Iona Winter (Waitaha/Kai Tahu) lives in Otago and writes short fiction, poetry and essays. Published and anthologised in Aotearoa and internationally, she writes in hybrid forms that highlight the intersection between written and spoken word. Iona is currently working on her second collection of poetry and short fiction.
After school Violet headed for the park.
She needed to listen to the earth, to hear the secret things that lay buried beneath Papatūānuku. Violet sensed what was to come, when Rūaumoko shivered within the soil like a train in the distance, and the dead whispered in her ears. Everything vibrated in and out, like it always had. She just knew things sometimes that other people didn’t.
“A foot in both worlds,” her grannie said.
Violet realised that other people found this a bit spooky, and she’d learnt early on not to mention it to anyone she didn’t trust. She knew to keep her trap shut, when she saw things around people that they didn’t want to see themselves.
Chucking off her schoolbag she lay face down on the grass in the park. Cicadas rattled their limbs in the trees. The sun burned the backs of her thighs when she pressed her nose into the soil and breathed in. She stayed there until she felt the beat, da-dum-da-dum-da-dum, like a mantra.
Then Violet laughed, raucous and rich, as she imagined all the busy people rushing home on the motorways, one person per car, grim-faced-shoulders-raised-up around their ears – infinitely deaf to the sound of this elemental heartbeat. Pa-pa-tū-ā-nu-ku. Man, were they missing out.
“There are no words for the heart-rush-surge when women channel their truth,” her grannie always said.
Violet rolled over and pulled out her notebook.
Lifeblood on land, birthing moons, babies, and secrets, even when everything bound together has been split apart. Shifting realms of consciousness, make me think of driftwood sentinels and bird bones. The light on the horizon could be sunrise or sunset – it is hard to tell. Mum says that the old people used to read the weather, through the land, birds, and sea. They knew because they listened well.
She didn’t know what half the stuff she wrote down actually meant, but when the words came she was compelled to write them down.
Wherever Violet went the birds seemed to follow her. The breath off their wings stirred at her neck hairs, wired to the breeze like coiled springs. Most nights she dreamt of flying, and wings spread wide she’d weave through air currents and time zones.
Last night, she’d seen sand dunes, where her ancestors lay buried without markers. The incoming tide churned their bodies, like winter-blackened tree limbs, striped bare. It was then that she knew her Grannie was sick. Trapped like a moth inside a windowpane, she had no choice but to receive the message. But then the ancient words came and chanted her back to sleep, and gentle pressure on her temples from capable fingers, circled, like they always did.
“Go deeper, moko,” said the whisper, “down to the place where mauri breathes for you. Do not be afraid.”
Her phone vibrated in her pocket.
“Kia ora, Mum.”
“You need to head back home now bub, we are going to visit your grandmother.”
“Yep. On my way. See you soon.”
Violet already knew Mavis was dying, because Papatūānuku had told her.
A little bird wakes me each morning with a rat-a-tat-tat on the roof as it breaks snails’ backs. Sometimes the noise tricks me into believing that there is someone at the door, and my feet leave the warmth, bare toes to wooden floor.
Then Wiremu across the street starts up his motorbike, and gives it three revs to make sure it doesn’t choke on his way to work, over the hills and far away. I’ve barely spoken to him more than a handful of times, but I know he keeps an eye on me.
One night last month, after trees fell and the power went out, he came over with a lantern and asked, “Will you be okay overnight Mavis?”
“Yes of course, I’ll be fine thank you,” I assured him. But when he retreated up the path back to his family, I was shocked to find that I wanted him to stay.
Sometimes he rights my rubbish bin if the dogs have knocked it over in their search for stinky bones. Mine are buried deep, down the back by the compost heap where they feed the worms.
Sure, I’ve heard plenty of stories about lonely old women, discovered weeks after they’ve died, but only because their neighbours noticed swarms of flies. But I never thought I’d look down and see my grandmother’s toenails where mine once lived. Or that I’d have trouble getting my knee up past my puku in order to cut them, synovial fluid popping at every opportunity. I don’t want to be as alone as she was at the end, when she pushed everyone away.
Lately, I’ve been wondering who will continue after me. I know my girls won’t be interested. Maybe Violet might; she always was a matakite kid.
Bending my knuckles of fractured glass, I listen to a bumblebee slap itself senseless on the window. The magnolia out the back has limbs like me. I remember the signs. Up and out of me come forgotten words, and their sounds arrive dense on my tongue. But it’s too late for any of that now. I know the urgency stirring in me, because time is no longer my privilege.
I called up my daughters. Crikey it took a while, and there was an excruciating conversation with Rangimarie. She is still nothing like her name. I know I laid it on too thick when they were kids, scaring them away just like my grandmother did. I don’t know if they’ll ever forgive me.
“Kia ora, Rangi speaking,” she said into the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
“Mum?” she spoke, into the silence.
We both listened to one another breathing through the wires for a long time.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
“Yes. Are you?”
I listened again in the silence, to everything unspoken.
“Will you bring my moko over next weekend to stay?”
“I’m not sure we can next weekend. Violet’s got netball on Saturday.”
“It’s time love. I need to see her, and we need to talk.”
“Have you called Whenua?”
“Yes, and she’s coming with her two.”
“Okay Mum, I’ll see what I can do and get back to you. That alright?”
“Mmhm,” I replied.
She’d come, but it was important for her to state her unavailability first. Christ, if I thought anything had changed, I’d be kidding myself.
After the call finished, I let out my breath and noticed all of my feelings were bound up like a caterpillar looping in on itself. I guess everything we put out comes back to us eventually. Then I felt the fish swim its way along my spine; its tail stroked each vertebra with a kiss.
After Mum called I stood there for ages holding the phone. I couldn’t stop looking at my hands, turning them over and over. They are just like hers.
When we were kids, on the night Dad left, Mum slammed the door with such force two panes of glass cracked, and then fell onto the floor in fragments. One of the hinges popped out of its notch at the same time.
Mum had to sit down on the floor because she was laughing so hard. I didn’t get what was that funny. My sister Whenua burst into tears, of course.
Once Dad was gone, Mum got busier. A deep itch propelled her forwards and energy seemed to fizz from her hair ends. She never lost that undercurrent. A woman of extremes, unable to do the in-between.
“What other people think of me is no bloody business of mine!” she’d often say.
I remember those words.
Mum sought belonging, probably because her father buggered off when she and her sister were little, and then they were packed off to live with their grandparents.
We grew up hearing her sing out-of-tune snippets, snapshots of sounds pieced together to form a patchwork wall of noise, as if she was terrified of being alone. I suppose there were too many unhappy reminders for her, like dog piss on lampposts.
One time she drove us to the sea for a swim, and I remember that as soon as we arrived she wrenched on the handbrake, hoofed it down the wharf at full bore, and jumped fully clothed into the green water below. “We damn well made it!” she screamed.
At the brief point between wharf and water, I reckon it was only then that she felt free.
Mum’s special teacup and saucer lived in the china cabinet, front and centre. Displayed like a huge eggshell, secrets were contained within its speckled glaze.
Whenua and I watched her performances when the ladies came around, as Mum swirled the remaining tea in the cup clockwise, one eye open to ensure the leaves stayed put before upending it onto the saucer. They paid her well, and she kept the money tucked into her bra for safekeeping – like a precious bulge.
Bunches of herbs festooned every rafter in the shed. We rarely got anything more than a snot nose because of her potions. Some of them tasted like shit, but like good kids we drank them down. It wasn’t worth upsetting her. Mum coveted remedies as she did trinkets.
There were times though when I’d watch her stand motionless and barefoot in the garden. In those moments she was always off someplace else. She taught us ways to use all of our senses, and Whenua and I were often pulled outside, whatever the weather.
“Close your eyes, tell me what you hear,” she’d say.
We learned bird-names and times for nesting, the noise a bee makes on poppy petals as it gathers pollen, and the scent of tī kōuka flowers at night. But Whenua was always best at that stuff, and Mum usually said to me, “Why in god’s name do you have to question everything, Rangimarie?”
I know it irritated her no end when I answered her back, and then her sharp comments scraped at my arms leaving welts.
I’m the one who stayed. Kept watch on the shore when Mum went swimming in the middle of winter. So fucking responsible and reliable. Not like Whenua, who took off as soon as she could. She won’t admit it, but I know Mum and her kooky ways embarrassed her.
“There’s nothing here for me in this goddamn parochial place. I need to see the world!” Whenua said.
She always saw herself as above everyone else, like she was something special. Being older, it was my job to remain. It wasn’t until later that I became lost to myself, turned my folded corners in, and flew away.
Mum told us a story about how she’d been kissed by lightning, and I always thought it was my job to contain her. When Dad left, she hid herself, blinds drawn, chain smoking and existing on tea and arrowroot biscuits. I took care of Whenua and Mum, made sure everything looked normal on the outside.
She said Dad was like Tangaroa, an endless gaze over rippling currents – fathomless. After he left we never saw him again. But we heard he’d moved on to another home, where they thought they needed Mr Charming around, until their fear grew and he stopped hiding where he hit them.
I imagine the neighbours talked a lot behind their net curtains when he lived with us, and they probably complained to one another, like people do – gutless bastards. Someone called the police once, but that was only for a noisy party when Whenua was a baby. How did it sound to people outside, hearing what went on in our home?
Nobody ever said a thing about the violence.
When Violet and her mother got to Mavis’s whare, she said, “You go in first, Mum. I’ll stay out here for a bit.”
It didn’t matter that she had to wait, because her grandmother had been visiting her each night in her dreams, telling her that death would be okay and she had work to do in other places. She’d also said that Violet had to ‘step up’.
Violet had no idea what that meant. Sounded a bit cray-cray to her. She smiled, cos that was how her grannie rolled.
“Mad as a meat axe,” her mother often said under her breath.
She turned her face into the wind, and watched it whip and rattle tī kōuka pods, releasing their seeds earthwards.
It made her want to rush in and place her head on her grandmother’s breast; but instead she stood rooted in the garden, and listened as Papatūānuku swayed in her sinews.
Since we’ve arrived at Mum’s, it’s been a shock to see her hair everywhere. Silken threads of platinum have woven themselves through my clothes already. I can’t get it out of the cushions on the couch where she sits most days with Violet, deep in conversation – peas in a pod those two.
Pissed me off that Whenua and her kids didn’t stay long. Not even overnight. I guess the scent of death is too strong for my sister to handle.
This morning when I hung out the washing, there was a blackbird lying on the grass, wings spread, and its neck bent at an odd angle. I thought it was dead, but it was only sunning itself and flew off when I approached.
Then I noticed that Mum had planted a fucking Buddha in the garden, with prayer hands. Maybe she’s begun to feel desperate in her search for a solution to the thing that nibbles away at her.
Her scalp is smaller than I remember, and when I wash her hair I see the fragility of her bones beneath my fingers. “Dig deeper,” Mum says, but I don’t.
We laugh instead at the roles reversed, her head hung over the hand basin. Her once beautiful locks clog the sink in handfuls that won’t ever escape down the pipes and back into the ocean.
Afterwards, as I stand behind her towel-caped shoulders trimming her ends, I watch as the strands fall from between my fingers – ginger ends to snowy tips.