16 Mar The Ember Smell of Winter
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"The Ember Smell of Winter"Written by Oliver Dace
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Emilie, Stan and I enjoyed our grandmother’s tales.
During school breaks, Mom and Dad drove the three of us to her home in Plimmerton. It was a small coastal village, an hour’s drive north of Wellington. Everything about the place was tiny. It was simple. There were three cafes. There was a floral shop and a small dairy shop that served fish and chips on warm Saturdays.
On each journey to our grandmother’s home, the three of us glued our faces against the car windows. We watched as the tall dark looming shapes of the sawmills were replaced with empty flatlands. The rush of salt to our nostrils replaced the sawdust that rained constantly over our heads. The green sky followed us, though. Whether it was in Wellington or Plimmerton, the sky was there to remind us. It wanted to tell us the truth that each and every one of us will turn to wood when we die.
That was fine.
The stories that our grandmother enjoyed telling us pictured a time before the curse of a wooden death struck every inhabitant of New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. She told tales of strong winds that battered the city. We craned our little heads at each painting that decorated her walls. She had even shown a photo of herself as a young girl walking with two legs. By her storytelling days, however, our grandmother couldn’t even move of her chair.
It was depressing.
Who wanted to see their family member degrade into an immobile husk? Her condition was worse every visit. Grandmother’s lower waist had been transformed into a thick bark. Her arms hung heavy on her sides. Her legs seemed to merge, even fuse, with the wooden floor of her home. Even her voice had started to sound croaky, like two boards rubbing together.
Her condition grew worse each visit. Every time Mom and Dad told us that we were heading home, I wished, I hoped, and I prayed that we would get another chance to see our beloved grandmother. Emilie, Stan and I wanted to see more pictures. We wanted to listen to more tales of a Wellington long past.
For Emilie, she wanted to hear about the lifestyle. My brother, Stan, was fascinated with the landscape. I, for one, was curious about the museum, Te Papa.
“The Te Papa Museum was a wonderland,” my grandmother described.
She said that every day, different people from around the country and the world filled the museum to the brink. It was impossible to walk inside without bumping into five or a dozen people. Some days, she said, it was best to stand still and let the crowd guide you to your destination.
The reason was simple; there was a lot to take in. Once a person stepped inside the museum, they were bound to be lost. Whether it was the natural exhibition on the second floor, New Zealand history on the third floor, or the Maori culture on the fourth floor, one simply could not walk around without stopping. My grandmother said that she could feel her pupils racing back-and-forth inside her eyes. Each pupil wanted to take in as much information that the museum provided. It was a giant building filled with laughter, joy, awe and a great sense of local pride.
I wished so badly to see what my grandmother had seen.
The Te Papa that existed today was no more than an extravagant mausoleum. Its corners were sharp. Decapitated wooden heads of the museum curators looked down from the building’s large wooden doors. The creamy brown paint that had once decorated the façade had been replaced with the wooden bodies of people. Each one was strung up against the others like dolls.
It was disgusting. It was a mockery of the beauty that had once been.
Before my grandmother died, she had told us that she had forbidden herself from visiting the city. There was no point ever going back since the curse of the wooden death appeared. It would have simply made her depressed. Wellington was a husk of its former self. The current city was nowhere near like the beautiful wind-swept paradise of grandmother’s stories.
She had wished that one day, the three of us would be alive to see Wellington in its glory days. Yet, even back then, I knew that the chances were already stacked against us. The side of my neck had already started to harden. The skin of my brother’s back felt thick like bark.
As for Emilie, my youngest sister, I still cannot believe that she passed away.
I remember the last I saw her; it was on a cold Autumn night in May, a few days before her death.
Emilie and I went for drinks in the old Harbour and Sea bar in Lambton Quay. It was a celebration. Emilie had gotten a position as a receptionist for one of the largest sawmills in Wellington, a two-hundred-meter-tall behemoth at the center of the city. The pay was very good. Her hours were reasonable. She even got the option to take three weeks’ worth of paid leave per year.
I wasn’t sure how Emilie had managed to get the job. She had only completed a bachelor’s degree in accounting and had a few temporary jobs at various call centers. Had she impressed a top dog from the sawmills? Had one of her friends given a good word to someone in the company? Or was it all just plain luck?
Whatever the case, Emilie would be paid nearly as much as my position as a secretary for the City Council. She should have been proud and excited. The Emilie I knew could have yelled out to every person in the bar that she had secured a big gig. I was surprised – almost worried – to watch her lean down against the bar table. A half-empty cup spun in her hands.
“I never really enjoyed the thought of arranging people’s wooden remains to be sent to the sawmills.” She confessed.
I jugged a glass. I hiccupped. “You can always give the position to me. I’d do anything to avoid crossing paths with that pig of a councilor, Jonathon Wales.”
“And let you have my pay.” She slammed her palm on my back. “Yeah… nah, sis, I’m keeping it thank you very much. Just because I hate the kind of work I must do doesn’t mean I hate the pay. Plus, I heard that my table was crafted from the body of an All Black.”
“My option still stands. Working for the City Council will be great.” I hiccupped again. The bartender with a wooden jaw passed me two glasses of water.
Emilie raised her cup. The bartended answered with another pour. “It is transitional anyway. Once, I save enough money, I’ll buy a huge property near Plimmerton, and set up a business where instead of chopping people up, we can make them a…I don’t know…human trees?”
“You’re just trying to live like grandma, eh? That’s so cute,” I said, drinking my glass. “Her house is still standing if you want it.”
“Yeah but no,” Emilie said with a smile as I caught a few guys staring idling at both of us from the far corner.
“You were always her favorite,” I said, patting her shoulder. It had been twenty years since grandma passed away. Emilie was only six when Mom and Dad brought the three of us to the nearest sawmill to watch our dear grandma be sawed and hacked to pieces.
“I guessed I get why grandmother exiled herself,” she said, gulping her glass in one go. “It is too depressing. I don’t want to spend time in this city here any longer. I don’t want to see mangled corpses in the middle of the streets. I don’t want to watch them hauled onto the back of trucks or chopped up as firewood.”
“You can always…err… try being a model,” I said as I hiccupped. “You know…to cheer people up.”
Emilie tilted her head.
“I was being serious there.” I insisted. “You can start by not being so gloomy all of the time, Emilie. Come on, cheer up! You’ll start a new job next year. You’ll be rich in an instant. We can plan the celebration party now, if you want. Let’s leave all these problems for the future, Emi. We have enough trouble as it is without thinking that we’re going to end up as furniture. Plus, you still haven’t had any physical trace of bark in you yet.”
“So, you’re saying that actually should become a model.” She pushed her hair behind her ear. “Am I really that…well…sexy?”
The same guys from the corner glanced down at her soft, fleshy long legs. Emilie giggled, raising a glass up her head. “I hadn’t realized that I was drop-dead attractive. Everyone! I apologize for looking so sexy. Maybe it was my looks that gave me a position as a receptionist for a major sawmill!”
“Emilie…” I groaned.
She sat. Head lowered, and cheeks puffed in pink. “Sorry, sorry, sis. Ego got the better of me. If it makes you happy, you’re still my favorite sibling. You’re not a dickhead like Stan. God, I hate our brother’s guts. He thinks he is so great and mighty. I almost wanted to feel sorry when I heard that his back is turning to wood… almost.”
“It’s everyone’s burden.” I called the bartender for another round.
“Seriously, just for once, I just want to know who or what did Wellington fuck up so badly that it left us with this stupid curse,” she muttered and let a lock of her blonde hair to fall over her face.
“Grandmother said that the God of the wind was defeated by the God of the forest. That’s why everyone is turning to trees,” I replied. “That’s why everyone is turning into trees.”
“I wish it was that simple,” Emilie said. “How do you kill off the god of the forest anyway? Wellington was better off when it was scorched with hundred-kilometer winds. Like in the old days, you know…”
I sipped my glass, nodding.
“You’re really not taking me seriously, eh, Natalie?” Emilie elbowed my shoulder. “Anyway, after one more drink, I’ll call it a night. You were right, we have enough shit to worry about. I’ll do my best with my new job and work my way to get a property near Plimmerton. I still have a few forms left to fill out tonight though. Fuck, I hate doing this at the last minute.”
“Don’t forget to sleep early,” I said pointedly.
“Of course, of course,” she said, and craned her neck back. “I heard enough of that scolding from you and Stan to last me a lifetime. I’m not going to sleep at 3 am like I use to. 11 pm is my latest, that’s a promise.”
I later found out that Emilie indeed tried to keep her promise.
It was an overdose.
That was what my brother, Stan, had told me over the phone. I felt my stomach lurch. My throat smelt like vomit when I learned that Emilie had been found dead. A bottle of sleeping pills lay beside her bed. It was no surprise how she did it. At age, twenty-six, Emilie Riche would have been another young victim. The local obituary would have labeled her as part of a growing number of people who wanted to escape the fate of watching their own bodies transform into a bark.
Yet, she hadn’t.
That was the worst part. When Stan relayed the information that our youngest sibling had died with no trace of wood in her body, I heard distinct cheering on the other end of the line. It sounded like twenty or thirty people laughing in the background. My brother told me that I should be happy that Emilie had died this way. Normally, it would have taken no more than three hours before the corpse would resemble a mannequin. Even the morgue staff kept a twenty-four-hour watch for any sign, any trace of bark inside or outside her skin.
There was none.
Emilie had done it. She had beaten the impossible.
At this point, I suppose I should say that I should have celebrated. My brother reminded me that Emilie wouldn’t have to face the towering sawmills that dwarfed every building in the city. The thought of my youngest sister being chopped into pieces and turned into furniture was whisked away. There was no longer any need to worry about that.
Emilie will be safe. She will be preserved. She will be the new “chosen one” who will be displayed among the decaying corpses within Te Papa. All my relatives cheered out at the news that one of our own had beaten the wooden curse.
The City Council was quite quick to proclaim the good news to the people. Not only had they given us one-hundred-thousand dollars as a gesture of gratitude, but they set up a new exhibition at Te Papa…. all as a token to Emilie’s death.
In the beginning, Tawhiri, the Maori God of the Winds waged war against his brothers.
He attacked Tane, the God of the Forest, and forced the God of the Sea to wage war against the former. The Gods of Food took refuge and hid from Tawhiri’s onslaught. It was only the God of War, Tumatauenga, that took a stand and forced the god of winds to withdraw.
Ever since that day, my grandmother had said that Wellington was Tawhiri’s home. It was obvious. Wellington had been considered as the windiest city in the whole country. The strong 100-kilometer gale force that could batter numerous towns in New Zealand was an everyday occurrence that everyone had gotten used to. A day within Wellington wouldn’t be complete without watching an army of thick giant clouds spiraling around the city like a whirlpool!
Those were Tawhiri’s children. The winds and the clouds were the god’s army against his brothers. Tawhiri commanded them to storm the seas. He ordered his children to uproot trees and scatter the crops off the ground.
Whether the God of the Wind was defeated by an alliance of his brothers, or not was uncertain. It was only obvious that their presence was now gone. Wellington was no longer the windiest city of the country. It was dry. It was still, like some forgotten ruin left to decay on its own. The great fleets to clouds that had once proudly sailed the city had been replaced by an inky dark green sky. The showers of sawdust that poured out from the sawmills took over from the winds.
The only trace that Tawhiri and his children were ever here being faint fleeting clouds in the shape of a silent scream. There were quiet breezes. A gust came and went. Pitter patter of rain held on for a morning. Yet, none of them shook off the dry humid weather that had devoured the city.
There was no god to welcome me to the first day of Emilie’s exhibition, only Stan.
“Kia Ora, Natalie, I’m glad to see that the curse hasn’t taken you yet!” My brother greeted me at the museum’s entrance. His brown hair, which he had once tried to grow, was shortened. He combed it back revealing a wooden crack on his forehead. He had grown bulkier since the last time I had seen him, almost stiff.
Maybe it was the large brown jacket that he wore. It was May, after all, and winter was just around the corner. I could already sense, almost smell, the roasted wooden bodies who were chosen to be firewood for Wellington.
“It’s good to see you again, Stan.” I hugged him, feeling the hardness of the wood that consumed his back. “How are you keeping up? How’s the family?”
“They are doing great. The kids are being babysat now. I don’t think they have realized that their auntie Emilie has died. They heard about her becoming the city’s newest darling, but they still don’t get that people need to die to achieve that honor. I brought my wife though. She’s upstairs with the rest of the family. Mom and Dad must be gushing her about their grandkids.”
“And you?” I asked. “How is your condition going?”
“You sound like I’m going to die, Nat. This is your brother you’re talking to! It’s all sorted out. My local carpenter told me that even though I my back has been taken over, I won’t have to worry for a decade or two until the curse takes me! My wife got the gall to schedule me an appointment with a cabinet maker. I swear that I married the most awesome woman in the city.” He paused, placing a hand on my shoulder. I felt the tip of a finger rubbing the thick bark at the side of my neck. “I realized that it’s hard for you to be here, Nats.”
“I don’t think I am ready to see Emilie’s dead body, and the last thing I wanted is to join some sick party. I am only here because the rest of the family is here. You know me, Stan. I can’t stand being the oddball.”
“I’m not surprised. You’re the most motherly type between the three of us. But that’s fine. That’s fine. Emilie’s the spoiled little princess while I’m the more…well…let’s just say –”
“Extravagant? Show-off?” I cut him off. “Seriously, Stan! Did you really put on a show when you called me that day? I can’t believe you! I know that you and Emilie didn’t get along well but that…really?”
“My colleagues decided to come over after work for a few beers,” he said and shrugged.
“Right…right….and they started shouting, ‘Emilie will decay’ because….”
“Because that’s what people do when they hear that someone has beaten the curse.” He placed an arm around my shoulder and led me inside the entrance hall of the museum.
The place was empty except for a headless wooden body at the center. It pointed its arm towards a stack of stairs in front of us. The figure’s stump was bathed by the warm blue lights of the ceiling. The low hum of the air conditioner drowned the buzzing sound of the sawmills from outside. I could even see a faint flicker of a fire off the Wellington harbor, and the shadows of trucks near the docks. Soon, the Lambton Parade will be on its way. Soon, the corpses of those deemed unworthy or useless by the sawmills will be spread across the city. I can also imagine, almost hear an army of Wellingtonians marching towards the streets with axes and machetes. All ready to be hacked by their former city folk as firewood.
For now, it was too quiet. It felt as if I had stepped inside an empty church dedicated to the holy decaying bodies of Wellington City. Each wall dedicated to a painting or a photograph of Wellington in its glory days. I wondered if the people in these pictures knew what the future of their city would be like. Their smiling faces and quiet laughs were different from the sighs and grindings that I saw every day. Were there any signs of Tawhiri’s defeat back then?
Grandmother told us that the city was unaware of any warning that would bring its downhill. Maybe there was none. Maybe everything that is happening now was beyond our limit. The Maori gods have done this to us, maybe they would fix it, my grandmother used to say, we can only hope.
“Where is the rest of the family?” I asked as I scratched the wooden bark of my neck.
“They are on the fourth floor. That’s where the exhibition will take place. Mom and Dad got a bit worried that you weren’t here yet and asked me to fetch you knowing you’ll be conflicted over Emilie. You won’t believe how many people turned up for this day! I don’t even know most of them or how they are related to us.”
“I only wish grandma was here to see this,” I whispered.
“Do you think she’d be proud?” Stan asked as we climbed the wooden stairs, passing over a series of old photos of the Te Papa Museum in its glory days. “She would still be rooted in her old home at Plimmerton. She had said that she was in self-exile.”
“I like to think that grandma would make an exception,” I said. “Emilie was always her favorite. She used to give her the first taste of cookies since she was the only one small enough to sit on her lap.”
“I remember how you and I used to fight for that position!”
“We even made numerous alliances to get Emilie off grandma’s special list,” I smirked, catching glimpses of dark silhouettes of the sawmills from a window.
“I bet she wasn’t planning to die that night,” Stan said as he chipped off a piece of bark from his head. “Emilie was a klutz. I bet she must have taken one pill too many.”
“I told her to stop that,” I said.
“You can’t really blame all of it on yourself, Nat. It’s Emilie’s fault for drinking all those energy drinks non-stop during university. We kept warning her that it would affect her sleeping pattern, but that girl was too stubborn and pretentious to listen. Just because she was pretty doesn’t mean she had common sense. You remember how she caught me taking away her valuable caffeine drinks?”
I forced a smile. “Emile ranted a whole night saying how you were the worst brother ever.”
“She even avoided me for a whole month,” he chuckled. “I ruined that by popping by at her place one night. Oh, that girl wasn’t keen to see me.”
“And now Emilie is dead,” I clenched my fist. “Stan…I…I was with her a few days before she passed away. If I had known something was wrong or if she told me about her sleeping problems, I could have….”
“There was nothing we could do.”
“We could!” I said. “I was there!”
“Natalie….” My brother gripped my arm. “Please. Enough. You’re not the only one who is grieving. I may not look like it, but I miss Emilie as well. We used to hate each other’s guts, I swear our brother-sister rivalry was a bloody comedy sketch but now that she’s gone, I’m not even sure what to do.”
He continued, eyes narrowed. “Did you want to see her being turned into timber, Natalie? I can still remember how men in white uniforms took our grandmother’s wooden body and turned her into a piece of chair. I still have nightmares thinking about how her body was hacked by a buzz saw. Seriously, Nat, who would want a grave like that? No one! Be happy, Nat, please. It’s too late for us already. We will face those damn sawmills one day, but Emilie…she will be here as long as time passes! She will be a model; a light for everyone who faces the chainsaws.”
I smiled a little. It was ironic, almost a sick parody that my advice to Emilie in becoming a model rather than a receptionist came true. Her beautiful young body would be displayed for all people to see. I imagined the public gawking with wide eyes as they approached her. It was no surprise. Those who had achieved the state of natural death were people either in their seventies or late eighties.
It was rare, almost unheard of, for someone so young to defeat the curse of a wooden death. The youngest person before Emilie was a forty-year-old man who was found drowned off the coast of Red Rocks. Since then, it had been elderlies. It was clear that the city folk were baffled.
Prior to the exhibition, the City Council declared that Emilie’s body was a Rank One relic. Rather than have her body slowly decay, like most of the inhabitants of the museum, she would be perfectly preserved. She will be a still frame. Generations into the future, people will ask the museum staff who she was. How had she done it? What did she eat? What was her secret?
I’ll be pissed if the local news reports a huge sale in sleeping pills. If that happens, I’m going to whoever made the report and telling them that just because my sister had defeated the curse, doesn’t mean that people know everything about her. It’s already bad enough that our youngest sister will permanently reside within the wooden walls of this museum!
* * * * * *
When I was a young girl, I played a game called, “headhunting.”
The rules were simple. For every visit to the museum, my classmates and I aimed to count as many heads that we could find. It was an easy game since there were countless faces that jutted off from each stack of timber.
We gave one point for the heads with blank expressions. Two points went for the faces who were sad or afraid, and, finally, a total of three points for those with a smile, a frozen semblance of laughter etched in their wooden faces. It was a fun game. Most children and some of my teachers were happy to sacrifice an hour for a few rounds of Head Hunting. My biggest record was a two-hundred and six.
I was slightly tempted to try and beat the number as Stan and I made our way upwards. The faces that I had counted when I was fourteen were mostly gone. That was the beauty of the headhunting. Every year, a hundred or two of these wooden boards were replaced. It was always fun darting around the tall steep walls of the museum to find new faces that hadn’t been there before. The constant smell of decay and the sight of peeling flesh from old bodies that suffocated the second and third floors was nowhere near the thrill of finding a new face.
I wished I had that same excitement when Stan and I reached the museum’s fourth floor.
Boarded shut by thick wooden panels, the top floor of the museum was the beating heart of Te Papa. It was the holiest of holy places for Wellington City, a site where a selected few were granted the right to be a still image forever. Though it wasn’t exactly closed to the public, a normal person must pay a hefty three-hundred-dollar ticket, and even that was limited for only three hours.
I had been there once as part of my work with the City Council. It was a short visit. I think it was only half-an-hour at most but even then, I could still picture myself basking under a soft white-and-yellow glow from the ceiling. The floor was white. A scent of sweet incense lifted me off my feet.
“Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa! Greeting to the proud families of Wellington’s newest treasure! Tena rawa ata koe!” The pot-bellied figure of Councillor Jonathon Wales stood on top of a makeshift stage. A giant statue of Tawhiri, the God of the Wind, stood silently behind him.
The councilor welcomed an army of wooden bodies below him. It was a mangled contortion of wood and flesh that ruined the serenity of the fourth floor. Branches sprouted from necks. Whole legs were entombed by soft carpets of algae. The army cheered. They shouted my sister’s name over and over, raising their arms and craning their heads back.
I rubbed the hardened part of my neck. Nails tried to claw the bark from my flesh. I felt sick. The thought that I would join this army was…unimaginable. I wanted to get out of the building at that very moment! I didn’t want to see the perverted sight in front of me. I didn’t want to listen to wood cracking and turning. My grandmother was right. Emilie was right. There was no point staying in a city that was a shadow of itself.
I didn’t want to see my boss running his bony fingers over a large curtain-covered glass case beside him. He caressed it. He lifted the bottom part a few centimeters up before letting go. Each moment, he described the beauty of Emilie Riche. He told everyone that she was a prize worth dying for, how her flesh was serene, soft.
“You want to touch her hair! To rub her lips! You wish to whisper to her ear that she is beautiful! Waiwaia!” the councilor shouted. His bloated belly hugged the case as the crowd cheer! “This is our city’s newest treasure! Our puipuiaki! Emilie Riche!! Tena rawa atu koe! Thank you very much!”
He paused. His beady eyes scanned the room before he rubbed his head. He lowered his voice. “And…no, no, no…I almost forgot…heahea…we cannot celebrate the rerehua, the beauty of our beloved daughter without thanking the parents, the whanau, that gave her to us. Nau Mai Haere mai.”
Stan grabbed my arm at this point as Mom and Dad walked up to the stage. Their bodies were woody and stiff; their heads were the only part themselves untouched by the curse. Yet, they smiled. Their faces were covered with tears knowing their wish, their hope that one of us would defeat the curse had come true.
“Let’s go, Natalie,” Stan said, walking forward. His breath was ragged. His eyes were glued to the glass-case upon the stage.
Stan became a man possessed. I could tell that he badly see what was behind the curtain. He didn’t mind if he walked straight through the army, bumping, crashing, and bruising both of us against the hard surface of our wooden family.
I wanted to tell him to stop. I wanted to beg him to slow down. He was hurting me! There was no need to rush! There was time! The City Council had informed us that Emilie’s immediate family would have unlimited free access to the fourth floor as gratitude.
I wanted to protest but all I could muster were gasps. The back of my neck became flustered, almost hot. In the back of my mind, a little voice told me to celebrate. It told me that I could once again see my dear sister, that the three of us will be united. And as Stan and I reached the front, wooden hands pushed us forward.
I fell on my knees only to look up at the beautiful, nude corpse of my youngest sister. I opened my mouth. A uniform gasp of all my relatives conquered whatever words I mustered.
She is beautiful, declared the voice in my head.
“Emilie Riche is beautiful,” I repeated, my face now fully infected by the wide, toothy, smile of everyone around. “Tena rawa atu koe!”
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