When least expected, something unplanned, unexpected happens. In this young adult short story, Jonah discovers answers to questions never asked. His surprising find not only addresses those questions but holds the potential to alter his young life, forever.
This story won third place in the Hibiscus Coast Writers Group young adult short story competition, earlier this year.
My legs are like jelly and my breathing is raspy. I slog along the narrow track, with no other runner in sight. Every step I take is more difficult than the last. The suction of the squelchy mud grips my trainers. At last, the final hill. I grapple on all fours and claw my way up. By the time I reach the top, I’m puffing heavily. I stand and glance over my shoulder. Tommy Hicks is far behind. Tommy Hicks, the new kid at school, commonly known as Blubber Ball is my saviour. For once, I won’t be last in the annual school cross-country. I suck at cross-country but at least this year, I won’t be last.
Almost exhilarated, I ignore the stabbing pains in my legs, I begin zigzagging my way down the steep decline. I’m building up speed; too much speed. I stumble, crumple in a heap and roll downwards, away from the track and towards the cliff edge. Desperately, I attempt to stop my fall by grabbing at the foliage. A very prickly gorse bush bashes my side and stops my downward lurch. My left foot, folded under my body, screams pain. My ankle is wedged in a hole. Sitting back on my haunches, I grasp my leg with both hands and pull. I feel a sharp stab of pain as my ankle scrapes on something as it is freed. I rub my ankle and look to the track above. A red-faced, grinning Blubber Ball runs by. He gives me a wave.
Something in that hole scraped my ankle. I crouch and lean toward the hole. Carefully, I balance on my right knee and left hand, and blindly search the perimeter with my hand. I feel a curved, hard ridge. Wrapped in a rough material, something is wedged in the side of the hole. I take a firm grasp and tug. The object pops out like a cork from a bottle, causing me to flip backwards, and nearly dropping it. My balance restored, I sit up and slowly unwrap the rotting sacking from the object.
The wooden object, tear-drop in shape, is an ancient club, a Maori patu, a weapon of war. It is intricately carved in a swirling pattern, with a short, stubby handle. I trace the raised pattern with my fingers. I hold the handle and slash the air in a figure eight motion. This is old. It is rare. It is valuable. The damp sacking is disintegrating, suggesting the patu has been in this hole a very, very long time.
I fold the sacking around the patu and clasping it in one hand, crawl up the incline. As I limp the short distance to the finish line, the pain in my ankle eases. I tuck the patu inside my t-shirt, with the handle poking under the elastic band of my shorts, then with one hand, hold it in place. Everyone has left, except Mr Hamilton, the sports teacher.
“Jonah, finally! I thought you must have tumbled over the cliff somewhere,” Mr Hamilton greets me, throwing his arm around my shoulder. “Tommy says he passed you. What happened? You alright?”
“Yeah, nah, I’m fine. Just lost my footing and rolled off the track.”
“Never mind, you made it. You took part, that’s the main thing and you’re safe. There’s always next year, Jonah,” and he gives my back a hearty slap.
Yeah, always next year. Arrgh, I hate cross-country.
“Well, off home with you, boy. Rest up ‘cos on Monday, we start training for athletics. Hurdles. You never know, hurdles might be your thing with those long legs of yours.”
Yeah, right, hurdles. Yippee.
I head towards my house. Grandpa will be sitting whittling a piece of wood on the front verandah. He’ll nod as I come up the path but not ask how the race went. He knows better than to ask.
I’ve only ever lived with Grandpa and Grandma, only my Grandma is no longer alive. She died of a broken heart, according to Grandpa – though I’m pretty sure that’s not a medical condition – when I was eight. Her family accused Grandpa of something truly terrible that he refuses to talk about and they disowned Grandma when she stuck by Grandpa. Her family live in the big house on the hill overlooking the lush fields of the family farm. None of them came to her funeral. After she died, Grandpa stopped tending the vegetable plots of the market garden that over the years, he and Grandma had etched a living from. Now Grandpa just whittles wood.
My Mum’s suicide when I was a baby, is something else we don’t talk about.
Under my shirt, I can feel the ridges of the patu. Maybe it has magical powers, powers of strength and invincibility. As I rub the patu, I see myself effortlessly soaring hurdle after hurdle, then, with machine-like precision, my legs motor towards the finish line. No other hurdler is close. I race over the finish line. The crowd erupts in a chorus of cheers.
Yeah, right, get real.
I begin to think more practically: I have found a rare, and therefore valuable artefact, one that would be sought after by some rich dude collector. I could sell it on the black market and put the monies towards my Uni fund. My knowledge of the black market is a black hole; I wouldn’t know where to start. The internet, that’s where I’ll start. Not having a computer at home, I’ll have to do it at school, pretend I’m researching for the history assignment Miss Clayton set last week. “Discuss a period in our country’s recent history (recent being the previous couple of centuries) that changed the course of our young nation.” That’s it! That’s what I’ll do.
“Hey Jonah. You made it!”
My thoughts are interrupted. I stop and turn.
“Hi, Tommy,” I mumble, continuing to walk.
“Gee, thanks for what you did back there, buddy.”
“Yeah, that was real noble of you. Taking a fall, or pretending to, and giving me the chance to catch up and pass you.” Abreast of me, he continues to talk. “I’ve never been not last before in cross-country. At my previous school, I was always last. All the other kids would be at the finish-line clapping like crazy when I came stumbling along the last stretch. Clapping and jeering: Fatso Hicks and Lickity Hicks. I hated cross-country more than eating a bowl of spinach. Still do, but at least I wasn’t last this year.”
“You think I fell on purpose?”
“Hey, it’s okay. You don’t need to be modest. There’s no way I could have caught you up, otherwise. But you and me, we understand each other. We’re the same, sort of, when it comes to sport.”
“Yep,” I grin at him. “We both suck, big time. And the good news is, we’ve got hurdle training to look forward to on Monday.”
“You are kidding me?”
We continue walking in silence, then Tommy notices my hand clutching my body.
“You hurt yourself?”
“My ribs took a bit of a bashing from a spindly gorse bush when I fell. It’s nothing,” I tighten my grip on the patu and contort my face into a grimace.
“Nah, you’ve got something under your shirt. What is it? Let me see.” He roughly grabs my shoulder, causing me to stumble slightly. I lose hold of the patu. It slips and the end of the handle pokes beneath the bottom of my shorts.
“What’s that?’ he points at the handle of the patu.
I extract the patu and unwrap the sacking. “I found it in a hole when I fell.”
“Jeez, that’s awesome Jonah. You do know what it is, don’t you?”
“Of course I know what it is. It’s an ancient weapon of war and I’m guessing it’s very valuable.”
“You bet it’s valuable,” Tommy says, taking the patu in his hands. “My dad knows about these things. He used to be a curator at the city museum before he decided to move here to become a hippie-artist. He’d know what it’s worth. I bet it’s worth mega-bucks. We could sell it.”
“Hang on a minute. What’s this ‘we’? I found it. Me. Not you. It’s mine.” I say. I take back the patu and wrapping it in the sacking, I begin walking.
“Yeah, I know but we could show my dad and maybe he knows someone who’d pay big bucks for something like this and…” Tommy buzzes in my ear like an annoying mosquito. I walk faster.
“Forget it, Tommy. I’m not showing anyone, at least not yet.”
“What do you mean, not showing anyone? Just come and show my dad. We, I mean you, could be rich, Jonah.”
“Get lost, Tommy.” I march on.
On reaching my house, I open the gate and stride up the path. Tommy follows. Grandpa is on the verandah, whittling. He looks up, nods and continues to whittle. He looks up again.
“Whose your mate?” he says.
“Hi,” Tommy says, stepping forward and extending his hand to Grandpa. “I’m Tommy.”
“Grandpa, meet Tommy. He’s just leaving.” But Tommy doesn’t leave. He slouches against the verandah pole.
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” Grandpa says. With a puzzled frown, he looks at Tommy then at me.
“What’s that?” he says jabbing a finger at the wrapped patu.
“It’s nothing,” I say, feeling my face blush.
“Let’s see this ‘nothing’, then.”
Strands of the sacking crumble as Grandpa roughly unwraps the bundle.
On seeing the patu, his eyes glisten, his gnarly hand traces the spiral pattern. “Where’d you get this?”
“I found it in a hole on the cliff-top. I fell during the race and my foot got stuck in a hole and this was wedged in the side of the hole.”
“You know what it is, don’t you?” Grandpa says in a wheezy, choking voice.
“Yeah, I know what it is. It’s a Maori weapon of war, a patu.”
He screws up his face like an over-large prune, spittle dribbles from the corners of his mouth, and he emits a strangled howl. Grandpa springs to his feet, furiously swiping the air with the club. Tommy, eyes agog, visibly shaking, stumbles backwards down the steps.
“This club is the cause of all the heart-ache.” He stomps the length of the verandah, waving the club erratically. “This is what killed your Grandma. This is what broke her heart.”
“I don’t understand. How…” Grandpa grabs my shoulders.
“Her folk from the big house on the hill entrusted your Grandma, being the eldest, with this piece of family history. For years it hung on the wall of this very house, then one night it went missing. When they accused me of selling it to set up our market garden venture, your Grandma defended me, stuck by me and her family disowned her.” Grandpa let go of my shoulders and sat down.
“Do you understand now?” I nod.
“I think I’ll wander off home now,” Tommy mutters.
Grandpa traces the pattern with his fingers. “It’s a fine example and still in good condition.”
“Hmmm, I guess they’ll be relieved after all this time to get it back, won’t they?”
“Get it back? No way. This is your Grandma’s legacy to you.”
“Finding this club is a message from your Grandma, a message from the grave. She always did want you to go to university, get out of this backwater, and make something of yourself.” Grandpa smiles.
“It’ll fetch a handsome sum on the black market.”