Rekindled

When I was nineteen, I burned down a small field of bamboo. It was one of the loneliest afternoons I can remember. I had been listening to a Cat Stevens record over and over, crying to myself, when a Chinese man who lived next door yelled Fire! through my open window, his call slicing cleanly through my self-pity. I ran outside to where a lush patch of bamboo used to stand, the fire all but gone and a swath of white ash quivering with diminishing heat on the ground. I grabbed a shovel and joined the neighbor to beat pathetically at the edges of the charred remains where the fire was nibbling at the short lawn, but the flames had run their course through the best of fodder. It was one of those idyllic days, replete with sun and blue and clouds like cotton balls, the green hills of New Zealand’s North Island like a plush green carpet carelessly rumpled, the contours undulating out until they blended smoothly into Kaipara Harbour.

I was so lonely because it was my second day in New Zealand on my first trip alone in another country. In fact, it was my first time traveling alone, ever. I had arrived that morning, eager to get out of the chaos of Auckland, to get to work volunteering doing what I thought was going to be gardening or small farm work. But when I arrived at the little house set on a hill I was greeted at the door by a man in a bathrobe: Mr. W. He had Parkinson’s disease, and he told me to get settled in the quarters across the way. During my stay, he’d provide lunch but I should do my own dinner and breakfast, and how ’bout once I’m settled I come back and he’d have a list of chores for me to do. His regular helper, Tom, was out of town, so he was especially behind in things that needed doing. I had arrived on garbage day. Garbage burning day.

As I stood before the open space where the bamboo had stood, sweating in the heat rising from the ashes, I felt a keen sense of the absence of something. Mr. W’s yard was a scene I’d only known for a few hours, but the space the bamboo left behind was palpable. And with the guilt and embarrassment creeping in, I felt my loneliness being displaced with a greater urge, something along the lines of maturity, or responsibility. The Chinese neighbor and I didn’t speak as we leaned on our shovels, and eventually he looked up towards Mr. W’s, then at me, and I took the hint and went and knocked on Mr. W’s door.

I was mildly sorry I’d missed the conflagration, mostly because I couldn’t believe it had happened, and happened so fast. Having seen the fire, the lick of flames crackling away against the fibrous bamboo stalks, might have allowed me to make sense of what had happened. But the tall plants being there one moment, and gone the next, gone in a blip, left me scrambling to make sense of what I’d missed and where I had done wrong.

That evening Tom returned. I was packing to go, although I hadn’t really unpacked. Mr. W and I had decided that maybe it was best if I just move on. My sadness and loneliness at being alone in another country was replaced by something more immediate—the embarrassment, the guilt. Tom had a stubbly blonde scruff across his chin and was missing several teeth, and was so pleasant I took an immediate liking to him. I was desperate for a friend. He shared his Marlboro Reds and whereas now I can’t remember if it was light or dark out when we spoke, if we drank beer or whiskey as we talked or only smoked cigarettes, I do remember the story he told. It was about a motorcycle trip he’d taken across Ireland. He’d been with a whole gang of friends, and I can envision the way he told it: Shit, you think this is green, you should see that landscape. Green as an emerald and you can see forever. You’ll be riding along in the countryside and all of a sudden you’ll come across this old castle. Thing is, it’s been there for centuries. From the sixteenth-century. It scrambles my brain to think of something so old. And you could just go right up to them. And my gang and I, we’d ride from castle to castle and stop and party in them. We’d break in and spend the night there. Nobody would find out. Before anybody could catch us we’d be up again, riding to the next castle. Who would ever know we’d been there?

When it was time to sleep and we parted ways, he must have noticed the worry seeping back into my face.

“Eh, don’t worry about it,” he said with his grin full of blanks. “You’ll forget about it soon enough. We’ll all have forgotten about it by next week.”

 

I did forget about it. It’s been about thirteen years since it happened, and I’ve gone years at a time without remembering that I was responsible for burning down one man’s beloved patch of bamboo. A disabled man’s, nonetheless. I don’t fret much about it anymore—it must have grown back to quite a lushness by now, the leaves rustling in the North Island wind probably at this very moment. Perhaps it would have totally slipped from my memory all together if my sister didn’t remind me of it this summer when the family was at her house for a cookout. It was another idyllic day, one of those sweet New England summer afternoons meant for sipping beer in the shade. How and why she remembered the story so well while I had completely forgotten it is one of those sibling mysteries. Growing up we’d been very close and we often spoke simultaneously saying the same exact thing, and it was as though in some subconscious way I’d unburdened my own private past to her, allowed her to keep even the memories she wasn’t there for.

I don’t remember how it came up, but suddenly she was reciting the story—“The whole field! Not one stalk left!”—to her husband, my boyfriend, my brother and his girlfriend, our parents—who also hadn’t forgotten and offered up little details along the way, the bathrobe, the Chinese neighbor. As my sister told the story, my family laughed and slapped the picnic table at my misfortune, the way we were all raised to do. We were on a pea-stone patio behind the house I had grown up in. My sister and her husband had recently bought the house—it’d been out of the family for twelve years. In fact, my parents sold the house the winter after I returned from New Zealand, during my first year away at college. That fall before they moved, my sister had gone into labor with her first daughter in the dining room of that house. We’d moved the table out and set up a birthing tub. She was going to have a home birth and she wanted to do it at the house she’d grown up in, but over 20 hours of labor and complications would eventually send her to the hospital for a cesarean. The dining room opened into a breezeway, which had sliding glass doors that opened onto the patio. Those thresholds have seen decades of my family moving in and out, the steps worn by our comings and goings, doors wonkily off tracks and hinges from our constant exits.

The day before I left for New Zealand I sat in that same dining room, admiring how I’d fit everything into the sleek backpack, going over my itinerary with my parents, which really only consisted of the contact information for Mr. W, and a list of potential destinations that I was “thinking about” visiting. My sister and her boyfriend (who she later married then divorced) dropped in to say goodbye. They stood close to one another, leaning against the windows that looked out onto the patio, which was icy and gray with late winter crust. “We have something to tell you,” my sister said, the two of them smiling and looking at the floor. “I’m pregnant.” Not only that, but she had recently dropped out of college and they were moving to rural North Carolina to raise goats. Suddenly my trip abroad wasn’t the most exciting news in the family anymore. Like older sisters are wont to do, she’d one-upped me yet again.

By the time the bamboo was burning in Mr. W’s backyard, my sister was having her first bouts of morning sickness, and my parents were dealing with the sudden “loss” of their two youngest, and, although I didn’t know it, were surely forming the nascent plans that would lead them to sell the house, to downsize, to keep themselves from feeling suddenly alone with all the empty bedrooms and quietude.

But at the picnic table this summer at our reclaimed house, the beautiful weather gave us license to tap the communal memory archive. Burning the bamboo became one of those stories that belongs to the family, the kind they use to mark me like a trait—brown hair, brown eyes—the kind that’s shared when initiating new family members, or just to remind the old of who we are, what we’re made of.

 

Remembering New Zealand, my memories have sorted themselves into a sort of hierarchy; the people I bonded with and the most dramatic scenery rise to the top, the rest settles into a sort of rubble at the base, a platform for the best and strongest memories to sit upon. After all, I traveled for experiential capital, for a list of have-dones, have-beens to add to my adventure resume, which, at nineteen, was rather pathetically provincial, or so I thought. I’d lived in the same small town in western Massachusetts my entire life. Family vacations were to Cape Cod or Maine, twice to Florida, which was the furthest we’d ever gone. I’d been a dutiful student and held steady and unglamorous jobs every summer in high school—dish washing, housekeeping, mucking out horse stalls.

So when it comes time to remember New Zealand, I always tell people first about the glacier. I tell them about the mountaineer I’d met—to some I share the fling we had, that his age was nearly double mine, facts which also bulked the experiential capital—the afternoon spent up on Fox Glacier, camping at a lake which reflected the snowy top of Mount Cook perfectly, the alpine parrots—keas—who swept down and tried to fly away with tent stakes and hiking boots. There were the caves at Waitomo, the glow worms, and there was the strange farm with the born-again Christians where I witnessed my first ever cattle de-horning, helping to herd the bleating calves into a corral where once they were trapped a man descended with sharp loppers and snipped each horn from their heads.

And sometimes I tell people about Adrienne. Adrienne picked me up hitchhiking a few weeks after I’d burned the bamboo. She was the only woman who ever picked me up. And she was the only one who never said, “You shouldn’t be hitchhiking,” or “You can’t trust just anybody.” She’d been coolly nonchalant. She drove an old beat-up orange car, and she drove with her window down, her black curls whipping out. She was part Maori, “But I’ve got a lot of pom in me,” she said, meaning English blood. As it happened I was heading to her town, Rawene, a little fishing village situated along the Hokianga Harbour. By the end of our drive she said, “Well, you can stay at my place if you’d like. I won’t charge you anything.” But she told me if anybody asked to say that I was her cousin visiting from Australia. “The hostels will get angry knowing I’m keeping a loopy at my house for free.” We looked enough alike to be cousins, and it was fun to play this little game. I ended up staying several days at her house and quickly forgot that I had just met her. It did feel like I was visiting a cousin, or perhaps even an older sister. When I announced after my first night that I was thinking of moving on she said, “No, please stay.”

I don’t always tell people about Adrienne because while there I didn’t do anything that travelers are supposed to do. I didn’t go boogey-boarding at the sand dunes up the coast at Omapere, nor did I go kayaking in the mangroves; I didn’t have a bird guide to identify Rawene’s shore birds; I didn’t ride the ferry across the harbor. I didn’t eat at any restaurants or go on any hikes while there. In fact, the one walk Adrienne and I went on together left her huffing for breath she was so out of shape. But she dragged herself up the little hill laughing, lighting a Pall Mall at the top to celebrate, leaning on my arm saying things like, “My God, I can’t believe you like this sort of thing!”

Adrienne had two sons, fourteen and twelve, and her husband had left them a week earlier. The older boy was obsessed with American truck drivers. His wall was lined with posters of eighteen-wheelers. He was quiet and suspicious of me, and it took me a few years to realize how strange it must have been for him to have this American tourist in the house. Everyone I’d met in New Zealand had been incredibly friendly, but perhaps Adrienne’s kindness was overzealous. Her younger son took to me immediately, and we had a blast during my few days there. He showed me around Rawene with his best friend. They took me to the local golf course where they said they were allowed to just go in without paying, that his friend’s dad worked there. We helped ourselves to clubs and balls and spent a couple of hours laughing, left a few accidental gashes in the green, then put everything away and left again without being intercepted by anybody.

Otherwise, we really didn’t do much of anything. Adrienne’s house was aqua blue and sat at the top of a hill, in a row of similar houses. Other than its bright color it was nondescript, the inside adorned with 70’s style wood paneling, an old brown sofa. At night after her boys went to bed, Adrienne and I sat up and smoked Pall Malls in her living room. She told me how her boys were learning Maori in school, something that never would have happened when she was in school, and she was jealous even though the Maori they learned was incomplete, riddled with holes. What remained was just fragments. She shared a documentary video she had about Captain Cook and the colonization of New Zealand. She eventually told me how the previous week she’d come home and waited for her husband. That she went to bed wondering where he was, and it wasn’t until the next morning when she awoke and opened his side of the closet that she realized he was gone, nothing but a few empty hangers where his things used to be. She cried as she told me this.

My last night there Adrienne insisted I sleep in her bed with her, and while I lay awake thinking how strange it was that I was there at all, she tossed and mumbled in her sleep, and at one point rolled over so fast that she pulled the blankets off me, leaving me shivering in my pajamas. While she slept, I imagined her returning home to an empty house. I envisioned the opening of the closet door, the sinking realization that her husband was gone. I played her memory over and over until I finally fell asleep.

 

This summer saw a lot of family gatherings at “the red house,” as we came to call it, because it was still confusing to everyone who it belonged to. It was hard not to think of it as my parents’ house, but they’d sold it over a decade ago. The first time I returned after my sister bought it, my memories started the moment the car directional blinked to turn at the mailbox. The rhythm of the car pulling into the driveway, winding beneath a stand of Norway spruce. The whine of the door opening from the breezeway, the way a certain door closing echoes in a hallway, the clunky click of the still-outdated light switch in the basement—all these made the place our place, the little details that I hadn’t even realized I knew, the ones I had no reason to remember but weren’t really gone—it all came back, jumping over the synapse of thirteen years as though we’d never left at all.

The sunny afternoon that my sister rekindled the bamboo story in the recesses of my memory, we watched her two daughters playing in the yard beneath the same maple trees that we used to play under. I could see our history overlaid with theirs, like two negatives placed one on top of the other, their childhood seeping in and taking place of ours. There was a momentary crisis, the feeling that they had absconded with my past, absorbed it and made it their own.

Beyond the yard, which was parched from the midsummer heat, was a cornfield, and beyond that a swath of forest that my father had once owned. Throughout our childhood he had bought it piece by piece, finally owning one large connected chunk of land. When it came time for each of us to go to college, he sold it off piecemeal at inflated prices to pay for our educations. Wandering through those woods and fields as a kid gave me my first imperialistic urges, exploration driving me further to the boundaries of the property, even beyond it into an old abandoned limestone quarry, stumbling upon neighbors’ hunting cabins which I sometimes entered, greeted first by the stale air of abandonment, and second by the scurry of field mice dashing for cover.

In a field that my father mowed to keep open there was a small outcropping of limestone that he had to mow around. Between two rocks there was a fissure in the ground, where the limestone had long ago split apart and the earth in between had eroded away. I remember the first time he told me to lean down next to it—there was a slight draft of subterranean air, cool and damp, and when I put my ear close I could hear water trickling below, far away and echoic. My father had recently told me the story about how Howe Caverns in upstate New York had been discovered by a farmer in his field in a similar way, and I begged him to let us blast a hole in the ground. I had to see; I had to know what was there. I couldn’t bear the thought of a huge cave existing below our field and nobody knowing about it! Caves were murky, fantastical places, and I pictured the gaping maw of limestone with its fangs of stalactites and stalagmites, cave walls sparkling with gemstones. The urge to know it, to possess it, rippled through me like a small, steady fire.

It was that urge, I suppose, which sent me to New Zealand, and on several subsequent adventures, and what gave me my hierarchical list of experiences. Each memory is like a gem I can take out and admire, show off to others. In some ways even an adventure—one I set off on with little planning—can be fabricated even after the fact.

But then there are the memories you can’t control. The memory of Adrienne rises to the top because she was a short-lived but very good friend. There’s nothing more mundane than the way we sat at the water by Hokianga Harbour, smoking cigarettes and discussing loneliness while her son and his friend played on the dock. And it’s hard to believe that that me, still a teenager, who befriended this single mother, was the same me who months earlier felt like a pathetic child because I didn’t know when a fire was done enough to be trusted, to know when it can die out on its own. By the end of my trip I had climbed a glacier, pulled enough invasive kikuyu grass to make my hands raw. When it was time to return home, I could navigate Auckland with confidence, like a traveler who knew what she was doing. And the change? It was one of those changes you don’t see—you just stop one day and realize it’s happened, the former self gone like fast fire, burnt up in the snap of a finger.

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