Short story: Homesick, by Steph Matuku

Short story: Homesick, by Steph Matuku

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“Māori people doing strange Māori things”: a pounamu saga

David Howe was our boss, a white guy in his forties who imagined himself as that guy at the end of the Breakfast Club film, fist held high, marching along to an iconic Gen X theme song. You could see it in the way he dressed, the expensive plaid shirts open over grungy band tees, the bone carving replacing the tie at his neck, the smooth kicks on his feet on Fridays. He had Pasifika-style tattoos up and down his arms which he showed off when he rolled up his shirt sleeves to indicate how hard he was working. He greeted us with a kia ora which was nice, even if he couldn’t roll his r’s. He tried.

The last few years had been good to people like him. He had a title now; he was an ally. He was a useful cog in the wheel against racism. He said he was going to start te reo classes as soon as his schedule allowed it, which was pretty much never, but at least he tried.

He had hired Te Rangi and me, the only two brown faces in a sea of white, apart from Dana who was Chinese, by way of Henderson. There was Paora too, and Terry the Samoan who both worked in the basement in Packing, but Te Rangi and I were the only tangata whenua upstairs in the office. We knew we were the diversity hires, but we didn’t mind. If the business managed to tick a couple of boxes – women, check, indigenous, check – and we were those boxes, what did we care? At least we were getting paid.

Of course, it kind of sucked getting hauled up the front whenever visiting managers came, to smile, smile, smile and show off our keen browness, and it sucked when people came to us in a flap wanting to know how to do a pepeha because they had a work course and everyone had to do a pepeha, and would it be okay to sing “Ten Guitars” afterwards?

And it really sucked whenever some politician or broadcaster would be all over the news pontificating about Mowrees being losers and druggies and ungrateful for the pittance the government gave them because they couldn’t find work or whatever, with no mention of how colonisation was the creation and the cause.

Our colleagues would discuss the latest tirade in the staffroom, their words floating around and stinging our brown flesh with careless venom. Whether they agreed or disagreed, or thought it was okay because it was free speech, and wouldn’t it be worse if we weren’t allowed to say whatever we wanted, they didn’t seem to understand that it was still Te Rangi and me who were the loser, druggie, ungrateful people being discussed. All Māori get sliced and stabbed by racist rhetoric, no matter if it’s specifically directed at them or not. The words find us. They cut us. They force us to heal with a thickened callous. They make our souls harder.

And because we both had long wavy black hair and brown eyes and brown skin, people would mix us up, or assume we were related.

“I’m Ngāti Porou,” Te Rangi would hiss at them. “Can’t you tell?” and she’d jerk her hips from side to side and wiggle her bum at them, and they would back away, eyes wide, not knowing anything about the infamous Ngāti Porou hips but not wanting to admit it, and not wanting to be caught staring at that juicy bum of hers in case she slapped them with a MeToo hashtag.

“If you’ve got the hips, what I am supposed to be known for?” I grumbled.

“Your triangle head,” she replied. “Just like your koro.”

She meant my mounga, of course, Mounga Taranaki. I loved that first glimpse of his white topped peak emerging from the clouds in greeting whenever I flew home to visit. He made my heart leap and brought me home. My hand crept up to my head to check the bones of my skull and Te Rangi laughed, a booming chuckle that made me laugh too, and soon we were screaming and clutching one another, because our existence isn’t entirely pain and struggle. It’s joy too. So much joy.

It was our monthly staff meeting. The guys from Packing came upstairs, blinking under the flourescents like little owls in daylight. David Howe always had piles of fish and chips delivered for the meeting – he said it was the only way he could make sure we all turned up – and we appreciated it, even though the cloying smell would linger in the office for the rest of the day.

After we’d tucked in, scoffed the lot and thrown away our paper plates into the big garbage bag – “not the office bins!” trilled Sandy, one of the bossy admin staff who thought she was running the Dow Jones or something – David called on the heads of department to brag about whatever they’d done over the past few weeks, and then asked for any other business. Somebody said something about parking in the garage, and someone else said it was the last day to put your name down for the indoor netball team. A couple of the lads glanced surreptitiously at Te Rangi, and I could tell they were imagining those Ngāti Porou hips bouncing around the court. No one glanced at my triangle head.

When silence finally fell again, David said, “And to finish up, I’d like to make mention of a very special piece of art that’s been donated to the office by the Woodruff family. As you know, they started the business a hundred years ago and as part of our centennial celebrations, they’re donating a piece of greenstone named” – he squinted at a piece of paper – “Tea Ah-tah-fy. Very old, very special. We’ll put it out in reception later today.”

And he pulled Te Atawhai out of a shopping bag and put him on the table where the remains of the fish and chips lay so that we could all ooh and aah at the chunk of rock lying in a glass box.

Te Rangi blanched, and swept to the front of the room. I could see her lips moving, perhaps in a karakia, more likely in a stream of inaudible invective, and then she took the box up in one smooth motion. “I’ll put him in reception now.”

David Howe looked after her in some bemusement, but no one said anything. Māori people doing strange Māori things, you see. The rest of the team dispersed, lips still greasy, stomachs bloated. Sandy tsk tsked and threw open a window, waving her hand around as if she was magically disappearing the miasma of fish.

I went out to reception along with Terry and Paora and a couple of others and we watched in silence as Te Rangi carefully laid the pounamu on the shelf that held the awards the business had won over the years, another trophy to add to the rest. Then she said a karakia, for real this time, and Terry sang a song, but only a short one because he was due back in Packing.

“Kia ora, Koro,” I said. “We hope you’ll be happy here.”

“Would you be?” said Te Rangi. “In a box?”

No, I wouldn’t.

We leaned forward, our breath misting the glass. Te Atawhai was a clear forest green on top, with a webbing of yellow and white across the middle that traced his arteries and veins. The base was darkest green, like the deep, deep sea. He looked like a mountain, but not like my graceful ancestor. This mountain was stumpy and squat, stoic in his existence, all crevices and slopes and sharp valleys. When I looked closely, I could see the figure of a lizard, a taniwha, in the grain of the rock, crouched beneath winter tree branches.

“He’d look good all carved up,” said Paora.

Te Rangi gave him a wink and a poke in his soft belly. “So would you.”

*

I greeted Te Atawhai every day after that. It was automatic. Say hello to Jillian the receptionist, check for messages, say hello to Te Atawhai, go to office. At the end of the day, I would say goodbye to Te Atawhai and then to Jillian and punch the button for the lift down. Sometimes I would brush my finger over his glass box as I passed, an affectionate caress to keep him happy in his prison. I wished I could touch him. If he was carved and worn around my neck, he would feel cool at first, and then warm under my touch, like a standoffish person thawing from attention. He would remind me of the sparkling tingle of flesh being dunked in cold mountain streams. He would hold whispered secrets and never let them go. He would bring comfort when I held him at night, and in the day, he would be a guardian against the sting of scathing white stares. He would hold the carver’s essence too, a meaningful message in every line. The glass box didn’t feel like that. Glass was impersonal, cold, rigid.

Te Rangi saw the taniwha in Te Atawhai’s grain too. She said it looked as though he was crying. The speckles didn’t look like tears to me. They looked like rain, or water dripping from the branches above.

“Those are tears too,” Te Rangi said. “Sky tears. Mountain tears.”

She coughed and pulled out a tissue to wipe her mouth. She was always coughing these days, and very quick to say it wasn’t Covid, she’d been tested. I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it didn’t sound like a viral cough. It sounded like a cough that came from deep within her, as though something was trying to get out. She threw the tissue in Jillian’s bin, and beckoned me over to the trophy shelf to stare at the chunk of pounamu.

“He hates it in there,” she murmured to me. “He wants to go back home.”

“Don’t we all,” I replied. I liked Auckland, liked the sunshine and the busyness and the air of possibility in each new morning. Home wasn’t like that. Home was a sleepy provincial town with smothering parochial pride, but it had its charms. The endless black sand beaches, the stirring wind, the cheap parking, and of course, my mountain.

“Look, he’s crying again,” she said, pointing at a mark on the greenstone that had the gloss of moisture to it. I looked closer. It did look like liquid was seeping from the stone.

“Condensation?” I said, tentatively.

“If you say so,” said Te Rangi.

We went back to work, but I made a point of stopping by Te Atawhai several times that day, to check if more tears were falling.

The next day, Te Rangi’s face was flushed with fever, her eyes dull. The coughing had worsened to a hacking bark.

“You can’t work like that,” I said to her. “Take the day off, stay in bed. You’ll make everyone sick.”

“I’ve got that contract to do,” she said, but David Howe walking by caught the tail end of our conversation. He sent her home then and there, and gave me Te Rangi’s contract to finish instead. I didn’t mind; he said I could get a bottle of wine from his fridge afterwards.

As soon as they had all gone home, I went into David Howe’s office and perused the contents of the fridge as if I was supermarket shopping. I wanted a nice Pinot Gris, an expensive one, but there was only a row of Sauvignon, clearly ones that no one else had wanted, so I took the sixpack of craft beer at the back instead. I wasn’t a connoisseur of wine or anything, but the only way I would ever drink Sav would be if someone had poured it down my cold, dead throat.

I finished up my work, gathered my things, turned off the computer and the lights. Everything was very quiet with just the humming of electrical things doing what they had to do.

I went out into reception and put the keys in the office drawer. Jillian had long gone and when I turned to say goodbye to Te Atawhai, he was gone too.

I wondered about that as I went down in the lift. Perhaps David had moved him to another office. Perhaps he’d taken him home.

Perhaps someone else had taken him home.

*

Te Rangi lived in a suburban villa with a rotating group of flatmates. Right now, there was Wendell in the front room, Theresa and Sonya out the back in the sleep-out, and Doors in the tiny room off the kitchen that was supposed to be a mudroom or pantry or something. He only paid half rent because his room had no windows and the cooking fumes made all his things smell, but he didn’t care. He was saving for his OE, although with the pandemic, it was unclear where exactly he was going to go.

I could hear Te Rangi coughing as I made my way up the stairs, armed with a bunch of flowers, the sixpack, and a thermos of the previous night’s boilup. There were no bones, but there were still bits of meat floating in it and I’d added some fresh baby spinach to wilt in the heat.  I pushed open her door and found her, not propped up in bed with a mountain of tissues on the bedside table next to her, but sitting on the floor, untangling a shoelace knot in a hiking boot. She was dressed in black tights and a big hoodie. A heavy backpack was lying next to her.

She started when she saw me. Her skin had a greenish cast to it, her eyes feverish and yellow.

“Where are you going?”

“For a walk.”

“With boots and backpack?”

“To the bus station. To the airport. Then to Christchurch.”

I blinked. “What the fuck’s in Christchurch? They don’t like brown people in Christchurch. I brought you boilup.”

“Thanks.”

I handed her the thermos and she stuck it in the front pocket of her bag.

“When are you coming back?”

“As soon as…” her voice trailed off and a look of guilt crossed her face. She didn’t have to tell me. I knew.

“Jesus, you didn’t.”

She unzipped the bag and dug around inside, taking out a colourful parcel, a soft scarf wrapped around a hefty weight. She gently unfolded it and I reached out a hand and stroked Te Atawhai’s cool head.

“You stole him.”

“They stole him first. I’m taking him home.”

“How do you even know where he’s from?”

“I don’t know. I just know.”

“He’s making you sick.”

“Yes. That’s why I’m taking him home.”

I nodded. Took out my phone. Dialled.

“Who are you calling?”

I shushed her as David Howe picked up. “Hello?’

“Hi, David? It’s Ana. I think I’ve caught Te Rangi’s cold. I’ll be off a few days.” I added in a cough for good measure and said goodbye.

I hung up, smiled at her. “I’ll drive.”

Taken with kind permission from  the anthology of 38 Oceania women writers, Vā: Stories from Women of the Moana edited by Sisilia Eteuati and Lani Young  (Dalia Malaeulu, $35), available in bookstores nationwide.

Next week’s short story is by Auckland writer David Ciurlionis.

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