towards me, but I manage to duck past him, steal his towel and run down to the lake. Mum jogs behind me and we arrive at the water. I tiptoe along the sand and edge into the water. It numbs my armpits. They are three days prickly. I sink into the still lake, letting the water rise over my shoulders and under my chin. We breathe quick, foggy puffs of air and tread the water. The sun floats through the mist as it rises, revealing a huge stretch of water and smoky green mountains on the other side. We wade back to the bank and dash towards two towels.
Inside the cabin Leo and Dad are sipping coffee and watching oats bubble on the stove. After breakfast we pack our bags, sweep the cabin floor and sign four names in the guest book. The last entry was dated months previously. We set off into the forest and find the same carved out path that winds up through the forest. Before long we encounter another hill. I start to walk slower and slower, legs throbbing. But Leo stops, turns me around and pulls my backpack off. He shoves it on his own chest and keeps marching forward.
“Hurry up. No excuses now,” he laughs.
I race ahead with Leo, leaving mum and dad behind. After a couple more hours of uphill tramping, we notice a set of floating pastel umbrellas bobbing down the hill, surrounded by mist. As they come closer, a small tourist pops out from each umbrella. They point to my brothers and I with their hiking sticks.
“Golden years, golden years!” they nod and grin.
“Sunset years, sunset years,” they smile, pointing at themselves.
One lady gives her stick to the man beside her and shuffles towards Leo, placing her small hand against his bicep.
“Oooooh, build body, yes?”
The ladies’ cheeks turn pink and the three men smile and nod. I notice small red seeds all through their small teeth. One of them pulls a handful of berries from the bush and gives a few to each of us. Leo tips the berries into his mouth, waves goodbye and charges on through the bush, whistling and smiling. I toss the berries back into the bush and follow behind. I float up the rest of the hill behind Leo. He stamps forwards with two backpacks.
We are the first ones at the top of the hill that afternoon. Leo dumps our bags and we scramble to the edge of the cliff face. We stretch out our legs and lie side by side. The sky is an oily ceiling above us, mirrored by the lake below. We lie suspended between the two and play our favourite game.
“Would you rather drink a bottle of shampoo or eat a bar of soap?” I ask.
His body shakes beside mine as he erupts with laughter.
“Would you rather have eyes for nipples or nipples for eyes?” he asks me.
I spit out my mouthful of water. I’m pouring the rest of my bottle over Leo when Mum and Dad reach us. They have another person with them. She has long pale limbs and gleaming copper hair. She glides effortlessly behind Mum and Dad despite the massive pack she carries.
“This is Amiria,” says Mum. “Turns out she’s been tramping just a day behind us and managed to catch up.”
Mum and Dad both smile. I notice they have the same berry seeds in their teeth as the other trampers.
“Is it alright if she joins us for the rest of the tramp?” adds Dad. “She’s a local.”
Amiria smiles at us with eyes that match the ferns around her. She tightens the straps of her large pack and wipes beads of sweat off her forehead.
“Sure thing, Mum,” says Leo.
He puffs up his chest and extends out his hand to Amiria.
“Leo,” he says, his voice lower than usual.
“Lovely to meet you Leo,” she replies in a sing-song tone.
Leo takes my pack off his chest and dumps in onto the dirt and winks at Amiria.
“So, what can you teach me about the place, Amiria?”
Amiria laughs and marches ahead with Leo. I shrug and follow them downhill, past fallen logs and small creeks. Drops of water fall from the rooftop of trees above.
We arrive after Leo and Amiria. I have to share my dinner with Amiria and we don’t play Five Hundred. It’s a four person game. Mum suggests we play snap, but I shake my head and read my book instead. We all get early nights and toddle off to the bunk rooms lined with beds. Mum and Dad have their own bunk room again. Leo and Amiria share the bottom bunk. I can hear them whispering and laughing from below.
I wake up in the morning to a silent cabin. I hear murmurs floating from Mum and Dad in the room next door.
“Have you seen Leo? He woke me at 3am but I told him to go back to sleep. His pack is gone,” quivered Mum.
“He’s probably at the next hut. You know how impatient he can be,” says Dad.
“You’re right. We’ll give him some space.”
Their voices are barely audible now.
“I should probably check my pocket knife, just in case,” Dad whispers.
I lie in my sleeping bag and listen to Amiria’s heavy breathing on the bunk bed below. I clamber out of bed into the next door cabin but Mum and Dad have fallen asleep again. I wander into the kitchen and start boiling some water for our coffees. Usually Leo’s job.
Over breakfast Mum explains to Amiria.
“Don’t worry about Leo, love. He does this to us sometimes. We just have to keep going. When we see him at the next hut, just don’t make a fuss about it.”
On our way to the next hut I watch for his markings in the dirt or arrangements of sticks and leaves. It’s all down hill today. I walk faster and faster thinking of the thousands of hectares of rain forest. We don’t stop for lunch. My tramping boots rub my heels raw. On and on we tramp, past remote beaches and cries of the tui. Amiria sings to the native birds and dances ahead, leading us through the dense forest. She stretches her arms out and her fingertips brush the bushes. We come to a fork in the road. Amiria takes us down the narrower of the two. As we walk, the track becomes thinner and thinner. I look back over my shoulder and the branches close in across the path. As I walk on, they tickle my shoulders and snag my shirt. I slow down to push each branch away and untangle my feet from the roots. I call out to Dad, but he is singing loudly with Amiria a few metres ahead.
“E tangi ana koe
Hine e hine
E ngenge ana koe
Hine e hine.”
I remember hearing the song in primary school. I can’t remember the translation though. Something about a weeping girl.
I arrive at the next hut panting and hungry. This one is smaller and closer to the lake. Maybe Leo has started boiling the water. Inside the hut is empty and cold. I dump my bag on the wooden floor and check outside. The Punga trees lie untouched on the forest floor. I wander down to the lake and my parents are already there with Amiria. She is digging a deep pit into the dirt of the forest floor. She takes flax from the nearby plants and swiftly weaves three baskets in front of my smiling parents. Amiria pulls kumara, carrots, potatoes, all wrapped in foil, from her pack. She places them in the baskets and sets them beside the deep pit. I bend down to Mum who has her eyes fixed on the fire.
“Mum, Leo’s not here. We need to leave,” I whisper into her ear.
“I know honey, we’re over half way around the lake. He’s probably just a day ahead of us. If we kick up a fuss about it, that’ll drive him away even further.”
Her eyes wander over the flames.
“Look, join us for a swim to cool down, okay?”
I follow Mum, Dad and Amiria down to the edge of the water. They peel off their thermals and slip in the lake while I stand on the edge.
“Leo?” I call.
The mist is slowly starting to settle on the lake for the night and closing around me.
“Leo, where are you?” My voice is shrill now.
I walk back to the fire and wait. I can’t quite see Mum and Dad and the sky has turned into an inky smudge. I look down into the deep earthy pit, the fire raging at the bottom. Amiria emerges from the mist. She holds three large dead fish. She walks towards me and kneels on the ground. She lines up the three fish in front of me. Their mouths gape open and I stare at their blank eyes. Amiria pulls Dad’s pocket knife from her pack and starts slicing up the three of them. I stand up and stagger back. I look past her, but the lake vanished in the darkness. Amiria looks up me with a smile. Her eyes flicker from green to pink in a flash. She opens her hand and it is full of berries. They look red and juicy and my stomach grumbles. I smile back at her and drop the small things in my mouth. My tongue sucks into the juice and black seeds fill my teeth.
Bethany Tiddy studies Creative Writing, English Literature and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her work has appeared in Salient, her University’s student magazine. By day she sips bottomless coffee at the local poetry club, and by night she enjoys live theatre.