© Pauline English
The orphan’s name was Hana. Her small frame trembled whenever there was a breeze; her soul strained to hold hands and dance away with it. It was her greatest wish to die. Every day Hana worked for the spare, hard form of Aunty from the time the light apologetically shuffled into her room until it slunk off, when she had to go to bed. Her aunt called it ‘earning her keep’.
Hana didn’t mind too much. Her desire to disappear had little to do with her life and more to do with curiosity. She wanted to know what was on this other side Aunty kept referring to. Hana couldn’t remember anything different. She liked digging her fingers in the moist earth, a fiver fingered root groping to gather the sweet smelling herbs that she’d grown from seed. A chop and dry left them for sale in the musty store that kept the house.
The pang of ylang ylang and jasmine notes always brought the ghost of her mother to hover and kiss her fluttering eyelids, although Hana didn’t know this. She just felt warm in the middle of her chest when she crushed the fallen flowers of each under her tiny bare feet, as if she’d eaten a pot of stew, not just a spoonful.
Hana didn’t always want to die. Her stomach did twist and roil some nights, as her ribs tried to mate with her spine, but other than that she was quite content for her little heart to accompany her nightly march to dreamland.
Until the day she saw the boy with the rabbit. His eyes were blue as the sky on a day the clouds forgot to visit. If she was burned coffee brown from her days in the sun, he was pale as the cream her aunt poured in it every morning. Hana drank hot water. “There’s not enough to go round,” said Aunty.
It was after her water and toast that Hana saw the boy. Or rather, he saw her, peeking through the slats of the wooden fence. It was quite a high fence, “to keep out good-for-nothings” but had plenty of space in between each rough plank to see through. Hana imagined that each space was the doorway to another world.
There was the world of Moana, that changed shape and colour depending on her mood and that of her big brother Rangi. Hana called them Seafull and Skynull. Others simply said Sea and Sky. Next to that fence was another. This one had glimpses of the worlds belonging to three mountain sisters; the gentle green Pukepuke, gloomy Maunga and passionate, fiery Puiha.
In the corner, in the gap where the two fences met, was the school. Four times a day, Hana positioned herself here with her tray of herbs to watch the children play. Her nimble fingers would feel the dusty leaves and stalks, sorting them by oily smell and spike, eyes darting down to check her work, then back up to check in; the mountain sisters, the school.
Hana looked up to see Moana looking back at her, cold blue. For a moment she was confused. This was the gap that showed the school, not Sky or Sea. Herbs confettied on to her bare toes, wed to dusty earth not leather. She jumped up, muscles running. A word stopped her. A sound like honeyed bees gathering over lavender.
“Hello,” said a sky-sea eye peering at her through a cloud of hair the colour of sunrise. “Do you want to play?”
“I don’t know how,” said Hana, rubbing one foot over the other. A rich casserole of thyme and basil floated into the air.
“You smell nice,” said the boy, “I can show you how. I’ll even show you my rabbit. He matches your eyes.”
Hana pictured her grey eyes growing soft fur like that covering a rotted seed. Perhaps his rabbit was covered with glistening wet pupils that blinked like stars. She had seen rabbits before, wiry brown ones with quivering, cautious ears. Aunty set traps in the garden that Hana quietly tripped. If she didn’t, she would have to skin and gut the wiselings and she hated to see them helpless, opened up and inside out, each perfect organ on red display.
No, Hana didn’t think she needed to see more rabbit. But she had never played. With mice and weta and sometimes the wind but not with another child.
The fence rode higher than the mountain sisters; its slats slitted but not enough to slip through into the outside worlds she’d watched for so long. All those missed suppers had made Hana lean as three wild rabbits. She scrabbled in the rich loam, making a hole under the fence big enough for one skinny orphan girl.
For the first time Hana saw her rectangular views stitched together, Sky and Sea meeting in a horizon longer than any fence, the school perched in between. Behind, green Pukepuke held hands with her sister, stern Maunga who in turn, kept Puiha in check. They all watched as Hana and the boy played and laughed and ran and jumped and then did it all over again. For the first time she didn’t want to die.
The boy’s rabbit wasn’t like the wild ones. It was fluffy and fat and softly nuzzled her ear when she held it. She was having so much fun that Hana didn’t notice a tired Sky tossing the sun at Sea. Pukepuke tried to warn her but it was too late. A voice like a hot foehn wind, scratchy, tumbled down from the north west towards her.
“What are you doing, you disgusting child? Who said you could leave?”
The children laughed, all except the boy with the rabbit. That’s when Hana’s small heart drummed a warning. The rabbit understood the danger signal and took up the beat, thumping his fluffy grey hind feet in time.
Aunty chased her home with a wooden spoon, down the pockmarked street, under the pohutakawa weeping crimson, around the corner and through the front gate, which she locked behind her.
It was too late. By the time the gate crashed shut, the orphan girl and the boy with the rabbit had swapped hearts.
After two days with no food, Hana’s aunt unlocked the door of the room under the stairs. She pushed in bread and water and cold words.
“The boy is no longer around so don’t go sneaking off again, you ungrateful, despicable brat”.
“But Aunty,” Hana whispered. “Where has he gone?”
“To join your parents in hell.”
Hana now knew how a rabbit felt in a snare. She couldn’t remember her parents well but decided that hell must be the home of warmth and love. And she needed her heart back. She could feel it stir, faint and far away. She left that very night.
Sea bounced the moon up to Sky, trailing milky sand all the way from the water’s edge.
“Moana,” whispered Hana. “I’m looking for my parents and the boy with the rabbit. Could you point me the way to hell?”
Sea doubted they were in hell. If anything, she said, they were in heaven. She’d ask Sky. But to get to either you simply had to die.
“Then that’s what I’ll have to do,” said Hana.
The boy with the rabbit was not in Sky’s realm so Hana waded into the chill water and willed herself to die. Nothing happened. Hana tried to lose herself in Sea but the porpoises and rays kept lifting her up. Eventually Sea deposited her gently on the shore, with instructions to visit Puiha.
Hana was cold and tired but she had to find her heart. So she followed the long horizon until she reached swelling Pukepuke, who sent her onto Maunga, who showed her the pass to the fiery sister Puiha.
Hana looked down at the bubbling mud that would take her to her love. Her flesh too would bubble, the price of admission to shed this husk that bound her. Then she felt her heart skip a beat. From the top of the volcano, her sharp eyes could make out the boy winding the horizon back on itself, his rabbit a scrap of grey blowing behind him. The rabbit cocked an ear. He could hear her heart thumping hard in the boy’s skinny chest.
Hana’s feet chased him down Puiha, through Maunga’s pass, and over Pukepuke’s soft grass. Finally she caught him kneeling in front of Sea.
She threw her arms around the boy’s neck. “I want to live”.
But the search had taxed her starved body. Hana laid her head on the stars that had dripped to shore. She could smell heather and brine. Inside the boy’s chest her heart started to slow.
His rabbit stamped his sandy feet. “Please,” his thumps said to Sea, “not him too.”
Moana felt sorry for the orphan girl and the boy with the rabbit. She spoke to her brother, Sky and to the three sisters of earth and fire.
Hana closed her eyes. The earth swallowed her body. Her water was claimed by Sea. The life that sparked at Hana’s birth hitched a lift to the sky with her last breath and banked into Puiha’s fire.
The heart thudded back in the boy’s chest. He sat up. The iron bands had loosened but he couldn’t see Hana or his rabbit. He looked for a hint of her brown skin and hair, hoped for a glimpse of those grey eyes. Then he started to cry. He was only a small boy after all and he’d just lost his heart and his hare.
“Don’t cry,” said Hana. He could hear her voice in the surge of the waves.
“Close your eyes”. The warm sand enfolded him like a caress. He could smell her breath on the breeze.
“I’ll always be here,” she said. “Always”.
The sun set, tempering the boy’s red curls. He lay on his back to wait for his rabbit. He didn’t have to wait long. As the velvet black fur of the night woke to go hunting the boy saw him, twinkling high in the sky.
“I hope you don’t mind,” the boy heard Hana say. “I had to have him. He matches my eyes.”
© Pauline English