Sharp Cuts

by Bruce Costello


Massacre Mountain, scene of a bloody battle in the Land Wars of the 1860’s, first overnight stop on the popular tramping track through native bush across New Zealand’s Aoraka Peninsula.

I was the last tramper to arrive.

I threw down my backpack to claim a bed in the communal bunkroom, took pills for my headache and sore throat, then went outside for a sneaky pee. It was early evening, but the moon had slipped behind a cloud, and I couldn’t see very well. I stumbled into a bush behind which a woman was squatting.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I croaked.

“Quite all right,” the woman laughed. “We’re a long way from any street lights.”

Her voice sounded vaguely familiar.

I went behind another bush and heard her rearranging her clothing, then picking her way over the roots and dry leaves as she returned to the dining hut. I glanced in the window as I traipsed past. People were laughing around a candle-lit table, evidently the tramping group who’d steamed ahead on the first slope, when I stopped to catch my breath and clear my sweat-misted glasses.

Too exhausted to socialize with the other trampers, I went back to the bunk room where I could be alone, and sat on the bed.

* * *

How does a white-haired bachelor fill in his time, when he retires early? After twenty-seven years of family law practice, I was burnt out, sick to death of deceit, distress, degradation, barbarity, vulgarity, jealousy, broken dreams and ruined lives. Fed up with selfish mothers, absent fathers, excuses, lies, pretense and callous disregard for children.

“Take up tramping!” a former colleague had said.

“With this body?”

“Do the Aoraka Track! Easy four-day walk! Great way to meet people.”

* * *

My muscles ached as I rubbed balm into them before struggling into the sleeping bag and shutting my eyes. In the distance some bird was calling. I couldn’t quite place it with the few I knew. How many did I know? I pondered. It wasn’t an owl, it wasn’t a grey heron. Although they like macrocarpa, they roost near water...

I woke with a start as the others came in, their party over. There were muffled whisperings, the creaking of floorboards, and finally the sound of breathing and snoring.

Uncomfortable and rigid, I lay awake. The beds were disturbingly close and my sleeping bag rustled loudly whenever I moved.

I could tell from the breathing and sighing that the person in the next bed was a female. She turned over from time to time and her bed squeaked.

After some hours, she farted. It was pitch black in the room. I heard her sit up and could sense her silhouette turning to me.

“Sorry about that,” the woman said. “You’re awake, too, aren’t you?”

“No need to be sorry,” I said, hoarsely. “We’re a long way from any street lights.”

She giggled. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Afraid so.”

“It’s awful not being able to sleep, isn’t it?” she murmured.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m not used to sleeping in a hut with strangers.”

“I know what you mean,” she muttered. “But, actually, I haven’t been sleeping for months.”

I cleared my throat.

“Are you ill?” she asked.

“Got a bad throat, can hardly speak.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. It would’ve been nice to have someone to talk to.”

“Go ahead,” I spluttered. “I’m a good listener.”

She took a deep breath. “My son Mark died six months ago,” she blurted out.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“He was only thirty-one, just graduated as a lawyer. Such a thoughtful chap, a deep thinker, and caring.”

“Sounds like a great fellow.”

“Yes,” she replied, and blew her nose. “I’m sorry, dumping my troubles on you, someone I’ve never met.”

“S’okay.”

“I was twenty when I had Mark. His father was a serious young fellow I’d only known for a few weeks. He was in love with me and wanted to marry but I just wanted to have fun, so I dumped him. I heard he was very upset, but he didn’t contact me again and I didn’t bother telling him I’d got pregnant or that he had a son. Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve.”

Her voice trailed off and she began to weep, then fell silent, and her breathing told me she was asleep.

I clenched my jaw, buried my head, and waited for the stirring of birds that signaled pre-dawn.

Creeping from the bed, I threw on some clothes and hurried from the hut.

The moon was huge. Clouds scurried across its face and shadows raced over the hill that stretched before me.

My body wracked with sobs for the son I’d never known, my mind blind with rage for his mother, I stumbled off the track and fell, banging my head against a totara tree.

Sticking out of its ancient trunk was an old greenstone Maori adze, still firmly lashed to a small wooden handle.

A minute later, wielding the weapon, I returned to the hut.


Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Costello

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