*Excerpt from her novel-in-progress, My body of water.
And this is what I find myself doing. Remembering her. Remembering everything all that way back then. Wondering why, in goddamn May, I would leave the ranchslider open all night.
You’re awake, Xanthe, and you know damn well what day this is. What it means. The wind takes to the musty net curtain and pulls it out onto the deck like a sail on high seas. Moments later, the curtain sucks back in.
There she is at the ranchslider. Huia? A huia. Hovering with wings wide. You know damn well this beautiful bird is extinct. Gone for a hundred years and more. Or a few days. You choose.
But it is a huia. We studied a book in the dead of the forest all those years ago, when being seven was just the thing. That beautiful beak like an upside-down smile. Those feathers all the fancy white women back in the day in England wanted so much for the brims of their hats.
A huia at my ranchslider, Janet …
The girl flew up in the belly of the twister, James …
What would Emily say?
Cooper, my cat, goes wild. But only after the bird is gone. As if she is still there and he wants to get at her. And this is not all. I lie back down briefly, after the flurry of wings, and another phenomenon besets me. Cooper settles back into his place of choice, wrapped like a black halo around my head. Soon after, they arrive. Tears, wet, with not a shred of emotion. I wait for them to stop.
Fifteen minutes later I perch on the bed. I sit for one hour. And like the sand going through the narrow neck of an hourglass, they do not stop falling. These tears. A funeral procession down my face. Here I am, feeling less than nothing, even with all the remembering. Numb. And yet these wet tears.
The moment I leave the bedroom, I step on a dead bird in the hallway. WTF? I feel the crunch of bones breaking and feathers popping out of skin under my bare foot. ‘I should have called you Hunter,’ I yell back towards my room as I gingerly pick up the remains.
In the shower, I think the tears have stopped. Nope. It’s just the confusion of water. I want this day, like the imposter tears, over. Yet I have no control. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. You only control time when you cease it altogether. When death via extinction comes your way.
And once extinct, e hoa, you become a myth. People write about you on places like Wikipedia or special Facebook pages set up on behalf of the most recently dead. Predictably, they gloss over the bad and only remember the good stuff. Perhaps they accidentally remember you as skinnier, or more beautiful or together than you were.
Predictably, I don’t want to go to work. I quite particularly don’t want to today. But Mum’s work ethic is there – that monkey on my shoulder. You only stay home if you are ‘Seriously close to death warmed up’, or pretty much having a breakdown. But even then, you just tell your boss you have a bad flu and that you will be back on deck next week. Right, Dinah?
I hear her erratic snoring from her bedroom. There is everything random and nothing mathematical in it. Dad must have been half deaf to put up with it all those years. Maybe this new woman just lies there looking like a younger-than-my-mother-by-far angel. A silent movie. Or maybe she purrs like a kitten, and he strokes her hair as he watches her sleeping. If I could be bothered doing the maths, she would probably turn out to be closer to my age than Mum’s.
Out the damn front door, which habitually sticks, so I give it a shove and a kick. Cooper, as usual, follows. The hydrangeas at the bathroom window are well dead. Dried flower arrangements. There’s a whole outer frond fallen from the ponga. I kneel down to touch the amber death. As I do, the fat rolls on my expanding stomach meet together like waves of blubber. Monday the 13th of May. I have done the maths here. In forty days’ time, it will be the shortest day of the year. The longest, darkest night. How fitting.
Off down the street. I blow cold air out as though smoking. Like we did that day. I think it was ’round this time of year. She’d know. She always had more of a thing for dates. I was numbers and words. It was her idea, and I think in some weird seven-year-old way I deemed it romantic. Like wearing a hat full of huia feathers. Like the thing I had about Beth in Little Women, never growing up and having to deal with eSs eEe eX.
I was six and a half when I first read Little Women. Seven and a half when it happened. Not long after, Huia and I escaped to the forest for a day, the decay of fallen old logs and ponga fronds all around. We smoked the cold air, pricked our fingers and mingled our blood on kawakawa leaves to seal the deal. Later, we sang a song of our own making into which we threw as many swear words as possible. She taught me some wowsers, that Huia. But it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word cunt.
My feet drag over the railway lines. Onwards to that giant glass prison. Countdown. Hah. Another count(ing)down metaphor. Needles everywhere in the haystack. Cooper follows behind, and we both stop to remember the day I found him here. I shiver to think of his fate had I not freed him.
I am still with this rumination as Cooper and I step out onto the crossing of Highway 1. A red truck screeches on its breaks. Cooper goes scooting back to the footpath. But I hold my ground and barely flinch. The driver looks hungover, or sad or both. Surely tears can hitchhike to the eyes that really need them.
‘A little late, aren’t we?’ Sharon bustles past with a trolley of donuts as the door rolls shut behind me.
I shrug and go and hang my green vinyl handbag on a hook in the staffroom. Two more sets of tears are issuing from my eyes. I swipe at them as I duck into the ladies’ and stuff a handful of toilet paper into my smock pocket.
‘Checkout, Xanthe,’ says Sharon, patting her ice-blonde semi-bouffant do and waving her hand in the general direction.
I cry all morning. It is easier to get rid of tears between customers with fewer than twelve purchases. But those with laden trolleys get an eyeful, and they do nothing to hide the fact.
‘Why?’ a slight, pale boy asks while sneaking a Spiderman comic into his mum’s shopping basket.
‘Dry up, Red,’ an old man coughs. His breath smells of liquor and green mouthwash. His fingers twitch at the same moment one tear drops onto my left breast.
I’d dry up if I could. I smooth down my overgrown Janet Frame hair.
I would too, if I could, his puffed eyes seem to say back. He takes the two dozen cans of Tui, the Pall Mall menthols and the three TV dinners and walks slowly through the automatic door.
Sharon disappears to the tangi for most of the afternoon. I manage my offending tears as best I can, ducking to the toilet more than usual.
‘I told a white lie.’ She reappears with splodges of eyeliner and mascara under her eyes. ‘Said I had to get back. Couldn’t handle one more story or sad waiata. Everyone not mentioning how she …’ Sharon scrutinises my eyes. ‘What’s up with you?’
‘Go home. It’s quiet enough. Watch something light and fluffy on the box.’ She shakes her head and absentmindedly wipes a tear from my face. ‘Poor Ngaio, calls her daughter after an extinct bird and the kid gets this notion …’
‘It’s a family name,’ I say quietly. ‘Her ancestors. Ngāti Huia.’ I don’t hang around.
Cooper is asleep on the bench in the sun. I stroke his fur, and he opens his eyes. As we approach the crossing, a yellow happy-face helium balloon comes dancing around the corner of the drycleaners on a red ribbon. The little boy holding the ribbon appears, walks to the crossing and waits. He seems too young to be there all alone.
Then I see the coffin. It’s white, carried by six stooped pallbearers. A long line of people is banking up behind it.
I step back and busy myself with looking in the window of Take Note at a cross-stitch book display. But I turn slightly and glance at it, all drawn over with graffiti. YOU GOT YOUR WINGS BABY GIRL in bold letters on the side. Huia birds of every size and permanent marker colour. Huia is the message and the message is love in one of those sparkly gold pens.
Approaching cars and trucks pull to a stop on either side of the crossing. They go silent as their lights flick on and their motors turn off.
Thus, it begins. A parade of black clothing worn by terribly sad people crossing spine number 1 of the North Island. Not too far above where the tailbone would be, I’d say. And I can hear this faint, soft form of music, as though everyone’s tears are walking in a water-song with my own as I follow. And Cooper follows too.
But when the tall priest leading them turns into the church carpark towards the urupā, Cooper and I scoot round the back to Pehi Kupa Street so we can watch.
It’s easy enough to spot her mum, Ngaio. The most sorrowful one in the hippy dress. Almost goth looking, with black lace and ribbons and long flowing sleeves. Like Stevie Nicks was wearing on the cover of one of Dad’s old albums. I can’t for the life of me pick out her dad. I only met him once, all those childhood aeons ago.
The old kuia with the kawakawa-leaf wreath on her head holding Ngaio up like a short, bent pillar – she’s the nanny all right. The one Huia said always cooked for the hordes.
I want to stay. But the boy with the helium balloon glances over and nods. As though we have just agreed to something. He switches it to his other hand then goes and takes a hold of Ngaio’s curled fist. I watch it slowly unfurl into his like a fern.
There is nothing to do on the rest of the walk home but make something mathematical, rather than psychological, of the tears. It id as it id, eh Freud? So I count them and the spaces between them. How they fall in ten-second intervals. Nine Waikanae River, ten Waikanae River. How one eye takes over from the other at the exact moment the preceding tear crests my chin.