He was a small man
at first, with shoulders that fell;
his hands were of
a coldness she had felt before
on a bivouac’s inner wall. They had
camped at the edge of the bush
on their way to the Sounds.
visited their mesh window:
awake, she surveyed the sheer slope
of his face, how his cheekbones
rose like footholds
on the stave
of his skull. The unknown kisses
of his climber’s feet, browsing her shins
like eels in the river.
When sleep got inside him
at last she could press
the cavity in her chest
to the heavy lids of his shoulder blades
which, with tact, could be pried gently loose
so to venture into the warmer
interior, her tiny pen-light darting
through the blacknesses
she met along the way
that draped their arms on her arms,
and tried to turn her back. Wetas
on the ceiling! A single rock
falling: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand
she heard it knock the water. There were no glow-worms
here. Far away or close by,
the stitching and unpicking
on the river. Voices,
young laughter, students touring
together. She travailed the roof
with her single file of light, found only bodies
of black rock, stretching, craning lips
into one another’s necks.
The rocks bit at the soles
of her feet. She missed the moon,
imagined it rolling
back in the sky’s head,
appearing again through a cloud
and following, bony old thing
and pale, still travelling.
‘If you ever got lost, just follow the river.’
She had always been told this
but whether it was because the river flowed
to another, safer, cave
or because a boat might cruise alongside
to take her home; she didn’t know—
were there boys inside, who each had
his closed face and
his closing eyes?
Sometimes her feet bled,
but he said nothing
and in the morning
she felt the push and pull of the water still
as if she had been swimming.
Then the slick curve of his eyes turned,
warmed to her like she was a stone
in his hand.
Ashleigh Young grew grew up in Te Kuiti, a small town in the King Country. She left to study English literature at Victoria University of Wellington, and recently completed an Honours degree. She has participated in several creative writing workshops at the International Institute of Modern Letters, and has had poems published in the literary journal Sport.
Young comments: ‘When I was ten my class went on a trip to the Waitomo Caves, a set of underground caves below the farmland, not far from the town where I lived. For the many tourists who visit Waitomo each year, the main attractions are of course the caves (through which you can walk, or go floating on a tyre through an underground river, or be taken out on a boat), glow-worms (tiny beetles that glow in the dark), giant wetas, waterfalls, and dense native bush. There are signs around Waitomo village that say “Adventures, naturally!” My class was taken on a walk through the caves by a tour guide. One of the tracks inside the cave was set against a very high ridge on a wall, and at one point as we edged along the ridge, our guide — gleefully, I thought — switched off the lamps so we would be able to see the hundreds of glow-worms on the walls and roof of the cave.
‘Apart from the tiny flecks of light given out by the beetles, the darkness was absolute. The air was the inverse of air, heavy and cold, a dead weight. It was impossible to measure distance, or recognise who was standing on either side of you, or know where your next step would end up — you could barely know whether your eyes were closed or open. My classmates made hooting noises or screamed or laughed but gradually became quiet. I was safe, but one part of me did not know this, and I was relieved to get above ground. I wanted to be like the guide, who knew how to navigate around the complicated darkness — once you knew the geography of a place like the cave, it seemed to me, you’d never get lost anywhere. I wrote “Visitations” remembering this sense of disorientation.’