by Heidi Lee Rogers
Maia’s gaze lifts from the glare of black and white to the kōwhai mug in Whina’s hand. Whina places the steaming tea on a coaster beside Maia’s laptop and brushes a handful of curls behind her ear.
“Breathe, Mai-ātaahua …”
The whisper tingles over Maia’s scalp and down the back of her neck.
“You okay? Wanna come shake it off at Zumba?”
Maia shakes her head in the direction of the stranger next door. Dancing feels wrong when I’ve just told on you, Brother.
Whina slides two fingertips down either side of Maia’s spine. “I can stay …”
“Nah, you go. I’ll be okay. Just need to write this out.”
“Okay.” Whina glides over the floorboards, catches Maia’s kiss at the ranch slider, then shimmies across the deck in her rainbow Spandex.
Smiling, Maia brings the mug to her lips and pulls the sweet peppery liquid through her teeth. Kawakawa tea reminds her of how dishwashing detergent smells. Swishing it around her mouth, she imagines cleaning the metallic words off her tongue.
Brother, when you screamed FUCK, I felt it.
Turned her high spirits into led zeppelins. Maia had been curled up, flicking through the latest issue of National Geographic – Women: A Century of Change. One moment, she was melting into her cheeky breakfast: organic, fair-trade banana ice-cream. The next, she was frozen.
I heard a smack.
Maia pinkies “Backspace”.
I heard something moving fast through the air. Right after the curse. Before a baby crying.
Golden blobs shimmer on the table. Sunshine pathways lead back through a glass vase overflowing with a veil of tiny white stars. Their bright yellow anthers bursting outwards, like fireworks. Clematis paniculata. Or, to Māori, puawānanga: ‘flower of the skies’.
Maia’s gaze lifts out the window, to the stranger’s window. The curtains are closed.
He can’t be more than a year old – the blonde toddler I saw you throwing in the air and kissing on the forehead. He was giggling down at you, then. What if I just heard wrong earlier?
Maia had misheard her mother saying something to her aunty once, and for years after, she thought her grandfather had violets in his blood. Girl-Maia had been disappointed the day she saw a photo of her mother’s father, and his skin wasn’t purple.
“Purple? Nah. Not his skin.”
The memory of how her mother spat the word “his” makes Maia’s fingers skitter over the keys.
Brother, I was afraid to take twenty-seconds and paint your whole relationship in bruises. But there was also yesterday.
Maia brings a puawānanga petal under her fingernail, and thinks of how sweet they smelt yesterday afternoon, when Whina had burst into the kitchen after her gully restoration project, patched with dirt and shining salt. Holding the bunch out like a dance-partner, singing: Here comes the sun!
Maia had caught Whina mid-twirl. Pulled her close. They’d stood there, digging into each other’s eyes. Nostrils sizzling from the stink of hot earth, she’d spread a hand over Whina’s grass-stained shorts, slowly backed her butt into the side of the bench, and pressed their bodies together, like Rangi and Papa, before the split. It was then they heard the thump next-door. The woman yelling.
We’re strangers, but we’re connected, eh? Violence isn’t contained by walls. It passes through wood and glass and veins. Violence isn’t contained within moments. It moves from eardrum to eardrum, ribcage to ribcage, heartbeat to heartbeat. I know you didn’t plant this in your kete, but you’re planting it in his.
Maia thinks of the Pākehā professor who said Māori were gentle and lenient with their children. The missionaries had noted this observation in their diaries.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” came from men who feared the god they saw each time they looked in the mirror. Not from People of the Land, who saw the face of god whenever they looked at their tamariki.
During her first year of Uni, Maia had talked to a social worker at Careers Day.
“I know we’ve got a bad rap.” The soft-faced woman had cradled one hand in the other. “People think we just take babies away from their mothers. Actually, we work really hard to keep families together.”
Maia had wanted to help the talcum-powdery-lady protect Aotearoa’s future from the many traumas reverberating beneath its Long White Cloud.
Yet, an hour ago – when she saw Oranga Tamariki had a two-star rating on Google – Maia had closed the tab. Whina was the one who actually convinced her.
“Tell them, Mai-ātaahua. They need more than one complaint before they can do anything.”
So, Maia had walked past the stranger’s letterbox, glancing at its number. Whitu. Made her think of the Seven Sisters constellation; Matariki. One of the stories says the stars belong to Tāwhirimātea, god of wind, who was so angry about his parents’ separation, he plucked out his eyeballs and flung them into the sky. Maia prefers the story she fantasised about as a child – a mother surrounded by six daughters. Like her mother should’ve been. Not just one.
“Six, and I get stuck with the worst!”
Her mother’s hiss had burned through girl-Maia’s skin, shocking as the smack. Cheek tingling, she’d run to her tree, gripped the lowest branch, and walked bare feet up thick grey bark, until her head was hanging upside-down. Then, she’d pulled her body up to where her thighs were spread round the trunk, pressed stinging soles into the branches under her knees, and climbed until she didn’t feel small. From a safe height, she’d fingered moss, and imagined reaching her hands deep into the earth, pulling her baby sisters out, one by one, sucking the dirt from their tiny nostrils, breathing them to life with the mauri from her own. That’d make her mother shine.
Oranga Tamariki only take emergency calls on weekends, so Maia sent them an email.
I know, Brother, it’s not enough.
Real caregiving takes more than watching for leaves drooping like dog-tongues and sprinkling water on their black soil.
My mother liked to say plants thrive on tenderness. They’re not the only ones though, eh?
“Sure you want to do this?” Whina’s face is like a boiled beetroot after Zumba.
“No pressure, Fi.”
“Uh uh. You’re not going to that house by yourself.” Whina spreads her toes around a jandal strap. “Here, give me that kete.”
Walking towards number seven, Maia’s puku turns to eels. Her mind circles. Drop your weapons. Drop your weapons. Drop your weapons. Bringing knuckles to painted wood, she imagines golden light filling her veins with aroha and pouring out under the door. Under the heavy-heeled footsteps coming closer.
They appear like one being. The woman’s left hip dips to compensate for the toddler wrapped over the other. His face pressed into the curve of her right shoulder. Arms holding flesh like vines. Her blonde hair fountaining into his.
“Kia ora …” Maia’s tone rises. “Hi, little one!”
The blonde toddler turns away. Then back, with a quarter-smile. Then away again. The woman’s face twists in a question-mark.
Maia introduces Whina, then herself. “We’re house-sitting for your neighbour, Joan.”
The woman looks blank. “We just moved in.”
“Aw, welcome, Hun.” Whina takes a wooden giraffe from the harakeke basket, gesturing to the woman: This okay?
The toddler wraps chubby fingers around the giraffe’s neck. When he brings its head to his mouth, the women laugh, like three streams bubbling into a river.
“Phoenix, say, ‘Ta.’”
Flashing a gappy smile, he burrows into the woman’s chest.
“Look!” Whina holds out the kete. “What else can you see?”
Phoenix turns again, leaning towards the basket.
“Sorry. Major baby-brain here. Come in, if you like?”
Maia had noticed the woman’s fullness and wondered if she were hapu. She glances at Whina, catching her wistful expression before it fades into a smile. They slip off their jandals and step into the hallway.
“Sorry about the mess. It’s been a nightmare.”
Maia glances at the banana boxes stacked along the wall. “Moving a young family must be hard.”
Whina hums in agreement. “You’re doing really well, Hun.”
The woman sighs, leading them into the dining room. She looks at the kai Maia is placing on the bench, opens her mouth to speak, then closes it again. She fans herself with one hand.
“Sorry. We just don’t have any family here.”
Phoenix holds the giraffe up to his mother’s face, as though it might drink the water from her eyes.
“Let’s sit. Whina will make a cuppa. She’s a bit of a connoisseur, when it comes to tea.”
Whina glances back towards the door. “Mmm, how about I pop home real quick, and get some raspberry leaf? It’ll be perfect. Give you and bubs a boost.”
Maia can almost see into Whina’s mind. Images of vitamins and minerals, flowing from roots to leaves to lips to veins to whenua to baby.
Phoenix plucks a hippopotamus from the kete. The women triangulate his delight, in between sips of raspberry leaf tea. Maia feels the floorboards creak.
“Oh, hey, Babe.”
“Hey.” The stranger yawns from the doorway.
“These are our neighbours – God, I’ve forgotten your names already. Sorry. This is Ollie.”
“I’m Whina. This is Maia.”
The stranger accepts Maia’s hand, flinching slightly.
“Kia ora, Ollie.” Maia presses her other palm over his cold fingers. “Hope we didn’t wake you? We hear you work nights.”
“Yeah, nah. All good.” Ollie sniffs, then ruffles his son’s hair. “What’s all this?” He picks up a wooden tiger from the kete.
“We saw your little one over the fence …”
Phoenix drops the hippo and reaches for the tiger. Ollie holds it above his head with a grin.
“Just ‘cause I’ve got it, you want it, eh?”
“Shh, Nix.” His mother inches closer. “Daddy just wants to play too.”
Ollie surrenders the tiger. Phoenix throws it down with a howl that pierces Maia’s skull. The woman rocks herself forwards. Scoops flailing arms into her own, and sways into the kitchen.
Ollie shrugs at Maia. “Got kids?”
She stops herself from looking at Whina. “A niece. Lives down South, now.”
After all these years, the day Whina’s sister dumped baby Kay on their doorstep is still vivid in Maia’s mind. That week, Maia saw seeds of rage bloom inside herself she hadn’t even known were there. First illuminated by little feet kicking her belly, then a wriggling bottom smearing poo everywhere. When Kay nearly flung herself off the edge of the bed, Maia had seen red. Fire charging through her arms, it had taken all the self-control she possessed to drop her weapons. To hold Kay with gentle arms.
“Hopefully one day.”
The woman returns in time to sigh at Whina’s words. She tilts Phoenix forwards. His cheeks plump. Crumbs falling from wet lips.
“Take this one, if you want.”
“Aww.” Whina squeezes a cherubic foot. “Let us know if you ever need a hand, eh?”
“Just so you know, I think you’d actually be wonderful. Really wonderful.”
Maia can’t find her way through the maze of her own silence.
Whina rolls over. “Pō mārie.”
Maia stares into the darkness. Maia, you stink.
This is how the baby conversation always goes. Whina builds a new world, she knocks it down.
Maia listens until Whina’s imprisoned breath releases in soft gusts. Maybe they could do it. Say yes to uncertainty. Disappointment. Possibility. She could certainly face the lack of things. Sleep. Money. Freedom. But could Maia face her tamariki, seeing her violets reflected in their eyes? Their sticky fingers pushing all her buttons, could she go against nature?
Maybe it’s not actually about that, though. Maia wraps herself gingerly around the dolphin curve of Whina’s spine. Maybe it’s about finding the way back to a forsaken nature. Where skin touches skin, like tangata whenua touched soil. Gently. Respectfully. Because they understood we’re all intertwined with one another; cocreating a shared future.