Topic: Survival by Karen Peterson Butterworth

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“Is it time yet?” Gwytha jumps up and down on her bed. We are fully dressed. She's eight and I'm ten.

“Ssh!” I warn. “They'll hear you. Yes, it's time.”

We don our school raincoats, raise the sash window and listen for any signs our parents have heard us. All remains quiet, so we climb out and head across the farm, lighting our way with the torch we keep between our beds to go to the long drop at night.

We scrummage in some bracken. Hidden there are a biscuit tin and two large lemonade bottles that cost us three months' pocket money. I balance the tin on my hip, holding the torch in my other hand, and Gwytha swings a bottle in each hand.

Dad has told us that, if the Japanese invade, we will go far into the bush and camp until the war is over. He's planted vegetables there and built a hut.

This news drove us mad with excitement. We've practised camping in our orchard, but it wasn't nearly wild enough. Then we read a book about three children marooned on an island who survived for months by living off the land and sea. After that we made our own plans.

The clay hillsides of our bush farm are dotted with horizontal mines which the previous owner dug, vainly trying to find coal. We are forbidden to go there in case the props have rotted and the roofs fall in, but of course we do.

It's these mines we're heading for tonight. Most of them drip water, but we've found a dry spot in one. There we've made a fern bed and hidden things we sneaked out from home – a blanket, candles, matches, potatoes, dried fruit, peanuts, flour and salt for damper. We plan to sleep there and survive in the bush behind the farm by day, eating mikimiki, tukituki (kotukutuku) and lawyer berries, cabbage tree hearts, and fern roots after our flour runs out.

We know the South Island Maori lived on these things because they couldn’t grow kumara so far south. We don’t know they had to pound the fern roots for hours to get the fibre out, or that there was so much fibre left even then that their teeth wore down to the gums by their early thirties. This last fact will only be discovered and published about forty years later. Nor do we realise they had skills (and tools) we lack for catching birds and fish.

We do have our ‘shanghais’ made out of sticks and knicker elastic for shooting birds, including big fat slow native pigeons, and I’ve watched our Nana gut, pluck and singe a chook. It looks dead easy. With our pocket knives and some dry wood we’ve hidden in the mine, it will be easy to survive.

 So now we're creeping up the gully, our torch casting weird shadows. We reach our cave, light a candle, sit down and tuck into the lemonade and biscuits. This is great fun. There are noises – moreporks, bitterns, baas and moos. We pretend they're ghosts and work ourselves into a state of spooky excitement.

Soon we hear a loud thrumming noise that we work out is rain falling outside. Never mind. We're warm and dry. We blow out our candle, lie down and pull the blanket and coats over us. But the fern bed is terribly prickly. We should have brought a sheet.

Then we hear small creatures scuttling round and remember water rats live in the creek in the gully. We turn on our torch. Nothing to be seen, but it's now impossible to sleep. Rats are ten times worse than ghosts.

Next, big drips begin to fall on us from the roof. Then, “It's all wet under me,” Gwytha shrieks. And before I can answer, it's all wet beneath me too. A small river is flowing along the mine floor.

We don our raincoats, pick up the torch and slink off home. We raise the window with difficulty, and climb, with muddy shoes and dripping hair, into our bedroom. Next thing Mum and Dad are in the room, and Dad is laughing, Mum holding a towel.

They saw us take things from the kitchen, and put them in our stash in the bracken at the gate, Dad tells us. Then they heard us leave and took bets on how long it would be before the rain that was forecast drove us home. They didn't know we had found shelter, and were getting worried. We think about their feelings for the first time, and feel guilty.

After this we aren't nearly so keen on camping up the bush. Luckily the Japanese are soon being driven back across the Pacific.



About the writer:


Karen Peterson Butterworth was born and grew up in Catlins, South Otago, and now lives and writes in Otaki. Winner of the 2001 BNZ/Katherine Mansfield Essay Competition, she has published three non-fiction and two poetry books and had stories and poems published in New Zealand and overseas journals and anthologies. She jointly edited (with Nola Borrell) the 2008 anthology, the taste of nashi: New Zealand haiku, and has won two Australian haiku competitions and been placed in poetry competitions in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Great Britain.


‘Survival’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty Region with support from Tauranga Writers.


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