Here’s a short story that I wrote in response to an assignment on my creative writing course. The brief was that the story must be on the theme of ‘home’ and should be recognisably New Zealand, with a word count of 400-600 words.
NB: Kōwhai is pronounced Kō-fye
‘Why on God’s earth would you name a child after a tree? Trees have tree names, people have people names,’ he’d said, when she told him. But there was something about those yellow flowers that she loved and she wanted her daughter to feel as strong as a tree and as happy as sunshine. He wouldn’t understand, because he’d always been strong and happy. Anna remembered this as she trudged across the paddock, the plastic crate of washing on the angle of her hip, the frost crunching beneath her boots. She pushed a straggle of hair back under the grimy ‘Auckland – City of Sails’ baseball cap that had once been his. She had his cap, he had her kid.
Kōwhai had grown to be a sturdy little girl here on the farm, staggering about among the sheep in her tiny red gumboots, helping to put out sugar water for the tuis in an old peanut butter jar on a tin tray nailed to a warratah by the back door. The birds drank from it when other tuis chased them off the tree that was her namesake, the one the child could see from her bedroom window. The little bed had had a crochet blanket on it, one that Anna’s own mother had made when Kōwhai was a baby, long before she and her mum stopped talking. It had been a stupid argument, but that was Mum for you – always criticizing, telling her to ‘harden up.’ It wasn’t her fault that the ewes had got out and she’d fallen in the gully while rounding them up; lain there all night with a broken leg worrying about Kōwhai and trying to keep warm. Busker had gone back to the house when he couldn’t get her to move – probably to raise the alarm, but what four-year-old would know a collie’s distress bark from his ‘I’m hungry!’ bark? When bloody Raewyn called round the next morning and found Kōwhai alone and Busker chomping on the wild goat that Steve had brought back from his weekend hunting trip, of course there was going to be trouble. The judge didn’t know her arse from her elbow. All Anna’s letters to Kōwhai went unanswered.
Kōwhai remembered lying on the bed with the big orange cat kneading her tummy. Pink and green and maroon wool felt scratchy beneath her legs; yellow flowers outside the window danced against a blue sky and the whistles and clicks of the tuis were overlaid with the ‘quardle ardle wardle dardle doodle’ of the magpies in the macrocarpas down by the fence. Mum must have been somewhere about. In the kitchen, a man’s voice was talking on the radio about strong winds and Banks Peninsula. When it got to be night and Mum didn’t come back to get her tea and run her bath, she climbed onto an old red-painted chair and took some bread from the crock on the bench. She smeared it with what was left of the butter and, because Mum wasn’t there, squeezed a humungous dollop of honey in the middle. She couldn’t really remember what had happened after that. It was her last real memory of home and, apart from the crochet blanket that had come with her to Adelaide, it was what she wrapped around herself at night. The orange cat’s silky fur, tuis and magpies, yellow flowers on the Kōwhai tree and blue sky, Banks Peninsula and honey. And Mum, of course. But even that memory was beginning to fade and she supposed that dead people didn’t really mind if you forgot them a little bit because you’d always recognize them when you met up in Heaven later. That was what Dad said, anyway. ☐