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Image: Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty
Image: Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty

BooksNovember 10, 2019

‘We need to help it die’: the beautiful, shocking first chapter of Auē

Image: Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty
Image: Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty

Becky Manawatu’s first novel is published by Mākaro Press and it’s a blinder. Dedicated to her cousin Glen Bo Duggan, who was 10 when he was killed by his mother’s boyfriend, it’s a story about kids and gangs and curdled masculinity. About serendipity, and taniwha, and resilience. It begins with Taukiri dropping his little brother Arama at their uncle and aunt’s place. 

Taukiri and I drove here in Tom Aiken’s truck. We borrowed it to move all my stuff. Tom Aiken helped. Uncle Stu didn’t. This was my home now.

Taukiri said that – ‘Home now, buddy’ – but he wouldn’t look at me. He looked around me, at the toaster, at a dead fly on the windowsill, at the door handle. He said something dumb, ‘You’ll love it, there are cows.’

You’re an orphan. I’m leaving. But cows.

He carried boxes into my new bedroom and pretended not to notice I hadn’t said a word since he’d packed up our house in Cheviot and driven me here. To Kaikōura. To Aunty Kat. To a place we sometimes visited but never stopped the night. He put the bed against the wall and the toys on the shelves, and lined up some of the books just like before. Not all of them. He left some of the books in the box, then he lifted it with a grunt and shoved it in the wardrobe.

‘Look after them for us,’ he said.

I didn’t answer. He didn’t care.

Taukiri looked around like he was happy now. ‘Just the same. Good eh.’

He didn’t say it like a question, so I kept my mouth shut.

‘I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?’ But something in his voice didn’t sound like him.

I followed my brother outside. The others followed too. Tauk kissed me on top of my head then got in his car. He looked at the steering wheel, looked at the road ahead, plugged his phone in, scrolled through, hit the screen. Music roared from the car. Snoop Dogg.

Aunty Kat came over and folded her arms. Tauk turned the song down before Snoop said the ‘N’ word. Beth and Tom Aiken were there too. Tauk stared at Beth, then her dog, Lupo, like he was actually leaving me with them and not with Aunty Kat and Uncle Stu.

‘Be good,’ he said.

‘The driving. That coast, Taukiri,’ Aunty Kat said, her arms still folded, ‘just go easy.’

I hadn’t said a word in so long because I was afraid of how I’d sound. I hoped it would stop him, me not talking. Worry him a bit. But even when I didn’t say goodbye, he left.

He turned up Snoop Dogg as he drove off, which stung a bit.

We stood in the driveway. Me and Beth. Aunty Kat and Tom Aiken. Lupo was wagging his tail because he thought it was a happy thing. He didn’t know about goodbyes. At least this time I had a chance to say it. I just couldn’t. Uncle Stu wasn’t outside with us. He was drinking beer in front of the TV in the lounge of my new home. He’d had a long day, Aunty Kat said.

‘You and your brother look so different,’ Beth said as Taukiri’s car disappeared into the dust cloud it made for itself. Lupo had run off behind the car, chasing the spinning wheels, but then he’d seen a butterfly and decided to follow that instead.

Taukiri and I didn’t look different. We looked exactly the same. But I wasn’t talking yet, so I couldn’t argue with Beth.

‘You both have those eyes, though,’ she said, looking at mine. ‘But yours are sad. His are angry.’

Tauk’s car was on the main road. His surfboard on the roof made it look like he was just going to the beach for a surf, but something in my tummy told me it might be a long one.

‘He’s an idiot. You’re better off without him,’ said Aunty Kat, and she stomped off to the house.

Tom Aiken put his hand on my shoulder. ‘He’ll be back. Before you know it.’

I hoped he’d come and take me away from this shit-hole. I’d never used the word ‘shit’ before, but my mum and dad were dead and my brother just drove off with his guitar and surfboard, listening to Snoop Dogg, so there was no one around who’d care if I said ‘shit- hole’, or even the ‘F’ word. It was weird. I didn’t think I was happy about it. I’d heard Taukiri swear before, but not around me or Mum and Dad. Only when he was hanging out with his mates and he thought none of us was around to hear him. It’s actually funny how much you learn from hearing things you shouldn’t. I never thought my brother was much of a troublemaker, but I’d heard Nanny say he was. He sure was.

Becky Manawatu and her debut novel, Auē.

When Taukiri was gone we went to the bush to play.

I dug a hole in the dirt while Beth swung on a branch.

‘I dare you to eat a worm,’ I said. It surprised me that my voice sounded totally normal.

I flicked the dirt off a worm I’d found and hiffed it at her.

She caught it in one hand. ‘Right,’ said Beth, and she popped it into her mouth. Even let it dangle there a bit. It was wriggling around, but she didn’t care. She sucked it up so slowly I nearly puked. I told her to stop, so she spat it out. A bird swooped down from the trees and snatched it up.

‘Lazy bird,’ Beth said. ‘That worm was dug up.’

I decided to make a rule for myself – if I said a swear word, I’d have to eat a worm like Beth did.

We went to the swamp. Lupo started barking and Beth told him to shut it. When he stopped we heard a noise. A scuffle then a cry, like something was being hurt.

Beth pointed to the flax bushes, ‘Is that mum weka teaching her baby a lesson?’

There were two wekas busy doing something terrible.

‘That’s not what mum wekas do. Is it?’

Beth shrugged. ‘Let’s see.’

We walked closer. The strange cry got loud. The wekas were using their beaks to tear at the thing that was making the sound.

‘Bastards got a baby rabbit,’ Beth said.

In the muddy edge of the swamp there was a baby rabbit with skin hanging off, and legs going ways they shouldn’t, and the tiny bottom jaw torn away. It was crying like a baby. The wekas kept going at it with their beaks, their wings back behind them like seagulls do at washed-up fish or chips.

‘Oi!’ Beth yelled, and she ran towards them. They moved away, but not far. The baby rabbit tried to jump but it moved like it was made of the insides coming out of its belly. Its face fell into the swamp, and we watched it try to get air by lifting a nose out of the muddy water as if it was the heaviest nose an animal ever had.

Beth ran to it. She took her jersey off and scooped the muddy, blood-covered baby into it. The crying stopped.

Shhh, I got you. Those bastards. Eating you alive!’ Beth turned to where the birds were watching, grunting like winged lions. ‘Bugger off.’

‘What should we do?’ I asked.

Beth opened her jersey and we looked inside at the rabbit. Its back was like luncheon sausage, the face was half gone and the tiny top teeth were all that was left of its mouth. The legs had turned under, as if they were only fur now. Just soft fur and meat with no bones inside. It made me think of a toy, a toy made yuck for halloween.

Beth opened the jersey some more, and out the side of the rabbit’s belly a little bit of a yellow-bag thing was poking, and a fringe thing with teeth made from skin.

I threw up.

‘You weirdo,’ said Beth. ‘We need to help it.’

I wiped my mouth, ‘We can take it home and get some bandages. Plasters.’

I swallowed back more throw-up.

‘No,’ Beth said. ‘We need to help it die. It’s probably wishing it was never born.’

‘Rabbits don’t wish.’

‘What would you know, townie?’

Cheviot was actually country as, but I didn’t get into that with her. ‘If it can wish then take it home, bandage it, plaster it.’

‘It’ll be dead. Go get me a rock.’

Lupo followed me, sniffing around, wagging his tail the whole time. I found a big rock, and when I got back with it Beth put the baby down under a tree on a thick root.

‘Give it.’

I gave her the rock.

‘Don’t look if you don’t want,’ she said. ‘Ready?’ she said to the rabbit, which didn’t answer.

She lifted the rock up and I kept looking. I wished I hadn’t. Lupo barked and Beth wobbled. The rock came hard down on the rabbit’s back legs, making it cry like it had before, only more squealed.

The wekas started to grunt again.

Beth was crying. ‘I missed.’

Lupo barked. I kicked him in his guts to shut him up. He yelped. Beth picked up the rock that had a bloody brown-and-yellow slick over it. The baby rabbit’s eyes said it was ready. Beth brought the rock down again. Right on its head this time. She sat down on the ground and looked at her hands. There were a few little smudges of blood on one palm. I sat beside her.

‘Are you okay?’

She didn’t answer, then stood up. ‘Don’t kick my dog ever again, townie.’

‘Sorry … I …’

‘You what? Wanted to help? I didn’t need it.’ She dragged her hand across her wet eyes. ‘This is a farm. And that was just a rabbit.’

She bent down and rolled the rock away. I looked at the squashed meat and guts and fur.

‘Now you bastards can have the damn thing,’ Beth said, walking away. The wekas tore away pieces of rabbit and ran into the bush.

She stormed off towards her house, with Lupo behind. I followed too, but she didn’t want me following her because she turned and stuck her tongue out. I stopped at the barn and cut across the paddock to my house.

To my house, like Taukiri said.

I went straight to the bathroom to wash my hands. I looked in the bathroom cabinet and found a box of plasters. I put one on my thumb, which felt good. So I put one on my knee too. Then I put one on my forehead, and another one on my other knee and one on my wrist. I wrapped one around my other thumb and I put one on the back of my neck, one on my chest and one on my cheek, and I put one over my belly button, and when there were no plasters left I stopped searching for places I was sore.

Auē, by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, $35) is available at Unity Books. 

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