I Got Me Flowers (c.1975)
Novellas & Short Stories:
- I Got Me Flowers: Letters to a Psychiatrist (c.1975)
I Got Me Flowers:
Letters to a Psychiatrist
Letters to a Psychiatrist
L. H. Kyle
I present this material to you as it was received. It is therefore not in chronological order, no major deficiency when it comes to the point, as the writer himself states that he is unable to remember the sequence of the events and impressions he records. After a close study of each letter, however, I am of the opinion that they were sent in an order that has a psychological veracity of its own. In accordance with that conviction, I place this material before you.
When Father Riley sent me this ‘confession’ (if I may use the term) he was in a distressed state. He has since been converted to Roman Catholicism and has entered a monastery on the Athos Peninsula, where racial, denominational, and linguistic difficulties must keep him preoccupied. In view of his enclosure, no harm can be done by the publication of this material, and I assure the reader that the letters have been carefully edited for the further protection of my friend. Fortunately the editing caused the omission of only a very little material of importance.
It is as well to admit that the publication of this intimate document is prompted by what is sometimes called ‘collectors elation’ – the overpowering desire to exhibit a rarity to the public. Never, in all my professional life, have I come across such a remarkable psychic experience as this, indeed it throws doubts upon the whole concept of psychological and experiential reality. I know Fr. Riley does not object to my making it public. His one condition is that I do not try to explain it.
This is my attempt to describe a unique situation, an adventure I found myself taken into. It is not even put in chronological order, for time had little to do with it; to treat it like a tale would be like putting a time sequence upon a landscape. I’m pretty sure too that I was sick at the time, mentally ill, but that is for you to judge. It’s hard for me to be certain about these things, but that’s understandable enough. It’s not likely that the sufferer could be accurate about his diagnosis, but my memory of that season on the beach is not that of a sane man. The whole year lies flat as a picture. There is no depth to it, no order, only a vivid canvas of events and impressions. If pressed, I could give no order to it, apart from the obvious beginning, the inevitable end, and one or two approximate sequences. Even to place an over-all interpretation upon this account of mine must be unsure, for who can tell whether it is fantasy or at least partly factual? You can surely help me, Thomas?
As for myself, I have a glimmering of the real meaning of that year, but you must judge. Only be sure of this one thing, that of all I have so far written and am going to write, all seems true to me, I think it happened. Nothing is fictional in the sense of being deliberately invented by the author, though it may seem like fiction, for any account of an adventure as strange as this is bound to sound incredible. As I have frequently observed in my own profession, the varieties of human experience are so diverse and each unique, that when recounted they must often be diluted with the imagination before they may be widely received.
For the first few weeks I did try, and kept rigidly to a devotional plan, rising with the sun to matins, and meditation based upon the ordered reading of the Jerusalem Psalter. At mid-day I read the noon office, and at three and again at dusk and bed-time there followed the offices suited to their times. At those hours free from chores I prayed and studied, all with an intensity calculated to bring spiritual enlightenment , if not the Vision itself. When I look back on those laboured days I am both scandalised and amused, for with the nightmare now over the naivety of my attempts at sanctity seem incredible. It must be that I was sick; however, I leave the judgement and diagnosis to you, if you will.
At first my intentions were beyond reproach, and the failure of each day’s spiritual warfare was undoubtedly due to Ursula. If I was sitting on a rock praising out to sea, a rustling and a gasp would herald her approach, and there she would be, climbing up to a seat beside me. Should I be on my knees before the hut, a slight crunching of the shingle would open my eyes, and there would be her slight and naked foot, pointing the way to gentler contemplations. It was very very hard that I, a product of suburbia and all its modern ills, should be so satanically and classically tempted, but there it was, and she was always nice about it. Her courtesy was beyond reproach, and every interruption for a particular and reputable cause.
Riley, she would ask, in her clear, moderate, well-educated tones; I’ve just found a bed of pauas. It’s low tide now. Do you think you could come and help me pick them off the rocks? And off I would have to go, for there was no refusing such a dignified appeal to my gallantry.
Almost all these interruptions, so sweetly eroding into my spiritual disciplines, concerned food, and to my shame I admit that eventually dietary needs came to rule every day. As I look over the rough draft of this document, I am astonished at how I was seduced from my first principles into an elaborate fussing about the stomach. When it came to finding food Ursula was relatively helpless, or she professed to be, so I had to go hunting, if you can call hunting the quest for shell-fish, bush-snails, eggs, sea-weed, and vegetables. Goodness knows what she had lived on before I turned up – mussels and seaparsley I suppose, but once resident she came to rely entirely upon me. As some slight mitigation of this sorry state of affairs, let me add that I was good at getting food, an ability perhaps due to my Maori ancestry.
Don’t think, I beg you, that the solitary lady was entirely successful in her distractions, for throughout those twelve strange months I never ceased to devote much time to prayer and reading, but nowhere near the time that should have been. Ursula successfully stole away far too much. I will tell you how she did so.
We worked out a delicious recipe for cooking crabs: they were put alive into a closed cooking-pot dry, with a finely-chopped garnish of Rohutu. The pot was heaped over with hot ashes and embers, and in half an hour the dish was cooked. You could hardly imagine a tastier food, but we had to be quick to apply the initial heat. I sometimes think I should write down some of the recipes we invented out of sheer necessity, but when I think of some of the meals that Ursula prepared, especially the very last, I feel a bit sick at heart, and forget the idea.
My Lady was at times disturbing in her shadowy aloofness. It then seemed she was not wholly of this world, but was using it as a half-way house to some far-off existence more real than this. One night, when there was a full calm moon and a low tide, I was out gathering sea-eggs from the far end of the reef. I cannot remember why I was doing this at night rather than by day, but the reason was possibly to do with the weather, or more likely it had occurred to me to do the collecting, so off I went. Well-planned days have never been my forte, as I had discovered to my cost in the parish, und now discovered anew in the wild. Had I been a better planner, Ursula would never have been able to pervert me from my prayers, and make the raw taste of sea-eggs a compelling factor in my life. They are best eaten raw, and only the roes.
Standing up to return, I looked towards the beach some hundred yards off, and saw the lady walking stately as if in a dream, with her hands cupped before her, filled with a greenish-blue light. It was probably phosphorescence. Sometimes shellfish picked in the morning would be phosphorescent by night, and there was a cylindrical blob of sea-life that shone quite brightly in the dark, and was occasionally trapped in the rock-pools. I called out to her, but she never replied, and as I could not hurry over the rocks without losing my supper, she had gone by the time I reached the sand.
It was one of those days that seem to come off a web-offset press, with a grey light and black shadows. I had just said Mass, as I did almost every morning at sunrise to keep my orders before me, so that I would not be seduced by solitude into forgetting my calling. At no point did I forget to do this – please note that, Thomas.
During Mass Ursula very often came and sat with me. It was not possible for me to celebrate the sacrament, as there was no bread and no wine, so I don’t know whether she would ever have communicated. Perhaps she communicated by intention, like me, but I did not dare to ask her whether she was confirmed into my church, or even whether she was baptised, or what her beliefs were, or whether she held any. It’s as well that I didn’t, for as things turned out such a question would have been ridiculous.
Sometimes she sat in an attitude of prayer and appeared to listen intensely, at others she indulged in a restless silent physical pestering.
This day I completed the reading of the liturgy without that sense of alert benevolence which usually accompanied the work, and a melancholy reserve encapsulated me.
I had a restless night last night, I said to Ursula, partly in excuse for my low spirits. She looked quickly, sympathetically.
Are you worrying again? She asked. This was a way she had – to ask a general question in such a personal manner that it was bound to lead to some sort of confession if answered at all. You have to say yes to a question like that when it’s asked so intensely, for you’re bound to have worried at least once before, and quite recently too.
It’s just me, I explained. I still don’t know what to do with myself.
Are you worth so much worry? She asked, in her frankest of pastoral manners, and I blushed, at both her transparent artifice and my own lack of humility. I have never been able to rid myself of a sense of greater worth than has ever been put upon me.
Definitely not, she forced me to reply, but I do belong somewhere, and I don’t know where. Little boy lost, I added, in case she might sneer.
We belong where we are, she said. You would not have come here had you not belonged.
I wish I could stay forever, I replied. We were now both sitting on the shingle outside the door, looking over the beach and out to sea. A corrugated cloud covered the sky completely. but to the south-west a dark line of lower rolling clouds marked the edge of a rainstorm. The heavy atmosphere caused a slow swelling surf , and there was no breath of wind. Nature is at her best when still, for there is then a suspended interest while
she takes off one face to put on a new.
Why not? She asked, as if to suggest she wished I would.
I would like to, I said, but I feel no calling to the solitary life. I know it’s right for me to do this now, but not forever.
And where forever?
In the parish.
Then that’s where you must go. You like the work?
Very much indeed, but I sometimes think that I don’t do it well enough.
You probably don’t, she retorted, with that dry tartness that occasionally shot through her gentle exterior like fat within a wrapping. Her honesty stung me to a greater frankness:
Most probably I would work better if it were not for a feeling of redundancy, unwantedness.
That could hardly be true, she said. If it were really so you would be crucified, wouldn’t you. And she patted me on the knee and leant luxuriously against me, so that I had to laugh and put my arm about her waist.
That was her way: on the one hand to instruct (almost to prophesy) on the other hand to lure (almost to destruction). Sometimes she would play with me as if she were a cat, and at other times she wore the face of God and sternly pointed me to duty. I’m now quite positive that at no time was she absolutely genuine. In all she did there was an ulterior motive, and I never quite discovered it. Perhaps you can, Thomas , and I think you will find (if only from a necessarily literary analysis) that I have written down only those thoughts and happenings that could illuminate this problem.
Now and then it happened that I thoughtlessly and accidentally did or said something that she found objectionable. It wasn’t that Ursula was necessarily offended, but more likely that I so surprised her that she was unable to make a suitable reply. At such times, I often observed, her features would quite alter. The colour would go from her cheeks, her eyes would come bloodshot and dull, the muscles of her face would sag, and her whole posture would slump. She would again be the girl who had greeted me on the beach after my first swim, and I would quietly leave her, for there was hardly anybody there at all.
Beauty has never failed to move me, whether it be in nature, music, any art or in human form, but beauty, as we all know, can be a pitfall, so part of my decision to remain in the Bay was due to Ursula’s rather repulsive appearance. My vow of celibacy has always been a trouble to me, and has cost me a lot, as all vows should. Nevertheless, it has never been broken in deed, though on at least one occasion it was broken in intention.
With respect to this subject, however, Ursula proved to be no help, but on the contrary to be a goad at times. At our first meeting on the beach she was ugly enough, but I soon noticed that her appearance was subject to the most remarkable alterations, all clearly not of her own volition. She was subject to moods when she was not only beautiful but enticing, and there were several occasions when, taken short by the seduction of the moment I very nearly broke my vow. If Ursula had not always remained ultimately inaccessible, I might well have become a ruined man and a renegade priest.
Great distance from the visible effects of civilisation often levels certain barriers that are wise and sensible in society. By nature I am inclined to think that inhibitions are a good thing, and contain a core of essential truth, so you may be surprised that I always swam naked. I’m surprised myself, when I think back upon those days, and in explanation can only say that it had great practical advantages to swim in that fashion (or lack of fashion) and that Ursula was almost always totally disinterested in me as any sort of sex object. In her presence I always felt modest, with one or two notable exceptions, as I shall eventually relate.
On Palm Sunday I decided to feast with crab-meat, and late in the morning swam out to the end of the bluff, where some tumbled marble slabs formed a dark chasm that rustled with crabs, great big reddish-brown monsters that baked delightfully. The very memory of them makes me wish I was back there now, for crab-fish is far tastier than cray, and much better for the stomach. Lobster tends to be indigestible, and tastes everything that follows after, but crab goes well with the palate, especially if with a subtle sauce. Never stew it. I quickly caught five or six, put them in a flax basket, and headed back to the beach keeping in the shelter of the rocks and out of the ocean swell, and I saw Ursula, sitting solitary upon a recessed rock, looking like a nixie into a pool beside her. She hadn’t noticed me, so I swam and crept quietly to her feet, took a crab from the basket, and let it scrabble at her toes. She leapt to her feet with a gasp, but I’m sure that even then she knew it was me at play. Nothing surprised her, nothing really surprised her, though sometimes she looked innocently startled, as
now. At such times there was a clear colour in her eyes and upon her cheeks, and her hair had silken lustres as it curled about her shoulders.
In my enthusiastic folly I couldn’t resist pursuing as she fled up the rocks, until she fell laughing upon the flat turf at the top. I knelt beside her, holding the crab towards her nose, but she looked so love]y that I drew the crab away, and fondled her cheek instead. She sat up.
You’ve been eating too many shellfish again, Riley, she said. And I don’t know if crab is much better. You will remember to leave me out of your celebration, won’t you?
Ursula was never rude, no matter who she was, but I sometimes thought that when she was like this she was, as at no other time, nobody else at all.
Long spells of rain were hard to cope with, for they had a depressing effect, though if the rain was very heavy or came with storm the challenge of survival added interest to our daily routine. My hut was built of notched pungas plugged with clay and moss like a log cabin and thatched with flax, so it never leaked and was always cosy. Ursula had woven a flax mat that hung over the doorway and could be secured against the wind, and under her direction I had used a mixture of clay and crushed limestone to make an efficient sort of fireplace. She was oddly useful in unexpected areas, having a mind that seemed illuminated by random spots of light, so she was able to come to my practical assistance when I might have least expected such help.
Though the weather was never a serious threat to our safety, it was sometimes alarming, as you might guess from your own knowledge of that part of the West Coast. We sometimes had severe storms off the sea, and when these raged the waves would rise to such a vast extent that even from my hut they towered above, and as they crashed upon the rocks the spray would swirl into the trees in a smoke. It certainly seemed on several occasions that the sea would take the beach away, but it never did. The thunder would crash upon the roof, hail bounce in the door, gale tear at the walls, and pounding seas shake the earth, but no disaster ever came , thank God, however vulnerable I might feel. At such storms there was nothing that could he done but sit by the fire and try to read, or share with the elements by walking with them if warm enough and in the mood.
On the whole the worst threat that bad weather posed was to our fires, for we soon had few matches left and had to do our best to keep them continually in. With the help of drift-wood and sea-coal this was usually possible. I usually kept a large supply of dry wood in the cave, but if the sea rose too high or the wind blew in even this got wet. In really bad times Ursula and I ran a complex method of wood-drying, stacking the firing before the flames to dry out before it was used. We never liked doing this because it was a fiddly business and easy to forget, and if I did forget I had to run to her through the rain to fetch enough dry fuel to keep the fire going.
In such ways the monotony of the rainy weather was broken. Most fortunately we very rarely had cold weather, but even that was possible to use for good. It was only in rainy weather that I ever sat for long with Ursula in her hut. Sometimes she would come and sit with me, and never say much, but sit while I read aloud. I much preferred the going to her, for then I could look at the games she played.
Our little beaches were mostly sandy, but in places, especially under the lea of the bluffs, drifts of pebbles had accumulated, and these provided Ursula with incalculable wealth. Over the months (or years – I never learnt how long) that she had presumably been resident here, she had collected a treasury of marvellously beautiful stones. There were pebbles of agate, jasper, carnelian, chrysolite, jade, rose quartz, white quartz, jet, and many others that I neither know nor can describe, She particularly took round or egg-shaped stones, and she kept them in a grass bag hung by the fire-place.
Long before my coming she had woven several fine flax mats that now carpeted her hut and hung the walls, giving her home a comfortable clean appearance far surpassing in domestic taste the rustic Simplicity of my own quarters. During these wet spells, it was her custom to tip the gems upon the mat, and with them create complex and curious designs of an apparently alchemical or cabalistic nature. My learning is not great, and since my return to society I have searched many works likely to throw light upon several of Ursula’s more obscure habits, and though I can neither explain nor identify these designs and patterns, they do seem to have some psychological significance. Her favourite creation was based upon the wheel, often intricately elaborated into a flower or sun-burst, and sometimes reduced into radiating spokes, or a series of circles with a glorious centre. After several months the patterns became fairly familiar to me, but it was a long time before I realised that they had no meaning to Ursula, the form depending entirely upon
the stones she had available. I am sure she used colours in numerical sequences, but I could never work these out.
At the heart of the design she would put the key-stone, almost always a splendid specimen of whatever type was to form the theme, and this same stone was repeated at other critical points by lesser examples of the same gem, crystal, or mineral. lf, for example, the heart was a round greenstone, jade and roundness played a significant part in the whole composition, for the stones were grouped by colour, shape, or type, and then also by number in astonishing complexities. Groups of seven amethysts for example, with assemblies of three jades and five white quartzes in repeated sequences, would create patterns of pulsating sombre lustres that sometimes seemed to take the wheels and set them spinning.
While doing this she would rarely speak, and when finished would sit at a position carefully chosen in relation to the design, and staring at it remain still, in contemplation of the handiwork. None of the patterns were ever explained to me, and few were long-lived. In that tiny hut, of course, there was not the room for floor-art and Ursula to live together, and I would not have even made that remark had not one or two designs been left for days at a time. When this happened Ursula was very withdrawn; my Lady was a very deep person.
Dear Thomas, as you declare so emphatically in your last letter, you do deserve some explanation for the erratic and eccentric correspondence I have been troubling you with lately, and for the very long silence that preceded it. An explanation rather than an apology, though perhaps I should apologise for not advising you beforehand of what I was about to do. We do in any case only correspond several times a year, and I intended to be away for no more than a year. Also, I was well aware that you would have entirely disapproved of my unusual course of action, and I was particularly disinclined to go into the wilderness under a cloud of anyone’s disapproval. Even now, though I am deeply shaken by the total over-riding of all my hopes and plans for those twelve months, I feel no guilt for those intentions, innocent as they were, though entirely negated. To tell you the truth, I am surprised to learn that I have sent you so much material relating to my experiences, for I have no memory of having done so. There have been times since my return when it has been very hard to keep my mind in any ordered state of self-awareness, and it must have been that I wrote to you as a sort of cri de coeur. Automotive writing!
Perhaps this long and discursive letter will clear your confusion, and persuade you to give some help, for I am frightened by what has happened and beg that you, from your knowledge of psychology (and in particular my psychology) will come to my aid. It is understood, of course that your entirely secular mind will not appreciate the motivation that forced my course of action, but I will (as always in our relationship) make allowances for that, and interpret your interpretation with love. One other thing only I ask of you – no professional patronising please. You will find it amusing that I should go into the wilderness to seek the Beatific Vision, and find only Ursula, but all prayers have their answer, and all quests their goal, and you must treat the answer I was given with respect. There has always been a slight element of competition in our friendship, and the narrative I am about to roll out before you will give you certain moral advantages, so I here formally entrust myself to you as patient, as you have in the past (in spite of your lack of faith) made me your confessor. You must now observe all due respect, and play the professional game.
About two years ago I began to fall out of love with my parishioners. This is quite the worst thing that can happen to any pastor, and there is surely no need for me to elaborate on either the symptoms or the consequences of such an arid, fruitless situation. It made me most depressed, and at times even physically ill, especially when under stress. You have never seen my parish, but you will remember from our childhood the soul-less suburbs that were then beginning. Again, I have chosen my words badly; of course they are not soul-less, but they are dreary, unspeakably dreary, featureless, treeless, hag-ridden by rectangles and over-hung by lowering mortgages. Even the church and vicarage are mortgaged, and the burdensome fact is everywhere camouflaged by spotless newness. As my spiritual distress grew, I turned increasingly to prayer. Observe that I am not about to propagandise, but declare a fact. (How sensitive I am – it is for you.) However misguided you might think me, that is what I did, and I gained much benefit thereby. Indeed, from prayer there came my whole stability, and the eventual courage to act in a decisive manner. Perhaps as an escape from an especially repugnant reality I turned more and more to meditation and other forms of prayer, and began to read widely on the subject until I became seized with a desire to do nothing else.
If you wish to better understand me, dip into some of these devotional classics. How else can you understand anything about the Vision and the longing I had for it? You appreciate music, you collect paintings ( and look at them too), you love beauty (perhaps rather too much), and if you think of your most intense aesthetic experiences in all these appreciative fields, you will still fall far short of gaining the merest glimpse of the Vision. Not, I hasten to add, that I have myself been so blessed, but nearly so, quite nearly so, enough to send me off to solitude to wait for it, and I was prepared to wait too, for years if need be. Read Richard Rolle, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, Bunyan, or even the Bible. Remember Isaiah in the Temple, Ezekiel by the River, Paul in the seventh heaven? I quote from St. Francis:
“St. Francis, desiring to comfort himself with the spiritual food of the soul, began to meditate on the immeasurable glory and joy of the blessed in the life eternal, and therewith he began to pray God that he would grant him to taste a little of that joy. And as he continued in this thought, anon there appeared to him an angel, with very great splendour, bearing a viol in his left hand and in his right a bow; and while yet St. Francis was all amazed at the sight of him, the angel drew his bow once across the viol; and straightway St. Francis heard so sweet a melody that it filled his very soul with rapture and rendered it insensible to every bodily feeling; insomuch that, according to which he afterward told his companions, he doubted whether, if the angel had drawn the bow back again across the viol, his soul must not have departed out of his body by reason of the intolerable sweetness.” There is a host of books on this subject, and some of the most interesting is the peripheral – as it always is, to my cost, though it is the least instructive. Again I betray myself, if I could do that to you, for you know me so well anyway. It’s enough to say that I did read very widely in the subject, and being seized by the thought that all men spend all their lives on this same search, decided to devote myself to nothing else for at least twelve months.
The Bishop granted me leave of absence, though reluctantly, and only after my assurance that the time would be spent in a positively edifying manner. He suspected my motives, as all married men do of the celibate, and always with good reason too.
After careful thought I decided to spend the time on the North Buller Coast, and on one morning of the late spring of last year, took the Karamea bus, forsaking it at Mohikinui. Herrick urged me on:
O Yeares! And Age! Farewell.
Behold I go
Where I do know
Infinitie to dwell.
And these mine eyes shall see
All times, how they
Are lost I’ the sea
Of vast Eternitie.
Where never moon shall sway
The starres; but she,
And night , shall be
Drown’d in one Endlesse Day.
‘lost I’ the sea of vast eternitie’ ; that is what I hoped for. You must believe what now follows; believe it not necessarily as objective truth, but as subjectively so, at least. All that I now proceed to relate appears to me to have actually happened or been said. In planning this letter I tired to impose some order upon it, or even to thread it upon some ordering subject like a Catena Aurea (I flatter myself, you see), but the unexpected meandering of my memory defied the best intentions, and I’m left with the conviction that you only can discover the thread. However, in spite of the fragmentary nature of the material, this is an attempt at a reliable account, to describe a unique situation that I found myself in, un adventure of sorts that time had nothing to do with. To treat it as a story would be like putting a time sequence upon a landscape.
My memory of that season on the beach is not that of a sane man. The whole year lies flat like a picture, with no depth to it, no order, only a vivid canvas of events and impressions. If pressed, I could give no order to it, apart from the obvious beginning, and the inevitable end, and one or two approximate deductions. Even to place an over-all interpretation upon this account of mine must be professionally hazardous, for some of my friends have declared it to be a fantasy, others that it must have at least some factual basis, and one, more credulous than the others, is scandalised that a priest should have a liaison with a nixie, and has suggested that I be exorcised.
As for myself, I have a pretty shrewd idea of the real meaning of that year, but you must judge – I may not say, for fear of influencing your opinion and annoying your diagnostic person. Only be sure of this one thing, that all of what I am going to write seems true to me, I think it happened. Nothing is fiction in the sense of being deliberately invented by the author, though it may seem like fiction, for any account of an adventure as strange as this is bound to seem incredible. I have frequently observed in my work such diverse varieties of human experience and each unique, that when recounted they must be diluted with imagination before they can be widely received. Never think, of course, that in this instance I am resorting to that confidence trick.
* * * * * * *
I left the bus at the far end of the Mohikinui River bridge, und walked downstream, following a rough road to the sea. From the river mouth I walked northwards for one and a half days, averaging about a mile an hour for the twelve hours tramping I must have done. Lest you should think this very slow going, let me observe that this stretch of coast-line is rugged, and my progress was no mere long tramping up a sandy beach. The rocky nature of the coast, and its inaccessibility by road, was the reason I attempted it, but I had to carry a pack crammed to capacity, and get it dry and whole over the bluffs, gorges, and algaed rocks, through kie-kie, screw-pine, quagmires, and lagoons. For the first night I slept out in the open, on a shingle ledge above high water, in the shelter of some flax bushes. I set off again soon after daybreak, pleased to find that I was still fairly fit, able to manage tough terrain and a heavy pack. You may take this as evidence that I remain a fairly sturdy specimen of manhood, despite the cassock. Trudging the streets helps, most probably.
It would be honest to voice a certain doubt here. I really am uncertain as to how long or how far I travelled to the final camp. It initially seemed that I travelled for three days, but after studying the Lands and Survey map, there doesn’t seem to be room for such a long journey along this part of the coast. Only one night’s camp remains in my memory, and as the three days are indistinct it is most probable that the subsequent months confused my memory. Also, though I was undoubtedly fit, I could hardly have borne three days of such a strenuous activity.
The relief with which I reached my final resting-place is still vivid in my recollections. It must have been about six in the evening when I reached the bay, for the sun was low over the sea, yet still warm. The place appeared homely and inviting. In all respects it was much as I had counted on finding, being fairly typical of this coast, only better-appointed than all the others I had spurned on the way. Two low and narrow bluffs held the hundred yards of sand and gravel beach. The southern bluff was of white limestone, the northern of a harder, pinkish near-marble, and between them a good fresh stream flowed softly from under some Nikaus out onto the beach. A narrow flat bordered the beach; it was only a few yards wide, and was over-grown with flax, scew-pine, punga, and pepper, with several palm-groves that promised good sites for a hut. In the mean-time a dry pebbled cave in the southern bluff offered adequate temporary shelter, so I dropped my pack and began to explore.
An abundance of food was obvious, for the more sheltered cliffs were sprinkled with wild parsley, spinach crept amongst the flax, and long flat reefs extended out from the bluffs, showing mussel-covered knobs, and suggesting pools crawling with pauas, urchins, and cray-fish, though the heavy sea and steep beach was no place for tuatuas.
I thought I would try for a swim before I settled down for the night, so I took off my clothes and left them in a careless pile on the gravel. Such an act would have normally been unthinkable to a man so self-conscious as myself. To openly undress to nudity, to forsake my clothes, and to enter the water trusting it for total concealment! You may smile at my inhibitions, Thomas, but reflect with charity, if you will. After some years of practice you must surely have seen by now that in every social convention there is a core of truth, as a great lady once said of social convention. Other people might flout them as a protest, or as an act of rebellion, or for sheer public ebullience, but I acted only in a spirit of delight in the freedom of the place, and the sea was so inviting. Most seas are swimmable only in warm weather, but on this coast the richness of the foaming breakers encourages patronage even on cool days, or even at night, when the long lines of phosphorescence come rolling in to crash in glowing spray upon the bluffs.
Many of these western beaches are very dangerous, with steep shelvings and strong undertows, but now the tide was low and quiet, and I enjoyed the first swim in safety. The situation quickly elated me, and I was filled with an inflating sense of freedom. The bay was not only pleasing to the eye, but of interest as well, and as I swam further out I saw sea-caves, inviting reef pools, strange-shaped rocks, and other beaches and bluffs that promised an infinitude of explorations. Oddly, none of these were ever visited, though it is hard now to imagine what I did with my time. Backing the whole scene was the towering coastal escarpment, unbroken and heavily bushed, standing from north to south as far as could be seen, defending itself with its series of tumbling cliffs like a bastioned city wall. As I swam and gazed the dreary frustrations of the past years pulled away, and a future began to rise in my mind like a clearance spreading into rain.
When I entered the water the sky had been clear, and the sun bright, but now, as I prepared to leave it, though the sun was still shining, I noticed it was much weaker. A haze had overspread it. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was, if any thing, a trifle warmer, but there was now no horizon. Visibility was down to about four miles, and beyond that everything vanished into a rolling golden haze that didn’t lift again until the end. I trod water, wondering at this sudden change in the weather, thinking it the prelude to some storm, for the sea began to heave beneath me. Sullen erratic surges alternately stranded me on the bottom or threatened to dash me against the rocks, so I fought for the safety of the shore, and sat trembling for rest upon the warm sand.
Even as I sat the waters subsided to their usual turbulence. I looked up and down the beach, seeking some cause for the change, and thinking there might have been an earthquake. There was no sound of falling rocks, but standing against the north cliff, only six or seven metres away, was a female figure. She showed no signs of ridicule as I hurried up to my clothes and put on my trousers.
Your shirt too, she advised when I appeared to hesitate, Else the sandflies will make a mess of you. You won’t be immune to them yet. She must have thought I looked sheepish, for she added (as if to console me): You can go about like that all the time if you want to, but there are certain hazards, you know. Wait until you’re really used to the place. There’s no doubt she thought me something of a savage, and I must have looked pretty wild with my dark skin, polynesian features, and rather long black hair. Also, I found it rather hard to understand precisely what she had meant, and so stood before her with my faculties of speech entirely crippled by both shock and incomprehension. Nevertheless, I was usually ready enough with my tongue, as you will remember, and no-one can accuse me of the verbal imprecisions she was so habitually guilty of, though she was splendid in so many other ways. Yet not initially in looks. (You will think that a strange thing to say, but let me explain it in my own time, please). She sat on a flat block of stone that projected from the gravel bank at the top of the beach, dressed in a full-length cotton dress and a wide floppy straw hat, with bare feet.
With Ursula, naked feet were a part of dress. She had long brown hair to below her shoulders, and was of middle stature, slight in build though a very little inclined to plumpness, with large black eyes in a very delicately Irish face. It looked as if she was close to me in age, in her late twenties or very early thirties.
You’re not a commune? I asked in alarm, for there are a number on the coast further south.
No. There’s only me, she replied. I live in the next bay. And while I watched amazed, or puzzled, and perhaps just slightly annoyed, she stood up and walked off around the rocks.
You may wonder why I didn’t stop her with a question, bring her back with a clever verbal ploy, and snare her with a subtle erotic sleight-of-hand as I would once have tried to do. I wanted to. As she walked off around the bluff my maleness arose within me like a fiery desert wind. It grasped in my chest and almost took the breath away, so that I staggered slightly on the sand, but she was quite out of reach. Two years ago I took a vow of celibacy, so though I am still subject to temptation, I have a certain interest in resisting it, a more partisan interest than clergy usually have. Don’t think that there are any doubts about the general morality of the clergy , but you must realise that celibacy is not common amongst the Anglican priesthood; we are usually married. Therefore a celibate priest is regarded, even by his fellow-clerics, as being unusual, and is forced to prove his celibacy, as most men are required by society to prove their manhood.
After the girl had gone, I put mw things in order in the cave, cooked a small stew of rock-mussels and sea-parsley, and curled up in the sleeping-bag by the fire. Tomorrow, after I had spoken with my neighbour, I would decide whether to stay or go on. It would probably be best to go on. The sun had long since set, and darkness was closing u upon the pale green horizon. The breakers were so strong that they shook the ground when they hit the beach, and the cave was filled with their thunderings as, worn out by my labours, I fell into an abyss of sleep.
And I dreamed, or so I must have, and so I think, and almost certainly it was on this night in particular. It is the only nightmare I can recall during all that year, and so the memory has a certain distinction about it – because of its uniqueness, not its dreadfulness. As nightmares go, it was not particularly shocking, and caused me to awake in discomfort only, a bit hot and bothered.
A great building appeared, standing in the midst of a sea of tarmac. A desert of tarmac, with perhaps some grass on the far outskirts. In outward appearance the building had much of the aircraft hangar about it, for it had low walls and high rounded roofs, and seemed to be built mostly of corrugated iron. Those ends facing me had huge doors, but all were locked or seemed to be, for to my surprise I entered the vast complex structure through a small side trap-door, in company with some other people. No individual in this small group remains in my memory, though they kept me company in a detached and anonymous fashion.
Once in the building it was my destiny to continue through it, bearing to the left for some reason, whenever possible. There was nothing of interest visible inside; it was just a long series of passages with rather cheaply partitioned rooms on either hand. Every now and then I had to pass through a door from one passage to another, and though people occasionally left or entered the rooms about me, I carried on and had no communication with them. There were no windows; the light was artificial, and the atmosphere grew progressively more stifling. There was an overwhelming need to escape, but the only doors I was permitted to use were those ahead. Even these became harder to go through, for as I made my way the scale of the building decreased; the roof became lower, the doors smaller and the heat greater. Soon the passage was little more than a neon-lit tunnel, and then became so small that I had to crawl, forcing myself on, for only ahead lay any possible liberty and fresh air.
Then, just when it seemed I must be stuck in a foetid drainpipe forever, I awoke, to find the sun streaming in through the mouth of the cave, warming me where I lay upon my rocky bed.
Perhaps that was the origin of the dream – the cave it was dreamed in, and the sun that woke me out of it, or perhaps my apprehension of Ursula brought it on, or the tension I had been labouring under. Personally I think it was the effect of sleeping in the cave, but you will know, Thomas, you will know better than anyone, or at least you will appear to do so. You will dress your analysis or your ignorance in Jungianisms, a disguise as impenetrable with the one as the other. But I am being bitter; forgive me please. When I seriously think of what I am going to write you, I realise the inevitability of being understood, even by you, and that is a sad thing to accept.
All this that follows is not at all what I intended. It is not the first New Zealand Spiritual Pilgrimage, nor is it the seducing of a celibate cleric. I had in my vanity hoped for the former and never, I swear, even thought of the latter. At first I did imagine that Ursula was a risk to my vows, but only until I came to understand her better. Then I realised that even had I been grossly oversexed (which is not the case) I could never have stormed that castle and conquered. As shall be related in due course, there were several times that I forgot myself and tried, but whenever I fell to the temptation of making fair speech and fine deeds, I thought: Whom am I performing before? And this was quite a thought, for her personality was extraordinarily fluid. Trying to relate to her in any way at all was like trying to strike up an acquaintance with a crowd. She was the female version of the man called Legion, though that may be inaccurate in some respects, for there was little discernible chaos in her.
It was several weeks before I gained much insight into her true nature, and even then she seemed to be acting, but I saw that each facet of her character was consistent with itself, and so vital as to be almost a person in its own right. No-one could dissemble as well as that. Then I panicked a little, and thought her possessed, but when I saw no confusion it was clear there was no demon. With great evil there is always confusion, or else an icy order founded upon a sort of falsehood, don’t you think? Or maybe you don’t believe in evil – most probably not. There was nothing evil in herself, and no good either; there was no ‘herself’. Ursula was always somebody else.
It was very, very hard to sort her out, but from the very beginning of our acquaintanceship I was forced to try. On the day after my arrival, when I paid the first tentative call, 1 found she too was living in a cave, in a state of minimum sufficiency and maximum simplicity. She had a small fire, but no other condescensions to comfort, and no other signs of existence except a pile of gemstones from the beach, and a few flax baskets. Masculine help was so obviously needed that I decided to remain, and for the next few weeks my leisure time (that is, the time not spent in praying or gathering food) was occupied in the planning and construction of two punga huts, one in each bay. I put my heart into this work , and quickly erected the charming brown cottages, built under the nikau palms and facing out to sea, each with a neat clay fireplace, a cobbled path to the front door, and the walls planted. with ferns and epiphytic orchids. In spite of my work and care,
however, she took little interest in her house, and did nothing for it except to make a flax door-curtain. All my activity was regarded with a mild aloofness that seemed to preclude her from full participation, but 1 felt no criticism, rather a reverence at this time. She was so perfectly poised. Her tall slim form was always clad in the same cotton print dress, and she was never without the same floppy straw hat. There was rarely a smile on her high-cheekboned face, but she never looked grim, and always walked with such a secure dignity, that there could clearly be no obstacle to make her to stumble, and no cause to hurry her.
The impression may be given in these records, that my solitary life was a sort of sea-side idyll, and there were some times when it almost was, yet there were other times far from idyllic, times when the formless anxiety that had so pestered me of late, would rise up in an intestinal panic, and all but sweep me gibbering before it. Almost always this happened at night, creeping in an exterior disguise as heavy rustlings outside the hut, unidentifiable bird-calls, low sweepings in the dark above the hut, weka cries so dreadful they could only be concerted. Then I would cower in the hut, afraid to sleep in case the fire should go out, oppressed by a sense of evil that was cloying in its omnipresent nothingness. During those horrid nights I used often to wish there was something to make the fear recognisable. If only the threat had come from some familiar ghost or wilderness spirit, but our bush has nothing in it at all , and nothing is the worst fear of all. When I asked in horror ‘who is there?’, there was nothing there, not even a dangerous beast, just nothing as far as the mind could reach.
Such evenings left me feeling weak and tired in the mornings, and I sometimes told Ursula of them. On one occasion she listened to me very seriously, wide-eyed and most impressed.
You should take this very seriously, you know. She said. They’re probably trying to speak to you.
But another time she said: It’s the darkness trying to overpower you because it knows you’re strong. Focus yourself when it comes. Gather yourself together, and don’t listen. You would probably be better off if you ate less shell-fish and more greens.
That was always the trouble with Ursula. She rarely failed to give good advice, but it was never the same from one day to the next. Though she frequently contradicted herself, she never knew it, but then she was so very rarely herself.
Most of the discussions I had with her were about myself , which was natural enough (though nothing to be proud of) considering I had some away to debate myself . From the discussions there came, of course, declared or implied requests for advice, which she always gave. None of her advice was ever bad, though as I’ve pointed out previously, it was often inconsistent or contradictory, especially when she appeared absent in mind or hazy in spirit. There was always plenty of opportunity for these intimate debates, for after we were settled into residence we always seemed to be either sitting around, getting food, or walking about. , hut especially sitting around. Ursula sometimes reminded me of an ancient Christian monastery, for she had the knack of parking herself in the most picturesque places. She had also a pre-Raphaelite talent for profile, and I always seemed to be finding her sitting on rocks staring out to sea, with her hair flowing in the wind. The rock we called ‘The Boat’ ‘was her favourite, for it reached out into the quite deep water, parting the ocean rollers as they broke, sending up walls of spray that rose above on either side without touching. There she would sit for hours, as if looking for the first smoke of rescue, or waiting for the sun to rise in the west, and I always knew when I saw her there that she was good for a chat. 1 would climb up from the beach by the only access I ever discovered (though I never saw her use it) and sit beside her.
I did this one day when I was feeling rather restless, and after sitting for quite some minutes, I said:
I think I shall have to be leaving for home soon.
Do you think you’ve been here long enough? she asked. This was, by the way, the only time she ever showed anything like a desire to keep me there.
Perhaps not, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere, I replied.
Where do you want to go?
I want to know what I should be doing, and then be able to face it.
Shouldn’t you be doing what you were doing?
Then why did I feel so inadequate and depressed about it?
Why not? Jonah was the only one of the prophets who had much success in his life-time, wasn’t he? This made me suspicious, for this very thought had been often in my mind of late, expressed in those very words. She then continued: What you need to do is to work out a theology of failure. If you did so, you would be following in the footsteps of the God you serve, and that, I understand, is one of your stronger ambitions.
I looked at her sharply, for there again she was reflecting my thoughts, almost precisely. At that time I wondered if it was coincidence.
My look was not acknowledged, so I proceeded to tell her of the suburban horror that was my parish, of the concrete block monotony, or the dreariness of paling fences, scrubby gardens, and low tiled horizons. Of the lonely couples almost broken by their mortgages, yet trying to keep their children up to date as they stamped their sections with the security of garages and paths and clotheslines . And how they became so hooked on the pursuit of settledness that they had no thought of even better things not to be purchased with debts. And I told her of my loneliness as a celibate maori anglo-catholic priest. She listened well, gazing up at me with her great grey eyes, an intense vacancy in her expression, and never a muscle moving.
I’ve changed my mind already, I said. I don’t think I will go back.
What’s the alternative?
To stay here, I suppose.
Is that the alternative? She asked, and turned from me to gaze out over the sea again. For some time after I stayed with her, saying little, but following the train of thought she had started, but always there danced along at the back of my mind the suspicion that she was playing with me. That was the trouble with Ursula – her seriousness was so passionless, so unmoving, that I could not but occasionally suspect it to be a put-on.
Once I fell into a real trap. It was quite early in our relationship, if I remember correctly. She had not long discovered that I was a priest, and showed an untypical curiosity about my work and my attitudes to it, an untypical curiosity for her, as she more commonly appeared indifferent to the deeper intricacies of my personality, while blandly asking such leading questions that I pored out my hidden self voluntarily, or so it seemed.
We had taken shelter in a cave as a savage storm of hail and thunder swept overhead, not expecting the disturbance to the day to last for long. During the morning there had been several of these interruptions, but the rain succeeding the hail dragged on and on, so we fell into a more detailed conversation.
A thing that troubles me a lot, I remarked (for she had begun by asking me about myself) is how to present the Christian Gospel. It’s hard to preach in an empty church, and I’m not the street-corner type. No-body’s grabbed by the sacraments much, unless I spice the Body with a healing or two, or serve an exorcism as an hors-d’oeuvre. (Pardon my free expression, Thomas, but you will remember that there was just her and me, and convention meant little in such a place – not that you yourself would mind a profanity or two, but I expect you are surprised that I should so indulge. I’m being honest in recording it now, and admit to having been subsequently penitent.) To get me a congregation, I continued, I must turn myself into an impresario, or else a performer.
Ursula clasped her knees, opened her grey eyes still further, and leaned towards me, though she still gazed past out the cave to the rain that slanted by. The sea beyond the sand was the colour of her eyes.
You must give yourself, she urged, in a tone impassioned yet confidential. You must give yourself after your Master’s example, never discounting any discomfort or loss.
When she got like this she was quite inspiring, and in the past might well have sent many a martyr to a splendid fulfilment, yet I could not help wondering why she said ‘your Master’.
We had a number of conversations about the meaning of life. Looking back on those days I can see that I was always rather in love with Ursula, probably because she is the only woman who has ever seen me naked, or so I think, though there’s likely to be much more to it than that. However, she never allowed me to express my feelings directly. Mind you, the true nature of my feelings rarely occurred to me, but I have only lately realised the artful manner in which she manoeuvred any situation that could have led to a declaration on my part. The effect of this was to keep me in a state of emotional unawareness, so that whenever I did act instinctively I saw only thoughtless folly in my actions. In my attitude to her, though, there was certainly something of the seducer, and this was marked in our intellectual discussions. I would confront her with a handsome edifice of words and ideas, then try to stir her w with conviction, and then finally try to sooth her with sweet wisdom. Perhaps this is always the way of a man with a maid, but it didn’t work with Ursula; she was singularly unimpressed.
During my City days I had been subject to occasional bouts of depression, proceeding from no certain cause. You may already have diagnosed the origin, but I prefer to think there was a likely connection with my lonely , monotonous , and apparently meaningless life. I described this to her on one wet day, sitting on the floor in her hut, while she worked away with her stones, building a sunburst design with gold quartz centre and mica-flake rays.
Depression is a fearful thing, I explained , and I never thought it would visit me. It’s so contrary to my whole nature and philosophy, but I suppose it’s a good idea to go through these things. At least you then know what other people go through, but it certainly is hard to put up with. There were some days when I really thought I would end up in hospital, or in a villa, as they call it now. Being all alone in a big vicarage didn’t help, of course, yet I could never bring myself to talk to anyone else about it – not that I was ashamed (though I suppose I was a bit; my people regard illness in a priest as a sign of weakness, and depression is hopelessness, and of what use is faith and charity without hope? Here I laughed intellectually). But when I was depressed, I just couldn’t summon the energy to explain my state to anybody. I seemed to have no reserve of energy at all, no matter what good things happened, nor how sparkling the weather, and I remember being haunted by a phrase of Rilke’s: ‘How is it possible to live when even the elements of this life are utterly incomprehensible to us?’ Have you ever read Rilke? I asked, but Ursula made only a non-committal reply. I’ve got the book with me, I said, and I’ll lend it to you if you want.
He goes on to say: ‘Men have had for thousands of years to deal with life (not to mention God), yet towards the immediate problems of life they remain helpless novices. ‘ I looked at her in vain for any sign of confirmation or rejection of this statement. As usual at these philosophy sessions, the only expression her face showed was a dignified wish to hear more, and as I had attempted to seduce her into supporting my self-pity, it was necessary to continue to prove I was doing no such thing. I added: When you think about life in any detail, you’re forced to come to the same conclusion as Rilke. I can’t comprehend life, or the reason for my own existence, and when I look at humanity as a whole, there is not one essential area of life in which we have progressed: in love and death, in self-knowledge and the ability to maintain a civilisation, we have probably even retreated, and when compared with an old people, such as the ancient Assyrians, are probably even nearer to the beasts that perish.
She paused in her stonework, and thoughtfully said: You use the language of the Bible, but not its ideas.
That’s because I’m speaking from my own confusion, and from Rilke, I explained. But not even the Bible tells us why we exist, and humanity doesn’t really seem to be getting on much.
Why should it be? Is progress any part of human destiny? The reason for your existence is found between you and God, not between you and your brethren. She looked intently at me, with a slight frown, and then said deliberately: There are some things you’ve never come to grips with, you know.
I felt most abashed, and left the subject, turning instead to the design she had laid out upon the sand, but she shot me down again.
Your patterns are intricate and lovely, I declared. You must work them out carefully beforehand.
Not at all, she murmured, without looking at me. I find that they, like life, work out for me as I go, providing I make them bigger than me.
Our daily routine developed a certain beautiful monotony. Ursula derived such satisfaction, and I such peace from it, that we rarely altered it in any way unless necessity gave good cause. Sometimes it did, as nature is notorious for having a mind of her own, and proving unreliable to those who lean upon her. Neither of us was ever ill, but we were often hungry, and certain food could only be got at low tide. I provided for the both of us, having (no doubt because of my Maori ancestry) a notable talent for searching out the haunts of the finest whelks, oysters, crabs, seaeggs, and pauas. Ursula was good at musseling, finding orchid tubers, and in telling which toadstools and sea-weeds were edible. I usually got the parsley and the kie-kie, as these had to be climbed for.
On every morning I said Morning Prayer at sunrise, and then celebrated the eucharist. A substantial breakfast usually followed, except on Fridays, when I had little to eat until sunset. It was my usual custom to keep Sunday as a feast day, after saying Morning-prayer, the Litany (1928), and the Eucharist, with a solemn intercession for all the world, but it was sometimes difficult to mark the feast especially. The food available was not of the widest range. An occasional fish came our way, trapped in a rock pool or washed up on the beach, and then its condition gave such grounds for suspicion that I could only eat it with trepidation, and no enjoyment at all. Ursula didn’t seem to worry, though she occasionally spoke as if she did. In my initial planning I had quite forgotten fishing gear. At first this omission irritated me, but on reflection I felt relief, for I’ve never liked fishing, having always lacked the patience necessary for stationary hunting. However, the variety fish could have added to our diet was occasionally missed.
You will understand that such a quiet life as ours can make one slightly petty-minded, and I fear we did come to take our food a little too seriously. To this day I blame Ursula for encouraging such concupiscence. I assure you, Thomas, that greed and luxury are not in my nature now, as they were not when we were together in our student days, but Ursula urged me to regard the Sunday dinners far too seriously. The effort spent in devising the menu was out of all proportion to the food available. I hate to think of the time we gave to perfecting a kelp-based jelly of pounded sea-anemone, or how many experiments were necessary before I discovered the perfect fuel for smoking mussels. Both dishes were remarkably tasty, though. I tried to point out to Ursula how they required a poor use of time, and how I should have been off by my own in worship and meditation, but she liked my cooking so much it was hard to go against her.
In the lowest and calmest of tides it was occasionally possible to catch lobsters in some of the deepest pools, but both of us preferred crab, even if this was more work. Another variant was the odd eel I caught now and then in the larger creek where it entered Ursula’s bay. It would also have been possible to catch a bird, for the wekas became very tame, and there were penguins too, but neither of us felt much like this sort of meat, and we became so accustomed to looking to the sea for food that we looked nowhere else.
For vegetables we had the parsley I’ve already mentioned, the so-called Maori Potato (the tuber of a ground-orchid), and a trailing spinach-like thing that grew just above high-water. Fern-roots I never much liked. There were also in season the berries of the fuchsia, bush-lawyer, wine-berry, and the fruits of the kie-kie. Only gross negligence could have caused us to starve, for there was enough food about to give us a good balanced diet unlikely to predispose us to cancer, multiple sclerosis, scurvy, arthritis, emphysema, or diabetes, but variety required a lot of searching.
On me there fell the burden of maintaining both dwellings. Ursula never actually asked me to do this, but whenever I made any improvement to my own set-up, it was only courtesy to be neighbourly, and this took quite a lot of my time. Rough weather often took toll of roof and walls, and during cold weather draughts demanded stopping. The fire-places were never quite satisfactory, neither were the chimneys, for the continual fires we were obliged to burn did damage to both. I was never able to make doors that kept out both wind and rain while letting in the light, so I put a window in my cottage, but Ursula would never let me do the same to hers. Later she softened the plain appearance of her place by planting Easter orchids, lycopodium, white rata, and climbing ferns all over it, and once these had taken well and spread, it came to seem she lived in a ferny bank.
My major work of ingenuity, however, was the construction of two toilets in private places, out of stones and clay and lime. Each was built upon shingle ground, and once built needed no attention, apart from repairs to the effects of weathering. It is the cleverness of their construction that causes me to mention them.
We lived, as you can see, quite a complex life for two solitaries, and a certain routine was inevitable if our comparatively high standard of living was to be maintained. Add to the above activities the collection of fuel, other occasional prayers and times of meditation, ablutions, and study. I had with me seven books for study – but more of them another time.
Generally I’m all for protection of the, environment , but after living in the wilds for a year I have to admit to being glad a lot of them have been done away with. The bush is great to visit, but hell to live in. There’s so little seasonal variation. In early summer the red mistletoe flowers,, and then the rata, and in the late autumn a sprinkling of the orange rata, but otherwise it was the same dull green month after month. It quite got me down sometimes, especially in wet weather.
During one of these low spells I was lying on the beach, with Urusla sitting beside me. The sun was shining, but the rain that had plagued us for days and days was moving up from the south again in a low dark squall. Disgust grumbled within me, and I was moved to complain:
Sometimes I wonder why I bother to put so much effort into life. The rain comes, the rain goes. The sun shines, the sun sinks, and things drag so; have you ever noticed that the sun rises so much more quickly than it sets? And how the rain comes with a rush but clears with a slow stutter? It’s the same with life – youth dashes by, but old age limps on. And, you know, the good do die young; I think that’s why old people are so unpopular. I stopped myself just in time to avoid even more atrocious follies, and looked at Ursula. She was holding a disc of amethyst quartz up to the sun to check for flaws , and in the pause she said:
What do you think is the purpose of life then, Riley? Her question floored me. It’s a very hard one to answer. Most of us have some philosophy on which we’re built, but its much easier to express this by attitude than by words. I, as a Christian, live in an instinctively Christian manner, but I had never tried to reduce this faith to a basic formula of intent. When she asked this enormous question I lay on my back with my hands behind my head, and stared up at the sky. Before I could be reasonably expected to answer the black storm edged overhead and the rain poured down, forcing us to flee for shelter, separately. Later on in the day I saw her again. She was wandering along the northern bay in the drizzle, swinging her hat in her hand.
I ran after her. Ursula! Ursula! I shouted. I’ve got the answer now! I really had, too, and felt quite excited as I came up to her. The point of life is this, I said, taking her by the arm: to begin here and now a relationship with God that will be everlasting.
She walked along with me for a minute or two, and then eventually smiled, and said: Well then Riley, that should give you something to do.
It was all very well for her to be supercilious, Thomas, but she would never let me be so.
One thing that often puzzled me during this year was the complete absence of any other sign of human life, until the end. No Japanese squid-boats turned the horizon into an arc-lit dawn, no jet screamed northwards to Wellington, no aerosol cans were washed up with the driftwood. Our existence might as well have been antediluvian. At fist this was relaxing, but after a while it. corroded my nerves, and I longed for a little reassurance that there was someone else somewhere. Ursula never seemed quite human. She had no antecedents. Also, I could never make any impression on her, and people whom one can scarcely impress are scarcely human. Now and then it would seem that she was beginning to melt, but whenever this happened it would always turn out that she was preparing to make an especial point, or wanted something.
Usually our mild relationship (strange though it was), the ever-rolling sea, the wood-hens, the rocks, were quite enough, but on the occasions when I had great need for human company there was no alternative but to retire to my books. If that was still not enough, and I still felt restless and disturbed, I went swimming and stayed in the water for blissful eternities, even in the winter for the sea there is very warm. Ursula never swam.
The sea invited entry on a sunny day. The waves showed their depths in such a warm and rich way as they poured back from the pebbles, then roared up in greens and blues, to crash in a foaming cascade on the beach. Sometimes I swam on rainy days as well, if there was a good fire at home and no wind. Ursula often chose these watery interludes of mine to appear on the beach gathering gem-stones, so often as to make me wonder why. Earlier in our acquaintance I was so ignorant and conceited I supposed she liked to see me come naked from the waves, but it became clear this was not so. She never looked at me, and I concluded, rightly I think, that for some mysterious reason she wished to be seen from that perspective. Whatever the reason might have been, herself seen from the gentle heaving of the far-out waves is forever graven on my mind. Dressed as always in her long flowing print dress and floppy straw hat, carrying a flax shoulder-bag and flitting unsteadily near the water where the stones, being still wet, showed their true colours. Enigmatic, apparently irrational yet intensely creative, self-contained, strangely wise in all her faces; these thoughts with this image of Ursula hold the whole of her forever in my memory.
Our staple meat diet was the black rock mussel, which grew in boundless abundance on the limestone shelf at the head of the north bluff. There were other tastier shellfish present, such as a small cockle-like thing with a pure white sweet flesh. It lived in rock pools with sandy bottoms, and was not abundant enough to be used as a main dish. Far out at the edge of the reef there were a few big pauas, and at dead low tide I could get hold of a rock-oyster or two, but only enough for a taste, so it was mussels for tea, dinner, and breakfast if I was unwilling to go to the trouble of catching other food. Mussels are tasty when hot, but never look appetising, and there were times when I was unwilling to make the effort to cook the day’s gatherings. Once when this happened, when I was seized with an unconquerable aversion, I went down to the sea at night to throw away the unwanted shellfish, and to my delight found when I emptied the cooking-pot it was sparkling with phosphorous. Natural phenomena never cease to enthuse me (it must be because of my aboriginal blood) and I hurried off with the pot to show it to Ursula. She wasn’t there. It was a black black night, calm, and clearly preparing for rain. I called and waited and listened, but there was no sight nor sound of her, though her fire was going.
On several other occasions I went to visit her at night, only to find her absent, and now that I come to think of it, there was no occasion when I found her definitely asleep.
What is your favourite book in the bible? She asked one morning. She often showed a desire for exchanges of what passed (with her) as intimate revelation. Sometimes this irritated me, once I had realised how shallow was her real interest.
I have none. I snapped. The Bible is not the book for personal preferences.
But there must be one you feel most in sympathy with, she insisted.
Ecclesiastes. I replied, not wholly truthfully, and after some pretended thought.
Read me some of it, she entreated, leaning her head on my right shoulder, and looking out to sea with what I assumed to be a soulful expression, for I couldn’t see her face. We were reading the Book of Revelation at the time, but at her request I turned to Ecclesiastes and read the following:
‘I have put all this to the test of Wisdom, claiming to be wise, but Wisdom has been beyond my grasp. Reality lies beyond my reach, and deep, so deep, who can discover it?’
Good! Good! She cried, clapping lightly with a very feminine enthusiasm. That man knows what he’s talking about. Read on.
So I read: I find woman more bitter than death; she is a snare, her heart a net, her arms are chains.
There was no need for me to read that verse. Some sort of perversity dictated, and had I been in good grace I would never have done such a thing. Yet probably that reading was the will of God. Its effect was that of a blessing upon a witch. Immediately she lost her poise. Her back slumped and her whole body seemed to sag. When she turned to look at me at last there was nobody there at all. Her eyes were two pitch-balls of bottomlessness, and far far within them, so far down that had I not been horrorstruck I would not have seen at all, right down there was something that I recognised.
But I will tell you what I saw, Thomas, all in proper time. There is an end to all this, as there was a beginning, and there are certain things I shall reserve for the end, as there are certain things that must go before. One may put ham between bread, or bread between ham; either way are the same ingredients, but we all know which is fitting.
To tell you of my spiritual progress during this year would be of little point. It would be another thing altogether, a very interesting thing, but not belonging here. The interior workings of anybody are most absorbing, no matter how important or unintelligent that person be, nevertheless I would rather not tell of myself, and I cannot tell of Ursula. She, as far as I know, made no spiritual progress at all, but her strange layered personality became clearer during the year together, and played upon me with its incalculable influence, to good or bad as you judge.
In the course of the writing of these letters I have begun to be aware that in writing of her I may be telling of me. You will know, Thomas. You will know better than anyone, for you have always delighted in obliqueness, in the pointedly indirect. As I write this I cannot but reflect that Ursula is more yours than mine for you would have fathomed her, whereas to me she is all confusion, enigma, and sphinx at the gate.
There were times when her nature would so radically and abruptly alter, that in a moment she was barely recognizable, and my relationship with her would falter in fright. Her eyes would glaze, her features slacken, and all her muscles relax into an appearance of self-indulgent indolence. Usually an amiable geniality would come over her at the same time. However she was more commonly a likeable creature, attractive, exasperating, who knew what she ought to be doing but would only do it if in the mood. Any attempt at any other time would end in collapse back upon a smiling self-deprecating inability, excuses that bore no relevance to truth, and were clearly designed to get me up and away from whatever I was doing (usually praying or meditating) so that I was forced to end a fruitful activity and instead occupy myself with her. Mind you, none of this was obvious at the time, and it’s only now I see it.
An example of this is an occasion I well remember. Though I was unemployed at that moment, it still illustrates the complex subtleties of this temptress. I had asked her to make a mat for my cottage.
We were sitting together on the beach, against one of the larger rocks, watching the creaming breakers surging in through a gap in the reef, and run turning up the stones to our feet. Sea-watching was always a favourite pastime of ours, for the sea provided our principal source of variety, changing in colour according to the time of day, the tide, the clouds. Each wave was an entertainment in itself, especially at high tide, when it would rebound off the shingle bank and rush back out to sea, colliding with every other breaker it came to. Occasionally three or four waves would pile upon each other, and then we would stand well back, for these giants were unpredictable. This time, as we watched, the tide was
coming in, and I knew that sooner or later a wave with more ambition than the others would get us. I was growing apprehensive, but the lady lay relaxed and unmoved.
A mat? She said. Of course I will, Riley. I’ll make you one tonight.
Not so quickly, surely! I protested. I’ll begin tonight, anyway, she said, smiling lazily. But you haven’t any flax, I pointed out. Yon will pick it for me, won’t you? She murmured, her eyes shut. But the flax will have to be dried first, I protested. She just turned slowly, looked at me, and said: It won’t take long to dry in this weather. I collected the leaves at her request, but that mat was never made. In the end I made one myself, with a most attractive Maori design.
There were times when she drove me to distraction with her arbitrary moodiness. I just didn’t know where I stood. One day she would be soft and yielding, though with a cutting edge like a nylon fibre that will bend and stretch yet penetrate at certain angles, then suddenly change to be delicate and distant, and on again to winsome and willowy. She would dance on the beach in the moonlight, go into rhapsodies over a bird-song or a particular light on the water, and the next moment cut me down to size with a ruthless double-entendre.
Early one morning I was sitting out in the new sun, leaning against a flax bush, and privately reading ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ when Ursula appeared. She walked apologetically as if she feared to disturb the serenity of the sunrise, and deported herself in a strangely graceful double-jointed manner. It was her obvious intention to engage in aesthetic dialogue, most probably relating to the quality of the sunlight, but I wasn’t feeling in the mood for this; I rarely was. Aesthetics of that type bore me, while ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ has only a limited appeal to Ursula. It’s a book that has affected me to the depths of my psyche, and is a vital part of my being. I know where I am with it. It’s got me going places and given me directions, and I’m so bigoted with it that I even like Vaughan Williams, so when I saw Ursula coming I put the book down. It was too late.
You’re reading old John again, she piped. (Her voice for this mood was light and high) . An Archetype book in Archetype English – that’s what Somerset Maugham calls it. Do you agree?
I really wouldn’t know what he means, I countered. It was the only way to deal with her. To attack or to agree was fatal; one could only hedge and fence, but even this had its risks, for it was like trying to stuff up a hole in a feather-bolster – in vain in the end, and strangely confusing and irritating.
It’s quite clear what Maugham means, she said. Isn’t it? Surely you see what he’s getting at? The essential quality of Bunyan’s work is hard to describe, but Maugham manages more than most, I mean. It’s like trying to describe to someone else, such as you, the colour of that cloud reflecting on the sea. Is it pink, or purple, or a blue, Riley? I think it’s purple, I replied. To me it’s pink, she said, but whatever colour it is is pure, isn’t it? That’s what Maugham is saying of Bunyan, that his spirituality and language are primal. Don’t you agree?
I suppose so, I said, though I privately thought she had gone wrong somewhere along the line, but aren’t they more scriptural than primal?
But that is the same thing, dear Riley, she corrected, with the almost weird smile she wore when her patience was wearing thin, compressed a little at the edges and slightly flattened in between. Is it? I asked. Then I would much prefer to call it scriptural than primal or archetypal. Her insistence always made me stubborn, and as incisive as I ever was.
She looked at me with that same smile, her head a little on one side and her figure daintily poised. Riley, she said carefully, you study truth, I know, and are dedicated to it, I’m sure, but I do hope that your study of professional verities will not blind you to the actual things that face us.
What an insult! She could deliver a stinger when she wanted, but always my most effective recourse was to humour her. Once or twice I snapped back in most justifiable anger, but always subsequently felt that, when all was said and done, I had been unreasonable.
There were some times when Ursula tried especially hard to be saintly in a martyrish sense. She was always hard to fault , but during these impeccable periods it was a silly fancy of mine that she spoke with an Indian accent. Perhaps it was just because the Yoga freaks I know do this, as a result of the toning-up of their throat and jaw muscles. Who knows? These things are hard to tell, and the Yoga people are forever complaining of the lack of good scientific research on their field. However, when Ursula was saintly she did speak with great precision, and with a throaty tone and undulating inflexion that was quite attractive. Even her facial features were carefully disciplined into a resolute mien that well suited the erect bearing of a mature lady guru.
I always rather liked her in this mood, for she took herself so seriously that she was her own best superwoman, and didn’t ask much of me at all. I had peace, apart from one thing. She could be very faddish over food, and talk a great deal about the latest discoveries relating to diet, though how or whether she really knew them goodness knows. Our range of diet was pretty limited, anyway, and any pickishness over it amounted to little else than cantankerousness. The food we could catch and find was all there was, and to be choosy seemed a great folly to me.
During prolonged spells of wet weather, when the rough seas made shell-fish hard to gather, and I felt disinclined to go hunting the bush for tubers or other roots, our meals became monotonous, and it was during these spells that Ursula would occasionally decide to eat nothing but watery vegetable stews. Ostensibly this was to save me trouble, but I doubt it now; they were too inconsistent, and she would suddenly demand finicky seasonings, and odorous herbal teas. Insisting that I join her in her dietary disciplines, she would drag me out into the rain, braving storm and tempest to gather greens that exactly suited her demands, and then to lavish firewood upon unnecessary stews. If she had only left me alone it might not have been quite so bad, but she couldn’t bear to let me eat my simple sea-foods without trying to arouse my conscience to the evils they might cause, chief of which was sexual incontinence. A vow of celibacy meant nothing to her. There would be no need for such things, she would state superciliously, if only man would eat the right foods; vows cause suffering, and can never be wholly kept.
These dietary dogmatics were annoying enough, but I soon ceased to take them very seriously when I discovered their secret inconsistencies, which trailed Ursula like the evidences of a private vice. After a particularly insipid meal one summer evening I went down to the beach to struggle
against the nausea that rose upon a bitter brew of ground coprosma berries, and as I writhed I pondered my situation, wondering how I could permit myself to be dominated by such a whimsical woman. A half-formed desire to put her in her place urged me to go and demand my freedom, and after the conclusion of my interior wrestling I rose to seek her. At first she was nowhere to be found. She was not on Sail Rock, nor on either side of the bluffs, but the calm mild beauty of the evening encouraged me to wander on, and at length I found her. She was sheltering behind some limestone rocks, eating mussels raw.
At first I felt furious, but instinct cautioned me to say nothing and to not even let her see me. Later, upon reflection, I thought this was just as well, for I too don’t always practise what I preach, and Ursula would have been the first to point this out in some especially humiliating manner.
So you see, Thomas, that I have at least made some advance in self-knowledge, if not in any other of the spiritual virtues. Ursula did help me there, though I think she hindered and nearly ruined me in other spheres. Having been alone for so long, with no-one to point out my weaknesses, or follies, it was no doubt an advantage to have company for a year, even though that company has proved to be so very suspect.
One cannot go for a year’s retreat into the desert without missing something of the civilisation that has been left behind. Above all, I missed music. I missed many other things too, such as bread, a choice of novels, the Cathedral, and the news, but music most of all. All my life I’ve been very fond of music, in an instinctive rather than intelligent way, and it was at first a relief to find that Ursula occasionally knew something about the subject. This is a remarkable trait of my lady companion’s, that her knowledge of certain subjects was intermittent. Now she would be an overflowing fount on late romantic composers, or French novelists of the early 20th. century; the next day she would be to all appearances illiterate. It was as if she had a fluctuating I.Q. , or even a shifting personality. But I did notice, Thomas, that her knowledge showed a lack of originality, as if it had been derived. Though I was familiar with all her ideas, I could never quite trace their origins.
When in her ‘educated’ days, Ursula was particularly good-humoured, relaxed, untroubled, curious about things she would normally not notice, and more than usually given to keeping me company. In these moods she would often accompany me on food-gathering expeditions, and enjoy going to extreme trouble to find a delicacy, showing all the while an alert, good-humoured interest. She might even tease, or play a joke, and would talk all the while. Occasionally she betrayed an acquaintance with pop science of the doomsday sort, and some paper-back novels with pretensions to serious social comment, especially , those about Roman life and history and antique Eastern vice. She also knew the ‘Australian Review’, and consequently faced contemporary society with a cheap cynicism that was disconcertingly justifiable. The more justifiable it was the more exasperated I became, for I have an intense dislike of cheap cynicism, though at times it is a tempting attitude to take. We often had heated debates that were invariably at utter cross-purposes. My intellectual grounds are laid upon classical foundations, but hers were founded upon jerry-built structures of leftwing journalism and intuition. The left-wing stuff was almost always rubbish, though sometimes attractively humanitarian, but the intuition was very often close to the mark.
This showed in her attitude to music. She loved it, but knew little. The little she did know was mostly hard rock and blues, but she knew and liked some of Beethoven’s symphonies, ‘Das Rheingold’, the Brandenburg Concertos, some Messiaen, and some Chopin. In her mind the whole lot were equated in worth, and I denied this with the strong argument that some types of music expressed a greater range and subtlety of emotions and thoughts than others, and was therefore intrinsically better music.
That’s what you say, she would maintain, and that’s the sort of thing the intellectual establishment always says . You only say it because you’ve been taught it.
Untrue! Untrue! I cried. I thought that one out for myself.
Yes, but you were taught to think it. People like you were picked and brought up to preserve the intellectual elitist status quo.
That sounds like ferret-talk! I snapped, because I too had read the ‘Nation Review’. Everything you don’t like you dismiss, as being invented or maintained to preserve someone else’s status quo.
So it is, she said. The oppressors of the world are people who want to stay where they are, and will stop at nothing to keep there. That was her way – to begin with nonsense, and to end not too far wrong.
However, Ursula really did have a pretty keen aesthetic sense, and on certain rare occasions when these moods coincided with a good sunset, or a notable storm, or some other striking natural exhibition, she would sit down in peace and enjoy it with me, and at times could even match the mood with the right composer, and sing a little. She could be a good companion, and I was often grateful for her presence, and even at times for the muddled rubbish of her conversation, which was likely to range from anal sex to the mystical effects of L.S.D. and the necessity for organic compost.
In general her experiences (or her evaluation of them) and mine tallied remarkably well, but she still revelled in much that I had put behind me. Nevertheless, in my weaker moments I envied her the relaxed attitude to life and sophisticated ease, but every now and then the lid would briefly lift, and a puff of steam or a discordant clang would betray the chaos beneath the veneer; but more of that later.
One thing: now though: never for long, but every now and then, she would be nervously preoccupied, barely able to talk, good-natured enough but absorbed within herself, and quite unable to settle to any task. She would walk here. and walk there, pick up something and drop it, begin to write in the sand but stop and stare out to sea while playing with her hair. After several hours of this behaviour she would disappear, and I would eventually stumble upon her sitting on the sand building a castle, or making roads, or playing boats in the creek with sticks. If she noticed me she would look up with a terrible expression, the eyes nearly empty, but around the mouth a smile that pleaded, yet was too bewildered to know what it pleaded for. There was a certain suffering there, but a happiness too, a dreadfully shameful happiness for it knew it oughtn’t to be there but didn’t know why, and was far ton childish to know itself.
On the several occasions I found Ursula like this I was myself too shocked to speak, for the sight of the nightmarish innocence shook the very grounds of my being, and made me retreat trembling to rest before the sea. Chaos can be borne in the city, with the help of work and company, hut never in the wilderness. There is nothing in the wilderness, and no help either.
Ursula reminded me of my mother. I must be honest about this, Thomas, for if I’m not you might accuse me of concealment. Indeed, the likeness was so strong that I have thought my companion could have been telepathic, but it was impossible to pursue this hunch as our situation did not allow any development of this theory.
Up to now I have carefully refrained from referring to my own past, as this might have diverted your attention from Ursula herself, so I will only say that my mother was a martyr of considerable ability. Much of her married life was unhappy; she did have to suffer a great deal, but. did so with admirable fortitude and a deep interior enjoyment, all of which my neighbour in the next bay could act out to every detail. The first indication I would have of her being in this maternal mood would be a loud knock at the doorway, in the early sunrise, and a cry to arise for breakfast. There it would be, ready enough, in itself a novel treat for it was not Ursula’s habit to provide any meal. Neither would she now permit it to be enjoyed. As well as arising early to prepare the meal she would have deliberately gathered it that same morning and, if it was a sea-food meal, be still wet and dripping as she served it. Stricken with pity, I would urge her to change.
Just finish your breakfast, she would briefly reply. I can look after myself.
After this had happened several times, and I had begun to see the truth, I dared to express my desire to say matins first, for it was never my personal practice to eat before prayers. At the very mention of the thought she looked hard at me, and shivered wetly. She said nothing, for obviously words were unnecessary. A shiver said all, and I ate up thankfully, without further mention of any priority, spiritual or otherwise.
Mother-Ursula did all that had to be done with a stiff back, . and a good forward stride. In this she was admirable, if one liked the military virtues, but the effects of her heroic strength of character were weakened by her determination to do what had to be done at exactly the moment when it was least necessary and most inconvenient. If in her hearing I expressed the intention of gathering pauas, she might well insist on saving me the trouble by gathering them herself, if possible without waiting until low tide. Inevitably she would get wet and bruised, and then carry her discomfort with an introverted silence that couldn’t fail to make someone of my
temperament ashamed. Maybe she would make it her self-imposed lot to gather firewood in the rain, and the fiercer the storm the farther she would wander, trudging back through the spray grossly overburdened with unnecessary and sodden fuel.
Once she startled me out of my self-possession by swooping; down upon me with a small flax-basket of hot food. When Ursula swooped she was most disconcerting, for she was normally so poised in her hat and drapery that to see her in sudden motion half-panicked me.
She dropped the steaming basket upon my lap. What is it? I cried, rather tactlessly, for in situations like this it is much better to taste first and ask after. That is proverbial knowledge.
It’s an oyster omelette, she said, with a wounded note in her voice already. Seagulls eggs and rock oysters. The achievement of creating such a dish quite overpowered me and I forgot myself , and gently patted her wrist in thanks. She stood erect and drew herself together.
Eat your omelette, she sternly bade me. Be grateful for the little things. Be content with what the Gods provide.
Contrite and humble, I let the omelette stand between me and sacrilege.
On one fine afternoon she found me reading the Letter to the Ephesians, and couldn’t let the occasion pass without making: good use of it. When playing the theologian Ursula always looked rather sad and prim, and had a tendency to hover uncertainly. Sooner or later she would be bound to anchor herself with a doggedness that was never far down in her psyche, and once anchored would winch herself in; at length she would be peering over my shoulder.
There’s one part in that book that I cannot understand, she said, blinking a little, and had it been a cool morning I’m sure a drop would have hung from her nose. I cannot grasp that ‘Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead’.
It’s a fragment of an early Christian hymn, I replied, surprised at this choice of debate. Do you think so? she asked, talking quietly in a tone of persistent apology, yet quite clearly not to be put off on any account. Don’t you think that it really refers to a Christian doctrine of reincarnation?
Reincarnation! I snapped with astonishment.
Don’t you think, said she, sounding more and more confidential, that the Christian church has conspired to suppress the thought of reincarnation out of the Bible? It’s there, all through it you know, if you will only look. Where is it? I asked. Wherever you look, she replied. Just read on from verse 14: ‘walk as wise, redeeming the time” . Well now, what could be plainer? That means: make yourself worthy of your future incarnation. The next verse even has a warning against the misinterpretation: ‘be ye not fools, but understand what the will of the Lord is.’ It’s sinister, isn’t it, that the church could so consistently ignore even that warning. And what else? I asked, with mounting indignation. Rebirth. She! hissed. What do you think ‘being born again’ means? Here, give me the Bible and I’ll show you. But I couldn’t. Her folly so angered me that I couldn’t bear to let the book into her hands, but hedged, and eventually turned her off into other subjects, which was never hard to do. She was a natural rambler.
The Bible obviously quite intrigued her, but there was no sign that she had ever more than dipped into it, and this same deficiency lay in all her argument. When pressed, or in the mood, she could supply an explanation to every problem about her, but rarely any indication that she seriously thought. On one or two occasions she floored me by exhibiting areas of knowledge and logical thought to entirely confound her more usual state of dreamy confusion. Once she must have read and studied, but that part of her was never alluded to. When I think of it, no part of her past was ever alluded to, and only God knows how long she had been there or where she had come from. Those were two questions I never dared to ask her, and I don’t know why.
There was a dream I think I had. It must have been a dream; it could hardly have actually happened. You are the better judge of this, Thomas. It’s hard for me to tell, for that whole year hard a dreamlike quality about it, strengthened by the numerous gaps in my memory, and if I did not possess so much evidence for those twelve months I might well doubt I ever owned them. As it is, unless you can clear up some of the mess, I might never be able to sort out what might have from what did happen.
In general neither of us roamed far from our respective bays, which was perhaps strange, at least on my part, as I am not a settled man by nature. I’ve always been fond of walking, so my lack of initiative during this year is in some respects remarkable. It can be partly explained by our geographical isolation. An almost sheer escarpment, several hundred feet high, rose from behind the beach And cut us off from the interior. It was covered with unattractive bush and scrub. To the north and south was bluff after bluff into the sea-wracked distance. Normally I would have regarded these sorts of surroundings as a challenge to explore, but now I just stayed where I was and strayed not at all.
Occasionally Ursula, however, would disappear inland, always returning with a basket-full of sweet orchid tubers for the evening meal. An far as I could observe, the route to this kitchen garden was a narrow ravine that cut the cliff behind her cottage, and I am amateur botanist enough to know that she most probably gathered those tubers from the mossy floor of the tall bush beyond the top of the cliff. I became curious to know what it was like up there, and so early on one sunny restless morning I set off on my own, not telling her where I was going. At least that is what I think I did.
I soon found myself in a dark jumble of slimy rocks, where water ran out of sight below. Konini, pungas, screw-pine, and nikaus darkened the little gorge, and there was hardly a bird to be seen or heard. The silence was like a primaeval curse. For about an hour I clambered up through this dark quietness, until at length I had left even the sound of the sea behind, and came into a more level place where the trees, no longer stunted by salt gales, grew to a fuller size and there was much less undergrowth. I appeared to be walking on a confused plateau. From the little I could see about me, it was evident that several hundred years before this land had been visited by a tremendous earthquake, and had collapsed
upon itself. Limestone, and its types, was the base rock, and had been worn over the centuries into caves, sink-holes, and all the other aspects of erosion; the cataclysm had caved these in and turned some over, so the land now presented a singular sight. It was entirely without pattern of valley, hill , or river. The creek I was following disappeared into a cave; I climbed the hillock above the cave, to find myself looking down into a deep depression. At its centre another rivulet briefly wound from one dark subterranean source to another hole, while along the cliff above there lay an exposed cave, like a drain-pipe cut longitudinally. Further on were small hillocks turned into arches by truncated tunnels, and short canyons holding still black rivers that came from and flowed on into the hill. Some of these locked large and long, but as I had no light I couldn’t explore them; however I looked into several as far as the pale daylight permitted, and discovered stalactite halls, glow-worm lit in their distant recesses and dimly coloured in pastel tints. In one was a colony of bats, and in all huge-legged spiders lurked behind the stones.
Silence prevailed everywhere. In the highest tree-tops some parrot-like birds created a remote disturbance, but otherwise all was held in an empty, uncreative silence, still and old like an archetypal hush. Nothing stirred, not even the sound of running: water brightened the greenish gloom, and any noise there might have been was absorbed in the thick moss that hung from every trunk. It was an oppressive place, but fascinating, and I wandered about its wonders for an hour or two. There were great colonies of ground-orchids growing in the moss, but they had long finished flowering and were beginning to die back. Numerous kinds of toadstools now took their place, brightening the forest floor with azure, scarlet, gold, and some other rather nauseous shades. One I remember as being large and black, and another was wine-coloured on top and green underneath, or a sort of pale green. There were some very delicate small specimens of a translucent whiteness, and others larger and of an ugly dirty cream. I couldn’t but wonder at their beauty or their vileness, and speculate on their edibility, and whether if I ate them I might receive some Castaneda-like experience.
At length it was time to return, hut then I couldn’t find the way. For one as used to tramping as I am it was a ridiculous position to be in, and in reality it could surely not have happened. Still, my frustration was logical enough, even if not real, for none of the accepted means of finding one’s way could be use; the rivers disappeared underground, and there were no continuous valleys; none of the tall trees were climbable, and I had
left no tracks in the moss. To my credit I felt no panic, but on the other hand it was impossible for me to sit and do nothing about my lostness, so after praying for strength and guidance I set about finding; what river-fragments I could, and assessing their average direction of flow. That should indicate downhill. However, before I could find enough flows to get a reliable average full night fell, and there was nothing to do but try for sleep on a shady shelf under a limestone overhang. It was a cold and uncomfortable shelter, with dryness its only advantage. Every creeping and crawling thing the bush nurtures smelt me, out, and tried to use me under over of darkness. As my irritation increased, the previously un-noticed shrillness of whistling frogs slowly enveloped all other frettings, and I covered my ears with my hands, but their high-pitched chirpings cut into my brain like a dentist’s drill. I pulled some moss and tried to stuff my ears with it , but that made no difference at all except to increase the crawlings and creepings of the night things that had made their home with me. Eventually I could stand it no longer, and got up from my couch determined to make an escape in some way, when there echoed from the rustling and squeaking darkness the distant sound of a human voice. It was Ursula, instantly recognisable, calling me with a gentle well-modulated cry that carried beautifully. Glad relief flooded over me. Here I am! I called. Come this way!
In the direction of her voice there at length appeared a pale bluish glow. At first it was so faint that I doubted my eyes, but it slowly increased; soon I could see a slender form within it, Ursula, swinging a basket of phosphorescence before her as if it was a censer.
How did you find me? I asked, rather awed by her ghostly appearance. You answered when I called, she said, and that was the only explanation she gave. It must have been a dream, Thomas, mustn’t it? Something like this could not really have happened, could it? It seems more than a dream, though, too vivid, and yet it has some of the erratic characteristics of a dream, for there is no recollection of our return together. None whatsoever. My memory resumes in a most embarrassing manner outside Ursula’s hut. She was inside, and I wanted her.
Only my honesty makes me tell] you this, for whether it is a nightmare or not the implications are clear, and entirely undesirable. I had no love for Ursula, not sexual love. In a Christian sense I probably loved her, but to do that was not so easy, for her personality was so kaleidoscopic that I could barely find anybody to centre affection upon. As to desiring her physically – well, in one or two of my earlier letters I might have mentioned that this thought did briefly enter my head now and then, but it never made me do anything silly, and only on this one single dreadful occasion brought me near to breaking my vows. A perverted gratitude for her rescue of me no doubt provoked the outburst , and there must have been other contributory factors, such as tiredness, hunger, and admiration. There must have been.
The faint blue light betrayed her presence in the hut, but she was silent and completely unresponsive, with never a stir or a sound. I was knocking at the door, and whispering:
Ursula, Ursula, my dear, Ursula my darling. Do let me come into you. How can I ever do without you! Or words to that effect, lots and lots of words to that effect, loads and loads of rubbish. But whatever was poured through that door, and wreathed around that hut as I roamed about and about it, there was no effect upon the occupant, or none that was noticeable. Though I knocked, whispered, called, and muttered my panting path around and round, she never stirred, until at last the darkness of the night forced itself upon me, and I dragged myself off to bed, my desire dimming, thank God.
I hope that was a dream. Ursula never alluded to any misbehaviour on my part, or acted as if a nuisance had been committed. Perhaps she wasn’t even in the hut, and all my importuning: was to a blue light. However, the shame persists, and I only tell it to you, Thomas, to help your understanding of my unusual tale.
It’s all very well to encourage me back to society. I protested. But I haven’t any place there.
Are you sure? She asked.
I haven’t found any place yet. I’m an anachronism, like the farmer, the book-shop, and the history professor. Most of my day is spent wandering round the parish looking for some place to fit.
Are you jealous of your parishioners?
Once I was, but not now, except in my worst moments. Not long ago I began to see that most other people seemed to think that I was the well-off one and they didn’t belong. When they spoke they often implied envy of my position, much to my surprise.
Why should you be surprised?
I had never thought I was socially blessed to an enviable degree, and the suggestion that I might be quite shook me. Strange, isn’t it’?
Not at all. She sharply asserted, half-turning her be-hatted head towards me. You were just being conceited, that’s all. You’ve been by yourself for too long, and you’ve reverted to adolescence. It’s time you had another view of yourself . It’s time you got married.
Will you marry me? I asked, but only to please.
Certainly not! She snapped. And the fact that you could ask such a thing is a sign of your criminal lack of self-perception. It’s high time you grew up and took yourself seriously – that is, saw yourself as part of society, which you are, whether you’re sitting solitary in a hut, or contacting solo parents in a housing estate.
No man’s an island etc. …..
There’s no need to excuse my ideas by veneering them with literary allusions! Just listen to what I say, and take it on its own rights. I’m quite correct; you may be sure of that, and sooner or later you’ll be convinced, and do what I say.
She stood up and walked off without any parting look. As she made her way over the pebbles towards the bluff and her own beach, I reflected how graceful she was when angry, how erect and light in her walk, how purposeful and undeniably omniscient. How beautiful are the feet of her who brings good tidings and comfort, I mused. How beautiful are her feet, how comely her form.
One of the most remarkable features of’ my little home bay was the close approach of the deep sea; it has left me with memories and impressions that strengthen as time goes by, whereas many others of this last year will, I’m sure, fade.
My hut was built in a grove of Nikaus just out of reach of the sea. On either side were two large low granite rocks, both partly covered with kie-kie and flax, and projecting at an even height out into the ocean. The Tasman rollers poured into the small cove these rocks formed, were compressed to a greater height, and broke thunderously upon the shingle beach. At low tide a sandy flat was exposed, and the sea was much safer for swimming, but at high tide, especially in bad weather, the immensity of the waves was almost appalling, and one hesitated to sit to watch for fear even the rocks would be unable to stop their foaming approach. If I sat out at the head of the little bluffs the waves there swept past unbroken in unfathomable green-ness, and I could so easily imagine myself on the prow of a ship ‘lost in the sea of vast eternitie’.
It was very rarely a cold sea, and in its more modest moods had a warm maternal aspect, inviting, comforting, inscrutably repetitive, and very, very deep. When wild it was terrifying, whining as it sucked back over the gravel; a surging sea of phosphorescent foam at night , heaving in blue-white light like an arising fungoid monster. In the evening it was at it very best, delicate and lovely to receive the setting sun.
On the whole, though, the sea is a frightening thing.
When it did rain, which was frequently, it was often very hard to tell how much rain had fallen. There were no receptacles to measure it in, and no puddles to flood, and no gutters to run. After a while I was able to make some mental gauge by examining some small pools in the rocks, but these soaked quickly away, and also seemed to be affected by the wind direction. All but the heaviest cloudbursts were soaked up by the bush. Even the sound of the rain was no reliable indication of its intensity, for sometimes the silent thick downpour would produce quite a flood, while the rattling spouts would pass by, leaving nothing hut a memory behind.
After particularly heavy rain, the tiny creeks that usually pattered down to soak away under the nikaus, would surge forwards and pour over the sand down to the sea, quickly cutting deep gorges in the beach. Then, as the rain eased off and the waters sank, the creeks would dwindle
from a brown torrent to a thin clear film, washing the grey sand in braided channels, until the next high tide banked the beach up again, and the creek returned to its normal end under the palms.
Ursula was especially fond of the latter stages of these flooded creeks, when the waters were clear and thin. She would bring out her stones by the bagful, and crouching ankle deep in the running stream pattern out the gems. These designs were usually only very short-lived, for the force of the flood (weakening though it was) would soon wash the stones away or cover them with sand, but on one memorable occasion conditions were ideal, and she was able to create a most remarkable assembly.
In any case she collected only the most perfect stones, or very unusual ones, and they were always well polished by the action of sea and sand and other tidal forces, but when put in water they shone like coloured glass. After this particular flood her home creek had been forced into a long and oblique channel across the beach, so that it ran with little force and limpid waters that barely moved the sand. I found her quite early in the morning, crouching in her crystal fountain, bathed in the glow of the rising sun, working away with her jewels. She pretended not to notice when I walked quietly to the edge of the creek to lock down upon her, so I was able to watch without feeling an intruder.
Her virtuosity astonished me. It was as if she captured the mounting sun itself, and laid it dissected beneath the water. Ripples caught the waves and darted them out from the design which was, if I remember rightly, diamond-shaped, and several feet across. Flame-coloured stones edged the form, and in the centre was a perfectly oval piece of jet or coal. Radiating from it were four equipoised L-shaped arms of greenstone marbles, contained within a diamond line of white limestone coins. At each corner of this were four red carnelian pieces, and about the whole was a circle of local pink marble. Flakes of mica flickered over it.
I stared at the creation, transfixed by the glory of it. Whenever I think of it now those lines of Henry Vaughan come to mind:
“I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light ,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, time in hours, days, years
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved. In which the world
And all her train were hurled.”
O wondrous glory! O glory of light!
When I came to my senses, Ursula was gone, and the sun stood almost overhead. The little torrent glided past, slowly taking the remains of the gem-stone diamond out to sea, turning over a stone here, sliding away another there, burying another. I thought it curious that she had left them behind to be lost like this, but Ursula’s ways were always unlike her, so wondering no more I turned slowly home, grateful that at last I had seen almost what I came to see. God’s ways are strange, and sometimes worked through the most imperfect means. However, as I walked home, I rather regretted the washed-out noonday end to it all.
If I remember rightly, the end of it all came not long after that pattern in the pool, but it’s so hard to be sure. The sea-mist that obscured the view seems to have crept into my mind as well, and curls and coils in there still, first blotting out and then partially revealing. From one day to the next now I’m uncertain as to what I remember, what is forgot, or what imagined. In any case, what I imagine to be true is so strange, so explicitly impossible, that you must just accept it in the sincerity with which its told, and believe that it is at the very least true in intention.
I see myself, late one lone and sunny afternoon, lying on the beach, reading, when Ursula came tripping along the gemstones, her floppy straw hat looking like a tattered parasol.
Riley, Riley, she called, Come and have some dinner with me. I was so surprised I nearly dropped the book. We had been together for over a year now, and this was the first time she had invited me to a meal. At other times I had invited myself, always with tact and courtesy, of course.
The day was a Sunday , and I had made and eaten a reasonably festal mid-day meal, but another wouldn’t do any harm, so I jumped up with enthusiasm. A most unexpected honour, my dear, I replied. Your attention flatters me out of my wits. She gave me one of her brief smiling looks, took me by the arm, and escorted me around the bluff to her little cottage.
Oh dear me! She exclaimed. Just look at those wekas! But I couldn’t, for the meal itself put those little brown scavengers quite out of notice. To this day I cannot understand how she gathered and prepared that food. The trouble she must have gone to!
It was all set out in buffet splendour, on a flax mat before her cottage. In the centre of the mat was a towering arrangement of blue sun-orchids, rata, and brown sedge. Around this marvel was a carpet of sphagnum, and ordered upon it on woven platters were dishes fit for a gourmet: crab-meat seasoned with shredded kelp, mussels lightly stewed with wild parsley, paua-steaks simmered in winkle soup, two whole crayfish, a sort of orange-coloured stiff jelly, and a small pyramid of sea-eggs. Crowning all, and delicately wreathed with maidenhair, was a huge and whole John Dory. I was astounded.
It was stranded on the reef, she explained, pleased at my reaction. That gave me the idea for the dinner.
Only on one or two occasions had we ever before eaten a fish, and each time they were caught stranded in a rock pool or washed up on the beach. We had them raw, and always made a celebration of the meal, but never had there been anything quite like this.
We sat down side by side, cross-legged as she liked; I said Grace, and we began the meal. The sun was low over the western horizon, still warm and quiet, but moderated from its earlier strength by distance and a dim white cloud that reflected on the sea in pearly shadings. No wind stirred the bush, and the only sound was the cracking of small waves upon the beach, and evening bell-birds in the Nikau Palms. All was so idyllic, and the food so good, that several moments elapsed before I realised I had just heard a rifle shot.
Surely that wasn’t a shot? I asked, in astonishment.
Was it? said Ursula, paying, no attention whatsoever. Another shot sounded from over my bluff.
Visitors! I cried. The first we have had. Carry on while I go and see. Ursula continued eating, apparently quite uninterested, but I was anxious at this unexpected threat of intrusion, and also felt shy about being discovered at table, so I hurried off around the rocks.
Trudging towards me along the beach were two men, each with a pack and a rifle, and looking unkempt, but not yet with that tired dazed look of men who have been out in the bush for a week or two. As I watched unseen from the rocks, they noticed my footsteps, and then looking about saw the hut. My good sense prompted me forward, but what could I do? What
could I do that was natural and unforced? If I waited I would look furtive. If I waved from where I was I would look like that picture from Captain Cook’s Explorations. If I hid and didn’t show myself at all Ursula would think me a coward, and the visitors might damage my property. I decided to act with decision, and walked forward to meet them.
Jesus Christ, burst out the younger and shorter shooter, who had his hair tied back in a pony tail. A savage! Where’s the canoe?
They stood still, so I stayed where I was, superior and reserved. Good evening, I smiled. Are you gentlemen going north?
We’re looking for a camp, said the taller and older man, who had long greying fair hair, and steel-rimmed glasses on a bearded face. And some food, he continued. We’ve shot nothing all day except one sea-gull that came down in the bush.
By now they were almost up to the rocks, and looking, at me with suspicious curiosity. They looked like university people, perhaps a professor and his most promising pupil. Just my luck, I reflected bitterly. My first human visitors for a year, and they have to be intellectuals.
The tall one looked at the hut. You look pretty settled, he said, and eyed me over for signs of secret vice.
I live here, I replied. I’ve been here for over a year now, in perfect ecological harmony; I live here with a friend.
Hell! Exclaimed the shorter man. A Pa! You’re not the lost tribe, are you?
Nothing~ like that, I assured him, with commendable courtesy. She lives round here in the next bay. Come and meet her. I got down from my rock to lead them round, thinking it would be rather pleasant to invite them to the meal. We could have a leisurely civilized chat amidst all this wilderness, and I could learn of the past year in the world outside. Imagine my amazement to find that Ursula and the dinner had gone. I stood where we had sat, confused, confounded, speechless, while the guests looked at me, bewildered. There was not even a mat, and no sign of anyone having been there except myself. Note that carefully, Thomas. I now distinctly remember that there was no trace of recent human presence at all – no footprints, disturbance, objects, nothing, but this didn’t occur to me at that moment. My thoughts were of Ursula.
Where has she gone? I asked of nobody in particular. She was here just a minute or two ago. We were having dinner when we heard you.
Dinner? Queried the grey-haired one. Has she taken it with her?
Yes, I replied stupidly. She’s very shy.
Your wife? Asked the short one.
No; a friend, I repeated. Ursula. She lives over there in the hut. I took them to her cottage, but even as we approached it I knew there was something wrong. There was un sign of life at all. No smoke, no stir, no smell of food, and when we looked in, no Ursula.
No-one’s lived here for months, said the pony-tail, and had I not known the truth I might have thought him right. All the mats and all the stones had gone, moss grew in the fire-place and grass in the doorway, but I thought it was some trick of hers.
I’m afraid you’ve called at a bad moment, I lamely relied. She’s very shy. Call in again on your way back, and you’ll certainly meet her then.
Sure is shy, said pony-tail. Shied off some time ago, if you ask me. But they took my hint and began to move off, though I could see unflattering suspicion on their minds. I went with them for the short way to the next bluff , good-naturedly chatting (though to little response) and then I said goodbye and returned.
As I expected, there had been some trick of Ursula’s, for now life had returned to the hut. Astonishing, isn’t it, Thomas? Could an imagination really play such tricks? There before my eyes, where all had been dead before, was life again. Smoke was now coming from the chimney, and there was a mat at the door, but there was still no Ursula inside. I went out again and called repeatedly, but there was still no response, so I returned to the cottage to see if any clue to her flight could be found. This time there was some sound of movement. Apart from the low fire, and the doorway (which I darkened) no light entered the room, so it was hard to tell what was rustling on the floor, and I had to feel around to find it. A funny little thing it was, bare, and it made no sound as I picked it up and took it out to the light, not even when the horror overcame me and I dropped it on the sand. It crawled for a while there, and snuffled a bit, but made no other sound. I stared at the pink and lumpy thing, and the more I stared the more I had to admit that the little animal was more like a baby than anything else, so I got down on my hands and knees to look it in the face. The features were curiously distorted, so poorly made as to be almost deformed in fat wrinkles and asymmetry, and it had two great pitch-black eyes that locked out at me with sombre steadfastness. You will know what I mean.
On my hands and knees in the sand, I gazed into the eyes of this snuffling half-formed child. The sun set behind me and shone redly into its face. In a trance I stared as the glow deepened, then suddenly I knew what I was seeing in those black depths. I had seen the same in Ursula’s eyes, but hadn’t stopped to think. With a crack, like a blow on the side of the head, the truth hit home, and for the first time in all these months I knew what a terrible thing I was seeing. As recognition dawned on my face the dreadful little beast licked its lips with a thick sloppy tongue, and smiled at me. Oh horror upon horror: I leapt to my feet and ran down the beach, choking with fright. That such a nightmare should fall upon me, so wise and well-informed!
The sun had set as I set off walking southwards along the coast, but a dull red glow still lay upon the bluffs, which for the first time in all that year now fell in series before me, clear and sharp in cliff after cliff into the long and hospitable distance.
So there we are, dear Thomas. Though this recounting is for my help, it is also a gesture of friendship, for I know you will enjoy it. With your love of irony, your almost Jungian erudition, your self-involution, how could you fail to derive vast entertainment from my remarkable nightmare? Even I myself, when I think over what has happened, must profess to feeling an amused amazement, tinged, of course, with horror. All turned out so unexpectedly; nothing as it was planned.
I went to so much trouble for the sake of a longed-for experience; and all I had was Ursula. Sometimes I gasp at the audacity of it all, but to have audacity there must be someone audacious, and who was it? Was it God? Was He the one who defrauded me? Or did I do it myself? You might be able to help me with the second part of that question, but you can’t help me with the first. Why did God deny me the blessings I sought, and give me something so unsatisfactory and unsought-for instead? However, my thoughts make mockery, and boil my patience away into madness.
Madness? The term should be destroyed, and I stand by that Thomas, right to the bitter end, no matter how much you might try to argue me away.
I got me flowers to straw Thy way,
I got me boughs off many a tree;
But Thou was up by break of day,
And broughtst Thy sweets along with Thee.
© Leicester Kyle (c.1975).