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JUSTINE ELDRED

Excerpt from

The Crying Sea

 

Awhina touched Verity’s shoulder. ‘So what’s the reason you’re here?’
Verity took her eyes off the eels a moment, looked at her. She nudged Robbie with her elbow. ‘I came to reinvent myself.’
‘Helluva place to try to do that.’ Awhina rolled her eyes. ‘So things weren’t going too well before this?’
‘I de-alchemised, in the words of my boss, Christine. Turned from gold back to shit.’
Awhina and Robbie laughed.
Verity smiled, then her look turned sour. ‘And just before everything started going that way, Matt, the then boyfriend, told me I was a karaka tree because the fruit was poison and, if you had too much, it could paralyse and kill you.’
Awhina laughed again. ‘Did he also tell you only Māori know how to remove the poison?’
‘I guess he left that part out,’ Verity said. ‘But I had to laugh when Clive told me those trees behind the bach are karaka.’
‘So what happened?’ Robbie asked.
Verity took a deep breath. ‘Matt was supposed to come with me to the Axis Awards. I did myself up in fancy dress – not the usual attire – went looking like his dream girl, a wood nymph with a Celtic moko on my face, and the bastard didn’t show. I won two awards, then proceeded to drink like nobody’s business there and at the after-party,’ Verity stopped and looked at them both. ‘I ended up smashing my champagne glass over some poor woman’s head and storming out alone. By the time I realised I was being followed, it was too late.’ She stopped again, seemed to be gathering herself together. ‘There was an alley. I remember seeing the word BITCHWHORE in graffiti on the side of the building at the exact moment he was spitting it in my ear. Not much else, except at some point near the end, and I don’t know how, I managed to throw him off me, to run like hell down the street.’ She looked away.
‘I hope he’s behind bars.’ Awhina said.
Verity turned back and shook her head. ‘I never went to the police.’
‘What?’
She shivered, held her knees tight into her chest. ‘When I got back to the hotel, I decided the best thing to do was to bury it. Life could just go on then, like it had before.’ Her voice faltered. ‘… You two are the only people I’ve told …’
‘Gracious, Verity …’ Robbie reached towards her, moved in. She let her head rest on his shoulder.
Awhina sang something sad but hopeful in Maori. When she finished, Verity dried her eyes and made a thing of studying the eels again.
Robbie kept his arm around her, looked over at Awhina. ‘I was realising the other day, how you never talk about yourself. You tell me about Malcolm and you give me a hard time. You’re the queen of diversion. I’ve been a real bloke about failing to notice.’
‘There’s nothing much to say,’ Awhina said. ‘My life stopped seven years ago. End of story.’ She did up the top button of her jacket slowly, then undid it again.
‘Because …’ Robbie said gently.
She sighed and looked back at the eels. ‘Because she thought she was doing something beautiful. She actually believed it. I moved us here from Waikanae, tried to get her away from all our past, all her bad influences. The last month before she did it, there was this strange peace came over her and I thought things were beginning to be okay.’ She looked out towards the ocean. ‘Marama,’ she said. ‘Marama Anahera would be twenty-two now. You know, she left a note: Mum, whenever you look at the moon on the ocean, think of me.’ Awhina shook her head. ‘But that’s not enough. I think of her when I see the sun, or the clouds that block it out. I think of her every bloody dark night, every time I see a girl around her age or a mother with a daughter. I think of her and I think of her and I always try not to see the rope around her …’ Awhina made as though to stand up, but stayed where she was. ‘… Instead I try to hear her singing that day in the garden when she was three and she picked every last one of my goddamn dahlias.’
Verity took her hand. Robbie moved over to her other side and put his arm round her shoulder. She did not cry, but she let her head drop as though she was weary from holding it up for such a long time.
The eels swayed and slithered over one another. Verity had some strands of marram grass in her hand, plaiting and unplaiting them. She watched the crown of Awhina’s head for a while. ‘Unfortunately, I know how Marama felt.’
Awhina lifted her head. ‘You?’
‘Death puts words in your head, stalks you. For months before I tried, I just kept hearing the phrase, I am going to die.’
‘But you didn’t,’ Awhina said.
‘No, I had the rope, everything ready, went and booked myself into a dingy motel at Lake Ferry run by a man who was a dead ringer for a leprechaun. Funny thing is I was just too drunk to manage it, so I fell asleep and dreamt about a bach with a wing of trees around it. Next day my car broke down on the way back over the Rimutakas. The guy that stopped to give me a tow asked if I had any rope. Somewhere round the turn-off to Lower Hutt, it broke.’
Robbie looked at Awhina. ‘Has anyone else in your family ever …’
She nodded. ‘That’s the stinger.’
‘There’s blessings and curses,’ Robbie said and he glanced over at Verity.
‘What do you mean?’ Awhina asked.
‘Back when I was a priest, sometimes people came and asked me to pray. Suicide and alcoholism, stuff like that, riddled in the family tree. Curses, they reckoned, and they wanted God to get rid of them.’
‘And did God ever break a curse?’ Awhina asked. But then she turned her head and they all caught it. The movement. The energy and the great horde of eels beginning to move forwards. Slithering out of the dry end of the creek, over the beach and down towards the waiting sea. At first, like one great long eel with thousands of writhing parts, but then separating and spreading out at the front end as they covered the sand and approached the white foam edge of the ocean. Hard to even think the words that went with taking in such a thing. Just deep breaths from Robbie’s belly and his eyes wide open and drinking it all in and the two women there with him.
Time like no time and the eels all disappearing into the Tasman, one by one, until they had seen the last.

 

 

 

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