by Gwendolyn Edward
During the wet season, the Macadamia nuts in our orchard ripen, grandmother Popo loses more of her hair, and I wait for my mother to return from the Lake of Impossible Trespass. This morning I am hiding eight meters up in one of our trees, hidden in the heavy clusters of green spheres, because Popo is calling for me. I can see her below. MacKenzie, her old sheltie, is pulling himself over the soft ground. His back legs stopped working two years ago, but Popo got him a contraption with wheels so he can still walk, sort of, and in the evenings he rolls across the lawn in front of the big house, sometimes so fast that he trips himself up and tumbles wheels over head. From up here, I can see that Popo’s scalp is pink like my sneakers and I can smell her coconut sunscreen. She’s calling for me because Aselyn wants to play, but Aselyn puts her finger in her bellybutton and when she thinks no one is looking she sniffs it and I’ve decided I don’t want any more friends if she’s my only option.
I wait for Popo to move on. It takes her a while because she’s a thousand years old and stubborn, so while I’m waiting I pick a nut from the branch and scrape at its hard shell with my nails. I wonder how long it will take for me to reach the inside. There’s only a bit coming off at a time. I estimate three years. That sounds right. Three years seems long enough to wait.
It’s been raining and the house smells like hairspray and steak and I’ve decided I’d rather have one crappy friend than no friend at all. I’m on the front porch in Popo’s white wicker rocking chair when Aselyn rides up on her bike and throws it down on the grass. She never leans it against the side of the house like mom made me do. Aselyn is what Popo calls a “wild thing” but Popo says friends are few and far between and when five kilometers away from anyone else you should take what you can get. Aselyn is wearing denim pedal pushers and a cut off shirt that says QUEEN in golden sequins. Her hair is too short for braids and her pig tails look like bushy stumps.
“Hey Jimmy.” She shrugs her camouflage backpack down her arms and the padded straps rest in the crooks of her arms. “Can I sleep over tonight?”
I hate it when she calls me that. It makes me sound like a boy and she’s only trying to point out that my body isn’t changing as fast as hers is.
“Don’t call me Jimmy,” I tell her.
She hesitates in the yard, suddenly looking unsure, a moment when her boldness wavers. “Jemina, can I spend the night?”
She only asks if she can stay over when her parents have one of their “adult parties.” If she stays home, they make her take allergy medication and the next day she wakes up groggy and tired. I’ve spent months trying to figure out what goes on. Aselyn’s said it’s sex stuff and her parents don’t want her to see anything. I want to ask questions, but every time I try, Aselyn changes the subject.
“Yeah. Fine,” I say.
MacKenzie paws at the screen door and whines to be let out.
“Watch the dog,” Popo yells from the kitchen.
“You want to go to the caves?” Aselyn asks. She asks this every time she spends the night because just like I want to know what happens at her parents’ parties, she wants to know the secrets in the caves at the Lake of Impossible Trespass. The splintered “Personnel Only” sign is not enough to keep her out. I’ve never told her that this is where mom has gone to mourn, but she must know because she asks about the caves so often.
“No.” I open the door and MacKenzie’s wheels get stuck on the threshold. I pick him up and carry him down the stairs. He used to seem a lot heavier.
“Why not,” she whines, obviously just forgetting that I’ve agreed to let her stay the night and that she should be nice. “Guest rules.”
“Guest rules are for babies. Remember you told me that the last time I was over and wanted to go bug hunting.”
Aselyn purses her lips. “There are glow worms in the caves.”
“I don’t want to go to the caves.” But I do want to see my mother. Three years is a long time to sleep in a cave and I don’t know why she cared so much about Don. He moved us to the middle of nowhere and left us this crappy orchard to take care of and almost never talked.
“I don’t care about glow worms,” I lie. MacKenzie begins his evening ritual of racing across the grass.
“Your dog is weird,” Aselyn says.
“Your parents are weird.”
“At least my mom wasn’t a dancer.”
I begin to clench my jaw and stare hard at her.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. I get defensive sometimes.”
We both get defensive. I have to constantly remind myself of that. Her parents don’t bathe often and chant when the sun comes up and don’t wear deodorant and my mother was known as a harem girl. Maybe part of the reason I want to know about Aselyn’s parents’ parties is because maybe what they do is what my mom did. Popo tells me, on nights when she drinks too much bourbon, that mom danced for the Prince of Brunei and that she was the only Māori woman with tā moko chin tattoos and that instead of money, like low class women earn, mom was showered with pearls and jewels and silk dresses and that she used to send Popo pictures of. I have one of these next to my bed: her in high heels in front of a jet plane, drinking a thousand dollar bottle of champagne with a monkey on her shoulder. She was almost a princess.
“We can go look for cicada holes in the orchard,” I suggest. I know Aselyn doesn’t care about bugs but since she tried to make me feel bad she’ll probably give in. “Did you know that cicadas live in the ground for thirteen years or more? Then when they crawl out they only live for a few weeks. They die super fast.”
“Really?” Aselyn asks. “That’s cool I guess.”
“Yeah it’s weird. They come out and then they shed their bodies and grow wings and poof. Dead.”
“We only got three years before we grow wings then?”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
I am surprised that she agrees without much argument, and she leaves her backpack on the ground next to her bike. I whistle for MacKenzie to follow us. His tongue is hanging out of his mouth but he’s not ready to slow down and his wheels rock his body from side to side over the gravel walkway to the orchard.
Mom got me a book about bugs a week before she left for the Lake and the book came with a bug house made of wood and mesh that you can carry around. It’s painted red and green like a watermelon and has a round door that gets pushed up to put the bugs inside. I used it a few times, but no matter what leaves and twigs I put inside, my bugs would always die and then Popo would have to shake them out into the red Kakabeak bushes and I’d be sad for days. I don’t try to keep them as pets anymore. Sometimes I find bugs and catch them, but I always let them go. The wild can’t be tamed, but it can be understood.
At the right time of year, like now, once the sun starts to set, the cicadas come out and sound like hand bells. I heard a hand bell choir with my mom once, not too long before she married Don. She said that were no such thing as angles but if there were, the angles would wear bells and we’d know they were real because they’d sound like glass rain when they came for us.
Dusk in the orchard is my favorite time of day. Today the clouds are full and heavy and it will probably rain again but now the sky is blue and yellow and peach and purple and when I look up through the branches, the sky is an oil painting.
“It’s going to rain,” Aselyn says and when I turn around she’s wiping her nose.
“Yeah it is,” I agree.
As our feet crunch yellowing leaves and old nuts, I imagine that we’re explorers and we’re moving through a jungle on our way to the Lake of Impossible Trespass. I narrate the journey silently. Aselyn says that we’re too old to play pretend anymore, but I’m not ready to be a full adult.
“So what are we looking for?” she asks.
“We’re looking for cicada nymphs—light brown with red eyes. They come out of the ground and crawl up trees and stuff. So we can look for holes in the ground and around the base of the trees.”
Aselyn looks down. “There’s a lot of ground.”
My colleague is doubtful about our success. But she tends to read maps upside down and never knows north from south so I am still hopeful.
MacKenzie circles the base of a tree. He still does this when he has to pee but he can’t lift his legs and tries to squat and pees near things instead. The thunder starts and MacKenzie barks once.
“How do you know there are any even out here?” Aselyn asks.
“Can’t you hear them?” The cicadas are chiming and when I pay close attention, for a few seconds I can make out the individual calls. Then they all blend into one and it drones.
“Well sure yeah but I don’t see any.”
“We have to look for them,” I say, rolling my eyes.
Aselyn clearly isn’t interested in bugs anymore and she pushes dirt around with her sneaker half-heartedly and swings her arms. “What’s Popo making for dinner?”
My colleague has been complaining of hunger for days, which is weird since she’s been eating most of the food. I tell her that when we reach the Lake there will be plum and pear and nectarine trees and that the lake is full of crawfish so we’ll be fine. She looks hesitant and complains that there won’t be any cheese.
“Oh. I didn’t eat lunch,” she replies.
Small droplets of water start to land on my arms as I’m inspecting the lower portion of a tree. The bark is stripped off in places and newer white fiber shows through.
The rain begins but according to my calculations we shall reach the Lake as soon as the storm passes and there will be a luminous rainbow.
“Maybe we should go back,” Aselyn says. “It’s starting to rain.”
“It’s not like it’s acid rain. We’ll be fine. Look, even MacKenzie doesn’t want to go back.” The dog is eating something he’s nosed up out of the leaves and looks just fine to me. “Are you going to help me or not?” I ask.
“I don’t really want to look for bugs,” she complains, and not for the first time I’ve thought about how fat and lazy she can be.
“Then why did you say you’d come?” I’m getting angry and the sky is getting darker and the trees feel like a deeper shade of green.
My colleague is on the verge of giving up and at this rate I wish she would so I could have all the glory.
I start to rub my hands over the soil and inspect for holes.
“Because I don’t want to be at home,” she admits. “My parents are stupid and I don’t like them.”
I round on her, grinding dirt into the knees of my jeans. “At least you have your parents.”
“Doesn’t matter if I have them they’re stupid.” Aselyn just wants me to feel bad for her but she doesn’t even know how cruel she sounds.
“Really? Because I’d really like to know who my dad is and why he didn’t stick around. I’d really like to know why my eyes are blue and why my skin is so light.” My voice is rising and Aselyn looks surprised, probably because I never talk about my mom or dad to her. “I think I’d pay a million dollars to just have them around and you know my mom has been gone for three years and you got to see your mom this morning and sometimes I think you’re a bitch.”
Aselyn’s face is red and she looks like she’s going to cry.
“You go back to the house,” I say. “I’m staying. Go MacKenzie,” I yell, and the dog looks between me and Aselyn and puts his ears back. I point in the direction of the house and he turns around.
“You’re stupid,” Aselyn says, and then she’s walking away and I hope she gets on her bike and rides home and gets soaked.
After she leaves I sit with my back against a tree and look up at the draping columns of flowers as the water hits my forehead. When it lands on my eyelids I flinch and look down at the ground.
I should have gone to the caves to look for the glow worms. This place is a mess and I know tomorrow morning the storm will have knocked many of the nut clusters loose. They are already heavy and threaten to snap branches. Popo stopped paying the men to harvest the nuts around the time mom left but they come anyway. Now they pay her a flat fee per bucket and Popo says its better this way with the middle man cut out. She says she’s too old for accounting and taxes but that maybe when she dies I’ll have more energy for those things.
The house leaks too sometimes, in the laundry room where it smells like mildew. Popo won’t ever turn on the air-conditioning and the books in the study are warping. I’m tired of mowing the lawn and picking up dog poop and Popo, even though I love her, is not my mom.
It begins to rain harder but I don’t care that I’m getting wet. If I’m wet Popo won’t be able to tell rain from tears.
The cicadas are quieting and it’s going to be night soon. There are no lights in the orchard but I know all the trails by heart. I get up and walk between the trees. I’m determined to find a nymph to prove to Aselyn that they’re out here. Maybe next time she rides her bike over I’ll have it in my hand and then when I uncurl my fingers, the cicada’s back will split and it will fly off and she’ll feel like she missed something special.
My colleague is a fool and cannot see the magic in the world.
But I don’t find any nymphs. I only find empty holes closing with rain water and one ruptured shell still stuck to a tree. I pull off my shoe and put it in my sock to keep it safe and then I hold it lightly so I won’t crush it. Maybe I’ll lie to Aselyn and tell her I saw it springing out with wings.
When I get back to the house Aselyn is there, sitting at our chipped wooden dining table, shoveling potatoes into her mouth like they’re candy, and Popo is pissed.
“You missed dinner,” she says as she pointedly slides my steak off of a plate and into MacKenzie’s bowl. His wheels squeak as he gets up and his tail wags and makes thumping noises on his metal harness.
“I don’t care. I wasn’t hungry anyway.”
“Good, because you won’t get anything until breakfast.”
This is a lie and I know Popo will feel bad in a few hours and make me a sandwich and leave it in the fridge for me to find during the night.
“What is she still doing here?” I ask, glaring at Aselyn, who won’t look at me.
“I couldn’t very well send her home in this,” Popo explains. And deep down I know she’s right and that it would be really mean to make Aselyn bike home in the storm, but I also kind of don’t care.
“You could drive her,” I suggest.
“I got cataracts and you know that.” Popo sighs and I can tell she doesn’t really want Aselyn to stay anymore than me but we’re both stuck with her. Popo doesn’t like driving, I think because she can’t see well and because every time we get in the car it’s a reminder to both of us about the accident. I wish mom was here because she wouldn’t let Aselyn be so mean and she’d get in our old Ford truck and even though the windshield wipers don’t work she’d haul Aselyn’s ass back home and leave her on the doorstep.
“Fine. Well I have things to do so I will be sleeping in the study.” I say this as though my plans are very important and neither Popo nor Aselyn argue with me so I pull stale, mothball smelling blankets and pillows from the linen closet and slam the pocket doors of the study closed behind me. Aselyn can sleep in my room for all I care.
I open the wet sock and look inside. The shell is intact and I pull it out slowly and set it on the desk.
Lots of bugs become something else. Maggots turn into flies and worms into moths and caterpillars turn into butterflies. Some nights I want to pull my own skin off to see if I have wings and if I do, I’m going to fly far away from here.
Sand flies start as larvae too, and when I was little my mother used to tell me the story of chief Hatupatu. One day Hatupatu did not return from hunting and his father went to the lake and prayed to the forest god Tāne who restored Hatupatu to life with these bugs. Mom was fascinated with transformation and she told me that we all live many lives in one. We molt our personas and emerge into others and that one day, she’d become a lake and I’d become a woman.
I can hear the rain on the roof and Popo’s and Aselyn’s muted voices from the kitchen. Then I hear Aselyn’s footsteps on the stairs and the house becomes quiet. In the morning, it will be like it always is after we fight. Aselyn and I will make a truce without saying a word and the next time she comes over, we’ll do the whole thing again. But right now, I hope she’s looking at the picture of my mom and knowing that I am loved.
The grandfather clock stopped chiming months ago but when I wake up I hear it strike five and my back is stiff from sleeping on the floor.
I pull the pocket doors apart; it is still raining and the front door is open. MacKenzie sits pressed against the other side of the screen, and I hear Popo’s rocking chair creaking on the wood. The rooms are streaked with moonlight and I go to the kitchen, find my sandwich, and go outside. I sit on the damp planks and Popo reaches down and scratches my head like she might do to MacKenzie. I don’t mind, though. She’s the only one who is willing to touch me.
“Jemina,” she says. “I’m tired.”
“I know you are Popo. You can go to sleep now. I feel better.”
“It’s been raining too much. Tonight the lake will flood. I can feel it. That lake is like an ocean when it swells.”
“Do you think the caves will flood?” I ask. The cheap white bread sticks to the roof of my mouth and in my teeth and I try to suck it off.
She rocks, her hair loose around her shoulders, and I’m not sure if she can see anything in the lightning flashes, but she looks like she can. I wonder if she is worrying about my mom and I know she is when she says, “when you were born your mother called you little Māui. You were born too soon, so small and weak, and she didn’t think you were going to live. But you did.”
This is another story Popo tells when she’d been drinking, but her breath doesn’t smell like alcohol and she sounds serious and honest, her voice low and controlled.
“Your mother might be Taranga for all I know,” she continues. “Stranger things have happened and when your father is taniwha, it’s impossible to be only human.”
Popo claims that she became pregnant with mom when a taniwha captured her along the shore of the Lake and made her his bride. She says that once a year she goes down to the Lake and feeds her husband salted fish and that he looks like a flat shark but is gentle and kind and that his skin feels like rubber. I’ve never seen her leave the house to do this. She’s never mentioned seeing my mother there.
“Do you think the caves will flood?” I ask again, and Popo nods her head.
“I think they will.”
We sit in silence, mist coating our faces and arms and Popo scratches my head and I lean into her hard chair. It rubs my shoulder painfully.
“Go to sleep, Popo,” I tell her, as if I’m the adult, and she grunts and stands, going into the house and pushing MacKenzie in ahead of her. The screen door whistles as it closes and then I am alone.
I get up and go into the house too. Popo is already up stairs and I pull my rain jacket from the closet, put my wet shoes back on, and close the front door behind me. I pull up the hood and get my bike. My feet slip on the pedals but I force them forward anyway, down the path and towards the road that ends at the Lake of Impossible Trespass.
No one really goes to the caves because our town is small and private, and even though we need the money, we don’t want a tourist attraction. They’re also decaying, the limestone rotting over time, and Popo says it’s outer space collapsing.
The road is deserted and I can just see the horizon starting to lighten. The rain is not stopping but someone has to tell mom to leave. It’s time to come home.
My companion has failed me. I am alone now and hope I am not too late. I have faith I will arrive in time. She has been gone so long she is almost a legend. I want to surprise the townspeople and when we are back, they will be astonished and build a temple in our honor.
The gravel road crunches under my tires and I pass the sand-colored wooden fence that means I’m close. The ground rises on each side of me, a giant rolling green blanket, funneling water to the middle, and it runs down towards the Lake. I turn at the bend in the road and then the Lake is sunken before me. It’s larger than I remember.
The water is higher. It’s spilled over the beach where the pastel pink and purple lupins grow and the ground they emerge from is submerged. The sky is graying and I can see where the road ends and becomes a footpath. The caves are on the east side; the entrance is in a rocky alcove that’s normally just above the water level. But now I see the Lake seeping into the cave.
Time is of the essence. The most perilous part of our journey is now.
I pedal faster and when I reach the caves I see the old sign embedded in the mud. I drop my bike on the ground and begin to scuttle up the rocks. They are slippery and sharp and when I fall I scrape my elbow badly, blood and rain water running like dirty, murdered rivers. I grit my teeth and move on. When I reach the entrance it is wide and jagged and I when I step down into the cave I feel like I’m stepping into the underworld. The water is cold and reaches to my calves. My jeans feel heavy and I wonder why I bothered to bring a rain jacket at all.
“Mom?” I call out, just inside, but there is no response. There are flat sections of rock and I squint in the darkness to see if my mother is asleep on any of them. When I do not see her, I tread deeper into the cave, calling for her. The sun is still sleeping and for once I am glad because as I move forward I can see the glow worms on the ceiling.
I’ve seen pictures in books, color close-up photos of stars, and even though I know they’re light-years away, I cannot believe it when they’re inside this cave. Teal bodies make constellations and the water’s surface glows and I think I can make out the shape of the hydra’s head, and cancer too, and before I can stop myself I am making my own constellations: MacKenzie and hibiscus and a string ray. I am connecting glowworms for a cicada—there is a dark loop, outline glowing, just like its see-through folded wings—when I hear the water splash behind me.
When I turn I see my mother in profile at the mouth of the cave. Her skin is dark like an almond and her black hair is knotted to her waist. Her breasts are low and she is thinner, all angles. Her jaw is sharp and I see the black lines of her tattoos. She is chanting and dancing and there are bells at her ankles and I remember the first time I fought with Aselyn when she said she learned bells were worn by Indian prostitutes. That night I spit in her soup and when she was sleeping I prayed that she’d break an arm.
It is hard to imagine the sound of my mother’s body music being anything other than good and beautiful, and I watch her, understanding why a prince would give her all his riches. Even a child can be seduced. She is dancing a haka but I don’t know who she’s challenging. Her feet alternate and when she stomps the rock the bells chime. Her body is swaying back and forth and her hands rotate like leaves spinning from a tree.
“Mom!” I call, and I’m splashing through the cave when a large chunk of the ceiling drops into the water behind me. Beyond my mother, the sky has a hole in it and I think it must be Whiro’s mouth, the king of darkness who has come to this cave to suck my mother into the underworld.
I trip, my hands pounding the rock, and I cannot see them through the water. When I look up, my mother is gone.
It is hard to run through water but I do the best I can, pulling my knees up high against the drag. When I reach the entrance, the lake is rippling with the wind. The rain is still pouring and inside the cave, it echoes, the sound of shattering glass. The glow worms are losing their color with the sunrise, and I collapse onto the ground, breathing hard with effort. For a long time I sit like this, waiting for the rain to stop. I will my legs to move, for the cramping to stop, for the rush of relief and fear to settle into comfort. I believe that when I finally return to the house, my mother will be in the kitchen like she used to be in the mornings, brewing coconut coffee and humming soft songs with no words. Popo will be quiet over her toast, but she will smile at the sound of ceramic cups clinking and soon she too will be humming; the kitchen will be alive with vibrations. We will be like we used to, the three of us, over one hundred years of family alive and remembering.
The haze is a veil now. On the other side of the lake I can see the brightness of the sun grasping the clouds. I imagine Tama-nui with massive hands like paddles expanding above the water and breaking the darkness. He is escaping the memory of night and wills Whiro away with a simple nod of his head. I get up, fumbling over rocks and shivering in my clothes. It is time to go home.
Gwendolyn Edward writes nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. Her magical realism, slip stream, and fabulist short stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn, Jersey Devil Press, Lightning Cake, The Copperfield Review, and others. She retains a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas and is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant non-fiction editor and also teaches Creative Writing.