When I was younger I did something bad. I think about it now and my stomach still swoops, clenched with guilt and embarrassment. I remember the rasp of the pencil against the rock, the satisfying shock of a dark line against the shell white of the virgin stone.
Then I remember the way it wouldn’t come off, not with a rubber, not with water, not with sandpaper, not with anything. I remember Mum so angry with me, her eyes like ice, glinting with cold fury, hot tears. Grandma crying, turning the stone over in her lined old hands, the papery skin of her thumb caressing the smooth curves, remembering their magnificence, before they were adorned with a clumsy smiling sun and lumbering low hills and flowers scrawled beneath.
Mum said that Pa gave Grandma that stone, and immediately in my eight-year-old mind I knew I had ruined everything. I had drawn my stupid, fleeting eight-year-old whims all over a poignant token of love that could never be replaced. In my mind there were no stones like that big smooth white one anywhere in the world. There was only this one, this one that Pa gave her before he died, and now could never give to Grandma again. Grandma and Mum both cried.
I hid. I was embarrassed and sick with guilt, I felt stupid beyond belief.
Fourteen years later I was driving with my friends along a stretch of highway on the West Coast, the windswept sea out to our right. The day was cold and grey, and dark pillows of clouds gathered over the far horizon.
Hokitika and its food were already far behind us, but our braided headbands still trailed from our foreheads, tiedyed skirts muddy around our ankles. The van was filled with the sound of Phil Collins, a blast from the past that we were all reliving ever since that Cadbury ad. As we rounded a corner the van began to slow, and we all craned our necks to see, as small formations by the roadside came into view.
The sandflies filled the van instantly as the door swung open, but I was frozen, held spellbound against the streaked glass.
They were rock cairns.
Sandwiched between a stretch of dirty highway and the iron grey sea, and flanked by a million sandflies.
Hundreds and hundreds of rock cairns, built from thousands and thousands of big, perfect, smooth, white rocks. I had heard about it and seen the photos, and there they were.
I had never realised they were white. So many.
My eyes were searching, trying to find one the same size, the same shape. That one! No there, that one’s better. There were hundreds, and they were all perfect. But as my voice crept its way back into my throat to speak we were whisked away again, the door swinging closed, trapping the sandflies alone with our muddy legs. The rock cairns were wrenched from my sight then and my attention was stolen by the hundreds of little black specks trying to feast on our exposed skin, but a seed had been planted. One day soon I’ll get back there, to that remote spot on the wild West Coast. And I will choose a stone just like the one Pa gave to Grandma, unadorned with childish stars and moons and hills and flowers scraped into it with lead, and I will give it to Grandma. Maybe she won’t remember, maybe she will. Maybe she’ll laugh, maybe she’ll cry. I know it won’t be the same one that Pa gave her, but maybe it could pretend to be.
And maybe someday, if I’m so lucky, my grandchildren might draw on it as well.