In the first week of her residency on the island two separate groups visited: non-conformist youths and middle-aged nudists. This is like saying, “My grandfather has a gingko tree and listens to Yma Sumac.” It ignores the neatly clipped lawn and hours spent plucking miniscule weeds from a wash of white driveway stones. The gingko and the Peruvian mambo singer tend to be separated by such barrenness. We live in a world of highlights.
Five months before she visited the island her boarding house had just caught on fire. She forgot her phone, which was uncharacteristic. On the day of this first visit, the Keeper of the island gave her a tour of the buildings, which were few and historical. She was primarily interested in the room in which she would spend a month. The aspect was pleasing; she would look out over the narrow neck of the long harbour below.
The room itself was fluffy like a moth’s nest: if moths had nests and lived to over a hundred. The room was the place where they hold scent in the papery veins of their wings. It was sharpened by the white of the walls and the band of large windows that let light glare in. A series of smaller windows had been added above them, as if there was not enough light. It was a room from which she felt she could steer ships to safety.
It was the only room that had both an internal and external door. For this it was prized. Chickens would warble on the rough slat decking outside, closely guarded by the neurotic rooster. The internal door led to another room, equally mothy, and then on through bunkrooms flanking either side of a forever-dark hallway. Aside from recent white ware in the kitchen, several wendings on, the most recent additions were baby borer, who sucked timber all day. The composting toilets were thirty-seven large steps from her room, through the wending, the mothy, the bunkrooms, the forever-dark, the borer, the kitchen, onwards wrong-turning.
She arrived for the island residency in a very small wooden dory on a king tide with the Keeper. He kept the sheep, the chapel, the chickens, the historic buildings, and half-weekly his two young children. The non-conformist youths arrived the following day with their own adult keepers who were commonsensical and grounded. At the jetty, she helped them unload packs and provisions. From the open banana boxes of food it was evident that dinner would consist of nachos. Perhaps twice.
One afternoon the Keeper offered to take her around the island by boat. Some of the youths, those who had refused to attend school, and showed indifference towards acquiring possessions by the broadly accepted methods, had, with fishing rods in hand, veered down an escarpment. Beneath them a patch of cormorants nested along the low cliff. It was at this point that the Keeper and the writer passed the group. As if to unsettle the Keeper, the youths baited him for a ride on the boat with predictable inanities. In the end it was the sheer force of logistics – no additional lifejackets – that enabled the two to continue on around the island. Although she could see, he pointed out the regenerated native bush on that south-western promontory that ran down to clear bays, the dark pines that stood around the cemetery, caves at cliff bases, the swoop of spoonbills, and a giant hatstand of a pine that sheltered a rare breed of roosting cormorant. It looked stricken she thought, afflicted with white mottle, a painter’s vertical drop sheet. Guano he said. It became thereafter for her the guano tree. From the large dining hall off the kitchen in the Lodge, she realised one day that she could see it, and all its inhabitants, black-feathered, roosting and painting.
For the first few days in the bright and mothy room she could only write about the weather. The way gulls cawed into the grey pooooot, the low lying lumbar cloud that at times concealed the port in the distance, the arrival and departure of cargo ships (including cruise ships), and a windowless concrete blank of a structure that, despite having no prior visual knowledge, struck her as Guantanamo. It became a grey flambé, a grey prison, behind which, unseeing fertile tourists were extracted from their leisure pods for shore leave. The bright ones and the dark ones, the deep eye socket pop.
She met the nudists in the lounge, which branched off from the dark hallway. For this initial midday meeting everyone was clothed. Individually distinct, and led by a tanned, lean woman in her late fifties, they nevertheless shared a certain visual similarity. Each held a glass of wine, and in the kitchen three cardboard boxes wrapped bladders of wine. But it was more than that. Invitations to play cards around the fire lacked conviction that a game of cards was indeed the order of the day (or night). Furthermore, she felt entirely naked, as if they possessed skilful eyes that knew her shape.
The first encounter between the clothed and the unclothed was bound to be awkward. It took place in the kitchen. The lean woman was washing the dishes in the sink and made some verbal gesture of, “I hope you’re ok with this.” To which the writer said truthfully, boring into her face, “I’m just looking at your face.” Which was, she found, harder than she thought given the mobility of the human eye. A lean whip, the nudist was not the least concerned. They were just words. She was close enough to touch.
As the writer stood waiting for the kettle to boil, a man’s voice launched its way into the kitchen from the lounge, the card game and the fire. She gave what was possibly the quickest flick of her neck ever, including the time she was rear-ended into the back of another car. The flick confirmed clothing on the lower half of the body, which was reassuring. First he launched, then he loomed. The card playing, accompanied by a drop of wine, and the heat of the fire, had absconded his judgment of standard person-air-person proximity. His cheeks had been warmed by the fire, and in the large, high-ceilinged kitchen, he felt the need to speak loudly at close range.
Swiftly, banter between the looming man and the lean woman turned into a heterosexual farce on the relative skillsets innately inherent to each gender for the washing and drying of dishes. It was but a short step to spouse swapping. As if able to hear over the brushing of cards in the lounge, a small man materialised in the kitchen. Lulled into a false optimism by his predecessor, the writer was alarmed to find an absence of lower garments on this second man. In the same breath it was difficult to describe what she did see, all the while trying not to look. This also was difficult as the small man was short. It was in this moment of awe for the peripheral capabilities of the human eye, that she realised that peripheral vision is not merely an east-west phenomenon, but indeed runs north-south. In a subsequent message to a friend that was truncated to “Genitalia in the kitchen,” the friend replied with an aubergine emoji. But this was wrongheaded, so to speak. To this day the writer is only able to refer to the region as purple, stubby and stunted, an indiscriminate purple mass. Such an appraisal must take into account the limitations of the glance and strenuous northern orientation of the eyeball.
Beating the kettle to its climax, the clothed writer filled her thermos and exited the kitchen via another route that would see her enter her room past the chickens waiting outside the external door. Not being a fan of cards she had been reluctant to return through the wending in case an invitation to the unfolding fireside game had been forthcoming. Barely was the writer out the kitchen door when the lean, tanned, dishwashing nudist began her mirth at the writer’s evident discomfort. Passing the kitchen window outside, the writer heard the cackling kitchen laughter that indicted her a prude. This was wrong on so many levels. The balance of numbers had skewed the usual order of things. On a cool, late spring evening the writer was the one sensibly clothed in a shared kitchen facility, while an assortment of middle-aged, wine-nibbling nudists honoured the timeworn tradition of spouse swapping banter in a large, high-ceilinged kitchen warmed by one very small oscillating fan heater. The writer often had fantasies of wearing a strap-on with a female lover.
In the drawn out dusk Norwegian rats thieved the remains of the chicken’s oat and barley mash that sat outside the Keeper’s cottage in a blue ice-cream container. The Keeper said there were six rats, but he has been known to jest. A super moon feathered the tide high to slip over moorings, the low-set path to the jetty below. Everything felt electric and pierced.
Carved incisions of names and numbers on a headstone from 1875 in the small cemetery on the island had blurred with salt, rain and guano. Most graves were unmarked. Most were small mounds half the length of an adult or smaller. It was as if the land had taken to rippling itself into small wavelets. Orderly. Small. The picket fence around the cemetery was bolstered by large pines that stood, as trees are wont to do. The writer knew she had to visit the dead in their small rippling wavelets of earth. They wanted a song, especially the younger ones, but she had none to sing them. But each day that was not pelting with angular rain, as she circumvented the island by foot, she would greet them; feeling a little foolish, but also not really caring to appear so.
In a short time the writer established a familiar walk around the island that took her past the historic buildings, up a steep incline where often she would unintentionally startle the small flock of sheep, then climbing over tatty wooden gates, up through the long grass to the highest point where she could overlook the busy little port, down to the stile that led through the regenerated bush that covered the south-western promontory, back down, to the cemetery that should’ve felt more mournful than it did. Over another stile she followed a sheep track to another historical sight, where a hospital once stood. All that remained was a brick fireplace. Around this anthropologists had left raised wooden pegs in the ground that she had to look out for if walking in the lengthening dusk. For the writer, that red brick fireplace would become synecdochal for the structure that once stood, as mushroom circles continue to digest the presence of a fallen tree.
Shortly before the writer commenced her residency, she was advised that due to large high school groups staying in the Lodge, she would have to share the Keeper’s quarters in the Cottage for one week. This was unsettling. Over the first week she had come to recognise the different shape and insignia of the various small boats that passed the island; to the scrim shift of ocean leaden or ocean sparkle in the wake of crafts, and to the water itself as a living magnetic body that knew when to rise and when to fall according to the height and shape of the moon above. Although the small boats did not need her, and the massive cargo ships unloading, or craning for fresh primary produce most certainly did not need her, she felt responsible there. As if all the light that bore in was actually beaconing out to guide any crew in danger. The wider ocean too, out beyond the measure of an eye, but coming in to press against the land, she felt.
In the Keeper’s cottage she was a different entity: less singular, less monastic. Her new room had a softer aspect; she looked onto a quiet bay, and out on the left wings in the distance, the guano tree. She was a guest in someone else’s house. So she listened, emptied the compost, washed the dishes, asked the Keeper’s children about their day at school, listened to Taylor Swift and Birdy on YouTube, fed the chickens, and went rummaging around for their latest cache of eggs.
Each week, the Keeper would take the writer over to the mainland in the small wooden boat. One or two birds were snared onto the high power lines running between the island and its smaller sibling. The wind would take their words out of their mouths before they could reach each other’s ears. Sometimes. Other days it was calm, but she never took the crossing lightly.
A poet was to read in the evening at a café on one of the days she came off the island. Knowing this she had arranged to stay the night at her refurbished boarding house. This was a poet the writer did not want to miss. Before the poet was to read, the writer and a younger woman had arranged to meet up for dinner. This was their third date, although both parties were not entirely sure that it was a date. Early dates are like panning for gold. There is a lot of material to sift through. They ate Japanese then walked to the café but the guest poet did not read. Afterwards, the younger woman walked the writer all the way up a very steep street to her boarding house. It was too early for jasmine, but the air was warm with flowers, and orange lights glowed around the harbour beneath. Outside the boarding house they hugged for longer than is customary. Later that evening the writer received a text from the younger woman who had signed up to visit the island on its monthly open day the coming weekend. The writer had only just told her about it, casually asking her if she’d like to come.
On the morning of the island’s open day the writer had intended to meet the younger woman down at the jetty when she arrived. She wanted to welcome her. But feeling unwell, the writer lay longer in bed doing reiki in the hope of tapping into some extra energy. This delay meant she had not only missed welcoming the younger woman, but also on hearing the day’s configuration, which she knew was to include various work-oriented activities such as releasing young native plants from invasions of long, suffocating grass.
This was to be the first meeting between the writer and the younger woman since the warm night of the long hug. Having missed the day’s brief the writer was surprised to be handed a film container by the younger woman who told the writer she had put her name down to join her and a handful of others in the hunt for beetles. A visiting entomologist would lead the expedition. The beetles would be collected in the film containers. Given the proliferation of digital media I asked Jack, the entomologist, if he feared a shortfall of such small containers in the future. He assured me he had a good supply.
Jack, who was possibly retired, looked as if he had thoroughly washed body and soul just moments before, then stepped into the most soiled clothing he could find. His pale blue jacket, cream woollen jersey, grey pants were grubbed. Undoubtedly they were his insect-hunting clothes. He carried an ashplant and an old fashioned umbrella the same washed chambray blue of his jacket. Its purpose would become evident once beetle-hunting along the narrow track through the regenerated native bush began.
A friend of the writer’s was also part of the beetle-hunting party, so there was little opportunity for the writer and the younger woman to connect as the group walked up the incline scattering sheep, towards the bush on the south-western promontory. With the bush crowding around the group, the slight beetle-man, with singular focus, unfurled his pale blue umbrella with a flourish. Without explanation he turned the umbrella upside down as if expecting a sudden squall from the earth below. Then with upturned umbrella in one hand, and lightly wielding the ashplant in the other, he proceeded to tap the surrounding foliage, collecting leaf matter and all manner of small insects in his umbrella. Then down resting on the ground the umbrella with himself hovering over lest anything escape. Every now and then he would jab a finger down into the umbrella hatch, appearing to squash the speck before depositing it in a film container. The writer, sensing a gentle savant, could not herself resist a similarly gentle quip enquiring after the wellbeing of the beetle following such a jab. Knowingly, Jack generously assured her that the beetles lived.
With this performance it was evident that Jack had no need of the group, although out of appreciation for his wonder and focus, the writer would proffer an open film container from time to time, and comment on the findings of the upturned umbrella. His performance would provide a kind of foil for the two hours it took to walk the twenty-minute track as the writer and the younger woman felt pulled towards each other. In these moments it is hard to say how it started and who made the first move. The writer was aware of the younger woman’s presence on the fringes of the group tightly clustered around Jack and his umbrella. She let the others go on and somehow the two women were touching each other. Perhaps as a representative of the island, the writer was ahead of the younger woman, and so it seemed to fall to her to wrap her arms around the writer as they ambled single file some distance behind the writer’s friend and Jack. At some point the other members of the group, who knew the island, disappeared into the surrounding bush, perhaps disappointed with the small size of Jack’s umbrella beetles and determined to find decent sized ones. At odd occasions they would appear out of nowhere as the two women were running their hands down each other’s chests, backs, arms, whichever body part was accessible. Then with wayward eyes the two would pretend-listen to the exploits of these interlopers, whilst still clutching at least hands. After a while they become less sensate to the presence of others. Several times they kissed while tui sang.
By the end of the two-hour beetle-hunt Jack had lost the glass from his glasses and misplaced his ashplant. The writer, her friend, the younger woman and one of the interlopers mulled around a tree. The interloper enquired after the writer’s residency on the island, to which she responded, “interesting,” and that she was looking forward to the arrival of the Zen Buddhists in her fourth week. By this time she would be back in her room of moths and light, able to steer ships, and not listen to Taylor Swift. The interloper, in an unexpected reveal, averred himself to be, in fact, a Zen Buddhist, and an attendee of the upcoming retreat. The ginger-haired Buddhist appeared confused to hear that the writer would be occupying a room in the Lodge at the same time as the retreat, and questioned her for location specifics. There was only one room that had both an internal and an external door in the Lodge. This was the room traditionally occupied by the guru, he said. Her occupancy would cause a kerfuffle.
Later that evening the Keeper fielded an aggressive phone call from the Zen Buddhist convenor insisting that the writer be removed from the prized room or the entire retreat would have to relocate. Earlier by the tree the interloper had said they would be wearing brown and black robes, that there would be chanting, they would speak little if at all, and there would be no eye contact. This all sounded thoroughly agreeable to the writer who had seen much flesh and heard sufficient children. She was planning a little ethnographic study of her own, though she did not say as much to the interloper by the tree. As the Keeper relayed the Zen Buddhist’s aggression, the writer watched her last precious opportunity to return to her room fade out. One week of visiting high school students had become two weeks, and now in her final opportunity to return to the room she was being evicted by Zen Buddhists. Clearly she was evil and her mere presence would cause a defilement of the ceremonies. Her room belonged to a guru.
From the Cottage she had a good vantage of the Lodge. The Keeper told the writer how incensed one of the Zens had become when he was delayed in delivering the vacuum cleaner to him. Cleaning was important to their practice of humility and service. The Lodge (and island) came under a kind of psychological lockdown during which the Keeper and the writer were quieter, and did not venture near the Lodge. At times the Zens would emerge slowly in single file from one door with each step a geological age, only to enter through the bathroom door. This was repeated several times a day. It seemed very serious. The chickens were the only ones who had the cojones to counter the psychological lockdown. During one such slow perambulation outside the Lodge, the writer had the good fortune to watch the entire brood of chickens fly squawking with pared talons into the chain of robed holy people. Meanwhile the cormorants continued to paint the guano tree.
Robyn Maree Pickens will begin her PhD in the field of eco-poetics at the University of Otago, (Dunedin, New Zealand) in March 2017. Her writing (essays, creative non-fiction, art reviews, fiction, poetry) has appeared in a range of local online and print publications. Currently she is an art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times, Dunedin. Check out her website and find her on Twitter:@RobynPickens