The Sampling: The Sparrow

By Tessa Duder

The Sapling is running a Summer Excerpt Series showcasing the junior and young adult titles from the 2023 Storylines Notable Book Awards. This week we have the first chapter from Tessa Duder’s The Sparrow. Hannah Marshall put some questions to Duder here.

1. Arrival


Not one single person on that ship told us to brace ourselves for the shock or cover our ears. No one yelled out ‘Harry, quick! Help get the little ones down below.’ Though I’m not surprised: I learned thousands of miles ago that your average sailor hates human cargo — convicts the worst, of course, but poor emigrants not much better. We complain and get sick and have to be fed.

Besides, we’re all much too interested in the two native canoes paddling at speed towards us, also with what’s happening up on the headland. Earlier we saw two boats being lowered from the government ship anchored nearby and a party rowed ashore. One of them, judging from the skirts, was a woman.

An important ceremony is happening today, apparently.

So, with all eyes turned towards the land, no one notices what the crew of the other ship, the Anna Watson, are getting ready to do.

One minute the harbour is calm and peaceful, the sun high in the sky. Barely a sound, just the cries of a few seagulls and voices from the canoes being carried across the water by a cool breeze. I’m leaning over the railings, the sun warm on the back of my neck, but longing with all my being to get off this ship and stand on dry land that doesn’t move. I have a whole new life to start living.

We’ve been at anchor seven long days, confined below when it rains, which is often. And before that was the incident coming into the Waitemata, when we ran aground on an unseen rock in the middle of the harbour. I was on the main deck, and the horrid jolt as we hit threw us all right off our feet. Then, apart from a few sailors yelling at each other, an ominous silence. A skinny crewman was ordered to strip to his waist and dive down to assess any damage. We watched as he climbed back over the railings, to report to the captain no damage that he could see. Other sailors came panting up from below to report no damage to the hull, no water rushing in, so far.

We passengers waited, and waited, some in tears, others calming their children, all fearful for our lives until at last the tide turned and after several hours the ship floated free.

To have come so far, endured so much . . . Oh please Lord, let not my short life end in this godforsaken place. Let those native people in the canoes be the friendly sort, not those we’ve heard about who throw spears and rocks and stinking fish. Who do fierce war dances and are still thought to feast on human— ‘Look! Look over there!’ Children beside me along the railings are pointing at the headland, where a large flag is now fluttering cheerfully atop a tall pole. Red and blue, of course

British. We can hear cheering.

Next minute, a thunderous, ear-splitting, bone-shattering BOOOOOM!

It comes from the nearby government ship, the Anna Watson. We stare at her, shocked to the core. White smoke is pouring from the stern. Is she firing at us? At the canoes getting ever closer? At the natives seen gathering around the flagpole, outnumbering our people?

Are they firing at the flag itself ? Why would they do that?

Has a war started?

Every one of the little children aboard our ship is shrieking in terror, running round the deck in distressed circles or burying their snotty noses in their mothers’ skirts. I scoop up one fallen baby aged about two, only to find she has soiled both her clothes and my own breeches, already frayed and grubby.

The mother comes rushing across the deck. ‘Harry, oh forgive us, I’m so sorry!’ The spoil is solid enough for me to scrape most of it off and toss over the side.

Near me a crewman bellows ‘’Tis only a salute! Twenty-one guns and nowt to fear! Be calm, folks, be calm!’ But no one else hears him over the din, since very soon a second shot is fired.

And then not only do the children redouble their howling, along with the animals housed on the decks of both ships — bleating sheep and goats, moaning cattle, outraged chickens

— but from inlets on both sides of the harbour about a million birds have risen in great clouds, shrieking and squawking loud enough to wake the dead. Within seconds they’ve disappeared down harbour to a safer place. Ducks, maybe? Or nesting seagulls? Swans? Some unknown species befitting this alien place?

Then there is a third boom, and a fourth and a fifth, regular as a town clock striking the hour. A couple of boys known for their mischief are now gleefully pounding their small fists against the railings.

‘Six! Seven! Eight! Nine!’ The rest of the children are still wailing or having their noses wiped, or have been swiftly handed down to safety below deck.

‘Nineteen! Twenty! Twenty-one!’

It is over. But by this time some of us have realised worse is to come. Our own cannon at the stern is being readied and the sailors are standing alert for the mate’s order to fire.

‘Another twenty-one?’ I ask Paddy, a grey-haired sailor who since Hobart has become something of a kindly uncle to me.

‘Fifteen for us, boyo,’ he says. ‘She’s official, see?’ His voice is heavy with sarcasm, as he nods towards the other vessel. ‘Her Majesty’s loyal toffs on gov’mint busy-ness.’

With all the families taking refuge below, away from the thunder and the drifting smoke, only the two mischiefs, the terrified animals, Paddy and myself are left on deck to count off the fifteen.

With each firing, the cannon recoils and the whole ship is felt to shudder. Gun drill is feckin’ rusty, Paddy mutters, the gun never fired in anger or even as a warning. But I admire how each sailor does his particular job smartly, like a clockwork toy.

At last our fifteen are done. The smoky smell of gunpowder settles on the ship. The animal chorus dies down. But that isn’t the end of the shooting: the Anna Watson must reply with yet another seven! The delighted mischiefs scamper round the deck, mimicking soldiers firing muskets. Pow! Pow! Pow! They take turns to drop dead. One trains his pretend firearm on me, and I obligingly stagger across the deck and fall against the coiled ropes, mortally injured and dramatically expiring like Nelson at Trafalgar, to their great amusement.

I humour them because I’m expected to, in the role I’m playing. Though I’m some years older, and taller, they still see me as one of them. Little idiots, who will grow up to be great idiots. No one on the ship — I’m confident — has reason to suspect that young Harry, travelling alone from Port Nicholson, isn’t quite who he appears to be. Not even Pigtail Paddy.

The smoke has cleared and the harbour is again silent, except for an occasional shout from the two canoes, now quite close. They must be thinking it very strange, for these ships that supposedly come in peace to be firing off their cannons, so many times, at a completely empty sea.

No one would have warned them, either.

It will be a while before the birds know it’s safe enough to return. And for our younger children and their parents to come back up on deck without fear of the guns.

After weeks of tedium, that spring day, September the eighteenth, I’ll remember for three things: the cannons going off, the boat races, and seeing my first Maoris up close, one especially.

During our short time in Port Nicholson we’d seen very few native people, and then only at a distance. Here, apart from the two canoes, and that one village we passed off to port, near the harbour entrance, there’s no other sign of life. Although the breeze is nippy, I stay on deck to watch the shore party being rowed back to the Anna Watson. Another bigger boat is lowered, and one launched also from our ship, and the next thing — glory be — they’re lining up to have a race! With nothing else in the harbour to use as markers, they’re heading our way. Paddy, leaning beside me on the railings, is in the mood for talking.

‘See those folks,’ he points as the two boats round our stern with much shouting about keeping clear. ‘They be the toffs, the gov’mint officials and p’haps some gentlemen passengers. Their smart clobber ’tis dead give-aways. Some not too handy with oars! Now those,’ he says when a second race sets off, ‘they look like mechanics. I heard tell they’re down from Kororareka, desperate for work.’

‘Mechanics?’ I ask.

‘Carpenters, sawyers, bricklayers, all for buildin’ houses. Stonemasons for walls, blacksmiths, boatmen, too. Honest labourin’ men.’

He waves a hand at the low hills, covered with a kind of scrub, on either side of the harbour.

‘Sure and plenty of land hereabouts, when it’s cleared. Soon good work for all. That headland with yon flag, first thing they’ll put up, a feckin’ church. Always do. Fat priests flush with Popish money, or hard-faced London clerics — they’ll see to it.’

He clears his throat lustily and spits into the water below. ‘And those wee bays, soon enough there’ll be houses built

for the toffs and a wharf for the low tides so they don’t get their dainty feet wet. You poor folk with the hungry children get leaky tents somewhere, well away from the toffs— Now will ye look at that! The savages have come out to play.’

‘You shouldn’t call them that.’

‘That so, boy? Well, you just remember me, yer shipmate Paddy, when big black men with tattoos creep round your camp, scarin’ folks to death.’

‘They’re not black, they’re brown.’

‘Brown or black, no different. They’re savages!’

Though sickened, I let that pass. I didn’t want an argument, not today. The two native canoes, up until now watching the racing with their paddles idle, are lining themselves up side- by-side. At a shout, paddles flash and the canoes quickly gather speed.

On the streets of Hobart the few native people I’d seen were dark-coloured, black almost, dressed in rags, sad and wretched. These paddlers, maybe twenty in each canoe, look fit and strong, their naked chests and muscles glistening with sweat, or maybe oil. The idea of racing against white settlers’ boats must be a novelty, as they’re grinning, enjoying themselves. The paddles flash perfectly in time. Two men in long cloaks stand proud, one at the stern steering, and the other in the middle, I guess to be the captain. Some paddlers are grey-haired, several just boys. One, a youth in his prime, gazes up at us along the railings, clearly fascinated by us and our strange vessel, but not missing a

beat as the canoe turns in a graceful curve around our stern. His hair is caught in a knot on the top of his head, a large piece of carved bone lies on his chest. There’s only one way to describe him: beautiful — beautiful, beyond imagining.

‘I heard o’ war canoes bein’ two times as long,’ says Paddy as the race finishes amid much shouting and cheering from the Anna Watson. One native from the winning canoe climbs on board the ship, perhaps to get their prize. ‘Wi’ paddlers hundred or more,’ he goes on. ‘Flesh-eaters all. Best steer clear, when you get ashore with nowhere to run. Give ’em wide berth, boyo. Don’t want to find yourself stuffed like a chicken into a cookin’ pot.’

It’s getting cold and this conversation unwelcome. Among the passengers who’d come aboard in Port Nicholson, all much disgusted with the mud and rain and broken promises of that settlement, was a young priest who’d assured us that eating human flesh was no longer practised. Cannibalism was a tradition associated with tribal warfare. We newcomers, he urged, must put aside our fears, and endeavour to establish good relationships with the local people.

Well, today is probably a reasonable start, I think, as the canoes head back to that bay we’d sailed by earlier, the one with the village and people walking around, and, behind, green slopes that looked like gardens. And above them a prominent small mountain, one of a number we can see from the ship.

One day soon, I’ll go exploring. No one will notice a mere boy scrambling up these lumpy green hills, maybe ten or fifteen of them on both sides of the harbour. Paddy thinks they might be the remains of ancient volcanoes.

For most of that last night on the ship, I lie on the hard boards of my allotted space, restless, my mind churning. Nocturnal noises in the men’s quarters have become familiar: snores, heavy breathing, farts, coughing, throats being cleared, howls as spasms of cramp take hold. Rats squeaking and scurrying, water slapping against the sides of the ship, timbers creaking. Thumping footfalls and bells signalling the change of watch interrupt what sleep I do get.

Now I’ve reached the end of my long journey from Sussex, the reality of my situation is becoming all too evident. From tomorrow, I’ll no longer have even the Platina to call home.

It’s not only that I’m nearly penniless, without family or friend. Back in Hobart, in my desperation to escape, I’d given no thought as to how long I could keep up this charade.

It’s not just the boys’ clothes, or the boy’s clumsiness I’ve feigned since I fled from the hellhole that was Cascades. I know that some events will take place, sooner or later. My hair will grow again, long enough to plait. My breasts are still small rosebuds, but won’t remain so. And as the women at Cascades told me, sometime soon I’ll start to bleed from ‘down there’. I’m fourteen and probably overdue for this to happen, but happen it will, they say, and every four weeks thereafter.

And going ashore, sooner or later, I must take from the canvas bag I use as a pillow that plain brown skirt stolen from outside a tavern in Hobart. If I’m careful, I will manage the changeover myself, at the right time, in my own way.

But if Harry becomes careless, he might find himself unmasked, to general disbelief and contempt. The women will be shocked, the men angry, the children mocking. I’ll be that girl ‘who took us for fools’, be shunned as an outsider, a bad egg. It will be some time before my deception is forgotten or forgiven.

I lie on the Platina’s wooden slats, shivering with cold in my grimy, stinking boys’ clothes. I scratch at rashes in my armpits

caused by lack of washing and bites, from lice or fleas or both.

In the night a wind gets up, and the slapping of waves against the hull wakes me from a dream of my brother Jesse polishing a rosy apple to a high sheen on his sleeve. He hands it to me with a smile. But when I take a bite, the skin is tough and the soft flesh is floury and tastes of . . . nothing.

The Sparrow

By Tessa Duder

Published by Penguin Random House NZ

RRP: $22.00

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