by Nod Ghosh
My grandmother is shelling peas in the garden. The breeze blows remnants of my dream away as I walk towards her. My slippers squeak on the grass.
‘It happened again.’
Nanny looks up. The green pods shine against her cocoa-brown fingers.
I want to tell her how the ground opened beneath us, how his hand slipped from mine. How I lost him.
‘I had that dream about—’
And though I know his name can’t be spoken, the word Ihaka passes my lips.
‘Forget about him,’ my grandmother hisses. The veins on the back of her hands twist as she works, blue worms raised against the canvas of her skin. ‘He’s not for you.’She knits her thumbs around another pod. ‘Those dreams are warnings from our ancestors.’ Her words cut like scissors through meat. ‘Remember who you are, Ahu.’
It’s so hot this morning. I step inside to get away from the heat.
The heat inside is worse. ‘Ahu! You ready for school?’
‘I’ll make my own way, Mum.’
‘No,’ my father growls. ‘You’ll go with your mother.’
I was seeing a boy from the wrong side of town. They’ve watched my every move since their suspicions were raised. They found Ihaka’s letters last night, and now I’m in so much trouble.
Nanny comes indoors, passes the basin of peas to Mum. Their eyes dance in tune. Complicit.
Don’t let the girl out of your sight.
At school, the dream returns in waves, and I can’t concentrate. The teacher talks about plants. Wood. Trees. Xylem. Phloem.
Ihaka and I used to meet at this place, thick with trees, black wood and grey. A sulphurous odour wafted there from the flats, like it does in many parts of Rotorua. We’d cling together like tangled branches. I miss that place. Perhaps Ihaka’s there with a girl now, the river running yellow beside them.
The teacher asks a question. I stare at her, silent. Wood. Trees.
Miriama and I met the boys more than a year ago. Summer was dying. We were doing our homework on the lakefront, contrasting George Orwell’s world in Nineteen Eighty-Four with how the year had turned out so far.
We’d bought ice cream, drips falling on our books.
Two boys, brown as biscuits, approached our bench. Older than us, they had the beginnings of moustaches on their lips.
The skinny one spoke first. ‘You girls got any cigs?’
‘Nah,’I said. ‘Not today,’ as if the answer could have been different if he’d asked another day.
‘What you doin’?’
‘Nothin’.’ We shut our books away.
‘Walk with us for a bit.’
We wouldn’t normally have gone off with people we didn’t know, but I’d seen them before. It felt right.
We walked around the lake, laughing, joking, kicking at grit.
They wandered off the track beyond the warning signs. We followed. You weren’t supposed to go there.
‘My auntie knew someone who fell through a crack in the earth.’ The skinny boy pointed towards the flats. ‘Never to be seen again.’
The cute one smiled. I took in his wide lips, eyes the colour of coffee beans, hair poking out from under his hoodie. Shucking off my sandals, I walked barefoot towards the steaming vents, yellow with sulphur.
‘Careful,’ the cute one yelled. ‘The ground’s not stable. Ropata’s auntie knew—’
I stopped. ‘There are spirits here. See that steam?’ I pointed with my head. ‘That’s their breath.’
‘How do you know?’ Ropata took his rucksack off and leant it against a spindly kanuka. The cute boy smiled.
‘My nanny told me.’ I headed back toward the others.
Ropata pulled a bottle from his rucksack and twisted the lid off. ‘Is that right?’ He took a swig and passed the cola to his friend.
The cute guy sipped and passed the bottle to Miriama. ‘There was a battle here once.’ He pointed towards the sulphur flats.
‘You’re making this up, Ihaka.’ Ropata took the bottle back after I’d drunk.
‘Years ago.’ Ihaka spoke seriously, though his eyes sparkled with mischief. ‘Many people died,’ he continued. ‘There were bodies lined up on the shore.’ He nodded. ‘So there are spirits here, plenty of them.’
I shivered. Miriama looked at her watch.
‘We have to go,’ she said.
We went back to that place the next day after school, and the day after that. The boys were always there, waiting. They’d bring fizzy pop. Occasionally they had beer. I tried my first cigarette with them. It made my eyes smart.
One time we took Vicky, ’cause she kept asking where we went. A boy we didn’t know came with the boys that day, white-skinned, with the broad shoulders of a man. They had a carrier bag full of beer. Ropata handed out the cans. I glugged mine down and belched, a long gassy beer-burp. The new boy laughed.
I wasn’t some little kid, so I took a second can, even though I hadn’t finished the first. We found some fat logs to sit on, laughed, cracked jokes. I sat next to Ihaka, my mind beer-hazy. When it got colder, he lent me his jacket; his boy-smell enveloped me. The man-boy yawned and stretched. When his arms came down, a hand wound around Vicky’s shoulder.
We chatted some more, and not long afterwards, Vicky and the boy stood up. They wandered onto the track, his arm around her shoulders.
I caught Miriama’s eye. She’d never said as much, but I knew she liked Ropata. I glanced through a gap in the trees at the sulphur flats. A flock of red-billed gulls lifted into the air as if they were one creature. When I looked back, Ropata was closer to Miriama.
I hoped Ihaka had noticed I’d used Mum’s Burgundy Blush eye shadow. I’d have to wipe it off before I went home. We’d have to go before dark. Ihaka leaned toward me. My heart raced hard. I thought he’d see it thumping through my uniform.
‘Hey you,’ he said.
‘Hey,’ I said back.
Then he kissed me.
He pulled back, like he was checking I was all right. Miriama was locked in Ropata’s arms, and I wondered if he’d put his tongue in her mouth too. Ropata’s red baseball cap was on the ground.
We didn’t tell anyone about the boys. We had to be careful. Girls like us didn’t do that sort of thing. And they certainly didn’t do it with boys like that. My aunties and uncles were dotted throughout town, hundreds of pairs of eyes, always looking.
Vicky didn’t come again. She said that boy had pushed his hand up her top. She said she’d felt something hard press against her. She said she didn’t want to do that anymore. We made her promise not to tell.
In the winter, it was harder to see the boys. Darkness came earlier. We found ways. I’d stay over at Miriama’s, or she’d stay at mine. We’d calculate discrepancies in the times we were dropped off so we could steal a few hours away with our guys.
Then everything changed. Miriama saw Ropata in Kuirau Park with another girl. They were kissing. Our arrangements fell apart.
‘He’s a dick,’ I agreed, even though Ropata was Ihaka’s friend.
Ihaka and I met at different places without them.
Then Nanny let something slip. My aunties knew people all over town, even in Fordland, where Ihaka lived with his mum. Someone had seen me with a boy, the wrong sort of boy. Our house became a prison, and everything changed again.
Ihaka and I could only snatch an occasional meeting.
‘When can I see you properly?’He’d hold me as if I’d disappear if he let go.
‘Don’t know.’ I’d look over my shoulder.
‘We’ll find a way.’
His hoodie swung behind him as he walked away.
We started using the message jar around then. We hid a coffee jar in mud, half buried near a manuka tree at the place. We left notes and drawings; stick figures showing us together. Hugging and kissing. And more.
Ihaka’s notes were my lifeline. I hid them in a jewellery box in my wardrobe, re-read them, imagined his drawings to life.
I’ll get my own place one day, Ahu, he’d write.
Been working for my uncle. Good money.
Can you move into a flat? I’d scribbled.
I couldn’t afford to rent a cupboard yet!
It could take a week to have a conversation, but we did it for months. Whenever I scratched in the dirt for the container, I worried someone might see me. My heart raced as I turned the lid, pulled out the damp paper, and ran back to school before anyone missed me.
If I found the jar empty, I wanted to cry. It happened more often as the gaps between our meetings increased. I sneaked out from school assembly one day in spring rain, only to find my own note, nothing from Ihaka. There hadn’t been anything for a week.
Another week. No note.
I smashed the jar against a tree.
Why did I think he’d wait? There were so many girls. Girls like the one Ropata had gone with; girls who went where they pleased, whenever they wanted.
He didn’t need me.
I went back to the place after school a month later. Someone was sitting there, a red baseball cap by his side. I turned away from Ropata.
‘Hey!’ He stood up, crushed his cigarette underfoot.
I walked away.
His hand came down on my shoulder.
‘You seen Ihaka lately?’ My voice was shaky.
‘Nah. He’s pissed with me.’
‘When did you last see him?’ My throat constricted. A tear ran down my cheek.
‘You all right?’
And then his arms were around me. As he hugged me I thought, these are the arms that betrayed my friend.
I pulled away. ‘I have to go.’
‘Stay and talk.’
‘My mother’s coming. I can’t be late.’
‘If you want a friend to talk to, I’m here. We still meet here—like we used to. There are others. Simon, Hine, Frank.’
I walked away, fast.
‘If you want a friend?’
That was months ago. The world is a messier, sadder place. I’m drawing in my science folder, but the stick figures I create are blurring. I’ve tried to talk to my parents, tried to tell them what I have to. What I need to.
I need freedom. I can’t live like this.
And I have to tell them about the other thing before they guess.
But last night, everything exploded.
My auntie came over for dinner, brought us peas from her garden. I picked at my meat, pulling chicken off the bones, unable to force the flesh past my lips.
‘Stop playing with your food.’My father’s command was an accusation. ‘Your mother’s cooked a good meal.’
Then Nanny pulled the sleeve of my gigantic jersey. ‘Think you can hide in these baggy clothes? You’re nothing but skin and bone. You’ve gotta eat.’
‘You can’t keep moping about that boy,’ my mother said.
‘Ihaka Oa Whiti isn’t just any boy.’My aunt frowned. ‘His brother’s in jail.’
‘And you know about his father—’ my mother roared. ‘He’s the devil’s spawn.’
I raised my hands.
‘I can’t take this.’
I headed for the front door, but my father’s roar stilled me.
‘Go to your room Ahu.’
In the prison of my bedroom, I heard the boom-boom-boom of their voices. It was time to destroy Ihaka’s notes. I opened my wardrobe, took the jewellery box. Turning a note in my hands, I felt his warmth. Then I shredded it.
That was when my father walked in and snatched the box from me.
Now I’m in deep shit.
‘Is everything all right, Ahu?’
The teacher’s words startle me. The classroom is empty. How long have I been doodling, dreaming? What has she seen? My stick figures show everything that’s happened since I met Ihaka Oa Whiti.
‘Yes,’ I lie. ‘Everything’s fine, Miss.’
Two stick girls in school uniforms. Two stick boys. M-shaped birds lifting into the sky. Birds flying through diagrams of xylem and phloem in my science folder. Two jagged halves of a heart over a girl and boy.
I wipe a tear on my sleeve.
The teacher looks at the drawings. I don’t hide them.
A stick-figure girl climbing out of a window—the only way she can breathe. The girl walks in darkness, greyed out graphite pencil obscuring notes on transpiration, stick-legs walking from left-hand page to right. Away from xylem. Away from phloem. Away from her mother and father. Away from her grandmother.
‘Can I call anyone? Your mother? The school nurse?’
‘No—I’m fine.’ I shove my folder next to the Orwell in my bag. ‘I have to get to English class.’
Did she see the drawing of the girl walking to the trees? Xylem and phloem.
Did she see the girl pinned underneath a stick man? The skinniest stick-man? His baseball cap coloured with red felt-pen?
The stick-girl went out into the tar-black night. She did it so many times as the nights grew paler.
If you want a friend.
There’s one more picture, but it’s over the page. The teacher didn’t see it.
The stick-girl’s hand over her tight round belly.
The teacher doesn’t know the stick-girl is terrified. The teacher doesn’t know the stick-girl fears falling through the earth’s crust.
Accidents happen all the time. That’s what the stick-girl’s father had said. People fall in and are swallowed by the earth. His fist balled as it smashed onto the table. It could happen to anyone.
I hadn’t seen Ihaka for so long when my father tried to scare me with his talk. I couldn’t warn him. Perhaps it was too late.
And now it’s been nearly a year. Like the stick girl, I disappeared where no one would find me. Except someone did.
Last night I found a new jar poking from the mud in the place, hard to see in the moon’s half-light.
Meet me here. A date. A time. A cross for a kiss.
I can’t fasten the buttons on my coat, and I’m cold. My torch illuminates an old rubber tire that pokes out of the earth like the loops of an eel. There’s a bicycle chain, links like a snake’s backbone. The stream bubbles. The spirits of ten thousand warriors surround me. I’m never going back.
It’s only when I see the figure leaning against a tree that I know for sure he’s come. My heart beats faster. He pulls his hood down. My torchlight picks out his silhouette, the curve of his face so familiar, soft black against hard black. We fall into each other.
He pushes against the bulge on my belly, made by someone else, not him.
Ahu, he says, and it’s like he’s never been gone.
Originally from the U.K., Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Truth Serum Press has published two books: ‘The Crazed Wind’ (a novella-in-flash 2018), and ‘Filthy Sucre’ (three novellas 2020). For further details on other publications visit http://www.nodghosh.com/about/.