Oh, the Places

Sian beside her father's grave at the one-year memorial

Both of the pieces below are about place – the places we live, visit, remember and the places we have inside us. The first piece was inspired by the second piece, which was inspired by a quiet little field in New Zealand, history in reverse.

When I look back at both pieces now, from the distance of years, neither seems to fit entirely – like old clothes that I love, but which don’t suit me anymore.

The place inside my skin

Inside us is a place virgin of any other (an image Virginia Woolf wrote into her beautiful essay, ‘On Being Ill’), a space that is singly our own. A piece of us painted with only our own soul.

If a place, a city, a house, a rolling hill, a cold peak can imprint themselves onto us, as cities, houses, hills and peaks have imprinted themselves on me, then so can we imprint our own sense of place on those around us. On the people we love, the houses we make homes, the hills we make memories. Perhaps every place we find creates another place inside of us. And perhaps we too create every place that we find.

Four years ago a writing mentor gave me an exercise to write about a place of my choosing. She said, “Describe every single thing about it. The colour of the air, the smell, the taste of it, everything.”

I knew immediately what I would describe, though at first I resisted the impulse. I described where my Dad is buried. A green field hidden down a dusty road in the middle of the nowhere (not nowhere to some, but to me it is a series of unknowable twisting gravel roads that ends with his grave, after which I forget how I got there and how I get home – as if time resets itself while I am with him) countryside between Auckland and Hamilton.

That green place, green palace, is a place inside of me as much as it is a field in the New Zealand countryside. I love that green-stained place, which sounds like leaves rushing, which smells like grass and cows a field over, which is dotted with graves far older than his – a field of green where Dad is resting.

Green palace

The gate is the only break in the wall of trees. It’s a creaky old thing, but serviceable. There is an old-fashioned hook latch that must be worked out of a rusty cradle.

I remember this kind of latch from our farm. I could never open them when I was small; I was always left with chafed hands and a red face. I learnt to clamber over instead. This was never a problem unless it was the deer gate, which stood at two metres tall. Mum found me sitting on top of it once, paralysed with fear.

Past the small gate that allows entrance to the green palace, and brushing flecks of rust from my hands, I enter a fairy space. The air is different, the trees soar higher, the green of the leaves stains the sky and seems to bleed into the blue, a green frame for the heavens. There is a stillness to the air and a stillness within me. The world goes silent between these trees, or perhaps the silence of the world can be heard.

Ancient stones rest in grass that always seems filled with dew, whispering secrets to my feet. As a child I would climb across the cracking stones, trace the deep fissures and leap from one slab of rock to the next, avoiding imaginary foes. If we arrived in the morning and it had been very cold, I would trace a pattern of footprints in the carpet of frost, the shapes left by my feet like imprints in concrete. I liked the tingle of the grass gently cracking against my skin.

The road that leads to this place is gravel, the kind that paints a car grey in twenty seconds. There is no marker that says, ‘stop here’ or, ‘you’ve found what you are looking for’. You must know where to go, know what the gate on the road looks like and the pattern of the trees in the distance. There are sheep and lumbering cows in the paddock before the tree-lined cathedral and they scatter at the sight of strangers – unless they are steer, then they run towards you, enormous with enthusiasm.

His grave has rested there for over twenty years. It seems a long time, a lifetime. The first time I returned as an adult, the garden my mother planted when he was buried had taken over the plot, but I was ready with gloves and secateurs. The little wooden cross bearing his name had rotted and fallen apart and I wedged it back together. It will be gone now.

The great stone marking his grave, a found object shaped like a heart, has my mother’s handwriting carved into its face. It is my father’s heartstone. I trace the deep loops of text with my finger to clean away the dirt and twigs that have gathered there. I feel the words tracing into me.

The stone is probably a metre long and its edges are softened with age, like a piece of cloth has been draped over sharp corners. It is a lone heart, lopsided and gently melting; it is my mother’s heart and mine, my brother’s and my sister’s, heavy in our chests, pulsing dust through our veins.

A family friend had found the stone and brought it to our house. I watched with blank intensity as Mum used the old white boot brush and leant over the mossed stone, scrubbing and scrubbing. In the end the stone was clean, but the dirt never washed out of the brush.Four-year-old Sian at her father's grave.

I unveiled this stone at his memorial. My blanky (a precious thing, cuddled every night) covered it until I was told I could pull it from the stone and show all the people who had gathered. The memorial was a year after he died. I didn’t know what to do once I removed my blanket. I just stood there, the blanket against my face.

In my mind, this memorial and the funeral are not separate events. As if the year that separated them never happened. We only stayed on the farm another year after that. Looking back, I am awed by how long my Mum stayed there on her own.

I live oceans away now, thousands of miles. And he is there, in the green cathedral, beneath the stained sky. He is lying in the earth, listening to the whispering of the grass and the trees. He is waiting in the green palace.

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