The Elegy for Corbyn

Some Lighted Windows: The Elegy for Corbyn

By Michele Leggott

My son is ambushed on the beach at Waitara, shot in the head at close range and left for dead. He is a carter attached to the camp, out with a soldier of the 40th Regiment collecting firewood for the army kitchens. Both men are unarmed, nobody knows why. The man of the 40th raises the alarm and the killing party falls back into the fern. It is Saturday 28 July, sleet and snow are reported in town. The mountain is hidden behind a wall of grey cloud.

My son could sing, would have been singing this day except that the Reverend Mr Govett rides from Waitara to Bell Block to New Plymouth with word of his death. They bring the news to me and then it is all over the town. Killed on the beach at Waitara. Cruelly murdered on the beach. Tomahawked about the head. All this we must bear, and receive the poor shell next day when they bring it from Waitara for burial. It is Monday 30 July, clear cold wind. Dear friends carry him from the boat to the chapel at the Kawau Pa. Who will lay out this poor shell? Who will wash the blood from this body that is my son? Cruelly murdered. The incidents of his life are few and easily told. Shot through the head and heart.

A  hole in the earth has been opened under the east wall of the church. A firing party and the volunteer band precede the body. Child of misfortune, has sorrow thy young days shaded? They lead me to the hole in the earth. I am undone, a poor shell, washed in the blood of the Lamb and unable to see or speak. It is Tuesday 31 July,  fine and cold. Who will mourn for this child shaded by sorrow, washed in the blood of the lamb, the incidents of his life few and easily told.

Day follows night, night follows day. I live in a hole filled with weeping and papers to sign. The sermon to be printed gratis and sold in Nelson for the support of his sisters. The Reverend Mr Wollaston sits with me, the Sergeant of Artillery has written from Waitara. It is Wednesday, it is Thursday. As we are not able to make our acknowledgments in person. Take this opportunity of gratefully assuring them. Their voluntary demonstration of kindness and sympathy. My eyes are darkened by sorrow. Child of misfortune, cruelly murdered. I’ll weep with thee, tear for tear. Mr Woon compiles his journal of events for the week. My daughters to read about their brother’s wounds. The world seeks that glorious company who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

I Climb the hill to render cover for my grieving heart. An old servant of the Government still able to map and draw as when we were first acquainted. I’ll weep with thee, tear for tear. I’ll make this map of my heart. Sugar Loaves to the west. Soldiers coming ashore, five vessels in the roadstead, troops lined up for Waitara. Fort Murray, Sailors Camp on Mt Eliot, St Mary’s Church. A firing party, the volunteer band, tear for tear. Marsland Hotel and Military Hospital, Masonic Hotel And Head Quarters of General Pratt, Commissariat. Key positions in the legend, neatly numbered. Maori Chapel — Kawau pa, Military Hospital, Wesleyan Chapel. Grieving, grieving. Niger Redoubt, Fort Stapp, Bell Block block house. Panorama of my heart. White Hart Hotel, Market Place Military Camp, Military Camp. A map with numbers, a map of grief. Military Camp, St Mary’s School, Charles Brown senior’s tomb. Grave on the hillside below, little figures going about their business in the churchyard. It is Friday 3 August.

All this I see and number neatly but not the women and children running up the hill or the alarm gun ordering volunteers to fall in, though these things too are part of the scene Saturday morning when I return to finish the sketch. They are like women bereft of their senses, screaming for their children? One has no bonnet on and is holding her baby in her dress. I take the baby from her, the poor little thing has no clothes on as it has just come out of the tub and with my little charge in my mantle I reach the Barracks. My daughter is there with the Des Voeux boy and his mother, dry-eyed and calm but white as a sheet. I’ll weep with thee, tear for tear. Black crepe brushes blue cloak as we embrace. Child of misfortune, has Hope been that bird to thee? Oh Papa, she says. Oh Papa. The living child. The daughter.

Soon we will see the town lit up according to order, windows and doors throwing lantern light from empty houses. Soldiers’ tents glowing, the windows of St Mary’s ablaze. A half moon shedding light on a silvery sea. Men carrying a child in one arm and gun in the other with wives following after tear along the streets. I look at my daughter and we begin the work of opening holes in the panorama to let light fall into the world again.

Edwin Harris, New Plymouth Under Siege – 40th Regiment, Marsland Hill, Taranaki, New Plymouth (circa 1860), watercolour with relief cut-out (optical amusement). Collection TSB Bank, New Plymouth

You can read more about this piece in ‘Speaking back to Emily Harris (2021).’