“Kia ora tāku pēpi.”
I filled the bottles with colostrum, heating them in the microwave before passing one to her. If she was going to stick around, she might as well make herself useful.
“Kei te pēhea koe e hoa? Aw, kia ora! Haere mai ki te miraka, kia tere. Kei te pai.” Her voice filled the sheds, replacing the sounds of the white man’s world with the comfort of the old language.
Mere had a special touch with the newborns, teaching them to take the bottle before moving them on to the feeders. There was a patience about her, and a genuine love for the calves that I just couldn’t muster. Her help was invaluable, and she stayed throughout the spring, waiting for the very last calves to be sent away (most to be slaughtered, and they were the lucky ones). My hands reach instinctively for my pounamu, forgetting it’s not there. Why had she come? She knew she wasn’t welcome.
Life on the farm was tough, but the evenings were the worst. The house was cold and claustrophobic, the windows taunting me with views of the stark fields. He’d moved our bed to the lounge to be closer to the fire. Not that it did much good, it was still bloody cold. As I lay in bed, most nights dreading his drunken return, I watched the flames perform their haka as if trying to call me to the fight. My fingers brushed my bare neck and I wondered where Mere was.
When sleep eventually came I dreamt of her. I remembered the way she pushed her sleeves up with her forehead when she washed the dishes at Nana’s tangi. The way her wet hair clung to her face as we walked home from school, caught in a sudden downpour. The cadence of her voice as she sung me to sleep after a bad day. The way she mashed boil up into baby food, making it taste smoky and buttery and mouth-wateringly good. Her patience as she taught me raranga harakeke at the pā. My memories weaved into dreams, making it hard to tell what was real. He woke me up and he stumbled inside, tearing me away from her again.
We got into quite the rhythm. Calf rearing was a hard job, and the only way to get milk to the calves was to carry it. All 200 litres of it in buckets, but we had our routine. I’d fill the buckets, carry 40 litres at a time to her at the sheds, then she’d feed the calves and make sure they all got their fair share. Once that was done, we’d refill the grain, spread fresh hay, and clean out the feeders ready for the next feeding time. On my own it would have taken hours. At night I would have been there well after dark, but together we got through it quick enough. The waiata certainly helped take my mind off the shitty job too.
He caught us together, once. We were in the kitchen having a good kōrero until he came home and ruined it. Told her she was in his land now, and that meant there was only one language to be used; his. Mere stood her ground, reminded him who was truly tangata whenua. His fist flew fast, catching the bottom of her chin, sending her flying back against the cupboards, barely catching her footing.
“Yeah, shut up and stay there. In the kitchen where you belong, Mary. Stupid bloody woman. This is MY house and you will respect me.”
I didn’t see her for a long while after that. I thought she was scared or had given up on me. Maybe she had. Still didn’t answer why she was here now.
Once the calves were gone, I rarely saw her. She didn’t care much for the cows. Neither did I, but I wasn’t given much choice. Afternoon milking was my job. He said it was only fair since he was getting up to do it in the morning. Truth was he just wanted to get to the pub. He thought he’d found the perfect wife, quiet and obedient like his mother. He moved us to the middle of nowhere, with no car to get anywhere, then he set me to work on the farm, doing his jobs too. All so he could spend more time with his first love. Fool that I was, I kept up my end of the bargain. Day after day, I’d milk those fucking cows. Even when the motorbike broke down and I was walking the cows in the snow I did what I was supposed to, praying things would get better.
When summer arrived, bringing with it a punishing heat and a burning anger, she was back.
Mere surveyed the house. To be fair, there wasn’t much there. Of mine, at least. God knows what the junk in the shed was. I wasn’t allowed in there; it was his space. I was supposed to stay inside, busy with chores, or work on the farm. That was all he allowed. But he wasn’t home, and I let Mere in. She saw the rubbish strewn around his chair, the shit stains on the couch from the clothes he never changed, lost count of the empty bottles. I stood back while she looked. She found a stack of broken picture frames and carefully picked up a photo, watching broken glass fall like a waterfall, pouring out of the memory of her and I and how it used to be. I stole a glance at her and saw the fire gleaming in her eyes. I reached for my pounamu, wishing I could feel its strength but not finding it. The haka moved from Mere’s eyes and into her body, calling Mahuika, calling her ancestors, calling me. Her karanga filled the air, the beating of her hands and feet as mesmerising as the flames rising up from beneath us. Sirens broke our reverie and we ran outside. The house was now a raging inferno. Mere caught my eye and we smiled.
Once the flames subsided, Mere took my hand and led me to the far corner of the house. She gestured to the ground, so I knelt down and started digging. The ashes of my life crumbled beneath my fingertips. Then I felt it. The cool smoothness of my pounamu. I let its mauri flow through me, relishing the familiarity as it warmed in my hands. I tucked it inside my bra and welcomed her back to me.