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By Kirsty Gunn


The Montréal Review, July 2021


Sandor Klein, American Farm Hand, 1937, oil and casein on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Dr. Ira Miller



Their father had always let them handle the guns so they thought nothing of allowing me to touch them. Though their father was not someone I could ever speak to or know. He was a frightening  man with “a little war wound” he called it, a long red scar from where a stallion had bitten him on the thigh right through to the bone, and it made him suck his breath in between his teeth and whisper “Christ” when he had to do something in a hurry, get up, say, to give one of his boys a whack if they’d been causing trouble, or bend over to pick up a heavy bag or sack off the ground. “Christ Jesus” sometimes, he’d say then, when the wound perhaps hurt him, the ss- s in the words sounding through those strong white teeth of his in his dark, tanned face. I was a child but I desired him then, before I knew what desire was. “To come in” was the phrase I used, privately, to myself. To know what it was to be entirely in love.

But you can’t be in love with your best friends’ father – I knew that too, and the Carter boys were my best friends. Not only Taylor who was in my class at school and the skinniest, but Kip and Tommy who were both older let me be in their gang, and they were all three of them “mean buggers” their father called them. “Come here, you lot” he’d shout at them when he got back to the house after a big day out in the bush where he was working. “Get inside” and he’d whistle them in like they were a pack of dogs and it made them yell with pleasure when he did it. “Ah, yah Pappy!”, they’d scream back at him, charging around the place, tackling him, and running away just as fast.  They were acting like they were terrified only they were excited, excited, by his presence, and by the things they’d done while he’d been away.  “We’ll have your guts” Kip said to me once, when making me promise on some secret or other – a cat killed or some boy at school Tommy had cut – that I’d never tell. “Gods-Truth” all three of them reminded me. “We’ll hurt you if you squeal.”

Their father knew  the boys were tough but the exact nature of their secrets was kept from him – and they were many. Kip, who was thirteen and like a man, led on all the games and had a million cruel actions he could generate, like a machine, and then want to hide from. Like he’d skinned a rabbit when it was still half alive, and spat muck in the face of a girl we met once at the gas station because she was pretty, after he’d got her behind one of the old disused pumps and put his hand up her dress. He’d already used sticks for sex, he said, and knew exactly what he was doing. Taylor told me he’d done it loads, and what did the rest of us know about it, anyhow? I couldn’t think, but didn’t dare ask in case Kip realised I might be a girl myself and would use one of those sticks on me. He did other things, yes, but I didn’t mind them because I wasn’t really a girl. With the Carters I could be who I wanted and also stay that way; they would let me be a boy with them. So I might learn from them how to cut up animals and sell their fur, build forts from willow and fish for eels with a nail in the same way they’d taught me how to swear and run fast across rocks in barefeet and dive off the cliff straight down into the water. Of course I could come near guns and traps and knives and learn not be frightened. Everything was there before me, is how it seemed. A life laid out. So that all through the time of knowing that family I could be someone who was not a stupid girl but just wear shorts and have my shirt off and my bare chest  in the world, letting myself be free out there in the sun and wind with them, getting darker and darker so that sometimes my skin peeled off but underneath the new pink skin showed up as dark too, in time. “You’re tough, alright” Kip told me when we were kissing. “You’ll do.”

There was a mother in the picture but we didn’t talk about her much. I never knew her name and the boys only called her “Ma” which was all wrong for someone who held her body in the world the way she did, who took her time. It was only when I grew up myself and saw women who had that same look of quiet confidence, like a cat in the sunshine just sitting there like it’s never planning to move, that I realised what beauty was: the bare minimum of a thing to create the largest, largest effect. I saw women like Mrs Carter then, much later in my life when there were women, and more women... But back in those days I didn’t have the know-how or vocabulary to describe someone who knew exactly what they could do with the wild and generous terms granted them by their own bodies. Oh, I could say when years had gone by, Oh I get that, Girlie. What you’re doing to me here.  I see that. I see you. But when I was a child Mrs Carter was the only one I’d witnessed who had that kind of quality.  There in the background, maybe, but an alive’ness running all the way through her and her boys seemed to feel it too, putting their hands on her as if to take some charge off her, “Ahhhh, Ma. Go on. Go on.” I think about that now, the memory of her stance, her immobility while they crowded around her. I can’t remember anything she would say or do in response, while her husband, by contrast, seemed to surge and spark with words and activity. It was as though he was fired up, so charged by those rifles of his kept on a table in the back room, the boxes of bullets and knives beside, that he might use them any second and the whole house would explode around us. “Those are things I need for work!” he would yell at the boys, his voice like an engine. “Don’t you lot move things around when you go in there. I need to be able lay my hands on that stuff. I don’t mind you having a play, you need to learn how to manage a gun. But none of it’s for your use... Not now!”  “But when, Pappy?” the boys would shout back at him, because of course we did go in and they moved the guns around, all the time.  “When?” And Mr Carter would raise his arm as if he was going to give Kip a whipping but he’d be grinning, laughing, kind of. “When I decide!”, he’d yell back at him. “That’s bloody when!”, looking at me, too, with his black eyes. “And you as well” he said. “Don t think you’re not part of all this. You can touch, you know full well, but you can’t use.”

The boys never told him then, they never would dare, of what they got up to, whether they had access to their father’s guns or not - of the animals Kip shot with his own BB rifle, though it was only supposed to be for rabbits, or the things Tommy and Taylor did to the other kids at school, all those actions of theirs that were kept in the dark. Their father had rules. You could be tough but not disobedient, wild but not cruel. And for sure all three made certain I’d never blurt some fact out that might show how far they’d transgressed - let it go that I’d seen Taylor put a rat on the teacher’s desk, say, still moving but its guts all out, and that he swore and shouted most of the time through lessons. James Carter was not to know about any of it. Those rules of his were deep in his sons even while they disobeyed them, over and over again and terrified of what he’d do to them if he found out. It was why they liked to keep reminding me of the use of various weapons, they said, of ammunition and  triggers and of safety catches that could released. “Don’t be frightened, scared-y. But know what this is” Tommy waved his father’s oldest rifle around, pointing it at my heart. “Boom. All gone.”

For my part though, they never need have worried I’d tell. Even with the blood banging in my head for fear, standing there with them while Kip broke open the rifles one by one and cleaned inside and out with an oily rag, kidding me on there were bullets in the chamber while he did it and going “Careful now, you’ll set me off...” Still I wanted, more than any feeling normally would have allowed, to belong to all three of those boys forever and to that father of theirs whose body I felt as though it were right beside my own, humming with energy and heat and power. So I did touch the guns, and I picked them up, put them down. In order to be that “you as well” as Mr Carter had looked at me and said. To be a brother, a son. A something else I couldn’t explain that had nothing to do with my life at my own house with my own parents, that would let me do my own screaming around the place, being grabbed and brought down to the ground. To be able to put my arms around a waist like Mr Carter put his arms around his wife’s body as though she was a beautiful wild animal only he had caught her, he had her. To be similarly enclosed, to be...Come in. This was what kept me going back to the Carters, holding my tongue. So I didn’t have a father who would give chase round the kitchen table with a belt as a joke and who kept dangerous things around him? A man who was a “Pappy” and who you punched up and swore to and he gave you cigarette ends you could smoke yourself whenever you wanted? So my own father was not someone with a dark tanned face, and nothing about him crazy and handsome and strong? It didn’t matter because for a time I had them, didn’t I? The Carters? Their house only down the road, but another world.

They’d lost everything, I found out later, because Mr Carter had been in prison somewhere up North for hurting a man and people couldn’t see past it to give him any kind of job. For these reasons, and the family not leaving town because of it, he’d had to make do “on the side” as he called it, rogue farming a few acres that he’d dug himself out of the bush, forty miles or so away from town.  That, and a bit of culling for the forestry commission and managing some timber work for them, kept him going, you might say. But what does it mean, really, “kept him going” ? I think about that now. When it was the kind of country that closed up behind you as fast as you went in and with any track grown over just as quickly as it had been made? So James Carter could do that, manage being there on his own, because he was strong and he had to, my father told me once, he didn’t have a choice and he was courageous, “virtuous”, the word my father used, still, that can’t have made it any easier. “He is someone with great will,” my father went on, “and it’s a virtuous will” – though he didn’t want me hanging around the Carters even so, and would have had me home with my mother, and to attend to my schooling. Most people knew about the Carters  – as my father did, and my mother, and kids at school knew and whispered about it, what Mr Carter had done... But, my father said, that man wouldn’t have been the first to have had some bad luck and to want to make do with a bit of cleared land where he could run some goats and plant crops of various kinds, potatoes mostly, but also swede and cabbage. There would always be a kind of person who sat outside the life led in that country, in that part of the country, in those days. My parents seemed to have an understanding about it, about what it might be like for the Carters and people like them, more, perhaps, than the others in town who were mothers and fathers and like anyone else. Still, my father had a job with a clean, tidy car to take him to work each day, not a big old dirty truck that didn’t always start, and in the end, for all his talk, he would have wished me, as my mother did, to be more like other girls, think about different things.

But I couldn’t. My mind was full up with Mr Carter and his boys. From the day we moved to that town I couldn’t take my eyes off them; the way they dressed, the way they spoke. They didn’t seem to care about any one. So when Taylor said, “Come on, then”, when I went up to him at the end of my first week at the new school to look at his bike which he told me he’d stolen and then let me ride bareback home with him to his house... It was like a hook. Something grabbing at me, pulling, and it wasn’t going to be possible afterwards for me to think about anything else,  to imagine or want any other way of living. The Carters didn’t have a garden with little flowers and the front door always closed. Their place, down past our neighbours went straight onto paddock and had a broken down verandah round the back you could live out on if you wanted, Taylor told me that first day. How from there even at night you could see all the way off to where his father went on his own for work and stayed away, sometimes for days, weeks even. He pointed it out, the dark mass of land off there in the distance, darker than the dark. It was Urewera, Taylor said. King Country. The whole area was, all set to mountain and hill and ravines and gullies, thousands of acres of hidden, difficult country run through with rivers and lakes, and none of us, not even Kip, could get inside there without Mr Carter to show us the way. All three boys talking about it as though it was a place that existed only in the future, where you could never arrive at, only want to go.

So the stories started for me then - how dangerous it would be in there, where Mr Carter went for work, with seasons and days not seeming to apply it was that dark down in the valleys, with water running at spate most of the time and all sluiced up with mud and and vegetation and scree. There were sharp hard precipices, we talked about, and cliffs dropping down to the bush floor where giant trees grew, their tops blocking out the sun like a black roof above your head. We’d be all four of us out on that verandah, day or night, thinking about it, one man on his own in such a place and the choices he would have to make, the exact preparations he would need to consider in order to be safe. Of course he had to have the guns in there with him. Because it was his job, the boys told me – to herd and cull and trap and shoot and cut up for sale and cut down. There were huge boar in those mountains, Taylor showed off about in school. Mr Carter had given him a tusk as a memento, like a giant’s yellow tooth with a pointed tip that could ram through anything - and where his father went there were hundreds of these kinds of animals, Taylor told the kids in class, wild horses, great herds of deer, goats. There were possum traps filled with animals crazed with poison his father needed to clear, nets and dams to empty that were filled with huge coils of conger eels that behaved like sharks and were thick as a man’s arm. “Be quiet, Taylor Carter” our teacher would say, “We all know about your father”  but Taylor wouldn’t be quiet. It really was a King’s Ransom in there, he said, with nothing you couldn’t shoot, fish, snare and butcher. And it was being paid to you, see? Like it was given. “Meat or money?” That’s what Mr Carter shouted out to us, when he got back from one of his big trips, after being away for two weeks or more and it meant he had money from the Government and something on the back of the truck that we could eat. So Taylor was right. There was everything we needed, everything. And for sure, you could think about that as you sat on the Carter’s back verandah, smoking cigarette ends and eating jam sandwiches, looking out to the edge of country one man had come home from, arrived standing there in the doorway as tall as the ceiling with his pack and his dogs and the truck outside still hot and covered with mud. It was meat or money, alright. And all because of him. Because he’d been in there, gone into the midst of that dark, unseen world and come home again. “Now let’s have some fun” he’d say then, when he was back amongst us. “Things have been way too quiet around here while I’ve been gone.”  

Remembering all this, those trips of his and how they were presented, the way they were talked about, thought through and described down to the smallest detail... Of course I can see now that the three boys understood what their father was doing to make a living in a way I never could have. But they were gracious, I think, in not letting on; instead making me feel that along with them we could only imagine the life their father had, tell stories about his hidden world and make up stuff about it and dream. Because, really, how could I expect to share their experience, have anything of their lives  - though that first day of going home with Taylor turned into weeks and months that I thought would last forever. I lived so close to that family you’d think I might have seen more, be told more, shown more. But despite the tense animal feeling of Mr Carter whenever  he was near, pressing on me an image of who exactly, when I grew up, I wanted to be, and for all the rich feeling come from his wife and sons to include me in their lives, those boys themselves versions of the self I was carefully fashioning that I might someday be one of them entire... Even so, I never knew that much about the Carters. They were on their own. And glamorous as they were to me, I was aware even then that being alone was probably how it had always been for them, fixed in and deep and very, very quiet, something they carried.

But what do you do with narrative like this? Gather it up? Even call it a story? For sure, I can write now, despite – or maybe because of - their isolation the Carters seemed to belong to that part of the North Island in a way others I’ve met since who were born around there don’t. And though I know that the area where James Carter farmed and worked doesn’t necessarily form the shape of something I can use to write about – it’s  too real for that  - even so, to think of how a part of the land stood in relation to the rest of us, so far away it seems from our small towns and cities, far from everything, does remind me of parables, myths. It’s there on the page before me - a dark region on the map we could see in the distance, tree and bush and scrub all massed together in thousands of acres of unseen terrain, rising up in foothills and mountains  - as though a certain part of my own life has never gone away. “Te Urewera.” “King Country.” Just to say the words made you feel like a man.

Even myths don’t come out of speaking, though; not any more. It’s been a long time since understanding would emerge from the dark. You need light to reveal what’s happening; without exposure any account goes unrecorded, acts and deeds as mute and invisible as any of the boys’ pitiless unspoken games. So it was that Mr Carter, who for so long had seemed to be someone in a certain kind of story, terrifying and mesmerizing in the things he did, snaking his arm around his wife or pulling his youngest son up onto his shoulder and biting his bare leg, putting Kip and Tommy to the ground in a rugby tackle so that he could keep them down there and then kiss them... Was also, in another kind of narrative, someone else. And while he’d been busy being the one I watched and felt and wanted, that presence in a room, that body, with those words and that mouth and his eyes and his breathing, right there beside me, he had also been that other man, a stranger, you might say, who I didn’t see until he was demonstrated to me, as he was in the end, in full daylight, in the middle of a bright morning.

It wasn’t until the very end of summer, though, that I found out about the other version, another account, you might say, altogether, of a life, and the solar opposite of the one I thought was being described. It begins just before we were due to go back to school, and the boys told me their father had come home from one of his early Autumn trips, as he called them, and had decided that he was going to take us out with him on a job the following week. Because, what? Take us with him? And that’s exactly when a shift, an alteration, occurred; a change in how things had been described up until now. Because a trip with Mr Carter now? After all this time? Sure, we couldn’t believe it. Why now? It made no sense - but we didn’t want to ask too many questions, either. For to be going, just to be knowing that this time when he left the house Mr Carter wouldn’t be alone but that we’d be there with him, gone with him into the mysterious place that had been the destination of our thoughts and stories... It was a gift. That was all we could think. A mighty gift. We’d be leaving very, very early in the morning, Mr Carter said, working all day and not getting back until late at night. He took us into the room with the guns to tell us. That he was bringing us with him to the farm he’d made at the foothills of the mountains, that there were things to be sorted out there, and in a hurry. That we’d need protective clothes, wet weather gear for where the river was dammed, reinforced boots. He made us remember it as a list. Petrol. The guns, of course the guns, and knives and sacks and kerosene. It was extraordinary even to hear him say the words – “leaving”, “working”, “getting back late at night” – with us there in his mind alongside them. It was the rag end of the holidays and we’d long ago given up thinking anything more was going to happen with that season. Only weeks of hot wind with the sky like a bullet of blue overhead, the paddocks all yellow and dry, and we’d had a lifetime, it seemed, Kip and Tommy and Taylor and I, of being on our own and wishing we could go with Mr Carter every time he left but having to just watch him load up the dogs, and his pack, and drive away.

So, really, yes, it was like a gift  - unimaginable and that you might cry out from it when it was given, and may not be able to accept it, even  - that after all the days and weeks of watching and waiting there’d be this, to be riding out on the back of the truck along with the dogs to go right into the foothills of the mighty Ureweras and be there with him this time. We’d be following him to see the farm Mr Carter had made - and no we wouldn’t be going any further than that, not up onto the ridges and those high plateaus where he went for the Forestry and his other work, but we’d see his farm, that was the main thing, that place he had created somewhere deep in the bush no one knew about, did they? And this time he wouldn’t be alone there because we’d be part of it, what he was doing, and adding to it  - to help with getting the vegetables in, he said, because the goats had got out and been at them and he’d need to move fast or there’d be nothing left. “I don’t want you with me” he’d told Tommy. “But I need you. I need –” my heart could barely contain its jump – “all four of you boys.” And why, why hadn’t he asked us earlier? Tommy didn’t know, no one knew. Because how could it ever be that James Carter would ever need anybody? When there was nothing dangerous going on he couldn’t manage himself, no action large or small he couldn’t have got on with himself in his own time like he always did? And as Taylor said, pulling potatoes and carrots was no big job – that “I need you”like an echo that wasn’t sounding true.

Now, of course, writing through all this, one story into another, I can understand in the way the child never could that the reason all this was happening was that it was only that his time had come. His taking a bunch of kids with him that day a way of making a final plea, I suppose,  an attempt to speak back to and counter actions already taken against him over– what? Months? More than. Before the year had started, most probably, and for more than a year... Before I even came to know the Carters – though my presence there amongst them hadn’t helped any, I found out. Even so, it had taken all that time, days and weeks and months, until that particular week, the end of the summer holidays and the vegetables not even half ready by then, for his life, for the things James Carter had chosen to do to gain a living, that “kept him going", to become at last impossible for him to carry on with. Kip said his father had told him that he would be allowed to use his 44 on any of the animals that played up while we were in there, and that Tommy could take the BB, then, as well, “just in case”. But just in case, what? I remember that thought formed an entire shape in my mind.  Mr Carter had hurt a man up North, I knew; and there’d been a gun involved then.Something below the words carrying more menace than any images of animal wildness or the uncertainty of terrain . “Shoot any mean looking bugger on four legs that even looks at you” Kip said his father had told him. He was beside himself with power - because he was the oldest and knew for himself, from what he’d done to some goats down on an empty lot where someone or other had run goats at one time, how male goats could be vicious. “Pappy doesn’t know how much skill I have in all that” he said. “And don’t you say a word about any of it, either”. We were around the side of the house where there were no windows so we couldn’t be seen, and it hurt, what he was doing, but I didn’t mind. The peel on my skin had healed over by then; you couldn’t even tell I’d been burnt and I’d have the mark of him in dirty ink and blood on me forever. “Watch me when I’m in there,” he whispered, his breath hot at my ear. “I’m going to know exactly what to do.”

And maybe, because he was the oldest, well, maybe, he did know. The story allowed out at last into the light, might have been how he saw it - as though all the dark games might now be shown and nothing more to keep secrets of - only “Watch me.” Because he was the one, Kip was, who picked up the 44 that day and used it.
“Like father like son” the men had jeered when the air had settled. “No going back now, laddie. All over for you here.”

How the Carters  - and my parents, too - must have worked hard to keep me and the boys ignorant of so much of what had been happening right up until just before that moment. That we would not have heard or seen, not really, what people in the town had been saying about the family, all through that summer, and before then...How it sharpens the picture. To know that all through those months beforehand we children were not aware of the many and intricate small acts of attrition that were being carried out against Mr Carter, opinion taking shape and forming before I even met Taylor that first day at my new school, yet there it was, amassing.  All the talk going on, discussion, about the dangerous father who’d come down from some prison up north and had expected just to move his family into town. As though he might be immune from his past! Living in a respectable community along with everyone else...Who did he think he was? So that was what attempted murder left you with? That you could ignore all that? And next thing you know the new family who’d moved down the road could just take up with them, somehow? Like that silly tomboy daughter of those people had thought she could just let herself, what? “Come in...”? What then, eh? If that was to happen? That others might follow? And then others follow the same? Well then, the talk would go on, something had better be done and there were men who would do it. Because who did he think he was? Eh? As one of them said to Mr Carter that morning in the road, before Kip even fired the shot, coming forward and poking him in the chest with his long ugly finger. “Who do you think your are, laddie? Eh? Who?”

This scene as I write it, and, of course, imagine, is that he had children with him that day in order that it might shame them, somehow...All those people who had talked about him and his family. That he might show them, by bringing us with him, just what it was they were doing, and had done. That our presence might speak back somehow. Is it how it was, though? That he really could believe any gesture he might make would stop the talk, their actions, have them think again? That he might have thought that to take us with him would remind those men he was a father, too and not so different from them, that we are all of us connected? I shall never know. Only that what I saw that morning could have only been another in a whole series of incidents and insults that I hadn’t witnessed; gestures and speeches played out in other places far from the edge of the dirt track which provided our theatre for that one morning.  And why, again, that particular week? That day, just before school went back, that a series of interventions, carried out by a group of just a few, maybe, but with the weight of prejudice and judgment behind them, would become insupportable for one man to bear? Why, after so much time had passed, he hadn’t made some kind of decision earlier, to cut his losses and protect himself, when he knew judgment had been fully realised against a family who hadn’t been trusted from the start, or wanted, and the prison sentence hanging around Mr Carter was something he could never escape, never - so why wait at all when it would only ever be just a matter of time before an itinerant family would be driven out from a town by those who felt they’d been there long enough?

I put myself in the story to “sharpen the picture”, as I wrote before, but really answers don’t exist for any of this. What is left for me instead is the sure knowledge I have now, that the girl in the story could never have possessed, nor the children in it with her, that by the time Mr Carter called us into the room with the guns to tell us we were going into the bush with him it was already too late. Too late for him to react and adjust to events already taken place and formed against him. It was always going to be too late. To be able to find a way out, recover anything of what he’d built up and get free... And it had been too late long before James Carter could begin to think maybe bringing a truck-full of kids with him that morning might have made a difference to men’s minds already made up. Their plan had been in place well in advance and they were ready and waiting for him by the time we arrived in sight of the dirt track cut into the bush that would lead to lead to the farm. After all the excitement, the anticipation of the trip, the getting up early in the dark and driving the forty miles on bad road, we got to a junction ...We turned the corner  - and were met with a road block of sorts; half a dozen armed men.

I remember it all, in absolute detail. How Mr Carter stopped the truck. And how for the first few of those  seconds nothing happened. There were about, yes I would say, six or maybe more, maybe eight, of those men in all, all holding rifles. They stood there. We hadn’t stopped in a hurry, Mr Carter hadn’t slammed on the brakes; he’d just slowly drawn the truck down to a halt, and then we were still, we waited. The men shuffled a little as they arranged themselves, they wanted us to see what they were carrying. It was a bright, bright late summer morning. The wind had disappeared, everything was still. Through the rear window of the truck, I could see Mr Carter sitting there in the cab, the back of his dark head in the sunshine, and I remember how I wanted to reach through the glass and touch his head, his hair, the back of his neck, and his brown hands that were set motionless upon the steering wheel. All the gear was on the back of the truck but he had his own rifle, I could see that, too, through the window of the cab, laid out on the seat beside him, carefully,  as though it were something that was also watching him, waiting. Long seconds continued to pass, one second, another second, then he took his hands off the wheel, opened the cab door and got out, walked towards the group of men where they were standing hard up next to each other with no space between, muttering and shuffling. He’d left the rifle where it was, laid down there on the seat of the truck. The engine was still running and the door was open. 

I don’t think I knew or had seen any of those men before, and only found out later that they were the same group who’d been after Mr Carter for months beforehand, following him into his farm as early as the Spring. They’d been checking up on what he’d been doing and then going in after and interfering, maiming his stock when Mr Carter thought at first it was wild pigs doing that, weakening his fence posts that he wouldn’t notice at first maybe but then a part of his enclosure line wouldn’t hold and he’d have to do it all over. So, bit by bit, they had acted against him. One thing, another thing. And of course he had never said, about the muck and chaos, the nets wrecked, his traps left spoiled and broken. Well, the boys never said anything about it to me, I suppose is what I am really saying. Because in their house it wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would talk about in front of me, that Mr Carter was starting to realise people might be acting on their talk because they just couldn’t let go of the past, people like that couldn’t. And who knows? One of those men standing there to block our way that morning might have been a brother to the man who’d been hurt up north all that time ago? Or maybe there was there some other connection, maybe one of them someone who knew someone who knew? There could be any number of reasons that people might have had, that he would have kept to himself, Mr Carter would have, and tried to keep, too, from his boys; reasons that would have made those men feel justified in damaging the work that had been established, the paddocks that had been created created out of the dense undergrowth, and the vegetable plots and traps he’d laid, the dams for fishing and drainage and the fresh plantings of fruit trees and saplings he’d tended. Finally the fences had gone entirely so the goats had got out and the vegetables that were just coming through for some kind of harvest were trampled and eaten. And for him to realise, I think, when we got there to the entrance of his farm that morning, to find the men there waiting, waiting for him in the way they were waiting, with all those guns...That what he had hoped for a while would hold was finally gone...To have to come to see, as his truck drew up upon them, with the four of us on the back and watching, witnesses to  everything as it was to unfold, that even with us there with him, nothing was going to change, still nothing he could do would alter the outcome, or influence it at all... That people were never going to leave him alone, to understand or forgive what he’d done and now here they were with their weapons to prove it... That must have been a hard enough scene to play for sure, in that morning’s grim theatre. To have to get out of the truck, to have to face those men with their stupid guns... To have to walk up to them as he walked up to them, as though to reason with them, as though he might have tried...as though he could have ever tried....All hard. But worse by far it must have been for him to have it be so exposed, in the broad yellow light of the morning that we, too, sitting there on the back of the truck and watching, waiting, could see it, that all of this had been allowed, that Mr Carter himself had allowed it....That he had let the things be done to him which had been done to him, that had gone so far. For the boys and I to had to watch those grown men taunt their father as though he were the child, calling him and his family out as criminals, as thugs and murderers and thieves. We had to see it all, hear it all, That if it came to it, in all their remarks, the taunting and jeering, that firearms would be used, well then, they went on and on, they’d have a reason, they said, “Oh, we’d have a reason, alright.” One of them finally lifting up his rifle and aiming it. “C’mon laddie, let’s see what you’re made of. You with that woman of yours and your kids no more than animals. Who do you think you are?”

So I watched him stand his ground. His boys watched, the four of us up on the back of the truck, we could see everything from there – and he never went back for his gun, he’d just left it in the cab where it had been laid out beside him like a loaded creature, a live thing that could jump only he wasn’t allowing it, keeping himself away from it and standing so quietly there in the road, taking what they were saying to him, taking it, and taking it, and it was Kip who had somehow got to the 44, the weapon now in his hands. The engine was still running, the door of the truck open. It was as though Mr Carter had thought he might just step out to deal with those the men but then get back in again as easy and be on his way, and without anyone seeming to notice Kip had got off the back and was round the side and had grabbed the rifle and aimed and fired. The shot rang out. A million birds exploded from the trees. The air went black. For a second there was nothing but that, that sound, and the darkness of the birds flung upwards into the sky in a thick black cloud, their screaming. The second rang and rang in the air, with the screaming and the flight of birds. Kip had aimed at the centre of the group of men but there his threat had ended. Because he had lifted the rifle then, he had aimed it at the sky. And it was was sky that took the blow. Air. Nothing else had been intended... And yet.... Intended. Who cares what was intended? The shot rang out and it makes no difference, does it? What’s intended? Whether it’s a boy’s bullet meant for air, for sky, or a bullet for a leg or for a foot which, as I found out years later, was where his father’s bullet once, along ago and to his shame, had been been intended...  Still, it makes no difference what’s intended. The shot rang out now, as then, with all its dark consequences in flight risen up behind it. The shot, the gun. The stupid, stupid gun. There was a second – that murderous beat of time that is the sound of all guns everywhere, when the sky goes black, with the shattering of those birds, of their cries - and, in that second, Mr Carter turned, he saw Kip, the weapon in his hands. “Ah Christ, “ he said. “Kippy. What have you done?”

Kip dropped the rifle then. He turned to his father, his father shook his head. “Ah, no...” and his face was contorted. “My own boy...”he said, in a voice I’d never heard before, vastly changed. Kip started shouting, shouting something to his father,  to the men, idiot words, crazy words, words that made no sense. I could hear him, see him, gesturing and yelling, though he had his back to us still Tommy and Taylor and I could see, hear his voice, going on and on, all these crazy words making no sense and not stopping, only shouting and yelling and yelling... This oldest son. This grownup boy, more a young man than a boy, shouting as though he would never stop,  still shouting, crazy words going on and on uselessly into the air, but his father came over to him, and said something to him, and Kip became quiet then, he became still. His father waited another second or two with him, not speaking, his hand on Kip ‘s arm, before walking back to face the gang who were blocking the entrance to where he wanted to go.
“Please” he said.

He’d wanted to get to the vegetables that had been grown; to where his work tools had been left, and to the wrecked traps and nets that would be needed again. Is what he’d needed to do that day, to get there, and then be away. To have none of this, to forget about it by now, that anything could be restored here, made good. Only be away from it, all of it, away, with his family, with his sons... To get away somewhere private and alone where they could be on their own and no one come near them there. To be gone from this, all this, from where we were, to get the vegetables in, clear things away as best he could, pack up his stuff and be gone forever and somewhere else and in that somewhere else forever, and safe. A somewhere that was anywhere than here, that was not now, not this, all this  -  though the beauty of the place where we were was enormous upon us that day, the bright sky, the clear air of the morning, and even with everything that was happening the Carters belonging there in the green and gold loveliness of it, in the splendour of the dirt road, in a way that a group of men with their shiny cars and utes parked up beside them seemed only visitors.

One of the men kicked a dog then and killed it. All the dogs had leapt off the truck the minute they’d sensed danger and they'd been on the road, barking and snarling, though Mr Carter kept on at them to  “get inside”. Still their instincts to protect ran high and they would only stay near him, circling around him, ready to move into attack the second they needed to, their teeth bared, curling and turning...And yes, the little black and white collie that got too close to one of the men received a blow to the head with the butt of a rifle and with a tiny yelp fell down, convulsing. Two or three more boots to its head followed, and to its belly, and then it was kicked in a heap to the side of the road. Still Mr Carter didn’t do anything. It was one of his sheep dogs, the collie, not a pig dog who would not have taken a kick so easy. He took a minute, acknowledging what had happened, then he called out to us, “C’mon, boys”, and he and Kip walked back to the truck and got into the front seat, and he reversed, and we drove away. I could hear the men yelling, “She’s not one of your bloody gang. She’s just a girl and you lot have no business with our people. Get out and go back to where you came from.” Their voices should have been silenced by the sound of the truck’s revs but I could still hear them. “Ya bloody coward. What are you doing here, with the rest of us? Get out! Get out!”, with the road emptying out behind us and the dog’s black and white body, streaked with red, getting smaller and smaller, as we drove away.

That’s what light gives. Seeing. And no wonder the boys wanted to keep everything in the dark. So you might say the writer would come in at this point, to remark on that, on the seen and the unseen, those actions of the Carters -  the stick and poke of them like Kip’s school ink tattoos.... I could spend pages bringing certain details out: Look at this here, and here and here – but what then? It’s not where this was ever leading, nor what happened to me, either, the reason for it, or part of it even, the decisions about my own life I went on to make, when the story was  over and I’d had to leave the Carters behind me, put on a  dress and become a girl. Because all the kinds of secrets we children kept, the skinning and killing and the going after small animals still live in Kip’s traps when we got to them so we could do what we wanted to prolong the high pitched squealing... These come to be as nothing next to the knowledge spread out in that bright day - of who Mr Carter was, who he had become, of who he’d had to be. He didn’t say anything to us that day, after we got back to the house, and we left all the gear we’d taken with us just sitting on the back of the truck like anyone might take it, and maybe they did. And he didn’t say anything either, to Kip, about his use of the gun, or about the little dog that had been killed. And he didn’t say anything about the things we’d heard, about what those men had said, the things they’d done.

All that was history, disappeared into time, in the same way years and years later when I came back to that part of the country where I’d grown up to try and find out something about the Carters then, I couldn’t, about who they were, where they might have gone, where they’d come from, maybe, that records might have been kept... For there were none of course. They’d arrived and left again, as people like them do. Arriving, leaving. Leaving, always leaving, because they can never stay. People like the Carters get lost, don’t they, through the years? And the writer can’t find them again when she goes to the place where they’d lived, the house more broken up than ever and the family who are there now, they’ve never heard of the Carters or an old crime, or of land that was once farmed forty miles out of town somewhere in the foothills of the Ureweras because it’s all sealed up again with fresh growth, trees even, the mud so rich and red it can’t help but run back to make things the way they have always been and even if I wanted to I couldn’t find the opening into that land one man made.

He’d been imprisoned for shooting at someone who’d got a young woman out the back of one of those wild pubs they have up north with no closing hours and he had seen her, Mr Carter had, the woman who would become his wife forced up against a wall by a man who was holding her by the throat, and he had acted. He’d taken a shot at a man who’d tried to take his wife. That was what people talked about, whispered about. It was laughter as well as fear that kept the Carters away from the rest. Drink spoke, and it was one those places where shearing gangs come in and people from all over the country, in logging companies or with the vermin outfits, deer and possum culling, where anything went on in those hot dark nights, with the yellow lights turned up inside and the smoke of drinking and men’s talk. So what did he expect? And what was a woman doing there anyhow, they would have thought, all eyes on her because she was something, she was, and her own husband with eyes for her in the same way; he went on to marry her after all. So when someone else had his hands on her, took her from behind and held her down where he thought no one could see, Jim  Carter just went out and picked the rifle off the passenger seat in his ute – someone told me years later. The other had his pants open when he got there, round the side of the building in the dark, where his wife wasn’t even screaming, she’d gone so still she was like a branch.

“My spirit” Kip used to always tell me "comes from my Pappy’s own bad man interior. Look what he’s made of” he used to say, “and I’ve got what’s inside him inside me, too. See? See?”

But the story doesn’t go like that, does it? As though it were another game? Another story of a stupid gun? Nor is it the going back to pick up the lost and also remembered details out of the dark, all the boys’ talk, their shouting and the lies, the what happened next, and next, that will complete it? Because none of it - Kip’s rifle going off, and his father’s before him, all those years ago that he would spend all his life regretting - is what I am left with here. In fact, by now there are no dumb rifles left in this report, this account of mine, at all. There’s no terror, there’s no “Boom”. It’s all quiet here. The weapons have been silenced. All I’d done was run inside the house like Taylor told me to go and get matches so we could smoke out back and stay that night on the verandah, that, after everything that had gone on that day, the boys might leave their father alone, and their mother. So I’d be the one, I suppose, who had to go in there to get a light. And there are no sentences and phrases - nothing that comes close to wire and wood and weapons, the swearing and screaming, fierce whispers in the dark... All those things that I have been able to record, that made up life with the Carters – for the terrible softness that was present in the room that night, and more frightening to me than any of the boys’ actions, or anything that went on in their father’s world, the still quietness of what I saw, the sight of a woman with her husband in her arms and her holding him. His head down upon her shoulder, the silence of him, and her low words as she stroked his head, “It s okay...It s okay...” I took the matches, they didn’t see me, and I ran back outside to where the boys were waiting. It would be our last night together out on that verandah.

So in the end you might say, though I’ve failed to find the words I really need to express it, I did learn something of what it was to be that family, to be so entirely amongst the quietness of what was being brought about indoors, which those boys would have known about, of course, and seen, as I had, before, and no doubt many times... And yet though I may seem at last to have perhaps achieved it, to have conveyed another’s life by writing, to understand it and to show... Still, I find myself standing back from what I have done. Keeping, instead of knowledge, the images and ideas that first emerged for me when I began this story, that continue to turn and show themselves, that I can't let go. For it is the beginning that has been inside the narrative all along to which, always, I want to return, to stay. It’s there, everything I need, in the one account of a man who, when he stepped in the door, seemed to touch the ceiling, he was so tall. His voice yelling out to his family that he was back and them all coming gathering in. Who, as far as his family were concerned, was indeed connected to all others, the world of the country he was born to, and its animals and its ways. Who knew its hidden places and gullies, could go there to them and come home again. That story, of the man I wanted to be one day when I grew up, and longed for, and whose family, to my great blessing, I believed then as I do now, did count me for a time amongst their number. That man. Him. Gone out as not belonging, and part of no system or plan, maybe - but coming back anyhow, returned from the violence, from the secrets and the past and the dark, unarmed and unscathed, royal.


Kirsty Gunn has written five works of fiction and three short-story collections. Her novel The Big Music won the New Zealand Post Book of the Year in 2013. The Boy and the Sea was the 2007 Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year and her previous work Featherstone was a New York Times notable book and received a Scottish Arts Council Bursary for literature. Her collection of short stories, Infidelities, was published in 2014 and won the Edge Hill Prize. She is a Professor of Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee, Scotland.


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