It unsettles Kim how she’s become the face of the tragedy. The dog lady who discovered the whale stranding. The reporter smiles a mouth only smile and when she doesn’t respond he repeats himself.
“How did you find the whales, Ms Liu?”
Rutherford’s tail thumps against Kim’s legs. He pulls against his leash, nuzzling the reporter who looks out of place against the West Coast sand. Rutherford barks. Kim wishes she’d kept him home.
“My name is Kimberley. Kim.” She looks away from the camera, staring at the grey-green horizon, focusing on anything but the hundreds of too-still bodies scattered over the volcanic sand.
She had watched uneasily as strangers poured into their village after the discovery. The Project Jonah rescue people arrived first, lugging safety equipment, flotation devices and high-visibility vests. Then a helicopter, the whip of its propeller blades flattening a circle of tussock as a scientific team tumbled out onto the beach; a marine biologist: a conservation ranger and two PhD students from Otago. By Saturday, the place had spilt over with outsiders. Cars and utes settled on the grassed embankment like a mob of sandflies. Surfers in the bullet grey water trying to corral endless pods of incoming whales back to sea. Local school kids and teachers scooping streams of water over the animals, trying to keep them hydrated.
“I won’t be staying,” Kim had said when a boy asked if she wanted to help.
“Why?” he stopped petting Rutherford’s head, “they need us.”
There were at least three hundred whales, more beaching by the hour, and these strangers had stayed awake all night to help. She knew with a terrible certainty that they couldn’t save them all. Some whales were near the end, their breathing ragged, laboured, and many of the mothers were baying, surrounded by their calves, already dead.
“I’m sorry” was all she had said to the boy, as she led Rutherford away.
Did I already know then,
the year they flooded Beijing
on that submerged swampy summer,
that it would for nothing?
thought saviours of ourselves,
of their hunger sharpened eyes,
of people, swarming streets like fireflies.
Allowed myself to be swept,
by fleshy solid newness.
Even when they said they’d clear
by whatever means.
Meaty belief coloured the air,
even our elders,
stockpiling rakes and pickaxes,
gathering rocks, mixing petrol bombs.
Even Mr Hua, who butchered entire cows
with a few strokes of a cleaver,
who downed sorghum wine like water
and stole money from customers.
Even the butcher said,
they can try
but they’ll have to come after us first.
“If you could just run us through how you found them,” the reporter asks, impatience breaching his voice.
She imagines the 6 o’clock news, her face broadcast into millions of Kiwi homes. They will see a middle-aged Chinese woman, eyes placid, even against this tragedy. She knows how they will think, “You just witnessed a whale stranding, where is your compassion?” The word that appears in their minds would be—as if out of nowhere, agreed collectively about her kind—emotionless.
She stares into the camera, seeing her warped face projected back. The sameness spooks her—the cameras, the questions, the journalists. An urgency to record a cargo of limp bodies and carnage.
Rutherford barks and she is snapped back to the present. The West Coast. The beach. The whales. She exhales. Tells herself, I am in New Zealand, the ground here is solid. My name is Kim, and this is my home.
“Kim?” a shard of uncertainty pries itself through the reporter’s camera-ready veneer.
Rutherford becomes cagey, bouncing from paw to paw. She lays a hand on his head. It must be the dying whales, maybe he can smell something on the animals that she can’t. Or maybe, he can smell something on her.
Everything dies, she thinks, sinking her hand into his salt-crusted, still-damp pelt. Everything.
Rutherford found Kim eight years ago. He’d appeared in her garden one day after heavy rain, no collar, thin. She’d watched from behind the screen, eyeing the grey creature slumped under her cabbage tree. It scared her, his tired eyes, trained on the house. She’d quietly backed indoors, not even removing her shoes, and double bolted her door.
She thought she’d heard him circling the property, like a night prowler. She’d kept her lights on until dawn, but in the morning, he was still there watching. She sprayed him with water, then threw stones at him, but they all landed without him flinching, his sad grey eyes still watching.
“What do you want from me?” she had yelled, her voice losing out to the omnipresent ocean roar crashing to shore.
The people who had sold her the house had not owned a hunting dog. Neither did anyone in the village. He was there the next day, and then the next. And he was there every day after that, late into the summer of 1992, until Kim forgot that he hadn’t always been a part of her life and a part of this land.
She didn’t let him into the house at first, only leaving out a bowl of water and some bones from the cattle farmers. In her childhood—at least how she chose to remember it—animals had never been friends. But slowly, imperceptibly, she grew used to, and even needed, his company.
Every morning, Rutherford would have the red leash in his mouth, waiting by the side of her bed, nudging his warm nose into her face. By dawn, both of them would be trekking, slowly up the coastal path, for their bushwalk.
She named him after Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealander who had split the atom. When people remarked that it was an interesting name for a dog, she lied, saying it was a tribute to her adoptive home. She didn’t say that her father had also been a physicist, who instead of fairy tales, had told her stories of scientists who pushed for truth and certainty and knowledge. As if names could actually change anything, she thinks now. Kim? Rutherford? Ridiculous shields to hide the truth of things.
“Where did you first see the whales, Kim?” the reporter shifts his right foot, leaving a crescent trail in the sand.
“At the lighthouse.”
“The lighthouse?” his eyebrows raise, “isn’t that quite far away?”
Kim doesn’t like his tone. It feels all of a sudden like an interrogation with the camera trained onto her face. Kim points to the cliffs rising above the beach, the white lighthouse perched on top. The camera follows her gaze. “If you’re accusing me of not reporting this earlier—”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What are you saying then? I called as soon as I could.”
“With mass standings, time is crucial. The sooner the authorities are alerted the better their chances of survival.”
There it is again, his tone clipped and brusque as if she were a child. Of course, she knows about timing. She has medical training. Had medical training. After she moved here, she got as far away from wounds and pain and death as she could.
“They looked like driftwood from up there,” Kim said.
“Is this your first time on the West Coast, sir?” she looks him square in the eyes.
“No.” He pauses, then adds “Ma’am.”
Kim wants to spit into his face. Show him how the seas here are brutally rough. How storms rip entire trees and shipwrecks from the bottom of the Tasman, tossing them on the black sand like skeletons of the deep. Didn’t he understand that this place didn’t play games?
She draws Rutherford closer, steadying his head, stopping him from jumping up again. “I couldn’t see from the lighthouse. I had to get down first before calling the coastguard. Ok?”
The West Coast is populated with descendants of mining families and nomadic Kai Tahu tribes. They lean against mine shafts and hand-hewn cabins, waiting for the sky to darken. Counting the rain beating into them sideways, knowing that the bush and moisture have been here longer than eight centuries of human settlement. Their faces say, I know the harvesting of river pounamu, giant slabs of black-green rock pulled barefoot with flax rope. They know the wrestling with ash grey tunnels to haul coal, unwilling, from the depths. The clawing of tea-coloured earth when walls collapse, darkness blanking the single point of exit. Roughness lingers in their slow drawl and even slower welcome of outsiders. It was the kind of isolation Kim had been looking for when she moved here. Anonymity. Remoteness. The possibility of disappearance.
She had taken on lighthouse duty because she thought that it would let her fit in. She wasn’t about to invite people over for company. A monthly check was all that was needed but she had started doing the walks every week. Then daily, as if walking could be an act of cleansing. Or exorcism.
An hour up the bush track the landscape suddenly burst open, revealing the headland. Toetoe and bent-over kanuka fanned out towards where the lighthouse rose, like a white chess piece balanced on the cliff. Kim had to walk towards it until the horizon levelled out again and the stretch of black lava sand became visible, grey surf pounding in endless bands.
Sometimes Kim would sit with her binoculars, scanning the horizon. She watched black-billed gulls catch the wind, and lingered over bleached driftwood that had been flung ashore like secrets oxidising in the air. Even when there were no birds and the sea was flat, she would sit there, still, for hours, studying the expanse of remote emptiness that felt clean and unmarked.
We walked Beijing like a game.
Ba asked if I could see his window
at the physics department.
In now extinct hutong alleys
we found tanghulu hawkers
guarding sticks of too-red fruit,
imitated the knife sharpener
with his operatic wail and grindstone.
Ba told me not to be rude
so I begged for jianbing
liang mao a piece that burned my tongue.
Tired and petulant, Ba hoisted me on his shoulders
while I gaped at street dentists
pulling teeth on the sidewalk
making theatre of bloodied gums and tongues.
I walk in New Zealand too
counting raw blisters and shin splints.
The game is finding the edge of the globe
where I recognise nothing
but give new names for old things
masticating unfamiliar sounds
in my ah-yee mouth.
In the South Pacific, anything can disappear
off the lip of the horizon
space is how I am unaccounted for,
a stranger, blameless and unmarked.
I have edged my toes over the cliff-ledge
lifted ankles, hamstrings taut,
watched rocks tumble downwards
to smash against ocean and salt spray
imagined the intake of breath
suspended in between falling
conjuring an Olympic diver’s grace
arms out, nose down
my body of veins and viscera slicing through air
where at the ends of the world
there is nowhere left to walk but sea.
It was foggy the day Kim discovered them. The shiny black bodies of the whales had been indistinct lumps against the dark sand. Identical oil-slick heads kerning into torpedo-shaped smoothness, foam spilling off their bodies. There were so many, it looked like an infestation, except they didn’t move.
She sat at the lighthouse and waited, even after it began to drizzle, then pour. The deluge would leave nothing untouched. She unleashed Rutherford and turned, reluctantly, inland.
She started to sprint, roused by an urgent vision of carcasses and bodies in the tide. Ahead of her, Rutherford tore through the bush. Together they thundered through salt scrub, leaping over tree roots, Kim nearly turning an ankle on a stone. They veered right, banking into the stand of golden tussock that buffered the ocean from land. When they broke through onto the sinking sand, she could hear them.
They were not carcasses, they were alive. Calling to each other over the droning waves, thrashing dorsal fins slapping uselessly against the sea. Shallow surf broke over their backs making them gleam like polished onyx. They were the darkest things she had ever seen, as if they were black holes that could absorb all light. She didn’t want to go near them, afraid to see her reflection in their skin. She watched Rutherford charge into the knot of whales. He sniffed one, then sprang back, as if hit.
“Come back!” Kim called.
He lifted his snout and ran, so fast it looked like he was levitating. Flecks of slate-coloured sand flicked behind him as he bolted away from her. She hollered again, but her voice was stolen by the ocean’s roar. She could still make him out—grey fur slicked smooth by rain—as he faded into the monochrome landscape. She did not want to go near them, but she forced herself onto the beach, feeling the hundreds of whales watching her with dying eyes.
When she finally found him at the farthest end of the beach, Rutherford was panting in front of a large mound of whales. They formed a solid mass behind him, a thick wall of drowning mammals, eyes reflective like dark marbles.
Kim avoided their gaze. “Guo lai,” she said quietly, focusing only on Rutherford.
She held out dog biscuits. Nothing. She tossed one at him. It hit his nose and bounced onto the wet sand, untouched.
Row-ruff. Rutherford circled the whales, pawing the beach. He nosed the closest one, sat down, then barked again. Kim suppressed an unfamiliar rage, stopping herself from lunging over to clamp his jaw shut. The ease of their relationship betrayed—quite abruptly—by this strange urgency.
She ignored the pulsing mass of bodies, their iodine smell, their heaving breath. She kept Rutherford in her vision and in one motion, snapped the leash onto his collar.
“We have to go home!”
He dug into the sand. She yanked at the leash, unintentionally jerking his neck. Her frenzied terror came as a surprise. Rutherford made his body heavy and started whining, as if in chorus with the dying whales.
It was the summer of
hundreds of long-haired boys
with slim waists and slogans,
girls with big hair in polyester prints
with their placards and proclamations
chanting and starving in unison.
The place became a field hospital
my job to check saline drips attached
to young things lying inert on cots,
side by side, who called to each other,
with lips dried, desiccating in the summer sun.
I could have been them
stubborn young children,
but I shone nurses’ torches into eyes
that glowed like marbles,
scanning for consciousness, hydration, sanity.
Stayed past my shift,
changed into plain clothes
to sit under makeshift tents,
listening to young people
with strength to sing after hungry weeks
refusing to leave
as the night drowned on.
Kim forced herself to leave Rutherford on the beach. She had to make calls. It was a relief to get away from those staring animals with their marble eyes. She hugged Rutherford, scooped all the dog biscuits from her pockets and piled them beside him. And then she ran to escape the oil-slick bodies. She imagined the rain pelting Rutherford until he lost his fur, until he grew smaller and smaller as the mass of whales grew larger, each wave bringing in another mound of bodies until finally, he dissolved completely.
Kim made it home in under 20 minutes, crashed into the kitchen, grappled with the phonebook, leaving damp prints on the pages. She was shaking as she jabbed the numbers. Six rings until someone picked up.
“Wei?!…. I meanImeanImean Hello? Coastguard?”
“This the coastguard. Do you need assistance?”
“There are hundreds. So many. All over the beach dying. Hundreds. Please. Please.”
“Ma’am? What do you need assistance with?”
“Ma’am, slow down.”
“Hundreds of whales stranded. At the beach. Please.”
“I understand. I’m dispatching a boat now. They’ll meet you there in thirty minutes.”
She stripped out of her soaked clothes, changed into a heavy raincoat, canvas pants, gumboots. Grabbed three bath towels, the half-empty sack of dog biscuits, and crammed herself into her car, flooring it through the rain.
Only when she was parked at the beach did her vision begin to spin. Kim gripped the steering wheel, gulping air in shallow mouthfuls.
The skies blistered and burned
heart thrumming too hard
legs and lungs searing as if fried
tearing away from the city’s square,
running an impossible distance
until the hospital loomed
like a face, a mouth, waiting for a meal of bodies.
I ran as if they were chasing me.
Armoured creatures, beast with long noses
barrelling into children
a thousand-headed machine, made
of faceless country boys
vomiting metal into soft bellies and young heads.
When the scientists arrive on Friday evening, the light is nearly gone. They join the coast guards and the Project Jonah rescue team who are working on a cluster of whales; wrapping towels over the bodies and digging moats around them. Kim watches them fill shallow trenches with seawater which they scoop over the animals, again and again, to hydrate their skin and stop them from desiccating. She turns away, blocking out the whales and the sea.
When they are done, she beckons the scientific team over. Wordlessly, she heaves Rutherford—fur still damp, wrapped in towels—into her arms, and trudges to her waiting car. For some reason, the group understands to not offer help, even as Kim’s short frame is engulfed by the dog. Rutherford seems to weigh nothing, as if the rain and ocean have devoured him from the outside. The scientists follow the short Chinese woman who drives them to her home in silence. The enormous grey dog sits, curled in the front seat.
Kim shows them the toilet, the kitchen and the living room where makeshift beds have been made with spare mattresses. “I’ll be in the granny flat if you need me.”
The marine biologist, James, touches her arm before she leaves, “Thank you. We know it’s short notice.”
“It’s fine.” She studies his face, he looks to be the same age as her, but there is something in his eyes that reminds Kim of her father. She walks into the garden and hoists Rutherford into her arms. Her knees crack as she bears his weight, treading barefoot over the rain-fed grass.
Kim wakes around four am. Where am I? Rutherford. Where is he? Oh. Granny flat. She slumps back into bed. Rutherford is sleeping by the door. She lies back down, watching his flanks rising with each breath.
She can still see them, heaving whales superimposed against the ceiling, side by side. She closes her eyes and they are still there, the gleam of their skin vivid, glowing.
“I will not walk to the lighthouse today,” she decides.
Unable to sleep, she crosses the garden and slips into the house without a sound. She makes tea and takes it to the steps of her porch. A half-moon is surrounded by the last smattering of stars. The roar of the ocean travels over the range, even louder now that everything is asleep.
She tries to warm her chilled hands around the mug. She’d slept in all her clothes, yet it felt as if part of the sea rain had followed her home. The sliding door opens.
“Can I join you?” James mouths.
Kim nods, “There’s tea in the kitchen.”
They sit wordlessly in the dark. He drinks from the mug with the garish photograph of Hong Kong’s skyline. The one she never uses. The one she bought when she left China and washed up in Hong Kong. It had been a talisman of sorts. Now, it just seems naive. She drains her mug. “Why do they do that?” she asks, “why do they die together like that?”
“We have a few ideas,” James rubs his face, “but it’s still one of the mysteries of the sea. We don’t know enough about their lives to make conclusive theories.”
She sets her mug down, “What do you know?”
“Well, pilot whales are matrilineal. They live in pods of twenty to a hundred individuals, sometimes more. They navigate by echolocation—bouncing sound-waves through water to build a 3-D picture.” James lifts the mug, staring at the image. “Extreme weather and unusual ocean topography confuse them. They swim to land instead of away from it,”
Kim watches him drag a thumbnail over the skyline as if trying to scratch the image off.
“Underwater radar messes—”
“Please don’t do that,” Kim says.
“You’re scratching my mug.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Genuine surprise in James’ voice, “I didn’t realise.”
“It’s okay,” she watches him set it down, but doesn’t take her eyes off it. “You were saying?”
“Radar, offshore drilling, it ruins their navigation system. Sound travels kilometres underwater, magnified by thousands of decibels. Imagine having your ear right next to an airplane at takeoff. That’s how loud it is for the whales. The ocean is not a silent place, it’s deafening for everything that lives there.”
How ironic, Kim thinks, that animals called pilot whales could lose their navigation and end up stranded like refugees in an alien land.
“How is it possible that they all lose their direction like that? There are hundreds of them.” She studies his face, creases that seemed to dance on his forehead exactly like her father’s did when he worked. “They don’t or can’t abandon their family pod. It’s encoded, instinctual if you will, as if they are magnetically bonded to each other.”
“It’s mass suicide—” she whispered.
“Yes. Some call it that.”
After breakfast, Kim drops the scientists back at the beach. She doesn’t get out, but drives straight home and spends the day pretending to garden. Late afternoon, she forces herself into the house for a change of clothes. There are folders on her kitchen table. Duffel bags in the living room. Strangers’ clothes hanging on the back of her chair. She’s an intruder in her own home. She washes out the mug with the Hong Kong skyline and stows it at the very back of the highest shelf in her kitchen cupboard, rim down.
It is when she arrives at the beach to pick up James and his team that the reporter finds her.
“You see the whales for the first time. It’s so difficult, so tragic. How did you feel?” he thrusts the microphone at her.
She can see the headlines. Disgruntled Local Disapproves of Whale Rescue. Rutherford has started again, pawing at the ground. The crowd seems to make him nervous. People digging moats, covering the whales with blankets soaked in water, carrying all sorts of containers—toy buckets, tin pails, chilly bins—dipping them into the sea, dragging them back to the mass of inert bodies, pouring water over them, most of it trickling back into the grey sand.
The air feels thin and shallow as if too many outsiders are breathing her air. The busload of teenagers now scooping water with jerky limbed loudness. The surfers past the breakers, scanning for whales trying to rejoin their pod. Outside families making an outing of it, their toddlers building obnoxious sandcastles beside hulking dying beasts.
The Project Jonah team are hoisting whales to the tidemark. They sandwich them between inflated bolsters and swim two-to-a-whale, steering them away from the shore and away from their dead. They do this over and over again, for hours, hoping they will leave the dead to go back to sea.
A few swim away—if only momentarily—but the magnetic bond is too strong to be broken. They return, circling back, wave after wave, each time stranding themselves with purpose.
Fatigue sets in, people pause, drenched. Hands rest, nervous against foreheads. Some stare in defeat at the endless, incoming tide of mammals. Some cry. Others hug the whales, stroking them cheek-to-cheek, murmuring to them as if they are dying relatives. The marble-eyed giants blink but they are unmovable and determined.
I didn’t ask for their names,
and I never told them mine.
I remember one young man
I wanted him to eat some congee,
tried to ease a spoonful into his mouth
porcelain knocked against teeth that refused to open,
he accepted only water.
he flashed a limp peace sign with his right hand
his smile stretched his cracked flaking lips.
They had been doing this for weeks.
How willing they were
stranding themselves in their city,
loving it like their heart and liver,
in this hot, dirty place, of flying rubbish and canvas tents,
they were all the same,
from bed to bed, magnetically bonded
refusing to be saved,
banking together—all at once—like a family to shore.
By the end of the third day, those that have deceased begin to fill the air with their salt rot, attracting blowflies. A putrid sweetness clings despite the relentless pound of the Tasman on this lip of land that Kim calls her second home.
There are too many to transport so a bonfire is built near the cliffs where the flames can be contained. A construction company from Westport loans earth diggers with rolling caterpillar tracks. Their yellow machine bodies inch down the sand dunes, crane necks lift, themselves like creatures, moving inert bodies—carcasses limp, hanging—in grotesque procession, away from the sea.
She watches James supervising his students who carry a small whale on a stretcher. They disappear inside a white tent. He sees Kim and waves. She pretends not to see, turning instead to the jagged rock ledges below the lighthouse. She sees him jogging over and contemplates running back to the car. In that time, he has crunched over the tussock and is standing beside her.
“We’re nearly done, Kim. Just a little bit left before we pack it in. We can catch a ride with the Landes if you don’t want to wait.”
“No. It’s fine.”
shunted to the side, under piles of wrecked bikes.
Torn shirts. Single shoes. Crushed spectacles.
A rumble of caterpillar tracks bearing down
towards the magnetic centre.
Air contagious. Sharp with panic.
Clothes red, gashed foreheads, hands to faces.
Stretchers made with benches, blankets, three-wheeled flatbed trikes,
pulling through a pall of smoke and gas,
shots fired at anything that moved.
At four am, the hospital received its first meal
they had run here, barefoot
staunching legs, chests, heads,
thinking they could save limp bodies
that were already dead on arrival
A young woman clawed at me.
leaving streaks up my arms.
Not enough beds, we dragged mattresses from storage,
Turned hallways into makeshift wards.
flee. Flee. FLEE.
More, pouring in like gluttony,
air thick with iron.
Five thirty am,
foreign camera crew washed in with the tide.
We dragged them through the mouth doors.
Film everything. Film it all, we pleaded.
Did they understand?
We waved x-rays in their faces,
Pointed at shrapnel
in faceless ribcages, organs, torsos.
From fifteen floors up,
We witnessed flares
ignite in orange flashes.
And smoke columns
gashing the sky open.
“Before we leave, let me show you something,” James says.
“Come,” he says, leading Kim to the whales.
It’s the first time she’s looked directly at them. Some are clearly dead, overturned so that their rows of tiny milk teeth flash upwards, mouths open in tiny upside-down crescents. Project Jonah people cluster around a trio. The one in the middle is a calf, wrapped in wet towels like a second skin. When they get closer, she can hear it. A high-pitched squeaking that changes in tone, trying to communicate with its family, dead beside it.
Kim reaches out to its smooth skin, firm and resistant. She finds herself scooping water around the moated creature, adjusting damp towels. Light slips away behind the cliffs. She sees a long march of bodies spread out as far as the beach spans. It is endless and numerous and she thinks of the bonds that drove three hundred of these creatures onto their shore.
Is she in New Zealand where the whale blubber burns in a blistering heap, fat crackling orange in the air? Or is she back there, where rumours flew of bodies being bulldozed. Unwilling thoughts of magnetic bonds—the multiples ones she has broken—overcome her. In a flash, she gets up, “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
That night, in the cover of dark, Kim packs her hunting rifle, ammunition, a tent, food into her car. Rutherford settles in the front seat. She drives south, away from the beach, inland. She knows that she can no longer stay. She made the decision after James left her granny flat. She had held his dry hands that smelled like the outdoors tinged with the fainter, meatier scent of whales and blubber.
Up close, he hadn’t looked anything like her father after all. She was unsure if she was disappointed or relieved. It had been a long time since she’d undressed a man’s body. It had been a long time since she’d thought of her father. The proximity of those thoughts unsettled her.
It was the way she could smell the whale musk lingering on his skin. It was the look of floodlights lighting up the beach like a crime scene. It was how the diggers lifted the bodies dusted in the fine sand like icing sugar.
Kim drives, hard, so the wind stings her eyes. She opens the window, inhales the scent of trees and soil. She lets the wind blow away the salt. Absolve her from the mass stranding, the knots of people, the questions. She doesn’t care that the team will wake up to find her gone. At least she left her keys. At least she wrote a note this time.
After an hour, she drives her car off-road into a gulley. She covers the hood and bonnet with branches and leaves. She unscrews the number plates, tucks them into her backpack and walks into the bush. At nightfall, she makes camp and builds a fire, staring into its embers until sleep overcomes her. After a day, she guesses that the reporters and crowds have left. Nothing left to save but a pile of charred bodies. She doesn’t want to return. Not yet. On the third day, she nears the end of her rations. She will have to hunt the rest with Rutherford.
Hunting had come surprisingly easy to her, just like sloughing off China and slipping into a New Zealand skin had been easy. She had picked Kim. The Cantonese in Hong Kong told her it sounded like gold—golden name, golden future. That childish sentiment turns her stomach now.
Back then, Kim had stayed away from people and big cities. She took jobs where she could be alone. Lost amongst Marlborough orchards, she picked fruit for eight dollars an hour. The televisions of the campgrounds she stayed at always seemed to play hunting shows on repeat. Men hauling wild boar, deer, and chamois with their hands. Survivors. Self-sufficient. Uncomplicated.
She had heard that they sometimes gave basic gun training to conservation volunteers. She remembers the ranger, in his thick backcountry accent, saying that rabbits, possums, and cats were responsible for decimating New Zealand’s native birds. This is how she would help this country, she thought then, ridding the islands of unwanted pests. She joined culling missions, sometimes even getting helicoptered in, to do battle against the encroachment of the foreign. Naive, she now calls it.
It began with something called spotlighting, sounding like an innocuous campground game played with torches and firelight. Really, it was four-wheeling the backlands with lights mounted on overhead racks, flooding the night with deceptively warm beams as if they were holding a midwinter party and would drink beer or dance late into the evening.
Except they were like a troop, gun-slinging with a kill list. The spotlights illuminated warm-blooded, rapid-hearted things scurrying the scrubland after dark. They shot at them, standing from the backs of trucks. In truth, she had wanted to know what guns and killing felt like. What the taking of a life meant. Is that what had happened then? Soldiers—country kids really—standing in rank, shooting at other unarmed kids?
But cats and rabbits are not people, Kim.
Now, she must catch one of those furred creatures for food. Rutherford runs ahead, sometimes looking back, burrowing at ponga stubs, trying to sniff them out. They watch soft-nosed rabbits picking up the scent of human and dog.
Kim aims. On her out breath, she shoots. Each time, Rutherford disappears into the undergrowth and returns with them, limp in his mouth. He never pierces their small bodies with his teeth, never tosses or tears at them. He lays them at her feet, whole.
Kim makes small cuts into the hind legs and in one rip the entire pelt slips off. A white membrane separates the connective tissue. She turns it on its spine and splits it upwards in the middle with a small flick. She cracks the ribcage to reveal the innards. The heart is the size of a walnut. Ribbons of nude intestines fill her palm. A liver purple and warm. Rutherford eats them from her hands.
On Sundays Ba cooked chicken,
choosing jewel-coloured birds from the weekend market,
brought them home, live and feathered
with amber eyes and emerald tails.
I chased them—buk-bukking—from room to room.
Ba taught me to gut them over our dirt floor,
red blood dripping into brown earth.
Ba the craftsman, only in reverse,
pulling apart instead of putting together,
naming every organ.
I understood then, that Ba knew everything.
He sliced lobed lungs,
oblongs laced in a filigree of blue veins.
Excavated livers, gizzards, the heart
Used a spoon to scrape out threads of viscera,
unearthed yellow ovaries,
twin suns glowing in the ribcage.
Still-warm, Ba dropped them into my seven-year-old palms
Later, I recognised my own twin suns
a rotating galaxy of a million eggs
that went entirely unused.
The next morning, Rutherford is missing. Kim calls into the bush but only insects and wind replies. The five rabbits she’d strung up between the trees are missing, the cord ripped. They were just high enough for Rutherford to reach. If he jumped, he could have torn the rabbits down. Kim finds gnawed bones on the ground.
She circles for hours, yelling her throat raw. She feels as if she’s back at the beach when he ran away, thundering desperately towards the whales. She remembers hitting him in the snout when he refused to leave them. How she had coiled the leash around his legs so that he would stop thrashing, rolling his great grey body in towels and heaving him to her chest. She remembers the stones she threw at him on the first day. She remembers jerking his leash with outsiders watching.
Kim waits, not daring to leave camp unless Rutherford returns to find her gone. She rekindles the embers and makes her last packet of instant tomato soup as night falls.
Two days pass. Kim is running out of water. She has run out of food. She will need something bigger than rabbits. Wild boar. Or a deer. But she has only one round of bullets left. She heads downhill to find water. She hopes she can find her next meal. She hopes to find Rutherford more.
She lurches in circles through trees that look the same. Her knees crack and she feels old. She will not cry. This is her home. She will find her way out. She will find Rutherford.
Finally, there is a stream. She sups like an animal, plunging her whole face into the rush. She drinks until her stomach is bloated and her shirt darkened from spilt water. She feels ready. Ready to take herself a deer.
She imagines the hunt over and over again. She will melt into the bush, become invisible, rooted like the tendrils of ferns that will sprout from her head and bush frogs that will nestle in the crevices of her thighs. She will be so still that the deer will not smell her.
It happens quicker than she had imagined. A young doe stepping into the clearing. A whoosh of the bullet and it is floored, thudding into the undergrowth just like that.
She must bring the body back herself. She lies on her back for hours, the gun beside her, staring through the tangled foliage which begins to swim and sway. She watches the sun pass overhead until it is late afternoon and her clothes are soaked through.
She needs to collect the carcass. She needs to skin the deer. On the hunting shows, they called it dressing the kill. As if this act of bones and hides and tendons is like dressing up for a party. Her father would have known how to halve and quarter an animal.
It is larger than she imagined. The shot had pierced an artery, making it messy. She remembers now how they said blood contaminates. She must skin it and drain it or the meat will spoil. She recites names. Shank. Rump. Backstrap. Words that used to drift like incantations from the campground televisions of her first years here. She racks her head, trying hard to think of other words.
Ba, the physicist, who knew everything
about anatomy and galaxies and plants,
didn’t know the names they called him.
Like dog. Pig.
They were all called beasts.
I wasn’t called Kim
when I reported Ba,
who hadn’t actually burned a portrait
just forced it to the back of his cupboard.
How I jabbed the air with a book.
scarf around my throat like an idiot.
Ba’s head shaved in hideous clumps.
They did the same for others
who wore lipstick, or played with birds,
read poetry or styled their hair loose.
Ba sent west on packed trains,
somewhere in the loess plains of Gansu.
I waited for the trains to bring him back.
There were no homecoming trains.
I grew to 175 cm. I graduated nursing school.
There were no homecoming trains.
I left for Hong Kong.
There were no homecoming trains.
Kim stands, unmoving for a long time. Unwilling to break the skin of inertia. Finally, she heaves the animal so the legs point up. She has no rope to hoist it above ground. She slits just above the anus, careful not to rupture the guts. It could poison her if the contents spilt over the meat. Her hands shake. The organs are still warm.
The skinning must be fast. The longer the body is insulated, the quicker bacteria develops. She must cool the body right away. But her hands slip. The pelt is musky. It does not skin easily like a rabbit. It is nothing like a rabbit.
Her father would know what to do with deer entrails. Oblong shapes, coils, lozenges. Slabs of purple, like afterbirth. Gelatinous, glutinous tendons. Shank. Rump. Backstrap. James would know what to do. Hands that could slice whale blubber splitting skin down to bone.
James—like her father—were people who knew the truth of things with certainty. His words run through her head, “The social organisation of whales is strong. When something terrible happens, the rest of the group won’t leave. They don’t abandon family.” Kim, on the other hand, knows that she knows nothing.
Kim looks down at the mess of splayed out limbs and the belly full of still-warm organs. She talks herself through the topography of muscle. Shank. Rump. Backstrap. The muzzle wet, bloody. Using the names, she guides her knife. She dips her hands in wrist deep. The tideline of blood washes up her forearms, reaches past her elbows. She pulls everything out, scattering the warm mess around the deer carcass. She hopes the smell will lure Rutherford back to her through the maze of foliage, like organ talismans.
All that is left is the hollow cavity of the ribcage, like a shell curving inwards. She sits down, then eases backwards, wrapping herself inside. The bones seem to reach around shoulders, now bare. She covers the skins over her in a spongy warmth. All alone, she has succeeded in dressing the deer. The deer are invaders. Just like herself, they do not belong here. In the undergrowth far from the sea, Kim waits.