Nathan Bennett lives in Christchurch where he graduated from the Hagley Writer’s Institute in 2010. He has recently had short fiction published in Landfall, Takahe, and JAAM and currently has four novels on the go.
Nathan Bennett 2013
He would not tell his son where they were going. They were simply to leave the city before the sun was in the sky, and the journey was to take three days. The days would be short, no more than three or four hours on the road, for it was important they used all three days. This was how it had been ordained.
‘You must not tell anyone,’ he said, as he looked down upon the boy’s sandy coloured head resting on the carpet. ‘Not even your Mother.’
‘Can’t I tell Stephen?’ the boy asked. He sat up and stared into his father’s grey eyes, fascinated by the rough, swollen beard that had recently arrived.
‘No, none of your friends can know. Not even Stephen.’
In truth, the boy’s mother knew they were leaving. His school had been informed that he would be away for two days, possibly longer, but the secret of the trip was to go no further. This was the form that the journey was to take.
On the morning the man decided they would take the Ranchero pickup. The service and warrant had expired, but those jobs would wait until he returned. He packed what he considered essential: a two man tent, sleeping bags, a map, three metres of rope, a gas cooker, tin mugs, a billy, clothes for himself and the boy, a small hand gun, and nothing more. They would purchase what they needed along the way.
As he went out to check the oil and water, the first frosts of winter had stuck to the windscreen of the car. Autumn leaves lay soaked below his feet. Some still gave a pleasing crunch, but most were now brown and lifeless. The night sky continued to erode, with the first glow of sun visible through the branches of the sycamore tree, down at the end of the garden. His son joined him with sleep still shadowing his blue eyes.
‘Where are we going?’ the boy asked.
‘Away,’ his father said.
‘Why can’t you tell me?’
‘Because I can’t.’ The father threw a bucket of warm water over the windscreen and watched the frost crack and dissolve. ‘I promised your mother I would not tell you. It’s part of what we must do.’
They ate burgers for breakfast and then drove through the quiet outskirts of the city until they passed the stone sign that marked the boundary. The sun continued to awaken behind them, its long fingers pushing shadows across the yellow countryside. Morning commuters passed them, and the man felt pleased to be driving away from what remained of the city and away from his work.
They talked about the boy’s school. He was confident of representing his class in the long-jump, and his favourite subject was also his father’s: mathematics. The father tested him with simple mathematical equations and the boy answered each correctly. He knew he could have challenged the boy further, but he did not want to upset him.
They stopped in small town, where the shops were few and the people greeted one another. Men with names like Stan and Doug served them, their stern faces softened by their kind words. The father and son sat off to the side of the road and shared fish and chips. Sunlight glittered on the table and the boy was surprised when his father didn’t complain when he fed the seagulls.
They drove on and played eye-spy for a while, until the father tired of it, and then they talked about the boy’s mother and his school friends and the father saw that the boy seemed content. They passed through a seaside town and the boy wanted to see the beach, but the father wanted to be away from people.
As the sun began to drop behind the mountains to the west, the father saw the motel. The building was L-shaped, with grey rooms upstairs and down.
‘We will sleep here tonight,’ he said, as they pulled into the car park.
They booked two single beds, and ate dinner at a local diner, and then stayed up playing cards and watching cable television until a programme that was too violent came on and the man said it was time for bed. The boy laughed at the novelty of sleeping in a new bed, and they threw pillows at one another, and both smiled as they lay down, but only the boy slept.
Early the next morning the motel remained silent as they left. Frost lingered a little longer on the windscreen, but they waited only a few minutes for it to clear. They continued south along the coast, past the inert ocean and the silent mountains until they came to a junction, which split the town in two. They took the inland road, driving northwest, back towards the mountains.
The mountains loomed closer, white with snow, and then they drove away from them. The car struggled up over hills and then down into valleys and by mid-afternoon he had driven as far as he was willing.
‘I think we should camp here for the night,’ he said, pointing to a clearing behind a line of trees.
‘But it will be cold,’ the boy complained.
‘Not if we make a fire. We have a tent to sleep in.’
‘But it’s an old tent.’
‘That doesn’t mean it won’t keep us warm.’
They parked by a stream and set up the tent. The boy gathered water, while the father selected wood and stones from between the trees and the bank of the stream. An owl hooted. The father placed the stones in a circle and showed the boy how to make a fire. Watching what his father showed him, the boy promised that he’d never let the fire go out.
As the sun lowered behind a ribcage of mountains and the trees on the hills were enveloped by darkness, the boy asked, ‘What will we eat?’
‘Crackers,’ the father answered. ‘We still have those.’
‘But I’m hungry.’
‘I thought we would miss a meal. We can afford to do that. It’s like real camping.’
‘I don’t like that idea much.’
‘You don’t have to,’ the father replied. ‘I’ve decided.’
The boy lowered his head and said nothing. A year ago he would have cried.
‘We’ll buy a large breakfast in the morning,’ the father said. ‘I’ll make it up to you then.’
The boy didn’t move.
‘Anywhere you like. We don’t want to lose this place, do we? We might not find it again.’
The boy shook his head.
They sat by the fire and ate from the box of crackers. The stars shone clear above them, and the night remained still. Every so often a car or truck rumbled past, but this intrusion remained no more threatening to them than the whisper of the stream, the crackle of the fire, or the murmurings of wind against the trees.
‘Can I ask you a question?’ the boy asked, his eyes wide across the fire.
‘What is it?’ the father replied.
‘Do you think the world will end soon?’
‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Because…because of the earthquake,’ the boy replied, ‘and the tsunamis, and the hurricanes. Stephen said it might.’
‘I don’t know,’ the father said. He pulled at the dirt from his under his long fingernails.
‘I don’t want it to end,’ the boy said.
‘Don’t worry. It won’t end. Not for a long time yet.’
They slept alongside each other in the tent, but by morning the boy’s head lay against his father’s chest and his arm was wrapped around him. The father woke many times during the night, but did not move.
‘Did you sleep well?’ the father asked in the morning.
‘Yes,’ the boy replied. He wiped the back of his hand across his nose.
‘You have a cold?’
‘I’ll pick up some tissues in the next town.’
They packed up the tent, and said goodbye to the fire, and then stood by the bonnet of the pickup and looked down at the map.
‘Have we far to go?’ the boy asked.
‘Not so far,’ the father replied. ‘We should arrive soon after lunch.’
This time the frost took ten minutes to clear. Their breath billowed before them like steam from a kettle. The boy sneezed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and again the father promised him something to treat his cold.
‘We should at least get a sunny day,’ the father said.
‘Not if the clouds come over,’ the boy replied.
‘No, that’s true.”
They drove till mid-morning, along flat road and open countryside, and then stopped for an early lunch. Again the boy chose fish and chips and again the father did not mind. Though the sun delivered happy news, they still ate in the car.
‘How’s your cold?’ the father asked.
‘Better,’ the boy replied.
‘I’m sorry I haven’t got you anything for it. These country stores don’t stock much.’
‘It’s getting better.’
After lunch, they drove higher, up over the pass until they came to a rocky plain that stretched golden before, enriched by the sun. Scrappy grey trees grew in places and beyond the plain the land had formed mountains whose tops were white with snow.
‘It’s so beautiful,’ the boy said. ‘I’ve never seen anything as beautiful.’
‘Not even the waterfall we saw last summer?’
‘No, this is far more beautiful.’
They drove with the windows down and the wind blew through the boy’s hair. Sunlight burned upon the top of the car. They crossed a narrow bridge and after this the man saw the sign-post that pointed towards the side road. He turned off and sped up a little and then slowed again as the car swerved on the gravel. His hands shook. He drove up the gravel road, past a twisting stream, and bushes that kept the road hidden. They reached what was almost the top, and he parked in amongst young trees on yellow grass, in amongst where the birds chimed.
‘Is this it?’ the boy asked.
‘Not quite,’ the father said.
They stepped out of the car and the father pointed to a path that led up through the trees.
‘I want you to walk up ahead of me,’ he said.
‘Up that path?’
The father nodded, his grey beard opening to a reluctant smile.
The boy smiled back and the father watched as he walked up past the first line of trees, his small blue jersey disappearing into the green foliage. The father opened the boot and removed the gun and two lengths of rope. He placed the gun in his trouser pocket, and hooked the rope over his shoulder. Starting up the track, he saw his son waiting up ahead.
‘You haven’t started up yet?’ the father called.
‘No, I was waiting for you.’
‘You didn’t have to do that,’ the father smiled.
‘What’s the rope for?’
Sun shone down onto the path and a smell of eucalyptus hung in the air. Birds announced their arrival and rustled around them. The boy walked a couple of paces ahead of his father, his arms swinging.
At the top of the rise, they came to a flat clearing where the eucalyptus trees gathered. They looked back out the way they had come and this time they saw over the whole land. Golden plains stretched on either side as far as they could see, while a river ran through the centre until it disappeared down into a canyon. Beyond the river were the coal coloured mountains, their tops cold with snow. The father motioned for his son to sit.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ the father said.
‘It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’
‘One day I think we should build a house, right there,’ the father said, pointing near where the river and the canyon converged, ‘between the river and the mountains.’
‘Or just over there,’ the boy said. ‘At the very bottom of the mountain.’
‘You wouldn’t get much sun there.’
The boy smiled up at his father’s pale face. ‘Maybe by the river then.’
They sat for a while and watched as the delicate shades of the landscape changed. The boy wrapped a piece of grass around his finger and then blew it out of his hand and soon after the man stood to his feet.
‘See that tree?’ he said to the boy, pointing to a tree that stood a small way apart from the others.
The boy nodded.
‘I want you to stand next to it.’
‘Beside it or in front of it?’ the boy asked.
‘In front will do.’
The boy looked up at his father and then walked over there. He leant against the tree and asked, ‘Is this okay?’
‘That’s good,’ the father smiled. He removed the rope and walked over to the boy. ‘I want you to put your hands behind the tree.’
The boy looked at the rope. ‘Are you going to tie them?’
‘Only for a little while.’
The boy smiled up at his father and placed his hands behind the tree. The father bound his hands so that the binding did not hurt. The boy said nothing. The father removed the other length of rope and tied it around his son’s waist. It cut into the boy and he let out a cry.
‘I am doing this so as not to hurt you,’ the father promised.
‘But it is hurting,’ the boy replied.
The father did not answer. Instead he fumbled around in his trouser pocket and removed the gun. He cocked the hammer back. His hands sweated. He wiped at his brow. He looked around him, but not at his son. And then he pointed the gun at the boy’s head. The boy screamed. An animal-like sound. Never would the father have guessed that such a sound could emerge from a human. The boy’s face was red, his veins pulled tight, his eyes clogged with tears. He was old enough to know.
The gun shook in the father’s hand. His breathing grew ragged.
‘I am ready to do this,’ he said, looking up to the tops of the trees that shook in the light breeze.
‘Dad,’ the boy screamed.
The father waited a second longer. He expected something to happen. This was the test. And then he pulled the trigger. The gun jolted in his hand and pushed him back a pace. Silence overcame the boy’s screams. The boy’s face opened up in front of him. A red, pulpy mess. It was no longer the face of his son. It was not as he expected. The boy was supposed to be alive. He looked down at the ground and convulsed and then threw up over his shoes. He shook and was sick again and then he cried.
As the sun began to lower in the sky and black clouds formed from the south, he untied his son. Much of the boy’s front was now black. He scooped his son’s form over his shoulder, covering his own shirt with blood, and carried it to a spot between two trees. For the next hour he used a spade from the boot to dig into the hard ground. His back ached and his vision was blurred by tears and sweat. Birds talked as he worked. When he had dug as far as he could, he placed the body in the hole, in amongst the roots of trees and the orangey earth. The boy’s black, punctured face looked up at him. He said a prayer for the boy and then covered him with soil. After the hole was filled, using two sticks and the rope, he fashioned a small cross and pushed it into the soil. The father looked at his work and knew then that the boy was in a better place.
Thunder sounded as he returned to the car. Ahead of him the storm clouds were on their way. They rose dark and angry and continued to build as they drew towards him. His hands shook as he turned the key, but the warmth of the car comforted him. A peace came over him. He had done what he must. His will had been realised.