My father killed the boar when he was 16.
He’d dreamed of killing the boar for some time. My father’s brother had killed a boar when he was only fifteen. My father’s brother was five years older than him. Like most big brothers, he treated his little brother with intolerant contempt.
He’d been saying for months that my father would never kill a boar. He was too weak. He was a girl. He was useless. And, just the day before, he told him he was so worthless he better finish the fence on the bottom paddock before dusk or he could expect a kicking. The family farm was gradually being cleared from the bush and the fencing slow and arduous.
My father finished the fence. My father was very good with his hands and in truth a much better fencer than his brother, which didn’t help matters between them.
That night my father didn’t go to sleep in the room he shared with his brother. Instead he went out into the bush past the bottom paddock, where the boars roamed, his rifle strapped over his shoulder and a knife in his ankle scabbard. The cleared ground was rough and uneven, a broken landscape created by the eruptions and outpourings of the volcanoes Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. In the bush, the terrain was even rougher, jagged rises and deep gullies, all ripe with the verdant vegetation flourishing on the rich volcanic soil.
My father found himself a niche in a cliff on the edge of the bush above a small clearing near the creek. He huddled there in his woollen coat and dungarees and waited. He’d brought the dogs with him and they drove the boar out of the bush and into the clearing among the tree ferns just before dawn. By then my father was hunched on a rock, out of the way.
The dogs worried the boar. They grabbed its tail, snapped at its balls, sank their teeth into its legs. The boar fought back. It lashed at them with its tusks. It caught one and tossed it into a tree fern, the dog yelping from the pain of its ripped rib cage. The boar roared, stomping and rooting. The dogs continued to circle.
My father had waited all night in the cold, his rifle loaded and the safety catch off. My father was a very good shot. Better than his brother. That was why his parents had splurged on his birthday gift and bought him a .303 rifle. His brother had a .22, but he couldn’t shoot pigeons or ducks. My father, though, could use his brother’s gun to bring down a brace of ducks. Another reason his brother treated him like a piece of dirt.
But out in the bush he couldn’t shoot the boar for fear of killing one of the dogs. He slipped the catch on and laid the gun down beside him. He took a knife from the scabbard on his belt. He waited until the boar was facing away from him, dogs in front and behind it. He jumped from the rock, and kicked the boar’s right hind leg out. The boar went down. My father threw himself on its back and plunged the knife in between the shoulders. Deep, to cut the spine and throat.
The boar squealed, thrashed and subsided. My father thrust himself upright, knife still in blood-soaked hand, and stood away from the boar. The boar rolled over, the dogs still nipping at it. My father used the knife again, slashing deep across the boar’s throat. It screamed and lunged at him with head and tusks. He leapt away, falling over one of the dogs.
The boar didn’t die straight away. It thrashed about on the ground, snorting and sighing at first, then whimpering as blood gushed out, steamed on the cold ground and coagulated in the crushed ferns. Eventually it was just panting, and slowly at that.
Finally it was dead.
My father shooed the dogs away. He cut off the boar’s balls and pizzle and tossed them to the dogs. He slit the boar from arse to belly and began the process of removing its warm innards, first working with the bladder to attempt to keep its contents from having too much contact with his game. His hands reached right inside to disentangle the intestines. His shirt and jacket were soaked with its blood. His hands were greasy with blood and shit.
He washed himself as best as he could in the freezing water of the creek. He manoeuvred the boar so that it was half sitting on the ground then he lowered himself down and backed between the boar’s front legs, his head under its chin. Taking the weight of the beast on his shoulders, he slowly stood and began to trudge out of the bush and through the rough paddocks towards his family home on the top of the rise. The dogs kept him company for a bit, but the lure of home was too much for them and they took off up the hill in a barking frenzy. All except the one that had been tossed by the boar. It slunk at his heels, blood on its flank where the tusk had ripped through.
His father and brother were waiting for him on the veranda. His brother glared and yelled at him because he had missed the morning milking of the cows, but his father told him to take the boar to the meat shack. This was behind the house. It was a rough weatherboard structure on the cool, south-side. It was secure against dogs and vermin and big enough to hang several carcases. A sheep and legs of ham were already there.
The shack had a smooth stone floor with drainage channels grooved into it. My father laid the boar on the floor of the shack. He cut the hock of each hind leg just behind the tendon to make a space for the gambrel hook. He inserted the hook then used the hoist in the shack to raise the boar up to the rail that ran down the centre of the room and from which the meat hung.
My father then began to skin the boar, stripping back the black bristled outer flesh as much as possible in one piece. Once it was scrubbed of the bristles and tanned, the skin would be soft and supple, suitable for a purse or for covering a saddle.
He washed the carcass. Later, when the day’s farm work was over, the whole family would work on preparing and preserving the boar. His mother had already fired up the copper to boil water for the cleaning and salting.
Lastly, he sawed off the boar’s head. He placed it on the butcher’s block in the shack and worked at the tusks. On this big beast the tusks were almost five inches long, curved and very sharp. They were much larger than the tusks from his brother’s boar. Once he had the tusks out of the boar’s mouth, he stripped of all but his underpants and washed himself as best as he could at the tap of the water tank at the back of the house. The water was icy and there was a stiff breeze from the snow on the mountains. It was still winter. But my father hardly noticed. He was still warm from the blood of the boar and the sight of his brother’s face when he had seen the size of it.
Two months later, he took the tusks into the town of Taumaranui. He sought advice from the jeweller in the main street, who had made a speciality of working with tusks. The jeweller was known all over the King Country. The jeweller talked about how the tusks might be mounted. He suggested a band of gold, edges engraved with delicate leaves, to join the tusks base to base, so that the points formed a semicircle. Just below the points, he suggested two gold bands joined with a delicate gold chain, from which the tusks could be hung.
And that is what my father agreed to. The jeweller took one month then my father claimed his tusks and took them home to mount on his bedroom wall, where his brother was forced to see them every day.
My father signed up for the Air Force when he was 18.
He wanted to fly away from his brother and the cows and the fencing and digging the rocks out of the paddock and that is exactly what he did. He learned to fly, something he’d dreamed of doing, same as he had dreamed of killing a boar. My father was a great dreamer.
He left the tusks at home with his mother. She took them out of the bedroom them and placed them on the wall of the family room to remind her of him. His brother would turn them back to front.
My father sent home photographs of himself: one from Cairo with him in tropical gear, sparkling eyes and a jaunty smile under his new moustache; another from Waddingham in his Sergeant pilot’s uniform standing with his crew in front of their Lancaster as it is loaded with bombs; a last one from an unknown place but he is wearing his Flying Officer’s uniform for he had been promoted and there are ribbons on his chest, too, but his eyes do not shine and he does not smile.
As they arrived from the other side of the world in the slow mail his mother placed these photographs on the sideboard in the family room under my father’s tusks. In a mood after the Sunday roast his brother would turn them face down, saying my father wouldn’t be coming back so why did he have to be reminded of him.
But he did come back, which even his brother had to acknowledge. He was 23. He was a shell of the boy who had killed the boar. He had been gutted by the war, though he showed no outward signs of the mutilation. It was all within, deep within, embedded in him like tusks in the jaw of a boar.
My father began studying to be a veterinarian when he was 25.
As part of his repatriation package, he was paid to study at the University of Sydney. He took the tusks down from his mother’s wall and packed them into one of the suitcases he and my mother took with them on the flying boat to Sydney. The tusks hung on the wall of the semi in Enmore they lived in for the five years he studied. Then after he had graduated they went back across the Tasman and my father began his work with animals.
The animals received his ministrations with passive indifference and helped resolve the horror in his head, an unremitting memory of the perilous flights under attack across black skies and terrain, the fires unleashed by the phosphorous bombs released from his plane’s bomb bay let alone the destruction from other ordnance, the morning briefings after what was left of the squadron had returned and he learned which of his mates was no longer.
He drank a bit. Maybe too much, but nobody ever sat down with him and talk about what he had been through. He had some medals and his old flying jacket and it was expected that he just get on with life. Which he did, overall.
Once my parents were back in New Zealand, he set up practice in Waikato, with dairy cattle his most frequent patients. The Waikato district lies to the north of the King Country where my father had killed the boar. His family were not so far away, but he didn’t visit them that often. His brother was running things down there. His brother held vets in contempt and made that clear on the rare occasions my father did visit.
Then his father, my grandfather, died. The farm went to his older brother as was the custom of those times. His widowed mother moved up to Auckland, so my father had no reason to visit the farm or his brother any more.
Maybe it was only a matter of moving away from his brother but he lost and found himself in Australia. Maybe it was also the fact that a few years after he had made the move, the phone rang one night and he found he was talking to his brother’s wife. His brother had shot himself down in the bottom paddock that morning. It seems my father’s brother was never a very good farmer. From that time on my father mellowed, relaxed and began to enjoy himself. The tusks, though, were always on his bedside table, reminding him of that night he spent out in the bush and killed the boar.
My father died three weeks before he was to turn 80.
His death was long and painful to those of us who had to watch it, though for him it was ameliorated by painkillers and palliative care given him. It was my job to arrange the details of his funeral. Since his death was no surprise, all of his family, his three sons and his two daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters and his great grand children as well, had already gathered to say goodbye to him. But everybody was now under pressure to get back to jobs and other commitments. I spoke to the undertakers. They arranged the funeral the day following my father’s death in their own chapel.
My mother wanted an open casket so my father had to be dressed in his best clothes. My mother and I selected the clothes and I took them to the undertakers.
The next morning, before the ceremony, the undertakers called me and asked me to come to their rooms behind the chapel. They asked me to check that my father looked as much as we wanted him to look. He lay in the coffin, only his head and hands showing, the rest of him expertly trussed and dressed for this last display. His hair was neatly brushed and there was a bristle or two of whiskers on his cheek and chin. His eyes were closed and the skin on his face waxy, but cold from wherever he had been stored.
I kissed him on his forehead. Then I placed the tusks on his chest, just under his neck and over the tie and jacket my mother had decided he should wear.
My father was ready.
I drove my mother down to the chapel just before 2 pm. She and I were the last people to be seated. We were both to sit in the front row. She walked straight up the aisle past the other mourners to my father’s coffin and she stood there for a moment looking at her husband of nearly sixty years. She stretched out her arm and stroked the tusks on his chest. Then she turned and I reached out and guided her to her seat.
“He’ll like having them,” she whispered to me. Then we sang “There’s a hole in the bucket”. My father always liked that song.
The crematorium was miles away. My father travelled there alone. Just as he had faced the boar.
De Hek, Danny. “Hunting regions—King Country: The home of wild pig hunting in New Zealand.” New Zealand’s Information Network 16 Aug. 2010
Dick, Tim. “The boar wars.” WAtoday.com.au 13 Nov. 2008. 16 Aug. 2010
Rushmer, Miles. “Bush surfing: That’s a New Zealand pig hunt.” ESPN Outdoors 28 Apr. 2005. 16 Aug. 2010
Walrond, Carl. “Pig hunting.” Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1 Mar. 2009. 16 Aug. 2010