Erin Ramsay

The Huia

Her deathday was February 29th, 2020. It was in her character to make this obscure exit from the world, waving away three-quarters of future reminders of her passing with lowered eyes and an incorporeal half-smile, the one that said, Well, I don’t want to make a fuss. It was not enough—it is not so easy to fool love. We, who loved her, note the Gregorian absence of her absence. We will remember you anyway, I could have told her. It was hard enough for her to hear these kinds of things in life.

My mind delights in selecting the buildings I spent time in as a child as settings for my dreams. Her house has appeared more frequently in recent years, distorting itself along spatial and emotional axes. Sometimes she is there, a dead woman returned or still yet alive. I visit the house in memory when I am awake so that the lies done to it in dreaming will not take it from me.

There was a barometer opposite the front door which could predict rain and hot weather. This was the work of magic, of course, but there were more powerful objects to be found within. The strongest ones had a thin and worn-out look. The sofa, with its lacquered frame and yellowed cushion covers, the faded armchairs, and the coffee table hidden under plastic-encased copies of NZ Catholicthese were the things that cried hold for more than 30 years, at least.

It was the prospect of getting in a new kitchen, which my father had persuaded her to consider out of concern for her wellbeing, that set off the third major breakdown of her adult life. She moved in with my dad in my final year of high school so that he could look after her. I remember her walking among the rooms, half-words dropping from her mouth in panicked hiccups. She couldn’t concentrate enough to do the Herald sudokus. Stupid, I heard her say to herself. Just stupid.

When I was smaller, I was often with her after school, before my parents finished work. She would weave a tuneless hum from the kitchen to the dining table, and feed me chocolate chip muffins and carrot sticks. I shared with her a taste for simple food. In her spare room, where I stayed overnight sometimes and made my own when I visited, I read the Christian picture books of my father and uncles’ childhoods. The Good Samaritan was a smiling man who walked among yellow windows in a desert of night. Joseph was thin and curled among the lions to dream of sickly grain blossoming into wheat thick with gold—or was that the pharaoh? In my reading I was overseen by Raeburn’s Boy and Rabbit, resting in a small frame by the door.

In her university years and again after marriage in a house in Whakatāne, that thing came upon her which as a boy my dad was told was illness. She was ill and they did to her then what they had done to Janet Frame and to other women, and when I was 18 and she was in hospital she was afraid. The antidepressants weren’t working, but she couldn’t have the other treatment again, she wouldn’t. It is different now: they anaesthetise you and you do not feel the pain. She gave in and had it done. It worked where the pills had not worked. The current passed through her mind and gave her back the will to speak.

This was a fix but not a cure. Electricity could restore functionality but it could not pass to her, Promethean-like, the flame of self-esteem. Descended from Eve, she was a sinner of the first order. God did not tell her she was clever, even when, as I struggled with a back-page puzzle aged ten or 11, she showed me how to reduce it to an algebraic equation. For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful, she would say before every meal, crossing herself quickly.

Here are the things we do not like to think about when we think about her: her racism and her assumed homophobia, had we ever tested it. She would snap at the greetings in te reo Māori on National Radio, telling us irritably I just don’t understand what they’re saying. Her Forest and Bird membership, otherwise proof of an admirable passion for native wildlife was, I suspect, tinged with that terra nullius belief that carved tangata whenua out from the land, leaving the precious iridescence of tūī and kererū in its wake. My choice to conceal my queerness from her did not cause me anger or grief but a sadness that the world hadn’t bothered to give her an eye to see this part of me without fear.

Fear and shame—these feelings, I knew, had governed much of her life. She had handed them down to me without realising. I am committed to the hard work of passing through these inheritances. It was fear, though, that kept me from doing more for her while she was alive. I was afraid of the hospital ward and her final care home because of their usual sterilities and unfamiliarities, but I was also afraid of her physical frailty and how in her last silences, the hope that she would know me truly was gone forever.

Here is the Biblical verse that we borrowed from God to put on her gravestone: I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh instead. In death, she is renewed. Here is the huia, perched in silver among the black of the plaque, like the saddlebacks drawn in a large painting opposite my seat at her dining room table. I am the life which can be traced from her extinction. Christ speaks words of love to her in Aramaic as she flies, in avian mercuriality, above the kauri and kahikatea of these islands.


Last year my dad and I went out to Little Shoal Bay to give some of her seashells back to the ocean. I have kept boxes of her shells from beach trips going as far back as the 1960s. So much stuff: my father has struggled to know what to do with it all. I give the finger to fear these days when, visiting his house, I tell him to put one object into a trash bag and another into a pile to keep. It is hard for both of us. As we sat by the water, facing the Waitematā Harbour, my father took the box that was left and moved to tip it, gingerly, into the sea. No! I said. And there she was, alive again in her eldest son, because where else would that brusque awkwardness have come from? We took the shells and skipped them into the water, making the seagulls think they were food. It made my dad laugh, and I was happy then, and it was good.

Erin Ramsay

Erin Ramsay is an MA History student at Victoria University in Pōneke. Their writing has appeared in Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022Mayhem JournalBad Apple and other publications.