by Joy Holley
WINNER: Under 25 Youth Award, 2021
First it’s just seaweed. Wallace is doing their honours project on foraging at Wellington beaches, and I have come along with them to Moa Point. I sit on a rock in a sheer nightgown while Wallace passes me starfish, and a sea slug the size of a human head. They take photos of the creatures in my hands. Sometimes I feel them getting the rest of me in the picture too. The whole day already feels like a memory, and I am glad they are capturing it. I hold their camera for them as they climb down into the water. They lift up what looks like a string of green olives.
“Neptune’s necklace.” They pass it to me. The sea-beads are more like grapes than olives, rubbery and hard to pop. Wallace fills a net bag with wakame, kelp, sea lettuce.
“Could we make skincare with any of these?” they ask.
“Um,” I say. “I know how to do a carrageenan infusion, for a face mask.”
“Could we use kelp instead?”
Back at Wallace’s, they fill a large pot with kelp and boiling water. I don’t think it’s going to work, but I act like it might. They plug their camera into their laptop to transfer the photos from the beach. I want Wallace to send them to me, but don’t want them to think I only get out in nature for photos sake. Also I might look bad in them. Wallace pegs the rest of the seaweed on the washing line to dry. I sit on the deck, trying to watch them without getting sun in my eyes.
Next time we’re on the deck, Wallace is rinsing kina. They’ve been diving at the beach while Celeste and I were sleeping in. Celeste has never eaten kina, but she’s promised Wallace that she’ll try it.
“Is that blood?” I ask, staring at the red stuff all over Wallace’s hands.
Wallace grins up at me. “Do you want to try one?” They say it like a dare.
Celeste kicks them. “She’s a proper vegetarian, remember?”
A part of me wants Wallace to keep pushing it. I would try the kina if they wanted me to. This is one of many things I would do for Wallace that I would never do for anyone else.
“It looks like a brain.” Celeste leans over and pokes at the orange flesh. It moves.
Wallace cuts up a lemon and squeezes it over the kina. I make them both wait for me to swipe into my camera and hit record before they eat. It’s thrilling to video Wallace. They throw back the kina like a tequila shot. Celeste eats more carefully. Her reaction is underwhelming. The clip ends with me saying, “Aw.”I sit on the deck, trying to watch them without getting sun in my eyes
Celeste goes inside to have a shower. Wallace picks up the shell holding the last of the meat. “Are you sure you don’t want to try?”
I take the shell and swirl the flesh around. “What does it taste like?”
“Have you tried scallops?”
“I’ve never had any kind of shellfish. It’s been five years since I ate fish-fish.”
“Wow. I guess it tastes like fish-fish.”
I sniff it, but I can mostly smell the lemon. The kina flesh pulses. “I’m scared.”
Wallace smiles at me. “No pressure, you really don’t have to-”
I swallow it without chewing. It tastes all wrong: like a fish milkshake. I make a face and Wallace laughs with delight.
Wallace and I drink gin and elderflower cordial in Central Park. They look so pretty in the long, waving grass that I almost ask to take a picture, but I back out. It’s easier to look at each other if we don’t acknowledge that we’re doing it.
Wallace points up at a pine tree and tells me about the time they nearly killed themself climbing one, in a mission to forage their own pine nuts.
“You’re supposed to let the pine cones dry out, but we couldn’t be bothered waiting three weeks, so we put them in the oven. Then you’re supposed to tap out the nuts and put them in a bowl of water. The ones that are good to eat will sink to the bottom. Then you shell them.”
“That’s a lot of work,” I said.
“Yeah. Anyway, they all floated to the top.”
The next morning, a woman is stabbed in Central Park while walking her dog. I tell my friends “we were there the day before” in the same way Wallace talked about nearly falling from the pine tree, but when I tell Wallace, they seem genuinely frightened.
“She’s okay,” I reassure them. “She got stitches.”
Wallace won’t come to Central Park after that. I know I should at least be scared out of walking through the park alone, but I keep doing it. It doesn’t feel any more dangerous than it did before. I walk through the park drunk, in the dark, with my headphones in. When I walk past the pine tree, I think, “I could never climb that.”I would try the kina if they wanted me to
Celeste drives the three of us up to Wallace’s uncle’s farm. It’s just over an hour out of the city. We see fields of sheep on the way.
“Look! Baby lambs!” My voice comes out high-pitched, like a child.
Wallace shakes their head, exasperated. “They’re just lambs!”
Wallace’s uncle Peter greets us at the gate. “Good to see you, my girl,” he says; whacking Wallace on the back. Celeste and I glance at each other.
Peter raises his eyebrows when I get out of the car wearing a knee-length white dress and maroon coloured boots, but I enjoy looking out of place. We arrive at the farmhouse and Wallace’s aunty Jane immediately offers to lend me a pair of gumboots. I decline and Wallace smiles at the ground.
“It’s so nice to meet some of Wallace’s friends.” Jane puts one hand on Celeste’s shoulder and the other on mine. “Who needs a boyfriend when you’ve got friends, hey girls?”
Wallace avoids eye contact with either of us.
“True,” I say.
Jane and Celeste talk in the kitchen while I go to the pond with Wallace and Peter. Celeste’s seen her brothers shoot ducks before and knows she doesn’t like it. I suspect I won’t like it either, but I’m fascinated to watch Wallace. When they come out holding a shotgun, I find them even hotter than usual.
“Can I hold it?” I ask. It’s easier to look at each other if we don’t acknowledge that we’re doing it
I take the gun from Wallace very carefully, afraid I will somehow touch it wrong and end up shooting something. It’s lighter than I expect. It seems too slim and smooth to be capable of killing.
After five minutes of walking, my boots are more mud-brown than maroon. Only the ankles remain their original colour. Wallace points this out and I shrug. “Most of it will wash off.”
They look concerned. “I like the mud-stain aesthetic,” I reassure them.
The duck pond is not what I expect. I realise I was picturing something like the one at the Botanic Gardens, but this pond is massive. I can’t see an end to it.
Wallace points their shotgun at me and a rapid fire of intrusive images flood my vision: bullets shooting into eyeballs, fingers flying off, my body dead in the leaves. I poke my tongue out and try to keep the fear from my eyes.
Peter sends his border collie, Maisy, off to scare the ducks. She disappears into the brushes and flax, but we can hear her barking. The ducks rise up off the water and into the sky. It’s muggy and overcast. Wallace and Peter sit the shotgun’s butt against their shoulder and stand very still: carefully directing the barrel to follow the ducks’ flight.
I watch Wallace pull the trigger. The butt kicks back so hard into their shoulder I’m surprised they don’t fall to the ground. My body jumps for them. Flocks of birds fly up out of the trees at the sound of the gunshot. It reverberates in my ears. The hills are ringing and the air smells of gunpowder. It takes me back to Guy Fawkes parties: setting off fireworks and sprinting away, chasing my cousins around with sparklers.
“Did you hit anything?” I ask.
“It’s hard to know, from this distance.” Wallace says. “Maisy will find it if we did.”
Wallace and Peter shoot a few more rounds. I watch a duck fall from the sky, but we’re too far to hear it hit the ground.When they come out holding a shotgun, I find them even hotter than usual
Celeste wants to try mushroom tea on her birthday, so Wallace and I go up to Mount Victoria to pick some. It’s a cold morning and the air is damp, dewy.
There are lots of mushrooms above the bus tunnel. Before we touch any, Wallace checks them against a series of pictures to make sure we’re getting the right ones.
“These ones are deadly,” Wallace says, pointing at the cluster of mushroom on their phone screen. They look identical to the ones we’re crouched over: shiny brown caps, long creamy stems. Wallace swipes to the next image. These mushrooms look the same too. “And these ones are golden tops. That’s what we want.”
Wallace inspects the mushrooms, comparing them closely to the pictures. I’m disturbed by how similar they all look. When Wallace is satisfied, they tear the mushrooms out of the earth and place them in one of the paper bags we’ve brought along.
“We’ll do a spore print tonight, anyway.” They tuck the bag into their jacket pocket. “If the print turns purple-brown, we’re good.”
We wander further up the hill; filling two more bags on the way. “My friend Rosa found a dead body around here, back in year ten,” I say. I’m not sure where the words come from. I haven’t thought about this in years.
Wallace looks startled. “Really?”“It’s bad luck to step inside a fairy ring,” I call out. “I might disappear into another world.”
“Yeah, right up by our school. She was on a run with her dad. This guy came rushing up to them saying a woman was hurt, then he ran off. They found her body a few metres off the path. Rosa only saw a glimpse before her dad told her to stay back.”
“What happened to her? The woman, I mean.”
“They never figured it out. She had a history of inhalant abuse, but the autopsy only showed trace amounts.”
I can feel Wallace staring at me, though my eyes are focused on the ground. “Were you and your friends scared?”
I pause before speaking. “It just didn’t seem real. Not even to Rosa, I think.” I kick a rock off the track. “It’s hard to imagine something like that actually happening to you.”
Neither of us say anything for a while. The leaves whisper under our feet as we walk. We turn a corner and come to a small, green clearing. Wallace gasps before I have time to spot the fairy ring. A split-second later, my gasp echoes theirs. When they turn to look at me, their whole face is radiating excitement. I’ve never seen them so happy.
Wallace leans close to look at the mushrooms. They’re unevenly spaced, but they’re definitely in a circle. They have much flatter, paler tops than the golden caps. Wallace swipes into their camera and takes a few photos of the individual mushrooms, then jumps back up. “Go stand in the middle!” they say, running back so they can get the whole circle in the shot.
“It’s bad luck to step inside a fairy ring,” I call out. “I might disappear into another world.”
“Come on!” Wallace calls back. They’ve climbed onto a dead log and have their camera ready. “If you disappear, I’ll come in after you.”
I step right to the edge of the fairy ring. I know I must be making it up, but it feels like there’s a forcefield pushing me back, urging me to stay out. Even the birdsong from the forest sounds like a warning. I look at Wallace and they’re grinning at me. I step inside.