By Benn Jefffries

Read more Summer Short Stories here.

I can’t remember why I was so angry. The ads on the telly used to say things like “don’t take it out on the family,” but they never mentioned a ponga. I was swinging uppercuts and haymakers at this poor tree, all the while yelling the few Māori words I knew at the top of my lungs. Now what they won’t tell you about getting in a fistfight with a ponga is that you get showered in these tiny brown hairs that itch like hell. I had to strip naked and wash in the Ruamahanga River to get rid of the damn things. The water was ice cold from snowmelt and calmed me down better than a beer ever could. I floated downstream on my back, listening to the river stones shift in the current, until I washed up on a gravel bar. My grandma had taught me to fly fish on this river. She was a hard woman, harder than a bag of nails. She’d raised me from when I was just a young fella and used to try and scare me with stories of the taniwha who lived in these waters. I never did get scared though – I knew bloody well that any taniwha with half a brain would steer clear of her.

I sat down on the river bank to dry off in the morning sun and watched a pīwakawaka dart around catching sandflies. Most people will go their whole lives without knowing a single thing about the birds they see every day – a goddamn tragedy if you ask me. My favourite bird is the house sparrow. I know they aren’t native and all that, but you gotta hand it to the little bastard for spreading his seed far and wide. The sparrow has got to be the most successful bird ever, and most people can’t tell a male from a female. It’s an easy thing to do in breeding season, the male’s chest turns black like some kind of lion’s mane. My chest is black year-round which some might say is fitting. My grandma once told me that my good for nothing father was two things besides being good for nothing – a drunk and hairy as hell, so at least I inherited something.

I realised I was hungry and lumbered back to the hut to get my clothes and fishing kit. I found a nice pool a little way upstream and caught a decent two-kilo brown, then fried it up with cannellini beans and garlic. Up in the Tararua backcountry where this river meets the Ruapae Stream, the fish are less common but you’ll find fat browns and the odd rainbow trout. I cracked open my last beer after the meal, which normally signalled the end of the trip. I threw it back then spent an hour cutting firework for the DoC hut before I left. The walk out was gentle, and not far from the road end I spotted a hind grazing on a broadleaf tree. I could’ve snuck around the ridgeline and grabbed my rifle from the truck but I was enjoying watching her too much. After a few minutes, the wind swirled and she scented me, running for cover like I’d seen too many womendo in my life.

On the drive back to Wellington I stopped in Clareville for a pie and a coke. The only better combo being raw kingy and soy sauce. Over the Remutaka hill I picked up a bottle of red and a four-forty can of beer to tie me over. Most cities give me a pain in my chest, but the constant wind in Wellington seems to calm me. I have a place round the south coast the old lady left me when the smokes finally caught up with her. It’s rusted out and cold as hell when the southerly pushes up from Antarctica, but I like it that way. When I was a young fella I went to the far north when my little brother Joe died. The old folks were always saying the cape was where our people left from when they karked it. I couldn’t get my head round where they were all going to and I’m ashamed to admit it, but for years I thought Hawaiki – the ancestral homeland – and Hawaii were one and the same. On the day Joe died, I stole the neighbour’s trailer-sailer and thought I’d go see my brother in Hawaii. The coast guard picked me up out from Karori rip the next day. Seems along with my dyslexia I couldn’t work out how to sail either. Anyway, it’s too damn hot in the north. The way I see it, the colder it is the more useful people tend to be. Plus, on those real cold Wellington nights, some women round town start to look at me like I’m a hundred-kilo heater they can curl up with.

I arrived home in the afternoon and washed down my boots and the truck then washed down myself. I was having a smoke out the front when I suddenly realised I didn’t own a dog and couldn’t figure why that was. I drove over to Grace’s place in Newtown, where she didn’t smile at me until I handed over the bottle of red. I met Grace a few months ago at a deerstalkers meeting. She doesn’t hunt, she just really likes venison. I heard about this thing called Stockholm syndrome the other day, which is when you fall in love with someone you probably shouldn’t. I reckon I might have that with every single woman I’ve ever met. They scare the shit out of me and Grace is no exception. She probably weighs more than me but claims otherwise. When I first brought it up she gave me a look that said don’t bring it up. I’ve never thought much about marriage before but when you get to my age you start to look at things differently, like a hangover of instance, or fruitcake. The trouble with Grace is I know for a fact she’d turn me into one of those handbag dog husbands before the honeymoon in Ngawi was over. We sat around her kitchen table and she drank the best bit of the bottle while I told her about the whole me not having a dog problem. She volunteered at the SPCA and said they had a cat that would suit me well. I liked birds too much to even look at a cat so I told her no, I needed a dog. She rolled her eyes and said we’d go up in the morning and have a look. She’d finished the bottle by this point and moved over to the telly where she watched some show about spoilt kids in love on an island. I woke up at dawn to her smooth skin smothering me and her snoring rattling the walls. How do I know if she’s the one? I thought to myself and pulled free. There was a dull light coming in through her curtains and I enjoyed the sight of her body while I dressed. I don’t see the point in sleeping past sunrise because that’s when the birds are out and the fish are biting. I left her place and walked to the SPCA where I waited for it to open. The building was up in the town belt where the cicada song drowned out the traffic. I watched one finish its song and fly off from its branch, only to be caught in mid-air by a tui. I jumped up cheering and fist-pumped the air. There was an old woman watching me from the car park and I apologised to her for some reason. She told me she liked birds too and walked over to unlock the SPCA. I helped her feed the dogs and found a mutt that looked like he might have come over with Kupe. The woman said he was a mixture of god knows what, but a good-natured dog all in all. I said I’d take him and she asked if I’d like to make a donation. I told her I dug holes for a living and she smiled at me like I imagined a mother might do.

Benn Jeffries

Benn is a Wellington-born writer and photographer. A lover of all things outdoors, you’ll usually find him on a river with his rod and reel. Now based in New York, Benn is chipping away at an MFA and practising his cast in some leafy city park.


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