A new story by Emma Neale, whose first short fiction collection The Pink Jumpsuit was recently longlisted for the biggest prize in New Zealand fiction.
San Diego, California: early 1980s.
One mild spring morning, I took my regular school route alone, because my little sister, Keira, had to stay at home with an ear infection. As I walked past a jacaranda tree, sunlight flickering in my eyes and sprinkling little wires of disappearing and reappearing gold on my bare arms, there was a desperate screech and a flash of cobalt. Something tangled in my hair, scrabbling at my forehead.
I smacked at the air, gasping, and whirled around to catch sight of a maddened blue jay trying another dive-bomb before it flurried back to the tree. I ran all the rest of the way to school, shaky and jangled, my scalp and forehead stinging. I carried the fright like a small scald of injustice all day. I wanted to go home, so I could tell about it: that flame and scurry of blue, the sharp strike and cry. The attack felt so personal. The bird was furious! Wild thoughts about why it had singled me out distracted me from the migrainey, mosquito-whine of maths, as I puzzled over the fact that the jacaranda tree wasn’t even climbable. I’d tried once, and failed: coming away scraped and pinned with splinters. I wasn’t any threat. I didn’t even know the jay was in the tree. And I would never steal its eggs! When I was five, back in New Zealand, my grandfather had once shown me tiny, speckled eggs that stoats and rats might want to crack with their teeth. Wonder had leapt in my chest: Pops had rescued them? Then he explained he couldn’t put the eggs back: the mother would reject them because his scent marked them now. I couldn’t believe the trick: that under what initially seemed like kindness was a seed of something else: cruelty, or at best, indifference. This American jay: it didn’t know the real me. It was loopy with a weird jealousy.
The next morning, I still had a delicate line of dried blood dots on my forehead. Keira’s earache was better, though she had to bring medicine syrup in her lunchbox. I told her all about the crazy jay, how it set its evil eye on me. Fear-of-the-angry-bird set off little stabs in our stomachs, as if our jeans’ zippers were catching at our puppy-fat rolls. We took secret swigs of Jungle Juice from our drink bottles. We’d been told to save the cordial for school, but the sweet tropical rush was just the thing to launch us down our driveway. Smacking our orange-sugar lips, we tapped our bottles together like pirates, said, clink! cheers! kids’ kourage! and left for school.
As soon as we saw the purple blossoms of the jacaranda, we made sure we crossed the street. We ran, packs knocking up and down on our backs: whips that said faster, faster! Once we had the tree comfortably behind us, we idled, happy to have fooled the bird.
As we trotted past a brick bungalow, just as we were arguing about whether we should cross back to the side we usually walked on, we heard a scream. A hot and solid rod of dread drilled us to the spot. We knew who lived there. She had only just started in my sister’s class, but we knew her large, gazing eyes and devastatingly tentative smile. Amaya. Her name means “The End”. I didn’t know that then, but now I wonder why you would choose it for your child. Did doctors tell her mother that it would be better to have no more babies after her? Or did her parents independently decide, enough? Amaya, the tiny scrap, such an elfin girl that even my sister, only a week or two older, felt the softening you might feel for hamsters, ducklings, staggery kittens.
Amaya’s mother and father often walked her to and from school. That struck me back then; both because it showed intriguing luck (our own father was endlessly at work), yet also because she was so very small between her parents. It was the kind of discrepancy that sometimes makes you, as a child, disbelieve that certain adults were once ever truly like you. Or it makes you feel a little afraid of all the changes ahead; of the way that growing will make you like one of them. Will it hurt? How much?
We knew the scream was Amaya’s. Adult voices mounted. There was a man and a woman, then the man only, shouting. Then another scream from Amaya went on for so long that my sister and I snapped out of our shocked trance and pelted back down the street, across the road to home. The door was chained. We knocked. We rang the bell. We cried out for our mother. Dad had left for work much earlier, for the science institute where he was researching some disease we couldn’t pronounce and where problems to do with “electron microscopes” and “tissue slides” often made him come home and go straight for beer, and a newspaper to hold up like the wall of a fort. Mum’s visa stipulated that she wasn’t allowed to work in the USA, so she was always available for us: our axis, anchor, personal agony aunt. She came to the door, still not dressed – she’d been on her way to the shower after getting us out of the house.
Her face was already a capital O of surprise and worry.
“Something’s happening to Amaya. Someone’s hurting her. You have to come and listen. You have to phone the police.”
Our slightly reticent mother, usually careful about her appearance before she left the house, stepped into the early morning in her unwashed hair, her bathrobe. She agreed to follow us along the street. Mum moved as fast as she could in slippers, but I felt a confusing fear both that by the time we arrived, the scream wouldn’t have stopped – and yet also that it would have. If it had ended, would Mum believe us?
Outside Amaya’s house, we could still hear the argument. At the sound of a child sobbing, my pulse did that horrible canter that comes just before you throw up. Mum hugged me, saying, “It’s okay, sweetheart. You hurry on to school. Don’t worry, I’ll look after it.”
Yet as the man’s voice climbed, I felt afraid for our mother in her thin, blackberry-coloured dressing-gown, her breasts soft and morning-loose beneath it, her ankles bared by the slippers to the cool morning, the knobs of her wrists, small as camellia buds, jutting from her cuffs.
“Will you call the police?”
“Yes. I will. Now off you go.”
My sister and I, no discussion, held each other’s hands for the rest of the way to school.
Dread stewed bitter with me all day as if one of Amaya’s screams had flown into my mouth, scorched all the way down to my stomach. Maths problems looked like ugly stiches. During Reading Time words jumped around on the page, and I saw the lemony-limey shimmer that sometimes meant bad headaches on the way.
At lunchtime I went hunting for my little sister, for the comfort of saying Hi. She had a juice stain all down her white T-shirt from where someone had bumped her. “Cory did it,” she said. “Cory’s a dog butt.” Yet it was reassuring to see her in the sandpit, the wisps escaping her elastic hair-tie a flyaway gold against the rest of her caramel-coloured topknot; her button nose scrunched up; grit from the sandpit clinging to the juice spill.
I squatted down and whispered to her about how the police might have come to our street, could be at our house right now, with our mum. Keira flustered up from the sandpit. We asked and looked around for Amaya, thinking she might have arrived by now. We darted about, going to and from groups of children playing swing ball, handball, or chimpanzeeing along the climbing frames.
Someone finally told us Amaya hadn’t turned up at school. “Oh, okay,” we replied, as if we knew nothing of the morning’s commotion. It was like trying to hold a marble under your tongue without showing it as you spoke. Each time I thought of being outside the house, it was like I’d tripped and grazed my knees, had to say I’m fine through tears that grappled for release like wild, stinging things.
Three o’clock seemed to be hours late. I wanted to run home as fast as I could, but I was supposed to walk with Keira. She was tired, rubbing at her ear again.
“Did you take your medicine?” I asked.
“Can’t ’member.” She sat down with her feet in the gutter and stared at spiders, leaves, Coke-can ring-pulls, cigarette butts that looked like tiny snapped yellow elbows. She rested her head on her knees and gazed at the world side-on. She put her head down between her legs and sniffed, saying, “Mouse cages,” then something else a bit yuck.
I barked “Keira!” in disapproval and irritation. It was a mistake; it just gave her stubbornness an extra baby-bullock edge.
“You think you’re so great just because you’re olderly than me,” she said.
“Would you hurry up? We have to get home to Mum.”
But she wouldn’t be bossed around now that she was annoyed. The best strategy was to get down there with her, find something to point out, and then let her think it was her idea to get up and move on. Today, I was cruel. I thought if Mum had called the police, the adults in Amaya’s house might figure out we were the ones who had told on them. They might come and do awful things while Mum was alone. I thought of her bailed up in the house, clutching a coffee mug the way a prairie dog cups a berry or a junk food crumb with both paws, while two giant, blocky figures yelled and hammered at the front door. I thought of the door splintering; Mum’s hot coffee spilling in her fright, scalding her chest; her face a crumpled star of pain.
Yet although I was anxious, I had almost zero capacity to imagine genuine violence. I didn’t carry its imprint, the way you hear about: people with a stoop, a limp, an angled walk, someone whose arm subconsciously drifts up to be held folded across their body, because they’re always expecting the next blow, or never forgetting the last.
What I did know already, on some level, was my own luck: that the fortune we had in our house wasn’t the way of the world beyond it. (That world, ever inventive, already called me Fatso, Fatty, Fat Tits, Fat Titty, Fatty Titty and Fat Titty Face – but that day, overhearing the argument, I learnt there were worse things it could serve.)
My sister now sat dropping pebbles through the bars of a grate that went we-didn’t-know-where. “The China-ry Seas, maybe,” said Keira.
A large earwig, bigger than average (my insect soul-double) came beetling along the gutter.
As neutrally as I could, I said, “Oh look. A scorpion.”
My sister frowned. “It isn’t.”
“They have deadly stings.”
“It’s not a scorpy-ing.”
“Suit yourself. When you die, I’ll tell Mum you loved her.”
I started to walk away. Keira scrambled up to follow me, catching at my hand and holding tight. She still moved in the way our mum called laggardly, complained that a sandal was biting her heel. She stopped to gaze at a tree in someone’s front yard. It looked like a giant pineapple. I didn’t want to linger near any trees right then. The blue jay could be around, shrill with its strange warnings.
“Come on,” I yanked at her hand.
“There’s maybe a Tinkerbell in there,” she said.
“Some little kids have dried crud for brains.”
She tugged at her bad ear again.
Finally, we got to our rental house, the purple-leaf plum tree, the prickle-grass slope, the cobbled driveway beside it, which was rotten for roller-skates: it juddered your teeth; tripped you up, money-back-guarantee.
We burst in. The house was tidy. Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese were set out for a snack; fresh juice filled the glass jug decorated with geraniums. Mum was propped up against cushions on the couch, a clipboard and pen on her knees, as she checked through the grammar in one of Dad’s papers.
I ran to her for a hug. She buried her nose in my hair, let my sister nuzzle under one arm.
“Did you have a good day?” she asked.
“I made a norigami frog,” my sister said. “Cory’s a butt. And we saw a scorpy-ing.”
“Scorpion,” I said. “It was just a giant earwig. She can’t take a joke.”
With a sing-song sigh, Mum said, “Be nice.” She touched my sister’s forehead, frowned a little. “Did you feel okay today?”
Keira rubbed her left ear. “A bit okay.”
“But were you safe, Mum?” I asked.
She untucked my hair from where it had caught under the neck of my T-shirt. “Of course I was safe.”
“Amaya didn’t come to school.”
Her fingers paused their smoothing and untangling. “Oh, I see.”
“Did you phone the police?”
“Yes, I did. They went to her house, and contacted me afterwards. The sheriff was very good. He said he understood why I called, but that it was just a family argument, and everything was fine. There’s nothing else to worry about, Leese.”
Amaya was away from school for another day or two. When she came back, her eyes were just as huge and engulfing, swimming with their root-beer-brown light. She didn’t talk to us, yet she still gave her meltingly hesitant smile, even though she had each arm in a cast.
But you can’t jump to conclusions, our mother said. Amaya had roller-skates like us, children like to run along the slippery edge of pools, they try to balance like circus performers on high walls, they try to climb impossible trees, the police said it was just a family argument.
Memory concertinas events, sometimes. Our mother thinks it was actually weeks afterwards that Amaya came to school with her arm – just one – cradled in its muslin sling. I think my sister and I both signed a separate cast. We asked if we could. Amaya agreed, silently. On one, my sister drew a girl in a triangle skirt and with hair like a curvy omega-sign; on the other, I signed my name and drew an awkward, spread-winged jay, with super-sized, scarlet claws. Amaya’s casts were white as chalk, as if each one was a big fat bone to remind people of what was so fragile inside.
Not long afterwards, our family left that house, that street, that town and America altogether, returning to New Zealand, Aotearoa, a land that sounded excitingly foreign to us children after our years away. So there was never a chance to coax Amaya to our place to choreograph dance and roller-skate routines with the other neighbourhood kids, bang in the middle of the road, to hits from Grease, nor for frozen juice-pops and water fights that turned the small backyard into mud-skid soup over summer. No way to verify whether my memory that it wasn’t one broken arm, but two, is hyperbole that I invented, because it was a better psychological echo of the thin, unwavering line of the appalling scream that made my sister and I run. No way to verify whether there was more in what the sheriff said to my mother on the phone; the things I remember, that refuse to be displaced by her version of the story:
“Thanks for your call, Ma’am. The parents admitted they might have been too harsh. They were grateful for our advice. They’ve agreed it won’t happen again.”
My mother has grown frail now. It hurts her to walk, talk, or even sit for too long. Her hair is a silvery dahlia, although her hands still curl around a coffee mug in the same familiar, squirrely way. “But the police never would have said that much to me,” she insists. “They probably wouldn’t have divulged any personal information at all.”
So did I hear the sheriff’s words from other children on our street, as we to-ed and fro-ed on bikes and skates, or in their parents’ cars, on last trips to the beach before we left California for good? Or did I construct the parents’ confession in those sentences, as I lay awake, going over and over the cries that broke through the walls of Amaya’s house? Did I change my own memory, so that it held the possibility that trauma could knit and bind, grow the egg-smooth surface of a new truth, a new start, for a little girl I barely knew, and who could hardly speak? Perhaps, in my fretful revisiting, I layered consolation like milk-white plaster, to hold together the greenstick sense of what I understood about families, unwittingly fabricating the ending a child needed: even damaged adults can mend.
Emma Neale’s most recent book The Pink Jumpsuit: Short Fictions, Tall Truths (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $35) was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. It is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.