The river mouth

by little red pen


From the Otago Daily Times

From the Otago Daily Times

My family has a crib at Taieri Mouth; sometimes I think it’s my one true place. It’s where I go to wear jerseys and drink tea, where I go to slip into the old stories of people no longer here, of the child I once was and sometimes still am.

The house sits on the hill below the bend of the river, facing not to the light and the open sea, but upstream, turned to the dark green hills narrowing the river, to the bush and the water and the gentle birds of mud and tree. It’s a simple house, a rectangle slowly falling into the hillside, with concrete steps to a wide, dusty veranda, rugs, floorboards, speckled windows. Nothing matches much, although a faded, pinkish red seems to be a theme — the red and the deerskin brown of old wood and a limey yellow.

bridge and mudflatsThe house came by the river, well, the bits of it did, floated downstream on a raft from Waihola by my great-grandfather. I write that sentence and I realise that I might have all the details wrong, but I think that’s okay. This must have been before the first bridge was built. There’s a new bridge now, built in the 1980s, an efficient slice of concrete curving out of and into the road on either bank. The old bridge was wooden and as rickety as you might expect, with gaps between the boards through which you could see the slow, deep water. Things went into that river and were never seen again: crabs collected from the mudflat, an old bed, a car that would now be vintage, but then was just worn out and heavy. I think that’s what happened to the car. That’s the story I have in my head, anyway.

paddlingDad taught us to kayak on the mudflats. When the tide was in, we had plenty of shallow water to practise in, and you could look down past your paddle to the river bed. When I got bigger, I went further up the river or over to the other side, but I always came back to the mudflats, cool and squelchy, with the crab holes opening and closing like eyes. It’s quiet out there, in a kayak on a slow river. Just the soft dip and lift of the paddle, the ripple where you trail your hand in the water. Dad built his own kayak, a sweet, sturdy craft of canvas and wood. It was just big enough for two people, two smalls or a big and a small. It’s still there, and one day I’ll take my boys out in it.

It wasn’t all good though. One day we drove out to find the house full of dead rats — in the beds, the vacuum cleaner, under the table. There’s no rustic charm in the rats; they’re plain disgusting. The possums I can handle, their scratching on the roof, their yelling in the night. But the rats are a problem.

cabbage treeThe water is always a bit of situation too. We have rainwater tanks, and I would happily drink rainwater — two such lovely words — but the rain passes through the leaves in the gutters on the way to the tanks and then it all sits there fermenting between visits, so the water is often brown, with a pong of leafmould. We don’t drink the water, but we shower in it if it’s not too bad, and after a few days we all smell faintly of leaf, so that the first shower back in the city is a miracle of clean, white water, a bleaching back into adulthood and the everyday. I always crave that first city shower, yet it saddens me too to wash off the mud and the sand and the leaves, to stop being grubby and clearheaded and sunsleepy and happy.
brothers boys birds upstream volcano castle sweeping steps spoonbill and oystercatchers sleeping by the river sisters rocks rockpool minigolf hole