Portraits of a hot summer

By Lucy Wormald

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Purple swim

This is what I remember: Houghton Bay is solidly purple. In the dusk, anyway. The ocean foams around my waist and I rest my hands on the surface of the water, two little buoys signalling the line between the world above and the breathless one below.

These hands are my mother’s hands and my grandmothers, and probably her mother’s before her. I think of all the hands of my forebears and how now they are here, suspended in the purple water.

The ocean feels silken and terrifying at the same time. This is shark hour and while a visit from a toothy fish is unlikely, I am still thrilled and appalled when something brushes against my calf.

This is what I remember: The sky is huge and high, a wish-washed blue, thin and watery. Birds coast on the calm shallows. They weave and plunge like kites. Daydreams about a mollymawk diving and swallowing me up in one astonishing gulp fall in and out of my head.

A sense of weariness coats the evening. The day had been the hottest yet and everyone is wilted from hours of baking and squinting into the sun. I tip my head back and my eyes feel large, taking in the world curving around me. The heat hangs just above the water. When it’s like this, you can smell the whole world. I can smell the chill of the water and the sandwort on the hills behind me. For a second I feel this must be the smell of hills: glorious and prickly and old.

I can see big houses made little against the ridge. The windows are set with scenes of lovely couples having evening spritzers. I imagine them turning on their audio systems and playing something airy, maybe Norah Jones. Runners with freckled shoulders and sweaty backs jog

along the path. Kids drift up the road towards the dairy for after dinner ice creams. Everyone seems to be gently buzzing.

The bay dims. The evening cacophony begins: cicadas, roosting calls, chip-hungry gulls. A breeze comes over the bay as it always does. The warmth in the air slackens; goosebumps shiver over me. I always feel weightless at this time of day, an apparition anchored to a body. As I retreat out of the sea, its watery hands try to seduce me back. The break of waves turn into a croon.

I head home, already excited to wake and feel the heat roll in over the morning.


The summer was a broad, slow river before her. The year had been tedious with university exams and homesickness but now a gladness settled around her. There would be day-long lazing and aimless biking, hammocks would be retrieved from attic boxes: A glorious dedication to the languid. There would be Westerns on the television at 10pm. Lights off, the louvers still cracked, ceiling fan whirring. Faces aglow, the night and the house bleeding into each other, the usually rigid border between the two worlds a delta.

One evening, in the long yawn of the solstice, she stands barefoot in the kitchen. Her sister is deep-sleeping on top of the bed sheets in her sarong. Robert Redford is shooting bulls eyes on the television. She stands before the open fridge, which offers up delicacies: leftover sausages, cold potatoes, strawberries. The cool breath of the chiller does little to ease the heat that sits in the house.

A rap sounds on the kitchen window behind her and her pulse responds with a double-time beat. Images of ghoulish faces and grinning men flit through her mind. She’s jumpy by nature, and night-time knocks always end in a grisly death in her head. She can’t see out, her own startled face fills the glass. She wobbles between fear and curiosity and then turns off the light to brighten the scene outside. Shadows revolve as she focuses her vision. Wild hair. Beady eyes. A beak glints.

“Hello, kākā.”

She smiles and rests her chin on her palms, admiring the parrot’s elegance. She looks, but not really. She notices the layering of her reflection upon the kākā. A mishmash of worlds: Girl-bird. After a moment she turns and flicks the light back on. She picks up her bowl of berries and steps away from the window.

The rap sounds again. Pause. She feels vaguely annoyed. She knows she ought to relish a rare moment with a kākā, but really she just wants to go back to the couch. She remains frozen in millennial guilt. The rap comes again. And then again. Tuck, tuck, tuck. She goes towards the window and leans in. The bird is sturdy, a life of climbing and foraging has made a muscleman of him. His feathers look painted. The definition of each one, olive and crimson, is surreal. She notes the small coloured bands around his ankles and knows some avian-loving youth in khaki will have a file tracking his movements.

“Are those bracelets or shackles?”

She locks eyes with the bird and almost instantly a sensation of docking cloaks her. The kākā stares back resolutely. This feeling is not unfamiliar; she’s seen it in her grandmother’s eyes and the smell of the bush after a rain. Something weighty and wordless passes, as it always does in these moments. She feels suspended. Stillness is magnified. The kākā bows his head forward and knocks his beak against the glass again. He looks up, eyes dark. She wishes she could read them. Her heart is beating a little slower, but also a little louder. She remembers her father telling her that birds can be messengers from the spirit world and wonders what a kākā could mean. Her arms and legs feel full of blood: heavy, existing. It’s this, alongside the sharpness of the moment, that makes her whisper, “I’ll be out in a second.”

A sense of urgency clamps around her and a mission is established. A torch is grasped, socks and sandals slipped on. Momentarily she searches for a weapon. Butter knife or scissors? Then she realises that seems a little dramatic for the quiet roads of Wilton. She opens the back door and slips down the side of the house.

The kākā is waiting at the base of the driveway, head raised. She walks carefully towards the bird and crouches down. She doesn’t want to break this occurrence with the disbelief that is curling through her mind. She stonewalls the edges of her doubt and resigns herself to the moment. She nods at the kākā and off they set.

Girl and bird. Kākā are not fast on their feet. He waddles and lurches. The strangeness of this scene and the slowness of their travel makes her feel like she must be in a dream. Only the resoluteness of the heat keeps her grounded. The warmth carries the smell of the sea, shimmery with salt. It’s still too hot for sleep and the night remains restless. The frogs are croaking fables. Kerurū are rearranging the furniture on their branches. The trees purse their lips at their fat and lumbering guests. Something is mewling about an unrequited love. The night settles in, mooches outwards.

Soon, the bush reserve stretches out before them dark and silent and steaming. She pauses and runs through a checklist of possible dangers: twisted ankles, disorientation, kidnapping. The thought of wandering around in the bush in the middle of the night is not particularly appealing.

The kākā leads them across the scout lawn towards the stream. In a fluster of feathers, the kākā hops onto her shoulder. She likes the instant companionship between them. They are adventurers. Up the steep path they go. The darkness makes it hard to track time, and it already feels like they have been walking for hours. Suddenly, the bird flies off into the bush. Her shoulder flares with the scratch of the kākā’s talons. She is startled and immediately scared. Now she is alone. The leaves form shoji screens around her. She can’t quite make anything out shapes leer out and then curdle away. 

A call comes from her left, sharp and commanding. Her senses tell her to turn and go home crash through the undergrowth until she reaches road, lights and power lines. Frozen, she considers why she trusted a bird to lead her through the bush to who knows what. She hates her fear and her questions. She turns towards the call and follows.

A little way in, she sees it: a small mirror at the base of a tree. The frame is ornate; gold paint flaking away from the wood. The slightly warped glass has caught a warbled oval of a nearby totara. The bush is hot and damp trapped under the canopy above. She feels feverish. The kākā flies from a branch to her left and she loses sight of him. She crouches before the mirror. Green and velvet swirls in the reflection and she tries to make sense of it. She leans into the frame and her breath snags.

All she sees is the kākā reflected back. Majestic. She blinks. The mirror kākā does too. She turns her head side to side. She admires her reflection. Girl-bird. Bird-girl. But this time it’s different. The heat seems to intensify. She feels like she is in a dark Rousseau painting. She feels mythical. She raises her arm, the reflection opens its wing. Bird. Girl. Neither and both. She puts her nose to the glass. Her own bird eyes stare back.

Mazzy Star

It is too hot. This bed stores heat like the Ice Age is coming, and so it’s hard to get comfortable. Despite the heat, we are bundled against each other. My permanently frigid hands and feet are employed as makeshift cooling packs. You decide not to hire them on a full-time basis as they are not particularly effective. The heat persists.

I enjoy the fact that you choose to sleep against me despite detesting the sweltering heat. I like imagining the weigh-up going on in your head, and that an eventual overwhelming tug of love makes you stay. Though I know this daydream is wistful, it makes me feel like I’m waving all the winning tickets in my hand. Then I feel a bit guilty.

A solution. We wrest back the sliding door. The cool air floats in like a spell and presses against us. It’s delicious both invigorating and lulling. You hold the curtain away from the crack and the night wades in.

Notes of music crystallise and we listen to someone listening to Mazzy Star. She sounds like a good witch, and the night suddenly feels trussed with prophecy. Even though it’s your arm outstretched, it feels like a joint effort. I am willing you to hold the curtain open forever.

We stay like that eavesdropping, suspended. The moment is quiet and soft as the heat ebbs away.

Lucy Wormald

Originally from Australia, Lucy is an aspiring writer and storyteller. After completing an internship at Capital Magazine, Lucy is about to commence a journalism degree. Until then you’ll find her daydreaming or laying in a sunny patch — enterprises essential to the hatching of a good story. 


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