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Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

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

Birdbrain (9 page)

BOOK: Birdbrain
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We stopped, and the silence driven away by the stamping of our feet flowed back again from the recesses of the land.

—Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

Nelson Lakes
February 2007






She was panting like a little horse, white spittle collecting around the edges of her mouth. But she didn’t complain; just hauled herself up using her hands. Her hiking poles clanked against the rocks like chattering teeth as they dangled around her wrists.

Travers Saddle was the first mountain pass she’d crossed in her life.

And it was over seventeen hundred metres high. The terrain was similar to that in the Alps — every now and then we had to clamber up almost vertical rock faces — although in the Alps I’d never had to scale many slopes as challenging as these. This was no longer simply rambling; this was mountaineering.

You could just make out patches of snow at the top of the mountain.

We had a break once we got to the top; a muesli bar and some water. The views were impressive, but we could only rest for a few minutes. The eight-kilometre leg had taken us eight hours; that was reason enough not to sit about daydreaming.

The path down was nothing but a steep, loose scree. At times we were almost skating. Further down the slope the river had flooded big time. Without a decent map this path would have been all but invisible beneath all the trees that had been ripped up by their roots.

It was a hellish stretch.

And she didn’t make a peep.

When day began to turn into afternoon, I suggested that maybe we shouldn’t go to Angelus Lake but that we take the Circuit instead. The trail to Angelus was marked on the map as a particularly difficult route.

I imagined she wouldn’t be that up for something even more challenging than this quite yet.

She didn’t say anything, just gave a shake of the head and spluttered, and again she made me think of a horse — a small, stubborn pony. I wasn’t sure whether the shake of the head was a yes or a no.



The trail to Sabine Hut wound its way through a valley, crossing some incredible bubbling gorge rivers on the way, the kinds of places that in Finland would instantly be turned into sites of national importance with local-history museums and inns serving traditional food. Crossing one of the gorges, we met a woman coming from the opposite direction. She chatted to us for a while, like everyone around here, and eventually asked us if we had any hut tickets.

What? Did she want to buy them from us? Then, to my embarrassment, I realized that she was a ranger — she had a DOC patch sewn on to the front of her Girl-Guide-brown shirt.

At West Sabine we had put four of our tickets into the box. Jyrki dug the remaining four out of his bag and showed them to the woman. In fluent English he explained that we were on our way to Speargrass Hut for the night and that from there it was only a short leap over to St Arnaud.

The woman nodded, indicated that Jyrki could put the tickets away and said something about us having a very long day ahead.

Jyrki waved his hand. I looked at him enquiringly, but his expression remained impassive. The woman bid us a good day.

Sabine Hut was located at perhaps the most beautiful spot imaginable, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. The hut was big — it was more of a manor house — and boasted a large veranda and breathtaking views out across the lake. Reaching out into the open lake was a jetty inviting passing hikers to swim and row out into the water.

It would have been the most wonderful place in the world to spend the afternoon and the evening had it not been — like everywhere in New Zealand’s southern island near water and not a thousand metres above sea level — the sand flies’ very own Riviera.

We thought we’d seen sand flies at Upper Travers Hut, but this was something else entirely. The air was quite literally black. They were buzzing in heaving swarms. Bites like stinging electric shocks prickled all around us, tiny black spots pushing their way into our eyes, our mouths and our nostrils.

Once we had escaped into the hut, we saw that the situation indoors wasn’t much better. Annoyingly, the door had been left open for the best part of the day. A stoical hiker sat on the upper bunk of one of the beds reading — perhaps he was a local who had developed some kind of immunity, or else he was a fakir looking for new and exciting ways to torture himself.

‘We can’t stay here,’ I said, agonized, as we stuffed our mouths with rice cakes and dried fruit without enjoying them in the least. ‘We just can’t. We’ll go crazy.’

‘It’s two o’clock. The sun won’t set for another seven hours. We could reach Speargrass in that time.’

I couldn’t help but give a smirk.

‘Well, that’s what you told the ranger.’

If Jyrki was capable of blushing, he blushed right then.

‘Are you up for it?’

Well, what do you know? The first time he’d ever asked me that question.

‘We’ve got to. There can’t be anything worse than this.’

How little I knew.



Needless to say, the trail immediately turned into a gallant incline that continued for hours and hours. On top of that it was extremely ragged and difficult to traverse — clearly it had been trodden much less than the trails we had seen during the previous days. The strangest thing was that the whole forest seemed hollow; our hiking poles sunk deep into the ground in the oddest places, and between the roots of trees we could see hollows, some the size of caves. Jyrki explained that this could have been the site of an enormous landslide and that the forest could have grown on top of the displaced soil.

Our progress was eerily slow and difficult, staggering and stumbling all the way, and we didn’t speak for hours, the only sounds being our gasping and cursing and the occasional clank of pole against rock.

And all the while the trail continued inexorably upwards — even, unforgiving. draining.

The rest of the world was nowhere
as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind
,Joseph whispered in my ears.

The trek up to Travers Saddle had been a brisk, relatively demanding stroll; this, on the other hand, was nothing short of a slow, torturous death.

My hands were so sticky with sweat that my fingers stuck to one another. My shins were two lifeless logs, moving one after the other only because they could n0 longer stop.

By the time we arrived in Speargrass there was barely an hour of daylight left.







Deadman’s Bay
Thursday, March 2007






The next morning she seems pretty motivated, although it’s early and she should understand well enough by now that Ironbound is nasty.

You can’t set up camp halfway across it. There’s no even ground, and once you get up on the ridge there’s no water either. Out here the fixed campsites aren’t just more of the same over-the-top mollycoddling; they are, quite simply, the only places where there’s a reliable brook and enough flat ground to put up a tent.

She wants coffee instead of tea. I prefer tea. Still, we have to come to some kind of compromise, as teabags and sachets of instant coffee all have to be shared.

The smell of coffee is all-pervading; it doesn’t belong in the breaking dawn. It makes me think of the city; latte-faces sitting around outside Starbucks.

I’d set the mobile to wake us up at half past five, to give us plenty of time. Without a GPS, the alarm-clock function is the only use for a mobile phone out here. It feels odd being in a place where the air isn’t thick with signals. How do we know what kind of invisible nerve poisons they’re cunningly feeding us — odourless, tasteless but as corrosive as radioactive fall-out? Wireless technology has been developed little by little, so much so that soon it’ll meet the fate of the Megaloceros giganteus: in order to secure its survival, evolution required that the animal grow larger and larger sets of antlers until finally the entire Irish elk species collapsed under the weight of its own puffed-up majesty.

Crossing Ironbound can take up to ten hours. She says she needs the toilet. I ask her why she doesn’t just go in the bushes. She mumbles something about a number two.

I’m ready to leave. Waiting around eats away at my time and motivation.

The pit toilet is at the end of a path marked with a couple of plastic orange ribbons. She wanders off, checking her pockets on the way: making sure she’s got her paper tissues. Mine are already gone. I’ll have to remember to stock up from hers.

Now I understand why she wanted coffee. My stomach is telling me that coffee gets things moving in your gut.



The pamphlets rustle in my pockets as I crouch down in the grass and throw up the morsel of flatbread and the cheese I’ve had for breakfast. Even as it rises up my throat, the vomit still smells of granulated coffee. The food hasn’t had time to be digested, so I kick at the dried leaves to hide the spatter of sick.

I’ve completely forgotten about going to the loo; or rather, I haven’t forgotten about it, but it’ll have to bloody wait.

The lid of the pit toilet, knocked together from some rotten planks of wood, is still open behind me; I can feel the smell in my nose and try to breathe through my mouth to stave off another gag reflex. I wipe the string of saliva dangling from the side of my mouth with a rough piece of pamphlet. I slowly stagger to my feet, trying not to look down into the pit as I throw in the piece of paper and slide the lid back on with my foot.

But I can’t help seeing down there, there in the brightening light of the Tasmanian morning.

Only a hand’s width away from the edge of the pit is a heaving mass of pure brown liquid shit. And the mass is swarming and buzzing, literally boiling, so that its surface is teeming and twirling with large fat white maggots.

I shunt the lid into place, turn and crouch down again, but there’s nothing in my stomach but yellow bile.

By the time I get back to the camp, there’s a bitter acidic taste in my mouth. Jyrki jumps to his feet from the tree trunk he’s been sitting on and glances at his watch.

I can’t tell him. I think of Conrad.

‘Men who come out here should have no entrails.’ He sealed the utterance with that smile of his, as though it had been a door opening into a darkness he had in his keeping.

Tve got to wash my hands. Will you pour?’

Jyrki nods with a sigh — more time-wasting. I can feel beads of sweat appear on my forehead when I go to look for the wombat bottle in the side pocket of my rucksack, but it’s not there.

‘Where’s the wombat bottle?’

Jyrki shrugs his shoulders. ‘I haven’t used it.’

‘You fetched the water last night.’

‘It was a deep brook. You could hold bottles under the water. I used the bigger bottles and the Platypus.’

‘So where is it then?’

I search everywhere; I look under the bushes and behind the trees. I remember that the bottle was empty when we arrived at the camp; I’d taken it out of my shorts pocket when I got changed. Where had I put it? Next to the bigger bottles in the vestibule, like I always did? I can’t remember for sure; it’s become such a routine.

‘Follow your tracks. But, hey, we haven’t got time for this. I’m more concerned that you’ve dropped it in the first place. As far as the environment is concerned, human beings are nothing but sum of their excretions, and now that bottle is just a piece of non-biodegradable rubbish in completely the wrong place — and it was left there by you.’

I can feel my eyes itching and stinging, my lower eyelids filling, I feel bad as it is. Jyrki is pouring water on to my hands from the Platypus. I rub them together long and hard, almost devoutly, as if I were cleansing myself of what I’d seen a moment ago, and wipe my hands on my shorts. I pick up the Platypus and take a couple of long gulps of water, although I can see from Jyrki’s expression that he thinks we should have saved those few drops for when we’re on the road. I hand the bottle back to him and have a last look behind our tree-trunk seats.

‘I’ve had that bottle from the minute we arrived in Australia.’

‘A freebie given out on the plane. It would be another thing if we’d lost a lighter or an army knife. Besides, you should never become too attached to inanimate objects.’








. . .everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him — hut that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.

—Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

Nelson Lakes, Speargrass Hut
February 2007






The hut at Speargrass was crammed to the rafters. After the roominess at West Sabine, and especially at Upper Travers Hut, walking into this place was like being slapped across the face with a wet towel. When I saw how crowded it was I considered putting up the tent, but there wouldn’t have been a decent pitch. The area around the hut was bobbled with clumps of grass, rough hillocks the size of your head every metre or so.

It turned out that most of the people in the hut were there for a party — a hen party, of all things.

You must be a real Kiwi if your idea of fun is dragging sacks full of dishes and pans, tinned food and fresh vegetables a good three hours from the nearest village. Or, more to the point, an hour and a half from the nearest car park.Then there are the sleeping-bags and all manner of other paraphernalia. Then you have fun all by yourselves in a hut where there’s barely room to move.

There were about a dozen women in the hen-party crowd. All the others in the hut were either lone hikers or couples. As we arrived the evening sky was already turning a dark shade of blue, so we were by default the last ones in.

There wasn’t any room for our rucksacks by the wall. We tried to rest them against other people’s stuff so that they wouldn’t be in the way. They had to be taken out for the night anyway, but it’s just nicer to do some things in the warm.

Then I saw the bunks. Every mattress had a bag, a pillow or a sleeping-bag on it. I tried to count how many people there were in the hut and how many berths there were; the numbers didn’t match, but perhaps there were still some people outside. I told her this, and she nodded. The disappointment in her eyes was bottomless.



Everyone was fussing around the kitchen worktops or sitting eating or reading at the table in the long cabin. We stood in the middle of the room for a good while before anyone even looked at us. Nobody budged from the bench. Nobody moved closer to the person sitting next to them, not even to create the illusion that they were trying to make space for us. If I picked up on any kind of signal at our arrival, it was the message of barely hidden contempt shining from their faces: What the hell are they doing coming in here at this time?

Jyrki started rummaging in his rucksack, took out his mug and the bag with his change of clothes and stepped outside without saying a word. I stood where I was and sensed the sweat turning cold on my clothes, and with it a sense of paralysis flowed into my limbs. I was stiff, right through to my bones, numb and aching. Jyrki came back almost immediately, his brow furrowed.

‘The water tank was empty.’

‘How’s that possible?’

‘There are probably more people at this place than at the other huts.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Or else someone’s left the tap dripping or washed their dishes using too much running water. But there’s a brook down there.’ He looked around and sniffed. Well, I’ll bet you if I started running about here in the buff I’d be out of here before you could say sexual-harassment charges.’

I gave a start, and mixed with the feeling of chill and irritation and hunger and muscle ache came the memory of what this trip had cost me, and I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at Jyrki’s joke, although I appreciated he was only trying to lighten the mood.

There was nothing I wanted less than to walk down to the brook, but we needed water, and anything would have been preferable to the stiff atmosphere in the hut — so thick with rejection that when we opened the door it felt like poking our heads out of a viscous jelly.

The brook was wide, clear and lively, although it was pretty far away from the cabin. From the bank you almost couldn’t make out the cabin at all against the darkening sky. Nearer to the cabin was a small ditch, muddy, narrow and overgrown, Somebody from the cabin was standing there filling her cooking pot with water.

‘Idiots,’ Jyrki scoffed.

Taking off my sticky clothes felt awful, and the first mugful of cold water on my face and neck even worse, but after a moment it felt as though the water had flowed through my skin and was now roaring in my veins, as searing as pure alcohol, and when I stood up to dry myself my cheek were red, my heart was pounding; the icy wind felt cooling and refreshing against my skin, and I was ready to go back into the hut, be there dragons or not.



We cooked our noodles and ate our rice cakes — standing up, of course, until a couple of our fellow cabin residents returned to their mattresses to read by the light of their headlamps, and we could finally rest our backsides on the edge of one of the kitchen benches. We washed our dishes and brushed our teeth outside, and when we came back into the cabin I realized that everybody was inside by now. People had already retired to their bunks, some had slid inside their sleeping-bags, and the only people still giggling and chatting inanely were the hen-night crowd. Candles were lit on the table, and the bride-to-be — for whom, up here at an altitude of over a thousand metres, someone had been bothered to lug a plastic tiara — was subjected to a number of long, complicated tests, tarot readings, you name it, all of which invariably resulted in volleys of feigned virginal sniggers.

One of the mattresses must have been free. Simply counting the number of people in the cabin was enough to work it out, but it had been very cleverly covered with bundles of clothes and all manner of other stuff. Although I tried to stare meaningfully at the berth, when I finally went and sat on it out of sheer bloody-mindedness nobody offered to move any of the junk away.

I wasn’t planning on asking whether the place was taken or not. I could only imagine the general sense of irritation, the scowling that would have made the air in the cabin even stickier and turned us into even larger and more shapeless lumps of solidified intrusion than we already were.

In any case, there was only one free mattress — although all the mattresses were laid next to one another, forming a single soft surface. It wouldn’t have caused a great deal of discomfort to them if everyone had shifted ten centimetres towards their neighbour to make some more room. Both of us would have fitted into the newly created space.

There were very clear rules in these cabins: first come, first served, no reservations, not even for a friend turning up later on. And, when the cabin is overcrowded, you’re supposed to make room.

Apparently they hadn’t bothered reading the latter rule on the list, although the first rule was clearly to be strictly upheld.

For a moment I wondered whether or not to check for hut tickets. I was sure there would be people who hadn’t paid — I couldn’t see any ticket stubs dangling from their straps or rucksack buckles. After checking the bags, I’d inform them all that in these situations it’s clear that paying customers take preference.

Who did I think I was kidding? If I couldn’t bring myself to point out the fact of the unfairly reserved berth, how could I suddenly turn into a self-appointed ranger? And the wave of anger and disapproval that would undoubtedly follow would be enough to make you choke.

We stared at the floor.

In a way, it seemed symptomatic of these people’s indifference that no one had noticed we were speaking Finnish. Normally this was a sure-fire conversation-opener. Hey, what kind of language is that? We spoke in muttered, hushed voices, as though we were suddenly ashamed of our own language, too. Perhaps we were.

‘There’s nothing else for it.’


We dug out our sleeping-mats — all the while overly aware of the noise we were causing, our movements filling the air space, and trying to minimize the fuss as much as possible — and inflated them. We couldn’t go next to the benches because there was a constant flow of people going to and fro into the kitchen area. For the same reason we couldn’t go next to the door. Not next to the bunks, that was for sure, as anyone might have to leave their bed and get up in the middle of the night.

The only place we could find was half covered by the kitchen worktops. As we were laying out our mats and sleeping-bags I could feel that we were being watched all the time, and whenever I tried to return the gaze I noticed that eyes were turned away suddenly and deliberately to one side. We’re not getting your hints, their eyes were telling me.

I crawled inside my sleeping-bag. Already I could feel the draught coming up through the floorboards. Beneath my thin mat the planks felt very, very hard.

Jyrki gave me a kiss, then zipped himself inside his own sleeping-bag like an Egyptian mummy.

At first I tried to read Conrad, but it was too dark, and taking out my headlamp would have attracted as much hostile attention as a lighthouse. I tried to close my eyes, but the shrieks and sniggers from the hen-party table only seemed to increase, at times even bursting into song. Their enjoyment seemed to be blown out of all proportion, considering that, at least as far as I could see, they hadn't brought a drop of alcohol with them to Speargrass Hut.

Then the traffic started.

All of a sudden, almost all of the women in the hen-party group had things to do in the kitchen area. Fetching one thing, bringing another, looking for matches, candles, bags of crisps. Their feet hit us in the ribs, back, almost in the head; the girls were very uninhibited and utterly unapologetic. What have you gone and laid down there for, the feet were saying loud and clear.

It was well into the early hours of the morning by the time the last of the bridesmaids had stopped whispering and giggling in their bunks.

Everything was silent, and I needed the toilet.

Outside the moon was shining.

It was pretty damned beautiful.

I couldn’t be bothered to climb the steps up to the outhouse but crouched down next to the porch. As I clambered back towards the door, I suddenly remembered.

At first it came to me because of the mountains, then because of Conrad.

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster
but there

there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.

I remembered what Fabian had told me.

The keas.

The keas, those mean, intelligent birds.

The hen party’s things were on the veranda, to the left of the door. I knew this because the girls had been going in and out all night to collect various things, to go to the toilet, and on their way tying their shoes or rummaging in their bags right over there.

Now I had a beak.

Now I had claws.

I ruffled my feathers in the night air and the pale golden moonlight shining across the glens. My wings fluttered for a moment before closing shut in a quiver.

I reached out a long agile limb.

A shoe lace, just like that.

A backpack buckle open, just like that, and what item would it be particularly annoying to lose? Keys? Absolutely. Car keys? Now that would be a shame.

The insole of a shoe left out to air, just like that; looks like it was one of those special-shaped ones, maybe even made to measure. Shit happens.

A few more shoe laces, clothes yanked out of an open bag, spilt out like colourful bowels — who knows where the wind might carry them? The capricious New Zealand wind.

boots were inside, and the rucksacks we’d left on the veranda were securely covered. Of course, I pulled back the covers over our bags, too, picked at them with my quick, nimble and oh-so-nifty claws and opened up a few zips: our things had to be touched as well, that was clear. But we didn’t lose anything; our luck was in.

I went back into the cabin, which was now filled with the sound of sniffling, gentle snoring and the smell of farts and candle wax, and once I had crawled back into my sleeping-bag I fell asleep like a contented child.

BOOK: Birdbrain
3.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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