Read Birdbrain Online

Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

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

Birdbrain (8 page)

BOOK: Birdbrain
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To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.

—Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

Nelson Lakes
February 2007






At the lakes in Nelson the tracks were real tracks, not small minor roads. Across the rivers there were rope bridges, proper rickety ones that can only take one person at a time.

The silence was perfect.

If I’d been able to choose now, I would have come from Queen Charlotte straight out here to Nelson. It would have been a much shorter trip, too, but instead we’d gone and booked those bloody berths in Kepler.

At least here you had the freedom to decide for yourself how long each leg was going to take. We’d left St Arnaud in good time that morning, and our aim was to complete a
-kilometre stretch of even terrain on a gentle incline before ending up at Upper Travers Hut. According to the guidebook, the leg should take somewhere between ten and eleven hours.

We hadn’t encountered anyone else for the last few hours. Occasionally, when we came out of the forest cover, we were able to see Mount Travers. Its peak was covered in snow. At last, a fleeting glimpse of something real.

Having said that, Upper Travers Hut itself was big and new. Two separate dormitories; berths in bunk beds for about thirty people, each one equipped with a thick foam mattress covered in wax cloth. An enormous lounge with a kitchen area and dining tables and chairs. A veranda. A composting outdoor toilet a decent walk from the hut and a large tank to collect rainwater.

At least we were the only people in the hut.

Even out here they charged for the use of the cabins, all except for the most basic shacks. The price was in a different league to those along the Great Walks. The series of tickets cost only a couple of New Zealand dollars, and you were supposed to leave individual tickets in the cabins according to their standard. This cabin cost two tickets. Each ticket had a perforated tear-off section with the same serial number on the remaining stub. The idea was to keep one half of the ticket and leave it somewhere visible while you were staying at the hut — attaching it to the straps of your rucksack, for instance. The other half was to be dropped into a locked postbox 011 the wall of the cabin. If the ranger taking care of the track happened to come in and inspect the cabin, you could easily check to see who had paid. Freeloaders could expect a substantial fine.

I’d bought a book of eight tickets back in St Arnaud, but I should have bought sixteen. It was an oversight. Two times four nights, times two. I’d only counted enough for myself.

At least it was quiet now, and it would soon be dusk. Nobody would turn up after dark.

She’d thrown her rucksack on to the floor in one of the dormitories and was busy digging out her civvies. She’d just pulled her sports bra over her head and was groping for her sweat-free clothes when I moved my hand swiftly and stopped her in her tracks.

She looked at me, and the sports bra fell to the floor. Her beautiful breasts, the size of a fist, heaved slowly. The chilly air in the cabin and her damp clothes had left her nipples wrinkled like raisins.

I kissed her and said that now was the time.




There I stood in nothing but my panties, my skin covered in goosebumps, ready to collapse into anything that was clean and dry; the sun was setting and the air getting colder, and here was Jyrki coming at me in this primitive shack halfway up a wooded mountainside when I was absolutely exhausted and wanted nothing but food and sleep.

‘Time for a wash.’

‘I don’t know if I’m really in the mood for ... A wash?’

‘Naked. Bring your mug. And a towel.’

Jyrki was already rummaging through his own rucksack and soon produced the said items. I must have been looking at him like a madman as he started taking off his own clothes.

‘Out by the back door there’s a barrel of rainwater. There’s no stream round here, so we’ll have to use the water in the tank — but sparingly, mind.’

‘But that’ll be cold.’

‘What were you expecting?’

Jyrki walked across the dormitory in all his naked glory and strode towards the emergency exit, a mug in one hand and a towel the size of a handkerchief that he’d bought in Wellington in the other: a super-absorbent travel towel packed in a small netted bag, the kind that, apparently, you couldn’t get anywhere in Finland.

‘We shouldn’t bother with soap. You won’t be able to rinse it off properly, and it’ll just lie in the soil.’

The door was draughty. Although it was already cold inside the cabin, the sudden gust of chill air was a reminder of the not-so-distant Antarctic.


I followed Jyrki to the door. He had placed his opened towel on the railing and was now crouching down filling his mug with water from the tank. I almost shrieked as he poured the water over his head, scrubbed himself using his hands and repeated this with another mugful of water.

‘Pouring it slowly like this, you can make a little bit of water go a long way. Gets the sweat off the skin. This is basic stuff. If you don’t wash the film of sweat off your skin, you can bet you’ll catch a chill at night.’

The shock had me speechless. Wasn’t it part of the life of a macho hiker-man to be unashamedly dirty and smelly? I’d much rather be dirty and smelly and blokier than thou than pour cold water over myself at a time when my teeth were already chattering from the cold.

‘Sometimes it's easier if someone else does it,’ said Jyrki, and before I’d had time to say anything he had poured a mugful of water down the back of my neck.

I screamed so loudly that the sound echoed around the woods and the mountainside. It was as if a vat of molten metal had suddenly been tipped over me, but Jyrki continued unhurriedly pouring water over my back, sides and buttocks, scrubbing me with his big hands, and, as if by a miracle, I suddenly found myself in a Zen-like state of tranquillity. I stood there silently as he returned with another mugful, and together his hands and the water removed the sweat from my breasts, my stomach and thighs.

‘Face,’ said Jyrki and poured water into my cupped hands. I rinsed my face and felt beneath my fingers the coat of dried sweat across my forehead and around the sides of my jaws; it came away in my hands like a layer of fine sand.

‘Now dry off,’ he told me.

I didn’t have a special travel towel, but I did have a thin cotton sarong. It was much larger and heavier, of course, but it had already been put to plenty of different uses, everything from a picnic tablecloth to an improvised dressing-gown in hostels with the shower in the corridor.

I wrapped the sarong around myself and towelled myself off, and suddenly everything seemed to make perfect sense. My toes and the area between my shoulder blades ached, but I wasn’t cold any more, not one bit.

Just then something hit my arm so hard that it smarted. The impact was almost electric — sharp and painful. Another blow to my shoulders; a third on my forehead. And only then did I notice that a cloud of black dots had gathered around us.

‘Damn it. Sand flies,’ said Jyrki and swiped at the cloud of insects to make it disperse, opened the door as little as possible and pulled me inside. A few black dots followed us inside but thankfully not very many.

‘We’ll be able to swat them. From now on we need to be careful opening the door. Maybe we should go to the toilet via the lounge, so we don’t need to open any doors directly outside.’

I nodded, sat down on the edge of a bunk and started pulling on dry, warm clothes. I felt so wonderful that I could have burst into tears.



There was a rattle from the veranda. I was setting up our cooker on the metal- plated work surface in the kitchen. I decided that if the newcomer was a ranger I’d say I’d forgotten to put the tickets in the box.

She heard the sound, too, as she brought in the bag of food, looked first at the door then at me and commented that the timing of our little naked escapade had been exceptionally good. Even I tried to smile.

The new arrival was a tall, thin, bearded bloke. A short exchange with him made it clear we didn’t need to worry about the hut tickets. The guy introduced himself as Fabian from Austria, your typical hippie hiker. He said he’d come from Lake Angelus and had first thought he’d stop at John Tait Hut, three hours back down the road, but reckoned he’d still have enough daylight to get out this far. Pretty good estimate; outside the sky was already a dark shade of blue.

I poured water into the pot and left it to boil. I took out some rice cakes, the cheese and a packet of soup, then handed her the empty water bottle and instructed her to fill it up from the tank.

Fabian brought his hiking boots and poles inside, leaving them next to the door, and suggested we do the same. We’d thought it might be a good idea to air our boots, but then Fabian mentioned the keas.

As I lifted our boots and poles into the cabin, Fabian explained that once we were about a thousand metres up we were already in kea territory.

I told him I’d heard people talking about them back in Kepler.

Fabian said that in that case we probably knew what he was getting at.

The door opened, and she came back in with the bottle of water, batting sand flies out of the way and cursing like a trooper. In English she said that she couldn’t understand why such an amazing country had to be full of creatures that were such arseholes. Fabian nodded, and they continued talking about the local fauna. I didn’t really listen any more, but I was amused and slighdy disappointed at her
Animals just follow the behavioural patterns typical of their species; they don’t have morals. Only Disney films depict animals with a concept of good and evil.





Pizza boxes filed inside deep freezers. Packets of frozen chips stacked beside them.

My skin starts to tingle at once. Hollow, familiar. So sweet you want to scratch it.

I have a quick look around and kneel down. The cable winds its way behind the refrigerated drinks cabinet, supposedly out of sight. A sharp tug. Snap. It’s out of the plug point.

An almost imperceptible hum in the soundscape of the store changes. Other than that; nothing happens. Somebody turns up. Lifts bags of frozen vegetables into their shopping trolley. They jangle icily. For now.

It’ll take all day or even until the next morning for anyone to notice. The bags of fries will be mush. Toffee will ooze out of the ice-cream cones. Maybe a clock or an alarm will ring once the temperature inside starts to rise. But by then, with any luck, it’ll be too late.

I pick up a large packet of crisps and a litre-and-a-half bottle of fizzy and take them to the check-out. The girl doesn’t give me a second look. This isn’t the shop where I’ve got an account.

Even if the stuff in the freezers don’t thaw out entirely, there’ll be no way of knowing how long the bags have been warm, whether they’ve gone off or not. just imagine the fuss, the hookah, the palaver. The staff will give each other the evil eye, then end up blaming the cleaners.

If the shopkeeper’s a total tightarse he’ll let the stuff freeze again and try to flog it off. Some shopper’ll be in for a Kinder Surprise when they open their bag of chips, now nothing but furry ice crystals. Some kid’ll end up with ice cream that’s like candle wax.

I rip open the bag of crisps at the shop door; some of them spill on to the stairs. Let the pigeons have their share. I take a good handful of them and stuff them in my mouth so my teeth can hardly move.

Fizzy drinks taste best when the inside of your mouth is white with salt, your saliva glands clogged up.



Deadman’s Bay
Wednesday, March 2007






The people here look like they’re half dead. Grey in the face, and they don’t talk much, can barely muster a passing, exhausted hi. One group at least asks whether it’s a long way to the water source. I point back the way we came, towards the stream, and tell them it’s about two hundred metres, Jyrki offers to show them the way; we need more water for tomorrow, too. There’s another group of six just arriving, including a couple that are clearly well past middle age. They stumble with fatigue and don’t bother looking for a suitable pitch, just shrug their rucksacks to the ground and sit down on or beside their bags to catch their breath, their faces buried in their hands, each of them plastered up to the armpits in mud and soaked through, although there hasn’t been a drop of rain all day.

On top of their boots and trouser legs they’re wearing gaiters, also coated in a thick layer of mud. We had a look at gaiters just like those at the Mountain Design store in Hobart, but Jyrki decided that they’d just be dead weight, only for people who wanted to play it safe.

All these people have crawled in here to spend the night after crossing the Ironbound Range from the opposite direction. Evening is already drawing in, and the camp’s name is beginning to seem decidedly appropriate.



Jyrki is cooking dinner, mixing a packet of tuna into some instant mashed potato. Although he scrapes the packet clean with neurotic care, he still gives it a sceptical sniff.

‘You always get flakes of fish stuck in the corners. In a few days they’ll stink, and the possums will catch the scent immediately.’

He holds out the water bottle and tells me to take the bag a distance from the camp and wash it thoroughly.

I don’t say a word; I just take it and go.

This is the second camp we’ve stayed in where you’re theoretically allowed to start a campfire. Out of curiosity I take a look at the designated campfire spot to see whether it has been stocked with dry logs or whether one of the new arrivals has already started a fire. Then it wouldn’t be our responsibility.

And anyway a plastic bag like that would burn in seconds; Jyrki would never have to know. There’s an old pad of matches in my waist bag, left over from the occasional smoke on some past holiday. Jyrki keeps the lighter for himself.

The campfire spot is a large high ring of stones. Inside it are the charred remains from the last time it was used. The exhausted campers are busying themselves further off; I can see flashes of blue and orange through the foliage. However, I lose interest in our neighbours and the fire the minute I see something sticking out from between the stones in the ring.


bona fide

I don’t know whether it’s been left here for people to read or to be used as kindling. Perhaps it was meant to be read; at a cursory glance I can see that it talks about the finite number of places in paradise and about lions lying languidly beside the lambs. I’m not remotely interested in the text or its content, but in the softness of the yellowish, anything-but-shiny roughness of the pulp paper.

I stuff the paper into the pockets of my camp trousers, every last sheet. Five four-paged little pamphlets, made into A4S by folding them in half twice. Oh, I have a treasure; dearer it is than gold.

I’m in such a good mood that I relent and wash out the damn tuna packet. The bonfire is the best place for the few droplets of rinsing water I’ve used. No doubt the next fire there will destroy every last atom of tuna threatening to disrupt the fine balance of the local ecosystem.






BOOK: Birdbrain
3.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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