It’s been a shit of a night. The orange sun is creeping up above the water, and Hine-nui-te-pō is eying it with eyes red from smoke and exhaustion. She sits cross-legged, the newly dead on the other side of the fire. None of them want to be there, but they’re still coming and she’s more than ready for them to stop. She leans forward and prods the burning logs with a stick. Embers tumble aside and little sparks flicker in the dusky early morning. The dead weep and stumble past. She shifts in her seat, straining to see the end of the line, and she can, it’s there. She pulls her kahu huruhuru up higher on her shoulders.
When the last of the new arrivals have moved to stand in front of her, Hine-nui begins the pōwhiri. She cries out, the song warning and welcome, threat and commiseration. The dead call back, their voices reedy through the smoke. Hine can see the full shape of the sun now, and her eyes droop.
She gives each of the dead a hongi and they lean into her as she breathes, their last experience of breath. She can feel their longing. It’s the way she feels about sleep right now.
When they have all dispersed, like the smoke from her fire, like the mist rising from the swampy ground, Hine turns to leave. There’s a place she goes when she needs rest. A place she won’t be disturbed.
She picks up her kete, the handle fraying, and she’ll have to make another soon. She puts one weary foot in front of another, and the bracken from the punga crackles under her. There’s a pīwakawaka flitting ahead, its racket loud enough to wake the dead, if they still slept, but Hine goes further, above the line of the tropical ferns and into the beech. When she lies on the earth, she feels as though her bones melt into it. She does not feel the stones under her cloak, the twigs in her hair. She sleeps.
Mary is in love with Joseph. Not just the kind of clichéd love where you draw hearts in your notebooks with your initials inside. Not the kind where all you can do is watch from across the room. The real kind. The kind where you kiss, and your bodies lock together. Where it feels as though you fit like jigsaw pieces. Where it takes everything you have to tear yourself away from those arms because the consequence of following through with this kind of love is that you never get it again. And Mary wants Joseph again. And again. And again.
She thinks that she’ll get to have him, because Joseph is speaking to her father in the other room. She can feel the blood pulsing. She puts her hand between her legs and squeezes her thighs closed, and the pressure on her body feels good. Her heart feels expansive and the men in the next room laugh, and Mary smiles.
She stands, impatient, and walks to the doors leading out to the gardens. Outside is the herb garden, and she crushes the thyme in her fingers, lifts a leaf of mint to her mouth. There is a buzz of insects, and far off, she can hear someone shout. Mary thinks about Joseph and the house they might have. She can plant these things too, and one day, there’ll be children to run through down the paths and burst into a cool house, smelling of summer and growth and new things.
Leda is hot. The day is languid and still and she slips listlessly through the house, her fingers reaching down to stray across the surfaces of tables, shelves.
She can hear her women’s voices but there is the space between the calls and response of their conversations makes Leda think they are half way to falling asleep. They’re not watching her.
She escapes out of the house, and down the path beaten out of the grass by many feet, animal and human. She flows down it like a goddess, her white dress streaming out, her sandals picking up the loose heads of seeds where they lean into her way onto a narrower path. She feels a rush at her sudden freedom.
At the river, she looks behind her, but there is no one there. The water rushes in trickling splashes over the rocks and her skin is baked. She heads down the bank a little further; there’s a stand of bushes and some shade, and in its relative privacy, she strips off her clothes. Her body is ombre, white in the centre, turning a richer brown on her arms, the back of her neck. It is exhilarating to be naked and alone. She spread her towel in the sun and steps into the water. It gets deep quickly and in the centre, where it reaches her waist and the current runs under the still surface, she sinks in and lies back, her arms outspread. Leda closes her eyes, but even behind her eyelids, the glow of the bright sun makes her vision red.
‘Stop squeaking,’ he says. ‘I’ll fucking squeeze you again if I have to.’
And the fantail is quiet. Hine’s eyelids flicker. She’s been far away, in a sleep that smelled of moss and honeydew. But she knows that voice.
He should have known better than to wake her up. He should have known better than to come here, the land of the dead, when he’s only half-immortal, but he’s always had swagger. And a level of presumption. Hine clamps her eyes shut. She doesn’t want to have to talk to him.
The fantail peeps again. Its call is mocking, and Hine can almost feel the dance of air coming off its wings.
‘Be quiet. You’ll ruin it. Wait till I’m in.’ Māui’s whisper is urgent.
The bird laughs. ‘I can do it, I’ll shrink. I’ll be a worm and crawl inside her that way.’
Hine has to fight to keep her eyes closed. She knows what he wants. His presumption has stretched to her body, her dominion. Between her thighs, she feels worm-Māui inch his way closer to her, his wriggling body soft and small.
In the garden, Mary is suddenly aware that everything has become very still. The noise has stopped and while the sun is still bright, it’s lost that warm yellowness. She turns.
There on the path is a man. She knows he isn’t really a man. She can tell, because of the way he glows. And his wings.
‘Mary, it’s me, Gabriel,’ he says, as though she should be happy to see him.
Mary says nothing. She lowers her head to look at the ground and her headscarf falls forward hiding her face.
‘I have news,’ he says, puffing his chest out a little. ‘Mary, it concerns you.’
Joseph flashes across her mind. Joseph and his gentle lips, his hot skin, the way he stoops to tie his shoes.
‘Mary, you have been chosen,’ Gabriel says. ‘You are most holy, for you are to be the mother of God.’
She wishes Gabriel would stop using her name. It feels like a sales pitch. And anyway, he’s wrong; Mary isn’t holy, someone holy would not imagine Joseph doing the things she wants him to do. Mary doesn’t want to be holy.
‘Mary, the holy spirit will visit you, and place the seed of God in your womb and you will be the mother of the lamb,’ says Gabriel.
She cries out. She knows what the word ‘visit’ means here, and it isn’t something you roll out the welcome mat for.
The sky above her goes dark for a moment and she opens her eyes. There is something there, then it’s gone and the full force of the light blinds her. She stumbles to her feet on the riverbed, rubs her eyes, and hears a deep woosh, woosh, woosh as the water runs from her ears. A swan lands on the river bank.
On the shore, the bird stands on her towel and shits. Leda leaves the water, curling her toes over the slippery rocks on the riverbed to get purchase to pull herself through the current. She stumbles up the water’s edge, the beads of moisture on her skin shining, her face growing red. She throws her dress on, where it clings to her wet skin, like her hair to her damp brow.
She looks at the bird and the mess on her towel, green and grassy and leaching into the fabric. She pulls at it, trying to tug the linen out from under the bird. But the swan is heavy, the bowl of its chest deep, projecting forward like the prow of a ship. It won’t move and she steps back, frustrated.
The swan looks serene, calm. She can see its white, the crest of its beak, the strong legs that carry it implacably forward. It looks like a messenger, a harbinger, and it’s only when it is close enough for her to stroke that she can see the reptilian eyes, the sharp beak, the hissing tongue.
The angel moves closer to her. Mary isn’t sure how, she can’t see him walking, but the clothes he wears ripple like a mirage and suddenly he is right beside her, and so tall, so much bigger than her. She shrinks back, but he glows above her and smiles.
‘Do not be afraid, Mary. This is the Lord’s choice, and he will provide for you.’ But Mary doesn’t want provision. She wants Joseph and slow mornings in bed and hordes of happy children who smell of herbs.
The angel puts one arm around her and another on her belly. No man has touched her like this, other than Joseph, and Joseph asks permission with his gentle eyes and soft hands and quiet approach and she knows that he would stop, but she does not think that Gabriel will. The angel’s hands are cold and bite into her flesh.
She never feels the god enter her, but he must do, while Gabriel holds her still, even as she struggles to get away, even as the light sears her eyes.
It does not behave like a swan. It winds around her, its long neck threading between her legs, the face blank and impassive as it peers out from behind her thigh. It has pushed her damp skirts up to her groin and she tries to push the fabric back down again, but somehow the bird is there, stopping her.
When she kneels to examine it, it pushes against her. She runs her fingers over the feathers as though they are water beading. Its chest is against hers, with a terrible weight she didn’t expect.
She is slowly forced backwards, her knees still drawn up in front of her, her arms forced back to hold up her torso until she is lying in the grass and the huge bird is above her, its wings spread like a canopy above them. It crows. Leda hears the triumph in its call.
In the grass, she can hardly think of the terrible bird, and instead she sees how blue the sky is above them. She focuses on the way the stalks of grass underneath her jab at her back, the smell of the leaves crushing against her, the beak snapping at her breasts.
Leda lies still, somewhere inside herself. Later, once the swan has gone, she takes stock of herself and considers the spike of pain between her legs, the seeping wetness. She pushes herself up from the ground, and loose feathers flutter from the bodice of her dress onto her lap. They are spotted with blood where she tore them from the bird’s breast.
Leda stands up, the muscles in her legs quivering. She is still holding the towel. The tug of water as the tip of it is caught in the ripples at the river’s edge makes her glance down. Leda loosens her fingers, and the towel falls, its white brilliance spreading across the surface of the water, before soaking and sinking and being borne along by the current beyond its control.
She has to wait until he is inside her and it’s almost more than she can take, these few moments when Māui thinks he is winning, taking something from her. Māui pushes in, his worm tail thrashing to get inside. The fantail tumbles in the air, screaming with laughter. Hine’s eyes snap open. She’s dealt with the dead all night, she can deal with one more. She’s dealt with men for eternity, she can deal to one more.
‘Oh little worm,’ she says. ‘I’ve had much bigger and better than you.’ And she pulls herself up tight, the muscles in her pelvis locked together around the tiny worm. Her body shakes with the grinding of stone, and the darkness of her vagina, so warm and embracing a moment ago, becomes cold, sleek and impenetrably hard. The obsidian teeth inside her crash together. The worm’s tail shudders, then falls flaccid against her thigh. It is done. The stones inside her fall back and Hine-nui-te-pō’s heartbeat pounds in her ears like the woosh, woosh, woosh of wings, like a kererū taking off, like freedom.