The Root Ball

by Amita Murray

The hole is getting bigger. The root ball of the cabbage tree sits in a kink in the corner of the compound, waiting to be transplanted. But her husband is digging away, and her mother is watching, hands on hips, looking grim. Again and again the spade splices the loam. Again and again the soil spatters on the expanding mound of leftovers. Sweat streams down Ahiri’s face, and there are pools developing around her hip bones.

“I guess it’s my turn,” she says.

“I can finish it,” Jesse says.

“I’ll do it,” she says firmly. “Does it have to be bigger?”

“Twice the size of the root ball,” her mother says.

It takes another fifteen minutes of digging before her mother is satisfied.

“There,” says Ahiri, kneading her lower back. “Surely it’s done now.”

Her mother gently unfolds the wet tarp that is protecting the taproot. She brushes off the hummus that is clinging to the new roots. Then she glances over at Jesse. Jesse lifts the tree, newly dug out from outside the compound, pruned last year in preparation for this move. He lugs it over and places it at the edge of the hole, but whatever he is planning to do with it is cut short as the tree crashes in. Her mother cries out. “The new roots!”

It’s okay, Mum, it’s just a tree, Ahiri wants to say, but her mother is delicate around her plants, minding their feelings and tending their wounds, skills she has never developed for her daughter. Ahiri and Jesse squat, trying to make it right. The leaves are long and prickly, the bark tough and leathery like cork. It is impossible to reach down and right the tree, without getting stung in the face. They try to nudge the tree into the centre. When Ahiri’s mother is satisfied, she starts to throw the earth back into the hole. Ahiri and Jesse join in, cushioning, padding, kneading out the air pockets, till the hole is filled. Her mother places mulch all around the tree, and then irrigates it again.

“It needs a name,” Ahiri says suddenly.

“It’s a tree,” her mother says. “Not a hamster.”

“Seed. Seeder. Seedling. Seeder. Let’s call it Seeder.” Ahiri runs into the house, searches frantically for a piece of cardboard. Finding nothing other than the pencil she is writing with, to make a post, she comes back out, cardboard impaled on the pencil, the name Seeder written in small dark letters, and a date. She sticks it in the soil, but then anxiety fills her. “It will grow, won’t it? They’re sturdy old things, cabbage trees, aren’t they?”

“Of course, it will grow,” her mother says. She picks out the pencil that Ahiri has planted, and moves it two inches. “Further from the root is better.”

Ahiri stands now, looking at the tree. “It has to grow,” she says.

“You’ve done the date wrong.” Her mother has a hand on her chin.

And now that lump is back in Ahiri’s throat. The lump that is never far these days. The lump that keeps threatening to rise and burst. Her mother is right. Ahiri has the day right, but the month is wrong. It is last month. It is exactly a month ago.

Jesse is standing next to her now. “Are you sure you want to name it?”

She nods. And just to affirm it, a pain deep down in her belly hits her. A pain where something had lived for a few weeks, and then where it had died. Before it had been named. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, I am sure.”

They sit in the compound, the setting sun oozing into the sea. Her husband, with a mai tai in his hands, and a crown of buttercups that she has knitted for him still fixed to his head, is having a heated text conversation with someone back home in London. His thumbs are angry. In London he says he’s stressed, needs to get away from it all, but here, he doesn’t know how to get away.

“We have the jackfruit to do,” her mother says.

Her mother has joined an online community of fringe gardeners that try to grow fruit that is not native to New Zealand. She has experimented with jackfruit and chikoo and sweet tamarind, with mixed results. The thought of rubbing her knuckles raw on the jackfruit, taking hours to cut, slice, and peel in a compact of silence with her mother, makes Ahiri feel exhausted.

“No, thanks,” she says.

“Why don’t you go for a swim?” her mother says, as she says everyday. As she has said everyday for the last week since they arrived.

“No, thanks,” Ahiri says again.

“You used to like it,” her mother says. “It’ll improve your mood.”

“Why?” Ahiri says, her jaw tight. “Why does my mood have to be good?”

“You’re making everyone else feel blue. What must Jesse think of us?”

Us. Lumping them together. Ahiri stops herself from shaking like a wet dog, trying to shrug off that lumping together of family, the tightening of a knot around family affiliations.

“I can go somewhere else if it is a problem.” Ahiri jumps up, intending to walk only to the other end of the compound in which her mother lives, and in which she runs a craft group that gives jobs to the local women and supplies bed-spreads to companies in the city. The bed-spreads hang here on the line, drying in the breeze, their colours springing up and shouting out, bed-spreads in which she can hide. But she hears her mother say behind her, “Do as you please,” and she knows the end of the compound is not far enough.

She walks out of the little gate, banging it behind her. Before she is even at the bottom of the little dirt path that winds around the boulders and down to the beach, she hears her mother shutting the gate behind her, hooking the twine on the latch, shutting Ahiri out. Ahiri dumps the glass with the straw in it that she realizes she is still holding, and runs down the path, climbing now from boulder to boulder, and out to the beach. She runs until she can’t run anymore, and then she drops on to her hands and knees. She slumps, rests her forehead on her folded arms, pants, letting the damp sea breeze play with her hair, leaving salty traces on her neck. She can’t go for a swim. She can barely run or walk most days. It isn’t that she doesn’t have the strength, because after the first few days, her strength had come back, quickly and suddenly, as if her body had gone through nothing at all, as if it had quickly forgotten everything. But it is that tug in her stomach, that is always pulling at her, pulling her down, the feeling that she is falling, imploding into herself, that feeling is still there. Ahiri thinks it will always be there. A reminder that her body has betrayed her. Maybe they are doomed, she and Jesse. Maybe everything they do will end like this. In a flood.

“It’s shit,” Jesse had said about the miscarriage. “It’s totally shit.” But she knows he doesn’t feel it like she does. He doesn’t feel like he isn’t good enough. “We’ll get there again. In no time,” he had said.

But it isn’t no time. Because it is every minute of every day. And that warm, calm feeling she’d had is gone. The warmth and calm that were so unfamiliar in her body. And in their place is darkness. She’d curled herself into a fetal position on the day, lying on her bed, after the scan, a scan that had had nothing to see in it at all. “Your bloods show you’re pregnant,” the technician had said. “Maybe you have your dates wrong.” It was a kind thing to say. The technician wanted her to come to the realization on her own, in her own time. She didn’t want to use any words that couldn’t be reversed. No, Ahiri had wanted to say. I don’t have my dates wrong. “Maybe,” she had said instead. And they had walked home afterwards, and then Ahiri had shut herself in the bedroom.

She sits up now. That lump is going to choke her if she doesn’t. She sits up. She scans Karekare beach. The green-blue monster of a sea tugs hungrily at it. The black sand covers the old rail line in the distance that leads down to the stranded steam engine where the rocks jut out to the surf. She moves back a little, and leans against the puriri with its giant leaves. She places her palms on the smooth bark. It is waiting for summer, for its little nubs to grow into red and pink flowers, and she can feel it breathing under her palms. The Breathing Tree, she secretly calls it. She would breathe too, with the tree, but this lump in her throat is stuck in the way, and her breath catches on it, and comes out staggered and limping. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.”

She looks back at the compound, up on the hill. The hill cuts the beach at craggy angles, and then rips around it. A short distance away the boulders become rocks, giant crags, covered in blue moss, lichen and shrub, some just five foot high, others big as a house, some undulating gently, others razor sharp and brooding. The water rushes up to the hill at high tide, teasing at its edges, lapping like a baby and then attacking it with ferocious white breakers. The tides are fickle here, and the locals have a saying that the sea is like a hungry woman.

Why is her mother here? On this island, so far away from home? Why has she set up here of all places? The place is nothing like her mother. Her mother is small and brown, stoic, never letting a shred of feeling splinter through and show her to the world. Ahiri isn’t sure there are feelings in there at all. It was her dad who had the feelings. He had feelings enough for them both. What is her mother doing in this overwhelming place? Ahiri thinks it is too beautiful to be true. No real place looks like this. The sea is vast, the land unable to contain itself. The transparent sunlight throws back a thousand reflections of her when she can’t stand looking at even one. Her mother is out of place here, like a photograph photoshopped into a postcard.

Ahiri doesn’t know what to do with her mother, what to say to her now, without her father to act as a bridge. They’ve never known what to say to each other. They barely know how to make eye contact. They skirt around each other, say things that are thrown into the wind to be swept around and around till they drain away and become nothing. Her mother invites Ahiri to do chores, to cut things, and splice, and build and drain, to act like that’s their thing, the thing they do together. And Ahiri resents it, because she wants something in return which her mother can’t give.

It was her father who had always mediated, protected them from each other, protected them from the grinding and coldness that had developed between them when Ahiri was a teenager, and that had never left.

That is why she hasn’t seen her mother in three years. Because without her father between them, they have no idea what to do with each other. No, that isn’t it. It is that she doesn’t want to reach her mother. It is that she has always thought there is nothing in there to reach. Is it that? Ahiri isn’t sure. And she is too tired to poke further.

The next day Jesse has more to deal with in London. He is tearing his hair out in frustration. A new company, a handful of team members, and no one who can make big decisions without him.

“We’ll go tomorrow,” Ahiri says, about the planned trip to the forest.

“Let’s go today,” her mother says. “Leave him be.”

Ahiri looks in surprise. “Let’s go tomorrow.”

“Men need their space. You should learn to give it.”

Ahiri grinds her teeth. But she doesn’t say anything then, or on the drive to the edges of the forest. They walk in, both in shorts, both in the thin canvas shoes that her mother has promised will be best, and which Ahiri thinks will leave her feet cut and bruised. Ahiri can’t believe the colors here. The path is narrow, and cuts through trees that form a restless awning above them, their branches covered in lichen, reaching out to each other across the arch, tangling together as if they can’t bear to be apart. There is something obscene about it, something too lush. Her body isn’t ready for this dense fertility. She feels a moment of claustrophobia. She wants to be anywhere but this canopy of greenness. It is as if the trees with their mossy reaching fingers will climb around her and inside her, and she can’t bear it. Why has she agreed to come on this trip without Jesse?

“Don’t tell me how I should be with Jesse,” she says suddenly. “You know nothing about it, nothing about us.” As usual, she should have spoken about this earlier, at the house, instead of letting it crunch up inside her. But if she doesn’t say it she’ll burst, so it comes out. “You barely know me.”

Her mother doesn’t say anything, but walks on. The forest is knitted around them, trees leaning at strange angles, other trees growing through them, and around them, and tangled through their gnarled branches.

“I might start another group,” her mother says. “There’s demand for it. Up near the Waimata river, near Poverty Bay. Some people at Massey University have asked me. There’s unemployment there. There’s unemployment everywhere. It’s hard for people.”

Now they are at a gushing river, and instead of finding a way around it, her mother is going to wade through it. This is a side of her mother that Ahiri has never seen. Her mother, who worked as a teacher at a primary school in West London, who never wanted to live anywhere but there.

“Did you hear what I said? Why are you ignoring it?” Ahiri says.

Her mother sighs. “I don’t want to fight. It’s not my way.”

“Are you saying it’s my way?” Ahiri grits her teeth.

“Don’t be so sensitive.”

Her mother steps into the river. Ahiri moves to take off her shoes.

“Don’t,” her mother says. “Keep them on.”

But Ahiri takes them off, and within minutes of entering the river, she knows it’s a mistake, because the river bed is covered in pebbles and they are digging into her flesh. Above them there are mossy branches dangling and Ahiri reaches out and clings to them, as they pass, gripping the solid feathery things. She gives up and puts on her shoes. Her mother glances at her but says nothing.

“Jesse’s business is not going well,” Ahiri says. “We’re finding it hard.”

Her mother bends and picks up a splintered pebble, chipped off and carved. She fingers it, puts it in her pocket. “So what? You are young. When you get a full-time job, it will become easy.”

Ahiri sighs. Three years and nothing has changed. “That’s not what I’m going to do. Why do you always assume…” Ahiri makes prints. They sometimes sell. But her mother has never got it. “Jesse could get a job.” It’s strange, she thinks, to hear herself saying this. Is that what she thinks?

“You don’t want to, he doesn’t want to,” her mother says. “It’s the choices you’re making.” She walks on for a moment. “Anyway, it’s not a problem,” she says, as if the subject is closed.

But Ahiri wants sympathy. Sympathy because at the moment she is the one who has to support them. She has to take on extra teaching work. It isn’t fair. How is it that her mother had so much patience for her father’s feelings? Ahiri has never understood that. Her mother could listen for hours to how her father felt about everything, about his difficulties with people, about the details of his migraines, the exact time one had come on, the details of the symptoms in all their glory, about everything. She had all the time in the world for Ahiri’s father. Her father who couldn’t be around people for long, couldn’t travel, who felt he needed a barrier between himself and the world. Her father with his thin skin. Her mother had time and patience for him. But Ahiri feels cut short.

“Will you take up this new project?” she asks.

“I might train someone to do it.” Her mother shrugs.

All of a sudden Ahiri wants to sit in the water. And she does. Right there, where she stands. And now the cool rushing water is cradling her, and she closes her eyes, and even pebbles that are digging into her flesh are comforting. She scoops water in her hands, and lets it trickle through her fingers. The river rushes around her, forming a chalice.

“You’re mad,” her mother says. And then, to Ahiri’s surprise, she sits down too. Not on a rock or a mossy slippery mound, but just like Ahiri, right down there on the pebbles.

You never took an interest in me, Ahiri wants to say. Something she has always wanted to say. Something that always ends in a question mark that scares Ahiri, a question mark that is too much like longing. Why is that, she wants to ask. Why can’t you love me. Why can’t you even look at me.

“He always thought you were his,” her mother says quietly.

For a moment, Ahiri doesn’t hear it, thinks her mother has made a remark about the river, or the sky. What on earth is her mother saying? What is she about to reveal?

“I was his, wasn’t I?”

“Oh, yes, of course. Not like that. I mean that he thought you were only his. Not mine or anyone else’s. Like you redeemed him and made him make sense.”

And that lump is back in Ahiri’s throat. She doesn’t know who it’s for. But her mother isn’t done, and she says the most surprising thing of all. “He kept you from me.”

Ahiri is filled with rage. “Is that your excuse?” And she jumps up, water flying everywhere. And she is running, running through the water. And when she can’t anymore, she jumps back on to the path that has now reappeared. And she runs along it, and the only clue about what her mother is doing is that her squelching is mirrored by another behind her. And she runs and runs until she collides into the hairiest tree in the world, and she flings herself down, grips its hairs and drowns her face in it. She sits there panting. And then she is lying down on the ground.

“You’re crazy,” her mother says. “If I didn’t run after you, how do you think we would have found each other again?”

Ahiri stupidly fishes out her mobile phone, on which she knows there is no reception. She flings it down on the ground next to her, where it collapses like a flat pack. How is she supposed to put that together again without Jesse?

Ahiri doesn’t know what happens next. Perhaps she falls asleep, because the next thing she knows is waking up all curled into herself. Her eyes open, and her mother is sitting there, talking to a pigeon with blood-red eyes. Ahiri props herself on an elbow. Her mother is feeding fruit to the pigeon, and the bright orange pulp is bleeding through her fingers.

“It is a kereru,” her mother says.

Ahiri doesn’t know if her mother is talking about the fruit or the pigeon. On the way back from the forest, her mother turns up a sloping path, and they climb up to an orchard. Her mother buys dried apricots and plums, and the woman who owns the orchard gives them a tour that starts in an empty barn that houses yoga camps, and ends in an open-air enclosure that is filled to the brim with Maori dolls and ropes and feathers and mats and jade necklaces. There is a circle of women outside, some with babies at their breast, knitting flax, green leaf on green leaf, over and over, to make a basket. One of them gets a large pot of oolong tea, and pours it out in small cups. Ahiri thinks it is the best taste in the world. She can’t tell if it tastes of green or black tea, and the women explain that it is half-fermented, making it lie somewhere between the two. Ahiri closes her eyes, letting the tea sit in her mouth, leaving a coating as it trickles down her throat.

When Ahiri needs the toilet, the owner points to a blue metal drum just beyond the barn. When Ahiri frowns a question, the woman shakes her head, her long silver hair flapping about on her back. Ahiri walks there hesitatingly, because she doesn’t know if it is a joke or not, but she is not going to look around in case the women and her mother are laughing at her. Behind the drum, there are steps that lead to an outdoor toilet, which is really just a hole. Ahiri squats there, precariously balanced, splashing her canvas shoes, trying not to look down into the depths. She knows that above the wooden slats that rise above the drum, the back of her head is visible to the group of women. She walks sheepishly back.

On the ride back to the beach, it comes out. She doesn’t know why she tells her mother. This is not part of the plan. She doesn’t even know why she is here at all, on this trip to see her mother. But she tells her. And it is out and it can’t be unsaid. She waits for it. For her mother to say that it is very common. It happens to a lot of women. It means nothing.

“It happened to me, two months before you,” her mother says.

Ahiri stares at her, as she drives the jeep.

“I only realized later that it was the right thing.”

Now Ahiri is full of rage and deeply regretting telling her mother about this thing that has happened to her, that is now worse. “How could it possibly be the right thing?”

Her mother drives in silence and Ahiri thinks it is the end of the conversation, and she will just have to live with this hole that has grown in her chest.

“Because if I had had it, I wouldn’t have had you,” her mother says, as the jeep pulls into the compound.

The jeep stands chugging, then dies out. Ahiri gets out and stands there. Her mother is staring into the distance. Ahiri shades her eyes against the sun that is setting the sea on fire. They are silent.

“Come on,” her mother says finally. “You’re going to help with that jackfruit today, aren’t you?”

Ahiri stares up at the compound. Jesse is there. He spots them, waves wildly, and starts his way down, jumping from rock to rock. Ahiri says, “It’ll spoil if we don’t do it today.”

 

Amita Murray is a writer based in London. Having lived in and around London, California, and Delhi, she tends to write about the comedy and tragedy of cultural encounters. She has published stories in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Front View, Brand, Inkspill, and others. She teaches at the University of Surrey, and is a creative writing guest lecturer at Cambridge. This story was written during a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence grant that allowed Amita to work on a short story collection Marmite and Mango Chutney, and to collaborate with the wonderful human geographers at University College London. Like most fiction writers on Twitter, Amita loves chocolate. Unlike most, she doesn’t post cute pictures of her cats. Her novels can be found on Amazon.

 

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