Someone had been there. Halfway across the clearing, sooted rocks were in a circle, charred branches. Bones of a possum or bird heaped up. A snack for some late-night traveller – a thief, perhaps. Hidden in tī kouka and undergrowth at the clearing’s edge, Van watched. No movement. Nothing down by his hut or the mine face. He scanned his camp a moment more, then went on round its edge under cover. Cicadas sawed in the trees as he came close to his hut. The welding fire was untouched. It was a few moments before he saw what was strange with the hut. The lock. It had been tampered with. Always Van jammed two mānuka sticks between the door posts and tied them to the door-flap. On leaving, this intruder had not notched the top stick correctly, so it had fallen from the posts and the door-flap hung slack. A careless invader, then – or deliberate, wanting Van to know his mine had been penetrated.
Silent, sweating inside his head-covering, Van slipped off his bags and arranged them at his feet. Scanned again across his camp.
No sign. The sun pouring rich autumn heat. The air gluggy with it.
He slid back in the cover and climbed up over the mine face and down to thinner scrub. A narrow pond fringed his camp here, stretching away to the watchers’ slopes. Bordered by harakeke and scraps of bush, this was the likely way out for his intruder. Sneaking back at night to rejoin the route south, restored by that meal of possum or bird and, probably, fresh water stolen from Van’s hut. Yet as he came round he discovered no scattered or broken undergrowth. No footprints he could distinguish from his own of a few days back.
Still without clues he completed his circuit and stood again under the tī kouka he’d started from. Sweat was in his eyes now. It stung as he rubbed them then put his hand beneath his head-covering and wiped his hair and forehead. The tang of his insect tincture rising from his skin. He was thirsty and fatigued and he wanted to sit, but he forced himself to wait. Took the excuse to let his eye linger for a moment on the hills beyond his own mine and the watchers’ slopes – on the Mary territories. That lush pulse of forest.
At last he withdrew the blade from his waistband, counted five breaths and then, in a rush, ran out into the clearing to circle with his blade out. Nothing. No sound from the scrub, no flicker of branches. Still circling with the blade in his hand, he went towards the fire and toed the remnants. It had been doused. The ashes were clumped together; as he turned the charred branches over, not a single ember sparkled. Someone who could waste water; put fires out with it. An odd thief, this one.
Van went towards the hut. Stopped five paces short, his ear cocked for sounds from inside, then went round the front and untied the locks, stepping into trapped heat. Stood while his eyes adjusted to the light that filtered through the thatch. Aside from a light pattern of footprints on the floor, it was undisturbed. His patched canisters and tubs in place on the workbench, his welding tool. The bed and floor mat. Even his water stores intact.
He bent to the floor and examined the footprints. A single intruder, definitely, and not a large one. Someone light and spooked, in a rush. They had not knelt or investigated from the look of it, not dug anything up. Or an expert, practised at covering their tracks and thefts. The only sign they’d been there was this scattering of dust and a tiny pūkeko tail-feather that wisped about as he moved and must have blown in behind them, or come unstuck from a rag boot.
He peeled up the floor mat, then the crosshatch of sticks beneath it, then a further harakeke mat. His tub of welding tools was where it should be. And there, as he lifted out the tub, the second dark wrap in the depths of the hole. He lowered his entire arm and lifted it, then froze at a noise outside. A rush and swoop of flight – a pair of tūī chasing each other over the roof of the hut; he exhaled with relief, and a little laugh escaped. With a length of his sleeve, he wiped his face then untied the wrap to peer inside – and sank back.
‘Oh thank god,’ he said in a rush.
The line of blades still in place. Ranged in size from wide choppers as long as a man’s forearm to dagger points and reinforced needle shapes, each tied at the handle onto the wrap. For display. His best work. Hours of squinting and sweat behind the mask at the welding fire were represented here, and he allowed himself a moment with it. Plastic blades he’d shaped and reinforced himself. Black and deep blue and red. Pure colours, these – none of the smeary yellow of his tubs and canisters, no puddles or whirls. And each brought to an edge with the metal file he’d traded years ago with a runner from the watchers’ slopes, at enormous expense.
Running a finger over their handles, he savoured them and the prospect of the nights and days of work that were now – now that Ava was buried and Rowe, glowering, was left to his grief – ahead of him. His own work in his own camp. His own bed. A routine trade to make in the morning, a short walk with a load and then back with supplies, and then the quiet of welding and shaping again before autumn died and the storms started up.
It was too hot, though, to kneel there for long, and as he stood he was reminded once more of his strange visitor. Too dumb or green to search beneath a floor mat for the richest trade, the finest work. Or too genteel, perhaps, trained to shrink back from plastic, to never touch the stuff. Especially plastic of the hut’s most visible sort: the benchtop’s array of tubs and pots that Van had patched, all of them alloyed and puddled with donor plastic, impurity heaped on impurity. The intruder was not someone to fear, in other words, and unlikely to come back. They had not even banked that ostentatious fire outside. He rewrapped the blades and hid them in the hole, then went outside with his tub of tools and the mining spade. Rounded the hut. Out to the south-west the sun was now poised above the island, wavy through the columns of smoke. Not much of the day left.
At the mine face, no new scrapes or footprints. Only a pūkeko chick that squawked at his approach, bringing its parents in range to flick their tails and herd the infant into stalks of raupō at the edge. Van laughed and kicked a scatter of dust after them, then traced along the cliff a seam of white and blue that had recently yielded good donor plastic. It was some days since he’d mined and the spade felt odd, its welded handle lumpen and thick as it slid through his palms. He dug out five bottles and shook mud from their crevices, then carried them all to the fire, a loose plan forming in his mind as he walked. A good stack of canisters could be patched before it got dark. Twenty were due to be traded tomorrow, but he always took a few extra to leave with Matewai, for her own profit.
At the welding fire he struck sparks and loaded the fire up, then poked the welding tool into it. Stared at the flames that waved and puffed. At a standstill at last, he watched the fire in a trance and felt suddenly the fatigue of the last few days. He could have a rest first, then patch. He flicked an eye over the camp one more time, then slumped down against a log. Watched the fire. Grew drowsy. Reached for his bags and dragged out his water canister and a last twist of eel meat. Ate and drank and stared into the heat and grew still more lethargic, till a day-biter whined up round his face and he sat bolt upright and clapped it dead. Dug in his bags for tincture. Doused his hands and face and head-covering. Retied the plaits at his ankles and wrists, knotted his head-covering tight. Then he went to the wood pile and threw great armloads of mānuka foliage on the fire as a further deterrent.
Returning to his stump he put the tincture by his side, within easy reach, then leant back again. Ate desultorily and drank. The welding tool grew hot in the flames, hot enough to weld, but he didn’t rise, didn’t want to work yet. Nor did he want to go round his traps. The sun was losing its intensity now and he was at a comfortable distance from the welding fire, and for just a few moments more Van wanted only this vacant submission to rest. To not think of Rowe, or of Ava. Her dank resting place. He closed his eyes and forced himself to think of nothing instead. Nothing but the draining of fatigue from his arms and legs to the dried mud beneath. Of sleep. Of Hana. Of her tent and of Summer’s Day, and of the colours that draped down from its centre post, over him on the bed. Her herbs. And just as he drowsed, that same pūkeko chick yelped and he hauled up on an elbow and woozily checked the camp, then peered over the mine face towards the thick and upthrusting forest where Hana lived, the one sliver of Mary territory that he could make out. The short section of fence and the dots of birds that rose and sank and circled from the protected trees beneath.