A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Michelle Elvy, is a collection of 68 pieces of writing that explore the shifts and changes of recent times: from climate change to Covid-19, decolonisation to indigeneity. The following excerpt is a reflection on the lockdowns of 2020 by acclaimed writer Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, Te Ātiawa).
Since lockdown began, I haven’t spoken to a living soul. I have, however, had many conversations with non-living ones.
For example, I told my non-living cousin — born on the same day as me in a different hospital — that she had no business going off like that. Told her off. After that we had a great kōrero about sea horses. We had each found one of these — non-living of course, but miraculous — among the beach stones out front of our houses. I’ve had mine for more than 20 years. She found hers more recently.
These souls wear their skeletons on the outside like a suit of armour, tails curled into koru shapes. Their mother-of-pearl eyes, at either side of their horsey heads, are centred by black dots. These are some of the things we chatted about. But most of our discussion was to do with how, when we were kids growing up, in all our times spent in water, we had never seen a living one. Yet here were their fossilised forms cast up on our beach. How come?
Some days I put on my walking shoes and head off to the non-livings’ place of residence. As I get my feet into them, I describe my shoes like this: “There’s a white strip all the way round the base, which attaches the soles to the uppers, which are orange. These uppers are stitched behind the heels, then fold round and over the top of the foot, where they lace up. I tie double bows.”
That said and done, I step out into this world which sparkles and gleams and spins and rotates, but which now has this new added thing. I walk in the middle of the road until I come to the track leading up to their place. No one else about.
Birds are there in the trees, not many — a pair of tūī and an unseen riroriro warbling from somewhere are the ones which come to my notice.
“What’s happened to the world?” I ask them.
“Oh,” they tell me, “you stole all our homes and gave them to sheep.”
“What? Me? That’s not . . . I mean . . .”
“Well, you lot. We have to pick on someone. Anyway, slow down, it’s a long way to the top. You’ll have a heart attack.”
So, I do, slow down. The cheeky brats.
“Anyway, this is the way we got most of you up here,” I tell the beloveds. “Up this track, not that I had to do the carrying. Or they brought you up the road way, in four-wheel-drives if the weather was bad. And now look at you: plaques, headstones, gardens, windmills, shells, pansies, crosses, seating, carved pou, sculpted stone, words of love, photos.”
I take a seat and tell them about this unseen thing that has come to punish us, of which they know nothing. “It’s a disease,” I tell the innocent, “mate korona”, thinking the Māori term may sound less harsh. “It’s bold and deadly. It flies through the air and lands on you, or you pick it up by touch.” I describe the coloured spiky balls, the little murderers, which attack you from inside and stop your breath. “We all have to stay home, wash our hands all day, wipe down door handles, packages, bags, anything handled by another person, and we’re isolated into bubbles. Me? I’m in my own bubble. If you’re old, already sick or demented, you die. It’s overtaking the world. Filling hospitals. People in other countries are falling in thousands. Perhaps we will, too. Images of mass graves,” I say.
Mass graves did it. How dare I talk to them like that? I shut my running-off mouth and cry for a while.
“Never mind all that,” I say when I’m done crying. “The weather’s stunning, day after day. The world is silent, the streets are empty. There are no cars, trucks, bikes or scooters on the roads. The sea is void; that is, the surface of the sea has nothing floating on it — not a boat, surfboard or swimmer to be seen, no one fishing from its shores. There’s nothing noisy in the sky except for seagulls. Schools, shops, theatres, clubs, cafés are closed. Building sites have been deserted. People, in bubbles, come out and walk in the middle of roads. Some put teddy bears in windows. Singers come to the ends of their drives and sing to their streets. On Anzac Day old soldiers or their grandkids came to stand on footpaths wearing medals, and Richie McCaw, at the end of his driveway, played bagpipes. And guess what? The cities are not polluted anymore and forest birds have come to live there. Isn’t that a marvellous thing?”
As for the kids next door — and, I’d like to think, all kids — they are so happy. They are at home with two parents, riding their trikes and scooters, bouncing balls, jumping on tramps. Parents are playing with them or inside, probably baking. These children have not been tugged from their beds before they’re ready, washed and shoved into clothes, had breakfast shoved into them, been shoved into shoes and jackets and cars to be dropped at crèche where they are looked after by strangers. Or sent to sit bunched in classrooms.
“We have new heroes, would you believe? They are the overworked and underpaid supermarket staff, deliverers of food, health providers, caregivers, drivers, volunteers. Street dwellers now have roofs over their heads. Food is being distributed to those who need it. We are reminded to be kind. What do you think of all this? Do you think mate korona has come to tell us something? Is this a wake-up call? Papatūānuku fighting back? Anyway, dearest ones, you have the best spot — safe from rising tides, swelling rivers, fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, greed, motorways, rampaging viruses. And looking out beyond, there’s all this beauty. The greenstone ocean glistens, the sun strikes the mountain peaks of Ngā Tapuae o Uenuku.
“Listen to the birds.”
Whakarongo by Patricia Grace is from A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha, edited by Witi Ihimaera & Michelle Elvy (Massey University Press, $39.99) and can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.