written by Diana Clarke
My brother and I used to play a game before bed. We shared a room at the time. His bed mirrored mine.
We had these corkboards that we kept above our beds. We were allowed to pin our school certificates to the boards. My brother, Ollie, won a medal in his rugby tournament. The medal went on the board. I won a ribbon in the school spelling bee. The ribbon went on the board. Ollie celebrated his tenth birthday, the cards were allowed on the board. I wrote a haiku called Cat Allergy:
I am allergic
To the fur of every cat
Cat! Achoo! Achoo!
The haiku was not allowed on the board.
Every night before lights out, my brother and I would each take a pin from our boards. We would take a pin in one hand, and hold out our other hand, palm up. Then we would pierce the skin of our palms with the metal. Swivel the skewers into our flesh. It didn’t hurt if you ran the pin parallel to the curve of your palm. Traversed the lines of your future, ran the needle just beneath the surface. Through the layer that was a purgatory between unfeeling and pain. We’d leave the pins hanging there, suspended from our skin. We’d flip our acrobat hands over and over and laugh. A magic trick. The pins never fell. They didn’t fall and they didn’t hurt.
They didn’t hurt until one night when Mum walked in while we were deep in the third act of our needling magic show. I had a pin in every finger and Ollie was experimenting with foot pinning.
She said our full names, even our middle names and then she took one of those deep, trembling breaths that mums take when you should stop looking them in the eye. And she said, “What in god’s name do you think you’re doing?”
I busied myself with extracting the pins from my skin as Ollie tried to vocalise a half-baked answer about a school-related biology experiment. By the time he finished mumbling and burbling about the density of skin versus the sharpness of the point, Mum had given up on him and turned on me. She walked over to my bedside slowly. Stalking like a predator. I shrunk back into the junction of the walls as she towered over me, her shadow casting a darkness.
“It doesn’t hurt,” I insisted.
At night, after playing Pin the Pin on the Hand – which is what we unimaginatively called the game – I lay awake long after lights out. Lay and watched the ceiling and listened to the shouting. My parents fought. They fought about most things, but only at night. They were like vampires. Werewolves. Their badness only existed in the dark.
Ollie didn’t know how they fought. He was usually asleep before nightfall. And when I tried to tell him the monsters our parents became in the twilight hours, he told me I was lying. And I understood every Disney movie in that moment. I understood why the characters who found the creatures never told.
I listened to their fighting but I didn’t understand it. My mother is half Maori. She was adopted by white parents and she doesn’t know who her biological parents are but she says she can tell she’s half Maori by the color of her skin. My father is white. British.
They’d argue about this. About how my father didn’t understand what it’s like and about how my mother used her skin as an excuse. About how my father couldn’t see beyond his privilege and about how my mother needed to take responsibility for her own life. I didn’t understand the arguments because they spoke quickly. Loudly. They growled and shouted and screeched like predator and prey and prey and predator. A horror film lullaby.
Sometimes I was surprised when I went downstairs for breakfast and they were both there. Alive. When Mum was standing at the sink washing pans and Dad was pouring orange juice into glasses. Dad kissed Mum on the forehead when he left for work with his briefcase and he waved at us and I squinted into his eyes to try to see the monster hiding behind them. Mum took us onto her lap after breakfast and kissed our temples. I thought about prying my fingers under her face. Peeling off her mask like a Scooby Doo episode. But at school we’d been learning to think about the consequences of our actions and I didn’t think I’d like the consequences of that one.
I was twelve when my school hired a new history teacher. She was Mrs. Kai. She was Maori. Not the kind of Maori that played Māori characters on television shows. Not the year-round golden bronze type of Maori. Not the glossy straight black hair kind of Maori. Not the slim, slight, supermodel Maori that danced on cars in Fast Crew music videos and walked down Ponsonby Road with Lorde on Sunday mornings.
Mrs. Kai’s skin was black. Her hair hung to her waist in thick, coarse braids. She requested that the school replace the petite wooden chair behind her desk with a fat armchair and she filled the whole thing like liquid poured into a container. And she had a tattoo of a koru on her chin only slightly darker than her skin that she traced with her fingertips as she spoke.
On her first day teaching our history class she announced we were learning about the origins of New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi. Our nation’s founding document.
She said: “In Maori culture, we have always used legends and myths to make sense of events. Especially traumatic ones. Everything is easier when it’s part of a fiction story. Because sometimes you can pretend that even the realness in that story is just fiction too.” Then she settled back in her chair and told us the tale of New Zealand’s Great Divide.
She told us that before our country was known as New Zealand, it was known by the Maori people as Aotearoa. There is no English translation for the word. But the closest the Maori have come to Europeanising it is this: Aotearoa, or, land of the long white cloud.
Once upon a time Aotearoa was a single land mass. One island, not two. A crescent moon of lush green forestry, spotted all over with rich blue lakes, steaming geysers, craggy mountains, snowy peaks, and white sand beaches that circled the country like a picture frame.
The Maori people lived in harmony. They traded root vegetables, wood, birds, fish, rock, plants as currency. They lived in tribes run by chiefs. An oral culture, news was disseminated each night around communal fires on the beach. After the news, the people would tell stories, sing, dance, and play until it was time for the children to sleep.
The colonizers came on ships bigger than any construction the Maori had ever seen. They lined up their vessels just off the coast of the Coromandel and fired cannons in greeting. The destruction from the colonial hellos caused greater devastation than the Maori had ever before known.
By the time the British took their first step onto the sandy shores of Aotearoa, the population of the West Coast had already been nearly halved. The remaining Maori people attacked the colonizers with spears, whose heads were bound by flax. The British people responded with rifles, whose murderous magic the Maori did not understand.
After a mere week of war, the Maori peoples were scarce and the British announced that there would be a peace treaty. The British bound the Maori leaders to the trees that surrounded their own homes. They held their magic killing machines to the temples of the native people and they handed them magic writing sticks and they said, “Sign on the dotted line.”
By this time word had travelled down the fireside storytelling coast to the bottom of the nation. The Maori people living in the south of the country heard of the British arrival and tyranny and destruction. They heard of the Treaty that the colonizers were forcing the Maori to sign.
And the Maori in the south did not trust that the treaty was as peaceful as the British made it out to be. And so they made shovels from slate and sticks and they began to dig. Men, women, children, the elderly; they dug and they dug. They made a line that ran from the West coast to the East. A crevice that became a ditch. A ditch that became a trench. A canyon. A chasm. And finally a channel. The Pacific Ocean found the product of the Maori’s diggers’ labor and rushed to fill the gap that now bisected the land mass that was Aotearoa.
And the two islands were formed.
Mrs. Kai spoke about the treaty as if it were a death warrant while she gripped the edge of her desk and her knuckles slowly turned white. She finished her story and she looked at us. I looked around. We were all eyes-wide, mouths-agape, dumbstruck.
“That’s not true,” I told Mrs. Kai.
I said, “Mrs. Kai, no offense or anything, but the Treaty of Waitangi is a peace negotiation. It was a peaceful agreement between two cultures.” I held my hands in the air, entwined my fingers in a tepee shape to show Mrs. Kai just how united New Zealand’s two cultures were.
Mrs. Kai just smiled. Her chin tattoo spread wider every time she did this. Grew. Stretched. Flexed itself in an act of defiance or maybe challenge. It wasn’t a happy smile and I didn’t smile back.
She smiled and the bell sounded. Recess.
At Christmastime on the same year that Mrs. Kai told us the tale of New Zealand’s colonization, my parents announced that they would be getting divorced.
They told us at night. Interrupted a game of Pin the Pin on the Hand where Ollie was attempting to spell the letters of MERRY CHRISTMAS on his palm using pins. They walked into our room hand in hand. Their fingers interlinked with one another. I nearly stabbed myself in my surprise. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my parents hold hands. I stared at that handhold for a long time. My mother’s thin tanned fingers woven between those pale, manly ones of my father. I stared at that handhold so long I forgot my parents had faces and heads and brains and reasons for being.
The conversation was the conversation you already know. Exactly the same. There’s nothing I need to tell you because you already know the your father and I have something we need to tell you and the we still love each other very much and the we still love you very much and this is just how it needs to be and we will still all be spending Christmas together.
Or at least, I think that’s how the conversation went. It might have gone like that or that might be from a movie or maybe both.
They finished speaking and their hands were their own again. My mother held hers clasped together and my father held his clenched in fists and I couldn’t remember at what point in the conversation their fingers stopped being interlinked even though I was pretty sure I’d been watching their hands the whole time.
They closed the door behind them and Ollie held his palm toward me proudly. The pins were arranged in the shape of a gift. I looked down at my own palm and it was bleeding and a pin was protruding out of it as if it were trying to dig through my hand and divide it in two.
I turned away from Ollie so he wouldn’t see me cry.
I looked up at my noticeboard. At my haiku.
The one I’d written in History class. The one I’d been allowed to hang:
The problem with us
The land of the long white cloud
Is that we are two.
Diana Clarke is an expat New Zealander, ex-University of Auckland student, and ex-journalist. She currently resides in Lafayette, Indiana, where she is completing her MFA in fiction and teaching introductory composition at Purdue University. She is the book review editor at Sycamore Review and the mother of a one-eyed dog.