It had happened in a playground, at the top of a slide that had walls and a roof like a mini-playhouse. It was late afternoon, there was no one around, and when he put his hand under her clothes she did not feel particularly worried about being caught. Curiosity relaxed any concerns she had about the act itself, and by the time they had both lost their pants, hormones came in to finish the job. It was awkward, and strange. But, while any pleasure was met equally by discomfort, she could sense there was great potential for fun to be had.
Afterwards she realised, she hadn’t given it enough thought. At the time, she believed it was what she wanted, that somehow it would bind him to her. But it seemed to have the opposite effect. After that afternoon, no matter how hard she tried, she never got another chance to talk to him. When she texted, he didn’t answer. When she emailed, he only answered to say he’d lost his cell phone. So, call me, she replied. But he didn’t. He’d never been much of a talker, but still, she couldn’t believe him capable of ignoring her. She kept thinking something terrible must have happened to him. What if he was in hospital? No one in his family knew her, no one would contact her to let her know. Several times she tried to ring him at home. He was never there, and in the end his mother said he was working, late, every night, and hung up.
A week later she saw him across the mall. She sought out his eyes, and waved, and was faced, for the first time, with the implacable disdain that is the universal domain of teenage boys who are bored with their subject.
She cried every night for a week. The intensity of the grief surprised her. She had not loved the boy, though she had liked him very much. She began to suspect it was the thing they had done which had opened this well of anguish, followed so swiftly as it was by his rejection.
Eventually, her sorrow passed, and was replaced by a vague sense of embarrassment whenever she encountered her ex-love or his mates. Routine overtook her days – she dedicated herself to her Bebo page with renewed vigour, gossiping and LOLing with her friends in an abbreviated diction as cryptic to her parents as Mayan hieroglyphics. Exams loomed in her future and became her primary source of anguish.
It was on the day of her final exam that she experienced the first twinges. Her stomach turned in strange somersaults, bubbling and shifting. She thought it was nerves, though to tell the truth she wasn’t that worried now that the year was almost over. She became slightly alarmed when, in the following weeks, the flips and gurgles in her stomach became stronger, and her clothes became tight.
The afternoon at the park was no longer real in her mind, as if the passing of time had gradually extracted anything tangible from the event. So it took her a long time to connect the dots. Eventually, in the midst of serving burgers at McDonalds, she had one of those moments when something comes suddenly from the back of your mind to the front, and you wonder how you could not have thought of it before. The exact words that came to her were how long since my last period? and she almost dropped a tray when she realised she didn’t know the answer.
Denial can be a gloriously useful practice. She estimated that it had already been at least five months since the deed had taken place, that abortion was out of the question, and that her condition had thus far escaped the notice of anyone, including herself. It was better, she thought, to go on as she was, to not draw attention to herself, and to hope that the baby stayed blissfully tucked away in her pelvis. If anyone noticed her filling out, she would bemoan how much weight she was putting on, though she was already a big girl and people usually politely ignored her size. Any thoughts of the future she carefully avoided.
But at night, when sleep lowered her defences against the nature of reality, her unborn son began to visit her, unbidden, and full of mischief.
At first, he began to make appearances in her dreams about other things. There she would be in a house she seemed to visit often, the house she always seemed to be exploring, or hiding in, where she often met whole groups of people she didn’t know in real life but whom she assumed were real, somewhere, having the same dream. On a bad night there might come to this house an ominous dark figure, resolute on destruction and mayhem, and on a good night she could escape him by flying out a window. On one such night, she was making her way to the roof in order to escape, when the baby materialised in front of her with a popping sound, and floated there, umbilicus hanging, his eyes closed in foetal sleep. She woke immediately, more frightened by this vision than she ever had been by the dark man.
On subsequent nights the baby appeared, again and again, each time a little larger and well-formed, until his eyes opened and the umbilical cord diminished to a stump. Within a week he had developed the ability to laugh and point, which he did with apparent glee at a crucial moment, causing the dark man to combust and turn into a cloud of vapour.
As the baby grew, the landscape of her dreams transformed. Suburbs were replaced by grass, then scrub, then forests; she was visited less by people, encountering instead a constantly expanding twitter and gaggle of birds. Her dream life began to overtake her waking life, so that she felt like she walked through her days only half-awake, operating on automatic pilot.
After two weeks, the boy was a cheeky toddler, imitating bird-sound and jumping around at her heels. He dragged her through his forest, demanding that she lift stones and push him up into trees so that he could investigate, asking endless questions about the sky and earth and everything in between. After four weeks, he was a husky teen, almost the same age as her, and he became troubled about the world around him.
‘Ma!’ His tone ever-demanding, ‘Why is the day so short here? Why is the night cold? I do not like it!’
His dissatisfaction matched the flavour of her own, but she had never been bold enough to make a fuss about it. Eventually he began going on adventures without her, though since these were still her dreams, she could watch over him from a distance.
She watched him learn the skill of fishing in an ocean that seemed to roll out like a miraculous carpet at his bidding; she watched him explore dark wet caves and crevices leading straight into the depths of the underworld; she watched him chatting to the birds as if they were his own kin; and one night, in the inexplicable world of a daylight dream, she watched him climb into the sky and argue with the sun without being harmed by its brilliance or heat.
He drifted from her, as all grown men drift from their mothers, and she began to see him less and less. People moved onto the land, and started rebuilding. She began again to sleep deeply and retain consciousness during the day. And so it was, that when she had the first pains, she was not surprised. He was earlier than he should have been, but he had prepared her.
The school year had started, which was convenient for her. If she had been home, someone might have noticed the event taking place. She spent the morning hiding in the girls’ toilets, holding her silence when anyone came in, huffing and puffing when she knew she was alone. There came a point when the pains were so frequent and deep she thought she would split in two, and she became convinced she would die with the baby still lodged inside her. She closed her eyes and looked deep inside her body, where it was all red and torn-apart, and she prayed for deliverance. With her next breath she was overwhelmed with the urge to push, and she kept pushing, until the small body slithered out onto her school blazer, which she had laid over the closed toilet lid she was straddling.
Her legs were shaking. She leaned against the cistern to breathe. She was sweating and relieved and cold and confused. The baby made no sound. His skin was almost blue and his face looked exactly as she had seen him in the first dream. Then she could not think about him anymore because something else was coming, more pains. She birthed the placenta, still attached to the baby. Then she bundled both in her blazer, padded her underwear with toilet paper and left.
She walked. Instinct led her to the sea, less than a mile from her school. She walked strong. As is common after a great violence has occurred, she felt only calm.
When she reached the beach she removed her shoes and padded to the water’s edge. The sand felt real and sure under her feet, the foamy tide comforting in its rhythm. She kneeled, placed her bundle beside her, and removed her backpack. She searched her bag, finding her pencil case at the bottom underneath her Maths book and a packet of Rashuns. From her pencil case she removed her small orange-handled scissors. She took hold of her hair at the base, and began to cut. It fell in a luxurious pile of long strands. It was the length and opulence of this hair that had first attracted the baby’s father to her. She did not stop cutting until all of her hair had been removed. Then she began to plait and weave.
As she worked she remembered the boy in her dreams. She remembered his life in a way that was more real than the events that had gone before it. When she was finished, she took the fetally-coiled baby, cord and placenta and swaddled them in the soft nest she had created. Then she stood, walked through the waves until the water lapped at her thighs, and released her bundle to the sea.
The first time the boy came to her, she was flattered. He had other grandparents he could’ve asked. He was the spoilt one. They all indulged him. But he had chosen to spend time with her.
‘Nanny Ma, can you help me with my homework?’
‘Of course, moko.’
‘We’re going on camp in a couple of weeks, learning bush-craft. Teacher says we need to find out how to cook and keep warm in the forest.’
She chuckled. ‘You’ve come to the right place then boy.’
‘Yeah Nan, I thought so.’
She showed him the fireplace, asked him to fetch materials for kindling. Then, following the ancient method passed to her by her own parents, she demonstrated the art of ignition. The boy watched eagerly, his dark eyes a mirror for the flames that burst forth.
‘Now you,’ she instructed, stamping out the flame for him to begin afresh.
But he failed repeated attempts to work the fire. By his fourth try, he hung his head and wouldn’t look her in the eye. She was charmed by the tilt of his head, the scruffy toss of hair at the back that hadn’t had the sleep tamed out of it.
‘Eh, moko – hei aha, don’t worry. Nanny has something for you.’ From her basket she removed a lighter. She only had a few, but the boy could keep one.
‘It might be cheating a bit, but why not?’ she said. ‘Since we have these things you may as well use them.’
The boy gave his thanks and kissed her cheek. ‘See you next time,’ he said, and grinned at her before making his way out. She waved to him from the door, noticing how he ambled with hands in pockets, more of a swing in his step now.
The second time he came his eyes were red and he looked to one side when he spoke.
‘I’m sorry Nan,’ he said, ‘I lost it. I hadn’t even used it yet and it’s gone.’
The poor darling boy. She didn’t feel even a flicker of irritation. She anticipated the relief that would sweep through him as she gave him another lighter.
‘Ah Nan, you’re the best,’ he said, throwing his arms around her. This time he skipped out her gate, and she couldn’t help but chuckle.
‘Look after it this time, boy,’ she called, but she did not know if he heard.
A week later he returned.
‘I was by the river, practising,’ he told her, ‘it fell out of my pocket into the water. I’m sorry Nan. I’m sorry. I’ll chop your wood, I’ll sweep your floor, I’ll do anything you want to make up for it. But I still need to figure out how to make fire for camp.’
‘What should I do with you boy? All the wood was chopped and stacked by your Uncle two weeks ago. You know I sweep out in the morning. I do not want your work. I want you to look after the things I give you.’
‘Yes, Nan.’ He was staring intently at his bare feet.
‘If I give you my last lighter, you cannot come back for more.’
‘I know, Nan. But what will you do?’
‘I know the old ways, I have shown you. One day you will learn properly too.’
She made him stay for a meal with her. He was not going to get off that easy. He sat by her side as she told him her stories, listening to every word, she thought. If the boy was a bit clumsy, at least he did as he was told. They played cards and he sang her some of his playground songs, the ones he made up about the teachers behind their backs. Her grandson. He was talented, even if he was cheeky with it. By the time he left that afternoon she couldn’t help smiling, the late afternoon sun warming her skin.
Other than at hui and tangi, she didn’t see him much for a few years. He would plant a peck on her cheek in passing, but he didn’t stop at her house. She missed him, though she needn’t have worried. He turned up at her place soon after his fifteenth birthday, bringing her leftover kaimoana and cake from the party.
‘So. You remember your old Nanny Ma eh?’
‘Ah Nan, you know you’re my favourite out of all the kuia.’
‘Hmph. What have you been up to boy?’
‘Mum said I can learn to drive, Nan!’
‘Ae? Hmmm. Who will teach you?’
‘Well, my mate’s got his licence, but we don’t have a car to practice in.’
She tapped her pipe against the steps of the porch, prepared to fill it with fresh tobacco.
She looked at him. She knew what he would ask.
‘My car has been in that garage for years, boy. Hardly ever use it. Might be dangerous.’
‘My mate can check it over, Nan. Please?’
She lit her pipe. Puffed on it a minute. It warmed and relaxed her. Her moko’s round dark eyes were fixed on her.
He threw his arms around her.
‘Eh, watch the pipe! You boys can get that thing going, but be careful. I might need it one day. And keep yourselves in one piece.’
They came two days later and spent some time in her garage getting the old vehicle going. She was in the garden when she heard her grandson’s yell. Then she heard the engine running. They’d managed to spark the ignition, fire up the old jalopy.
As they backed out rancid exhaust fumes billowed over the car, floating towards the house. What a stink, she thought, but she waved as they beeped at her and took off down the driveway.
The boy was at her house every week after that. He’d come in, plant a big kiss on her cheek, grab some warm rēwena bread from her table and nod his head towards the garage.
‘Alright if we take it out, Nan?’ He’d ask, carving off a chunk of butter for his bread.
‘Yes, moko. Have it back in an hour. Be safe.’
But they never brought it back in an hour. They stayed out late, so that she worried about them driving in the dark. Sometimes, they did not return until the next day.
The fourth time they took the car, she could not sleep when she went to bed. She was worried about them, yes. But also angry. This would be the last time, she swore. She wanted her grandson to be happy. But he also needed to learn to listen.
When he returned in the morning, he came by foot. His clothes and skin were blackened. There was a bloody gash on his cheek. He sat on her porch, his head in his hands.
‘I’m so sorry, Nan. The car’s totalled. My mate’s in hospital.’
‘Is he okay?’
‘Broken ribs and leg. Burns.’
‘Hika! Totalled? What does that mean?’
‘Swerved sideways into a power pole. Must’ve hit the petrol tank. We were just getting away from the car when it exploded.’
She felt many things at once – relief… horror… anger… How could they be so stupid? It was this last emotion that escaped out of her lips. She berated him, and only just stopped herself from beating him with her small fists.
He covered his face with his hands the whole time, and when she had finished she noticed he was shuddering. She put her arms around him then, and he lifted his wet face to her shoulder.
‘Why do you do it, boy?’ she said, more softly now, ‘Why don’t you ever listen? Why aren’t you more cautious?’
He sobbed, gasped for a mouthful of air. The sound melted her heart. She wished she could make things easier for him.
He stopped coming again for a long time. She thought he was too ashamed. Whakamā can eat a person up inside, so this worried her too. She wanted to tell him to let it go, but when she called he never answered. She tried his mother. Tara agreed that something was up with her youngest son, but she hardly saw him anymore either.
So when he turned up at her place again, Nanny Ma was happy to see him. He was excited and happy and chatted away about the new friends he’d made in the city and how he was thinking about entering a deep-sea fishing competition with his brothers next year. They were planning to break some sort of record by going further than anyone had gone before. He entertained her for hours with his stories, leaping about, singing and doing impressions. She tried to feed him but he couldn’t calm down enough to sit and eat. By the time it was dark his happy chatter had turned to agitated complaining. She didn’t understand what was upsetting him.
‘Ah, Nan, I gotta save up, but I’ve got no job. Can you help me out? Just until I get some work? I really want a fishing job. Won’t be many of those until next season. The bros and I are trying to get our funds sorted for the fishing competition.’
A fishing competition sounded exactly like what her grandson needed, so she agreed. She went to the basket and pulled out her can of savings, gave the boy some notes.
‘Hope this helps, moko,’ she said.
‘Oooh yes, it will, Nan,’ he said, kissed her cheek and skipped out like he was ten years old.
Of course, you will have guessed, he came back for money again, and again. Just before his last visit she bumped into the boy’s older brother at the market and when she asked about the fishing competition he looked at her blankly, then bent to her and whispered, if that’s what my little brother told you, he’s lying. He’s too busy running around with his P-head mates to go fishing these days.
The shock of it was like a pain to her temples. She imagined her grandson inhaling fire into his lungs that caused him to race like a rabbit in all directions, chemicals boiling in his blood. Almost as much as she hated that he lied to her, she hated that she had become an accomplice to his behaviour.
The final time he turned up at her gate he wore his habitual cheeky grin. That doesn’t charm me anymore, boy, she thought. It was time, she decided, to teach him a lesson he would not forget. She was not going to let any descendant of hers destroy himself. She went to her basket and plucked the most precious item from its depths.
She met him on the front porch.
‘You’re playing with fire, boy.’
‘Eh… What, Nan?’
‘You know what I’m talking about. Have you come for more money?’
He dipped his head, pushed his hands into his pockets, ‘Yeah, well I…’
‘What do you do with my money, boy?’
‘I, um…’ he looked into her eyes, she knew he could see the anger blazing there.
‘You smoke it don’t you, boy? You send my money up in flames.’
His face crumpled inwards. She had to act before she lost him completely. She was tired of her old life, but it occurred to her that she could use it to teach the boy a lesson.
‘The money doesn’t matter, child. But I will not let you raze the house of your family. If you are intent on stealing and destruction, I will show you what will happen. And then you will not have to experience it yourself.’
At this, he looked at her again, his eyes opening wide. She raised her hand, showed him the ancient flint glinting there. In her other hand a thick dry stick of kaikōmako. It only took a moment, the first strike emitting a spark, the second creating flame.
‘Nan, NO!’ the boy yelled and ran towards her. She was chanting. The flame intensified with each word. It enveloped her in seconds and spread into an angry blazing ball. He had to retreat.
She was still there. This is the way of the old magic. She could see her grandson from inside the raging flames as she rose up before him. She was fearsome indeed. She enveloped the house, the shed, the surrounding trees. Her moko began to run and she let her flames chase him – destroying everything in his wake. He looked back at her. She sped towards him, but as she came near he leapt away, fleeing towards the creek near his house, which he splashed into, frantically diving into the deepest part of the waterhole, so that her flames could not reach him.
She felt herself cooling. There wasn’t much of her left now, just some charred twigs, the remnant of which looked like the bones of a hand, each finger with a small flame curling into its last breath.
Her grandson watched her, the whites of his eyes bulging, his chest heaving.
‘Look at the trail of destruction we have left, moko,’ she said, a whisper of dying flames, ‘this is what comes of the game you are playing. The ahi is yours now, you’ll find it in the forest, the way I showed you.’
He watched until only ash was left, soft and light grey, like the hair of an old woman. Then he pulled himself up the bank of the creek and went back through the bush, stopping here and there to search. When he found what he was looking for, he gathered the items and returned home. There, he built fire the old way, and asked his family to come and see, and told them everything that had happened, his grandmother’s voice hissing and crackling in his ears with each orange flame.