The wood arrived an hour before the storm. The clouds were black and bright purple, the last scraps of blue sky were vivid; saturated like it was a fresh painting of a sky. The man who brought the wood was a thin, hungry looking thing. He only said,
Where am I supposed to drop it then, jeez?
Babe saw him. Type of man who despised other people’s thinness. Maybe more so a woman’s. She was a mirror. Unsettling eyes so wide in her gaunt face, not dressed well enough even for the supermarket, her dead plants there in bleached pots, rubbish bag at the door, plastic toothed open at the bottom, a window frame hanging loose. All the frame needed was a quick nail and a hammer. Thinness was not time enough for a quick nail and a hammer.
Thunder cracked near the mountains before he was perched back up in his filthy truck. She said to him,
Don’t you help stack?
For an extra thirty he would, and then he looked at her, gleaming blue eyes both pleased and infuriated she didn’t have the extra thirty he needed.
The girls were watching from the window. Cairo thumped Hira on her head. Hira cried, then she grabbed a fist of Cairo’s hair and pulled, quick, vicious. Cairo screamed, waking Baby Boy. The air outside turned thick and damp. She picked up one sodden log of wood. She hunted the pile for the lighter, dryer pieces, still listening to Baby Boy wailing from his cot, Cairo and Hira both wounded by one another’s violence and crying only for themselves. She decided to stack enough away at least for tonight’s storm, and the morning chill. There was a smashing sound inside the house. Not like glass, maybe pots. Cairo didn’t cry though, Hira only weakly protested something. Baby Boy kept wailing. The woman lifted an armload of wood and walked it to the little shed. She set it down and trudged back to the miserable wood pile. When the rain started, she had enough stacked away. Her thin arms were a bit scratched, and they ached. She started for the house. Baby Boy had stopped wailing, and Cairo and Hira were quiet now too. The ache in her biceps was warming. The rain bared down thick and mean. The woman took up another armful of wood and stacked until she was soaked to the bone, blue in the lips. The children were still quiet in the house when she finished so she sat on the stoop and held her belly. She prayed for Petal. She wanted to light the fire and put Petal next to it, and pour white wine into their mama’s teacups, the pink ones with Queens, Kings and Aces printed on them. She wanted to sit with her sister and be angry together.
Even though Petal was dead now, dead now today, the girls were still hungry. It was almost a comfort – only almost. If only it were not so repulsive to her that the girls could be hungry even though Petal was dead now. She drunk more of her white wine from the pink teacup. She spooned the hot eggs from the pot, and into the shot glasses. She hit their tops and sliced them off. The yolk ran down the shot glasses like pale morning sun. The toast soldiers had a thin scraping of margarine over them. She discarded the dry crusts. Cairo ran to the table. Hira was already there, swinging her legs, eyes watering with hunger.
Aunty Petal is dead, she said to them.
Cairo looked at her mother, almost sadly, then dipped her soldier into the pale yolk, and opened her mouth wide, closed it to chew. Hira stared at her mother, who stared back. Babe felt her eyes become black, like she was trying to intimidate Hira into crying, force something out. She wanted to hit the child for the way she was eating with such wild joy.
Go to bed, she told Babe.
Babe put the cask of wine under her arm and took the teacup and went to her bed. She poured cup after cup; stared at the walls which oozed pale and yolky around her. She ran to her bedroom window and vomited out it. She could hear children laughing in the playground at the end of the street. The sound made her want to shoot everyone dead. She wanted to name Baby Boy, Petal. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to name Baby Boy, Petal? She floated and stumbled to his cot, and she whispered,
Petal, my beautiful baby boy, Petal.
It was hard to use her thumbs because the room was shifting under and above her, but she went to Te Aka. Petal, she typed. Raupua, it said. Example. He Kahurangi ngā raupua o te kopakopa. The petals of the Chatham Island Forget-Me-Not are blue. It was a tohu, the only ancestor they knew was from the Island. A great, great grandmother had lived and died there, and people said her body was like a crooked tree which had spent a lifetime trying to evade the endless Island wind by moving with it.
Your name is Petal, she said to Baby Boy, and she wished she would not have to keep his name a secret. Your name is Petal, she said, and she wished the world would be good with that. Petal kept sleeping.
I will take you to her house in the trees, my baby boy Petal, and we will live there and have all those birthday parties she said we would have.
Once Petal said to her,
Babe, we will live there with your children and maybe one day mine, and our moko will live there too. There will be so many birthday parties. Can you imagine, we’ll get sick of birthday parties, could you believe that? Could you imagine that would ever be a thing that was possible?
Before the poroporoaki Babe told everyone Baby Boy’s ‘name’. Raupua Kahurangi. One uncle smirked, and said,
Blue Petal? Not gonna play in the NRL after all, nē?
Babe wanted to shoot him, which was progress, because now she only wanted to shoot him, and not everyone. Most were only very pleased she had finally named Baby Boy, he was seven months old already, and because of this some people would always call him Baby Boy. The thin man who dropped her wood that stormy night was at the poroporoaki. When Petal’s cousin picked up his guitar and began to play Emmylou Harris, ‘Where will I be’, the thin man began to cry. Babe watched him. Although he was emptying himself, colour came to his face and seemed to expand. She watched this paradox until her baby boy Petal began to cry too. Babe put her face into his neck and rocked.
It was Petal’s birthday. Not baby boy Petal, but Petal-Petal’s so she packed everything needed for the great outdoors. Sleeping bags, plasters, valium, flashlights, ear plugs, frilly princess dresses, wine, four slices of a store-bought birthday cake, and a Bluetooth speaker.
Vines were growing through the house’s door and pulling down its rotten boards. When Petal found the house in the bush, near the river, she came home and she said,
Babe, I found our house. We should finally choose our birthdays.
They drank wine from their aunty’s teacups just like she always had, and they discussed their personalities. They laid it all out, and they were mean and kind to each other.
You pretend to forgive, but you never have forgiven anyone.
They googled it. Scorpio. Famously unforgiving and likely to remember every bad thing anyone has ever done to them, Scorpio is a cynical sign.
I’m not cynical though, Petal said.
Nah, just a real bitch, Babe said.
Neither of them had ever been into star signs on account of them feeling ashamed whenever anyone asked them what theirs was. Both had begun the project of choosing a birthday by studying the star signs with excitement, but then the chore became dreadful and fraught. Especially when Petal asked,
What star sign would lie in the trunk of a car and not cry?
What star sign would punch aunty in the face?
What star sign would want to eat their children’s sandwich?
More importantly, which star sign might go and eat them?
What star sign wouldn’t give a fuck if the tea towels got washed with the undies?
What star sign would sell their niece’s cot and put them in a drawer to sleep?
Babe said, maybe star signs are self-indulgent, and maybe none of these questions relate to star signs but circumstance, maybe let’s just have summer birthdays so we can drink outside. We can make cocktails and light a fire for marshmallows and sausages.
Petal said, I like to drink inside. I like my wool jersey and on my birthday I want a hot toddy.
Babe said, maybe you are Cancerian then, even if a Cancerian wouldn’t punch their aunty in the face and would cry if they were locked in a trunk and probably wouldn’t sell a baby’s cot.
They did not choose a birthday. Petal fell asleep on the couch and Babe fell asleep on the floor with the magazines turned to the pages which predicted everyone’s luck and love for the coming week except theirs. Petal’s birthday was the day she died. Babe came home after burying Petal with swollen eyes and a body which still felt electric and empty from having convulsed on the grassy hill beside the urupā, until black fantails swarmed her, alerting a blue-eyed woman to go to the small woman, hold her hands, and coax her away from Petal.
Babe, with swollen eyes, and post-convulsive body, circled the day of Petal’s death on the free calendar Joanie had stuck to her fridge.
She wrote, PETAL’S BIRTHDAY with a blue Sharpie.
Babe tried to pull away the vines, but they only gripped the house tighter. She could hear the river, and the mountain birds. The air smelled like strong tea, bitter and clean. Baby boy Petal, Cairo and Hira were three years taller now. Baby boy Petal said,
Don’t want stay here, Mama.
Cairo threw a rock at the window, and it shattered in and out the dream; Petal’s dream house for birthdays.
Babe picked up a rock too. She threw it at another window and laughed. She knelt and tried to hug her children, but Cairo squirmed free from her, having seen a fern frond to whip Hira with.
It’s Aunty Petal’s birthday, Babe said. Let’s light a fire and sleep under the stars.
Babe collected armfuls of sticks from the forest floor. She trudged toward the river with her children behind her. Baby boy Petal picked some up too. Then Hira. Finally, Cairo picked up a new larger brown fern frond, and did not whip but waved it.
Will this burn good, mama? she said.
She dressed her three children in the princess dresses and they ate Petal’s birthday cake beside the fire on the river sand. When the children were asleep, Babe drank her wine and took her valium, and she stared up at the blue stars in the sky pulling them closer with the humming feeling that might have been love, for them and Petal and the thin, hungry looking man who sold soaked wood to lone mothers and left them; smirking and aching over how stupid and beautiful they must look stacking wood away in storms. She sent the humming feeling to the stars until they all began dripping down on her, like hot blue rain, and she twisted her body into a hook, moving with the light wind which funneled up the river, protecting her children from it with her tiny drunken body.