“Green seaweed fringed the coast, moving in and out with the water. He could smell the burning wood, mussels cooking in butter”: a short story by Becky Manawatu, winner of the Ockham New Zealand book award for best novel.
There had been a heated discussion about it, and then someone had slammed a door. The yelling. Alexa’s. But it wasn’t the first time Luke saw his wife unbox her anger.
“You know what people will think of us, Alexa?” her father had demanded, sliding a hand down his comb-over.
“And what about what I want?”
“We’ll look like savages,” he said from a shallow place in his thick throat.
“Ha. I’m a savage, a motherfucking savage. Want dirt on my face, in my mouth, in my ears, up my dead…”
Her father heaved then, and a moan came from his belly. “We will do it right, please, please.”
“You’ve forgotten. So fuck you,” she said.
“Forgotten what?” he yelled.
“How could I possibly know?” she accused.
Alexa’s mother had begged them all to calm down, reminded them that this was no time to fight. This was to be a peaceful time.
“Put a lid on it, all of you,” she had said.
Later, Luke asked how he could help, and Alexa said he could not help, he should not. This was – as her mother had said – to be a Peaceful Time. Sarcasm didn’t become Alexa. At least they had the urupā, at least she loved where she’d finish up.
Not long before she went into hospice, she gave him a blowjob. “Come everywhere,” she said. “All the fuck over me.” And he knew what she wanted, and he took the ghost of her hair in his fists, and he gritted his teeth, but he couldn’t give it to her. He wasn’t magic, he wasn’t superman.
When he saw her in the coffin, Luke couldn’t quite understand what he was looking at. It was like a badly put together puzzle. Violently rushed, impatiently pressed. Looking at her made him feel like his brain was being sieved free of her. Pieces of her in the mesh, like lovely pebbles. And his brain was expected to goop back together, like she’d never existed.
The gold-painted plastic handles shone as unnaturally as the treated wood. As unnaturally as her Peaceful Time face. But Alexa had made peace. Luke too. Not with everything, but with as much of it as he dared, with everyone’s Words and Stuff and Needs, which went hand in hand with the Untimely Death of a (Young) Loved One. The spot had given her the peace her family couldn’t. One evening, close to her last, she had sat under the pōhutukawa near the cliff. Looking out at the sea, she reassured him: “It ends here, huh.” And then: “Howl eh boy.”
Luke wore black and howled.
They wore black and cried. They clipped the notice from the local paper and slid it into the memorial photo album of Alexa’s life. Beloved daughter. An angel, now with God… they pretended she never said motherfucking savage.
Two people drank tea together beside the shed, near the urupā. Often, Luke saw them when he visited Alexa’s grave. Before he’d leave he’d go to the plastic milk bottle filled with fresh water at the gate and rinse his hands, and from there he could see them.
The urupā was high above the coastline and scattered camping grounds. The old man farmed the land surrounding it. The woman often arrived and made tea. Luke decided they were not married, their relationship looked intimate, from where he stood at least, but there was a politeness in their movements, a slowness, nods, light smiles. Boundaries.
The old woman climbed the hill from her wooden house. A house which held itself together – like a woman hugging a wind-tugged korowai to her breast – in the seaside village below.
She would walk the hill with a large kete that chimed.
At the top she would empty the flax basket: A tin billy, two aluminium cups, tea, and something to eat.
Then she would light a fire and fill the billy and hang it, let it blow steam, drop teabags in cups, pour hot water, a drop of milk, and they’d sit back.
Luke met them properly the week of Alexa’s unveiling.
He was going to the urupā to dig the hole for her headstone, and planned on spending two days out there, sleep under the stars. Ask the maunga for forgiveness.
Alexa had always been drawn to her not kicked-aside, but certainly placed-politely-aside, whakapapa. In quantum terms perhaps just a thumb of Māori blood in her. Measured, compared, weighed up, truth be told; just a thumb. To Alexa: all of her, āke, ake, ake. In quantum terms But hey, that thumb at least got her a spot on the urupā.
Her parents had thought it an obsession, a strange and dark contrast against her light skin, blue eyes. And them. What she was most drawn to, contrasted with them. Split, fractured, busted, bruised their bonds; made her incomprehensible. Made her seem like a ghost.
To her parents it looked forced, like she wanted a tiripou to press hard into the earth between them. She was Gandalf. Splitting the earth, dividing it.
“You shall not pass,” she was saying, hammering down the tiripou.
When Luke reached the mountain foot, the sun was already pulling into its shoulder. He drove his loaded Subaru up the hill. He had a towel, a shirt for the unveiling, packets of anzac biscuits and two-minute noodles, boxes of Sunmaid raisins and peanuts, a spade. A headstone. The car growled deep as he accelerated until he saw the grassy square marked with graves.
There they were. The two. Sitting beside the work shed, looking out at the ocean. Wooden crates served as a makeshift table between them. On it sat a flagon, and two small handles of beer. A square of corrugated iron was on the fire. There were mussels in neat rows.
Luke parked the car near the shed and got out.
“Good evening for it.”
“Āe,” the old man replied.
“Okay if I drive the car a bit closer? I could go around and park on the other side of the fence there. If it’s okay?”
“Where’s the family? They’ll be helping, won’t they?”
Should be done with family, Luke thought. But he also knew Alexa’s family. Someone should be employed, perhaps this old man even, to do that dirt-work.
“Go ahead. You know it’s baked eh? Yell if you need a hand.”
Luke parked his car on the other side of the wire fence. He hopped the low fence and leaned on the pōhutukawa. Its bloom, a blazing kiln above her grave.
A hand of wind rushed over him, pulling the branches of the trees to a red-lipped grin.
Below, green seaweed fringed the coast, moving in and out with the water. He could smell the burning wood, mussels cooking in butter. Luke walked to Alexa’s grave.
“I can do this.”
Luke made the first strike at the earth with his shovel before he saw the old man approach.
“I’m Albert,” he said.
“You don’t look like an Albert.”
“That’s good. I don’t feel like one either.”
Luke leaned his spade against the pōhutukawa.
“You look like a Peter.”
Luke smiled, “I should have introduced myself sooner — I just…”
Albert held both his hands up and shook his head.
“Come sit. Come eat.”
They left the urupa, they washed their hands with water and the old man led Luke away. Away from the graves to the work shed.
At the shed the woman was slurping from a mussel shell.
She looked up from the mussel. “I’m Jacqueline.” She offered her buttery fingers. “Call me Jackster.”
Luke took her hand and she pulled him to her and kissed his cheek. “My dear Luke,” and she smiled at him. “Tēnā koe e kare.” Then she turned back to her mussel, the inky pattern of her moko kauae made her look part of the land, the heavens and sea, part of something magic, something more almighty than he could put into words.
Henry raised his glass. “To getting to know each other…finally.”
“I knew Alexa,” the old woman said, quickly. A fact she’d long bottled.
The sound of his wife’s name shocked Luke. He coughed on his beer, then forced it down.
“I knew your wife,” she said,and leaned close. “You know… she brought dope here for me once when I said my arthritis was at my bones like a raging taniwha. Next day she brought here a bag of dope and rolled a doobie right there on that chair you’re sat on.”
The old woman clapped her hands together.
Luke’s eyes widened, his hips moved lightly in his seat. He leaned to the old woman, put his hand on his chest. “Really? My Alexa?”
“She brought me cake once too! Didn’t she Albert? Didn’t our Alexa bring us delicious cake?”
Albert smiled, “Slow down there, Jackie. God, you near killed him.”
“When did you meet her?” Luke asked Albert.
“About six months before she died,” he replied. “First few times she came up here she just walked. She came here with you, too. We remember. But she often on her own. Didn’t she Jackie?”
“She did. Voice like honey.” She leaned towards Luke again. “Albert and I used to be in a band!” she shrieked, poise whipped away. “Tono and Lucy too, God rest their souls. You know, I could sing, play the guitar and the harmonica at the same time.”
“Talented you were,” Albert smiled.
“And…” she said waving her finger, “oh, how he could play the piano. God, he could play alright. So, I told Alexa that I’d give anything to play the guitar again. Next day, she climbed that hill with a gat, rolled us that lovely joint I told you about. She had a balm too. Smelled like forest, she massaged these bloody hands, gave me the guitar. Remember it, Albert. Wasn’t it beautiful, dancing and singing up here on this hill?”
Jackie put her hand on Luke’s knee. He looked down at it, and saw the swollen joints, the purpling tissue. There was a small cut, like an ancient rip in the world. He could only imagine the ache. He could only imagine his wife’s hands running over the protruding knuckles and along the length of her warping fingers. Easing her mamae for a moment. Luke placed his own hand on the old woman’s.
“Tell me more,” and he shut his eyes, closed his fingers around hers.
“I played longer than I expected. And I taught Alexa a song, then there she was singing it better than I’d ever heard it.”
The old woman began to sing. Her voice was soft and raspy. It trembled like an aftershock. Luke imagined Alexa was with him, he closed his eyes as the old woman sang. And there, in his heart Alexa stood nodding her head and swaying her hips, curved like a guitar.
“Under a tree stricken with love I crept, lost and alone there I slept,” Luke whispered.
The three of them sat, and didn’t speak and shadows expanded in the valleys and crevices widening like hungry mouths, waiting for dark to swallow sheep and birds and lost travelers whole. The sky washed its face into the sea, and the colours removed floated on the water’s surface. The coastline darkened and lights dotted the highway from the small settlement below them, to the town in the distance.
Luke broke a long silence, “She wouldn’t have wanted it you know.”
“She was okay with it,” Albert replied.
“No, I mean all the stuff. The headstone we will put in – she would keep the wooden cross. The casket with its veneer. Those shitty gold handles. They were plastic you know. Gold painted. She’ll be pissed about that one.”
Albert said: “She’s forgiven you.”
Jackie stood, tendons and muscles and joints raging against gravity. Almost upright she held out her hand to Luke. “Something I need to show you. Not taking it to my own grave.”
She pointed to a silhouette of trees, west of the urupā, on a small rise in the hill. They began walking slowly through the paddock where the sheep were out from under the trees. The night air had begun to dance on the hill, as if it had been released, finally from the sun’s pressing.
Jackie spoke. “I wish I were a bird. One day I’d fall from the sky and my little bones, and half-full belly, and worn out cloak of feathers would be no one’s concern. No one’s mamae. No one’s fuss.” Her eyes fast on the trees ahead. “But then again, I’m not. And I don’t want to be,” she spun to Albert. “You hurt old man eh? You make a big ol’ fuss for Jackster you hear.”
Albert strode heavy and snorted. “The biggest fuss there’s ever been, I promise.”
Near the forest, beside a bite-mark in the mountain, the old woman stopped, gripped both Luke’s arms and turned him to face her. The evening whitened her skin and made the black ink of her moko look fierce, like she was much more than a child. Capable of more than he knew, of more than she’d let on. But she smiled up at Luke, her eyes like black tarns.
“That’s sort of like what your Alexa said to me. Before she asked me to do an unimaginable thing. Something only a superhero could do. I’m an old woman, but I did do it. Though I wrestled, with my taniwhas, my gods, my wairua, my manawa, my tīpuna, her tīpuna. In the end they gave me permission to do an unthinkable thing. I said to her: ‘You are one mad white girl. What are you trying to prove?’ I said to her: ‘Why not harakeke?’ But she shook her head and told me: ‘A grand box. A grand box which will hold out the worms has been bought.’”
She raised her arms and made a mock flex of her biceps. “Your girl deserved a bloody fuss. And we made one.” Then she pressed a piece of paper into Luke’s hand and pointed towards the trees.
Luke ran. Toward what, he had no idea. His heart pounded as he ran into the forest. In the dark he stumbled. Hit things. Heard the sound of his blood rushing to his head. He searched the forest for the motherfucking fuss, proof of it, or was it Alexa, was she here all this time? He ran, turning left and right, up and down.
Looking for whatever the fuck it was he was looking for, before he caught his foot in a vine and fell.
He stayed spinning in the undergrowth for a moment and didn’t move. Closed his eyes and pretended. Slowed his breath. Imagined he was under water, under a wave, and as he breathed, water filled his lungs, stung the spongy tissue, and he no longer felt a thing. Then he pictured Alexa, hunched over her guitar, blonde curls hiding her face as she sang. Under the curtain she was smiling despite the death creeping around her body. Trying to claim her, but failing—failing— failing completely, miserably.
When he finally opened his eyes, he saw it. A dark sheen, a glimmer of gold.
He got up slowly and walked toward it. The night began to feel like trickery, bad acid, his gut went soupy. He fell to his knees in front of a vine covered lidded box.
He heard cautious movements behind him. He looked up.
“Luke,” Albert whispered.
“She’s not here is she?”
“She’s right where you set her.” Albert crouched. “Nothing between her and papatūānuku, boy. Nothing. She asked. And we did that for her. We dug her up, we took her out. We put her back. And since, we have washed and we have washed and we have washed and we still washing.”
Luke unfolded his hand. In his palm was the paper Jackie had given him. Dirt on my face, in my mouth, in my ears, everywhere. Tell those bloody parents of mine I adored them. I did. Make them howl. Help them howl. With her, with him, ia, babe, āke, ake, ake, love your motherfucking savage.
Next week’s story is by Connie Buchanan.