The path to the river was lined with broom. In summer the pods blackened and cracked and little round seeds would sometimes ping against our faces. We took the horses down that path. We leaned back, letting the reins hang loose about their necks. The path was dusty and rutted. The horses climbed down it like a staircase.
Sunny was after the clay. I liked to swim with the horses, but she was too scared of their darting legs. She sat and waited on a sandy patch, and her skin stretched and went red. I circled around on the surface and blew out of my nostrils like the horses did. When we got out, Sunny got in.
Sometimes, she took a heavy rock from the bank and held onto it as it pulled her down. It was the easiest way to get to the bottom. That’s where the best clay was.
She told me she didn’t need her eyes. She kicked out her heels until her hands found a slab, and then curled her fingers around the edge of it. The current smoothed back her hair. She hung in the water until her breath ran thin, then drew in her knees and pulled.
The biggest piece Sunny ever got was the size of a dinner plate. It was as thick as the span of her hand. She wrapped it in wet newspaper, which I laid out for her. We took the horses’ apples from a plastic bag and replaced them with the clay parcel.
I looked for Waingawa Red. There was lots of it back then. The best pieces were the ones that were flat, and you could see lines of white quartz running through it. I chose a piece and put it in the bag with the clay. I wouldn’t do that now. Now, you’re supposed to leave everything the way you found it.
We took the horses back up the broom path. Sunny leaned forward, one hand holding the clay at her stomach, the other making a fist in Figure’s mane. Winnie and I came up behind her.
A year ago, we sat in my living room and watched a chain full of African slaves get pushed over the side of an English ship. They were weighed down by cannonballs. Poor Sunny; she cried and cried. She was thinking about the river, and how she used to weigh herself down with a rock. She probably slept badly that night. I thought about calling her.
Gloria the goat had eyes like split apples. Her horns were hard nubs. Once, she got me four times in one day and my hips were covered in symmetrical bruises, like ink blots. I was terrified of her. Sunny wasn’t. Whenever Gloria reared up she would grab her by the front hooves and do a waltz.
Sunny. She was always braver than me. Except with the horses; I was always better with the horses.
When Figure and Winnie ran around in the night, Sunny woke up with thunder in her ears. Her nose bled, the way it always does before an earthquake. I would have to climb out of bed to get the toilet paper.
We gave Mum the clay. She spun it into a casserole dish. We stood next to the wheel, and Sunny told her all about the river. Mum listened, and the clay oozed over the L of her hand. We baked animals out of the left-overs: horses and cats and turtles. I liked making mice. I scratched the whiskers on with the end of a knife. They always stood on two feet, looking up like they were gasping at fireworks. Mum put them on her windowsill, and made sure to point their noses in the same direction. When the sun rose, she said, it would fall on them like it did on Easter Island.
Sunny’s animals never turned out well. She wanted to smash them with her fist, but that’s not something she would have done back then.
Mum’s kitchen was orange and brown, because it was full of things she had made. Sunny and I each had a special plate. Mine was green with a grey horse, which stood for Winnie. Sunny’s was grey with a brown horse, which stood for Figure.
The casserole dish was blue, flecked with black. It was good enough to put in the shop, but Mum had promised us she wouldn’t do that with Sunny’s clay. Despite the heat of the day we convinced her to let us use it. We made an unseasonable casserole of beef and beer.
We gave Mum the Waingawa Red, and she piled it on Rabbi’s grave. He was a big tabby with a white patch on his neck, like a priest’s collar. Vicar didn’t suit him, so Mum called him Rabbi. Poor old Rab. He died on the road.
Sunny doesn’t have animals. She says it’s because of her landlord, but there is a cat door in her laundry room. I have a cat called Sasha, who haunts geckos in the toetoe out back. The spaces between Sunny’s visits are growing wider and wider now. When she does come over, she and Sasha circle each other, their eyes like moons.
We slept in a bed with ivy carved on the headboard. In summer, without the guiding influence of blankets, we would wake up horizontal and diagonal, talking in semaphore to the ceiling with bent elbows and knees. With a touch we could disperse each other’s nightmares. When Sunny dreamed of the Evil Square I squeezed, very gently, on the lobe of her ear. And when I dreamed of the Man with Moths in his Mouth, Sunny would reach across and press her palm against my forehead.
If you went down the broom path, there were two places you could end up. Turn right, and you would hit the stony braids of the river. Turn left and you were heading for the Moanghost.
We named it for the twisted pūriri that grew at the north edge of the clearing. It had a huge knot in it, like a mouth warped in a scream. The trees dripped with old man’s beard, and Sunny used to think that there were secret caves behind them, like there were behind waterfalls.
Sunny found a stick in the Moanghost. It was smooth and supple and fit her hand perfectly. It had special powers. We would use it to find crawlies in the river, and I was convinced that it secreted a untraceable chemical that repelled Gloria. I made Sunny take it with her whenever we left the house.
Once, we took a packet of seeds from Mum’s shed with a plan to toss them all over the Moanghost. We went after dinner, when the sunlight was thinner and the air was cool. Sunny followed me down the broom path with her stick – I could hear it at my ankles, spearing holes in the dust. We were both excited about the seeds. This time next year, we told each other, we’ll be rolling in flowers.
When we arrived we saw a boy we didn’t know. He was crouching at the base of the pūriri, working at something – his shoulders were hunched, close to his ears. The straps of his roman sandals had slipped below his heels.
Sunny made a noise with her stick, and he turned and looked right at us. I don’t remember much about his face. There was an orange ring around his mouth, like he had been sucking on a Raro packet. Between his feet there was a little wire cage, which had a bird in it. He had another one in his hand. Its head stuck out from between his knuckles, but it wasn’t moving.
Sunny walked towards him, and stopped. I followed, and stopped.
The boy smiled at us, and his teeth were orange too. He put the bird on the ground. Its legs were at angles. He lifted the trap carefully, and took out the other bird. This one was alive – it squirmed. The feathers on its wings were pointing the wrong way. The boy held it in his left hand, and with his right he snapped one of its legs.
I could almost feel the tears on Sunny’s face. I reached from behind her and grabbed her stick, but she yanked it free. She ran at the boy, and hit him hard on the shoulder. The breath came out of him. He dropped the bird, lifted his arms and held the backs of his hands to his face. She hit him again, and screamed this time. Her face was white.
I stood there.
The boy stood up, but was off balance and stumbled against the tree. Sunny swung at his head. He stepped sideways and started to run. He tripped on a root, losing one of his roman sandals. He disappeared behind the old man’s beard.
Sunny gasped and her nose ran, like she had just come from under water. She crouched next to the bird. It was scuffing around in the leaf litter. Its friend lay dead next to it.
Sunny, we can save it.
She was holding her stick in both hands. She was all red and white.
We can’t save it.
She brought her stick down on its body, hard as she could. Then she got up and ran.
I tried to catch her back on the broom path, but she was too fast. Her feet made new ruts in the dry ground.
That night, Sunny dreamed of the Evil Square, but she wouldn’t let me touch her.