Auckland writer Courtney Sina Meredith has a new collection of short stories out called Tail of the Taniwha. Here's one story you'll find in the book.
Today in Otara, walking to the sushi shop on the corner, I see my father disappear into a dairy.
He emerges moments later with a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of Coca-Cola, I watch him walk to one of the benches where the old men count their coins before heading into the TAB. He sits down with his gut hanging over bright board shorts. The beard he fought off while I was a girl has grown into a thick, unruly bush. Something glints – a silver sleeper in his right ear?
I’ve never seen my father in South Auckland, sitting among our people as though he belongs inside his skin. He lights a cigarette and starts to drink the Coca-Cola with both legs bouncing. My father doesn’t smoke and he detests sugary drinks. Once, when my sister came home with a bottle of lemonade, he threw her across the living room and then quietly made his way to the kitchen where he poured the entire contents down the drain.
My father doesn’t like to go beyond the safety of the CBD because he thinks ‘young punks’ will steal his car or mug him for his shoes, or pick his pockets while he’s walking through the markets. So he stays within the city and colours himself lighter and lighter with words like ‘evolved’ and ‘modern’ and ‘self-made’. One day he is so light I pass him on the street and only realise it’s him by the cloud of Old Spice that lingers long after he’s gone.
My father doesn’t talk about his village. I’ve never seen him wear a crown of flowers, or slap his hands in ecstasy to the sound of beating drums. But here he is sitting in a plume of smoke, chatting to a man covered in tatau and – remarkably – showing his own tattoo. From where I’m standing it looks like an armband with intricate details that I want to see up close. We were taught to pity people with tattoos; my father said they were making life very hard for themselves and that they couldn’t expect to find good jobs. I have the Southern Cross glittering down my back.
My father gets up and shakes hands with all the men who have formed a tight circle around him, his packet of cigarettes divided up between the group. They’re stunned by his generosity and so am I. He continues along the footpath, smiling at children who are wagging school in their uniforms, patting the smallest boy on the head. When I wagged during high school he set my mattress on fire in the backyard and I slept on the floor for months, wondering if he would ever speak to me again.
My father stops to give his spare change to an old woman rocking back and forth on a stack of dirty cardboard. She looks up at him with pleading eyes. I’m surprised when he crouches down in front of her and offers his ear. She leans forward and whispers something that makes him reach out and touch her forehead like a new age priest. There’s a theory that Jesus was a Reiki master; maybe my father has had a midlife crisis and decided that he too wants to heal people with his bare hands, the same hands that snapped the neck of our pet rabbit when it was time for her to become a stew. I refused to eat dinner that night. My father said the rabbit was never my friend and that she was always going to end up in the pot – from the moment she was born the pot was waiting for her. He swore that there was a pot waiting for me too, big enough to hide my whole body and drown out my screams. It was supposed to be a metaphor about the cycle of life, to create a hardness in me not to trust anyone. For months afterwards I had nightmares that I was being boiled alive and seasoned by a giant hand.
I begin to doubt whether it really is my father, the man who refused to help me click-in my seat belt or open the lids of chilly bins or run a hot bath, which meant that I sat in cold water most nights. I follow him at a distance, watching his smart green polo entering the town square; he dips in and out of several shops, befriending shopkeepers and elders. In the last shop he takes an especially long time. I lean against the glass of the art gallery and pretend to check my phone. When he comes back out into the square my father is wearing a white floral shirt and a dark blue pareu. I wonder where his board shorts and polo shirt have gone, where he’s parked his vintage car and if he’s worried that it will be stolen.
They hold hands as they finish their conversation. His face is soft and glistening with tears. It can’t be my father.
There’s an old woman waiting for him by the concrete stage in the square. She holds her arms out and he walks into them like a child coming home to his mother. She begins to speak to him in the language of his homeland and surprisingly he responds fluently, his tongue flicking each syllable away from him, the way my nana used to speak when she was alive. They hold hands as they finish their conversation. His face is soft and glistening with tears. It can’t be my father. Maybe my grandparents were overwhelmed by twins, and they gave my uncle away to a kind family in Otara.
The drummers pass me, cackling, and beaming with huge smiles. They drag on their smokes and do up the last few buttons of their shirts, white like my father’s, with fresh-flower eis around their necks. Behind them trail their sons carrying the drums and stands, sticks and cuts of fabric. They start setting themselves up and a small crowd gathers in front of the stage.
I look back to the spot where my father was and he’s gone. There’s no one there. Exactly like the absence he’s occupied inside of me all these years. Maybe I feel relief to be let down again, to rest in the comfort that, no – he hasn’t changed. I turn to go back to work, looking down at my phone and realising that my lecture starts in half an hour. I think about my students and how much I can’t wait to see all of them and hear what they’ve been up to over the holidays. I stop outside the dairy where my father first appeared and dig around inside my handbag trying to find my car keys. I’ve given up on getting sushi.
Walking towards my car, I feel the air around me sour and sweeten. The walls of my family home close in. I can see the dark living room and the bottle-green couch where my mother drank herself to death. It’s a scent conflicted between Old Spice and ... coconut oil? The proper stuff that my nana used to comb through my hair, talking over my head in shark-bone raps, illuminating a strange ocean that I could never drink into my skin.
I turn around and see my father standing behind me in the car park, holding a crown of flowers in his hands. He reaches out and gently places the ei on my head. I can smell frangipani and tiare; I can see the gardens that my nana yearned for.
All the rage I’ve been holding onto steams up behind my eyes; the back of my throat feels like it’s been dragged through broken glass.
He scoops me up into his arms as the drums begin their call. I bury my face in the blossoms of his floral shirt. I want to kill him, I want to peel the skin from his bones and find all the black holes.
*Tail of the Taniwha by Courtney Sina Meredith is out now on Beatnik Publishing.