The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing each of the winning stories online this week. This selection showcases the exciting emerging talents, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we bring you the winning entry from the Pacific (New Zealand), Zoë Meager’s ‘Things with faces’, and an interview with the author, which you can read here.
This is all you remember. The sound of her pacing the house at night. She paced in the daytime too but the daylight swept that swishing sound away among the other household sounds. When the giraffe first arrived in the house the swishing kept you pinned to your bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, though you couldn’t see it for the absolute dark. Nights of straining your ears, her hooves dampened on the earthen floor and the swish swish swish, the soft rhythmic sweeping of her head against the ceiling, over and over, again and again through the indomitable dark. What were you afraid of? Not of being bitten or trampled, but afraid that her long neck would ferry her head towards you, over you, a mask on a stick invisibly interrupting the pact between you and the ceiling, the ceiling you had faith in, even though you couldn’t see it. Her head, the shape people make with their hands for shadow-swans in lamplight, the shape Mama makes for Shut your trap.
The next part is recovered years later, on film. Handycam footage of the day Mama ran her down. The film cannot capture the way the dust clouds mushroom up to spell out the dry season across the savannah, banners announcing This is the Land of Endurance. No record of the confusion of insects that grime the jeep’s windscreen, nor the sweat that seeps in and out of your scalp and will not lift by any methods in your eleven-year-old repertoire. You had the Handycam trained on your own face but the angle was wrong so that only your damp hair and small perspiring forehead were framed. Lip-synching your parents’ argument; brows raised, eyes wide for Mama’s part and, for your Father’s, a slight backwards tilt of the head, the narrow slow-blinking eyes that refused passion. In acting out the argument, no one noticed the giraffe, drinking from a pothole in the road, until the jeep played her like a giraffe-skin drum. Thump!
The camera jerks and swivels. It captures your father leaping out of the car, bolting toward the unknown. He wears clothes two sizes too big, doesn’t like to be constrained. His brown shorts and red t-shirt are faded; the age of the film leaves only a watercolour of him exiting, nothing before and nothing after. Next the camera swings around, shows your big brother, Special, sitting in the back next to you. Body rigid, bent double, he slams his head into the seat in front over and over and over again. If the Handycam recorded sound, he would be groaning. Next the camera reveals an indistinct interior, metal and tarpaulin for a moment before the film leaps back to catch your mother as she scrambles out of the driver’s seat, her housedress showing tears at the waistband and under one arm, payments it has made for women’s work.
The recording sputters as the giraffe is given water from a plastic drum so large that only your father can lift it from the jeep. Mama cries, swipes anxiously at her face with a back-hand motion, pushes the tears in toward her nose instead of away. As if she doesn’t know how to remove distress other than by bullying it. A distracted shot of foliage, then the giraffe is back on its feet and, not knowing what more can be done, your parents get back in the jeep and start it up. Out the window, four spindly legs recede. The recording ends. You picture the jeep climbing the soft hill that leads home, kicking up ochre to the dry trees that reproduce across the land in fits and starts, and the jeep disappearing down the other side of the hill as, from her great vantage point the giraffe watches you through long lashes, considering. Only an animal or a child will run after something that has just mown it down.
The next part is stitched on with a patch of family folklore. It may as well have happened to another child, another family. This is all you don’t remember. The part that explains why. The story goes that the giraffe tracks you past the vanishing point and catches you at home, arriving in time for the evening meal. The giraffe steps swaying to your hut and bows down, stretches her implausible neck through the opening of a window and laps at the cooking pot laid out on the table. You can almost see Mama looking at you squarely as you balk at the animal smell that fills the hut, before she reminds you that We are All God’s creatures. Which seems likely enough because that’s what your father, the missionary preacher, always said and your mother always repeated. It is said that Mama didn’t take issue with extra help cleaning pots. But to your father, the giraffe might as well have been taking food off his children’s plates, with its long purple tongue gifted from the Devil. That was why he despised the whole country, not just for the sweat that crawled over his body for half of the year, but for the determination of its nature that kept pushing its way into people’s souls. Just like dirt, animals were matter out of place. The giraffe must have tried for conversion because apparently she stretched the full length of her neck in the house, so that her head nearly reached the door, and lifted a knobbly knee up to the window ledge to make herself even more at home. But at this your Father stood up and as if he did it everyday ducked under the giraffe’s long neck and pushed hard, one hand on the leg and one on the chest, until the giraffe let out a graceless snort and exited the window, taking a little of the mud and stick wall with her.
From here your memories are all your own and they are solid. Giraffes grow up in the land of endurance so they know how to keep on trying and it doesn’t take her long to find the door. Your little family wakes the next morning to the mountain of her, folded in on herself, politely trying not to take up too much room. Her rounded hide stretches over her like an old linen tablecloth that has had a great brown platter shattered over it. She blocks off the door enough that you all have to clamber over the swaying wooden chairs and the table she has pushed to the outskirts of the room before you can get outside. Then, naturally, she follows you. Special stays behind and rocks for a couple of hours before unwinding himself enough to get outside for a pee. The giraffe stays with you after that, every day, a totem outside your house standing proud when you look from a distance, a set of legs like a small copse of trees when you view her inside-out. In the nights she gets restless and walks the house, bowing to everything inside it, the stiff bristles that line her spine scrubbing at the inside of the tin roof. What is she trying to sweep away? Swish swish swish. A burden on your eleven-year-old sleep. But it isn’t long before the nights are transformed and the swishing sound along with them.
You come home from school and your father hugs you and shakes hands with your brother, who looks across at the ensete, known as the false banana tree, and screws up his face as if mistaking the tree for the father. Your father has the jeep packed up with the leftovers of his old life: the yellowing Bibles and the little statue of Mary wrapped in the altar cloth. He takes the Handycam too, minus the tapes that record a long series of small defeats. He starts the jeep and drives away. You stand in the sun, shading your eyes as you track the jeep. You think unexpectedly of the giraffe; only an animal or a child, and head back inside.
In your eleven-year-old mind, your father is like a bird in a tree; colourful and loud, and then gone. And like an animal lost on the plains, vulnerable to being mown down. The very same day Mama hitches her cotton dress up high and wades into housework as if it is something to sluice away sin. She crawls on all fours to reach the low corners and she stretches up tall to swipe the high ones. She drags bedding outside and beats it, strings blankets, drapes wet clothes over bushes. The only thing she forgets to clean is the crucifix that hangs inside the door. Then she tells you to eat the leftover bread, you and Special, and walks out, with only the addition of her sandshoes. You follow her outside and sit on the dry leaves at the base of the false banana and watch her pick her way across scrub to what you call the main road, although it is only a dirt track. Something is wrong. Then you see, squinting, with relief that she remembers to untuck her dress, just as some neighbours pull over to pick her up. So Mama is decent for her first ever trip to try the local homebrew. You remember to haul in the bedding and blankets and clothes only once the world has lost its light, when you look out across the land, trying to see shapes that are your parents, having faith in the dark. There are only clumps of trees holding up still arms, signalling you to wait.
Mama steps out the next day and the next and the next. Always in the afternoons, always walking or catching a ride with different neighbours so that her only witnesses apart from you are: a boy locked into himself, the land that treats you all like freckles on its great brown back, and the giraffe. Porridge used to be just for Sundays, but since Mama found her taste for homebrew it is for most days and you leave the giraffe to clean the pot and to swish around the house at night, counting the breaths until Mama comes home. See how the night is transformed? The animal is more like a clock now, keeping time through the timeless hours of waiting. Swish swish swish. It feels good to have another devotee in the house and when Mama comes home the giraffe folds back in on herself again, and Mama falls loose against the giraffe’s fat stomach and snores until the heat is too much, with the giraffe waiting, a patient pillow, for her to rise. After all, Mama is one of God’s creatures too.
One night you wake up to find Special has crawled into the pile of giraffe and Mama, looking so plain in his white t-shirt and underpants against the riot of pattern the other two make, one in her animal skin, the other in her jazzy cotton wrap. Special has never touched a living thing for so long, not voluntarily. He looks more alone in that pile than he ever has before, even more alone than you feel watching them. You fall back asleep. When you wake up in the early morning your heart is thumping, your ears closed, incapable of letting the outside in, even for moment, though you try. The giraffe’s nostrils closed tight to a swarm of flies. And then the swishing, and the snores from Mama in between. Everything safe. Waking fully, you see the giraffe loping back and forth with Special clinging on underneath, marsupial, his thin legs keeping pace with hers, his arms outstretched around the balloon of her belly, his face pressed against the rough warmth of her. You lie and watch in the morning light.
Just before the calf is born the giraffe tries squatting, as much as a giraffe can. She looks like one of the little wooden giraffe toys, the ones with a button to press to make them dance exaggeratedly, bowing down this way and that, stiff legs bandy. She tries several times before she gives up and plants the thing down where she stands. On its journey from its mother to the floor it meets Special in rather a hurried close-up. Not long after it looks the same as its mama, like a toy giraffe dancing in your house, a shaky pyramid with a wrinkly old head on top. The next thing you know, Mama wakes up, and she is even more sober than before she got left. After weeks of rumbling overhead, the season breaks victoriously. Special loves the rain. He runs outside and cups it in his hands and pushes it into his face, lets it kiss him right to his very pores, rubs his body down with the drops that swarm around him. He lets it hug him, giving it life by acknowledging its touch. The drops are as quick and pointed as Mama’s words, jabbed out in the English you father insisted on:
Giraffe in my house. This is my house. Giraffe not stay, not stay in my house. You hear?! Eat my porridge. Sleep in my bed. Think you’re going to eat my porridge, Miss Giraffe? No no no no no. I raise mine and you raise yours. You not stay. You go!
Mama knows she can’t push the giraffe all the way back to where the animal first got left, the place where that mow-down was caught on camera. Knows better too, than to wear her sandshoes for the trip, so her only accessory is the porridge pot still thickly coated from last night’s meal. She waves the pot under the giraffe’s nose and wades out in the thunderous rain that throws itself hard at the tough ground, only to bounce back up again in surprise. She holds the porridge pot high over head, tilted down, so that the rain umbrellas over it on all sides like a fancy water fountain. She is drenched within metres. Behind her, the twin-set of giraffe and calf follow, a pair of nesting tables disappearing slowly into the fuming land, until the blankets of rain are too thick to decode and the procession is erased from sight completely. It is a one-hour trip each way without the jeep, not so far, but not so close either. You have to pull Special in from the rain to get him eating, and he screams because the porridge pot is gone, or the giraffe is gone or, perhaps, because Mama is gone. You most often thought of your brother back then as a goldfish in a bowl, peering out at the world, scared at the tapping on his tank – still, the patterns on the giraffe’s hide seemed to mean something to him – perhaps he knew just what that big brown platter looked like before it was smashed. Or perhaps he just liked having someone else around who was different. You always wonder how he took the noise that came in the night, that swish swish swish. Was it a tapping on his tank? Or a creaking cradle, rocking from side to side?
Mama returns alone, mud caked up her legs to the knee and the pot licked clean. You sleep. You dream that the swishing sound has returned, or you have a dream in which the swishing sound continues. You wake in the morning to a peal of thunder and see Mama, angrily stirring porridge, using the evil eye she borrows sometimes from the Devil. Special is jiggling in the middle of the room, happily slapping himself on the back with floppy arms and shrieking with pleasure. The swishing was no dream; the giraffe is back and sweeping the ceiling with her calf awkwardly chasing her teats.
The second procession is a little less jubilant on departure, and worse still on return. Mama is not happy in defeat. This time the giraffe hasn’t even waited until morning to follow her home again, and you hear their conversation even before the three heads rise up over the hill and in view of home:
My house. My house. Raising my children in my house. You got to find your own way in this world, Miss Giraffe. You go find your own house. You, go!
The giraffe and her calf seem to enjoy the excursions, a pleasant stretch for their legs, a wash of their coats, even if their escort is a little tetchy, whereas Mama is so boiling mad you think that if she borrowed a lioness’s skin she could fill it out, convincingly. But this time Special has prepared her salvation, made from scraps, scattered and gathered from within a radius of home, and when Mama comes back he pushes it towards her, all the time looking up at the tin roof overhead. Its use is obvious but it takes a while for you and Mama to figure out exactly how it attaches.
Mama confidently leads the parade out into the next day’s downpour, holding the porridge pot high in one hand and the Special contraption in the other. The giraffe and her baby follow, you and your brother bringing up the rear. When you reach the place for getting left, Mama sets the porridge pot on the ground for the third and final time. She smiles contentedly and the takes a small step back, letting the giraffe manoeuvre her front legs into a wide split and ferry her head right down to the pot. Mama waits too until the calf is feeding under the canopy of its Mama, a happy shelter from the rain, before setting to work attaching the piece of old tin roof to the giraffe’s head. Miss Giraffe doesn’t notice a thing as Mama positions the platter-sized square, carefully balancing it across the ears and bristly horns, she only rolls her eyes up a little, to look at her friend from under her sweeping eyelashes, as the padded straps are fastened under her chin. The pot is clean, and the giraffe and her calf wander a little, into a distracted shot of foliage, and the rain fountains over the giraffe’s tin-roof hat, like a fancy umbrella. Mama walks away for the last time, but you know that calves return to their birthplaces, when the time comes for them to be Mamas themselves.
Photograph by Randi Deuro