Clare Moleta (University of Wellington, New Zealand)
Sunday 25 March
She waited in the dark hallway so she could listen. Frank and Matti were in bed with the lights off, saying goodnight.
‘…and these two are my only girls,’ Matti said.
‘They’re my only girl fingers.’
‘So, all your other fingers are boys?’
‘Yeah. Except this one and this one.’
‘Do they have names?’
‘Yes. Sam. Sami. Max. Ario. Robbie. Tom. Toby. Danh. And the girls are Lumena and Lily.’
‘Okay. This is Rhonda, she’s the heavyweight finger fighting champion of the West. Any of you weaklings wanna take her on?’
Squeals, roars. It would turn into a wrestle and Matti would get all hyped up and it’d take ages for her to go to sleep, but Li didn’t want to stop them, she just wanted to listen. It was Frank’s turn, she was just bringing water. The special water they left sitting for Matti in the big ceramic jug on the kitchen bench while the pipe sediment and the chemicals slowly filtered out until it tasted almost of nothing—almost like the water Li drank as a child.
‘What’s this? Hey, Lumena, get back here.’
‘No, Matti, I’m serious, let me feel that. What’s that lump?’
Matti said something but Frank talked over her, rough with fear.
‘Li? Li—get in here. Turn on the light.’
She groped above the bookshelf and her hand knocked against something that wasn’t the switch. When it fell on the carpet it made a dull sound, not the sound of breaking, but she knew it was broken anyway and knew what it was, even before she could see.
Under the sudden rush of light, Frank was holding hard to Matti’s wrist, running his fingernail over the swelling at the base of her hand, looking for the sting. Li stepped over the broken glass and put the bottle down by the bed. She could see that it was too late to panic. Matti was looking at the carpet and trying not to cry.
‘I told you it was a bull ant,’ she said.
Frank looked up at Li and shook his head, agreeing, relief flattening the contours of his face. She sat down on the edge of the bed and took Matti’s hand from him. The swelling was hours old and rashy but it hadn’t spread to her arm. Matti had never had a bad reaction to ant bites but they didn’t take it for granted.
‘Why didn’t we see it?’ she asked Frank, as if Matti wasn’t even there.
Then she remembered the gloves. How she’d told them, Don’t look at me, I’m not ready!, and later, Tonight I’m going to wash myself because I’m not a baby.
She hadn’t been a baby then, either. She could talk and walk but running was still a work in progress. She was trying to chase Stitch through the dry grass while they beat down the olives, and there was a nest in the ground. Li dreamed about it sometimes, about Matti stumbling towards them through the trees with jewels floating around her head. Tiny and glittering in the colours of peacocks and hummingbirds—golden blue, coppery red, green spiked with gold and purple. Stitch barking soundlessly at her side. Homalictus, the loveliest of bees. When she screamed, they flew into her mouth.
She had lived because the bees were so small and not naturally aggressive, but at the hospital they said if she was stung again on her face or chest in childhood she would probably die. A long course of bee venom they couldn’t afford, adrenaline, the bracelet she was allowed to wear to school because it wasn’t jewellery. There were so many poisons in this place where they lived, so many things that bit and stung. Of course they’d talked about leaving, going south—maybe as far as Valiant where Frank’s sister could help them find work—but everyone talked about leaving. They would have had to sell this place first and nobody was moving north.
So they were still here, in the home Matti loved, just like Frank had loved it as a child, and they couldn’t keep her inside, couldn’t keep her and Robbie out of the bush. They carried the adrenaline, taught her how to use it, and how to scrape off a stinger and how to tell the difference between native and invasive, stinging and stingless. And when she wasn’t with them they imagined her alone, struggling to breathe while her throat closed up.
She brought the cream for Matti’s hand.
‘Were you two up in the back block?’
Matti nodded. ‘With Danny. He washed it with soap and put a cold pack on it.’
‘Danny did? Where was Rosie? Where was Carl?’
‘Okay,’ Frank said. ‘Okay.’
He pulled Matti’s small stubborn head in against his chest and drummed a finger lightly on the top of it.
‘You have to tell a grown-up if you get a bite or a sting. Every time. Straight away.’
‘She knows that,’ Li said.
Matti nodded. ‘I thought you would be angry.’
She was angry. They could lose her like this, just like this.
‘Okay,’ Frank said.
But Matti cried and cried against his chest. She couldn’t seem to stop. She was entirely capable of forcing tears to avoid getting told off but this seemed like the opposite to Li—like something breaking through.
‘What is it?’ she asked. Quietly, calmly. ‘Just tell us.’
‘I was scared,’ Matti’s voice broke and then she struggled on. ‘I was scared because I thought I was wrong.’
Li looked at Frank, not understanding. Did he understand? Matti looked up at him too and Li saw that her own presence in the room right now was immaterial. She wasn’t angry anymore. This was how it was between them. What she felt, what she felt all the time now, was a slow and irreversible slipping away.
‘Oh, beansprout. It’s okay to be wrong.’
Matti shook her head, her eyes on his face. ‘No, Dad, it isn’t. It isn’t okay to be.’
She sighed and looked over his body at the broken rain globe leaking its chemical rain into the carpet. A small green plastic mountain on a stand with jagged bits of glass around it. Why did they make them so fragile?
‘Mum broke another one,’ she said.
‘It’s about to start in five seconds!’
They came running outside in their painting gear. Li was thinking, it better not be another false alarm. They had another coat to get on before dinner.
Matti had lined up the chairs under the jam tree: one each for Frank and Li and one for her horse, Goldie. She came out from behind the tree and they clapped and she stood behind the card table.
‘This is a magic show,’ she said.
She was wearing an old black singlet of Frank’s, dishwashing gloves that were too big, and a cape made out of newspaper with a hole cut out for her head. She had three tins and she put a stone under one of them and shuffled the tins and asked someone to guess where it was now. Frank guessed and she got a stubborn look and told them to shut their eyes.
And when they opened them she lifted the tin and the stone wasn’t there.
They whooed and clapped. Matti said she was going to make one of the tins disappear as well.
‘Close your eyes!’
The clang of metal rolling away on the hard ground.
‘Da-da! Now I need a volunteer.’
Frank waved Goldie’s woollen foreleg in the air.
‘Okay Goldie, you can come up. And I need my disappearing chambler.’
She dragged a cardboard box out from behind the tree. Frank passed up Goldie. She swished her cape around, said the magic words and threw the horse into the box.
She stood there with her hands on her hips, daring them to doubt her. Frank’s shoulders started shaking. Matti looked at them hard to make sure she wasn’t being mocked, and then, satisfied, she threw herself in sideways after Goldie, almost toppling the box.
‘And now I’m gone!’ she yelled from inside.
Li couldn’t stop laughing. The laughs hooned out of her. It was so easy to love this kid. So basic and uncomplicated, even she could get it right.
‘Okay, now I’m the teacher and I’m going to go through the roll. But hang on, where is it? Unfortunately the roll is missing.’
Matti ran for the kitchen, yelling over her shoulder. ‘Sorry about this, I just need to be doing stuff in a rush, so you’ll just have to wait.’
The screen door banged behind her. Frank picked up the discarded parts of the newspaper neither of them had had a chance to read yet and started piecing them together. Li listened to Matti inside banging drawers and telling off invisible children. Frank dipped the paper to show her a headline:
Lance declares North-West Sacrifice Zone.
She looked at the dotted lines and skull icons on the map. Two thousand k north of where they sat, give or take.
‘That’s getting close.’
He squinted at her. ‘You reckon?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Okay, right, ready to go.’
Matti was back with a piece of paper and a pencil. She’d ditched the cape.
‘Where have all the kids gone?’
She started calling out names. She could do this for a long time. Li felt the heat of the afternoon pushing down, thought about the paint drying inside and felt a slow burn of frustration. Frank kept reading the salvaged news, glancing up now and then to play his part. He was just better at this. His appreciation was real but he had no qualms about cheating, and at a certain point he would find a way to end Matti’s endless show without crushing or enraging her. Whereas Li felt compelled to watch without distraction, like a real parent, so she’d sit there nursing her boredom and resentment and the list of things Matti was keeping her from until all the pleasure had dried up, and then she’d roll her eyes or raise her voice and it’d all be ruined.
‘You know I went to high school with him, down in Valiant?’
‘With Peter Lance? He grew up West? I bet he keeps that quiet.’
‘I don’t know,’ Frank said. ‘He got inside the XB, didn’t he? I’d put that on my CV.’
‘You never told me you knew him. Were you friends?’
He shrugged. ‘I guess.’ And then, reluctantly, ‘we were in a band.’
She laughed with the pleasure of still being surprised by him. Frank was the least musical person she knew.
‘You never told me about the band.’
‘It was just for one summer. I was the singer, Lance was on drums, a girl called Kylie from Bullcreek played bass. Nobody could really play guitar.’
She tried to picture this Frank.
‘What were you called?’
He looked sideways at her, almost shy.
‘The Hot Goblins.’
She collapsed again.
‘That was Pete. He was a fantasy geek. And then Kylie said if we were going to be goblins we should be sexy goblins. And, you know. It was hot.’
‘Quiet, children!’ Matti yelled. ‘You’re not listening.’
‘My name is Ms Twinkle.’
‘Hang on,’ Li said. ‘I just have to ask your dad one more thing.’
‘He is NOT my dad. I am your teacher.’
‘So, the Hot Goblins. Any good?’
He grinned, embarrassed. ‘We were all right. We had a few gigs. It was all right until Pete wanted to sing.’
He looked back down at the paper, at the resolute politician in his suit and hard hat, the straggling exodus, the map with its demarcation lines. The distance between.
‘He should have stuck with the drumming.’
Matti leaned over his shoulder, studying the picture. ‘Is he a bad man?’
She had this only child’s ability to switch mode suddenly from total self-absorption to sponge.
‘I haven’t seen him since we were kids, sprout. I couldn’t say what kind of man he is.’
‘But did he do a bad thing?’
Frank sighed. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I think he did, Matti.’
Li watched him figuring the right amount of truth. She said what she knew he believed but was not sure she herself did.
‘Matti, people can do bad things without being bad people.’
‘Can they really?’
‘How many things?’
Matti and Robbie have found a hole. It’s up in the back block, just in where the trees start. They crouch on either side and look down. It’s only about as round as a footy but it’s really deep. It’s definitely not an animal hole—too neat, and the ground is too hard—but Matti reckons a snake could’ve got in there. Robbie says no, how would it get out? Matti pokes a stick down to check and it goes all the way in and most of her arm too.
Robbie says, ‘Probably baddies dug it. There was probably treasure buried here and they came and got it last night while we were asleep.’
It would have taken ages to dig.
They sneak down to the shed to get a tarp but Danny catches them and he says he’s going to tell, so they have to show him what they’re doing. Then he says he’ll help them if they do what he says. It’s good in a way because he’s good at building stuff and he always has string. They rig the tarp over a branch and tie it and use dead branches to peg down the sides. Bessie doesn’t want to come in the tent with them—she lies under the tree and pants up at them. When they crawl in, it’s hotter than outside but the light isn’t as strong. The hole is right in the middle.
They sit around it and eat crackers and raisins and some packets of different coloured powder Robbie found in the kitchen.
Danny says, ‘Someone probably dug it for a fencepost.’
Matti thinks probably not because it’s not near the fence and there’s only one hole but she doesn’t say that because she’s in love with Danny.
Robbie says, ‘This is our toilet. When you have to go to the toilet you have to go here.’
Danny looks at the hole and says, ‘What about privacy? She’s a girl, so we don’t want her to see our dicks.’
Dick is what you call a penis when you don’t know what it’s actually called. Matti’s seen Robbie’s penis loads of times. It’s way smaller than her dad’s but he says it’ll grow. She’s never seen Danny’s. Robbie says he needs the toilet now, so Danny says they have to wait outside and keep lookout.
They sit outside and Danny lets her look at his pocketknife. The tweezers are missing. She can hear Robbie’s pee landing at the bottom of the hole. It goes on for ages and Danny keeps nudging her and she gets the giggles.
Danny whispers, ‘Do you wanna see my brother’s dick?’
And the way he says it makes her feel like she can’t say she already has, so she goes and pats Bessie instead. Bessie pants and grins up at her. She’s really hairy. Mrs Gangemi reckons Bessie’s too hairy to live West. Last summer Matti and Robbie tried to give her a haircut but she ran off half way through and they got in big trouble.
She thinks about what the hole is for, and if Danny loves her, and then she thinks about the other hole, the one in the tree, and whether she should tell Robbie or wait till she knows for sure if they’re stingers or not, and then she’s paying attention again because Danny’s got Robbie on the ground and he’s sitting on his head, backwards, pinning his arms with his knees and leaning over to hold his legs down. Robbie’s yelling and Danny’s saying,
‘Say I’m the greatest or I’ll do it.’
But Robbie won’t. Matti throws herself at Danny to try and get him off, and saving Robbie and having a reason to hurt Danny or be in charge of him somehow is all mixed up together and her heart’s thumping, and then Danny does it and Robbie’s bucking and holding his breath because it’s such a terrible, awesome fart.
Danny lifts her off and stands up and says, ‘Ahhh, that’s better.’
Then Robbie hurls himself at his brother from behind and starts pummelling him. Danny laughs and pushes him away but then he realises how mad Robbie is, so he gets him in a headlock and Robbie’s crying and he yells,
‘YOU ARE FUCK.’
The seriousness of the word, hearing it out loud like that, stops the fight. Matti’s seen them do this lots of times—they’re always fighting but then they can just stop and do something else.
Then she needs to go to the toilet so the others stay outside. When she squats over the hole it smells of pee and some of Robbie’s has splashed around the top. There’s no big leaves or anything, so she can’t really wipe, just shake. It would have been easier to just go off and dig a hole with a stick in the bush. When she comes out, they’re throwing sticks for Bessie but she’s not really chasing them, and then Danny goes into the tent and he starts making choking noises and laughing like he can’t believe it.
He crawls out with one hand over his mouth and nose.
‘Owwwh, rank. Matti did a shit in there!’
Robbie looks at her. ‘Did you actually?’
And Matti understands she’s made a terrible mistake.
‘She did a shit in the hole!’ Danny rolls around on the ground like he’s choking. ‘Rankarama. Nobody go in there without a gas mask.’
‘But you said it was our toilet. You said we had to go there.’
If Robbie stays on her side, maybe it’ll still be okay. But Robbie is deciding to be disgusted too.
‘Not to do a shit!’ he says. ‘I’m not going back in there now. No way.’
‘Game over,’ Danny says. ‘Game over.’ He gets to his feet and looks at her, shaking his head.
Him looking at her is worse than the choking noises. ‘It was a big log, too,’ he says. ‘Man-size!’
Matti wants to cry. She wants to punch Danny in the stomach and run away and cry. He won’t ever love her now because he’s seen her poo.
Why didn’t she know it wasn’t allowed?
They can’t leave the tarp there. Danny and Robbie take it down without her. They make vomit noises and pretend they’re being gassed. She has to go and get rocks and fill up the hole. It takes ages.
‘Whoever dug that is gunna be pissed,’ Danny says and then he folds up the tarp and goes away, back down the hill. She doesn’t care, she doesn’t love him either.
In the end Robbie helps her with the rocks. He keeps giggling and she’s afraid of what he’s thinking.
‘Don’t tell,’ she says. ‘Swear.’
But he won’t swear. And if he did, it wouldn’t prove anything. At the start of term she ran across the playground to show him her tooth that had just come out in a marmite sandwich and when she was halfway there he started yelling ‘Girl germs!’ and making evil signs at her, and all the boys with him started laughing and yelling it too. Everyone was watching and she didn’t know what to do, so she went to the out-of-bounds bit behind the classrooms on her own for the rest of lunch and since then, she waits every day to see if he’s going to be her friend. He is her friend, she knows it. Outside of school, nothing has changed. But at school she doesn’t know for certain any more what he is capable of.
‘I’ll show you something,’ she says.
It’s not about getting him to promise. She needs to offer him something that will cancel out the poo. He follows her to the tree she found weeks ago when they were playing Dead Squid. The hole is about two metres up. She takes him right up to the tree and tells him to press his ear against it. He listens and then he looks at her and his face is serious.
‘We should go back.’
She looks up, gauging the reach between branches.
‘What are you gunna do?’
A bee drifts out of the hole, pauses and moves away in the air. She looks hard, like she has every time, but she can’t be sure. It’s the right size, she thinks the colours are right. She’s pretty sure.
Robbie says, ‘Don’t, Matti. I swear.’
He means it now but if they just go back down the hill he won’t remember that he meant it. Danny will forget about the poo by Monday, but sometime at school Robbie will remember. When she starts climbing he doesn’t try to stop her, he just watches.
When she’s close enough to hear them buzzing, she calls down to him.
‘My shot’s in my zip pocket.’
He shakes his head, eyes very big. ‘I don’t want to do it.’
She shrugs and pulls herself up on to the branch beside the hole. She’s never been this close to a nest, not since she got stung, and she’s afraid. More afraid than she can ever remember, but this term she found out there are things that are worse than being afraid.
A few more bees fly up out of the trunk and hover in the black entrance to the nest. They look like the kind that don’t sting, she thinks they are, but there are so many kinds. She looks down at Robbie and smiles fiercely. She smiles till it hurts and she keeps smiling as she sticks her arm into the hole.
In 2018, Clare Moleta will graduate with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters. ‘Stinger’ is part of the backstory of the novel she has been writing this year, tentatively titled Children Walking. Some much earlier examples of her fiction can be found online in
Turbine, Kapohau, and Sport.