Flora does Fauna – Jeff Taylor
Baby – Margaret Moores
Housekeeping – Steve Charters
The Birth of the Cabbage Tree Wars – Heather McQuillan
Wind in the face – Keith Nunes
Kaitiakitanga – Elaine Dillon
The whales – Sandra Arnold
Iris Fields in the Desert – Marjory Woodfield
Sue Wootton: The Yield
Elizabeth Smither: Night Horse
Holly Painter: Excerpts from a Natural History
Interview: Sue Kingham, North and South Short, Short Story Competition winner
South Island Writers’ Association Flash Fiction
It was a mast year in the beech forest. We found mouse corpses in the streams, had to boil our water, and you told me not to eat the snowberries I found beside the track like a cluster of tiny moons.
You read and quoted that book about 1080 with increasing zeal. You spoke of statistics, the farce of the media’s debates when really there was only the scientific view and the idiot’s view. When you told me about kea dying excruciating deaths of the poison, I cried. You rolled your eyes and said I was missing the point.
But I understood the weighing of pros and cons. It just seemed terrible that we humans are the ones who got to decide. We who drive into the wilderness in heated cars and sit in dry huts reading our kindles and eating plastic-wrapped muesli bars, deciding who should die to pay for our sins, while all the unknowing bright-eyed creatures hide helpless in the landscape. It seemed Old Testament justice, plagues and floods and playing god. Animals sacrificed with foam on their lips.
That night I dreamed us shrunken, hiding in the bush, foraging for berries, our go-pros abandoned. We ate blue pellets, thinking them candy, and died side by side like Romeo and Juliette, not for love but for foolishness. As we cried out and seized and defecated in our long johns, a feather the length of my body drifted and landed beside me, and I was glad.
Flora does Fauna
If you ask directions to Flora’s Gallery, they’ll tell you it’s down the alley. “Go down that alley,” they’ll say. “Then down the steps and on down the corridor. Just keep heading down…”
It was her summer exhibition that was her downfall. She called it ‘Words on Roads’, and it unfortunately pushed the standards of her art beyond the accepted boundaries. The grand opening was attended by a couple of relatives, and a homeless man who liked asparagus rolls.
‘Headlights’ was a possum with glistening entrails oozing through matted fur. There was an accompanying poem about depression and suicide. An unfaithful partner, unruly offspring and ongoing fears of poison, traps and hunters.
A flattened hedgehog arranged nicely in a pizza box: ‘Meatlovers.’ The piece told of a prickly personality, bad road sense and too-short legs.
‘Detritus’ was a bucketful of indeterminable matter, scraped off the highway. A hoof and some hair, or maybe fur? A story of a lost soul and the meaning of life.
The hawk mangled and tangled with a feral cat that it had been feasting on, she titled ‘Carnivore’, with a short piece about food chains and cannibalism.
And so on…
And it all might have been acceptable but for her piece de resistance, which was spread through a series of glass cabinets.
‘Fonterra Folly’, with a few sentences about the runaway teenager who tried to thumb down a milk tanker from the centreline.
It was reassuring to find the familiar yellow spines of National Geographic magazines in their Airbnb eco-house. After they unpacked, Gina carried some out to the veranda and settled into a deckchair to read in the late afternoon sun. Simon joined her with the instruction booklets for the water pump, the generator and the composting toilet.
As the light began to fade, a flight of bats lifted from the trees below the house to fill the sky with unfamiliar wing-beats. Gina had been reading about the discovery of the mummified remains of an Inuit baby positioned like a doll against its mother’s body. Archaeologists thought that the mother had died from a tumour. She watched the bats for a while, imagining their wings and fur as delicate leathery clothing sewn together with bone needles.
Before it became completely dark, Gina went to try the outdoor shower.
“Water hot enough?” asked Simon when she returned.
He watched while she emptied her sponge-bag onto the bed, turning over the contents. Before they left for the airport that morning, he had removed the blister pack of contraceptive pills from her bag and hidden it in the bathroom cabinet. He reached out to touch her hand.
Gina snatched her hand away.
In the middle of the night she woke suddenly, gasping for breath under the gauze of mosquito netting. How long had the baby cried? Had it really been buried alive?
You hear first, from behind the skirting, a shrill nocturnal cricketing no amount of petulant stamping will deter. You vacuum assiduously – corpses black as lost umbrellas – noticing now that the carpet’s floral fibres have been chewed away. Selectively.
Blowflies, houseflies are a given. Spiders follow. Ants, fleas, the occasional cockroach are manageable. But the spectral house-earwig was a shocking aberration. Insidious slugs, lurking wetas become too much. Skinks invade, rodents shriek and scrabble behind the wallpaper foliage. Overhead, the sudden bump of a possible possum.
There are weevils in the flour. A squadron of pantry-moths escapes the lentil jar. Jettisoned at midnight from high silent battlements, poisoned ant corpses collect in crevices like iron-sand. Swagged cobwebs, drifting, catch the golden borer dust. You occupy your days in defence, besieged, but at sunset huge monocular moth-wings sweep the windowpanes, hard-cased huhus sharply rap. And come the grey dawn your sheets are blood-spotted, forearms itching.
Online you research scabies, hookworms, pubic lice. There are blind dinosaurs foraging your scalp-forest for dander, scouring your eyelashes for detritus. The global insect biomass is staggering. The bacteria you host outnumber, tenfold, the cells of yourself. Your body is a garden, fungi flourishing in warm moist darkness. Life heaves everywhere around you. On you. In you. Overwhelmingly.
The Birth of the Cabbage Tree Wars
His hatred of cordyline australis was spawned in his ancestry. When the council planted them along the coastal path he couldn’t sleep, so strong was his loathing for their sturdy trunks, clumped leaves and the fecundity of bunched flowers. It was no use writing to complain, he was a man of action. From Mitre 10 he bought a power drill, a pump sprayer, glyphosate herbicide, gloves, a facemask and a high-vis vest.
An easterly blew fish smells off the estuary as he drilled on a downward-sloping angle into each striated trunk. The authority of high-vis did the trick. No one questioned him. Retracing his steps he donned the gloves and mask and spurted poison into each hole. Excess liquid dribbled down the trunks.
Over weeks he beheld the browning and withering of ropy leaves. When council workers examined the ravaged plants and news of the sabotage became a subject of discussion, he was emboldened to discover acquaintances who shared in his loathing. The cabbage tree’s ability to withstand fire and axe, and the inconvenience of leaves entangling mower blades were their main pretext. If you listened closely you heard a different rationale: how gentle willow and compliant ash were preferred over the strong-willed creatures of this ancient land.
As he drove homeward, the coastal path teemed with women in high-vis. They wielded spades and recited karakia as they dug in three plants for every one that he’d destroyed.
His hatred of women was spawned in his ancestry. He couldn’t sleep.
Wind in the face
You can’t see the wind, he liked to say, and he couldn’t see what she had coming either.
Melissa had a way of fending him off when he asked how things were as though he needed to be told.
The trouble with devotion, with unconditional blinded love is you can’t see a damn thing.
“Harry, it’s time, you know, it’s well and truly over. I’m leaving you,” she said holding her gin and tonic tightly.
“But … we could have talked about his sooner, we might have saved this if you’d only …”
“Look here, no need for recriminations and ifs and buts now, all right, I’ve said it’s over.” She put the G&T down and left for the bedroom.
He followed and watched her pull her packed bag from under the bed, shoulder her purse and then shove past him and out into the garage and down the driveway and … wherever.
Harry stood on the edge of their driveway, facing down the road where the red SUV was blinking a green indicator and then was gone.
The northerly got up, weaved through the plane trees and covered his face in a light dusting of pollen.
“You can see it if you look hard enough,” said the neighbour’s son leaning on his fence, “the wind, you’re always saying you can’t see it but you can.”
Last night I dreamt of fallen chiefs. I am bound to this land; the weeping rangatira, the bleeding ngahere. I do not want to not do enough.
There is a tightening in her smile as her eyes flick over my moko. Her husband shoulders his pack.
“I’m wondering if you’re aware of the rāhui?”
A child leans against their silver RAV4. His fingertips blur on console buttons, and a wire leads to buds in his ears. I look up at the sound of kererū wingbeats overhead. Iridescent feathers catch the sun as the bird lands amongst leaves that sizzle and snap with cicadas.
The man shifts, rolls his eyes. “Look, we’ve driven a long way up here, ok? You actually can’t stop us. Only the council have the authority to close the park.”
He stands square and I know that despite the statistics, despite the science, his belief is unwavering; the bush-bash is his right. I look at his son and wonder if his children will ever see a standing kauri. I want to share the stories my tupuna whisper on the breeze.
But I know this man will not be turned back so I swallow my te reo. “Please make sure you use the disinfectant and brushes at the cleaning station.”
As they walk away, I wonder about that old proverb: what is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
They heard on the radio that there was a whale stranding on Farewell Spit and more volunteers were needed to keep them cool until the tide turned. The little girl jiggled in her car seat. “Let’s go, Mummy. Now!”
On the beach they saw hundreds of pilot whales lying on the sand. Some were already dead; others were still breathing. The child started to cry.
“There’s no time for that,” her mother reprimanded. “There’ll be plenty of time to cry later. Right now we have to do what we can.”
The child sniffed back her tears and ran to the sea to fill the bucket a volunteer handed her. She joined a group pouring water over sheets the volunteers had placed on the whales’ backs to keep them cool and wet. The mother looked into the eye of the whale she was helping and heard it give a low whistling sound. A calf lying nearby answered. The woman glanced up to see a chain of people in the sea trying to stop the re-floated whales coming back to shore.
“They won’t leave their babies,” someone said. “Even when their babies are dead.”
The beach filled with the saddest sounds the woman had ever heard.
Weeks, months, years later she can’t forget the sound of the whales’ keening. The memory of it reverberates through her, splits her heart. It tears her out of her skin, leaving her ragged with pain.
Iris Fields in the Desert
Take the Buraida road north out of Riyadh. At Exit 11 (25° 33.410’N, 45° 53.890’E) turn right towards Tumayr.
This is the time for them. Last week of February, first week of March. Spring. We spread rugs, get out chairs, put up a picnic table. Jean-Luc positions his camera and tripod. Time-lapse. Last year, he says, he arrived too late. This year he is prepared. His lens locked on one small bud. Gynandiris sisirhynchium. Purple iris. He sits. Waits. At noon the buds will open. Andrew and Pak point to their watches. The sun, the heat, the sand blowing everywhere. Barren wilderness without shelter. Before leaving we take a photo of small parched leaves. Pak pointing, laughing at the camera.
Later Jean-Luc shares his photography. Says what a shame you missed them but here, at least you can see my pictures.