By Cherry Douch
Ted would leave, once more, today. He stood, holding his cordless
pyjamas up, looking out the bedroom window. The hills behind his wife's
house folded toward each other like a bunched quilt; humps of her violets
grew on the edge of the orchard. She was not in their bed.
Huia's hand was on Wehe's shoulder as she squeezed the sleep out
of her eyes. "It's five o'clock," she said. " Rain's stopped and the tide's
right. You want to go with me?" She did. She pulled herself out of bed
on Huia's hand. She looked at her mother and laughed. ''You have pikaru,''
"Sh, you'll wake the others." She pressed the crust from the corners
of her eyes, and smiled.
At the tank stand they shared the same basin of water. Huia poured
the wash water around the base of a baby orange tree.
Wehe took the spears from the shed and started downhill with her
mother. She was a springy reflection of her. They dragged their feet through
the wet grass, Wehe a half step behind. They spoke to Bunny and scratched
her nose as they went by. Bunny was their cow. Wehe said, ''Doesn't Bunny
have the most beautiful eyes?''
Summer hunger was in the air.
They crossed the railroad tracks and broke the surface of the sand with
their full, flat feet. A few crabs paraded. Wehe wondered how they could
see where they were going. The tide was turning, coming in, the water
excited, distorting the shapes of the shells beneath.
Huia went into the shallow water of her favorite channel, noiseless,
spear raised. She whispered, "Look, there's one sleeping in the sand." It
all looked like sand to Wehe. Her mother had the flounder speared and
in the ket before she could focus her eyes. She followed, trying to be quiet,
watching the gulls, thinking how flounder were different from kahawai.
When they had caught five they started home, picking mushrooms
as they went. Wehe liked the underside of mushrooms. They looked like
fish's gills. They didn't see Bunny as they came up the hill, but when they
got to the kitchen, she pushed her head over the hedge and mooed through
the window. Huia gave the flounder to Wehe, reached for the bucket and
rattled it. "I'm coming Bunny,'' she said. Wehe began washing and gilling
the fish as Huia put warm water in the bucket, put on a large bath towel
apron, and headed toward the bail. She could hear Sam at the woodpile,
smell the chips as they flew.
Bunny was already standing in the bail, tossing her head, swishing
her tail. ''Hang on girl.'' Huia came through the gate, looked at Bunny's
tight bag. She pulled one rope around the cow's rump and the low one
around the near leg. She poured warm water into a can and washed Bunny's
teats. The cow moved and moaned. ''Easy girl.'' She poured the rest of
the water over her hands and wiped them on her apron.
She pulled the stool under her, the bucket between her legs, pressed
her cheek against the cow's belly and hummed poi waiata to the rhythm
of her milking. Bunny let down her milk but did not relax till almost a
minute later, when she loosed her cud, closed her eyes and began to chew.
The cat came for his snack and Huia squirted him in the mouth. The
cat seemed to lick to the rhythm of his song.
Later, as she came up from the bail, Wehe met her with a small bucket
half filled with warm water. Huia poured an equal amount of the milk
into the water, and took it to the calf tied to the peach tree. The calf wagged
her tail and pumped her front legs. Huia wet her hand with the half milk
and put it in the calf's mouth and pulled it sucking into the bucket to
drink on her own. The animal kicked and gulped, till, drooling milky saliva,
she looked up from the empty bucket. Huia then moved her to another
tree for its shade and clean grass.
Inside Wehe had put away the milk and Sam had lit the stove and
filled the kettle. Ted came in. "No porridge?" he said.
"No, flounder and mushrooms," said Wehe. "But I'll make you
porridge if you'd rather, Daddy."
''Please,'' he said and smiled at her.
Ted watched Sam make the tea. "You going to fix the east fence?"
''Yes,'' said Sam. ''The gate too.''
Ted said, "Good. I guess I'll hoe kumara. Good crop this year."
"If they don't get blight," Sam said.
''Yes.'' Ted poured himself a cup of tea, then poured his saucer full,
and drank from that. He buttered some bread and worried it while Wehe
dished up his porridge. He didn't use the milk she put on the table. Instead
he put spoonfuls of porridge on his bread, sprinkled it with pepper and
ate it with big bites. Huia came in as he was leaving. ' 'Aren't you running
late?'' he said.
"Yes, I stopped to weed my flowers. The freesias smell wonderful."
"Just don't overdo," he said. "Can we have marmite and lettuce
sandwiches with cocoa for lunch? Would be nice,'' he said.
"I'm" sorry," Huia said. " The slugs ate the lettuce and we ran out
of cocoa. I need to go shopping. You can have marmite though. There's
a big jar of that.'' Ted shrugged and left. Wehe watched him walk up to
the cliff. He sat under the blue gums for an hour. A train went by. Wehe
counted the trucks it was hauling. The train smoke smelled pleasant, not
like her father's cigarettes. Maybe she'd suggest a pipe, she thought. Some
pipe tobaccos smelled like ripe fruit. She saw a hawk circling over the
swamp. She saw her father watching it too. It never dived, just kept circling.
She saw him kick a couple of clods off the cliff and head home.
Later she watched him check on the graftings he'd done in the apple
orchard. The Ballarat had taken well to the Golden Delicious.
For lunch there were marmite sandwiches and lemonade, not so bad.
They went back to work. Ted didn't ask about dinner. While he was still
working Huia brought him a thick crust from the bread she'd been baking,
butter melted on it. He smiled his pale smile. "Good bread," he said.
"I know," she said.
''Cheeky woman.'' He slapped her behind. She wished she had
cabbage to go with the corned beef for dinner. Back at the house, Bunny
was mooing through the window again. On her way to the bail she heard
the cornstalks rattle where Wehe was collecting puha. "Put it in with the
meat when you go up,'' she called. Wehe waved and smiled. Ted was hoeing,
his back stiff, his stroke awkward. He had no hat and his bald head was
turning red. Sam's hammer was hitting the paddock gate.
Huia didn't sing to her milking.
When she came back the corned beef and puha were cooking, and
Wehe was peeling potatoes. Huia sat and peeled too, her cracked fingers
moving fast and easy. Ted came in, dirt freckling his red skin. He sniffed.
"Corned beef for dinner?"
"Yes. I'm sorry there's no cabbage."
"You going to tell me it's good for me?" he said.
"It is," she said.
''I'd rather eat like an Englishman,'' he said.
''Wehe made bread pudding for dessert tonight. Extra eggs in it for
"Good," he said. But his smile dropped.
He washed at the tank stand then went for another walk. He was gone
a long time.
He came back and the others had eaten. He ate meat and potatoes
and a big bowl of bread pudding. As he drank his tea, they watched him.
Ted got up from the table, went to the bedroom and began putting
things in a sugar sack. Huia came up behind him.
"Will you come back this time?" she said.
"I always have," he said.
"Don't go,'' she said. He threw the sack over his shoulder and headed
for the door.
Wehe blocked his path. ''Daddy,'' she said.
''Pip pip Gadget,'' he said as he stepped around her and through
Wehe and Huia stood under the pear tree and watched him go. The
calf and her mother watched too. He stopped, picked a barberry leaf from
the hedge, then turned and looked at them. He waved the leaf, then
continued down the hill. They watched as he disappeared beyond the cliff
base onto the railroad tracks. They went inside.
Huia picked up a pair of Ted's socks. She sat down on their bed and
began to wail softly the way Maori women do at a tangi, swaying with the
rhythm of her noise. Her voice was high, sweet, and ragged.
She stood up, pulled a blanket from her bed. She put the girl on
her back, wrapped them both tight. They looked joined-a hunch-back.
She paced up and down, wearing a path by the bay windows. Sam
murmured to himself as he washed the dishes. The curlews cried, craning
their necks toward rest.
Much later, she stopped, brought Wehe inside and put her to bed,
like a baby. She skimmed the milk, gave the cat some cream, and went
outside again. She spread her blanket and sat down, quiet. Sam watched
his mother from the shed, Wehe watched from inside the house. Huia
wailed again once or twice through the night, but low, almost under her
breath. Sam did not move.
When morning came, Bunny went to the bail. Sam found the bucket
and started down.
"No son," said his mother. "I like to do it." She walked toward the
cow bail, singing her poi waiata, the cat padding behind her.