In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, beginning with Tina Makereti’s ‘Black Milk’ – the winning entry from the Pacific.
The Birdwoman came into the world while no one was watching. It was her old people who sent her, the ones who hadn’t chosen to make the transition, who stayed in their feathered forms, beaks sharp enough to make any girl do what her elders told her.
‘It’s time,’ they said. ‘They’re ready.’
But was she?
There were things the people needed to know. But first she had to make her way into their world. She watched for a long time from her perch, trying to figure the way of them. They seemed so crude and clumsy to her – so slow with their lumbering bodies, their plain, unprotected flesh – no wonder they took plumage from her own kind, or made poor copies with their fibres. Their movements pained her – she would need to slow her own quickness, calm the flutter of wings, the darting of eyes that had protected and fed her all her wild life.
She saw what kind of woman she would be. She could keep some of her dignity if she held her head high, wore heavy skirts that fanned out and trained behind her, if she corseted in the unprotected flesh and upholstered it with good tailoring. A fine tall hat, or elaborately coiled hair beset with stones that caught the light. She had seen women such as this, glided past them on the wind. They saw her too, but didn’t point and call out like the children. They saw and took note in silence, sometimes lifted their chins in acknowledgement. She saw spiraled markings on some of those chins, dark-haired women, and thought she could read meaning there. Though this was a rare sight, and though she needed to blend in, she decided she should mark herself this way too, so that the ones who needed to would recognise her.
So she came into the world when no one was watching, only just grown enough to be a birdwoman rather than a birdgirl. Then she moved through the forest to where the people lived. On the outskirts of the settlement, the men saw her first. They removed their hats and looked everywhere but into her eyes, for there was something piercing in her manner that made them uncomfortable. She walked past them towards streets lined with houses, alarmed that without wings the dust gathered itself to her and stayed. How did they stand it, the people with all their gravity and filth?
The women were less circumspect. They looked her up and down from their doorways, and made assumptions about where she came from and what kind of woman she was.
‘Looking for someone, dear?’ called Eloise, who had survived four stillbirths and adopted every stray child in town.
‘Perhaps she’s in the wrong place,’ said Aroha to Eloise, loud enough for the Birdwoman to hear. ‘Are you lost, dear?’ Aroha was all right once you got to know her, but she was not an easy woman to get to know.
The Birdwoman thought about how to answer these questions, and the only answer that came to her was politely.
‘I am fine thank you, but I am wondering if there might be a place for me to stay. Can you recommend a house?’
The women were disarmed by her directness.
‘Mrs Randall takes in lodgers,’ said Eloise. ‘Aroha, take her to Mrs Randall’s will you? I have this lot to account for. No knowing what might happen if I leave them to their own machinations.’ Eloise was always using words that were too big for the meaning she intended.
Aroha’s sullenness couldn’t withstand the faint glow that emanated from the Birdwoman. Her hair seemed luminous and so marvellously soft that Aroha wanted to reach out but couldn’t, for who knew what protection a woman such as this carried, seen or unseen? She’d never been so close to anyone quite so meticulous and frankly, shiny. It was only moments before she found herself telling the stranger all the news of the town, including even her most delicious gossip.
There was a reason no one had been watching, the Birdwoman learnt, even though there were sentries on every hill. They were too busy watching each other and their firearms, too busy grappling with the ways of war, which, no matter how many times they went through it, could not be made intelligible. She knew they noticed her strangeness but no one had the energy to concern themselves about it.
Before now, she had only known them as the clumsy ones who took the small and fluttering bodies of her kin for food and feathers, even beaks and talons. And though it had sorrowed her, she knew there was a balance to it. The people called their greetings and gave their thanks, but they hunted. It was an old deal made right at the beginning: her line would be sacrificed to theirs. But the gods gave them two gifts to cope with the hurt – abundance, and a lack of other predators.
She got used to their ways. She helped. There were people to organise and mouths to feed. She kept her clothed dignity, but didn’t mind rolling up her sleeves. And time passed. And the wars ended, but then even more people were hungry, and she didn’t know if the old ones had been right after all – could she really do anything to help? Her sleeves remained rolled up, and she saw everything that had caused her family to send her to the ground – how they struggled, these landwalkers, her upright naked friends, how they hurt themselves like little children who had not yet learnt how to hold a knife safely or run without tripping.
She had been so busy with the people and their wars that she didn’t notice until it was done. They never took her hunting, they’d seen her disapproval and didn’t want to anger her. But one day they emerged from the forest with empty hands, nothing to offer their children.
‘It’s the rats,’ a man said.
‘It might be the cats,’ Eloise nodded toward the friendly feral at her feet.
‘It’s the white man,’ this was an old koro who was known to shake his stick and rant about the changing world, ‘They take them for their museums. Put them under glass to stare at. I saw it when I went over there as a boy on the ships . . .’
‘Āe, āe, koro,’ the young ones rolled their eyes. They’d heard about the ships, the ships. But that was long ago. Before all the wars. The wars hardened them, and made them so tired.
‘They trade in them. Take them by the hundreds.’
No one wanted to hear this part. No one wanted to believe it. But she heard.
‘It doesn’t matter what happened to them now. There’s none left to take. Haven’t seen a huia since I was a boy.’
Could it be that she had been gone so long? Could it be that she hadn’t noticed the voices of her elders fading? Would she be stuck in this place with these fleshy fools forever? No. They weren’t ready. How could they understand the gifts of her kind when they couldn’t even restrain themselves or others? All that killing.
So she left, just as swiftly as she had come. She wandered between villages, her anger turned inwards, devoured by her grief. She forgot herself.
It was a dark place she got into. She no longer held her head high, no longer dreamed of the future. Despair sat on her shoulders where her wings should have been. Darkness consumed her, the quivering lip of a dying abalone, grease in the barrel of a gun. Sometimes she did not see or hear any birds for weeks.
Then, one day, she saw him, his great figure hunched so that he looked like one of hers, hair on his head shimmering in the way of the tui. When he moved she thought she heard the whispered scrape of feather against feather. He came slowly, in a considered fashion, was heavy limbed, but when he turned a certain way – it was enough.
‘Lady,’ he said, and bowed.
He was a dark-feathered mountain. He was the shape of her nights. He was ink spilt in a pool of oil, volcanic rock, onyx eyes. The black enveloped them. There had been so many long days, she had seen so many things she didn’t want to see. Lady, he said, and she liked the way the word curved around her and gave her a place to rest.
They had many children.
She had no time to remember herself then.
‘Mother,’ the children would call, ‘we’re hungry. Mother, we’re cold, help us.’ Their mouths open with constant needs and demands. She was kept busy from the start of the day to the end.
They worked hard together to grow the children. It was easier for her to forget the guilt-ache and shame of where she had come from, how she had let it get so bad, how she didn’t help her people. Better to let her children grow up in her husband’s world, without the burden of her knowledge. She settled on this as the right path, though her husband would sometimes look sidelong at her, as if considering some puzzle he couldn’t figure.
‘Wife, sometimes you seem very far away,’ he said one day.
‘I am here, husband, look at me. I am always here.’ But he was not convinced.
‘Yes, your body is here, but I see when you leave. It is like you are up there somewhere.’
Even in a marriage, there is only so much you can hide. Or share.
‘You can tell me about it, if you wish,’ he said.
‘Sometimes I miss my family, but then I think of the children.’ That had been her answer. Focus on the children.
It was difficult, then, when one by one the children began to lose their way.
She watched them leave, sooner than she wished, on their own journeys of peril. But when her youngest son showed signs of following the same path, she took him aside.
‘There’s something I should have told you kids long ago.’ Her son stooped so that she could whisper in his ear. She told him where she had come from, about her own kind, how there were so few left. Their gifts. The covenant they had had with his father’s people. She told him how she had been sent a long time ago, and the telling was like an unravelling of all the things she had seen: the wars and despair, the museums and grief, the long, dark nights and the joy of making children.
‘You were hope made real,’ she told him. And she hoped it wasn’t too late, hoped that the knowing would help him, hoped that the story would make him stronger than he knew how to be.
Her boy saw a world that was not what he thought it was. He saw many things that he hadn’t known possible before. He only had one question.
‘Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you tell everyone?’
She thought how she should have opened her mouth when she kept it closed. How silence doesn’t help anything. But would they have heard her? Maybe she didn’t give them the chance.
‘Perhaps I should have spoken sooner. Perhaps not. It is time when it is time,’ she said, and placed her hand on her son’s shoulder.
The unravelling of her story was an ending. The darkness came flooding back in. This time it wasn’t bleak or hurtful, it was a flash of curved beak in velvet night. Black milk. The depths of Te-Kore-the-place-before-night. More inviting, more liquid than you ever expected black to be. Darkness that holds all of light in it. Home, she thought, and she heard the movement of feathers through air.
Listen to a podcast between regional judge of the Commonwealth Prize Patrick Holland and Tina Makereti.
Photograph © Nadja Robot