A pressure rises through Kane’s thorax, the same latent urge last felt in the early morning hours of a bachelor party. His inner voice screams, keep it down! He brings his hand to his face, a useless instinct that slows down the slick white chunder that rushes through the gaps of his meaty fingers. It lands in the sink with a dense pah pah, like heavy snow on a tin roof. The stinking, good for nothing gobs of raw starch and spittle spread over the stainless steel basin. Acidic bile coats his tongue with one final retch that echoes through the quiet of the house. Heaving air into his lungs Kane spits out a breathless ‘farks sake!’ and slaps at the tap handle. The water rushes into the sink and he clings to the edge of it, watching his knuckles turn white and thinking about the last time he slept.
It was the same routine every night, a prelude to the teasing memory of deep slumber. Annie would lean over him, pump the bottle of hand cream on the bedside cabinet and smooth it over her hands and arms. She was always careful to get her elbows. Kane remembered the vivid smell of orange peel and bergamot settling on her skin and the residue that left oily spots on the sheets. He washed those sheets when she left, boiled them twice, but never got the smell out. A haunting quork quork brings him back to the kitchen and he stares through the net curtains into darkness. The silhouette of a morepork bounces on a kowhai branch and grey clouds move slowly over a half moon, its silvery white glow illuminating the stack of small boxes on the window sill. He grabs one, the loose matches making a little rattle as he heads for the back door.
Kiki whines in her dog box and Kane gives her a stern whisper ‘quiet!’. Her paws pad around in circles before she settles again, watching him intently as he strikes his first match. He takes a seat on the deck chair watching the flames rise, orange sparks of wild heat licking at the edges of the old oil drum, consuming everything that was once familiar. Flannelette fibres and the emulsion of wedding pictures curl into leaves of ash, floating away into the night, carrying the sickening smell of lighter fluid tinged with citrus. Kane eases his body back into the hard plastic, stroking the claggy stubble along his hollow cheeks. He feels ancient and spent, as brittle as a pumice stone as he looks up at the sky. A satellite passes, a long blinking light through the lumps of cloud. He follows the pulsing red star while thinking about the day, his eyelids growing heavy with each long blink, a faint smile curling at the edges of his lips.
Too many of his mates had been hovering over him at work lately, asking the same question over and over. ‘You all right, mate?’
Kane wasn’t but he lied to all of them. ’Yeah, all right…you good, mate?’
He knew he hadn’t been convincing anybody and that morning John placed something on his desk that looked like a pulled garden weed. Kane just stared at it, waiting for an explanation.
‘Its valerian root’ John said pointing at the white spindles. ‘Ya chew on it. Or make it into tea’
The roots were curled and dirty. It smelt like the health aisle of an Asian Supermarket, dried fungus and tiger balm. Before Kane could say anything John had looked at him with pleading eyes.
‘Look no offence Kane but you look like shit.’
Kane’s cheeks had reddened in embarrassment, he knew what he looked like. Pockets of flesh hung like water balloons beneath his eyes, his skin was the colour of boiled chicken. He started moving his cracked lips, trying to think of something to say but John didn’t give him the chance.
‘Listen, when Ruby left me I didn’t sleep for a year’ he pushed the weed towards Kane ‘this helped. A bit of time in the bush wouldn’t hurt ya either’
He nodded towards the ranges and both men looked through the window high above the CBD and towards the far off hills across the ocean.
A silent moment passed between them before John delivers a hard slap to Kane’s shoulder. ‘Start taking care of yourself buddy, it’ll get better’
A fierce POP! POP! POP! Against the oil drum startles Kane awake. He feels the night air cool against his skin, goosebumps covering his bare arms. Confused he wipes sticky drool from his chin, was that sleep? The warmth of the fire is gone, replaced with a cloud of dark smoke. He forces himself up, grabs the old tyre iron and prods at the mess of melted linen. A gentle breeze fans the final flames against the remnants, the smoke hovering around him, making his eyes water. He scrubs at them with the heels of his hands but the tears keep coming, a streaming cascade intertwined with a jerky heave that shakes through his body. The far off sound of wounded boar escapes his mouth and he muffles it with his forearm, snot and tears running into the crook of his elbow. Kiki whines and pulls on her chain and he tries to calm her through his sobs ‘shhhh girl’. A light comes on in the neighbours window and Kane backs away, retreating into the shadows of the house.
He wakes up on the mattress protector, smoke stained hair falling over his face and the sun streaming through a gap in the curtains. Relief returns to his dazed body, a lofty comfort replacing the brittleness he had felt deep in his bones. He relishes in it for a moment before kicking off the duvet and heading for the shed. An hour later he slides his old Fairydown backpack into the truck and gives Kiki a whistle ‘come on girl!’. She jumps onto the truck bed with her tail wagging and runs on the spot at the sight of his backpack. Kane ruffles her soft black ears and thinks about taking the .306. A full bottle of Grant’s bulges from the front of his pack, an almost perfect cylinder that prompts the vivid memory of Kane’s father helping him pack the truck for his 21st birthday hunt. Kane had placed his .22 down next to a crate of Lion Reds. His father pulled both forward and looked at him sternly. ‘One or the other, not both’. This time the rifle stays in the safe and Kane slams the tailgate closed.
Kiki switches sides in the open truck bed, keen to get the best wind on her tongue. The white high-rises of the city become a blur in the rear view mirror and the ocean slips past on the motorway. Blam Blam Blam plays on the radio, a dum-da-dee-da-dee-dum-dum that blasts through the tinny door speakers. With the windows firmly up Kane screams out the lyrics and thumps the steering wheel with his hands to the beat. ‘We have nooooh secrets, we have nooooh rebellion, we have nooooh Valium! VA-LI-UM!’. Small country towns and cows at pasture appear at each side and Kane slows as traffic builds outside the Clareville show grounds. Teams set up for the hot air ballon festival with colourful sheets of nylon flapping in the breeze. Groundsmen in hi vis vests direct vechiles and young children at the fence line chase spring lambs. The carpark at the Clareville bakery is full but past it he gets back up to 100 kilometers per hour and rocks forward in his seat. ‘We can all keep perfectly calm. Perfectly calm! PERFECTLY CALM!’
Gnarled beech trees twisted with moss weave a trail up to the ridge, a rough climb that Kiki makes look easy. She scampers ahead disappearing for a few moments, running back to check on Kane, her dark eyes watching him struggle. Sweat soaks his unfit body underneath the layers of merino and he grunts up the slope using the bulbed roots on the trail like climbing rope. They reach the edge of the bushline and with it comes the roar of the wind. Kane watches the swirling white cut in front of them like a tidal wave breaking on the tussocks and he thinks about turning around. Kiki runs out suddenly and Kane steps forward after her, calling out but the words disappear, ripped away from him with the wind. His pack straps lash at his face and his windbreaker billows around his shoulders like an air bag deployed. With anchored feet he shuffles forward through the whipping tussocks, blindly following the trodden path until he reaches a reprieve at a rocky outcrop. He looks around but theres nothing but white and a panicked scream leaves his mouth ‘KIKI!’. A distant black and white blob low to the ground raises itself and when Kiki sees her master watching she stands proud, one paw raised and pointing forward as she looks over her tail, right back at him. On her direction he leaves the safety of the outcrop and pushes forward.
They almost walk past their destination, a red roof ensconced by cloud the only indicator. A mustiness permeates the hut and Kane looks around at the simple dwelling. A wooden table and bench seats all etched with graffiti. Names, dates and initials in love hearts splattered with wax from candles burnt down to their nubs. Empty bottles of Makers Mark and Lion Reds line one corner, a few hunting magazines in the other. A cloud of his own breath rises in front of him. ‘No trees, no fireplace’ he mutters to himself feeling the sweat on his back start to freeze ‘friggin icebox on a ridge.’ Kiki sidles up to him brushing herself against his leg, ‘NAH uh, OUT!’ She trots back out on the balcony and he closes the door on her, turning back to the task at hand. Beige mattress covers on the sleeping platform are coated in thick black mould that makes him cringe but he decides its better than nothing. Tipping the least poisonous looking one down he throws his sleeping bag on top of it and sits for the first time in hours. Kiki stares at him through the lower pane of the door. Wind ruffles her fur and she looks right at him with a miserable little shiver. He stomps towards the door and swings it open ‘OK fine! But only if no one else comes.’
The wind tapers off and the clouds clear at dusk showing a clean ridge line ahead. Kane stands in every layer of clothing he has by the earthy tarn. He watches the sunset paint Kapiti Island pink as stars appear in the milky blue sky. Faint lights surge on a strip of land beneath him, flames flicking on and off and dancing in the shadows of the mountains. Gold tussocks tickle and brush against his legs as he imagines the families down at the festival, imagines everything he could have had. Stroking Kiki’s ears he watches the tiny little specks growing bright and hot as his eyelids grow heavy, each flame pulsing against the crisp edge of darkness. He opens the breast pocket of his swandri and removes the last of the valerian root. Smiling for the first time in months he hurls it into the air, following the white root with his glazed eyes until it lands somewhere on the spur below.