The Bone Necklace
by Bob Sojka
“You accepted a job where?” Lucy screamed this, halting her singing, and knocking the sautéed onions from the stove as she reached to snap off R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion. “Are you out of your mind, Nick? You promised. No more hopscotching from job to job.”
“Why would we leave D.C.? World class restaurants? Universities? Museums? We’re finally someplacecultured. At least the other jobs were in North America.”
“Lucy, you knew D.C. was temporary. These folks offered two years with a possible permanent appointment.”
“Permanent exile!” She ran, slammed the bedroom door and locked it.
I shuffled across the smooth oak floor to the overstuffed button-tucked leather chair under the tiffany lamp, grabbed my guitar, and softly picked a few flamenco riffs. Bill Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot debated on the tube, flickering blue light across the shelf of books that were the touchstones of my psyche. I used to do this elaborate fingering with the fourth and fifth digits of my left hand that evoked castanets and clapping.
I’ve only heard one other musician ever manage it, the old Gypsy beggar outside the hostel I stayed at in Salamanca the summer between my Junior and senior years at college. He taught it to me in trade for the gold class ring I wore on one of the picking fingers. He said it got in the way and, besides, if I filled my fingers with that magic, one day they’d capture a woman’s heart. In Kansas that fall, Lucy heard me playing in my dorm room. Was there magic in those fingers? Maybe. We ended up together.
After a while the slamming noises in the bedroom stopped and the latch clicked open. Arms folded, Lucy leaned against the door jamb cocking her head and eyebrows my way, waiting for an explanation about the New Zealand job. Once she tamed her anger, she gradually transformed her resignation into guarded interest. It took a few days.
Lucy had an anthropology degree that she could never use following me around to mines, oilfields and water projects. This was a chance to experience the melding of Commonwealth and Polynesian cultures in the country the indigenous Maori people called Aotearoa, The Land of The Long White Cloud. Her Anthro’ degree was partially to spite Thurmond and Nancy for her insanely strict fundamentalist upbringing-- and the beatings, and God knows what else that issued from Thurmond’s attempts to tame Lucy’s rebellion. At college she studied every other religion and culture imaginable. She loved sending copies of her grades home-- grades for classes that Thurmond forbad her to take.
She eventually agreed that maybe this chance to encounter Maori lore and mythology might work out. The acceptance ticked up a few notches when she confided to me that the nearly antipodal separation would be a great spit in Thurmond’s eye.
Our first Sunday in-country, Nigel Howard, my department head, and his wife, Leslie, took us to the Manawatu Valley Agricultural Show. We walked among booths with carvings of wood, stone, shell and animal bones.
“The amazing thing about Maori carvings is they didn’t have iron or bronze tools,” Nigel said. “They carved using greenstone tools. See that?” He pointed to some deep green jewelry and amulets of New Zealand nephrite, the local jade variant.
“It’s a hard igneous rock. It gave Maori carvings great mana.”
“Mana?” I asked.
Lucy gave me a pitying look. I gathered that I had just displayed deplorable anthropological ignorance.
“Value, power, prestige. Maori men could fashion tools, weapons, and ceremonial carvings from more durable materials than other Polynesians, increasing their trade value. Other islanders thought Maori carvings were a bit magical. They couldn’t duplicate them.”
The next booth displayed ivory-like carvings.
“These are interesting,” I said. “But isn’t ivory illegal?” The young Maori behind the display overheard me. Despite his fierce facial tattoos (called moko as I later learned), he was friendly and entertaining.
“Kia ora, mate. Maori artists collect whale and walrus ivory and bone that wash ashore. No elephants here, mate. These pieces are animal bone. It carves a lot like ivory. The cannon bone of beef cattle is often used.”
“Leg bone.” He rapped his shin with his knuckles. “It’s the longest, thickest bone in mammals. Good for ordinary carvings.”
“But not as good as Ivory?”
“That depends,” he said. “Elephant ivory is brilliant for carving. It comes in such large uniform pieces, aye? But bone varies from animal to animal. Whale bone’s grey and grainy, like weathered wood, and a bit brittle. But it has its own look and feel.” He pulled a hand-sized whalebone amulet from beneath his shirt. It looked like a flattened miniature Tiki.
“So is that good or bad?”
“Depends, aye?” he said. “The Taniwha belongs to the sea.” He handed me a smaller version from his display. “His image has greater mana when carved from a sea animal’s skeleton, like whale bone. I wouldn’t carve a Taniwha using beef bone. Lots of my mates do that, for tourist trinkets, aye? But I like doing things right. See the inlaid shiny bits for the eyes? They’re paua shell, New Zealand abalone.”
“What’s a Taniwha?” I asked.
“A sea god,” he said, handing me a decorative tag with an explanation, the pronunciation (tah’-nee-fah), and price--fifty five Kiwi dollars.
“Here’s a special item for your pretty lady,” he said, showing me a narrow ornate piece. He beckoned Lucy closer and hung it around her neck. It was stunning-- a two-inch creamy-colored tubular flower with pale yellow petals.
“The kowhai is one of our first trees to flower in spring.”
The carving was exquisite, glass-smooth, and detailed down to the fine veins of the petals.
“It matches your pretty lady’s hair,” he said.
The carving lay nestled in Lucy’s cleavage-- a perfect complement of color, texture and line. He held up a battered mirror. She touched the carving lightly and pursed her brow in feigned ecstasy.
“Mana also flows into a carving from its wearer,” said the artist. “Its beauty increases on a beautiful woman like your lady.”
“Oh, Nick. It’s gorgeous.” She looked at me, pining.
“That one’s special, friend. She’s walrus tooth. See the yellowish middle bit? We call that the heart of the tooth. Good carvers use that to emphasize things. See how I made the pistil from the yellow bit? It’s a special piece. Not another like it in Palmy.”
“It’s going to be expensive, huh?”
“Oy! Not for you, mate. Here, see the tag? Three hundred fifty dollars. But because it’s so beautiful on your lady, I’ll take two fifty.” I was looking at my eyebrows, doing currency conversion, but he beat me to it. “That’s two fifty Kiwi, mate. Only about a hundred fifty US.”
“Oh, Nick. It’s so beautiful,” said Lucy. “Please? He was so nice.”
“Lucy, it’s still a month to my first pay check.” I liked the guy, but was irritated by his smooth redirection of the pitch to Lucy. When I looked up from the carving I could see I’d made a mistake. Her eyes had narrowed and her back stiffened as she abruptly removed the carving from her neck.
“Fine.” She said. “Why get loaded down with souvenirs? Just more stuff to get rid of on the way to Nome or the Falkland’s or the Congo.” She gave a perfunctory smile to Leslie and Nigel and strutted to another booth selling scrub brushes and wash buckets.
“Sorry, mate,” said the merchant. “Hope I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“It wasn’t you. It was a long trip. We just arrived. She’s still tired.”
“Looky here,” said the carver. “Not to push too hard, but if you change your mind, I’ll throw this piece in to sweeten the deal.” He showed me a stylized fish hook, inlaid with paua shell circles.
“I don’t know. I...”
“The fish hook’s the symbol of the provider,” he said. “With the kowhai flower on your lady and the fish hook on you, the mana between you would be very strong. It’d be more than a peace offering; it would show your enthusiasm for sharing something, so to speak. No extra charge.”
There was warmth in his eyes. It wasn’t just salesmanship. His wife, who’d been seated the whole time, looked up from the flax mat she was weaving. She smiled.
“You’re Yanks, eh?” she said.
“You could tell?”
“Sam there,” she nodded his direction. “He’s always wanted to get to know some Yanks. Have him give you our address and number for the telly. Bring your pretty wife to our house to eat some home-cooked Maori kai, not a tourist hangi like Rotarua. We’ll cook up some kumara and have a pōhā tītī.”
Nigel slapped my back. “Sounds like a good deal, Nick. Don’t pass up an invitation like that.” He walked to the next booth with Leslie as I extracted the credit card from my wallet.
That night we were up late, adjusting to the eight hour time shift, unpacking and re-arranging furniture in our rented house. I strummed the guitar a few minutes to coax a smile from Lucy. When I put down the guitar to pack my lunch for the next day she disappeared to our room. Once done, I dowsed the kitchen lights, drew the blinds and walked down the hall.
Our bedroom door was ajar. Faint light from the green shaded desk lamp opposite the bed crawled toward me. I entered. Lucy was wearing her kowhai flower. Only the flower.
She handed me her brandy snifter as she worked at equalizing the apparel coefficient. I sipped. She zipped. We wobbled playfully as I stepped from my trousers. I parked the drink and dimmed the light. We pulled ourselves over one another, like velvet on silk. The carvings around our necks dangled on one another’s face. The small touch of the exotic was a catalyst throughout the night.
I awoke Monday spooned against Lucy, my arm over her ribs, her arm over mine. My hand clutched the kowhai flower over her heart.
As I dressed, I noticed the tiny brochures from Sam Tupuna’s carvings. They advertised bone carving classes. His shop was just off the square near the Anzac Memorial, walking distance from our Cook Street house. I thought about the beautiful pieces we saw at the show, and wondered if I could learn to carve. It might be fun-- help kill time at night on mapping treks. I tucked one of the notes into my wallet.
I pecked Lucy on the cheek as she zombied in her robe toward the smell of coffee. Out the door I hopped on the bike and peddled to work across the Fitzherbert Bridge. My Walkman squawked news of Winston Peter’s latest escapades with the Beehive back benchers.
As I biked, I sorted through many thoughts. Lucy and I had been together seven years. No kids. She’d sacrificed a lot getting me educated and moving around for the first few jobs in dumpy towns that paid slave wages to tag-along wives. We lived through simple delights: friends, picnics, weekend parties and our collective hopes and shared aspirations. This year, though, would be a dream come true, an adventure. She had applied for graduate school and would be eligible in a year. Meanwhile she
could fill her hours with new activities and new friends.
“Hello, Nick.” It was Leslie. She had just dropped Nigel at the car park in her much loved green Mini. “Did the kowhai have the promised mana?” she said, a twinkle in her eye.
“Hi, Leslie.” Her question caught me off guard. I blushed. “Lucy loves the carvings. What’s this mana I keep hearing about?”
“Oh, Nick. Mana is special. Very Kiwi. Very Maori. Not sure I can explain it. You’ll have to learn it through osmosis.”
“Nigel made it sound like some kind of status thing.”
“That and more, Nick. Even mystical. Got to go. Spinners club meeting this morning. Off to pick up some wool. Sorry to be so cheeky!” She drove off.
For the next few weeks life was pretty routine until an email arrived. EPA wanted me to report findings from the project I’d completed just before we moved. They’d cover travel expenses, but needed me right away.
I checked with Nigel to get his OK. He granted a leave of absence. I called Thomas Cook Travel; there was a flight out from Palmerston North that evening connecting to the late flight from Auckland to LA, then on to DC. Twenty eight hours. Ugh. I had barely adjusted from the jet lag to New Zealand.
I called Lucy. She was anything but happy about being abandoned, but took it in stride. We were supposed to have dinner with Sam and his wife, Rosina, the next night. She’d go alone and maybe have another friend and some more avenues of interest by the time I got back. Maori things. Anthro-related things. It might even be better for her to strike up new interests without me.
I went home early. She’d packed for me. We made love. Hastily. Hungrily. I showered, dressed, and Lucy drove me to the airport.
As we swung through the town square I saw Sam’s bone carving shop, the Ivory Tower. Good cliché for a bone carving shop in a university town. I pointed it out to Lucy and mentioned the carving classes. She was interested and planned to check on them while I was away. We rounded the square and turned onto Ruahine street, past the hospital and beyond to the airport. Lucy grinned from ear to ear. She loved making me her passenger while she drove in the right hand seat on the alien left side of the road.
* * *
The DC trip was predictable and even humdrum. I had the secretary calling for flights home before even leaving the building from our last conference. The leg from D.C. to L.A. would work out OK, but unfortunately the return flights direct to Auckland from LA were booked solid. I had to make connections via Honolulu, adding more hours.
It got worse.
As we neared the Islands the pilot informed us of problems at Honolulu’s airport. We diverted to Hilo where we’d have to re-schedule all our flights. It was morning when we landed. My body didn’t know what time it was. I managed to reserve flights for late the next day and decided to rent a car and tour a bit.
Going nowhere in particular, I dawdled along highway nineteen to a factory village for the declining macadamia industry near Haina. It was past noon and sweltering. The air smelled like peat moss and perfume stuffed in an old shoe. I parked under a tree and strolled red-dust-covered boardwalks looking for a cold soda.
I ended up in a general store of sorts, crossed with an antique/pawn shop and tobacconist. It had every oddity imaginable piled to or hanging from its musty rafters, including a cigar store Indian, a couple grandfather clocks, glass floats, copper and iron kitchen ware, ship’s brass and an enormous stuffed grizzly bear leering down on customers from the shop’s rear.
The ancient proprietor padded out over loose-fitting floor boards from a back room. He wore a buttoned-down long sleeve cotton undershirt tucked into khaki work pants with red suspenders unhung and drooping alongside his pockets. Neither he, nor his clothes had been washed in a while. Grime had smudged his shirt as he listed this way and that, brushing against the cluttered stacks of merchandise and junk piled to claustrophobic proportions. He gummed a gawdawful stogy between gaps in his teeth, layering aggressive tobacco stink upon his B.O. and the mercantile’s languid dry-rot.
“Ernie,” he gurgled asthmatically, spewing cigar smoke toxic waste. He smiled through big lips and wizened stubbly cheeks capped by round-spectacled puffy eyes under a thinning awning of white fluff. His dated appearance somehow suggested generic ethnic something and New Jersey.
“Howdy,” I said, assuming he had just introduced himself, “Great day.”
“Wouldn’t say otherwise. They all look pretty good at my age.” He laughed, initiating a coughing fit and an eruption of phlegm that he fought to contain in a disgustingly soiled kerchief pulled from his pocket. “You with the government?”
“Well, in a way, yes,” I answered, a little taken aback.
“Good. I’ve been right here waiting,” he said.
“Waiting. You took your damn time.”
“I think there’s some misunderstanding.”
“No misunderstanding. I jumped ship, and you’re here to take me in! The brig, the hoozgow (hack, cough), jail. What the hell took you so long?”
“Sorry, but I’m not with that part of the government. Not with them at all any more, actually. I’m a hydrologist, used to work for EPA. I’m just killing time. Waiting for a plane.”
“Hydrologist?” He started laughing and gurgling again. “That’s rich. I jumped ship in 1935 and the stupid bastards still haven’t found me!” More laughing. Gurgling.
“Wow, 1935’s a long time.”
“Tell me about it. It’s three wives and forty seven grandchildren long.”
“Oh, yeah. I can see how that would be. Did they die or were you divorced?” I said, then realized I might have asked something too delicate. His reaction assured me otherwise.
“Ah Ha Ha,” he laughed, nearly spewing his lungs onto the floor, forcing him to stick the cigar he had been flailing about into an ashtray as he attempted to contain the erupting sputum. “Not in a row,” he finally said after catching his breath and mopping his face. “All at once! Ah Ha Ha.” More kerchief, this time a fresh one pulled from a drawer he was leaning against near the cash register.
“Oh, I see,” I said, growing more uncomfortable.
“Of course,” he continued. “That’s why I jumped ship! Where in the world could a white man get a fucking deal like that in 1935?” He shuffled toward me, picking his cigar up again. “Come here,” he said, “I’ll show you.”
We walked to a water-stained sepia photo on the wall in an ancient bamboo frame. A jaunty young sailor had his arms draped around three beautiful Hawaiian women. “These are my wives,” he said. The otherworldliness of the encounter was making me lightheaded.
He put his arm around me and dragged me, surprisingly forcefully, to another spot between his piles of rotting treasure. “And here’s my lover girl,” he said. “I call her Ginger. She’s all I have left. Her, all this shit and forty seven grandchildren.”
When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I started so violently that we both nearly fell over. There, in the dimmest corner of the shop, stood a withered woman in a drab muumuu. Her white and grey hair cascaded in a frizzled arc from the top of her head, like fading fireworks, partially contained at her forehead with a loose leather strand. Her face was the texture of an Osage orange, coffee-colored with cream swirls.
“Ginger, come out here; let this boy see you.” I was startled nearly catatonic when she shambled toward me. I honestly thought she was a mummy. Her milky eyes were fixed in space, looking through rather than at things. She neared me and stopped. My heart verged on rupture.
“She ain’t much to look at anymore. She was incredible once, though. She hates me now; lives to see me die for agreeing to marry all three sisters instead of just her. They were all pregnant. Her old man and brothers would’ve killed my ass. I doubt the little bastards were all mine. Who knows? Paradise gone to puke. It wasn’t pretty. But...after two or three decades... it wasn’t so bad. Except she’s hated me almost sixty years.”
Jeeezuz. I felt faint. I noticed an unusual necklace she was wearing and a matching bracelet. They were strings of lumpy marble-sized stones the color of rancid butter, toning in places to tea-stain. A single lump was on the leather binding her hair. I couldn’t break my gaze from the necklace, maybe only to keep from looking at her ghostly cataracts.
“What are those,” I finally asked. “The necklace and bracelet?” I looked down; there were also matching anklets.
“Bones of her family,” Ernie said. “Just the wrist bones. They carry their spirit lineage around with them. Skin oil colors ‘em. The browner they are the further back in time.”
Just then the old woman reached out and found my arm. I froze. She ran her other hand over my face and chest where she found the fish hook. She fingered the hook, then smiled broadly, nodding rhythmically with an unsettling laugh.
“She likes you,” said Ernie. “Likes your fish hook. Thinks you’re the real thing.”
The front door opened and a big Hawaiian walked in wearing a sweaty campaign shirt with the sleeves torn off, baggy canvas shorts and woven straw flip flops. He casually stepped behind the counter, helping himself to cigarettes, slapping some cash on the counter.
The old woman pulled the leather band bearing the single carpal from her head. She handed it to me as Ernie left to conduct business with the young Hawaiian. She curled the bone in my palm. “Oha, Oha,” she wheezed, pushing me out the door, laughing dementedly. I yelled to Ernie, showing him the amulet. He waved me to keep going.
“You keep that, sonny. Ginger says it’s a gift. It was a lover she had. Maori buck. Named Pauli. I’ve wanted that son of a bitch gone as long as I can remember! Ah Ha Ha Ha.”
Lucy and I sat in the kitchen sipping Glen Fiddich. Cloud-filtered light glowed from the high strip of horizontal windows. It was just enough light to make the greasy smudges of lanolin scented grease along the kauri cabinets appear, like ghosts of the scores of sheep that had been baked, boiled, and fried by all the previous occupants. She wanted to hear all about the Hawaiian side trip, the living mummies. Did I declare the bone headband in customs? I didn’t. How do you explain human wrist-bone jewelry?
Lucy told of visiting Sam and Rosina Tupuna, who were becoming good friends. She asked about bone carving lessons, but Sam wouldn’t allow her-- against Maori tradition. Sam would be happy to teach me, but it was tōtōā even kino to give carving knowledge to a woman-- disrespectful or profane.
Undeterred, Lucy had bought a book on bone carving at Whitcoulls and started some projects on her own. She showed me her first pieces-- beads, a shaft for pinning her hair, some rudimentary geometric pieces for earrings. They were amateurish and unworkmanlike, but showed promise. Her work table on the porch was covered with bone scraps, sandpaper, files and a new Dremmel grinding-wand for our new hobby. There was beef bone soaking in a caustic brew to soften the adhering tendons and tallow before scraping them clean for carving.
“Show me Ginger’s love amulet,” she said, coming back inside. I retrieved my backpack. Opening it, I was surprised how the mercantile’s stench clung to the amulet. Cigar, dry rot, Ginger’s perspiration. My hand brushed the bone as I fished blindly for it. A shiver pulsed up my arm like when I was six, and they stuck my hand in the eyeball jar at the Halloween fun house. I almost lied that I’d lost it, but couldn’t, berating my own squeamishness.
“Here it is,” I said.
“Oh, Nick. Look at that. Can’t you just feel the pathos?”
“God yes. Secrets. Doomed love. Betrayal. Death. Remembrance.” She fondled the bone and leather thong at eye level as she spoke, like pouring sand back and forth between hands. “Nick, put it on me.”
“Lucy...” Something inside was saying no.
“Nick. Please, it is so romantic.”
“More like creepy.”
Giving in, I draped the lump of bone around her throat. She craned her neck back, eyes closed in quiet pleasure. She slowly stroked her hands up from her diaphragm, over her chest and onto the pair of necklaces that now hung over her heart. She slipped her hand under the kowhai flower to cup the Maori wrist bone between her palm and heart.
“Lucy?” She sat unmoving, eyes closed. “Lucy? Lucy!” She jerked to attention so briskly that her retreating hand caught in the kowhai necklace, snapping its small bone hasp. The flower hurled onto the floor.
“Oh, gosh, Nick.” She rose to pick up the kowhai. “I hope it can be fixed.”
“It’s just the hasp. I’m sure Sam can repair it.”
Later as the sun and its grudging warmth were finally snuffed completely by the Manawatu basin’s fog, we celebrated my homecoming with guitar music, dim lights and a fire. We talked, sipped scotch, and Lucy caught me up on local news.
We drifted to the bedroom. The full moon oozed just enough light for lounging, pillow talk and flirting. Lucy rolled on top of me and caressed attentively. Dipping low to put her lips to mine, the wrist bone dangled in my face. The smell of Ginger’s sweat and Ernie’s cigar swept over me. Instant nausea drew me out of the moment. Lucy did her seductive best, but once distracted by the wrist bone I couldn’t perform. She was disappointed, but snuggled tenderly, making a few more attempts through the night, caressing and stroking, but without effect.
The next morning was a fine September spring day. Time-shifted again, I woke early. I donned shorts and running shoes and ran a 6km loop along the Esplanade.
When I got home the shower was running. I peeled off my sweaty togs and cracked the bathroom door to toss them into the hamper. I could see Lucy; her right hand held the wrist bone amulet. Her head was cocked back, face in the shower spray, with an intense orgasmic expression I had rarely seen before.
A cyclone of emotions sucked at my heart. Embarrassment. Jealousy. Fear of confirming what I thought I was watching. Just as I was pulling my head out the door, Lucy’s face backed from the spray. Her eyes opened for a cold sidelong glance that caught my gaze accusingly before she closed them with a soft moan.
At breakfast we hardly spoke. Pass the butter, please. More coffee? More toast? I rose from the table, put a hand on Lucy’s shoulder from behind and kissed her cheek. She held my hand from slipping away for a second. Time hitched to a brief stop. Then resumed.
I headed out the door to work.
* * *
During the months following my return, Lucy spent much of her free time at the Ivory Tower. Sam wouldn’t give her carving lessons, but Rosina was teaching her flax-weaving. Lucy barely concealed her true motive for the visits. She liked to look at the bone-work in progress that lay around the shop, gleaning ideas for her own carving at home. I went along whenever I wasn’t traveling, learning what I could from Sam, who was an eager instructor.
Unlike me, though, for whom this was just a pastime, Lucy had developed a passion for the carving. And the more her carving passion developed, the less passion she displayed for other involvements, our Caucasian friends, or even our relationship.
Sam and Rosina’s friendship, though, remained steady, even grew. Lucy was comfortable with them. There was no departmental shop talk or politics. When with them, it seemed we were just couples.
Sam was determined to interest me in carving. The first project he gave me was making the new hasp to repair Lucy’s kowhai necklace. “She’ll be right, mate,” he said, showing me how easy the repair would be and giving me special attention as I made the new hasp.
I showed him the finished product with a beginner’s pride.
“Good on ya, mate,”
I gave him twenty dollars for the lesson.
“Ta,” he said. “But let’s go spend it together on some Lion Browns, aye?” So, we went next door to the pub.
I was relieved to fix the kowhai necklace. Thing was, though, Lucy never put the flower back on her neck. She made excuses that she didn’t want to risk breaking it again; it was too precious; she wanted to protect it. Eventually I quit bringing it up, not wanting to upset her, which happened more easily as I began traveling more frequently for mapping work.
Lucy had been prone to depression in the States. She’d had a nervous breakdown in her junior year and again the following summer in Kalispell.
Thurmond never stopped with his guilt trips. I thought New Zealand would be great for her outlook. It was, initially. But my South Island work took me away for weeks at a time. Each time I returned she was more detached, retreating further to some hidden place, taking longer and longer to brighten after each trip.
We decided to take a week’s vacation in Rotorua. We went to a sheep shearing, rode the luge, did the backwards bungi where they pull you down then ping you up into the sky. We saw the geyser fields at Waimangu, toured the historic Bath House, and visited the Maori cultural village for a hangi in their Marae.
The hangi was a bad idea. After the meal she wandered away from the village into the nearby geyser field. Youngsters alerted some elders who escorted her back from the edge of a thermal pool that she had nearly walked into. That night she wouldn’t speak. It was all I could do to focus on returning to Palmerston North and the relative normalcy of home.
As our friendship with Sam and Rosina grew, they became more interested in my work. Sam was fascinated when I told him how much of the Kiwi bush I had explored. He said I wasn’t your typical pakeha-- non-Maori guy, meaning white guy.
We took his kids fly fishing together one weekend in Turangi, near Lake Taupo, along some dynamite brown trout streams. Camping under the stars he taught us the southern sky. He showed us the Southern Cross, the Clouds of Magellan, and how to find the unmarked southern pole.
Sam was smart and friendly. His fierce moko had initially led me to think that he was some kind of bad ass Kiwi biker dude. But I eventually learned that his tattooed face was the sincerest way he knew to venerate his Maori cultural heritage. His passport said New Zealand, he told me once, but his heart lived in Aotearoa. He had many pakeha friends and carried no rancor for whites, but he was a strong defender of his own culture’s right to exist on equal terms.
“You’re good value, Nick. Just thought I’d tell you that,” he told me the night we unloaded our camping gear at his place in Palmerston North.
“Thanks, Sam. The feeling’s mutual. And I appreciate you and Rosina making Lucy feel welcome when I’m traveling. I’ve had her to the psychologist a couple times for her depression. I don’t like leaving her on her own if I can avoid it.”
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about that, Nick.”
“Well, about Lucy and all.”
Sam appeared at the very edge of his comfort zone. I coaxed him to be straight with me.
“I’m worried about your missus, Nick. Rosina tells me she’s been carving bone.”
“Yeah, she’s really hooked on it, and getting pretty good at it, too. But it worries me a little. She seems to get lost in it sometimes.” Guilt bordering on shame washed over Sam’s face despite the moko camouflage.
“Nick, Rosina and I have lots of en zed pakeha friends, but you’re our first Yank friends. I’ve never seen a woman affected by the bones like Lucy is.”
“You feeling guilty about selling us the necklaces?”
“Not exactly.” He avoided my eyes and wagged his head as he searched for the words. “It’s that bloody spirit necklace from Hawaii, Nick. I think it’s got a power over her.”
My head began spinning. This was heading somewhere I’d spent weeks trying to ignore. I told Sam he was wrong, but he grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go until I listened.
“That’s a bloody human bone, Nick. It’s holding that Maori spirit in this world, the kehua, the one you told me about. I bet that Ernie guy fought him. Maybe Ernie even killed him. It takes something like that to have so much power.”
“You mean that Pauli, guy?” I said.
“Pauli? You mean Pauo’le? Christ, Nick, his name is Polynesian for immortal!”
“Sam you’re conjuring this from thin air. You can’t honestly think...”
“I don’t know,” Sam said, heatedly. “But if he died in anger he may be summoning an atua, a demon god, trying to even the score with the pakeha for stealing his woman. The spirit is stronger now that he’s back in Aotearoa. He’s using Lucy...”
“Jeeezuz, Sam. What bullshit is this?”
“It isn’t bullshit. Do you believe in Jesus? Satan? Sacred relics? All our beliefs are paths to the same spirit world, Nick. In New Zealand, you gotta drive on the left side of the road, mate.”
I was having a hard time with it. But Sam reached into the cooler at the back of his ute, pulling out a Lion Brown for each of us. He explained what he believed and I tried to listen.
“She’ll keep getting stranger if nothing’s done,” Sam said. “She might close up. Withdraw. Maybe that’s what Ginger did. Dunno. But it could be worse. She might try to harm you.”
“What can I do?” I asked, trying to humor him without showing my skepticism.
“You have to get that spirit bone away from her. If it were me, I’d destroy it, mate. But human bone carries powerful mana, Nick. It might be hard to undo what’s already twisted in her.”
“Nothing else I can do?”
“You could gift her something with stronger mana.”
“How do I do that?”
“You start by loving her, of course. Not giving up on her. Love is the greatest power in the world.”
“You know I already love her; what else can I do?”
“She needs a different gift, mate. One that’s stronger.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nick. Objects get mana from their source, their art, their use and their owner. You need to give something that combines all those energies.”
Lights came on inside Sam’s house. We downed our beers and unloaded the ute. I gathered up my gear and drove home, thinking about mana, about how my guitar playing had made Lucy love me. Confusion and fear dizzied me.
Turning onto Cook Street I saw emergency vehicles in front of our place. I parked the car and ran to a police officer to ask what was going on, explaining who I was.
A passerby reported that Lucy had climbed to the roof of our house and was standing near the eves, staring into space clutching her amulet. People thought she might jump. The police and fire department had just managed to bring her down. She had jumped, actually, but they netted her.
Lucy was screaming and incoherent. But the EMT had sedated her. She was in their van, which was getting ready to take her to the hospital. The officer said I could catch them if I hurried.
In the van Lucy was lying with her arms restrained. Her gaze was fixed upon some distant unseen thing. The wrist bone was tucked under her chin. Protected. I reached for the leather thong that held the bone. Lucy squirmed, trying to bite my hand. An EMT guy came over to restrain her.
“I’m her husband,” I said. “She’s terribly allergic to this necklace. Could we remove it before she has more problems than she’s already dealing with?”
“Sure thing, mister.” He pulled a small scissors from a drawer under the gurney. I held her head while he snipped the thong. The bone fell to the floor. Lucy screamed and kicked briefly, then went limp. I picked up Ginger’s gift, placed it in my pocket and stepped out of the van.
“I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
Lucy was back in the U.S. with her folks by December. I had to finish out the two years in New Zealand to avoid repaying the recruitment incentives and moving reimbursements. Besides, it takes time to find a new job. I couldn’t just flip burgers with no guarantee of another opportunity.
It took ten days for express mail to reach the U.S. in those days. So, I had to rush getting things in the mail for Christmas. Lucy’s parents were more determined than ever to coax Lucy back to her church roots. I feared their effect on her as much as the amulet’s.
I was under a lot of stress myself. There was the weirdness of it all. Plus I was undergoing a lot of unexpected readjustments of my own, not just Lucy’s departure. Sam’s words that I scoffed at initially were seared in my memory.
A couple days after Lucy went home I took Ginger’s amulet to Mt. Ruapehu. Before going, I ground Pauo’le’s carpel to dust between slabs of nephrite in the department lab. I mixed the bone dust with molten lead and fashioned a golf-ball sized lump that I carried to Ruapehu, tossing it down one of its most active vents. Ruapehu erupts every few years. I felt confident that the volcano’s mana would trump the angry Maori spirit’s.
But that still left Lucy in need of... what? The new influence that Sam spoke of? That would be hard to accomplish with me in New Zealand and Lucy in Kansas. But Lucy had needed to leave-- escape the aura that had settled on us. The atua.
As I filled the Christmas package, using my bandaged hand was awkward. Wrapping things was clumsy and slow. I wasn’t functioning at quite full speed yet. Nigel had given me some extra Christmas leave to attend to my latest crisis.
I’d told him that I’d had a bush accident, that I’ve always been a little clumsy with knives and hatchets. Luckily only two fingers of my left hand had been hurt. Lost.
No more flamenco riff.
Fumbling with the bandages, I packed Lucy’s repaired and embellished kowhai necklace as carefully as I could in bubble wrap, then slipped it into a New Zealand Post express mailer. Sam had helped me modify the cord that held the blossom.
Alongside the necklace’s perfect kowhai blossom now flitted a pair of bees that I had carved for Lucy. They weren’t bad, considering I’d carved them with an injured hand. They were proportionate in size to match the flower. And although only amateurish and unworkmanlike in execution, they were made from very high quality bone.