Today’s story by New Zealand writer Grant Stone.
The Salt Line
By Grant Stone
The bus squealed to a stop. The doors hissed open as I stowed the comic book in my bag. Dad was already out of his seat, blocking the aisle, trying to wrench his backpack out of the netting. He moved back a little and I took the gap and jumped down without touching the steps. My feet crunched on gravel.
Apart from the bus, the carpark was deserted.
I had seen a hawk circling, back before we left the main road, an hour ago. Since then we’d passed fields, some of them still green, if overgrown, but there had been no traces of livestock. The engine died with a cough.
I leaned against the Department of Conservation sign and watched the others disembark. The bus couldn’t have been more than half full – there was nobody else my age. Nobody had looked like they were enjoying it, especially the last half hour, crawling up and down hills with dust creeping through the windows and under the door.
A man in a brown tweed suit climbed down the steps. He had the look of a maths teacher and carried a walking stick, although he didn’t seem to need it. He offered his arm to help a silver-haired woman down.
The next two off the bus were soldiers. You’d be able to tell just by the curve of their shoulders and their straight backs, even if they weren’t wearing their dress fatigues.
The driver opened the luggage hatch and retrieved a collapsible wheelchair. With the assistance of one of the soldiers he helped a very elderly man down the steps. The soldiers made a real fuss over him, put a rug over his knees and adjusted his beret.
A woman in a white dress and sunhat stood in the doorway and squinted into the sky. Dad was right behind her, stuck. He polished his glasses on the corner of his shirt and waited.
I heard footsteps on the path. The man walking up to greet us looked the picture of health, in boots and shorts and cotton shirt, at least until he got close. Then I could see his left eye was white as sand and the last two fingers on his right hand were missing. He was frowning but when he saw me he gave me a wink and grinned.
The other passengers remained clumped together in the middle of the car park.
‘Haere Mai,’ he said, ‘Welcome all. I trust you had a good trip. I’m Paul and I’ll be your guide today. You’re nearly at the line – just a gentle walk and we’ll be there. But we don’t need to head off just yet. You need a few minutes to shake the dust off.’ The elderly woman hadn’t waited – while Paul had been talking she’d pulled a tiny table and folding chairs from somewhere. The maths teacher was pouring her a mug of tea from a tartan thermos. ‘Also, if you’ve got any questions, now’s a good time to ask them.’
A hand emerged from the back of the crowd.
‘Will it be possible to take pictures?’
Paul smiled. ‘No problem at all. The funny thing is though, once people get up there they tend to forget to take them. I should warn you. You’ve all seen pictures, seen it on television. It’s a little more intimidating when you see it up close. There’s plenty of seating up there if you feel faint. If you have any difficulties whatsoever, let me know. And don’t feel bad if you want to turn back before we reach it. It’s perfectly natural.’
One of the soldiers snorted. ‘That’s the last thing it is.’
While the others unpacked sandwiches and clustered in whispering knots, I walked across to the far side of the carpark. We had to be more than a little walk away. The path disappeared into brush, but where it should have been visible above the treeline there was just an infinite blue.
Dad walked over and handed me a sandwich. ‘Ready little man?’
‘Beautiful day for a tramp. Your mum and I used to come up here all the time. Well,’ he waved his hand, ‘further up north. You know, before.’
A couple of weeks ago in History class, Sam had leaned over to me. Know what the worst word in the English language is, he whispered.
The others put away their lunch and wandered over to the path. It was pretty narrow, so we formed a line. Dad and I were last. The light dimmed almost immediately as we walked into the bush. Sun dripped through in patches and made the leaves sparkle.
I jogged up to the front. The woman in the sunhat giggled as I went past.
‘Day off school?’ Paul asked.
‘Two. We came up from Christchurch yesterday.’
He nodded. I’m from Christchurch, myself. Haven’t been back since it became the capital. Crusaders still winning?’
‘Not many your age come up to see it. You’re what, thirteen?’ I nodded. ‘Don’t blame you. You were still in nappies when it happened.’
‘What happened to your hand?’
He looked at the white line that marked the end of his hand where his fingers should be, as if he was seeing it for the first time. ‘Got too close.’
‘And your eye?’
‘Got too close,’ he said.
Twenty minutes later the path opened into a large clearing. A DOC hut took up most of the space and there were a few picnic tables scattered about.
‘Nearly there folks,’ Paul said, ‘We’ll rest here for a few minutes to let you catch your breath. There are some displays set up in the hut if you’re interested, or if you’d just like to get out of the sun.’
Dad fished a couple of bottles of water from his backpack and they were still pretty cold. I put my finger to the glass and traced a wavy line in the moisture, drew a crude ship above it and a circle-lines happy sun. My father coughed and I brushed the picture away before he could see.
‘What time is it?’
Dad looked at his watch. ‘Ten thirty.’
Any other Wednesday I’d be standing outside Mr. Emerson’s room. That’s where they’d all be now, socks pulled up, single file. Mr. Emerson had been pulled out of retirement after it happened. Perfect for teaching history, he is, Sam had said, seen so much of it.
‘Want to go look?’ Dad asked.
I shook my head.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said and wandered over by himself.
I figured Paul had called another rest for the elderly couple, but they were fine. The guy had taken off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder and was laughing at something. The soldier who’d been pushing the wheelchair didn’t look so good. He was hunched over, sweat dripping off him. The wheelchair had thin, solid tyres that didn’t roll very well on the dirt track.
Dad came back and sat down again, a strange expression on his face.
He shook his head. ‘Nothing much. Big map of the South Island, showing where the line is. A few photos.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘A list’. He didn’t need to say more. A list of the dead. Or rather, a list of those confirmed dead by whoever had the job of figuring it out. A black wall covered in names circled Cathedral Square, then snaked all the way down to the Arts Centre. They were still building it. Dad got worked up whenever we passed it, reckoned it was a bloody useless waste of time.
Mum’s name wasn’t on it.
Dad had told me about it when he figured I was old enough. ‘You have to understand that she always loved you,’ he said and took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose, ‘It wasn’t her fault. Things were – crazy. People would go off, not be seen again.’ He shrugged, as if it could have been worse. I knew it could have. Ross Johnson’s grandparents had chugged a bottle of sleeping pills and gone out to the garden, to sit in deckchairs and wait. ‘Maybe she thought there was something she could do. You know how she was.’
Mum was awesome. Most families have a portrait on the wall, or an aging wedding photo. We had a copy of the front page of the Press, showing Mum being carted off by police, along with a bunch of other protestors. That was how they’d met -– pushed together in the back of a paddy wagon.
Then one day the police called and Dad took the bus over to Lyttleton. The car was unlocked, keys still in the glovebox. At first he wondered if she’d just jumped in, but he knew she’d never do that. It was the next day, when Rawiri’s wife called, then uncle Martin, that it all came together. Rawiri and uncle Brett had gone the same night. I imagined Mum driving over for uncle Brett first, over in Hornby, pulling up outside, lights off, keeping the engine as quiet as she could. Then across to Cashmere for Rawiri. He’d been in the picture from the Press too, arms twisted up behind his back, policeman hissing in his ear. They’d stolen a Zodiac and gone, straight out to sea, straight out to the line.
I sloshed the last of the water around the bottle. I could imagine them, Mum in the thermal dive gear left over from her time with Greenpeace, crouched in the back of the boat, her unqueued grey hair flying out behind, hand on the throttle of the outboard.
I tried to figure it out, once. Phoned up some boat shops to try and find out how far a Zodiac could run. One tank of gas or was it likely they’d have two? How far was the line, anyway? Back then there wasn’t a lot of information and if a kid asked – they were trying to protect us, I guess. After a while I realised I didn’t want to know if she’d made it all the way.
We were at the front of the line now. Dad bothered Paul with questions and he answered without taking his eyes off the track ahead.
‘Where are all the birds?’
‘South. Won’t come near the place. It’s not just birds, either. No animals here now. Dig all day and you’ll never find a worm’
‘That can’t be good for the trees.’
‘It’s not. The Rata won’t spread without birds. Not long, maybe fifty years, all this will be gone, it’ll be all gorse or sand. It’s the same out in the ocean. Half a kilometre from the line there’s just nothing.’
Dad snorted. ‘Bad for fishing.’
The trees still looked pretty good to me, rough and solid and alive. It was weird to think of them gone. It was cool and green here, but silent. No animals here, not even an ant. We may as well have been on the moon.
‘Will it spread?’
‘Not as far as we can tell. The land along the line will be a desert, but there’s no indication the line is going to shift.’
‘There was no indication something like the line could ever exist. Until it did.’
‘Yeah.’ Paul rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Don’t make any long term plans.’
We stopped after another fifteen minutes. It had been growing steadily more dark and I realised I hadn’t seen even a gap in the leaves for some time.
Paul’s voice was hushed. ‘We’re here.’
I could hear someone praying behind me. The whole group was close together now, huddling in the dark.
‘OK,’ Paul said, and walked on, not the same way he’d marched up the track. His footsteps were careful now, like he was creeping past a sleeping beast.
Dad squeezed my hand and I didn’t let go. We turned the corner.
At first it wasn’t so bad. A few rows of seats. A solid waist-high fence and then the line itself. It could have been a cinema screen. But it was the black of the void and it went up, and out, further than I could see. It went up forever.
My stomach turned over. Dad fumbled for the nearest seats and pulled us down. I put my head between my knees, looked down at my shoes and tried to remember the blue sky at the other end of the trail.
I could hear the reactions of the others as they saw it for the first time, their sharply indrawn breaths.
One of the soldiers lost it, started shouting, swearing. ‘It’s OK, mate,’ the other soldier said, and I heard a pounding sound. ‘It’s OK,’ he said again, his voice was muffled. I looked around. His shoulders stuttered up and down as he sobbed.
After a few minutes I looked at the line again. Through the gaps in the fence, I could see the part where the land simply stopped, as if someone had taken a razor and cut the world. Beyond that was nothing. No stars. No wind. A nothing so pure it pressed on my eyes like a block of obsidian. The rest of the world could have been right on the other side of the line. Or maybe the whole universe had been broken into shards like glass dropped on concrete. Or maybe it was all just gone. The void answered nothing.
The last of the cries stopped. We were all sitting now, silent.
The soldiers walked down to the front and stopped just before the fence, set their legs wide. ‘Ka mate’ the taller one shouted and they slapped their palms on their thighs. The haka took up the space, boomed around the clearing. I kept time, pounding my fist against the seat.
Whiti te rā!’
One last upward step!
Then step forth!
Into the sun that shines!
They shouted a final ‘He’ and instantly the silence fell again.
The elderly captain gripped the arms of his wheelchair and began to sing in a high and uncertain voice. ‘Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave,’
We all joined in including Dad. I don’t think he’d ever been inside a church in his life.
‘For those in peril…’ I didn’t know the words, but after a while I figured out the melody and hummed. The hymn faded out in the middle of the second verse.
Just in front of the line was a white substance, crusted and collected the length of the clearing like a spine laid on the ground. The crystals sparkled from some unknown light and it wasn’t until I felt Paul’s hand on my chest that I noticed I’d walked all the way down to the front.
‘Don’t get too close,’ he said.
‘What is that stuff?’
‘We call it salt, but nobody knows. Some people though – it’s like it calls to them. That’s why we have the fence,’ he said, and rubbed the scar line of his missing fingers.
I walked with Paul back to where Dad was sitting. ‘What are you doing running off mate,’ he said, trying for a jokey feel, but his voice quivered and his eyes were wet. People were already starting back up the trail in ones and twos. Nobody wanted to stay.
Dad kept his arm tight around my shoulders the whole way back.
I wondered if Mum had felt it too, the pull of the salt. If it had called to her, all the way over in Riccarton, got her out of bed and into the car, her hands turning the ignition, got her to round up the old crew and drive to Lyttleton, find a boat, cut the mooring rope. I wondered if it would call for me again one day. Then we emerged from under the canopy and the light was like mercury and the sun was sweet on my face.