This is an excerpt from Cassandra’s draft novel, Takahi: The Trampling, set in Wellington Aotearoa in several time periods: the near future (2023), a more distant, post-calamity future (2056), and, briefly, some even more distant futures. The novel charts the lead-up to the country’s devastation and evacuation, before leaping ahead thirty years to follow some tiny communities of survivors and their new lives amidst the regenerating bush and civilisation-debris. This excerpt occurs before the collapse, in 2023.
Wellington city is darkening fast when we arrive at the Civic Centre, that final smoky haze before proper night turning even the concrete a cryptic, romantic indigo. We pull into the parking building under the library and are lucky with a park. By the time we walk back up the ramp and out into the icy kerosene-spiked air, the sky is black. Hoturoa slips his hand into mine and as we walk around the gallery to Civic Square I show him, ‘Look, Tautoru. Orion’s Belt. Look, the Southern Cross, look, follow the two pointers this way, that little smudge of nine stars in there? Matariki!’ Triumphally. As if I’m clever for showing him that.
‘The new year is on its way,’ I add, to shift the emphasis onto what matters. Sort of.
The square is filling up with the fun folk of Te Ūpoko o te Ika. Hipsters in bubblegum denim and fluoro tees by the gallery entrance, overburdened with bikes and skateboards. Looks like the manbun’s having a second wind. Circus peeps over on the lawn – they’ll bust out their acro-romances anywhere, those guys. Or maybe they’re not romances. Maybe they just really like practising. A little bit every day, wherever you are. Gotta keep limber. Use it or lose it. I’m just jealous, of their strength, their flexibility, their daily uncomplicated physical contact with other grownups. Lots of small families, one or two parents, one or two kids, in carnival getup – funny hats and braces, wigs and onesies, masks, tweed suits. Doc Martens and more Docs and more Docs. A fair few straighter ones here and there in their puffer jackets too. Hoturoa and I have donned our Dutch-Indonesian wax prints over our merino. It’s problematic but I’m not going there. Not tonight. It’s the end of the world. Africa is Hoturoa’s too. These problems all can burn. And the white hipster crowd is safe company for problematic dress. We keep circling.
The hippies have gathered by the Michael Fowler Centre, all floating skirts or dresses and henna’ed hair. Cast silver hovering around their necks and on their fingers, pronouncing autonomous messages of peace or magic or clairvoyance. Boars and wolves and bats and owls. Ankhs and pentangles and caged crystal balls. Others are softer, more benign, wearing only polished amber and amethysts, or beads and flowers.
Near the various sects of hippies are the African drummers, most of them conspicuously white. I watch my feelings mix. Their yoga pants and leggings are overlaid with matching kente cloth shirts. They wear matching headbands or hair wraps. Some have crude markings on their faces. Silent is at the centre of the group with a few other black men. On their skin the colourful cloth pops – as it does on my boy. Of us two, I’m the misfit. Tonight that can burn too.
And there are greenies and activists. And there are art students and some of my colleagues even. We wander slowly from group to group because I suddenly seem to know so many of these people. I remember. These big-hearted, problematic people, with all their good intentions, are my friends. My people. Parts of me, however much I try to disown them, shuddering at all our flaws. Shuddering at the immense effort of changing my spots. Of being multiple, drawn and quartered. Of being myself.
I’m still circling and seeing who’s here. But Hoturoa is pulling free of my grasp and running in his tumbleweed trot to the centre of the lawn, the thing I wasn’t giving my attention to yet. The towering, horned and pawed and breasted and puku dentata’d bird-woman sculpture on its chariot.
I dash after him and lunge to grab his hand and stop so that he is snapped back to me. He whiplashes, losing balance, dangling from my hand, squealing. I pick him up and, while he struggles, squeeze him tight to my chest and turn so we can both gaze at it. ‘Is this what you wanted to see?’
I inch forward, knowing he’ll freak in a minute. ‘But not too close eh. He mea tapu tēnei. A sacred creature. It’s going to carry our fears away and burn them for us.’
‘Māmā, burn our wishes now!’
He’s got things a bit mixed up. Probably thinking of the wishing tree at kohanga. That’s okay. I wonder what the protocol is, what we’re supposed to do with the little cards we’ve made. I look around. No one else seems to be paying any attention to the sculpture. ‘How shall we do it?’ I ask Hoturoa. But as if responding to my call, a teenage boy with floppy hair under a beanie materialises and pokes some paper scrunchies into the toothy slot in the beast’s belly, then bolts.
Righto. ‘Come on Māmā.’ I put Hoturoa down and dig around in my pocket and pull out the little crimped, crumpled cards we had made that afternoon. All scrawled with the troubles we want to burn. His scary dreams and earthquakes. My thousand ideological foes. And those fossil fuel bastards Kent Energy, of course.
I pass Hoturoa his three and he’s in like a rocket, stuffing them into the beast’s puku. Looks up at the thing’s beaky snout and rushes back to me. ‘Scared Māmā!’
‘It’s okay! Just wait a minute while Māmā posts her wishes! Everything is going to burn up. Don’t worry son.’
I stuff my cards in, so many of them that some fall to the ground. Little straight-edge snowflakes fluttering squarely down.
‘Māmā! Don’t lose your wishes!’ As Hoturoa leans across me I’m wondering which of my hundred things escaped, and how to tell him that White Capitalist Suprematist Patriarchy won’t burn in a day. But he’s not picking up my angry tags. He’s pulling something else from his own pocket – looks like a fistful of pocket fluff, stuck with bits of dirt, or – little seeds? Before I can get a better look his hand is poking through to the beast’s tummy again. Wriggling fingers, shaking off the fluffy stuff, sending it down to her dark entrails. Wiggling out again.
‘Okay Māmā, come on!’
I’m pulled away by my boy and go willingly. I have nothing left to think about the burning of wishes or otherwise. Nor about the suitability of this puku for our fears.
I want to slip away. Run away home. But it’s too late. The drummers have started and a few of the beaded, bearded ones have taken up the ropes at the corners of the beast-statue’s chariot and begun wheeling her around and onto the waterfront promenade. She teeters and leans dangerously side to side, but keeps her dignity. As they roll along, the drummers tight in behind, the crowd falls in line. Hoturoa is swept into the parade and as I surrender also to its snaking flow, clutching his hand, Mum and Dad materialise alongside us with cheeky grins.
‘Here we are then!’ Mum hugs me, her face still facing the head of the snake, already transfixed by the water and the lights. And the she-beast.
The wobbling chariot bears its load forwards and the procession follows slowly but surely. The drumming subsides and now a band of accordians and trumpets is filling the brisk air with a folkish dirge. Sombre and grotesque and discordant, it wrings us out. Talkers fall mute. Some walkers drop away, fade out into the night. The music pushes bad feelings out, drives people back. I don’t know why they’re playing it – but Mum beams, knowingly.
‘Yes! They’re loosening the stuck energies, scaring them out of the corners. Stirring up all the depression that’s been settling over us all. It’s good! Like a Ukrainian funeral march!’
She’s got that wrong, but I let it pass. All I can hear is a musical bad attitude. Musical mean spirits. But I’m mean-spirited and biased, too. If I don’t want my neolithic rituals bastardised by Ottoman-era Balkan brass or other cultural mashups, I should’ve scarpered when I first saw the papier-mache Sphinx. It’s done now. And look at Hoturoa. Inexplicably, the music has him skipping.
We make it to the ramp. She’s poised at the edge on her haunches. Her chaperones are busy with ropes and rollers. Sliding her down off the trolley. Reading the waiting raft. It’s pretty high-tech. Quite the well-oiled, meticulously plotted spectacle. The musicians play on, shifting into another register. Less funeral, more wedding. Spectators dumbly clapping and stamping while the pyrotechnics are attended to. Hoturoa’s amped too, wound up like clockwork by the accelerating brass.
But the beastess totters onto her raft and shifts gear, finding a rocking, aqueous motion. Hoturoa catches the mood change, freezes. Then scurries back to me, clutching, gripping. ‘Māmā! Kei te rere mai ia! She’s floating towards us!’ And he scrambles straight up me, goanna like and just as sharp-clawed. Locking in and clinging furiously.
‘It’s okay, it’s okay! Look. She’s turning. She’s going to sail out into the middle, see. And those people. On the other boat. They’ll set her straight. They’re getting ready for burning her. See. Long lines. It’s all under control.’
That was one way of putting it. Over fucking stage-managed would be another. How can you hold a convincing ceremony with this much infrastructure? This many stage hands in the way?
‘Māmā! Look! She’s on fire!’
Indeed the job is finally done. Flames are licking around the base of the sailing sphinx-beast, making her puku glow like an oven. The stage hands are gliding away, not entirely modestly, for the torch still flames in one of their hands.
I can feel Hoturoa’s small hand trembling, the intensity of it all running through him. His gaze is fixed on the beast but his body is bouncing, trying to get him away.
The flames grow higher, reaching determinedly towards Sphinxy’s pito where the notes went in. But they’re lopsided too, licking her waist on one side, still mucking about with her ankles on the other. I peer beyond her, to the rocky outcrop where the torchlighters have pulled their boat in to moor. The night has arrived at blackness now, and I can only just see the small crew fumbling with ropes and climbing off. Then my eye is drawn further left in a premonition, or a shiver of preemptive seeing. Like when shark or dolphin fins appear, but your mind takes several goes to agree they’re not just darker ripples in the wrinkly skin of the sea. I sense, before my eyes confirm it, a black shadow-shape nosing around the mooring rocks from the harbourside – first a prow, then the long lean elegant outline of a waka. Everyone’s staring at the bonfire, no one’s noticed the waka. I’m wondering if it’s part of the show or not, sealing my lips because I’m hopeful. Maybe it’ll bring a wee reminder of Matariki to the whole bread-and-circuses affair. At any rate, my eyes prefer its silent presence to the burning effigy.
The drummers have taken back the baton and are playing a rhythm I know. Kpanlogo, a celebration dance from Ghana, an easy go-to number with a square driving force that wants to go fast. This song was reinvented in the late 50s, early 60s, to celebrate Ghana’s independence from Britain. But I’m the only one finding its optimism misplaced here. Kpanlogo can create a frenzy if you’re not careful, so you have to lean back into it. Keep the lid from flying off. Sure enough, bodies are tentatively pulsing, feet are starting to step in time on the spot, heads are nodding and torsos popping. The tension is releasing. The people are feeling her cleansing flames in their own spinal cords, their own throat chakras, their own frozen brains. Shouting happily at each other, ready to party. Hoturoa is happy too, giggles shaking him like a bottle of fizz. Laughing and shouting, ‘the whale is spouting the whale is spouting!’
The waka is slowly paddling into the fire circle. Two figures seated in its centre are doing something, fiddling with something, unfurling something. The way they huddle closely while they work makes me look again. I’ve seen this particular closeness of bodies already today. It’s Tui and J. I think it is. Side by side, knee to knee, inner arms around each other, they’re now raising their outer arms in unison, each holding one stick of the banner they’re raising aloft. It’s small but bold, black on white. And there’s a reddish image behind – something vertical between horizontals. The black text says:
And underneath that:
NO REBIRTH FOR PAPATŪĀNUKU
They sit there, still, for several minutes. Some people point – read the slogan aloud to each other, raise an eyebrow or make a lip-scrunching confused expression. Then resume their conversations.
I feel horrible for them. Must be cold sitting down there, even with each other for warmth. Sad Tui and fired-up J, failed by Pākehā and Māori. But they’re moving again now, one of them is holding something in one free hand, passing something carefully to the other’s free hand. I see their two dark heads lean towards each other, a kiss, or a hongi. And now one is throwing something lightly towards the other creature adrift, the flaming, attention-seeking one.
Things happen quickly.
Whatever-it-is hits its target and a line lights up. A small linear flame starts creeping back from the beast’s raft to the waka – a gas-soaked line or para cord? It starts to race faster, I feel more eyes pulled now, chasing the neat swift line of fire back to the waka. It reaches their laps, ignites. A different fire is billowing up, loose, luscious, voluminous. Their banner is frontlit now, bright, clear. But I force my gaze to stay, on them, as screams start up. Two entwined, writhing figures, small and black, melting, at the centre of a conflagration. Burning.
When I think back on this moment my mind always falters, flipping between images. The placard’s background graphic, its vertical between horizontals. A frack well, the earth’s surface above and the cracks below. Tāne Mahuta on his back, but Rangi is collapsing down to Papa, their separation over.
A tāne and his wahine, small and black, burning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassandra Barnett is a Wellington-based writer, lecturer and mother. Some recent publications are the prose-poem ‘Pitter patter, Papatūānuku’ in Black Marks on the White Page, 2017, and the art essay ‘Te Tuna-whiri: The Knot of Eels’ in Animism in Art and Performance, 2017. Cassandra completed the MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2018.