This story by Mary Elsmore-Neilson won 3rd place in the William Taylor Memorial Short Story competition for 2016.
The judge commented: Rona allows us to discover meaning as much in what the writer doesn’t share, as what is here. The voice of the child-narrator is skilfully captured, adding resonance to her story. A confident mix of simplicity and complexity.
The story was chosen because of its deft handling of a crisis in the girl narrator’s life that sends her out in the bush in bitter grief. There she is rescued by an unlikely trio – a man, his mother and a small, friendly dog, with the promise of better times to come.
“Rona” by Mary Elsmore-Neilson
Broken punga scratched, pushed, gripped my hair in the dark. Piko piko poked, snatched my singlet. Shattered light guided me, but not the me I had been, through bush to sighing waves, the gentle tinkling of rinsed shells. In front lay smooth sand, a pale princess path, soft for my bare feet. Marama, what mum called it, hung so close and heavy that it rested on the water. Last night, dad called it ‘Super moon.’
The pain came back, climbed up, tightening my insides, so I couldn’t breathe properly. I ran towards Rona–whakamau–tai, she who controlled the tides. Mum named me Rona. Mum was gone away with her sickness. I crouched down, splashed my hands and face. Rona bathed me, whispered, washed me singing–clean like the shells. Shivering I crept back into the bush, nestled in aruhe like weka birds, pretended I was warm with Mum.
Dad and Rae were in our nice camper–van, on a nice holiday, but now I knew why she was mean to me and why dad gave her the biggest ice–creams and new jelly shoes. On the second night of our nice holiday, animal grunts woke me. I looked down from my hi–top bed into large darkness, swimming in squashed moonlight.
“Dad?” I cried.
“What do you want?” He sounded all furry and deep.
“What are you doing?”
“Rae needed a cuddle, didn’t you Rae?”
Sounds like a tiny mouse.
“I want a cuddle Dad, like Rae.”
“Tomorrow, after our swim and fish and chips. Go back to sleep.”
Warm, wet, I screamed. Sniff sniff, it was soft and tickly with little, smiley brown eyes and a pink mouth that woofed.
He disappeared, then came back, kinda busy talking to someone. I stood up. A brown laughing face with criss–crossed lines looked at me. A singing–shell sort of word, “Sayonara,” fell from her no–teeth mouth. White flowers, with sunshine middles and straggly petals grew on her red dressing gown. She took my hand, tucked it into her warm one. The wee dog jumped up, wagged his feathery tail.
“Mana,” I called, and he walked beside me to a little shed with a fire outside. The Sayonara lady sat down, like squatting at school. The lady poured brown water into a tiny bowl where blue fish floated around the outside–top. She pretended to drink, then passed the bowl to me. Strong and
hot, it tasted tangy and good. She went inside the shed and came back with another dressing gown of blue shells. I put it on, while she spooned rice from the black pot into my dish. ‘They always eat rice in Asia,’ said Nanny Brown, when we stayed at her Kaitaia house. Once, she told us to be careful about things some men did. Sun danced on the pink silvery whole fish on the grill. The lady gave me two sticks.
“Chop sticks. You eat like this.”
I tried hard to make the food stay and not slide away from the sticks. I used my fingers a bit which seemed okay.
When we finished she showed me inside her shed. It was clean, nice, not camper–van nice, but wooden, with only one bed and a chair. On the wall hung a square picture with white clouds on pale blue streams inside bamboo. This word,
marched across the clouds. Underneath were easy words I knew,
‘finding something good without looking for it.’
I knew what they meant as I looked into the old lady’s face creased around her no–teeth mouth. The S word was hard. Rae would know it. When we played brides, I held her train same as the sister of the Princess who married the handsome prince. The old lady pointed to the bed. I climbed up and Mana jumped, snuggled in warm, beside me.
Next thing a roar rattled, droned through my head. I went under the blanket. Tears wet me everywhere, then the old lady came, and her fresh sea smell, like gulls sailing high, wrapped around us. She rocked me saying “This big–bird. Fly three times week to my country.”
A crumpled photo with four smiling faces lay on the box beside her bed. She held it up. A tear dropped out of her eye, rolled down her cheek losing it’s way until another caught it up.
“My family gone. Your family gone. We be together. Catch fish, be happy till we fly away.”