For seven days and seven nights the winds blew in off the Tasman, climbed and descended the Southern Alps and blasted across the Canterbury Plains. Such ferocity was unmatched since records began, according to meteorologists, fuelling concerns about a climate shift. Not so, said Zekkie Bean, who ran the pub. Fifty years ago she blew a good’un, uprooted trees, lifted roofs, raked the earth and sucked moisture out of river stones. It’s part of a cycle, he said. That was no comfort to drought-weary farmers shifting dead sheep from the parched rivers each day, while wind-fanned grass fires consumed the pastures. The District Council warned people to turn off garden hoses and limit their showers. Those dependent on rain water were already buying in tanker loads from town.
Melvin Huffer finished testing the water level in the Shellharts’ well and carried his instruments over to his van, bracing his head against the wind. It sounded like a stampede of wild horses shredding the air with their hooves. No wonder the Shellharts’ Dalmatian was barking fit to burst. He watched it leaping about on the end of its chain, and in the same moment saw the top branch of a hundred-year-old Norfolk pine twist like a corkscrew, suspend itself in mid-air for an instant, then crash to the ground, shaving branches off the pin oak and golden elm. It landed less than a metre away from the dog, across what had been, a minute earlier, Deidre and Daniel Shellhart’s prize-winning rose garden.
“Bugger!” Melvin muttered, and for the first time in thirty years made the sign of the cross. The dog whined and crawled back into its kennel. Melvin climbed into his van and scribbled a note for the Shellharts suggesting they give him a tinkle if they wanted that tree sawn up. Bit of extra money for Gideon, he reckoned. God knows he’d need it now, flamin’ idiot. Melvyn sighed and shoved the note in the mailbox on his way out. As he drove to the pub he realised his nose was bleeding for the third time in two days.
Over tea that evening Dinah told him that in the days before roads connected the village to Christchurch, the pine trees owned by Catholic families had been pruned of their highest branches, leaving a tall bare trunk with a pompom of foliage at the top to make it visible to the Catholic priest doing his Sunday rounds in his pony and trap.
“I read that somewhere when we were gathering information for the school centennial,” she said, spooning silverbeet onto Melvin’s plate and adding another dollop to Gideon’s. “Well, that’s another bit of history vanished. Deidre’ll be so upset.”
“She’d be a helluva lot more upset if it had landed on her roof, “said Melvin.
“That’s why you crossed yourself,” said Dinah, “out of gratitude that it didn’t.”
Melvin shrugged. “Dunno. Not that I believe in omens and stuff like that, but when I saw the way that thing twisted and fell…bloody weird.”
“That’s the Foehn effect,” said Dinah. “On that documentary on climate shift the other night somebody said the wind is called a Foehn, like the wind that blows down from the Swiss Alps. He said there are more migraines, depressions and suicides, more crimes committed when a Foehn blows. Seven out of ten people have a reaction. It’s all to do with positive ions in the air affecting mood. He said a feeling of foreboding is very common. Deidre told me that in some parts of the world people call them Witches’ Winds.”
“Yeah, well,” said Melvin, and reached for more gravy. He turned to his son who was staring morosely at the food on his plate. “When I called in at the pub Zekkie told me Alexa and Rob are moving to the Middle East for a year.”
Dinah looked up, “Oh? So they’ve made up their minds then? Good on them! A change like that could be just what they need. It goes against the natural order to bury your own child.”
“Yeah,” agreed Melvin. “A beaut kid like that. Makes no sense. I’ll never forget that time last spring when the ford was flooded. The rain hosing down and me wondering if I could risk the truck. I look up and there’s Beth, riding her horse bareback across the ford, big bloody grin on her face, waving her hand at me, soaked to the skin and having the time of her life. Burying a kid like that. Doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Gideon pushed his chair away and stood up.
“Anyway, what I was getting at,” continued Melvyn, “was that they want someone to look after their house for the year. They don’t want any rent, in exchange for taking care of the garden, feeding the chooks, the goat, the cats and the dog. The horses are going somewhere else. Could be just the ticket for you and Melanie. A whole year. Give the pair of you a chance to get on your feet.”
Gideon strode towards the door. “Nah. It’s all off. Me and Mel split up.”
His parents froze with their forks halfway to their mouths.
“Split up? But what about the…?” Dinah began.
Gideon’s hand was on the door handle. “It’s sorted.”
Gideon slammed the front door behind him.
“Leave him be,” said Melvin. “How could we be 100% certain it was his anyway?”
Melanie put the blue box back in the fridge and stood there for a moment, breathing in the cold air. She closed the door and wiped the sweat off her brow with the hem of her t-shirt.
“Mum, I saw Alexa about the house this morning. She doesn’t want any rent, just the animals and garden taken care of. It’d get me and Katie and Lisa out of your hair.”
Noeline finished spooning chopped banana into Katie’s mouth. “Up to you, doll. You know you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want.”
“I know, but it’s time for me to move on now. A fresh start.”
Noeline lifted the child out of the high chair. “I’ll put her to bed. There’s fresh lemonade in the fridge. Pour us some eh?”
Melanie opened the fridge again. The jug of lemonade was behind the blue box. Lisa tugged at her shorts. “Mummy, can I see it again?”
Melanie closed the fridge door. “Coffee’ll do.”
She flicked a teaspoon of instant into two mugs and went back to the fridge to get the milk. As soon as her fingers touched the handle they flew off as if it were hot. “Black’ll be fine.” She poured boiling water into the mugs and carried them over to the table. Lisa climbed onto her knee.
Noeline padded back into the kitchen and flopped into the chair. “She went straight off, wee lamb.” She stared at the coffee in the mug in front of her. “I done all that lemonade – waddya make black coffee for?” She caught the expression on Melanie’s face and fumbled for her cigarettes in her jeans pocket. “Oh, doll, I’m sorry. It’s this damn wind. Your nanna used to call it an ill wind. An ill wind blows nobody no good, that’s what she used to say.”
Melanie sat very still.
Noeline lit her cigarette and inhaled deeply. “I have to speak my mind about what you done. Gideon’s got his faults, but he’s not a bad bloke. He’d’ve come right.”
“It wouldn’t have worked,” said Melanie.
Noeline blew the smoke out very slowly. “When I was cleaning Shellhart’s the other day Deidre said people shouldn’t make decisions when a Witch’s Wind blows. Something to do with electrical thingies in the air that do your head in so you can’t think straight.”
“It’s too late now,” said Melanie.
“What’s a Witch’s Wind?” piped Lisa.
“Nan’s too tired to explain, darlin’,” Noeline stubbed her cigarette out. “Well, what’s done’s done. So where the hell has Andy got to? How long does it take to find a stone in the river, for God’s sake? The flamin’ river’s full of them. We may as well go down the pub for a bit. I need something to calm my nerves before we... before ...”
Melanie stirred. “I’ve found a good spot, Mum. Under the old macrocarpa. D’you remember the swing Dad made for me there with ropes and an old tyre? No matter how hard he pushed me I’d scream, ‘higher, higher!’, my head tipped right back, my ears full of the sound of baby pigeons, butterflies swooshing in my belly, the wind on my face, higher, higher, till I was flying in the sky. And Dad, standing there, solid as a tree, feet planted like roots, ready to catch me if I fell.”
“There won’t be any left,” said Noeline, gulping a mouthful of coffee. “Baby pigeons. They’ll all’ve been blown out of their nests in this wind.”
Melanie kissed the top of Lisa’s head. “I’m naming him Peter. After my Dad.”
“Like Peter Rabbit?” asked Lisa. She wriggled off her mother’s knee and ran to her room.
Noeline dropped her mug on her lap and yelped as the hot liquid soaked through her jeans. She jumped up and grabbed a tea towel from the bench. “After...? Oh for God’s sake! Look I’m going down the pub. Come on Mel.”
“We can’t leave the kids, Mum!”
“Andy’ll be here soon. It’ll be okay.”
Lisa ran back into the room holding a threadbare rabbit by its one remaining ear. She danced it in the air. “Susie Rabbit Peter Rabbit Susie Rabbit Peter Rabbit.”
“Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph!” Noeline gasped. She tore her jeans and t-shirt off and threw them on the back of the chair. “Lisa babe, you won’t mind if me and Mummy go out for a bit?”
Lisa shook her head.
Noeline disappeared into her bedroom and immediately returned pulling a clean dress over her arms.
Melanie didn’t move. “We haven’t got any money for the pub Mum.”
“Andy put twenty dollars in Lisa’s piggybank when he had that win,” said Noeline yanking a brush through her hair. “You don’t mind if we borrow it, do you Lis?”
Lisa shook her head.
Noeline rattled some coins out of the china pig.
Melanie sighed and kissed the child’s cheek. “Stay in the chair and have a wee sleep till Andy gets back. Don’t answer the door to nobody.”
The front door banged shut. Lisa stared at it then climbed into the armchair. The wind rattled the window frames and scraped the trees against the glass. It hooted down the chimney of the old potbelly stove and whispered through cracks in the walls and the old wooden floor. Lisa drew deeper into the worn vinyl of the chair and leaned against Noeline’s t-shirt, her rabbit cradled tight against her chest. “Peter Rabbit Peter Rabbit Peter Rabbit,” she crooned, till she fell asleep.
The knock was so loud Lisa jumped, sending her rabbit skittering across the floor. She slithered out of the chair, scooped the rabbit up by the leg and ran across the room to open the door. Andy must’ve forgotten his key again. But it was Mrs Shellhart standing there, holding a blue box.
“Hello Lisa dear. Is Mummy or Nan in? I’m collecting for Plunket.”
Lisa put her head on one side and considered. They said not to let nobody in but Mrs Shellhart wasn’t nobody. She was somebody. She’d heard Andy say so.
“Bitch thinks she’s somebody,” Lisa said.
Mrs Shellhart blinked at her.
Katie started wailing. Mrs Shellhart peered into the lounge. “Where’s Mummy, sweetheart?”
“Down the pub,” said Lisa.
Mrs Shellhart took a deep breath, looked at her watch, strode past Lisa and followed the wailing to the bedroom. She plucked Katie out of her cot and wrinkled her nose. “Show me where the nappies are, love.”
Lisa opened the cupboard door, stood on tiptoe, and pulled a packet of disposables from the shelf.
Mrs Shellhart put a clean one on Katie, carried her back into the kitchen, deposited the dirty nappy in the bin and washed her hands at the kitchen sink, holding Katie against her hip. She looked at her watch again. She couldn’t just walk out and leave these two mites here all alone. It was completely beyond her, she’d only been saying to her sister on the phone the other night, why it was always the ones who couldn’t give a fig who could breed like rabbits, while people like her would have given ten, no, twenty, years of her life to have just one, and would even have adopted if there’d been any left to adopt. It was all very well for her sister, with her five boys, to say blood will out. Who could not love these two wee moppets here and if one started thinking about their blood…yes well, who said life was fair? She glanced at her watch again. She had to get back before Gideon finished sawing up that fallen branch so she could ask him to stack it in the woodshed, otherwise Daniel would insist on doing it himself and he was already so upset about the roses and what with his heart and everything…she could wait a few minutes, but that’s all, then she’d just have to take the children home with her and leave Melanie a note. And quite honestly, she wasn’t sure if CYFS shouldn’t be involved. She’d have to see what Daniel thought. She settled herself in the chair in the lounge with the toddler on her lap. She rattled the coins in the Plunket box at Katie, who beamed and banged it with her fat little fist.
Lisa stood in front of her, staring at the box. “Is that for babies?”
“That’s right dear. I’ve been collecting all morning.”
Lisa sucked her rabbit’s ear. “How many babies you got in there?”
“Oh no no no no sweetheart! I’ve only got money in here. Money for the babies!”
Lisa frowned at the box, not entirely convinced. She wanted to look inside, just to be sure, but Mrs Shellhart was speaking again.
“That’s a lovely little bunny dear. What’s his name?”
“It’s a her,” said Lisa.
“Oh? She’s a little girl bunny, is she? What’s she called?”
“Susie,” said Lisa.
“Susie? That’s a very pretty name. When I was a little girl I had a rabbit called Peter. A real rabbit. I kept him in a little cage in the garden shed.”
Lisa rubbed Susie’s ear against her cheek. “We have a Peter too.”
Mrs Shellhart’s smile broadened. “Have you indeed? Well fancy that! And where is Peter darling?”
Lisa traced round Susie’s worn face with the tip of her finger. “In the fridge.”
Mrs Shellhart chuckled. “That’s a good idea, in this hot weather. Keep him nice and cool.”
Lisa stared at Mrs Shellhart, the Plunket box, the fridge, then back at Mrs Shellhart. “Do you want to see him?”
Mrs Shellhart breathed in the talcum powdery scent of Katie’s hair. “I’d love to see him, pet.” Though she said so herself, she did have a way with little ones.
Lisa skipped into the kitchen. She opened the fridge door and took out the blue box.
Andy left Frosty on the passenger seat in case he started barking. He walked round to the back of the truck and heaved the stone off. He hoped they hadn’t heard him pulling into the paddock. He wanted to get everything ready first, then go and tell them. Get it all over and done, quick smart. This stone was some weight all right, but it would stop the dog diggin’. Bad enough when the cat dragged that newborn rabbit in last night. Pity Noeline saw it before he’d had time to scrape it off the floor. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to nail the cat flap up. The cats wouldn’t be too rapt, but still, just for a bit. Anyway, he was pleased with this stone. A real nice blue. He’d never seen one shaped like a heart before, neither. It was well worth the search. Mel would be stoked. He carried it over to the base of the macrocarpa and laid it on the ground.
Nice sheltered spot here, out of that damned nor’wester. Better grab the spade and get the hole dug. The joker on the telly the other night said the wind had a heap of names. Chinnook, the American Indians called it. And what was the name of that song? They call…the wind…Marie?…Maria? Whatever. It’d been like trying to work in a flamin’ dragon’s mouth these last seven days.
Andy straightened up slowly and rubbed the bottom of his back with his knuckles. All the jelly had dried out of his bones. Noeline was always on at him to get an x-ray, but once they got you in hospital they found all sorts of things wrong with you. Andy stepped back and looked at the hole. Just a bit deeper.
Hell knows what the hospital was thinkin’ of. Some flamin’ social worker’s idea of a Good Thing. Yeah, right! The expression on Noeline’s face when she looked in that box…oh man! In bed last night, her tears soaking the hairs on his chest. The hospitals didn’t do it in her day, she’d said, even though she was only fourteen. So her old man took her to this old biddy’s house. Afterwards, he shoved the dish in front of her face and made her look.
Andy took his hanky out of his pocket and wiped his face. He inhaled and exhaled loudly, just to hear the air moving in and out of his lungs. The sooner Mel got her own place, the better. He could help out a bit with the rent. And that little snot, Gideon Whatsihisface should be made to cough up. Better not say anything to Noeline though. Not just yet. She had enough on her plate. He dug out the last spadeful of earth and surveyed his handiwork. Maybe a few flowers? It would look a bit bare with just the stone. He peered over the fence at the borders of shrivelled marigolds. Right. Just the stone then. He took out his hanky to polish it up a bit.
As he bent over the blood rushed to his head and he thrust out a hand against the macrocarpa to steady himself. The rough bark under his spread fingers had bits of fibre sticking out where a rope had long since grown into the trunk and become part of the tree. Something more than his balance had shifted, but he couldn’t figure out what. Like the world had suddenly stopped spinning. Then it dawned on him. The wind had died. Funny expression that. He could hear the pigeons hooting like crazy because a nest had been blown clean out of the tree onto the ground. He picked it up and saw a fledgling inside. It was limp and almost transparent, a thin membrane over its bulging eyes. Poor little bugger was still warm. He looked down into the hole. Yeah, why not? He’d tell Melanie. Might make her feel a bit better.