Earlier this year I participated in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) through the University of Iowa Writing School – and hey it was free and populated by some amazing and inspiring poets from all over the world – including a disproportionate number of Kiwis.  It was great and over time I’ll post some of the poems.  I just started another MOOC from U Iowa How Writers Write Fiction.  Unlike the poetry course where I actually had to create something new for each module – I do have about five unfinished short stories in the drawer of unfinished things (third drawer down in my dresser of infinite possibilities, right under the drawer of difficult but avoidable conversations and over the drawer of unfinished knitting and quilting projects).  The double top drawer (in case you were wondering) contains clothing that no longer fits but may again some day and to be done lists from unfinished (or not started) projects.

It may be a finished story – but then maybe that means it is – or it could be the outline for a longer work.  The story (long or short) is based on a true story – if any stories are true – or maybe they all are – about a hermit who lived in Karamea at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.

Here’s Parrots in Peru ( V3)

Parrots in Peru

Staring into the silvered bathroom mirror, Paul cups his hands under the tap and quickly splashes hot water onto his face.  Lathering up with the worn brush, he scrapes his father’s old razor across his skin, wincing as he nicks his chin.  Paul carefully rinses the razor placing it back in the now mouldy chipped glass where it’s sat for as long as he can remember.  It’s early morning.  Paul’s mother hasn’t started screaming yet.

Walking into the kitchen, he sits at the table, looking out the window, across the familiar lawn to the big tree and the bush beyond.  His mother enters the room wearing her black suit and carrying her hat.  She glances idly at Paul, as if he were a familiar watch, or a magazine in the dentist’s office. The storm is closer now.  First the lightning – Paul counts slowly, waiting,then the thunder.  A tearing sound followed by a sharp crack.

‘Met anyone yet?’  She asks as she starts breakfast, slicing bread.  ‘No I guess not.  Not that you’d tell me anyway.’  Not waiting for his reply, she cuts another slice.‘Most of your friends have kids already.  Your dad would have liked that.’

‘We’ll be late if we don’t hurry.  Are you going to change?  Paul, are you listening to me?  Paul!’

Paul presses his back against the chair and stares down at his hands. His mother is screaming now, Paul can barely understand her words. She throws down the knife and turns away from him, crying. She knows he has no intention of changing – changing anything at all.

The others go off to the pub afterwards.  Paul and his mother return to the house.  She hangs up her coat.  Taking off her hat, she smoothes the veil back over the dusty brim and places it on the hall table.  She walks over to the dining-room cupboard and takes a bottle off the shelf.  Grabbing  a glass, she carries them both easily in one hand.  ‘I’ll just go lie down for a bit,’ his mother says.    Paul watches her walk heavily from the room.

Later on, Paul goes upstairs and grabs his pack.  He knocks on the door of what is now only his mother’s bedroom and waits in the hall. There is no answer.

Carefully closing the front door, Paul walks quickly, eyes forward, ignoring the heavy rain. The sky, dark at mid-day, is lit by lightning flash, the ground vibrates with thunder.  Paul wanted to go to his father’s funeral, even if they hadn’t spoken for years.

————–

The road is empty. As the car leaves the shade of the trees, sun-strike turns the windscreen black.  At first, Cara thought the hills lush like elephants rolling under a blanket – dominating and velvet – like sex.  They’d had time to be together then, walking the hills that now seemed barren and confining.  Cara drives slowly home, reluctant to return to the almost tedious chaos.  ‘It’s all temporary,’ she thinks.  ‘Everyone is heading for a place where they think they will stay – until they move on to the next best thing.’

While her eyes remain fixed on the winding road, her thoughts drift to obsessively read stories; tales of navigators sailing single-handed through stormy southern oceans with only the barest essentials – wax-covered eggs and rusty alarm clocks. She remembers a friend, an ‘almost-lover,’ half a world away.  Richie, like Cara, was born in New York City – the Capital of the Devil – the kind of city where you take your chances.  His parents were the ultimate survivors of concentration camp beginnings.  They arrived, without even a suitcase, and soon became prosperous merchants of an alien god; selling statues of saints to a myriad of displaced Irish Catholics.  When they died, too young, they left their only son both an apartment building, and an irrational fear of crossing the water.  Once, Cara and Richie thought each the other’s evil twin.  Now they exchanged birthday cards, Facebook likes and the occasional phone call.  A relationship easily picked-up from wherever last left.

Cara drives on autopilot, vaguely acknowledging the turn-off by the bus shed, the narrowing before the one-way bridge, the cattle-stop by the front gate.  It all feels mildly claustrophobic.  No matter how far she drives she’ll still be here.  Cara fights the urge to go back to New York – where distance is measured in city blocks – 20 to the mile.

—————-

‘Hurry up, he’ll be here any minute’.

His mother sounds tired again.   Paul has just finished mowing the lawn.  His father will be home soon.  Paul’s father works the early shift down at the works.  Finishing at 4, he always stops at the pub before coming home.   His father likes the porch swept and the lawn kept short, often mown twice a week if it’s been raining.  He likes the yard kept tidy.  These are Paul’s jobs.  Paul is seven years old.

Paul’s father walks carefully up the drive, he places one foot directly in front of the other, as if walking a tightrope.  He doesn’t stop to look at the lawn, entering the house he ignores Paul.  Paul quietly moves to the far side of the room.  His mother comes out of the kitchen carrying his father’s dinner.

‘What again! Don’t I work hard enough to eat better than this slop.’  He grabs the plate, throwing it against the wall.  ‘Clean up that bloody mess you lazy cow.’

‘Look what you’ve done you old bastard.’

Paul’s mother is screaming.  Her face is red.  His father grabs her arm, pinching the skin hard, twisting her arm behind her back.  He slaps her, cutting her lip with his ring.   Paul sits very still, as if willing himself smaller.

‘What are you lookin’ at – little shit.’

‘Stop it. Leave her alone.’  Paul launches himself at his father, punching him with soft fists.  He knows he has nothing to lose.  It’s his turn next.

His father’s eyes narrow to slits – there is spittle on his chin.   Grabbing Paul’s hair, he punches him in the head.  Paul falls to his knees.  His father hits him – again and again.  Pulling off his heavy leather belt, he beats Paul.  Paul tastes blood in his mouth.  He hears his mother crying then screaming.

When they’re in bed, Paul runs out of the house.  He runs through the bush – until there is nothing in his head.

——————-

An extremely fit man, Paul often runs for hours at a time.  In the years since his father’s death, he has been living very much alone in a small hut at Mt Herbert, near Karamea.  He lives simply, seldom going into town for supplies, preferring instead to improvise – or do without.  He keeps himself to himself.  Late in the day, if there’s time, he reads until the light is gone.  He likes watching the sunsets – the sky filled with orange, the sun outlining the tops of the darkening clouds in white light.

While living on the mountain, Paul suffers two freak accidents – well actually one freak accidenttwice.  On both occasions, while standing in the doorway of his hut, he is struck by lightning.  The first time, Paul feels an incredible flash of heat.  When it ends, he finds that his shirt is burned, his hair singed.  The second time he is not so lucky.  The lightning strikes as he stands staring down into the valley boldly lit by the storm.  Paul’s arm is badly broken.  He somehow makes it down into town where he spends time recovering in hospital.  When he is well enough, a nurse finds him a job looking after the hospital grounds.  Paul likes autumn; he enjoys the smell of leaves burning.

—————-

The car rattles over the cattle-stop. The drive and lawn, covered in still wet leaves, look flat.  The lack of easy boundaries makes Cara nervous. Dragging herself from the warmth of the car, she manoeuvres around the dead lawn mowers, rusty rakes, and twisted bikes, pushing.  She open the never-locked door.

The kitchen is, as usual, a mess.  Cara looks resignedly at the long table littered with a garish glitter of sugar, uncovered jam jars, sticky spoons and greasy knives, scraps of burnt toast congealing in spilt milk, and what must have been every damn coffee cup in the house. An accusingly empty cake tin, its faded bluish top commemorating Elizabeth’s coronation, lies on the sink bench. Remnants of a day of idle grazing.

Cold ash litters the hearth.  The pile of clay on the pottery wheel is crusted.  Two cats, too old now to be kittens, play in the potato bin. On the stove a promising pot; something red, possibly soup, but more likely glaze.

Cara smiles at Mark as he enters the kitchen.  She watches him fill the jug and look around for a clean cup.  Mark, too briefly, touches her shoulder.  He is on the phone talking non-stop.  He’s on a roll – to someone who will be having difficulty getting a word in – assuming they are listening at all.  Cara knows it will be yet another interchangeable, half-baked scheme; soaps for Avon, tacky nightlights.  The others, like dusty apprentices, follow him into the room.  Mark and Cara are seldom alone any more.    Cara looks around at what has become her family.  ‘Meltdown,’ she thinks, ‘ground zero in the nuclear kitchen’.

—————–

Paul has a new job.  He looks after other people’s houses when they are away; tending their gardens and feeding their cats. He is working on a life-style farm further up the Karamea River Valley.  The farm has an unusual microclimate and Paul spends much of his time caring for the exotic plants that grow there.

Paul teaches himself to use the computer; learns to ‘surf the net’.  He’s read about a man who advertised for a wife and got 40 answers to his ad – eventually picked the best one. Paul thinks this would be a good way to meet someone.  He makes a list, as if trying to decide which washing machine to buy, except that he’s never bought a washing machine – or anything else much really – before. He decides to place an ad in the paper.

‘Tall, but not too tall.  Not like my mother – that’s for sure’.  He keeps those particular worms inside the can where they belong.

Paul reads his ad to the woman who answers the phone.

Thoughtful, kind man (30) enjoys the sound of the wind – seeks a woman to share his life – email waiting@hotmail.com.

‘Is that all love?  You can have 5 more words’

‘That’s it.’

‘You know for another $10 and it can go in all the major dailies?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Oh go on.’

‘Okay – why not? Can’t hurt anything can it?’

—————

Cara walks into the lounge.  She needs a drink (too many lately) or a place without footprints, handprints, or bloodstains.  Picking the newspaper off the floor, she opens it, as always, to the Personals.

———–

Paul receives just one reply to his ad, but it’s enough.  Soon, he relies (like a drug) on Cara’s emails.  Their letters are longer now – filling pages.  Paul writes about the garden or riding his bike from Waitati to Dunedin to see Star Wars when he was 10.   Cara writes about arguments at work, the parrots in Peru.  He tells her about Mt Herbert – well, some of it anyway.  She writes back about the poetry of the Uncertainty Principle.  Paul feels her surround him.  Cara is unburdened.

Cara writes about the big house she lives in and the people who fill its rooms.

‘Do you feel at home there?’ he writes.

‘I’m never at home anywhere,’ she answers the next day.

Cara only writes from work.  The weekends seem long to Paul.

———–

The sun is low in the sky, the room filled with long, honeyed shadows.  Paul sits by the phone, thinking, as always now, of Cara.  It is Sunday afternoon.

‘Hello’.

‘Hello?  Cara?’

‘Hang on – I’ll get her’. The phone bumps against the wall.

‘Hi Paul – thanks for calling’.

‘Hi-how’d you know it was me’?

‘Had to be – was thinking it’s time we make a connection.  I magic’d you up.’

Cara waits but Paul says nothing.

‘Your garden must be really beautiful this time of year,‘ she tries again.

Paul imagines her smiling as she talks. He thinks of long fingers twisting in red hair.

‘Yeah, yeah it is – you’d like it’.

‘Hey might be down your way soon.  Could meet ya at the pub maybe?’

She hits the ball hard back into his court.

‘Yeah – maybe.’  Paul stumbles with the return.

‘You know what they say -“A vodka shared is a vodka halved”.’  She laughs at her own joke.

Paul and Cara talk about not much of anything at all.

——————

Cara’s father is in his study, the door shut.  She runs into the living room.  Her mother is sitting on the couch reading a magazine, a glass of wine in front of her on the table.

‘Watch me Mommy.  Look at me.  Look Mommy.’ Cara demands.

She twirls until her skirt stands right out in a full circle.

‘Be careful darling; you’ll break something’, her mother says, looking up briefly.

When something broke, as it always did, Cara ran away.  Heaven turned to Hell in one-second flat.  Game over.

—————–

Mark and Cara chase each other, laughing, through the house. They slide on wooden floors, tripping over rolled up rugs.  They make love in the patch of sun that falls on the old lumpy bed.  Afterwards, they listen to the thunder in the distant hills. Cara weaves dust motes through her fingers.  Mark holds her in his arms, lightly touching her hair, rubbing his fingers against the smooth skin on her forehead.  Cara sits up on the edge of the bed turning away.

‘Look – I’ll let you know where to send my things,’ she says suddenly – calmly as if she were asking him to make a cup of tea.

‘What?  What are you talking about? What do you mean?  You’re going? Is there something … is there someone…?’  Mark stops, knowing Cara could too easily say something he doesn’t want to hear.

‘No – there’s no one.  Absolutely no one – that’s the bloody problem’.

————–

At the airport, the static forming a soothing background, Cara takes her coffee over to the email counter.  Her message takes no time to write.  She doesn’t bother to read it through again, just presses ‘Send’.

To:  waiting@hotmail.com

Sorry – change of plans.

CARA

—————

Paul walks slowly around the garden. He feels comfortable here, enjoying the blend of old and new the easy mix of colour and shape.  He sits on the wooden bench and stares at his roughened, soiled hands. He worries a finger around the edge of a new cut.  The wind picks up; stirring the trees.  Paul walks back into the house.  He picks up a few petals that have fallen from the wild flowers he’s put in a blue vase on the hall table.  He puts them in his pocket.  Paul walks into the den, sits down at the desk by the window, and turns on the computer. There’s an email from Cara.

—————

Cara finds her cellphone in the bottom of her carryon bag.  She idly watches a small child unraveling a bit of his jersey while his mother is busy with a baby. ‘You’re gonna get it kiddo’ Cara laughs to herself.

Calling the well-remembered number, she waits for the familiar single ring.   Richie can never find his cell.  She pictures the bleating phones – one in the kitchen, the other in the hall, the one next to his bed.  She wonders for a moment what time it is there and if he is alone.

‘Speak to me.’

‘Hi – it’s me. Thinking it must be a good time for a visit.’

‘Sure babe.  When?  Now?  Where are you?’

‘Still a time zone or two away.  I’ll call you when I get the flights.  Soon though.’

‘Great. Been too long.  Really lookin’ forward to seeing you.’

‘Yeah.  Me too’.

Cara’s keen to talk, but he’s already hung up.

—————

Paul feels caught in the teeth of the angels.  Even after the run into town he is cold, uneasy in his own skin. Walking quickly, eyes forward, he tries to maintain the silence in his head.  The ground darkens with the first drops of rain.

Leaning against a tree, he remembers his father’s voice, the faded tattoo on his father’s arm. He remembers his mother screaming. Paul thinks suddenly of that day in the kitchen.  ‘Are you going to change?’ she’d asked.

The rain is heavier now.  Paul watches the sky lighten across the bay, listens to the not too distant rumble.   He slides to the ground, feeling the harsh bark of the tree scrape his back through the wet shirt.  He holds his knees tight to his chest and thinks about the garden; the roses that would soon need pruning and the broken step by the veranda he’s promised to fix.  First the lightning, he counts slowly, barely waiting – then the thunder.

The storm wraps itself wildly around Paul. The wind snaps the tears from his face.  He reaches down and digs his fingers into the wet pine needles.  He remembers the sound of the front door closing in his mother’s house.

The rain drives against the ground bouncing like stones. Paul thinks about Cara, imagining her hair, the small crescent-shaped scar near her eye she’d told him about.  Suddenly, the sky above his head is too fiercely lit; the ground shifts. Standing in the space between, there is no waiting, no more remembering.  For Paul, there is no thunder.