Amidst the Southern Alps

by Jill Fernandes (New Zealand)

I didn't expect to find New Zealand


Silence, of all things, intrigued me. Especially when it was in the intimacy of home and deliberate. Mum said incompletely, "When Julia was born..." and stopped as she noticed me enter the room, never to speak about it again. Around the time I was born in 1992, my parents left their country home to live in the city. They had been living in a cottage at the foot of the Southern Alps, glacial and covered in snow. Snow that may have buried tragedies or memories they never spoke of, but that entwined them in a mysterious bond they brushed off as marital bliss. I decided I had to go there and see for myself what I would discover. I knew I had been there before. It was the 15th day of November, my birthday. I had been travelling for hours from the top of the South Island south westward to the Southern Alps. I drove alone, savoring solitude. The aim was to get to the Grey river that delicately laced the Alpine fault boundary, separating the two tectonic plates. My GPS didn't work in these parts. I followed the paper map as best I could, archaic as it felt. Hours passed. The trees grew skyward, and got thicker as I drove. The scenery was both spectacular and melancholic at the same time. Solace and emptiness engulfed me. In the background I could hear the subtle gushing of a river. I was finally getting closer to the approximate vicinity of my 'home'. In the distance I could see dark storm clouds looming. Approaching was an old chapel at the foot of the Alps. It was here that I sought refuge. The exterior was wooden featuring heavy doors and a modest heavenward spire. I entered in. It looked historic and unused like the map I had earlier desperately tried to decode. Natural light poured into the chapel through intricately designed stained glass panels that extended downward from the ceiling almost to the floor. The entire structure was held together by several Gothic styled arches and supporting buttresses. I walked toward the altar and saw a door, from beyond which a vicar emerged. He had light frail eyes, scanty hair but a calm and reassuring smile. "Welcome, to St Peters." he said enthusiastically. "Hi, I'm Jill. My parents used to live around here." I said. My voice echoed through the nave, "This is a beautiful place and strangely reminiscent" "What's your family name dear?" he inquired. "Fernandes." I said, examining the exquisite internal architecture of the chapel. "I knew them once."He paused for a moment, looking at me as if he knew me. "They lived at the far end of the woods. Come this way" he said and walked off. I followed him into the gardens, leading to the chapel cemetery. He narrated the history of the chapel when it was in use and the stories of the people that now lay here to rest. Never before had I taken such an interest in the stories graves tell. Stories of the lives of entire families now gone, but that were once lived in the very place I was now so bewildered by. Engraved on one of the stones was the following. 'In loving memory of Marcus Anderson. 1887-1962. Grace Anderson. 1892 - 1921. Junior Carl Anderson. 1918-1919 & Darling Marie Anderson. 1919 - 1920.' I soon realised this man had lost his entire family in the span of three years. He never remarried. Loss and heartbreak must have plagued him his entire life. Yet here he lay with the family he once had. My eyes teared up. The chapel, the historic graveyard, the majestic Alps in the background, I had a moment of déjà vu. It was all coming back to me like memories, but ones that I had never had. The clouds darkened, a thunderstorm was brewing. We walked along to where the graves ended and the mountains began. The vicar pointed at a small cross. The cross read "Baby Julia. 15th November. 1992. Angel on Earth for a day, summoned to heaven the next". A drop trickled down the cross, it wasn't the rain.