The fantail, known as piwakawaka, appeared on the day of my father’s death. He hopped along the top of the garden fence, brown and grey tail feathers erect, until I stood still and looked directly at him. He was heralding the fact. Making sure I understood that death was now in my life. He wasn’t laughing, exactly.
After that, my father took his time leaving. The sound of his voice saying my name, once, coming from the room next door. The double rap-tap on my window in the middle of the night. That one gave me a hell of a fright.
The world of death was a smear of grief and effort, of crossing time zones.
I watched obsessively for signs of him, ransacking his study, pawing at his books. But a private man is a prudent man. There were no clues, no trail of breadcrumbs to follow.
When the waxeye, the tauhou, the stranger came, he took up residence on the clothesline where the blackbird used to sit.
I was relieved in a way that the cat was also dead.
How that blackbird had tormented her in her last years, always sitting just out of reach. They would chatter at each other, cat to blackbird, blackbird to cat. The bird knew exactly how far the cat would walk before collapsing to the ground, scratching her back, collecting the fine grit of the footpath in her fur.
The waxeye’s stare oppressed me. For several days I was reluctant to leave the house and walk past it to the street.
Finally, I plucked up the courage to approach the bird. The silvery-white rings around its eyes flashed bright against the overcast sky. We stood in silence. Face to face.
Something about the way he held his head —
The waxeye came each day and I would wait for him, just like the cat would wait for her friend, the blackbird.
In those eyes, so dark against their silver rings, I thought I saw my father’s wisdom. Indeed, as time passed, I became convinced that the intelligence I saw in those eyes was communicating essential information for living — for my future.
We gazed into each other’s eyes, recognising each other’s truth.
The jet lag and the grief made the task of clearing my father’s house proceed in a dazed slow motion. I had no way of keeping my father’s things except for the smallest items, easily packed in a suitcase.
The books were the heaviest, and the hardest to leave. I made my selection and hoped that I had chosen wisely.
Eventually, I laid everything out before the waxeye and asked him which I should take with me. The rest would be disposed of.
The things I could not carry were taken away by strangers who sneered at the unfashionable and obsolete objects that filled my parents’ home.
The kitchen was full of unexpected memories, ready to ambush me as it emptied. The plates used every day, washed and dried and put away. The dish reserved for apple crumble. The butter knife with the mother-of-pearl handle. The baking tin for Christmas cake. The crystal bowl for fruit salad. The pavlova stand. The marmalade dish.
Finally, on the day I was due to fly home, the house was empty. I had taken the waxeye’s advice, and my suitcase was full. I knew by feel the weight of it.
I left my set of keys on the bare kitchen counter and closed the door behind me, gathering myself to say goodbye to the waxeye.
We acknowledged each other, he with his head on one side in that way so reminiscent of my childhood. I imagined he thanked me for taking such care of a lifetime held in a house.
And I understood that my father was gone.
That the waxeye was a bird, staring at me from a clothesline.