Thorncrown

We're running through a wood of disorganised trees with uneven branches and roots that spill from under the ground into the path, laughing. We are two young men laughing. We are in the bush in Hanmer Springs. ‘It's in North Canterbury,' we tell our mothers. ‘A couple of hours out of Christchurch.' We came here in buses from the engineering school, on a Friday. The sun is spluttering over us as we run. I'm in front. We started laughing when we were deep enough in to be covered. I started, or you started. The bush closes up behind us as we run. We are looking forward to drinking. You've got a girlfriend but I'm not seeing anyone in particular. We're like elves, or dwarves, or something else supernatural. Woodlandish we run and the sun spills on us as we laugh. This is as far away as we've been. We're supposed to be looking for something, it's a team-building exercise but because of the lick of the light and the looking forward to drinking and us, everything disappears except the laughing and the trees and the sex we're not having. We start to get out of breath and you slow to a jog and I slow to a walk and you catch me up and get your tobacco out of the back pocket of your jeans and we each roll a cigarette and smoke and walk to where we think the foot-bridge is.


It will be there, and we will write down the date that is on the plaque that is on the bridge on a piece of paper we were given for the scavenger hunt, but we're not there yet. I look at my watch and add up how long it is, exactly, until we can drink, I'm conservative with my sums. We're away from home and we're really looking forward to drinking. Drinking like we did the week before we came here in a noisy nightclub when you told me I looked like your brother and you told me how much you wanted to have sex with your brother and I wanted to have sex with you - very much. Then your girlfriend came back from the dance floor.
           
Our team will do badly. There is a lack of strategy that, as we walk through the mongrel wood - the laughing still close, we don't see. We split our team up, thinking it would be faster and it is for a while, but at the end we won't all arrive at the same time and some of us will stand at the finish line with some of the answers, watching team after team come in together to beat us. We will probably be last or we probably won't complete the exercise at all and one of our lecturers, a man who is decent and courageous, will explain the point of the scavenger hunt and how it demonstrates something bigger, something that will be useful when we are all working as engineers. Our team will be a good example of a bad example.
           
Then it will be time for drinking. We will drink and drink, finally and with purpose. I will fall down in the car park and won't be able to get up and I'll moan. My mind will be completely alert but my body won't work. You will call me a pussy and say I can't handle my drink and help me up. Large parts of my body will press against large parts of your body and you will tell me again, softly and in my ear, how much I look like your brother and we will laugh.
           
When we get back to Christchurch we will go to more bars and you will move into your girlfriend's flat and I will sleep with one of the women you flat with. This will upset you greatly. We'll have a loud, drunk fight on the street outside a bar. I'll spit at you and you'll push me. I'll regain my footing and punch you in the face and in the stomach. You'll recover quickly and grab the back of my head with both your hands and smash your head into my head, splitting it open from above my hairline to the top of my eyebrow. This will end the fight. After stitching and time it never closes properly and anytime I want to think of you, I have you under my fingers as I sweep my hair out of my eyes.
           
You will sleep with someone who looks like your sister, if your sister is a blonde woman with no hips who isn't your girlfriend. You tell me you woke up with her, but you can't be sure. I'll say, ‘Oh you can be sure.' Neither of us will know why you've come to me. I will pick a piece of tobacco off my tongue and look out over the backyard of your girlfriend's flat, but not yet.
          
Now, we are walking in silence, smoking, toward the bridge and the plaque and 1902. Without looking up you say, ‘This is bullshit,' and I laugh in a snorty way and say, ‘Nice day though,' and you call me a pussy and I say you're the pussy and we laugh for a moment and you shake your head like it's all bullshit. I slow barely so you're leading and I can see you, even when I'm looking down. I watch the silent swing of you as you walk down the path through the ferns and the short trees and part of me knows we will never be together like this again. I imagine you, imagining we are dead and this is what it looks like.
           
The low green bushes straighten and grow into other hemisphere's wood. Their branches become ordered and high up. They thin, so the sun comes in in sheets then is gone and it is cold. The noise of our walking feet changes as they land on dusts, then centimetres, then metres of snow that suck our feet back each time we take a step. We grow older as we walk through the unseasonal snow - years adjust us as we walk. Eventually we're wearing dress pants and dress shoes and collared shirts. We're grown men, structural engineers, you're married to Donna but I'm not seeing anyone in particular, there's been an accident; something we built has failed. You can't find your camera and we have stopped, finally, fighting. I pull my short, cotton shirt-sleeves in vain over my skinny arms, you fold yours over your chest but neither of us blow on our hands or stop and jump because nothing can hurt us now. I try your name slowly in the vapoury air, making a big deal of the start of it and the end of it, ‘My Kill,' and it is round and large and floats. I walk through it. You try mine with the same theatrical start, ‘Will He Um. Can you hear me at the back?' We laugh again and look at each other.

Everyone we know is dead to us because they're alive. You know where you're going and as the snow falls suddenly from nowhere and in all directions I follow you up an incline, digging my thin-soled leather shoes deep onto the snow, cutting steps like you.
           
I look at you as you reach the top and the light of Thorncrown warms your face and as I climb and look to where the light is coming from the chapel grows from Ozark mountain stone, like trees do - close and slight until, when my feet find level ground, it stands in front of me properly made and if, now built, you took it away it would appear as if the hill had fallen. Lying along the slope, the building has one glass wall facing the valley. Its opposite wall faces the rocky, wooded hillside.
           
In plan it's no more than a single room, in form no more than a gabled shed but it lifts our cold dead hearts to its highest pitch where they stop, pulled back with all the forces by the parade of cross-braced structural frames coupled into the steep roof. Like the opposite of a Gothic cathedral, it is landing rather than flying. Pulled together by light interior members in tension rather than pushed together by outside mass.
           
One clear symmetry calls itself out of the lattice storm. Two diagonal crosses - saltires like other ordinaries extended to the edges of the field, opening up large diamonds, triangles. Repeated and repeated, rattling on our eyes: slim stands of wood arranged again and again into the same strange truss. I count it off: the timber posts down each side of the space, the short cross-braced members and their vertical hanging rods. Then towards the ends of the eaves the long, raking, inclined members. It's not obvious how it works. Some of the members just join to the vertical posts, it's not fully triangulated. So, if there's a thrust down an inclined bit of wood then its associated post has to bend to take the force of that thrust. There are bending moments but there are no bending moments in a conventional truss. It's not immediately obvious how it works. Every constructional element is exposed, readable from within and without. Every framing member, every connection, every nut, bolt and screw shows and if any one part is removed, the building will collapse. Even the vertical elements that appear non-structural stiffen the slender diagonal members. It's everything it is but it's not immediately obvious. It's a truss that's a frame that's a truss.
           
You're still in front of me, standing as still as you can, shaking in the cold. It's still cold. You turn round to look at me and you're smiling, open and broad and you say, ‘I bet we won't get out of here,' and you mean the same, but I agree so I can't take your wager. You nod your head toward the chapel and we walk to it because we are going inside it.
           
We crunch crunch our way to the heavy tall doors which are open. It's not much warmer inside. The oaks and the maples and the dogwoods shelter us from the worst of the wind and the glass walls stop the rest of it but we leave the doors open and the weather comes in through the holes in the rock. We are completely held from harm, nothing worries us. We look down the aisle to the altar end which opens to a small grove of trees, a rock outcropping and a steel cross. The frames are high above us and around us. Now that we can't see all of them they each seem individual, smaller and in their new scale they point out the other small things to us. The lecterns, the pew supports, the door pulls and the exterior cross are all painted in an icy blue. They dance about in the grey stained wood of the chapel and the trees and the white snow.
           
You walk down between two pews to a post and for the first time I see that the two sticks of wood that form the columns hold between them a stack of small wooden blocks, one on top of the other. You run your hand over the smoothness of the sticks, then the bump of the blocks, then the smoothness again. Everything was carried here two men at a time - nailed together and lifted by hand. Nothing is so big that it can strike us down. I wish the sun would come out and it does and a sparkle of light rings out inside the roof like bells do. We look up. At both levels where the inclined wooden members meet in the crutch of the cross they stop and are joined by a little world of steel plates and almost miraculously the very centre of the joint is open and transparent and there are jewels of light penetrating through each of the frames. Like the light in the Canterbury bush we are in kisses us, this light stutters down on us - nothing more than light and shade, reflection and transparency.