I have called myself a writer since I was eight. After years of paid writing work, I am prioritising time for my creative writing. My happy place.
I am on the board of our little local library, am part of a delightful bookclub (now three years strong), and my idea of the ideal Saturday night involves editing and wine. Words are at the centre of my life.
I have lived in a war zone and in communes, in cities and the wilds, writing through it all. Now I live with my son and an assortment of rescue animals in a little house on a hill looking out over the sea in Karekare, New Zealand.
I have no shortage of material. And big plans with what to do with it all.
I’m sitting on a collection of short stories, a few finished manuscripts, a pile of essays, and the words just keep on coming. Here are a few.
I was fiercely anticipating my figs ripening. I’d been looking forward to them for months. Figs reminded me of bucolic sunny days on a Balkan island. To taste them was to be transported back. I liked that. We were in coronavirus lockdown so being transported anywhere was a treat. I hadn’t been into town for weeks – I was craving fresh fruit.
Our fig tree was a picture of abundance. Metres from the house with frequent foot traffic, I had thought it safe from the birds. The Morning of the First Figs finally arrived, and my heart sank before I stepped off the deck. The two plump and purpled figs I had earmarked for eating had already been sampled by birds. Savaged might be a better word. They lay gaping their pink plundered innards to the skies. I had woken to the gleeful sounds of silvereyes. Now I knew why.
I had spent the previous year teaching my son’s cat not to hunt birds but that morning I put her in the fig tree with instructions to deter any birdish foray with no qualms. I had lent bird netting to a friend the previous season and after a flurry of texts, ventured down the hill to retrieve it. An everyday act made oddly clandestine by the lockdown rules. It went up that night.
It's a big tree. The netting covered about a third of it. The peep-peep-chatter continued but I figured between the netting and the cat we’d still get some fruit.
I started picking the next day. I had asked around my garden people and discovered the trick was to pick them with the stalk intact when they were big, soft and just starting to blush. They ripened beautifully on a sunny windowsill – a glorious thing in the mouth fresh, Rachel-from-down-the-road's honey was the perfect accompaniment.
I abandoned a few figs higher up the tree to the birds. An offering. I came to love the chatter of them, the flit-flit-dip of wings out the corner of my eye. The netting obsolete as the birds found their way under and around. I resolved to take it down when I saw two juveniles standing on the netting, pecking through the holes to feast.
I was doing the daily check for ripening figs when I heard the PEEP. A tiny scrap of olive green was upside-down, hanging and utterly ensnared. After rushing back in for my dainty embroidery scissors I climbed up into the green and cut a swathe of net free to remove her. She was panting and had been trapped long enough to fight herself tightly knit into the net. It was around her neck, wing and legs. The black of it disappearing into her feathers at multiple points. I sank down onto the grass under the tree and held her firmly but gently in the cradle of my fist. All other thought fled as I trimmed and cut, terrified of hurting her, talking to her all the while. There was more tangle than bird.
I worked fast, my heart dipping as her eyes fluttered lower. It was intense micro-surgery trying to work out how she was tangled and where. When her head lolled, I thought I had lost her, and my heart sank. But as the last piece of netting fell free, she revived, peeped and we talked about the joys of figs and flying while she gathered strength. Finally, standing, I opened my hand and she uncurled her legs and claws and sat, featherlight and trembling on the palm of my hand looking around, calling. I held her up to the tree, away from the net, and eventually she stepped out onto a branch and sat peeping (I had placed her next to a fig in case she needed sustenance). She sounded indignant so I stepped back, pulling the netting down with me into the shadows of the bay tree and watched. They came in minutes. The flit-flit of wings a tickle then a flood. Raucousness of bird lungs tiny but loud ensued as the clan came together, a dance of fast-moving sound and whispering feathers gathering around their lost one.
She stayed, flitting from tree to tree, her brethren coming and going as I commiserated from the deck. I too was unable to go far – the coronavirus casting the invisible net of lockdown. I worried (for no reason I could see) that she was too hurt to fly properly and was scared for her alone in the cold of the dark. I worried too at the morepork’s hunting call that night but when I shone my torch into the fig tree, the light reflected off a row of silver eyes, shuffled in close on a branch up high, each no bigger than a fig. Her clan had come.
They were all gone by dawn’s chorus – a steady flow fading into the morning's light, flit-flitting from fig to branch to sky and lost to the greater green of the world. I threw the net away.
Anissa has called herself a writer since she was six but has only just learnt to prioritise her creative work. She has called many countries home, but her birth country, New Zealand, won in the end.
Originally published on the Lockdown Stories section of Deborah Shepherd's website HERE
The monstrous sound filled the dark every evening. Followed by a sharp intake of breath into small lungs, and a pleading cry,
My son’s bedroom was tucked up into the treetops. An aerial kanuka womb.
The neighbourhood morepork loved to sit on a branch with its view over the garden, bush and out to sea. Trouble was, that branch was right outside my son’s bedroom. It grew parallel to his bed. Take the wall away and he could have reached out to ruffle its feathers. I thought of it as a guardian. My son did not. To my scared-of-the-dark son this morepork was as big as its call in the deeps of the night.
This bird loomed large in his imagination, the fear crowding out the facts read out from beloved bird books and gleaned from museum exhibits. Never mind that mama had a tone of reverence when speaking of moreporks, this one was a monster.
He drew it one day. Toweringly tall, dark maw for a mouth and red eyes. Nothing I said dislodged this misbegotten monsterhood. I began a concerted effort to create some ease into our evenings. The kid was already what I conservatively called sleep challenged. The night of the zombie morepork movie playing in his head was not helping. Every time it called *more pork, more pork* into the quiet, I would scoop him up and rush to the window, or lean over the deck with a powerful torch searching all her favourite haunts. We made it a game, rushing off regardless of what we were doing. Food left uneaten, bottoms left bare, baths abandoned, books left open.
Weeks went past. Nothing. Or rather, many creatures and moments but no morepork sighting. We marvelled at the faint luminescence of the great puriri moth, the squeaks and chirps of geckoes, the rumbling of frogs from next doors pond. We were held spellbound by the wind shaping the rangy kanuka tops and the moons dramatic lighting of the night-time world. All this helped to demystify the dark. But revealed no morepork. Not even a glimpse.
I moved from actively trying to dissemble the fear to resignation and the cries for help became a part of our evening rhythm. An unwelcome visitor. An unliked family member at Christmas you had to tolerate but couldn’t wait for them to leave.
Months passed with him refusing, absolutely, to sleep in his own room with intermittent dashes to peer suddenly into the mirk, eyes trying desperately to focus after the artificial light of our human inside world. Then a year. The edges of the fear less jagged, the cries less frequent but definitely still there. Until one night. We were up late with guests and the little guy couldn’t sleep. It was a small house and loud voices were carrying straight up into his open window. Eventually he came out onto the deck. Right as he clambered onto my lap, in that silence -the one where adults readjust their output to the unexpected presence of sleepy small people- a morepork called. Loud. And close.
I felt my son’s body tense as someone grabbed their headtorch from the table, clicked it on and directed the beam up into the kanuka stand. Up near the treetop bedroom, was a tiny, puffed up, big-eyed morepork, looking like she just rolled out of bed and most indignant about the torch beam in her face. She looked so comical that the table erupted into laughter. As I shook with the joy of it, I felt the tension in my boy seep away, his limbs settling into mine. I looked at him. His eyes moved slowly from the morepork’s to mine.
The words I put to his look were ‘THAT is what I was afraid of? That cute little poofed up ball of spitfire?’
The bird took off, slow wingbeats rippling the air, head swivelling, gaze seeing what we could not, then disappeared into the darkness toward the frog sounds. Small arms went around my neck and a calm voice said,
‘I think I’ll sleep in my room tonight mama.’