What We Do With Words

I don’t know where to start.

In September, I wrote this post about the quake that occurred then, so devastating, but not deadly.

That was heart-wrenching; this is so much worse.

When I saw the photograph of the Cathedral spire as rubble in the square I realised, relieved, that none of this was real. I have vivid dreams, sometimes of terrible things. This wasn’t happening, because the spire would never fall.

I don’t get to wake up from this.

I can’t watch the news any more. I can’t even turn on the TV. Too many journalists intoning solemnly about the utter devastation, chasing rescue workers for reports, making graceless statements by blanketed bodies. I reload the Stuff.co.nz latest quake info page instead. Text is easier. Words have more grace.

My housemates ask if I’ve heard from all my friends; my Melbourne friends text me to make sure I’m okay; my international friends send email and IMs and all their love.

I wrote; I wrote a lot. I sent books I’d packaged up to donate to Queensland, to the sodden libraries there. I kept a package back. I think Christchurch will need books too.

I went to the cafe to buy a brownie, and the TV there announced that 65 were confirmed dead, with the toll expected to rise. I went to the osteopath and he talked about how his wife’s aunt is coming over from Christchurch with her husband and their whanau, how all they wanted to do was get out of the city.

The broken, broken city.

I listen to music, I answer email, I work on a proposal. I look at temp listings, I consider freelance applications. I check twitter and facebook and in my mental list, I put check marks beside my friends’ names and cross marks beside their houses.

The spire came down, and there were people inside it. The spire came down, and there were people underneath.

Christchurch is the city of my heart, and the heart of the city is gone.

I don’t know where to finish either.

Nice, no, awesome, yes.

I am a very pale person, and I live in Australia.

Granted, I don’t live in one of the places in Australia where people actually live underground because the surface is so ridiculously hot, but in summer I layer sunscreen over my moisturiser-with-sunscreen-in-it, and try to avoid going outside between 11 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. Because if I don’t, I very swiftly look like crispy bacon.

Crispy bacon skin hurts, y’all. Also, I have plans for my life that melanoma might delay or halt.

The other day, my delightful friend Mary had a delightful birthday party picnic, and I attended, suitably sunscreened up. But we were outside for some time, and sunscreen sweats off, and despite my best efforts, my arms still got crispy fried.

This picture represents my last, desperate move, which was to steal Mary’s parasol and twirl it becomingly.

[Image transcript below]

The friend who took the picture sent it to me, and then, operating on the principle that if I were in pain, others should suffer also, I may or may not have emailed it to some North American friends currently trudging through Snowmageddon 2011.

BFF ROBYN: You’re such a nice girl.
ME: I know, right?

I am fondly reminded of the time I sent another friend an email that contained only the chorus of Willow Smith’s greatest hit. That time was ten seconds ago.

GOOD MORNING, [personal profile] miggy!

[Image transcript: A white girl with freckles (your humble author) wearing a black top, black and white skirt and white sunglasses sits barefoot and cross legged on a picnic rug, the world’s most adorable red parasol with ruffles poised on her shoulder, under a blue, cloud-spotted sky.]

THE SHATTERING cookie: Meet Keri!

Internets, the results of the latest cookie poll seem to indicate that you would like a Keri-PoV cookie next. Which is good! Because I was totally going to go with Keri anyway.

This is some of the first chapter, so unless you are really worried about spoilers, it should be safe enough.

An extract from The Shattering, coming July 2011 (Australia/New Zealand) and September 2011 (North America)

The first time I broke my arm, I was ready for it.

I was seven years old, and Janna van der Zaag and I were playing in her backyard. Janna’s backyard was a fantastic place for kids — a big dollhouse and a lot of bush out back for playing hide-and-seek in and a brand-new zipline her dad had made, sloping from a tall platform built into the sturdiest tree down to the brace attached to the next sturdiest.

Janna had been using the zipline for days, and she flew down with style, blonde hair like a banner, the T-bar gripped tightly in her hands. I climbed the ladder and clung there for a minute as she ran the T-bar back up to me on its long rope. The zipline hadn’t seemed so high up from the ground.

What if I fell off and broke my arm? I thought. And I mean I really thought. I pictured it in my mind, working out the way it could happen and what I should do if it did. I decided that a bone would go crunch or crack, and I would sit up and cradle my arm and yell, “Janna, get your mum!” and then go to the doctor in the family’s big blue van that fit all the van der Zaag kids for Sunday Mass.

Then I opened my eyes, grabbed the T-bar, and took off flying all the way down the wire, screaming laughter at the rush of flight. My landing was perfect, and I ran the T-bar back up to Janna for her turn, heart jumping with joy and terror.

My body was so free.

On the fourth time down the line, my palms were too sweaty. They slipped, I fell, my left arm went crack, and I yelled, “Janna, get your mum!” before her big blue eyes could even fill with tears.

Everyone praised me for being so brave, but I had still been scared. I had just known what to do if the worst happened.

After that, it just seemed a good idea to be prepared. I hung a go-bag on my door in case of a fire or an earthquake and put a mini first-aid kit in my backpack, and I rehearsed possible disasters in my head, over and over, until I was sure I knew how to react.

I knew it sounded a little bit crazy, and I stopped telling anyone about it when Hemi Koroheke called me creepy and, with smug emphasis, neurotic, which was our Year Eight Word of the Day.

But I did it anyway. I had plans for what eulogy to give if both my parents were hit by a car, how to escape or attract help if I were kidnapped, and how to survive if I were lost in the bush. It wasn’t as if I thought all these things were likely to happen. But I knew they could, and if they did, I wanted to be prepared.

In the end, it didn’t do me any good. Because I didn’t have a plan for what to do if my older brother put Dad’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toes.

My mistake.


Once we went back to Summerton, I didn’t go to school for the last bit of the year — there was no point with the Christmas holidays coming so soon, and I got compassionate consideration on all my final assessments anyway. Mum cleaned the house as if she would die if she didn’t, and Dad had to go back to work. I walked a lot, trying to avoid people who would say useless, comforting things, like “Well, I’m sure he’s in a better place.”

I couldn’t believe any of that crap. The room he’d died in had been blessed and a farewell karakia chanted, but Jake wasn’t going to take the long trip to Cape Reinga to find the home of Dad’s ancestors. He wasn’t in heaven with some white-bearded God. He wasn’t hanging around, keeping an eye on me. And he sure couldn’t do all three, which was what Nanny Hinekura seemed to believe. Those were just stories, things people made up to make the world nicer. How did they know? Where was the proof?

No, Jake was dead. He wasn’t in a better place. Everything left of him was in the ground, where it would rot.

Two weeks after the burial, Janna van der Zaag walked up to me and said, “If you want to find out who murdered your brother, follow me.”

So I did.