Habitat Group

 

 

Josie looks out from the treehouse, across the roofs and conifer spires to the grand home hovering in shreds of fog. Through its high window she sees a framed picture changing form—now a plane of radium green, now a dappled mercury lake. Pain knifes her belly. She shivers in her cousin’s cotton pyjamas. The wind carries sounds from elsewhere-husky voiced orphans on Quail Island, their eerie stridulous breathing. Sometimes, the doctor said, turning from her mother, important parts of your self go missing. Josie imagines the far hills striped with lava. She picks out what will be buried, what will remain. Then hears a voice, and the sound of her name goes foundering in the valley.

 

*

 

Josie’s cousin Lisa, strode on twiggy legs through the Christchurch gardens, head forward, as if scanning the air. She wore ink-stained jeans and unlaced sneakers, their ragged tongues flapping as she walked. Lisa’s small breasts, unbound, jigged beneath her shirt. Josie, lagging behind, watched her with awe. Then checked her own patent shoes—still shining despite the doleful sun. At home in Sydney, she’d packed her newest and best. Frilled skirts, matching stockings, a stretchy top embossed with dream angels, and had been cold to the bone every day without telling. Aunt Kate’s house was draughty. When Josie woke on the floor of Lisa’s room she saw vapor coiling in the air.

When Aunt Kate had suggested the Museum that morning, her uncle had scoffed. Going there wasn’t anything to do with Josie—their guest, Mark said, and spat a seed from his granola. Lisa, de-crusting toast nodded sagely. They were only going, she said, so her mother could finish her new series on dioramas. She’d begun the work last winter, dragging Lisa to New York so she could study James Perry Wilson’s museum backdrops. Oh, the Wyoming Plains, the canyons and swamps, Kate hovered with steaming tea. So real, she said, you forgot they were paintings. As she’d spoken, in a forced rapture, Josie had watched the mouths of Mark and Lisa fold in tight like anemones.

She’d been in New Zealand a week. Two more till her mother arrived from Sydney, face puffy from the flight, or from the new medicines. Mirtazapine, doxepin, venlafaxine. How much more estranged might she become, in the company of these people she was struggling to understand, from her mother, herself?

Mark was at work now. He did something with numbers. After they’d dropped him off, Josie felt the car’s atmosphere slacken. Now, as they neared the Museum, she concentrated on the mist-veiled trees at the far end of the gardens, a melted footstep track over iced grass toward a shadowy grove. She passed a man training a Weimaraner, ‘Sit sit sit. Stay stay stay stay’. And filled herself with his words, trying to forget that morning’s hot confusion when she’d seen one of her aunt’s paintings. After breakfast, as Josie dressed, Lisa had frisbeed the catalogue across the bedroom. Then she watched, a leg bent coolly against the wall as Josie recognised scenes taken from photos in her family album back home. One of the paintings was of her mother, and herself as a baby. It was titled with her mother’s name: Marianne. When she finally glanced up, her cousin’s face told some raw truths about herself. Josie dropped the catalogue, put her hands up to where her breasts should be.

They were nearing the Museum entrance. Men in shorts walked by purposefully, evolved against the cold. A gull crossed the gunmetal sky. A country where birds flying looked dogged. Just paintings, not the real world. What had Lisa wanted her to see? The catalogue would be lying open where she’d left it, Marianne adrift on the blowup mattress. Marianne, a woman Josie hadn’t recognized, the edges of her face sutured onto a backdrop painted yolk. Mother and child were starkly cast in thick, uneven oils; each in their own, cauterized zone.

 

 

Inside the Museum, they wandered past cave and tunnel formations that signposted Early Man. Beneath peeling ochre paint you could see the rock’s artificial undersides. Wire and mesh. Up ahead were birds in glass cases. What happened when they killed those creatures? Did they preserve them right there in the wild? Josie imagined stumbling into a glade to discover foxes, lizards, owls in frozen poses, their guts strewn around. What part of them remained here, staring out through glass eyes?

‘You coming in?’ Lisa poked her head from a tunnel.

‘Josie mightn’t like dark spaces,’ Kate was gazing at a clutch of native people dressed in fur and feathers.

‘You don’t know everything,’ Lisa muttered, retreating.

Kate leaned close so Josie could see the lion coloured flecks in her eyes, ‘Come and be in my picture.’

Josie tried staying still while Kate positioned her beside the scene, tilting her face toward it. At the centre of the dusky diorama was a small fire. Three people hunched over it, cooking something dead. Did the museum artists scrape out the guts of the animals that were supposed to look dead? Behind the family group was another rock cave, and beyond that, a bleak landscape with miniature trees and mountains. The sun was setting. The pocked, dusty ground looked as alien as the moon she’d viewed from the Sydney Observatory. Inside that great metal dome she’d stood with her father as a man cranked a handle to let in the sky. Browner and dustier, this museum past had the same otherworldly, impossible poignance as that segment of moon.

‘I thought there’d be gazelles.’

Her aunt fiddled with the digital camera. ‘Kiwis maybe, quail perhaps but no native deer in Godzone.’ Then she asked Josie to imagine it—a backdrop dotted with shrunken flightless birds—and they laughed, it was hardly majestic.

‘I, I saw your paintings,’ Josie’s voice hovered as she held still. Kate, her dark hair pulled back strictly from her temples, continued shooting.

‘Huh? Hold on, don’t move.’

‘In the catalogue. Of mum, and—was it me…as a baby…?’ Her body’s sounds wafted, belonging to noone. In Sydney there were certainties: where she placed her things, the streets she walked, landmarks of significance and their curious power. The great grey water tower. The hollowed out Moreton Bay by the station. The ratcheted pylons beside the river, which marked its rise and fall. Now, in their absence, she knew how much they defined her. Without them she was like her father’s faxes, speeding through the ether, in search of understanding.

Lisa wandered over and stood now, her mouth with its morning tightness. Josie looked at the dust on her shoes. She’d been chosen, again, as the subject of her aunt’s work. It was hard to know if Lisa minded. The mother-daughter trip to New York had been totally tedious, she’d said. Josie had tried to imagine going so far with her own mother. How many decisions would be needed for a journey like that, and who would make them? It was her father who liked to travel, alone.

‘Ornithology. Mammalogy. Boring,’ Lisa slumped against the diorama cabinet. Then waggled a hand into the frame of her mother’s photo. Josie saw the lilac veins roping her cousin’s arm, her fingers’ tremor. She remembered the silver scar on Lisa’s belly, the childhood illness that had laid her out for a year, and had a swift sense of her frailty.

‘I’m off to find the Moa,’ Lisa loped away, her sandy scent trailing behind.

Lisa had pubic hair and shaved armpits and a pent-up, suspecting squint. Her small room smelt of musty shoes and Elmers Glue. On her desk was a balsa model dinosaur that her father had helped to build one summer. Long-tailed, lantern jawed, the creature was all spine. Josie wasn’t allowed to touch this relic, or much else in the room. Her mattress lay stranded on the floor, her suitcase with its folded clothes beside it. Sometimes, after dinner, the girls would wander out and climb into the impressive treehouse Mark had built, which the family called ‚ ‘our wee bach’. And as they gazed across the Ohinetahi Valley Lisa would describe the Governors Bay orphans whose ghosts could be seen wandering Brittan Terrace, or swooping in white nightgowns around Quail Island where they’d been quarantined with diphtheria. The orphanage had burned down years back; now there was the Cholmondely Children’s Home. The way Lisa spoke its name, like a solid threat. It sat, stately and white, at the mouth of the calm Harbour.

After Kate had finished photographing they found Lisa in the children’s exhibit. From the ceiling, glass tubes of sea creatures hung like eerie chandeliers. There was a transparent room wallpapered with pinioned butterflies, and banks of drawers in which beetles, insects and spiders were arranged by size and colour. Josie spent a long time opening and shutting these cabinets, thinking of her own treasures in their pine chest back home—paper bags of beads and feathers, gold fabric, flowers and notebooks full of what her mother called ‚ ‘walking writing’. Each bag was taped, tied and stapled shut. She followed Lisa across the see-through floor, stepping more gingerly when she saw what lay beneath. Inside the cross-section of a burrow infant mammals were nuzzling their mother.

‘Did you ever wish you had a sister?’ Lisa asked.

Josie studied her cousin’s face, perhaps this was an invitation. Then caught the scent of her own mother, leaning close, her eyes clouding as she’d said, ‘Things might have been different if you weren’t an only child’.

Lisa was waiting, with a loaded look. Josie shrugged. ‘I’m used to being alone.’ But that was just something her mother had said. It wasn’t the same as really wanting—her cousin was so much better at that. ‘How about you?’

Lisa scratched a scabby elbow. ‘Mum wanted another baby but after what happened to your mum she freaked. Plus, she had to look after you.’

Josie thought of the baby photos, of herself in aunt Kate’s arms, and her mother, bedridden, with a wan, puzzled face. Kate had come from New Zealand to stay for the first months of her life. It was she who’d taken most of the photos. Baby Josie sitting up, rolling over, holding a spoon, a strand of drool from her lip. Her first two teeth, which her mother called little white headstones. Her first steps across a blue room. Josie had always felt that pictured baby had nothing to do with her. So it was stranger still when she recognised her self more clearly in her aunt’s oil paintings. How could a painting be truer than a photo? Kate had captured some invisible element of air, like the petrol shimmer round her father’s shadow when he refilled the car.

‘I’m not having children. Why would you?’ Lisa jumped, testing the floor. ‘And, after what happened to Grandma Kit for Lord’s sake.’

Josie glanced up from the creatures below. ‘What?’

‘Died. Giving birth. Like an animal,’ said Lisa frankly.

Josie had seen only one photo of Grandma Kitty, seated beside a window, a putty-coloured baby on her lap. And she’d seen the clifftop cemetery where her headstone tilted beneath a Pohutakawa. The tree’s roots had disturbed the nearby ground so Grandma Kitty appeared to be struggling from the earth. This sudden history gave the photos of her mother’s childhood a new density. The floaty way her mother stood, palms out, at the Sign of the Takahe, her eyes burnished with need. Kate and Marianne—sisters in dark church clothes—their father listing behind them.

Josie surveyed the museum animals; she supposed they were replaced when their skins got worn. But there were some species you couldn’t find anymore. ‘Are you scared if you have a baby that will happen to you?’

Lisa shook her hair back. ‘No. But. It just hurts like crazy. Plus, when you have a kid your life is over.’

She sauntered over to a pan of dirt for digging fossils. Josie watched her cousin scrape the earth. All this digging made her think of the grave her mother sometimes visited. After she returned from these solo trips, Josie would frantically invent tasks that required her help for the rest of the day. And then her mother seemed so much more the Marianne of her aunt’s paintings. Cool, stately. Knotting Josie’s shoelaces with an eye on a distant ghost gum, a streetlight, an aeroplane flashing north.

Josie and Lisa wandered past sea creatures in their static liquid worlds. Blank-eyed fish, a dejected crab, seahorses gliding nowhere. Lisa pointed at a severed human hand and mock-gagged. Shark attack, said the label. An actual arm fished from the water? Skin glued on? But why was it here among the animals? Then Josie saw, these things were united because they’d all been broken from where they’d belonged.

‘Anyway,’ Lisa watched her mother approach, ‘why go look after someone else’s kid if you don’t like being with your own?’

Josie glanced at her aunt who’d paused to bend over a glass cabinet and back at her cousin’s pale brows, the dark eyes like bees, everywhere at once. Aunt Kate had been good to them, Josie’s father had said, and given up a lot. And then Josie remembered all the other times Kate had visited, when Marianne ‘had gone downhill’. Now Josie realized, whenever Kate had come to help out, Lisa had been left behind.

 

Outside the museum, sluggish rain. Kate jabbed at her phone, then crossed to the Arts Centre in a leaping, stiff-legged run. The girls wandered slowly, shaking rain from their hair. Then Josie felt a hand on her arm and watched Lisa’s mouth saying stain.

‘There, there.’

She spun, trying to see. When Lisa said blood, Josie couldn’t understand and pictured some creature, leaking in the Museum. Lisa donated her jumper for round her waist. Blood comes every month, Lisa said, you can’t even control it. But Josie stood, blinking dumbly, her little mouth letting in the rain, so Lisa described, more gently, what you used to stop it.
And the story began to chime with things Josie had glimpsed, a stained pad in the cul-de-sac gutter, her mother’s embarrassed dash past supermarket shelves of boxes and packets. If she hadn’t missed so much school, said Lisa, if her mother—well, never mind—she might have known. About the eggs your body made. And the wild blood. It happens so you can get pregnant, Lisa said. And Josie thought of Grandma Kit. You bleed to make a baby, the baby comes and blood, again. Her shoes were bright now, and rain clean.

A girl trotted by on a pony, her small bum high above the saddle. Josie longed for the rider’s tight plaits, her pulled together, snug look. A girl whose body belonged, absolutely, to herself.

‘Rangi girls,’ Lisa shook her head, ‘they give themselves away.’

An empty tram trundled past. A one legged pigeon skidded in wet mud.

Josie tried walking with clutched thighs, but Lisa made quacking noises and solemnly shook her head. In the Cafe toilet she cleaned herself with icy water, put folded tissue in her pants. She found Lisa at the table beneath the grey stone portico, reading a notebook she’d found in Josie’s bag.

‘That’s not real writing.’ Lisa tapped the words beneath Josie’s sketch of Akaroa, the sunken volcano, a disappointing sight from the day before. There’d been no smoking crater, no boiling mud like in her mother’s stories of Rotoiti and White Island, just a sleepy green hump surrounded by water. Sheep grazed on it. It looked like nothing happened there but the wind.

Josie searched for her aunt, who was ordering drinks inside. At home this notebook, ringed with rubber bands, belonged with Treasures. But after the museum, where drawers held dead things in decorative patterns, drawers had become confusing. And now her body, whose parts she’d stashed so securely in bags, was betraying her with blood. She toothed her lip, jigged an outstretched hand.

‘Want your book? Give me back my jersey.’ Lisa sucked her teeth.

Josie slid one palm under her bottom to check for leaking. She sighed, tried making a wish. Then, through rain flecked glasses, watched Lisa’s form dissolve. She had that sinking, limitless feeling she sometimes had on her birthdays, which were mostly spent with her father. The candle brightness stayed in her eyes long after the cake was cut.

‘What’s this—some kind of poem? Aoraka? But that’s…it’s back to front!’ Lisa poked the page, becoming louder as her mother approached. ‘What you’ve got to write here now is period and then the date.’

Another tram shuttled by. A busker in an elfin cap played querulously in the courtyard.

Kate sat and muttered, shut up. She hated the flute, she said, and anyone who wore a silly hat. Then she looked from Lisa to Josie and exhaled stagily. ‘You know, girls, this whole thing,’ she gestured broadly, ‘is an opportunity.’

Lisa waited, thrumming the book in time with the flautist. She looked scrubbed, blameless. ‘Yours or mine?’

Kate began tapping her teaspoon, gouging small dents in the wooden table. ‘Is it so hard to be nice to me?’

Lisa’s gaze quickened. ‘I’m horrible.’

Kate sighed, ‘You’re not…’

‘Paint me then. Why not?’

‘What happened to Grandma Kit?’ Josie’s words erupted. Her pale skin was blotched; her hands shook. Her legs were cramped from the clenching. You didn’t know when the blood would come, any time, any day. And worse you didn’t know when it would stop. Because Lisa had vowed not to tell, Josie sensed all this bleeding was shameful. And what sort of person makes promises then goes through your bag without asking?

Kate sighed. ‘Hasn’t Marianne told you yet? Oh, Josie. After Grandma Kitty had your mum she got sick. She died in hospital.’

‘Why wouldn’t mum tell me that?’

‘Because she’s…’ Lisa crossed her eyes and wound hair around a finger.

‘Lisa!’ Kate tore into a Nutrasweet. ‘Dad didn’t tell us the whole story till we were teenagers. So then Mari…your mum…thinks it’s her fault that our mum died. She hitched to Napier with some surfers.’

‘But how did Grandma…?’

‘Bled to death, I already said,’ snapped Lisa. ‘Napier, Lord, what a hole,’ she was shoveling sugar into her cup. ‘Your mum was wild though.’

Josie saw her aunt’s face shifting and charcoal clouds running behind it like a swollen river. She felt the busker’s music carve her apart. Through the cafe windows, a rain-smeared world. Kate reached across the table and gently retrieved the book. Josie waited, expectant, but Kate settled back, turning the pages.

‘A fine sketch, and…that’s mirror writing Josie. Leonardo da Vinci did that,’ she leaned over and squeezed Josie’s arm. ‘A sign of artistic genius.’

‘Here we go,’ Lisa licked at her cocoa moustache. Her eyes, on her mother, were always hungry.

‘You want to upset your cousin?’ Kate turned to Josie. ‘What must you think of us?’

‘Yeah, we’re the strange ones.’

‘Want to take the bus home young lady?’

‘Sure. But when I really go, I’m going to hitch to somewhere actually interesting. The Coromandel. Waiheke Island…’

 

When a volcano erupts there are rivers of glowing mud, fragments of rock, frothing pumice. There is pyroclastic flow, or broken fire. Josie read The Volcano Book as her cousin and uncle watched evening TV. The pictures, with their spumes of red, didn’t look like the place they’d seen the other day or the Lyttelton earth the family had built their house on, a former volcano.

Mark hunched forward in his recliner. ‘Idiot,’ he told the TV man. Frost stars were forming on the window behind him. The lounge smelt of tuna bake and lemon detergent. He turned to Josie.

‘So, where’d you say your father is this time?’

‘He’s…China,’ she said and a monumental tiredness knelt upon her.

‘The big engineer eh?’ said Mark.

Kate, folding clothes, narrowed her eyes at him, then left the room.

Josie looked at his slippered feet, one sepia toe peering from a hole. She stayed with her father, who’d left when she was three, whenever he was in town. He was a tall, tender man who stored leaky pens in a shirt pocket and ordered food from menus magnetised to his fridge. Josie turned back to the book and with a finger sketched Mark teetering on the crust of a volcano.

Lisa, painting her nails, chewed Pineapple Lumps with an elastic sound. Then she leaned over, put an elbow on Krakatoa and whispered,

‘You’re not a sister. But you were.’

 

Josie laid on the cold, sagging mattress and watched shadows from the feijoa tree drag the wall. Lisa’s heart-shaped clock struck 12. When she was sure her cousin was asleep, she sat on the desk, coolly snapped the stegosaurus apart and buried it beneath some paper. Then stood, incanting over the sleeping girl, with claw-shaped hands and ragged breath. In her head, the words wild mother.

In the bathroom she washed again, replaced the pad from the Staysafe packet and stared at her rusty, drying blood. Her palms were chapped and raw from the soap and the cold. She scrubbed her stained clothes and Lisa’s jumper, then crept through the house to hang the wet things outside. Blood was still coming, and she tried not to cough or sneeze as her cousin recommended, or laugh, but that was easier. Inside the treehouse she watched the clouds seethe up from the Bay. In the valley the large house was all lit up, nearly every window shone in the dusk; such extravagance gave her a cosseted feeling. She loved seeing other people’s lighted homes unspooling beside them as she rode the Sydney trains. Her father was a man who snapped off lights. Her mother forgot to turn them on; she sat in darkened lounges and kitchens, cigarette embers glowing. Once, on the Bankstown line, she’d said, ‘It’s lonely, always looking in from the outside,’ and Josie had felt shocked that she was not enough for her mother’s happiness. She’d slit a hole in the train’s vinyl seat and buried a note in its kapok. Would a sister have made a difference?

She stared across to the large picture hanging in a top room of the lighted house. A painting? But of what? Its forms were mottling in the changing light. In her aunt’s oils women and their doubles, umbilical cords and infants float, bobble-headed as astronauts. Josie had paged through the catalogue while Lisa watched, expectant, as if her mother’s paintings were evidence of something. You still don’t see, she’d said, exasperated, then turned and left the room. A salty wind stole across the dark yard now, carrying the clank of the masts by the jetty.

In the museum, unborn animals in glass. Maori hunting a Moa. Treasures exposed, in special lights, so how could they be treasured after all?

In the catalogue portrait, her mother sat by a window. In the opposite corner, a child. Inside the window was another window and another inside that, a diminishing infinity of other worlds at which the mother preferred to look. The child’s face was turned away. What was she supposed to see? That she had become her aunt’s exhibit?

 

Josie feels Kate’s warm fingers rake her hair. How did she get up the tree so quietly?

‘I thought you were asleep,’ she says, bending to enter the cabin.

Josie studies her aunt’s face. Even now probably making notes for some future work.

‘Lisa used to pretend this place was a pirate ship, always asking me for a telescope, a compass.’

Josie hears ‘accomplice’. She points out the bright house below, where the painting through the window is shining, a sumptuous, forest green. Kate, on her knees, shuffles further in.

‘Ah, only the rich could afford to drag that up all those stairs.’

Josie blinks, uncomprehending.

‘It’s a mirror darling.’

Unused to tenderness, Josie swallows burrs. Her aunt’s hands reach across, take her glasses and clean them on her coat. Even her own mother never does this. It’s her father who polishes the lenses as she sleeps, so she wakes to their flawless winking beside the bed.

‘I remember the first time you recognized yourself in a mirror. I was standing behind you. The look on your face. You were…two, or maybe eighteen months? I said, You, you, that is you! It was such…a moment.’

A moment. Like a treasure. But whose drawer is this memory filed in? Doesn’t it belong to her mother? Josie feels herself separating, her blood, unleashing. How can it be that it’s up to a mirror to tell you who you are. It’s up to a mother, she thinks, it’s up to a special kind of holding.

‘Your mum got so angry when I told her. She felt left out. That’s why I took all the photos. And then later, I painted. To record everything she’d missed.’

They hear the dull thud of fruit fall-apples, worm-ridden, from the gnarled tree. They hear a guttural cat yowl. The vast, cloudless sky, the moon like a hole poked in it.

‘What does it mean? I’m not a sister, but I was.’ Josie shifts her weight on the window ledge.

Kate grips her own hands. Square nails stained with India ink. Her eyes glossy as river stones. She breathes in a deliberate way. ‘It took your mum some time to recover from…not just the blood loss, but the baby…’

The baby. Josie thinks, from me, from me? Fog whorls up between the treehouse planks. The woman tells the story right down low.

You were a sister nine months only. And then, at birth, it was over. A twin.

Josie is a statue, inside a frozen knowing starts to thaw: someone was supposed to have come. ‘Was it a girl?’

Kate nods. ‘You came out first, and then, well, there was just too much quiet.’

What could be understood about this sister, writhing beside her for all that time? What do you even call her, alive or dead? Josie pictures herself walking on asphalt, her shadow veering ahead, how her mother made a fuss not to step on it. She remembers her face against a woman’s salty neck. A smell that rivals anything for comfort. But which sister had held her after all that blood? She imagines digging for some lost civilization, some habitat group, some relic. At night, sleeping in the sweet fug of her cousin’s breath, she has dreamt of a girl removing meat from her opened torso, of blue ink, spreading from the heart side of her father’s shirt and dinosaur bones in a yellow gloaming.

A hand comes toward her. But she has gone beyond the treehouse and valley, a membrane closing her throat, like the diphtheritic girls on Quail Island.

‘We both loved you. You had twice what most kids had. Two mums! And your father when he wasn’t away.’

‘I had twice and she had none.’ It comes out in a croak. Josie tries picturing the other girl, strange and familiar. This sister-shaped absence seems the truest thing she’s ever felt. She faces the window as a sound, gnarled by sea-wind, loops by. Someone is calling her name. Outside the wet clothes soar on the line. Lisa’s sleeves are flailing and Josie’s stocking legs make jerky, boneless jumps in the violet air.

 

First published in HEAT Magazine, 2010

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© 2015 Mireille Juchau. Homepage image © Wendy Ewald "Girl with Mirror". Author photo © Alex Craig.