A few weeks ago I invited writers across all genres from Tāmaki Makaurau, Te Tai Tokerau and Waikato to contribute a piece of writing they have written during lockdown 2021. They could write on any subject, in any style, and around 400 words or so. On Friday I am posting my lockdown gathering, but I am launching the project with a longer piece by fiction writer Leanne Radojkovich, on this day Aucklanders can return to bookshops.in person.
Lockdown stone henge
… Infantile Paralysis. Black headlines in the paper, listing the number of cases, the number of deaths…
I re-read Janet Frame’s story soon after lockdown. Rumours circled the burning world. I circled the neighbourhood, circled the neighbourhood, walked until… Everything exhausted us. Cracks appeared in the earth.
I circled the suburb, the mountain, the summit: the view is immense, then down the mountain, the road around the base. Eleven tūī had turned a flowering cherry into an aviary, darting and dive-bombing, bell calls, coos and krrrks, shaking the branches, blossoms shimmering, petals floating.
The daily round, circling the neighbourhood, the phone alarm for the one o’clock news; numbers of community cases, of people in ICU. Lacing up my trainers, putting on my mask, walking the left-hand perimeter of my suburb. A mountain on the left, a lake on the right.
The schools did not reopen. Our lessons came by post, in smudged print on rough white paper; they seemed makeshift and false, they inspired distrust. The story I’d been writing died. Nothing new sparked.
Lacing up my trainers. The mountain. The one o’clock news.
The streets are empty in the mornings. I walk down the middle of the road making no sound. I cover five kilometres in a strange quiet textured with bird calls and breezes.
One o’clock; community cases, ICU, locations of interest.
… the lesson papers sometimes covered with unexplained blots of ink as if the machine which had printed them had broken down or rebelled… The pages of my exercise book fill with squiggles, cross hatches, tiny circles that congregate like a mass of fish eggs.
Two weeks, three.
I start re-reading the last book I’d finished before lockdown, where Derek Jarman recites the names of plants like a rosary: iris, calendula, curry plant, rue. I reach through a scrawny hedge and snap off geranium flowers. Plant succulents plucked from a river stone garden that lines a stranger’s driveway. I take a stone. I take two. Jarman collects stones and makes little henges … the stones a notation for long-forgotten music, an ancestral round to which I add a few new notes each morning. Sometimes I walk with my partner and name the plants we pass: nasturtiums, azaleas, gazanias. I don’t know how I know their names. I’m not a gardener. All I can think is that they were imprinted in childhood, from hearing Mum talk about them. She’s no longer here to check, maybe I’ve misremembered, but the chant continues… lavender, fuschia, lobelia.
If not an ancestral round, then this is a familial one, maternal. I take a river stone for Mum. I’m growing a stone garden.
Five weeks. A woman is murdered on the mountain. She walked regularly; early in the morning, earlier than me. I check security camera footage on the news, she stands on a street on my route, at the base of the mountain, the mountain I circle every day, yet I have not seen her before. A terrible sadness cuts into me. I find the heaviest stone I can in a pile of rocks beside the railway lines and set it down carefully in my henge, shifting the others to keep the shape. Stones of sadness, of remembrance, in a circle on the deck.
On one side the mountain, on the other the lake. I walk down the main road, which I never normally do because of the noise and stink of cars and trucks. But now, stillness, a green spritz of pine scent. I pause in the middle of the overpass and look down at the motorway’s vacant lanes, then a car, then emptiness.
I reach the lake and circle it. Hatchlings stumble and skitter, inky black powderpuffs. Baby pūkeko tumble along. Grey candyfloss cygnets glisten in the sun.
Transplanted tansy and gathered seed. Oh fuck everything! The phone is going again: One o’clock update, community cases rise. The border remains in place… for weeks. For months? When will I see my children again?
A new exercise book, the blank first page. I pick up my pen, then put it down. Everything is shutting down, even the doodling, which sometimes turned into words.
Trainers, mask, overpass, lake. I make friends with an eel. It lies in the water as if lounging on a sofa. It has white lips and blue eyes, and stares at me. Its mouth moves as if telling, asking, instructing … but the words remain in the eel’s liquid world, I can’t hear them in my world of air. I pick up a rough stone near the path. Jarman writes that his garden is a memorial, each circular bed and dial a true lover’s knot – planted with lavender, helichrysum and santolina. He has been diagnosed HIV positive and developed his garden until he died years later.
Six weeks, seven. I stop listening to the one o’clock news.
I snap off lavender cuttings on the way to the lake and slip them into my pocket. The cygnets have grown and their short necks lengthened. They wobble along like puppets whose strings are out of alignment. Wet, arrow-shaped pūkeko footprints cross the dry asphalt. I follow them. They turn down a path I haven’t walked before. I continue past a barbecue pit, past a pond with a massive overhanging kōwhai tree whose flowers paint the pond yellow. Then there is a clearing in a kānuka grove – The Circle of Friends, an HIV/AIDS memorial garden, names inscribed in a stone circle.
Week nine. I put away the exercise book.
Today I saw a monarch butterfly land on a cosmos flower. Resting or dying, I couldn’t tell. It had worn-looking wings. They didn’t move. The trees are in bright green leaf; the borage is humming with bees.
Our lessons came by post… they seemed make-shift and false… they could not compete with the lure of the sun still shining, swelling...
I have my own small henge which I’ll circle with terracotta pots of lavender. The cuttings are in a glass of water on the windowsill. Every morning I check – papery bumps are forming. They give the same sense of promise that a new story would. Soon the stems will send out squiggly notes.
Quotes from: The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches (1963), Janet Frame.
Modern Nature (1991), Derek Jarman.
Leanne Radojkovich’s short story collections Hailman and First fox are published by The Emma Press. Her stories have most recently appeared in Best Small Fictions 2021, ReadingRoom and Turbine|Kapohau. Leanne has Dalmatian heritage and was born in Kirikiriroa. She now lives in Tāmaki Makaurau where she works as a librarian. Her website. Twitter @linedealer