The Ways Of Love
Writing about the tattoos adorning a long dead girl or the life of a cranky uncle may invite the charge of being 'unspiritual' – but spirituality permeates every part of God's lovely world just like the all-pervasive invisibility of air and the elusive intangibility of consciousness, the living stuff of all being. And love – one of the most powerful forces in our universe – although hidden away in the troubled lives of my characters, I saw it there, a tiny furtive thing promising one day to bloom. And it delights me to recall its brief flowering.
Uncle Dan stopped for gas in Turangi in the winter of 1974, a ten-minute coffee'n pie pick-me-up en route to another intended life, but instead got to talking to a local, sat yarning around a cheap formica cafe table while light snow drifted, heard of a good job, housing included, decided to stay and see. The settlement was surrounded by volcanoes, Pihunga, Kuharua, Kakaramea, all clad higher up in the olive green of virgin forest – tangled, logged over slash, broken logs, regenerating vines and scrub blanketed the lower slopes, then a clear line of demarcation, a sudden wall of tall dark trees where the chainsaws had fallen silent, the remnant canopy reminding of what had once been a glorious abundance. To the east the long mystic spine of the Kaimanawa mountains, alpine ridge tops with their steep scree slides blazing gold when the sun shone.
That day mist hung in a flat long plimsoll line over the world, everything over 1,000 metres lost in a cloying white soup. In a drizzle of slow falling snowflakes Dan drove to the accommodation first, seeing the place where he would spend the next thirty years, die in too, the empty yellow house sitting on one metre piles close to the Tongariro river, a dog kennel and chain out back, dog long gone. A pool of fire blackened stones, fish bones where someone had cooked a trout. Dan liked what he felt here, decided to stay, take the job whatever. Turangi was an electricity town, boomed during the ten years that it took the hydro schemes and spillways to grow, re-jigging landscapes, diverting mountain catchments into twenty miles of concrete flows that ran across a volcanic plateau, bored straight through a mountain range then plunged down into turbines, a man lost for every mile of drilling.
The workers left, the town withered, those remaining too poor to leave – a handful of tourism operators, loggers, trout fishermen, misfits with reason to lay low, Park officials, ski field workers, Maori families that loved the land. He quickly came to love the place too, an affinity too deep for words, the clear green river that sang all night, flowing in long runs down rapids of grey smooth stones or quiet in deep calm pools, soothing, cradling his sleep, touching his heart deeper than words ever could. In April on a still cold night, first snows, you could hear the wild red stags bellow up on Kuharua, a sound that thrilled him, the great beasts high up in the alpine mists and black forest growling and roaring through the night – the primal spirit of wild places and the pathos of a vanishing world.
Dan befriended a few of the locals, characters in whom he recognised a part of himself, refugees from the urban grind with it's idiot ambitions. Sometimes with his neighbour they'd go up into the mountains before daybreak, sneak across old man Campbell's farm, a shortcut, heart thumping in his chest from exertion, excitement – up through the great podocarps and undercanopy of ferns and dense vines towards the sounds spilling out in the darkness, the stags' guttural moans and rage, the white tines slashing at foliage, shredding an old totara stump, the ancient ritual of procreation. Once the farmer saw them climbing his fences before daybreak, let loose with a double barrel shotgun. Later Dan read about his slow death pinned under a tractor, serve the old geezer right, he thought, remembering buckshot scorching over their heads on that illicit foray, curses ringing in their ears as they fled into the National Park's black wall of trees.
A rich lode of colourful expletives ran through Dan's vocabulary like veins of quartz across an exposed rock face, his opinions shot through with the zig-zag lightning white of his profane, unbridled tongue. But could be a sweet and sentimental old goat at times, as in his unwavering dotage on grandchildren, especially the obese and waspish Dolly whose hormonal disarray caused explosive mood swings that he found endearing, touched his heart. The house shuddered when Dolly visited, floorboards thundering under her elephantine weight, sherry glasses trembling and clinking in the wall cabinet where the grandfather's Waterford crystal blazed. Even the caged, irrepressible yellow songbirds fell silent, as though sensing an impending quake.
Dolly wore a succession of bewildered t-shirts, her favourite emblazoned with 'does anybody know the plot?'. Beneath, an iconic bemused face with interrogative hands upraised. But no one dared suggest an answer. Her own bewilderment at life's inscrutable ways encouraged her to take refuge in a comatose twilight of television and protracted sleep, almost hibernation, waiting for the long winter of her discontent to pass. Which it did not, though her occasional visits to the grandfather helped, and the sherry poured by the grandfather's own trembling hands from the ceremonial Waterford decanter softened her, a sweet marinade that loosened the knot of her heart into an almost tiny smile. Between these two palliatives a distant hope glimmered.
In her mid-teens tattoos began to flower, at first a secret and discreet butterfly concealed on one shoulder then a barbed wire scroll around an ankle. The grandfather loved dark secrets and chuckled, winked his complicity. As rebellion increased, so too the dark pigmented images multiplied, blossomed and sprang on her flesh – a lurid crouching jaguar, a wrap-around Polynesian motif on one entire thigh, the faces of defiant mentors – Che Guevara, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix – on arms and shoulders. Then finally, an all-out declaration of war, a scaly green and red dragon uncoiling up her back, fanged and bloody jaws breathing her own apostate fire, one taloned claw coiled around her pale throat.
Her mother visibly shuddered when Dolly flaunted her defiance, once even peeling off a garment at the beach – tiny in-laws, gleeful and shrieking, rushed over to inspect the maquillage of tattooed insects and symbols. The reptilian artwork glared, hateful thigh dark blue with war paint and pigment, an embossed Che Guevara on her arm conniving in the daughter's own revolution. Now in the mother a far-off and sleeping dragon of her own anger stirred – she imagined her writhing offspring manacled to a bed, herself scrubbing off the tapestry of snarls and fangs and tangled wire with an excoriating acid while the daughter howled and wept, an expulsion of demons. Though finally chose silence, sensing hopelessness.
Dolly acquired a car, painted it one afternoon in all the colours of her rage and freedom, reckless daubs of the garish and grotesque, scumbles of red, green, black, yellow, the vehicle transformed into a demented spotted bug that proved an ironic and irresistible magnet to every passing police car. Then drove off one day never to be seen by the mother again.
The grandfather fumbled along, though missed his brooding kin – years slip by, made coherent as his own life plot only by the rivers calm refrain, water become time, time itself as water, each month a bead on the turquoise thread, the balm of flowing green a leitmotif that brought order and continuity to the cyclic blur of seasons, snows, his own emotions, randomness, pointlessness, lovelessness, and not a word from the evanescent Dolly who alone had won his crotchety love. He recalled her huge form, the painted claw on her neck as she swivelled in farewell, the diminutive ruined car with it’s defiant daubs of paint beetling away down a gravel road out of his life forever.
Until one Autumn afternoon, an eternity later, a phone call from a faraway place, fat lady dead, Dolly Carlyle, are you next of kin? What, what, what, oh Jesus he said stupidly. A moment of frozen disbelief, this can’t be happening, then a pain in his heart like a hot needle, something hidden carefully away by masks, habit, cantankerousness, resolve, dissolving into hot tears, floodgates of his walled-up secret heart breaking open. How did you ever find me, he thought to ask, a stupid question out of the wet mask. The tattoos, the voice said, the heart on her right arm, her name on top, yours below, Uncle Dan and phone number etched into the flesh. You must have been really special to her.
Dan took Dolly's odds and ends stacked in boxes in his house and burnt them by the edge of the river, a private ceremony of valediction, final parting of ways. The ashes flew away in the wind, the charred lumps of her things to be borne away by the next high water. The fire-blackened stones would remain and remind for years, but the river won’t mind, thought Dan, for no one loves the river more than I do.