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Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand 1960s

by Tina Manoussakis 4 months ago in Short Story
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Gravesend Place

The bones were still clad in their Sunday best, and on the wrist, a metallic watch still shone ash-grey under a layer of mud. The thunder of the hunting dogs sounded through the pines, breaking the soft silence of the mountain. The old man had known it was time to die. He walked into the forest of Billy Bone’s valley until he found a clearing in which to take his final sleep.

Jim and his father stood still as their eyes took in the carefully dressed bones. The old man had chosen this glade, a primordial breath of emptiness among hordes of trees, a rare fissure in the emerald ceiling. His bones now rested on a large rock that jutted suddenly from the earth. Overpowered by the forest in all directions, the glade was made bright by the only penetrating sunlight for miles. Forest beams and shadows danced around them. The slab of rock had become a bed that was the departing point of this world. The soul-thing was gone, and the dapper skeleton remained in the in-between of here and there. To step any closer might risk finding one foot elsewhere, just beyond space and time. Death lay heavy in the air, coaxing the father and son into a stoic blankness. Jim was not frightened. The old man was somewhere else; his kindly spirit owl had flown in on the wind up to memory plane.

‘You won’t see Billy Bone, he’s not around here.’ Jim’s father had told him on their last hunting trip, drawing a story to calm his horror-stricken son from the deep well of his imagination. The boy had spent all night with his small face pressed against the cold V8 van window, his eyes darting to and from the tenebrous space between the pines where the night had eaten up the scrub. The more he tried to look away, the more he would hungrily snatch glances at that darkening void. He was pulled in two directions: both frightened by what he might find in the dark and shivering with excitement that arises on the precipice of discovery: an unveiling of the unknown. Jim had heard of the ghost of Billy Boone in town, spoken of with a trembling intensity which animated both young and old.

‘Well, where is he then?’ Jim, peppery from lack of sleep, looked reproachfully at his father. He was certain of Billy’s presence with a vivid fixity that is the domain of children. Jim knew that one of his surveils of the woods would reveal the wily ghost. He was sure that Billy’s mangled body would creep into view one night and freeze his heart with terror. The old recluse had lived in a tin and timber hut followed by a golden barn owl and his dogs passing each unchanging day in a vast, horizonless solitude. Jim was sure he’d seen the very hut, that owl, mourning in russet for its master. Billy had met his end on a day like any other in its rustic simplicity; every day he gathered tinder for the nightly fire which would keep his roughened body breathing through the coming of the dew. On that day, the hermit set out with his dogs and struck his faithful axe into a towering, knotted beech. He saw the beauty of the world for the last time: the pearlescent grass on the hillside at the crowing of the morning, the beech teaming with variegated moss, the soft curve of the ground as it receded towards a river shrouded in green - all these sights had been the last he would ever lay eyes on as the great tree fell, and it was finished before Billy felt pain.

For five days Billy lay in the place between the tree and the cold earth, the owl silent in flight, and his dogs steadfast at his exposed heels. But even loyal dogs grow hungry. The sordid end of the legend of Billy Bone struck Jim’s young mind like a bell, the image of the half-eaten man reverberated in his head and the fear rang loud. Billy’s spirit, no longer flesh but pitted with its absence, surely roamed the valley. Jim was doomed to see the sunken cavities of Billy’s tortured face, a horror he would not be able to bear. The sight would paralyse him, would prove too much even for a boy who ran wild in the hills from the moment he could run at all.

His father continued. ‘You know how the wind blows up the mountain? Well, when it blows it takes everything you love with it, all the nice things, all the people too. When you die it’s waiting for you up there, up on memory plane.’ Jim was calmed by the fable, safe in the knowledge that Billy was elsewhere, and that he had such a blissful elsewhere waiting for him when the time came. His father span stories like gold and those iridescent words poured into Jim’s ears and heart. As he grew, the boy carried a memory plane within him, his father’s words adding vibrant colour to the mystical dimension which hung between the sunlight and the air, sometimes seen and sometimes not. Jim and his father set out that day following pig tracks, a long and winding milky way of constellations in the mud. They searched for hidden watering holes where the pigs wallow and rub their rough backs against the sandpaper trees. Jim followed his father in a halcyon mood, thinking of the elves and fairies going about their days just out of sight, behind the flowers and the leaves.

Unlike Billy, some of the Picton ghosts stayed around - like Jack Robinson, who haunted the top of the forest firebreak. Jim’s brother had seen him, outlined against the pale blue of the sky. Ghostly Jack was a cherished local figure, and glimpsing one of his tightropes walks across the horizon was like seeing a blazing star fall from the heavens. Jim and his family lived in a weatherboard house the colour of eggshells, past the lush paddock where the bay mare and the black gelding grazed, right at the end of Gravesend Place next to the wrought-iron cemetery gate. Jim loved to swing on the wide, creaking gate with his friends Mary and David. When night fell in Picton, only a solitary streetlight battled against the enclosing darkness. Even if the moon was bright, the tall hedges around the cemetery cast long shadows which plunged the graves into utter blackness.

Short Story

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Tina Manoussakis

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