The Sunday EssayJuly 3, 2022

The Sunday Essay: For Keri Hulme


For Becky Manawatu, and maybe for Keri Hulme too, the sea is a church. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Original illustrations by Pounamu Wharekawa.

We were in Rakiura in December when I learned Keri Hulme had died. I took a can of Haagen Strong beer from the fridge at our accommodation at Horseshoe Bay where the kākā swooped to, and ate fruit from our hands. Took the beer to the wharf where my tāne, Tim, was shucking the pāua he and my son got that day from Ringaringa Beach. Poured some beer onto a rock for Keri Hulme. Does death draw us to the water? I think so. Or at least I’m pulled there, to the salt-white church, to acknowledge loss, a passing, and other things too.

In the beginning, it was darkness, and more fear, and a howling wind across the sea.

After learning Keri has died I go to my books and see if the bone people is with me now, I always travel with a book I’ve read – a pou – a new book, as well as a collection of short stories or poetry. The bone people is not in my bag, stink one. We go to the pub, my brother, my sister-in-law and Tim. We order big glass bottles of beer. We search the walls filled with photos of fishermen and women, people who lived their lives here, for my grandfather. Listen to the men at the leaner, and look out the window at the cod boats on the still water. I search my memory for Keri’s bar scenes in the bone people. I replace my old image, with this image, of this pub. Imagine them here, those troubled people, those hurt and healing people, those bone people: Simon, Kerewin and Joe, and all their sentences which start with “If only…”

They have, too. Barstools ranged round them in a semicircle, the man and his boy in the middle. Joe grinning like a hyena, and Simon showing off.

Ah, here they all are, for a moment. And yes, of course, take a big glug on the big brown bottle of beer, and look out to Halfmoon Bay, the sea will always be a church, and maybe it was Keri’s too.

A day or two later I pack a sandwich and a nectarine and make the hour walk through Rakiura National Park to Māori Beach. Walk all the way to near the place where bright blue freshwater spills into the moana. I want to find a shell to put in the locket my tāua gave me for my 21st birthday. Māori Beach was my pōua’s favourite beach and Ringaringa, hers, Dad told me. Pōua is a perfect ghost to me, and I want to find a perfect shell small enough to fit in my locket, but there are none. Just fragments. This frustrates me, I want something whole to put in my locket, something perfect, complete, undamaged. Transcendent thoughts for dead ancestors, dead children, dead aunties and uncles, my pōua, and even for Keri Hulme. But this obsessive search for a perfect shell, a sign that Pōua loved me so much he could calcify and wink up from the enormous expanse of grey sand grains, then sit symbolically in a locket for me forever thwarts the experience. Eyes cast to the sand, searching and searching, my attention and aim singular, all energy drawn to the brain, I have forgotten my feet, hardly feel the ache in my calf muscles from the walk, barely taste the nectarine. Needed too much, from everything, every dusty photograph, and each dried seahorse corpse, but especially ghosts.

If only was the tapu phrase. 

If only I had

If only I hadn’t

It’s Matariki weekend now, half a year has passed since Keri died, and our trip to Rakiura where Dad showed us the home he grew up, overlooking Halfmoon Bay. The island where we ate fried cod livers for breakfast around a big table with our Rakiura whānau, and my tāne and son coming in from the water, with grins on their faces, pāua in their catch bags and a kina each, light, in their hands. Tim dripping with water, face flushed with sea-joy, telling us my favourite diving story ever: “I saw a seahorse behind the kelp babe, and I waved to son. I pulled back the kelp, and it was still there, and we could see the shape of tiny seahorses in the dad’s pouch.”

My hair is almost dry, after going into the sea, on this bright, cold winter’s day. For the past three days the sea has been the calmest I’ve ever seen it on this coastline. From here in the distance, you can see the rainforested mountains, the Papahaua which tower over State Highway 67. I keep waking too late to go and look for the rising Matariki, to be honest lately I almost miss seeing morning all together. I wake when the fire is already lit and the pot of plunger coffee is already brewed, and then, when everyone has gone to school and work, I take my dog to the beach. Bro’s life is sleeping punctuated with sprinting down the beach. He’s with me now. We are here for Keri. Before I went into the water I lit this small fire, and kneeled beside it to read from Te Kaihau/The Windeater. Flipped through the pages and chose a story at random: Unnamed Islands in the Unknown Sea. 

I used to love reading about islands as a child. Being shipwrecked on one would be heaven.

We are here on this West Coast beach for Keri, but also to feel shipwrecked, just the romantic parts though, the parts you like to think would make up the lion’s share of what it means to be shipwrecked. The lack of distraction and overwhelm of choice, the abundance of time and sky and source of, and appetite for, kaimoana. It’s hard to keep pretending I am shipwrecked though. A couple passes with a small shrieking dog. Two men are cutting wood, or one is while the other eats a pie with one hand and scrolls through his phone with the other. A family arrives armed with rods – though they hover near the beachgrass, and don’t make it to the water.

Still in my swimming shorts and bra, because maybe go back in? Put my book down, and sprint across the sand and take another dive into a cold curl of water. My ribcage contracts and I gasp and leap up. Run back to the fire and my book and my towel. Another man drives up smiling out the window, and then says, “I thought you were someone else”, and he’s right, we are someone else, we’ve been in the sea, have no data, this book and towel are our only possessions, we’re shipwrecked, so piss off.

Porotītīwai, you whispered, porotītīwai and I never thought to ask you what that means.

Don’t say piss off though, and he parks between my small scaly fire and the water, not blocking the view but blighting it. I become angry, like a leopard seal, and the line from my sunning place and hunting place has been cut. I want to go tell him now, cause far out. It’s low tide and there are heaps of places for him to watch the sea from his shiny four-wheel drive truck with a kayak or whatever it is strapped to its top. Would I park between a person with a fire and the water? I will go say something, I decide, almost, but then he starts his engine and drives away. Open Keri’s book again, and land on a story called Planetesimal.

It’s a story about a man who meets a woman at a party, and she shows him she has a universe opening in the cup of her elbow. First, she refuses his roach because she thinks she is going mad, and weed would make it worse, and he says that if you can think it, you’re not going mad. She winces and tells him she can think what she likes, and then shows him the cosmos, the blinking starry void in the cup of her elbow. He had thought her plain, a wallflower. She invites him to touch the void, near the bone, and something like what’s happened to her, happens to him too.

My hair is wet again, but gonna dry it here, with the sun and the wind and the light heat coming off my near flameless fire. Put on some more driftwood. Read Planetesimal again. I must look up the word when I get home, I think. The thought of going home makes me sad because then I can’t be here anymore. Maybe I am a very boring person, so easily soothed by being outdoors, especially when we can read this book, and listen to the water, and remind ourselves everything is OK if the way between us and the ocean is clear.

We are here for Keri, because among other things Matariki is a time to mihi to the dead, remembering those who had passed between the new rising and the last.

My hair is dry now, and smoky, it has that soft crispness only saltwater can create. Bro licks my hand. I close Te Kaihau, and go to stand. The only two karakia I know off my heart is one mō te kai and one mō te ata, as well as some of The Lord is My Shepherd. None of these suit the moment of course. Still, I stop myself from just walking away without some form of ceremony. I am here to acknowledge Keri for Matariki despite there being no stars out now and probs I will sleep through seeing them again tonight. On Instagram the maramataka tells me this is not a time to be lazy, but 12 hours moe is just barely cutting it at the moment. The sky is a powdery blue and the sun is low but distant. We mihi to those stars made invisible by light of day, and to Keri and another friend on their haerenga. As I leave I see the two men who were collecting wood sitting close beside each other on a large log, talking. I like seeing friendship. Yeah, nah, that’s the goal, eh, who wants to be shipwrecked.

At home I have wifi, and I look up the meaning of planetesimal; the explanation on Universe Today makes the most sense. 

Universe Today explains that a planetesimal is an object formed from dust, rock, and well, other stuff. The word is rooted in the concept of infinitesimal – or objects too small to see or measure. Planetesimals refers to small celestial bodies which are created when a planet is born. 

In Keri’s story the woman with an opening to a universe in the cup of her elbow never arrives home that night after the party, and she is presumed to have walked into the sea, “rendered herself bodiless”.

Later he says, “I have wondered. If you sat among heartless strangers with a universe within your reach, would you always stay, a wallflower at the party?”

We still have Keri Hulme’s words to read here, and this Matariki I read more of them. Her short prose feel like karakia within themselves, hymns, or rosary beads made of pounamu and bone and feather and starlight on a string of vivid human life for me to sit with and welcome in te tau hou.

I go to sit next to my dog, who’s sprawled over the couch. His snoring is freshly heavy, like sand being tugged down the shore. The home fire is glowing bright. I make a cup of cauliflower Maggi Soup in a Cup. It is so quiet in the house, and like my place on the beach, from fire to sea, I like my line of sight between my sitting spot and my bookshelf to be clear. It is my hunting ground. I pick up Te Kaihau again, and I flip to a page. I begin One Whale, Singing. I read a line twice:

Something small jumped from the water, away to the left. A flash of phosphorescence after the sound, and then all was quiet and starlit again.

Don’t know why, but this flash of life and colour makes me think of a line in a friend’s manuscript I not long finished reading, which got me crying which was actually embarrassing because I was in a public place, but fortunately one where I did not see anyone I knew. It’s too soon for me to quote direct from her mahi, I think, but it was about living, just wanting to live – not needing to be loved. I consider the sentence probably not entirely separate from her meaning in her manuscript. Needing to be loved is a sickness I understand, and in not needing it, it can come in unexpected waves anyway. And like I said, yeah I was a big ol tangiweto when I read this simple sentence, because of all that had happened to my friend before it, and all that we brave after, and so on.

I make my intentions for te tau hou patting my dog, holding Keri’s book, the salt still on me from my winter swim. My intentions are not achievement-based or goal-oriented, they are happiness-based and connection-oriented. They are about language, and love and friendship, and they do not care how my body changes between this Matariki and the next, or what time it gets out of bed, or if it accomplishes anything. Yes, my intentions are about language, yet they refuse to be manufactured into a list of words. Maybe they are planetesimal in essence.

I close Keri’s book and look at the home fire. Say something to her, again, but it’s just for her. He kaituhi!

Say something for all she’s done for us, and continues to. The book, with Planetesimal, and planetesimal inside it, remains alive with meaning. And so do we e hoa mā, so are we, whether we stay by the bookshelf or go to the sea, the beads are there, these tiny planets, to pull through our fingers, while we search for the porotītīwai, the phosphorescence lighting up our hunting grounds, where we spear the gold and green and red and purple flashes, we spear and snare and treasure and possess, we make our bodies heavy with our catch, these silver fish, these reasons to be brave, these reasons to return to the page, the church, te hā.

Keep going!