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Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Contemporary

Birdbrain (6 page)

BOOK: Birdbrain
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You can fit a decent-sized one in your jacket pocket. Something bigger than a fist will make a nice dent when it hits the roof or the boot lid. The best is when it falls straight on the windscreen or bounces off the bonnet and back against the windscreen. Ante says he got a bounce once, and the car swerved into the lane of oncoming traffic and the brakes on the bus screeched as it tried to avoid the car, but there wasn’t nothing about it in the paper.

There they are, in a line down below. Like quick, scurrying beetles.

Ante says they never put this sort of thing in the paper. Like they don’t run stories about people that jump off observation towers. You’d just get more people wanting to have ago.

He says he saw the what-the-fuck look on the driver’s face as the glass shattered in front of him. I doubt it. You can’t see people’s expressions at that height or speed. Then there’s all them shards in the way and all.

SOUTH COAST TRACK, TASMANIA
Surprise Bay
Tuesday, March 2007

 

 

 

Jyrki

I wake up to find her prodding me. Her nervous whisper cuts the sticky air like a saw.

It’s impenetrably dark. The rush of the waves forms a thick sonic backdrop to the night.

Then I hear it, too.

A thud. A thump, the sound of something being dragged, then another thump.

Something is moving the dishes in the vestibule of the tent.

We haven’t bothered washing them up, just wiped them with a scrap of tissue paper. They are probably still giving off the strong smell of pumpkin soup. The bag of food is in my rucksack, tied securely behind an array of clips and drawstrings. Nothing should be able to get into that.

I undo the zip on the sleeping-bag. The sounds stop immediately. Someone or something freezes on the spot and listens.

The night air is biting. I reach my hand into the corner pocket inside the tent. The headlamp case is right there. I kneel down and open the case. I fumble with it to make sure it’s the right way round, then place it on my head and switch it on.

The brightness of the LED light feels almost like a slap in the face.

I open up the zips straight away, with both hands, at both sides, the mosquito net, the door.

The pot and the plates are no longer in the vestibule. One of the cups is lying on its side
beside
our boots and gas cylinder.

Still on my knees, I unzip the vestibule door and shine the beam of light emanating from my forehead out into the thick Tasmanian night. I let out a frightening shout, allowing a mixture of roaring and bellowing to pour out of my throat.

I hear two frenzied rustling sounds, then swooshing, pattering. Footsteps, paws, a tail — or what?

Another snap, further off. Then silence.

The roar of the waves mixes with the rush of blood in my ears.

I crawl outside and stand upright. The LED cuts a slice out of the darkness, leaving everything outside its beam utterly impenetrable. I switch it off. After a moment I begin to make out the swaying boughs of the trees against the slightly lighter sky. I see a couple of stars between the frenzied churning clouds. A dim glow can be seen behind the trees; the moon has risen but is hidden behind the clouds.

I see a lighter patch on the ground. The plastic bag with the dishes. The pot hadn’t been dragged very far; it must have been too heavy. I flick the headlamp back on. Yes, the other cup and both plates are lying on the ground, one of them upside down. I pick up the dishes and put them back in the plastic bag. At least our multipurpose spoon-cum-forks are still at the bottom of the bag.

The beam of light shines in her face as I crawl back into the tent. She turns away, squinting, and raises her hand up to cover her face. I throw the bag of dishes into the corner.

‘Some possum must have taken too many steroids,' I tell her.

 

 

 

 

 

And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.

—Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

NEW ZEALAND
Kepler Track
February 2007

 

 

 

 

Heidi

The subtropical forest at the start of Kepler Track was something incredible. It was full of twittering, buzzing and the cheeping of birds. It wouldn’t have taken long to come up with several dozen chirpy new ringtones.

Every now and then, great panoramas looking out towards Lake Te Anau opened up through the trees, all the more awe-inspiring the higher we climbed, and it was then that I began to understand Jyrki properly. Hiking itself isn’t the prize; this is the prize, these views that you can look at from places you can reach only on foot.

Rain started falling in a thin drizzle, and we stopped at the resting place to change our clothes. A brown bird the size of a chicken came over straight away to greet us. It didn’t seem at all scared. Jyrki told me it was a weka, the New Zealand equivalent of the Siberian jay. It was a very social bird that waited for hikers to drop something nice to eat. I broke it off a few morsels of puffed rice from the top of my energy bar.

 

Jyrki

I had said my quiet goodbyes to hotels, hostels, restaurants and tiled bathrooms.

Back at Queen Charlotte you would have no trouble finding some sort of accommodation for the night. And after thirty sweaty kilometres what was wrong with being able to have a shower then retire to the terrace restaurant for a bowl of fruits-de-mer soup and some garlic bread? Now at Kepler it was time to move on to some tougher challenges. Or so I thought.

I chose Kepler Track on the South Island, one of the so-called Great Walks. It was great for a number of reasons.

For a start, according to the guidebooks it wasn’t as outrageously popular as Milford or Abel Tasman. You could ramble along Kepler Track without booking months in advance, although needless to say we had done so anyway. What’s more, you could reach the start of the track from the town of Te Anau on foot — after all, what was the point of hiking if you had to rent a car or take a taxi to get you to the start of the track?

In addition, Te Anau seemed like a much smaller, more pleasant base for our hike than places like Queenstown which were crammed with tourists.

At Te Anau we took care of our registration. We were given hut tickets and were told that they were binding: you had to spend the night in the cabins you had reserved. No improvisation. Not because of the weather, not for health reasons, under no circumstances whatsoever. Arrive at the wrong cabin at the wrong time and you’d get slapped with a fine on the spot.

It makes the mind boggle.

It was less than an hour’s walk from Te Anau to the start of Kepler Track. I almost burst out laughing when I heard that there was — wait for it — a shuttle service from the town to the start of the track. A few poxy kilometres. Taking a minibus just to be able to walk.

According to the instruction leaflets, the first leg should take about six hours. By half past one we’d seen a sign saying it was another forty-five minutes’ walk to the Luxmoor cabin.

I almost lost my temper. We’d completed the leg in about half the estimated time, yet we had no choice but to stop here for the night. Given that these cabins cost the same as a fairly decent hotel, you would think we would at least be given the chance to choose our own prison.

Still, a thousand metres above sea level, when the drizzle started to turn to sleet, the idea of being able to shelter under a proper roof didn’t feel so bad, but when I saw the cabin from the inside the urge to yell welled up yet again.

The place was filled with kitchen surfaces holding dozens of gas hobs. Just turn the knob and start cooking. There was a shower and an indoor toilet.

A coal fireplace.

If it hadn’t been sleeting outside, and if all this hadn’t already been paid for, I would have turned around and walked right back to Te Anau.

Conveniences like this are only convenient if you actually want them.

Inside the cabin an Israeli guy was boiling up some pasta. Of all the equipment in the world, this first-rate amateur was carrying a three-litre aluminium pot, the kind you use in your own kitchen. And he was wearing a long-sleeved white cotton shirt.

The most impractical colour and fabric you could possibly imagine. Once it gets wet it loses any advantageous qualities it ever had. The shirt would take a lifetime to dry.

What were these people doing? Or what did they think they were doing?

 

 

 

 

 

It’s usually baked beans or fish fingers or yoghurt or something like that. Sometimes there’s a slice of some fancy ham or a jar of something that’s obviously cost a bit. A length of liver sausage or something else soft can do the trick in the toilets in a department store or
café
; or you can drop an egg down a hole, somewhere it’s impossible to get it out, and hope it cracks. But mostly I just look at ’em. Imagining what they would’ve done with this or that food.

People are always turning their backs on their shopping bags. When they’re packing another bag or waiting for the bus or looking through the bus window waiting to get off.

Five fingers and Bob’s your uncle.

If there’s a driver’s licence or some other photo ID in the wallet; I check to see what someone that buys tinned pineapple or granary toast actually looks like. What kind of kids they’ve got. Gormless idiots mostly. And I take the money, too.

If there’s something halfway decent in the bags, like cake or chocolate, I might even eat it.

Once I found a pair of expensive leather gloves; they’d just been bought, receipt still attached and everything. Too small for me, and I could’ve swapped them with that receipt for ones that fitted better. But if I need leather gloves, I tell the old man my hands are cold, and before you know it I’ve got three pairs, and one of them’ll probably have fucking mink lining.

You need to call him Dad. Works every time. Just start off with ‘Hi Dad.’ Honest, that word’s like magic; it’s hard not to laugh when you see it in action. After that it’s easy to tell him that such-and-such a policeman was a sadistic fucker, or the woman in the shop was a paranoid menopausal bitch. You need to look at him with your head tilted a bit to the side, with the left eye slightly forwards. Don’t smile too much, or he’ll say there’s nothing funny about it. Then again, if you’re too serious he’ll think you’re worried or afraid. When he’s having a rant, you need to look at his lips and sometimes his eyes and nod and try to kill time.

I left the whole fucking lot in the foyer at the cinema.

Kenu always tries to leave the bags at the station or in the bank or some place where people notice an unattended bag pronto. Said he’d once watched from the sidelines while a police bomb squad crawled up to a black leather bag with pincers in their hands, only to find nothing but a sack of potatoes and a porno mag.

 

 

TASMANIA
Surprise Bay to Deadman’s Bay
Wednesday, March 2007

 

 

 

 

Heidi

A few hours after leaving Surprise Bay we come to a fork in the road leading to Osmiridium Beach.

‘Some idiots try to divide the leg in two by spending the night over there,’ Jyrki says, pointing his hiking pole down towards the beach. The spot is almost an hour’s walk away.

Although I can hardly deny that this would be enough for one day, thank you very much, I realize that setting up camp and killing the hours until it’s time to go to bed would bore us both to death. It feels almost macho to continue on our way without giving the matter a second thought.

Naturally everyone who embarks on one of these hikes has to bid farewell to all normal ways of keeping themselves entertained. Of course you can’t force an adult to give up their mp3 player, a gadget that weighs only a few grams, but the chuckle of disdain that Jyrki can give in just the right way when he sees something he doesn’t approve of is enough to make you think twice.

Though the beach extends as far as the eye can see, swimming isn’t recommended here because there are very strong currents in the water. That said, I wouldn’t want to go swimming if I couldn’t have a fresh-water shower afterwards. Anyone who’s ever swum at the seaside and got dressed without a shower knows what it means to feel stickier than sticky; your hair feels as though you’ve used syrup instead of conditioner.

It’s occurred to me here for the first time that, more often than not, people tend to eat and drink simply as a way of passing time. We have a coffee and a slice of cake because there’s nothing else to do. We sit having a beer. We go for a kebab. Out here, in these conditions, you eat to give yourself energy, and there’s absolutely nothing extra to nibble on.

Ergo, there is nothing to do.

Back in New Zealand I still carried a book with me. Almost every backpackers’ hostel had a bookshelf where people could leave the books they’d read and pick up something new. I chose the smallest and thinnest paperback I could find: Joseph Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness
. I enjoy reading, but I didn’t know anything about this book. It sounded promisingly like a horror story. It wasn’t. Or rather, yes, it was.

I read it four times. Maybe five.

But now I have nothing to read. There’s no room for being a hero when it comes to the weight of your rucksack, or so I’ve heard. The best way to kill time is simply to march onwards, especially while the terrain is bearable. When we cross a pair of logs across Tyler’s Creek, the stream from which people collect drinking water once they get down to Osmiridium Beach, Jyrki stops to examine the water.

The creek is shallow and the water is far browner than I’ve become used to; it’s muddy, almost dried up.

‘It’s a good job we didn’t go down to Osmiridium. We'd have had to filter all the water. Must be unusually dry around here at the moment,’ Jyrki comments, poking his hiking pole into the creek.

Where did they come up with a name like that? It sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi novel.’

‘It’s a real word. It’s a metal related to platinum, a compound of osmium and iridium if I remember right. Maybe people have mined it around here; there’s been tin mining in Melaleuca, too.’

‘What can you make out of it? Rings?’

‘Small things that are put under hard sustained pressure.’

‘Such as?’

I smile wryly at my question; I only spot the double entendre after I’ve said it. Now would be the time for a light-hearted compliment.

Jyrki’s face lights up; you can see the light bulb switching on in his head. I wait patiently.

‘The nib of a fountain pen,’ he says.

Jyrki

The location of the creek’s outlet is constantly moving. The exact spot where it decides to burst a sandbank can shift by a couple of kilometres at a time. Sometimes there are two outlets at once. The shallower one, the one that sometimes almost disappears, is one we should be able to wade across easily.

The map gives us a choice of routes. I go for the one running adjacent to the sandbank.

Of course, there’s no path on the sandbank, just some tufts of grass and a dune whipped up by the wind. Perhaps that row of marks, like melted dents in the ground, could be the prints from yesterday’s hiking boots.

My feet sink into the sand, and in no time so much sand has come in through the top of my boots that I can’t move my feet inside them at all; it feels as though they’ve been set in a plaster cast. My boots are like dead weights. I can only guess at the route. I know the general direction, of course, but where exactly are we supposed to cross the shallow river outlet? I try to look for signs along the steep embankment on the other side, anything at all.

She asks how long this is going to take. I tell her we’re nearly there.

To the left is the ocean, to the right the brown, deep and rapid-flowing New River Lagoon outlet and behind that an embankment reaching up towards the sky. We stagger along the bank like two insects in a sandpit. Although by now there should be weeks of routine in my thigh muscles, in this loose sand I have to lift my legs like a stiff arthritic mutt.

Then I see something further up the embankment. It’s almost like a set of steps up the hillside; a few horizontal logs and something that looks like iron chains glinting beneath the sand. I stand there catching my breath. My face and neck are covered in fine sand carried on the wind and stuck to my sweat. I am the sandman, from head to toe.

But before we can reach what apparently passes for a path we first have to cross the second outlet from the lagoon. The water comes up to just above the knee — a welcome reason to take off our boots and empty half a kilo of crap out of each one.

Once we reach the other side it will be impossible to put socks on our wet feet without getting them caked with sand. Must remember to turn them inside out later on and give them a shake. If we don’t, they’ll chafe like sandpaper.

The weight of the rucksack pulls me backwards as we scale the almost vertical embankment. Time and time again we have to grab on to the iron chains and whip more sand up into our faces. Some of the logs laid down to form steps have come away from the pegs keeping them in place. Behind some of them, the sand has flowed away or been scattered by the wind so much that the logs are like shelves wobbling in the air.

She’s huffing and puffing her way up the embankment in front of me.

Every time her foot slips another cloud of sand billows into my face. I shout up to her to keep a safe distance. If she falls and I’m too close behind her, then we’ll both be screwed. She turns to look down at me and says that I’m the one that should keep a safe distance by not coming up so fast.

 

Heidi

An aluminium dinghy has been pulled far up on to the shore, for understandable reasons, and tied to a wooden pole with a rope and a couple of carabiners. The oars have been propped upright in a piece of plastic piping nailed to the side of the pole.

On the opposite shore, about a hundred metres away, there appears to be another boat and a colourful buoy raised on a pole.

On this side, too, there is a signpost and a board with instructions. The instructions are also given in pictures — probably for us foreigners and all the crowds of illiterate people that surely swarm here every day. Working out the boat system is like doing a minor Mensa puzzle: first you take this boat, row to the opposite shore and leave all your stuff. Then you take the other boat, tie it to the back of the first boat and row back with both of them. Pull one of the dinghies far up on to the shore and tie it down securely, then row back to the opposite shore with the other boat and tie it up ready for the next customers.

I wonder how many people have thought: Screw this. Anyone could cross the river and just leave both boats on the other side. Arriving here and seeing both dinghies on the opposite shore would be a sight you wouldn’t forget for a while. And if you were the lucky person this happened to, you’d have plenty of time to sit there meditating, waiting for some unlikely Godot to show up on the opposite shore.

The dinghy is bloody heavy. By myself I might just have been able to push it into the water, but I could never have hauled it far enough up the soft sands of the opposite shore as it needed to be.

If I were here by myself, I might have taken the easy way out, too. Dragging that dinghy across the sand would be hard work for an athletic man, let alone a woman. I would row across and leave both boats on the same shore. Hadn’t Jyrki said something about most hikers going the other way around Southy? So, statistically speaking, someone was more likely to turn up at the shore with two boats first. I’d be doing someone a favour.

Once the dinghy is in the water, Jyrki climbs in and puts the oars in the rowlocks.

I know what to do next: I push the boat with both hands, at a run, and hop on to the thwart seat so that the speed and my added weight gently carry it far out into the current.

Jyrki puts the oars into the water. He pulls, and one of the oars sinks deep beneath the water leaving the other to skim the surface. Jyrki gives a heave; his second attempt isn’t much better either.

Jyrki can’t row.

The idea seems a bit baffling, and the longer I watch him the more comical his flailing becomes, especially when one’s desperately trying to keep a straight face.

The boat lolls from side to side, the bow pointing first one way then another. Every time he tries to row, one of the oars sinks in deeper than the other. Eventually we reach the opposite shore almost sideways. Once we’ve unloaded our rucksacks, untethered the other boat and tied it to the back of ours 1 take hold of the oars.

‘How about I give it a go?’

Jyrki doesn’t say a word. I sit on the middle thwart and let Jyrki push the boat out into the water. He almost capsizes the thing trying to imitate me as, scrambling and splashing, he comes crashing down on the back thwart.

I keep both oars at the same height and row in clear, even strokes. At least I’ve learnt something at our family’s summer cottage: the bow touches down on the other shore before I’ve even really got started. Using our push- and-pull technique, we return the other boat to its own pole. Hauling it up the slight incline is almost impossible. The push and pull have to happen at precisely the same fraction of a second, otherwise the boat won’t move an inch.

Jyrki lets me take the oars without any further discussion. Who would have thought it?

It’s been almost two hours since we first arrived at the outlet when I finally sit down on the edge of the boat, fastened securely to its pole, and start to pull on my socks and boots. Jyrki shakes his head.

‘We’ve got four kilometres of sandy beaches ahead. I wouldn’t bother with those.’

 

Jyrki

The sandy beach: synonymous with that shiny jungle of parasols and Speedo kings sunning themselves in the heat; in the background, the incessant thump of pop music from the terrace bars of giant hotels scraping the sky. Along the beach, rows of identikit overpriced caffs all out to maximize their profits. Isn’t that right?

Prion Beach is an exception to the laws of nature; it’s as though a neutron bomb had exploded. How come there isn’t a single sun-worshipper on this four-kilometre crescent of white sandy shores washed by foaming waves? Not a single flip-flop print; not a can of beer half buried in the sand; not a cigarette end. How could anyone have overseen such a clear gap in the market? Why had nobody thought to construct a Hobart to Melaleuca motorway so that people could nip out to this glinting golden paradise without a care in the world?

As if in answer to my question I hear a familiar buzzing high up above us: the daily small aircraft travelling back and forth to Melaleuca. Its dung-fly droning always finds its way into your ears just as you’ve finally accepted your oneness with the wilderness, just as you’re about to sever the final thinning ties between yourself and civilization.

On my hiking trips around Europe, even in the most remote Alpine regions of Switzerland, Italy or France, you took it for granted that the sky would be laced with the trails of jet engines or that helicopters would chatter overhead at regular intervals, carrying out a variety of maintenance operations in remote mountain villages. But out here there are no vapour trails twining like ropes criss-crossing the sky. Out here the sky shouldn’t be corseted like that.

Once we get past Melaleuca and reach Old Port Davey Track we won’t have to see or hear any flying machines. There you can breathe the air of freedom.

 

 

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