Fiction

Horoeka

Someone has planted a native forest in a paddock. One day they’ll be tall trees, but right now they stand around, the height of people. They look like they’re ignoring one another at an awkward gathering. A juvenile tree looks different from an established tree. The juvenile horoeka has leathery, spiky leaves, growing downward from the trunk in the shape of a snow-heavy branch. The hearsay about it is that it grows this way to protect itself from moa, the big flightless bird, extinct now. It is only when it grows taller than these towering birds that it begins to flesh out, grow soft leaves, change its shape. Imagine holding the memory of that bird in the way you grew. How long before it would stop growing in this way, before it would forget? It takes 15, 20 years for the tree to grow out of its juvenile state, same as a human. I look at all those young trees, with trunks you can bend with your hand and snap.

We are going up the mountain. Some days it’s possible to drive right up there in your car. But today it is icy. We have no chains. We need to get a bus ticket. My small baby is strapped to my chest and the bigger kid holds tight to my hand. I look at my friend with her thick, blunt fringe. I reach to hold her hand, too.

I get a vision of her, both of us falling into the disgusting comfort of a hard-rubbish couch in the backyard, who remembers where, the George Street house maybe. Her face silver with paint. She was dressed as the moon. I’ve discarded my outfit, a cardboard spaceship that I spent hours constructing and took off within minutes of arriving at the party, after it was crushed against me on the kitchen dance floor. I was left with just underwear, it was a funny thing to be wearing, but I was high enough not to care. Her moon face. I think about the love I felt for her in that moment, in all those moments, that was so intense. It was like we shared the same heart.

I squeeze her hand and laugh. Holding her other hand is her child, too big to carry for long, and too little to be much good at walking on their own. We start to cross the road, with the slow inch of a worm. The road is slick and icy as a rink.

“Oh god, this is terrifying,” I say, closing my eyes.

Looking over at me, “My gosh, open them up,” she says, as we slip.

 

Last night, in the charming, converted barn, as we swilled red-black wine in long stemmed glasses, she said: “I just feel when I get up for the fifth or sixth time that night, I just look at her and I think that maybe the one way it could end, that I could get some sleep would be just to suffocate her, that’s what I think about in the middle of the night.”

Everyone laughed, a grim laugh that made the heart quicken, a tears-at-the-corner-of-her-eyes laugh. One of them slipped out and over the edge, making a bid for the floor, but she wiped it so quick it never was.

“In the dark, it just doesn’t seem like the worst thing possible.”

“Fuck,” I said.

“Fuck,” she said.

“But you don’t do it.”

“But I don’t do it.”

“Sometimes, I feel like this too,” I said.

We listened to the quiet of a charming converted barn, that had sleeping children in it. We could hear only the thuck, thuck of an axe splitting wood from somewhere outside.

“I know how to light a fire,” she said. “That always gives me great pleasure, the roar when it catches.”

 

My kid leaps into my lap, over the aisle that is slick with melted snow. He bangs against the window, then stops frightened, “Why don’t they have seatbelts on buses, Mama?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“But why, Mama?”

“Come sit with me,” says his dad, reaching his big hand across the aisle.

“No,” says my child and he clings tighter, insurance against being pulled away. “The bus?”

“There’s something about buses, it’s like, because there’s so many of us all sitting here together, we’ll all be safe? Or maybe it’s because the bus is so big, the bus is so big, so we’re so safe.”

“You don’t know the answer?”

“No.”

His eyes well up and he begins to cry. “Tell me,” he says, insistent.

My friend leans over the back of her chair, “Hey sweetie, you know why it is? If we crash in a bus, it’s better if we can all fly, instead of being strapped to the bus. It’s safer, but only in a bus.” Her daughter is twinkle-eyed next to her, peeping at us.

“Really?” he asks, tears forgotten. I look out over the thin edge of the road as the bus climbs higher, past the clouds, all of us a whisper away from death and despair, the edge is so close.

“Yep,” she says and faces back to the front.

Why can’t I happily lie? It is a parental failing. I trace my fingers over the pattern on the back of the bus seat, a soft velvety fur, worn in places like an old dog’s skin. If my kid ever asked me, Did you ever want to suffocate me?, I would have to answer, Yes. And say, But I didn’t, but I didn’t. Those two things would have to live together in his body, as they live in mine.

I pull off his beanie so I can kiss his head, breathe in his kid smell. Looking down I see the multiple crowns, the hair swirling and swirling and swirling to three centres. He was born with a lot of hair and I remember the first time we washed the blood out of it, the first time we saw it dry and swirl and how I kissed the scalpy centre of each.

When we get out of the bus, I watch my friend swing her daughter up onto her shoulders. “Run, Mama, run,” the child yells and she does. She gallops, muddy boots banging against her chest, until they fall into a thick pile of snow, and I can’t tell if they’re screaming or laughing. 

PANDA National Perinatal Mental Health Helpline 1300 726 306

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Horoeka".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.