• The Listener
  • North & South
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  • RNZ

The Pukeko

For Fraser and Daniel.

The day Mummy went to the hospice, there was a pukeko in our silver birch tree. We saw it when we came downstairs for breakfast - it was perched just outside the kitchen window, its weight making the bare branches bend. Daddy didn't think pukekos lived so far south, and we thought for a moment that it might be some other sort of bird; some southern creature built to withstand the cold. The grey morning light was behind the birch tree so that at first the pukeko was little more than a silhouette, like one of the shadow puppets we'd seen at school that week. Slowly, though, we made out the arched red beak, the stripe of colour reaching up and over the bird's head. It had long red legs, too, so thin that we wondered how they could support the body. We didn't know how it came to be in our neighbourhood, our garden, our tree. We didn't think pukekos could fly, and the tree was high, higher than the fence, almost reaching to the roof of our house. Daddy opened the kitchen window and the cold came inside. The bird shifted its weight in the bowing branches, its long toes gripping like fingers, holding on. None of us spoke and we kept very still. We could see our neighbours at the back looking out their kitchen window, too, pointing at the tree, waving at us. We lifted our hands and slowly waved back.

I don't know how long we watched. Sometimes a few minutes can seem like hours, and a day like a lifetime. We knew the pukeko was going to leave us when it started turning this way and that, and looking up above the branches and beyond our little garden. This was too soon - it wasn't fair that it should go so soon. But it stretched its neck and leapt from the branch, and it did not fall to the ground, where the dead leaves swirled about the trunk. It cleared the fence and flew east, towards the rising white sun, its long legs trailing like ribbons.

I knew I could not have made it stay, no matter how hard I wished. This little time, when we stood in the kitchen in pyjamas still warm from our beds, our dreams falling from us like dust - this was what we could keep.