Bush hugged the hills as far as the eye could see. Every texture was outlined sharply, as though etched in ink; rising white vapours hung low over the canopies like the warm breath of a living organism. The distant ridge was sharp as a shoulder blade. Scoured out of the earth, at the end of a winding dirt road, there was a clearing, an open wound. Bulldozers and diggers grumbled and whined, concrete mixers churned, hammers stuttered like woodpeckers.
The bush looked on in silence.
‘Fantastic, isn’t it?’ Geoff spread his arms wide.
The property stretched out before them, the freshly-seeded lawn gently sloping down to the dark treeline. An acre of land, carved out of the wilderness, with their own stream, a four-bed brand new timbered house, and pristine primary rainforest on their very doorstep. Birds piped and whistled and fluted as though each was vying to be the loudest.
‘You know what I heard? When the first settlers came to this country, they couldn’t even hear themselves think, the birds were so bloody deafening. Imagine that, kids. Imagine!’
Libby wiggled her way out of her mother’s grasp, and ran off into the house, squealing with every new discovery. Her older brother Harry followed, feigning nonchalance. Geoff breathed in the evening air deeply and appreciatively. The bush smelt visceral. Pungent and sweet. A mixture of rotting leaf litter, damp and mossy vegetation, moist and cool, like a hibernating snake. ‘Can you believe the amount of land we got for our money?’
‘Well,’ said his wife, levelly, ‘if we wanted convenience, like public transport and a doctor’s surgery, we’d have had to pay five times as much.’ She tried not to sound resentful. ‘Let’s just hope the children are never ill.’ She disliked him referring to the children as baby goats. It was one of many Kiwi-isms he had adopted, along with gumboots instead of wellies, and cell phone for mobile, and they tripped awkwardly off his English tongue.
Geoff, oblivious to her tone, mused: ‘Funny, isn’t it, how the locals want to live on each others’ doorstep in towns and cities when they have all this wonderful space around them? Not that I’m complaining, mind. Their loss, our gain!’
‘I think I can understand the way they feel.’ Alison remembered a conversation she’d had with the checkout operator at the nearest supermarket, forty miles away. The woman had been so curious when she learned that they’d recently emigrated from England, that Alison had felt obliged to explain the need for such a large quantity of supplies in her trolley. When she mentioned where they had built, the woman had raised an eyebrow and her smile had faded. ‘Geez, I hope you guys don’t get too lonely out there. I heard about that land they cleared. Bit of a stink over that. Maori put in a claim. Said it was sacred land, the usual thing, but it was turned down by the investors. It’s money speaks loudest, eh. But then again, Maori says everything’s sacred, don’t they,’ and she had winked hugely. Alison didn’t know how to respond. The woman added, as she finished packing the bags, ‘Let’s hope you guys don’t ever need a hospital. By the time you got back to civilisation you’d already be dead, eh!’ and chortled too long and too loud.
Geoff didn’t appear to have heard what his wife said. ‘And to top it off, the nearest neighbour is fifteen kilometres away. We’ll never hear a bass amplifier again!’ He turned and kissed her with a loud smack. Alison couldn’t help but smile. He was as enthusiastic as a puppy. Even after all the wrangling and delays and mounting expenditure, his optimism was unflagging. Now he couldn’t tear his eyes from the vista before them. ‘I can’t wait to get out in that.’
Alison considered the house. It smelled of warm new wood and fresh paint. It looked a bit like something out of Neighbours; so perfect and practical and spacious that it almost felt fake. But she wasn’t about to moan about that. ‘Let’s finish unpacking,’ she said, touching him lightly on the shoulder. ‘There’s loads to do yet. The bush can wait.’
Three days later, they set out to explore the periphery of the bushline. They had to fight their way through tangles of undergrowth and weren’t able to penetrate far. It reminded Alison of the jungle, without the heat and leeches, from ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here’. Vines spiralled round and round them, like arteries connecting the trees together, and ferns grew so high and solid that they had actual trunks, and crowns the size of four-bed tents. The sweet, pungent smell was stronger now. ‘Tree ferns,’ pronounced Geoff, before anyone could ask him. ‘And those tough springy vine-things? They call them supplejack. They’ll be a job and a half to cut through.’
‘I’m Tarzan!’ Harry crowed, grabbing the supplejack and swinging wildly with his full weight.
Libby glanced around nervously and clung tightly to her mother’s hand. ‘Are there snakes?’
‘No,’ Alison said quickly. ‘Absolutely no snakes. Nothing here will harm you.’
‘Extraordinary, isn’t it,’ said Geoff, squinting into the gloom. ‘After the Maori came, the Europeans arrived and cleared the land, loads and loads of it. Prime, unspoiled rainforest, gone just like that. Not much left now.’
‘What’s prime?’ asked Harry. He dug savagely into the rotting leaf litter with a stick.
‘The first forest. Original, untouched by man. You can tell by how tall it is. The trees grow so slowly, see.’ Geoff pointed to an enormous tree nearby, whose bole split and stretched into tendons thicker than biceps, before vanishing into the ground.
Harry began to force his way through the undergrowth, swiping his arm from side to side. ‘I’m an explorer!’ he announced. ‘I’m going to forge a path!’ Forge was his new word, and he was delighted to find a use for it. Unfortunately it proved impossible to take even three steps through the vines, which twisted around them, impenetrable as a concrete wall.
Geoff cuffed him across the head. ‘Never mind, buster. Let’s go get the machete and forge you a path, okay?’
‘Hmm,’ said Alison. ‘Not today, you won’t, buster. You’ll get the axe and make us some kindling. It’s going to be cold tonight.’
Geoff wiped the sweat from his forehead. ‘These vines are something else,’ he said, laying down the machete. Harry stood at a safe distance behind him, on the five foot long path they had ‘forged.’ Alison watched from the lawn.
For a while, all they could hear was Geoff’s heavy breathing. Then he raised a finger. ‘D’you hear that?’
There was silence. Then a single, haunting note echoed through the trees. It prickled the skin at the back of Alison’s neck. It was ancient, and lonely, and achingly beautiful. It came from beyond the skies, beyond the oceans; from a time before people wandered the earth, before the discovery of fire, before wars and the division of the lands. She felt small; like they had sullied something simply by being present to witness it. Harry’s mouth fell open. The call came again, floating effortlessly across miles of endless forest to where they stood.
‘That’s not a tui,’ said Geoff, his voice hushed. They heard those bold birds every morning, several of them, their songs like liquid gold, like rusty hinges on swinging gates, like water tracking down mossy boulders, like all those things and more. But nothing like this. ‘And it’s not a bellbird.’ They kept listening, but the call did not come again. ‘I’ve no idea what that was.’ He straightened up and tweaked Harry’s ear. ‘Let’s go do a web search and find out.’ He tossed the machete to the ground where it bounced off tree roots knobbly as knuckles, and strode across the lawn with Harry scurrying after him.
Alison stood for a moment longer, listening. Now there was no birdsong at all. Just a hushed rustling of wind, like the faint sound of the sea.
‘Kokako!’ announced Geoff triumphantly, as Alison was stacking plates in the dishwasher. ‘Not common birds at all, they need a huge territory, like untouched virgin rainforest. In fact I think they might be endangered. Isn’t that incredible? We got ourselves a kokako!’
‘Well, we haven’t exactly got it -’ scraping leftovers into the bin – ‘but yes, love. That’s amazing.’ She flinched as he bellowed, ‘Come on, Harry! Let’s go forge more of that path!’
A moment later, the two of them set off for the property’s boundary, Harry skipping at his father’s side. Geoff looked exactly as she imagined the first white settlers would have looked, determined and gritty and burning with the possibilities of a newly-discovered world.
She finished with the dishes and went searching for Libby, whom she found in the living room, scrawling circles across her face with an indelible ink marker pen. ‘Who gave you that?’ She extracted it from her tight grip. ‘Your brother, I bet. Come on, we’re going to town. Let’s get you washed and changed.’
Before they were ready, Geoff and Harry had returned, much to Alison’s surprise. ‘That was quick work. Don’t think for a minute that I’m complaining, though. Geoff, can you get the car out while I get Libby ready?’
Geoff looked oddly preoccupied. Harry pulled hard at his mother’s sleeve. ‘Guess what, mum! Our path has gone. And the machete!’
‘What do you mean, gone? Libby, for the love of God, will you leave that pen alone?’
‘It’s gone! The gap has gone! The path has gone! And the machete!’ Harry jumped up and down delightedly. ‘The bush took it all back!’
Alison raised a brow at her husband as she handed him Libby’s car seat.
‘He’s right,’ he said in puzzlement. ‘No sign of the machete at all. I can’t figure out where the path was. Supplejack seems intact. No cut ends. It’s the damnedest thing.’
‘You were probably looking in a different place. It all looks the same when you’re in it.’ Alison tapped the top of Harry’s head. ‘Trainers, jacket, library card.’ He scampered away.
‘Could have sworn we were in the right place.’ Geoff was still frowning. ‘But can’t have been.’ He picked up the car keys. ‘Bush doesn’t grow that fast, does it?’
It happened again. Twice.
‘Impossible,’ Geoff muttered under his breath. ‘Bloody impossible.’ He spent hours on the internet, looking up New Zealand subtropical rainforest and ‘growth rates’. Harry grew bored, and announced to anyone that would listen that the bush didn’t want a path, so he was going to build a dam in the stream instead.
Alison watched as her husband stomped to and fro from the bushline to the house, armed with small wooden stakes attached to plastic red ribbons, and the axe. ‘Leave it, love,’ she said soothingly. ‘We’ve got more than enough land to play around with. It doesn’t matter.’
He snorted, and placed a piece of red plastic on the counter in front of her. It was mud-encrusted, and had a fern frond twisted delicately around it like a snake. ‘This,’ he said emphatically, ‘was lying on the ground, tangled in a bloody fern. After a single night. One night. Yesterday I’d driven this stake at least ten inches down into the ground, in the grass. And not a sign of the other stakes. How do you explain that, then?’
She shook her head, bemused. ‘I can’t,’ she admitted. ‘But everything is a bit strange here. Everything’s new. There’s bound to be things happening we haven’t figured out yet.’
‘I’m damn well going to figure this one out if it’s the last thing I do.’ Away he stomped to cut more stakes. Alison sighed, and glanced out the window into the dusk. The bush stared back at her. A deep dark olive mass in perfect circumference around their property. All those textures! Spiky nikau palms, feathery-crested pongas, weeping rimus and bristling giant totaras; every shade of green imaginable. Whether it was the dusk or the deep shadowy depths of the trees, or the thick impenetrable density of it, she couldn’t say, but it did seem more oppressive than when they had first set eyes on it. Primitive, somehow. Almost as if it was biding its time; begrudging every inch it had lost.
‘Geoff, for God’s sake, come in,’ Alison shouted from the back door. Geoff was crouching on the grass at the end of the lawn, hammering in stakes, this time with yellow plastic ribbons. He ignored her.
Alison banged down the dinner plates onto the kitchen table.
‘What’s Dad doing?’ asked Harry. Libby grabbed one of his chips and giggled. Harry slapped her hand.
‘Stop it, you two,’ snapped their mother. She picked up the sauce and squeezed it on their plates. ‘He’s – doing a bit of gardening.’
‘Is he trying to forge another path?’
‘No,’ she said shortly.
Geoff had given up on the path two weeks ago. He was now obsessed with the point where the bush met the garden. ‘I swear there’s less lawn than there was,’ he had said that morning, staring out their bedroom window. Alison had rolled her eyes. ‘Give over, Geoff,’ she’d said. ‘Listen to yourself.’ He hadn’t answered, but had silently got dressed and spent the rest of the day in the garage sawing more crude stakes.
Ten minutes later, the door opened and Geoff entered, leaf litter drifting from his hair like snow. He took off his gumboots, and sighed gustily. Alison did not ask him what the matter was. She handed him a plate from the oven. They ate without speaking.
‘I knew it.’ Her husband put his head around the back door. ‘Come and take a look at this.’
Reluctantly, she followed.
At the end of the lawn, the flags were nowhere to be seen. Geoff tugged Alison between some slender trees, and pointed. The line of flags were there, some lying limply on the ground, others jammed underneath a tangle of roots, one or two still wedged deep into the ground and half-smothered by fallen leaves. ‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘Now do you believe me?’
‘I didn’t not believe you. I just said it didn’t matter.’ Which wasn’t strictly true, but she wasn’t about to back down. ‘And I don’t see why it does now.’
Geoff regarded her, stony-faced. ‘You can’t see why it matters,’ he echoed. ‘The bush advanced by one yard in one night. Do you not see where this is going?’
Alison thought for a minute. ‘Well, I suppose….’
‘It means,’ interrupted Geoff, ‘that if it continues at its current rate, we will lose our lawn. And then we will lose our house. That is what it means.’
‘All right, all right.’ Alison looked up at the trees. They looked back impassively. ‘I suppose we should get someone in. To cut it back.’
Geoff had begun marching back towards the house. ‘Oh, I’ll cut it back. I’ll cut it all right. I’ll give it something to think about.’
She sighed. She leaned against a tree at the very edge of the property, running her hand along its skin-smooth bark, cold to her touch, and craned her neck to look up to its canopy. Its trunk was not slender and its leaves were not young. This tree was no sapling. Yet under its lichen-veined foot a piece of yellow plastic ribbon stuck out, half-submerged in the spongy ground.
‘Yes, hello?’ Alison said into the receiver. ‘I’m inquiring about getting someone in to cut back some bush from the edge of our property….Yes…No…Well, quite a lot really. As soon as you can….How long? No, that’s not acceptable. This is quite urgent. …yes, I know. Normally, that would be fine. But we’re not in a normal situation here. We can’t wait two weeks….Yes, that’s what I said. I know it sounds crazy, but we really cannot afford to wait. My husband is about to do himself an injury trying to keep it in check…. No, he can’t stop. It’s difficult to explain…..Yes, I’ve tried them. They’re fully booked for a month….Really? Oh, fine, then. I’ll try someone else.’
She slammed the receiver down and stared out at the diminishing lawn, where Geoff was furiously chopping at trunks, trunks that appeared to be of such hard wood they may as well have been steel. The bush that he had already cut looked messy, with gaping open wounds, like an injured animal. Trunks sprawled across the grass, along with pieces of supplejack and fern fronds, raw edges gleaming wet with blood-sap in the late afternoon sun.
‘We need to go to town,’ said Geoff, looking wearier than she’d ever seen him. ‘I need a chainsaw.’
‘Why don’t we just move out for a week or two? Stay in a hotel. Let the tree surgeons come and do their thing while we have a break. God knows we deserve it.’ Alison tried to run her fingers through his hair, but he shook her hand away.
‘A week? Do you have any idea what will be left after another week of this?’ He glared at her, as if she had suggested selling up and moving. ‘I’m not letting some bloody trees take over while we’re not here. This place cost us a lot of money. Do you think we’ll get insurance after we claim the bush took the land back?’
‘All right, get a chainsaw. But I can’t see what flaming difference that will make. It’ll just grow right back as fast as it always has.’
Geoff stared at her. He suddenly looked animated.
‘Brilliant – that’s it! Why didn’t I think of that before?’
His wife looked on, bemused, as Geoff dashed back outside and began to pile all the cut logs and vines into large heaps. She watched as he poured petrol from the lawnmower over each heap and lit a match. The flames flared so high that he had to jump backwards to avoid singeing his hair. They both waited, he outside and she inside, as the flames ate their way into the piles of brush and wood and began to diminish. And diminish. Streams of ants scuttled away from the heat, into the grass, but before long the flames were extinguished, the majority of debris left intact. Geoff swore and threw his arms up. He poured more petrol, lit the fires again. Until the petrol was gone, the flames were gone, and the smouldering heaps remained.
‘Mum,’ said Harry, who was suddenly at her side. ‘Look what I found. On the lawn.’ He held out a limp, glossily feathered black creature in his hands. It was a dead bird. ‘Is it a crow?’
‘No,’ said Alison, her heart sinking. ‘It’s not.’ It was a tui. She recognised it from the tuft of white feathers at its throat. She gently turned it over in her hands. There was no sign of injury. Even stoats and mink would have left a mark. It shimmered softly in her palm. It was beautiful. And it was a very bad sign. ‘Let’s not tell Dad, ok?’ she said, depositing the bird deeply in the outside rubbish bin. ‘He’s got a lot on his mind. It would just upset him too much.’ Harry nodded, solemnly.
The following morning, there were six more dead birds, littered across their lawn. All perfectly intact, as if they’d fallen from the sky, mid-flight, or as if someone had come during the night and planted them there. A fat woodpigeon, with pink and blue breast feathers, several tiny fantails and wrens, a green bellbird, feet stuck up in the air, bright beaded eyes fixed on nothing.
Geoff and Alison stared for a long time without speaking. Then Geoff said, ‘This is a campaign. Somebody put them there. Somebody wants us out of here.’
Geoff had a strange light in his eyes. ‘Somebody is coming here each night and moving the stakes. Putting the dead birds here. Covering stuff with undergrowth so it all looks different.’ He grabbed her hand. ‘You remember the fuss there was when we got planning permission to clear the land? That’s what it’s all about! It’s persecution! It’s not some weird thing going on with the bush. It’s just some asshole out to get us, to get the land back!’
Alison looked sceptical. ‘I – don’t think that’s what’s going on.’
‘Well, what is it then? How do you explain it?’
‘I can’t. I just – it must be some natural phenomenon occurring. Something weird, maybe, but not personal. Being paranoid isn’t going to help.’
Geoff dropped her hand abruptly. ‘We’ll see about that. I’m staying up tonight. I’ll catch them at it. You’ll see who’s right.’
‘I tell you, I can’t come. We can’t afford to both leave. She’ll be fine. It’s just a temperature. Give her some paracetomol.’ Geoff’s tone was a mixture of apology and stubbornness. His eyes were bloodshot and his unshaven face had some leaf litter stuck on it from his fifth night in a row spent outside.
Alison did not trust herself to reply. She snapped at Harry, ‘Get your overnight bag and bring Libby’s bear with you. Hurry up.’
‘I mean, look at it,’ Geoff continued, expansively waving his arm in the direction of the now pocket-sized lawn. ‘You can ring me when you get there. Let me know how she is. It’ll just be a virus. They won’t do anything.’ He continued in this vein, following her around until she finally turned on him with a cold eye.
‘We are staying in a hotel until she is well enough to come home,’ she said. ‘Your daughter may be very ill. You can do what you please, but remember the choice you made today.’ She got into the car and slammed the door. Harry sat in the back, face pinched and scared. Libby moaned beside him, wet flannel on her forehead, her eyes dull and face swollen.
Geoff rapped on the driver’s window, still talking. Alison did not bother to lower the glass, but pulled out of the driveway with a spatter of gravel.
‘She’ll be fine,’ the doctor said after a two hour wait at the hospital and a thorough examination. ‘It looks like some kind of flu. Keep her in bed and make sure you give her lots of fluids. Let us know if her temperature doesn’t go down in the next couple of days.’
That evening, while Harry was building a spaceship with lego and Libby lay in bed asleep, Alison telephoned home. Eventually, Geoff answered. He sounded strangely subdued.
Alison said, ‘Libby’s very ill. The hospital is keeping her in. They’re worried about her. They think it’s meningitis. They said that both her parents should be here with her. Now.’
There was a long pause.
‘Geoff? Are you there? Did you hear me?’
‘Ah – yeah,’ he said finally. ‘That’s – bad. I’m glad you took her. Glad you took both of them.’ He fell silent.
‘That’s it?’ she said, her voice gaining an edge. ‘Are you coming to be with her or not?’ She could hear him clear his throat. Then there came a cracking noise in the background and a splintering of glass.
‘Geoff? What was that? What’s going on?’
‘Ah – gotta go now – sorry love – will ring later.’ And he hung up.
She rang him three more times that evening. There was no reply. That night she barely slept.
At five o’clock the next morning, she telephoned again. He picked up on the second ring. Before she could speak – ‘Ali, it’s – you’ve gotta see this – it’s the house!’
‘What do you mean, it’s the house? Geoff, what’s going on?’ Which was a dumb question, when she already guessed the answer. ‘Geoff, listen to me. Get – out – now. Just get in the car, and come to town. Do you hear me?’
‘My – my – my leg –’ There was the sound of an axe crunching, and splintering noises in the background, and the brittle sound of crumpling metal. It sounded like a construction site. The line went dead.
Alison went very still. Then, carefully, she replaced the receiver. ‘Harry,’ she said, turning to her son who stood wide-eyed behind her, ‘you’re turning eight next week, aren’t you?’ He looked at her blankly. ‘You’re a big boy now. I’m going to give you a special job, okay? Do you think you can do it?’ Mutely, he nodded. She made sure he had the hotel keys, the number for reception, and the number for the hospital. She showed him on the clock when she expected to be back, and who to ring if she wasn’t. ‘Dad needs my help. And Libby needs yours. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
The journey seemed to take forever.
The unsealed road to the property was much more rutted than she recalled it being the day before. As if nobody had driven it for months. It also seemed very narrow. The bush on either side leaned inwards, towards her, as she navigated new potholes. She didn’t bother telling herself she was imagining it.
When she finally reached the end of their driveway, she stopped the car and stilled the engine. For the longest time she sat motionless. Then, at last, she opened the car door and forced herself to move towards the house. What was left of the house.
Here and there, she could see the odd plank of wood, barely distinguishable from the trunks of kahikatea and totara and rata. Twisted at odd angles, torn from their nails and joists, poking upwards and outwards like old teeth. Supplejack coiled around their dining table which was poised ten feet above the ground, and wound so tightly around the bedstead that it took her some time to recognise it.
She fought her way through the mangled remains, breathing in the moist, rotting scent which penetrated the air like sweat from stinking pores. ‘Geoff!’ she shouted. ‘Geoff!’
Treeferns dropped spores onto her hair and vines snagged her feet. The piano was half-digested by the roots of a colossal tree she couldn’t identify, and the television was poised at an impossible angle thirty feet above her in the boughs of a densely-foliaged beech.
Finally she saw him. Or what was left of him. Two gumboots, dangling well above her head, and his wristwatch spat out at her feet, tiny rootlets twined around the hour hand.
And as she stood there, hands pressed to her mouth, unable to breathe, the enchanting song of the kokako rang out, unsullied, across the miles of untouched rainforest.
Julie Dawn asserts her moral right to be identified as the author of this work