CBC Literary Awards 2009
First Prize, Creative Nonfiction
Marian at Kakahi
In the first years of our marriage, John took me in the southern summer to the place of his childhood, the place of his family's gatherings and unravellings, where they were all in and of the moment, detached from their real lives. Or was this the real life? They were like the raincoats and hip waders hung on pegs on the porch wall of the cabin, also somehow pieces of the family.
The place was the simplest of cabins, on a thickly bushed cliff above the Whakapapa river, facing another cliff of pale grey clay, where wild goats clambered. It would be Christmas and after Christmas and extending into the very best days in January; no one ever wanted to leave. No one talked about much, except family, pets, village gossip collected in every visit to the Kakahi general store. No one did much except read and fish and sleep and talk. Except Aunt Pattie, who cooked with gusto, turning out grilled, stuffed trout and marinated kid roasts and the deepest, richest summer pudding.
The quotidian rituals were silently followed (except for the dinner gong, and Pattie’s cry to "rally, rally!"): breakfast outside, morning coffee at eleven, lunch at the picnic table, snoozes in the hammock and on narrow beds on the deep, cool porch, tea with an endless supply of fruitcake, in the garden. Fishing and a late dinner at the candlelit inside table, maybe a walk to see the glow worms, and then Badedas baths for the women, all in the bathroom together, slipping in and out of the fragrant water one after the other, talking.
Fishing had its own rituals. Thinking about fishing always preceded fishing by some considerable time. Which flies were working that summer, which were not. There might be, in somnolent mid‑afternoon, some fly‑tying on the porch—a Kakahi Queen, Green Beetle, Cow Dung or a Twilight Beauty. Then an examination of equipment, greasing the sections of an ancient bamboo rod on the side of a nose before assembly. A leisurely cast on the lawn, just for the sheer pleasure of seeing the line ripple out over head, sharp against the deep blue sky, and the feel of the delicately weighted, supple rod trembling like a live thing in the hand. Seeing below, through the exuberant native bush, the flash of clear moving water, the Whakapapa River.
Where to go each night was determined at afternoon tea: MacDonald’s, Cooper’s, the Bridge are ones I remember clearly. There was always, in the decision of who’d be going where, a grace, a delicate reconciliation of concerns: who’d last caught a fish, who’d been working on a particular pool for some time, who just had a good feeling, that day, about a certain spot. Who’d only be there one more night and so should have first choice, on it went until everyone had chosen and was content.
And then when the time came, setting out across the fields or down the dusty back roads.
It should be recorded that the person whose views on fishing were given the respect of royal proclamations, whose instincts had the weight of divine insight, the person unanimously believed to be the very best, fish for fish, cast for cast, pool for pool, night after night, year after year, was Aunt Pattie. I remember watching Pattie fish, down by the bridge. Lean, tough, focused, her sharp brown eyes never stopping. Thinking like a trout, she said, her cast smooth, sure, a direct line of communication between Pattie and one hapless fish. As dusk fell, she was absorbed into the painting of the river—smoky cliff, amber curl of foam over rock, luminous willows brushing the water.
When we were newly wed, fishing was part of the romance. I loved to watch John fish. I’d sit on rocks still warm from the sun, round and smooth, pock‑marked, some perched like giant deserted moa eggs.
As he gathered his rod, his net, his little canvas knapsack and connected with the stream—the possibility of the sport glittering on the lively water—he left me behind completely. I would write in my notebook, now yellowed:
It is a breath past sunset. Sheep and cattle noises are part of the silence as we wait for the rise. The bellbird's song like an operatic aria; the impossibly complex song of the magpie. It’s like the moment in the theatre before the curtain rises, the birds a restless overture to the silence of dusk when things are expected to begin.
He would cast upstream into an eddy or just above a rock or into a pool. Let the fly, a Kakahi Queen, float lazily downstream, the light green line susceptible to the tugs and swirls of the water as it pushed its way over and around boulders. I would stare intently at the silver-brown, shining surface hoping to see for him the flash of trout or a flurry of bubbles.
A hawk flaps across the river. On our way down we saw a dead cow, belly up and stiff in the paddock, where mauve foxglove stand under large willows. There’s buddleia gone wild, or maybe wild lilac.
He’d walk into the centre of the stream in his hip waders, transformed from a slightly knock‑kneed, long‑legged man into a pinup by the boots—mid‑thigh‑high, gracefully cut like loose rubber stockings, garters threaded through his belt and snapped down. Flicking the rod lightly, back and down, back and down, finally allowing it to settle, collecting coils of the line on his arm.
I never caught a fish. I was content to observe, to feel the small ache inside where he’d come earlier that day when we’d slipped away from the family (kind, but never less than vigilant), down to the river bank below the cottage, with a rug (as they say there), and made fast love in the beating hot sun, thinking always of the ludicrous danger of discovery by a young cousin or an old strolling farmer, but impelled by the reckless urgency of youth. Afterwards, we’d return to the cottage knowing that the women for sure had clocked this absence and felt some smug satisfaction in the reason for it. But no one ever said anything except, tea?
Darkness creeps in from upstream. The moon rises white, throwing silver glimmers on the water, making a clear hard shadow on the rocks. And still he casts, silent, separate, river, sky, the flick, whiz, ratchety‑ratch of the line being fed out into the current.
Ten years later we’re on a regular trip back to New Zealand for Christmas. An old family friend comes for tea and invites us for a day of fishing on the small tributary of a large, more famous river. The only access is through a prison farm; Henry knows the warden and gets permission. He’s a superb fisherman and John is honoured to fish with him.
We had settled by then into a prematurely gray relationship. We loved our child, were kind to each other. Best friends. This must be how it is, as you get older. Mustn't it? Some things are never spoken of. Desire has ebbed from the marriage like a diverted stream, leaving behind a faint trickle of feeling.
We drive over in the morning, I bring a book, it’s a lovely day. Henry has packed a picnic—cold chicken, white wine, fruit. He confesses to a bad morning, forgetting things, doing things badly. Flustered for some reason, he says.
He’s the genteel, shadowy widower of a vibrant roaring woman who died three years earlier of cancer. People say he’s “nothing without her,” so sad. But he has this little house; he fishes, reads, cooks for himself. An old man alone. He divides his year between England and New Zealand.
Gathering up baskets and rod and net, he says quietly, I don't enjoy being alone. There are several widows here, and I’m invited out of course. In my generation an unaccompanied man cannot leave a dinner party until a woman does. So the evenings are longer than I’d like, but even longer if I stay home.
We drive to the prison farm, then down a sandy road to the river, through pine and manuka scrub. I would walk third in the single file on the path but Henry steps aside and so I walk between them, conscious of the heat of the sun on my back and in the hair at the nape of my neck.
Henry knows all the likely pools. John walks eagerly upstream, casting as he goes. In the bright light of late morning he’s using a Nymph.
Henry and I are standing side by side, watching.
He says, You’re left‑handed, aren't you?
At first I don't realize he’s addressing me.
Whatever made you think of that? I turn to look straight at him. I remember now his glance as I sat writing in a low chair the morning he came to invite us fishing.
The light has changed, I feel rather than knowing. It’s even warmer and the cicadas shrill. We’re watching John cast, and somehow, ever so slightly, the angles in the triangle have shifted. But this man is twice my age, widowed, a grandfather, the perfect English gentleman, all those things that strip him of sexuality.
But he’s lean, broad‑shouldered, a decathlon athlete as a young man. He wears his military bearing easily, something that would be irritating and stuffy in a younger man. He’s wearing khaki, an open shirt, and I notice thick, white hair curled around a buttonhole. In a slow motion, in silence, standing close to him beside the stream (I recall this moment with perfect clarity twenty years later), I gently brush a small spider off the collar of his shirt.
We both smile and say nothing.
John suddenly has a fish on. He hollers, braces himself midstream and plays the fish, the line bends and jerks, the fish leaps and splashes. He plays the line out and back, letting the fish run a little, then moves closer to the bank, rod pointing down.
Henry moves quickly with the net, ready to scoop up the fish when John reels it in. They laugh together—well done, a real beauty, a fighter. Henry brings the trout in the net onto a flat rock, kneels, places his hands on the fish, and instantly it is still. He gently removes the hook; the fish is quiescent. He stuns the fish with a swift blow on the rock, and the fish stops breathing. John weighs it with a small scale, places it carefully into an old‑fashioned wicker fishing basket. I notice that both men have beautiful hands.
We come to a small clearing, a mossy bank, sun filtered through kohekohe trees, the stream plunging from a bend and a rocky plateau. I prepare lunch while the men try their luck up a little side stream. Tui chortle in the underbrush. I settle with my book against a rock beside a willow, my bare feet barely skimming the water.
The men walk back to me, proudly bearing another fish and the story of Henry's good fight with it. John looks at Henry who smiles directly at me. The fish is a weighted, shimmering curve in the bottom of the net.
Lunch is pleasant. The three of us have an unexpected camaraderie and conversation flows: his army days, our travels, children. After lunch the men fish again, two more pools, several fingerlings thrown back, then a good‑sized trout each.
Between casts, between pools, they stop, lean against a log, sit on a rock, content just to be in this bush that we all love.
When John is fishing, Henry returns to the first conversation of the day.
I do have a friend, he says, we travel together, we’ve camped on occasion... Slowly I realizes he’s telling me a secret. That his friend is a woman, a lover. That he wants to talk to me about desire and loneliness. That he’s thinking about sex.
When our arms brush, pause, remain in contact, his skin is firm and responsive. In my mid‑thirties, I think the skin of men in their sixties must be crepey and lifeless, if I think of it at all.
By three the sun is hot, the surface of the water glitters hard, no longer right for fishing. We drive back to his cottage. I sit in the front seat, watching the roadside scenery. Toi‑toi swaying in the ditches. The stilled volcanic mountains hazy in the distance. I tune out their conversation about the hydro‑electric dams ruining the rivers, it's an old conversation.
Back at the cottage, John says he’ll clean the trout. Henry shows him a small table under a rata tree, a bucket, some newspapers, a tap by the kitchen door. I enter the small sitting room, cool for the first time that day. Henry goes into the bedroom unbuttoning his shirt. He emerges in a fresh cream‑coloured one, rolling up the sleeves.
Now, would you like a cool drink, I have lemon barley water or beer or white wine…
Lemon barley water, thank you.
He brings two glasses of cloudy cool liquid; I take a sip. It is delicious.
He takes a beer out to John, and there’s a brief murmur of voices, my husband's sharp, boyish laugh. I can hear, in the sultry late afternoon silence, the sound of scraping flesh, knife against bone. John will insist on leaving all the fish with Henry in gratitude for a lovely day. Henry will insist that we take them all home.
I’m sitting in a deep, faded chintz‑covered chair. Henry comes back and sits in a similar larger chair with a straighter back beside a small bookcase. The man's chair.
Have you thought about living with someone? I ask this in a neutral way, not sure I’m reading him correctly. He’s the epitome of propriety. (Twenty years later, this elaborate discretion seems almost Victorian.)
As a matter of fact, there is someone with whom, off and on, I’ve lived. We’d planned a trip later this year, but there are complications—dogs, that sort of thing. I rather think it won't happen now.
Clearing his throat.
He says in a rush, I sometimes think that being here alone I’m only wasting time, and it worries me. At first I thought I could never live with anyone again. But now I think if you’re not caring for someone, or looking after someone, there isn't much point, is there?
I nod, although in my thirties this thought is new to me.
This must be the hottest day we’ve had, he says.
Through the window I can hear my husband whistling softly under his breath. He turns on the cold water tap to run the blood off the four silver‑coloured trout.
An ache rises at the back of my throat. Suddenly I want to go home, to my real home, my own country.
Marian Botsford Fraser
Listen to The Rise on CBCBooks, under Literary Awards, Episode 3.