‘My sweet babe.’ Thirty years after losing her five-day-old daughter on the voyage to New Zealand, Sarah Harris can barely speak of the experience. Her words wander across the notebook page, she breaks off, starts again, cannot find words or syntax to convey her feelings. Phrases trail off, repeats falter. She can’t find her way, even now, even to tell her living daughters about the sister who is always counted among her eight children. She copies out letters sent long ago, making the child live again and die again, sewn up in a piece of canvas and dropped into the sea off Van Dieman’s Land, 13 March 1841.
‘& the field was a garden as Eden of memory.’ Is that what it says? Is that what we hear? Sarah’s writing, pencil over pencil, the page turned at right angles and written over again, is impossible to decipher. Why has she located her bush walk on the last three pages of the notebook, leaving dozens of blank pages on which she could have written? We lose ourselves, cross and re-cross legible passages and doubtful underwritings. She is in the bush, feeling a degree of delight. It is summer (rātā and clematis in flower), she is walking from Te Henui towards the home of her friend in New Plymouth. She finds a clearing where a hapū is working their land, digging potatoes. They spring up from the fern. There is a baby. There is finding her way but nothing is clear or simple. ‘I am going to tell you my dear Emma of my losing myself in the Forest for two hours.’ It is 1843 or early 1844. It is when pencil meets paper.
‘How many times since then I have tried to cross, in dreams, that broken bridge or drifted down that river or got lost in the marshy banks it would be hard to say.’ Emily Harris’s voice joins that of her mother, dreaming and redreaming trauma, children going under the water, paths lost, bridges broken. Her river is the Waiwhakaiho, her recollection, fifty years old if it is a day, makes her brother and sister live again. The mind circles back and will not let its locations desist from their work of memory. Corbyn Harris, dead on the beach at Waitara, paddles the canoe across the river. Frances Harris, lying with her brother in the graveyard at St Mary’s in New Plymouth, goes down into the well and comes up again with a duck. And Emily, her mother’s daughter, is alert to the renditions she passes on. Memory resurrects voices. Voices come flying out of the dark.
‘Sail | Walk | Drown’ is a script developed from our work with archival materials for ‘The Family Songbook: Harris Letters and Memoirs 1840-1853.’ It was written and performed by Michele Leggott, Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis and Ruby Porter for the Votive Poetics Workshop: Creative Research in the Contemporary Academy at the University of Auckland, 28-29 August 2018. Recorded and mixed at the University of Auckland sound studio by digital media specialist Tim Page and available as an audio download here.
Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis