Kahu. Pacific Ocean, May 2013
I wear a cheap tracksuit, hood up, sunglasses covering my eyes – flying home to New Zealand. The woman beside me keeps sniffing; I wish to Christ she’d use a tissue. I pick at the meals and watch beautiful flight attendants glide through the cabin.
‘Do you need anything?’ they ask.
‘No. Thank you.’
I don’t want to go down to the lake. Time there stands still. People wear comfortable shoes. The boredom alone will do my fucking head in. It was okay when I was small, but it’ll be like stepping back in time.
I know how it will play out.
My return is empty-handed except duty-free vodka for me and tobacco for Mum. Nobody smokes anymore. Jesus Christ, doesn’t she know it will kill her?
But Mum is healthy, if nothing else.
I can hear the lectures already, ‘You’ve lost so much weight. We’d better put some beef on you, eh bub? You look like a ghost. Go outside and get some sun on your skin. Go get your feet wet. Go stand on the whenua.’ Fuck, it will be insane like a goddamn circus, with my mother, Mereana, wittering on about my body, my wairua and the weather.
Mum is there waiting in Arrivals. Her wild hair frames her glasses, and she bursts out with a tangi, throwing her arms around me as she howls. Jesus, what a spectacle! I force myself not to recoil at her touch. Nobody has touched me for a long time.
I bite my lip, tasting blood. ‘Kia ora, Mum.’
‘Auē, bub – it’s so good to see you.’
You’d think it had happened to her the way she is carrying on. ‘Can we please get out of here?’
No attention. I want to move through the crowds like a wraith passing through.
In the car on the way to the lake, Mum talks at top speed. There are two speeds, on or off. I stare out the window, noticing what has changed in the five years I’ve been away. But some things remain the same. The flourishing hills stand out. Green.
When we pull into the drive, I hear Pipi barking. ‘Pips, eh?’
‘Āe bub – he’ll be happy to see you.’
‘How old is he these days?’ I ask.
‘About ten I think.’
Mum opens the door, and Pipi launches himself at me. His toenails scratch the wooden floor, and I feel my spine tense up. Not ready for any of this. ‘Hey, Pips.’
‘Move your bum, love. I need to shut the door so he doesn’t get out.’
She doesn’t notice my tears until I sniff.
‘Oh bub, come here,’ she says holding out her arms to me.
Everything in me wants to reject her. Mum steps towards me, and I flinch.
‘It’s okay, I won’t hurt you Kahukura. It’s okay,’ she murmurs into my hair.
I can’t stop the flow of tears as they escape my closed eyes. A sound flies out of my mouth, mournful and tight.
‘It’s okay, bub. Let it out.’
Mereana. Kōanga/Spring, 1983
This morning, I watch manu arrive at the kōwhai tree to drink their fill from succulent blooms the colour of egg yolks. The air is crisp and my exhaled breath foggy, but I am content.
Spring creates restlessness in me, a desire to remove curtains and wash windows. But I don’t act on it; instead I’m spending time down by the water, watching the surface ripple as the taniwha comes and goes, letting me know that everything is okay.
The rākau around the lake have begun to creak with the promise of new growth forming on their limbs. I hear their sighs of expansion and readjustment after the winter. Sun refracts light over the maunga beyond, snow topping their peaks, blinding. Frosts are still a threat until the end of October. But there is that restlessness again; I should replant the garden to prepare for you. Rewi, my brother, will help me, I’m sure.
I’ve decided to wait to tell your pāpā, because he’s away. I couldn’t face writing about you in a letter and not being able to see his expression. The surprise can wait a while longer.
Kō Mereana tāku ingoa, my name is Mereana; I am hapū with you and filled with joy. You are made of aroha and must always know that. Your father is a tāne ātaahua, who saved me from myself during a dark time in my life. I love him immeasurably.
I live at the lake in our whānau whare, after coming here to sort myself out. Last year was difficult, and I may tell you of it at some point. There are many things I feel you need to know, but not all of them will make sense.
You and I whakapapa to this place. Endless generations will have preceded you by the time you are born. You are a mix of genealogies – my Māori and Irish and your father’s English, Scottish and Indian – Native Indian. It is important to know your history and where papa kāinga, your home, is.
Before I returned here to the lake, on a leave of absence, I worked as a nurse. For most of my career I’ve been with those who are dying. It might sound macabre, but I have always felt my calling has been with people on their way out, rather than on their way in.
I am certain you will be a matakite – like Rewi and me. You will know things that are unknown to most. Able to see through the present, we can drift into the future or revisit the past.
I promise to tell you the facts, my pēpe, as I see them.
Rewi. Matariki, June 2013
I enjoy quiet in the morning. Some have said this goes way beyond the bounds of what is normal, but I figure I’m old enough to do what I please.
First thing today, the phone rang. I picked it up and listened to my sister Mereana ranting on the other end. It came as no surprise that Kahu booted her out.
‘I should’ve told her before you did. It’s my fault she left in the first damn place!’ Mereana shouted.
‘Come on sis, we’ve had this kōrero before.’ I replied.
‘I know, but it changes nothing. She’s still angry with me.’
‘Maybe you could call her when you get home?’ I suggested, before she cut me off.
‘I will not go back there until she asks me herself!’
It was near on impossible to argue with my sister. So I left it.
After I got off the blower with Mereana, I phoned Kahu about bringing up some firewood. A lame excuse on my part, but someone needed to be up there at the lake with her. I also had something else to be dropped off.
‘Kia ora bub, it’s me. You okay? I’ve been ringing for ages.’
‘Āe Uncle, I’m okay … no, I’m a bit freaked out to be honest. I think there’s something in the whare here.’
‘Oh that doesn’t surprise me, the house has been shut up for a while. Need some more wood? I’ve got a trailer load here.’
‘That would be great. Can you please bring some water with you, to bless the place?’
‘Sure thing. Oh and your mother left a parcel here for you. She wants me to bring it up.’
Kahu said nothing.
‘Okay then, see you Saturday morning, bub. Make sure you’ve got the jug on. Need me to pick up anything on the way?’ I asked.
‘Pai as, Uncle. Nah, it’s all good. I’ll go to the shop and get some supplies.’
‘Do your protection, eh bub?’
I heard Kahu sigh, ‘That’s what Mum would say.’
When I arrived, Pipi barrelled down the steps barking, saw it was me and stopped. He’s a bloody asset that animal. Kahukura came behind him, and I hugged her for a very long time.
We had a cuppa, and I checked her out over the rim of my mug. She looked buggered. I listened to her upbeat banter, but we both knew she was fooling nobody. Seeing her with my own eyes, I understood why Mereana had been so wound up. Darkness swirled around Kahu. I knew, but couldn’t bring myself to say it to her. Not yet.
I hate being caught between women; all it does is remind me of the story of Maui caught between the thighs of Hine-nui-te-pō. Dangerous territory.
Those two are as stubborn as each other, and every single time they’re together, they run into trouble. Kahu left for the UK five years ago because there’d been a blow up; Mereana had kept things from her. I’ll never forget it. By Christ it was a biggie.
At Matariki, the rise of the Seven Sisters in the sky, I told Kahu about her father Sam and his death before she was born. It was time she knew about him, instead of it being some big bloody mystery. Mereana had promised me she would speak to her about it. She didn’t.
Kahu was so wild; she booked tickets to the UK within the week, left her job after two and was on a plane in three. No tears of farewell. Kahu said to her mother, ‘You are not coming to see me off!’
The day she left, Mereana dressed in black as if she was attending a tangi. She stood in the doorway when we drove off, and I remember watching her in the rear-view mirror. Gutted.
‘Drive Uncle and don’t look back. She’s brought all of this on herself,’ said Kahu.
I don’t remember saying very much at all on that drive to the airport. Her mind was made up and just like her mother, there was no point arguing with her.
Pipi nuzzled my legs under the table, urging me back from my memories.
‘How ya going, boy?’
My hands felt his back for lumps, and I gently massaged them out. It was our routine. His knotted muscles were tense – nervous energy belonging to my niece.
‘Why don’t we go for a walk, bub? My backside’s going to sleep.’
‘Okay, I’ll grab a coat,’ she nodded.
‘I almost forgot this,’ I said reaching into my backpack, ‘from your mother.’ I handed her the package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a thick rubber band.
I watched Kahu weigh the parcel and ping the rubber band. She splayed her hand over the paper as her fingers searched below.
When we were kids, a jar of rubber bands lived in the laundry cupboard. Nothing was ever thrown away. There were brown paper bags too, each one separated from the glue, smoothed flat and folded. The stack was located beside the jar. Everything sent out from our home was wrapped in that paper, crinkled from its previous lives.
‘You okay, Uncle?’ said Kahu.
My attention returned to the parcel she held and Pipi’s cold nose on my leg. ‘Āe bub, I’m fine.’
Kahu rubbed the space between her eyebrows. She put down the package with a thump, said, ‘Righto, let’s go,’ and headed out the door.
We walked and chatted about the mundane: the weather and where to stack the firewood. But a chasm of unspoken things lay between us.
‘So how does it feel to be back, bub?’
‘Kinda weird, it’s been a while since I was here.’ Kahu replied.
I noticed the opportunity she gave me to delve further.
‘So Mereana left you with Pipi? Good to have some company I’ll bet.’ I didn’t know where the hell to start.
‘Yeah.’ Kahu sighed.
I was grateful for the distraction of the dog and the lake. It gave me a lot to look at. ‘You sleeping okay?’ I asked.
‘Um, not really. The whare seems busy.’
‘I mean I’m comfy, but it’s full of movement, like I’m on a boat.’
I nodded; I’d felt it too – things she’d brought back with her.
‘I’ve tried doing karakia, but it doesn’t stop. Aha ha ha.’ Her laugh reminded me of a machine gun.
‘We’ll sort that later, eh?’
‘Okay, Uncle,’ she said.
It was time to bless the house when we returned. I’d got the old knock-knock on the noggin by one of the ancestors who said, ‘Do it now!’ No choice but to listen to that, otherwise they’d never shut up.
‘Maybe you should stay outside, bub.’
‘I’ve got it,’ I said watching her face. In the past she’d always helped me with this stuff. ‘It’s probably best if I do it alone.’
‘Whatever,’ she shrugged and took herself off toward the trees. Pipi followed behind, snuffling through the dead leaves at his feet.
I headed up the front stairs, took off my boots and a pīwakawaka flew in ahead of me. It’s not unusual for the birds to come. I removed the lid from the water bottle at the front door and started karakia as I wiped the doorframe.
The manu accompanied me from room to room, fluttering its tail so close to my face it felt like a kiss.
When I was finished, I stepped back through the front door inhaling the fresh air, but the bird remained inside twittering. I listened to its wings beat out a rhythm near the doorway.
The pīwakawaka is Mereana’s manu.
Then I remembered a different phone call, a few months back.
A high keening came through the line, Mereana wailed, ‘Kahukura …’
‘What is it, sis?’
‘She’s been hurt in London.’
‘Jesus Christ! You need me to come up or something?’
‘She’s alone over there. Won’t let me come. Hell it was hard enough to get her to even talk to me. I knew something had happened. I bloody well knew it!’
Her tears were quick to become anger. I didn’t know what to do, so I listened some more. Mereana blamed herself of course, because she’s powerless to prevent bad things from happening. Such is the way of wairua.
That night, a morepork had called – once.
Kahu. London, April 2013
I must go back home.
Or I will die.
There is no other option.
I’ve given my things to anyone who will take them. Cleared the shelves and handed out stuffed bags to the homeless who sleep outside. The very people I’ve walked past and ignored, my discomfort eating away at me. I am the same as them now.
Nothing left of who I was, before all of this happened.
My mother calls me, day in, day out. The phone continues to ring, despite turning the volume down. Somehow it turns itself back up again – but only when it is her. I wish she would leave me alone, but she won’t. She doesn’t let things go.
I smashed all the mirrors. Fuck, I loved that sound. My ears are still ringing from the force of it and then the tinkling as the glass fell. The floor was covered in slivers that ate their way into my soles. I am still picking them out. But I don’t care. My thighs are sliced with stripes too, my own doing.
I should’ve fought them off. I failed.
Those men. I hope their cocks turn black and fall off. They took full advantage of every single orifice. It took me days to be able to mimi again. Bastards. They knew what they were doing. A pack of wolves, they circled me before they took me down. Motherfuckers.
When I close my eyes, I am there again inside the van with them – their fingers flashing gold with sovereign rings, and the grunting as they all took turns. I can smell cheap aftershave and wet carpet.
I saw it happen from up there on the roof of the van.
It wasn’t me down there. Couldn’t be.
But it was.
Rewi. Matariki, June 2013
The whare feels lighter. I don’t have words for what is going on with Kahu but continue to notice the absence of colour – like a dimmed light.
This morning I’m in the kitchen, watching her through the window while she wanders with puffy breath around the garden. In her gloved hand is the diary Mereana sent. Kahu’s face is tilted towards the winter sun with a look of serenity – or maybe that’s my own wishful thinking.
I know she will have questions for me about her parents. I’m a terrible liar; she will see straight through me if I try. We’re all a bit that way inclined, I suppose. Intuitive.
So here we are, Kahu and me. It’s been a long time since it was the two of us on our own. I watch the sunlight illuminate the steps to the garden. Stretching out my socked foot, I let it rest on the doorstep to warm up. It’s good to have her back.
We have driven to the part of the lake overlooking the bone island – resting place of tupuna, our old people. It used to be a routine, when Kahu was little.
At the water’s edge we stand, shoes off and hands stuffed deep into our pockets to ward off the chill.
‘Karakia, Uncle?’ she asks.
‘Of course, bub,’ I say and begin the chant.
I watch Kahu’s mouth twitch; it’s impossible not to smile at what is before us. We know the strength of this water. Bending down, she scoops a handful of water to cleanse her wairua. Again she repeats the action, her feet amongst the pebbles with gentle waves washing them.
Swallowing hard, I turn away pretending to look for the dog. It’s okay, she’s home safe.
Kahu calls out, ‘Where’ve you gone, Uncle?’
‘Sorry bub, I was miles away.’
I hold out my hand and my large fingers envelop her fine ones. We walk the shore, carrying our shoes. Kahu’s bare feet step cautiously, as though the pebbles are hot coals.
‘Soft feet, eh bub?’ I say with a laugh.
‘Yeah, you don’t go without shoes in London. Too much dog shit,’ she laughs.
‘Time to head home for a cuppa, eh?’ I say.
‘Sounds pai, Uncle.’
Mereana. Raumati/Summer 1983
In the middle of the lake stands the bone island. Rising up from out of the water it looks proud, identical to a woman with hands on her hips.
My grandmother told me how our ancestors honoured the dead. After the rituals, the body was placed on a platform high amongst the trees. Up with the gods and goddesses. When cleaned by the elements, the bones were wrapped in fine woven mats and taken over to the island – their final resting place.
But I cannot do this for my lover.
The power of the island is strong. I feel it in my own living bones.
I woke at dawn and headed for the lake. The island called me in my dreams. Barefooted I stepped in, tiny ripples coursed around my feet and a pulsing ran up to my humpbacked puku. The ground vibrated; or perhaps it was my grief.
I saw a vision of myself lying on the pebbles below, looking up at the sun filtering through the water.
Then the face changed to a tupuna I’d seen in a photo. Her eyes looked the same as mine and those of this child who will be born without her pāpā.
I continued to stare, and her skin darkened and the white hair was twisted into place with a wooden comb. I touched the etchings tattooed on her chin, grooves chiselled a long time ago – her face, not mine. I sensed the moko in its creation and heard the tap of stone on stone. I felt the thump of every incision rattle her bones, my bones, and this child’s bones.
I sensed the pain she endured. A pain akin to mine. A pain this child will endure.