The Other Half of the Sky
Fiona J. Mackintosh
George tells me they stare because they’ve never seen a princess before, but I know better. We walk to our pew in a quiet so deep my skirt hisses across the floor. I make my children keep their gloves on and hats low. Every Sunday back in the house, I cry, still feeling those eyes knifed in my skin, and George paces the floor and says I’ve no’ tae mind those foolish auld biddies.
This is how he talks. He calls me Mary – me who was born of the royal house of Tahiti. He says I’m a Scottish lassie now we’re married, and he cannae be doing with my long name from home. But the new names he’s given my son and my daughters aren’t fitting for the children of the ari’i, the holy kings whose feet were not supposed to touch the ground.
In this northern village by the sea, my children’s broad feet wear leather boots. My son is in britches, and his sisters’ braids are no longer shiny with cocoa-nut oil. They seem to like it here. Jenny plays skipping games with her friends after school, her skin a warm brown against their ugly pallor, and Tommy helps the old men mending their nets on the harbour. And Annie, my Ari’ioehau, with her dead father’s almond-shaped eyes, sits at the piano, her chin tipped high by her lace collar, pressing the keys with one finger. How can just three notes make you thick with longing, crack you wide with desire for the boom of the surf on the reef, for the jagged edge of mountains with palm trees growing sideways from their cliffs? For the glitter of the Southern Cross on the other half of the sky.
In the basement kitchen, I try to make ia ota. The herring are miniature cousins of the great bonitos my brothers catch beyond the reef. Mrs. Geddes, the cook, wrinkles her nose. “We dinnae eat raw things hereabouts, Madam. It isnae sanitary.” She watches my hands as I skin the tiny fish and slice the onions. My effort is in vain; with no limes or grated cocoa-nut, it tastes of barnacles and silt. Ari’ioehau drifts in and holds me by the shoulders as I cry.
“Mama, these things are past now,” she says, “You must try to let them go.”
She is young and hopeful and doesn’t feel as I do the loss of blues – turquoise, sapphire, azure, aquamarine. Here, all the colour has bled from my eyes. And there’s so much water all the time. Not like the monsoons at home where the rain bounces as it hits the earth, but the sea salting the air, churned by an east wind so fierce you must walk sideways like a land crab, holding tight to your hat.
On the rare fine days, I walk to the ruins above the west sands to look out at the sea flecked with whitecaps. I lie on my back in the grass, dreaming of my mother’s hands threading tiare through my hair. Eyes closed, I feel her beside me, the ease of her warm bulk, so much softer than George’s ramrod mother bound up in widow’s black. She likes me to visit her every week but doesn’t care to see my children, so I go alone. In her dim parlour, I count off the quarter hours by the tinny chimes of her mantel clock. Drinking tea from the willow pattern cups George brought her from the Dutch East Indies, I can almost smell the straw and wood shavings. She asks how I’m feeling, if Doctor Moncrieff is pleased with how I’m going on. The new child will be George after himself or Margaret after her. I’ve heard her speak of me to other people with respect, almost pride, but I see how she looks at the darkness of my hand when I take the cup from her. She talks of her husband and her father, both seafarers and men of business, now lying in the kirkyard under slabs of granite, and I think of my ancestors, their skulls in caves up on Mount Aorai, of how in the ancient times we’d climb the high ridges to ask our questions and wait to have them answered.
My first husband was my cousin, the Queen’s second son. Unlike his brother who went to school in England and wore a high collar, Tamatoa was one for the old ways. His chest and limbs were creepered with tattoos, and he’d hide for days in the mountains, living off breadfruit and taro. I wanted him like the other girls wanted the things that came on the merchants’ ships – crystal glasses, hair ornaments, gilt chairs with velvet seats. He took to rum to soothe the madness in his head, but it only made it worse. When it was said he’d killed a man in a fight, the Queen took him into her fare and set a guard to watch him as he slept, but when the sun rose, they found him floating face down in the lagoon, limbs splayed like a starfish.
The Queen and I wept together. She favoured me among her ladies and liked to have me near her. We’d play écarté under the palms and watch my children splash in the shallows. At night, alone on my mat, I’d listen to the pull and roll of the surf, my back chill with the lack of Tamatoa. When the richest merchant in Papeete came to court me, I was afraid of his red hair and pale green eyes. As he spoke to the Queen in our language, I kept my eyes on his boots. It was not until he told me he would die for love of me that I could bear the press of his wiry beard, the strange blue-white of his skin pocked with freckle marks. Even now, I can only love him when the candles have been pinched and our light and dark is hidden by the night.
As I doze in a pale patch of sun in the walled garden, the baby kicking high, George comes to show me an invitation to the Provost’s dinner. I close my eyes and feel the warmth on my eyelids. I don’t want to disappoint him. He’s kind, always kind, and patient with the weakness in me, my shrinking from the flinty eyes, the curling lips, a weakness I know I must conquer.
When he leads me into the Provost’s parlour, my new dress as stiff as a ship with broadcloth and rigging, the factor from the big estate is there and the owner of the saltpans. The other men are coopers, chandlers, joiners, trussed up in high collars and breeches. Their hard-faced wives stare at me over their fans, and I grip George’s arm tighter.
At the table, the candles flicker in the blades of the knives, and the saltpans owner draws out my chair and pulls my wrap onto my shoulders. I keep my eyes on my plate, but he asks me questions about my island, drawing words out of me. They come slowly at first but then all in a rush. I tell him about our feasts at home, how we sit cross-legged under thatched palm leaves, our heads wreathed in flowers. As I talk, I can almost smell the wild pigs roasting under stones, almost taste the crayfish and oysters from the lagoon, the mangoes plucked straight from the trees. I describe the four half-shells for each guest, one for fresh water, another for the milk of the cocoa-nut, another for its flesh mixed with saltwater to flavour the food, and the last to wash the fingers – just like this one, I say, laughing as I tap the Provost’s crystal bowl. The guests stare as the owner of the saltpans leans towards me smiling, a gold ring on his smallest finger, and across the table I see the gladness in George’s eyes at hearing his Mary speak.
By the Mercat cross the next morning, the women with their baskets pause in their gossip and greet me as I pass. They ask if I find it cold here, how far along the baby is, talk of their husbands at sea, the price of goods at the market. I look from face to face, nodding. One, the boldest, asks if I’d care to join them at the Town Hall to knit for the Seaman’s Mission. I see their surprise when I say I would be glad to accept. We learned how to knit on the long voyage from Panama, my daughters and I, taught by the captain’s Scottish wife. “Ye’ll be needing your woollies when you get where you’re goin’.” The rhythm of it came easily to me, and I soon mastered the complicated stitches. As I bid the women good day and walk away, I still feel their eyes on my back, but it does not trouble me quite as much as it did.
My Annie comes with me on the appointed day, and in the large bare room, the circle of seated women pushes back to let us in. They talk of events and people we don’t know but turn to us to explain. One leans over to admire my latticework. The baby stirs and loops inside me, and I feel again the ease of being among women, reminded of the long afternoons I’d spend with my sisters on the veranda at home, weaving hibiscus flowers and reva-reva around our Sunday hats.
An old man is sweeping the hall in circles that draw nearer with each turn. He stares at Annie and me, and I try not to mind. When the time comes for tea, I offer to make it. I’ve learned to brew it strong how George likes it, and as I pour the dark brown stream, the women nod their approval. I’m handing out the cups when the old man comes so close I can smell his sour breath. Reaching up, he runs a calloused fingertip down my cheek. I feel the drag in the corner of my eye and the side of my mouth, and as his hand falls away, he wipes his finger on his breeches as if I am pitch or tar.
Silence swells to fill the room; the women stare but their eyes slide away from mine. Where the old man’s finger pressed, I feel a heat that grows and grows, spreading down my neck and arms, a heat so fierce I tear at my blouse, wrenching the seams and sending buttons flying. I rip and claw the cloth from my skin, but still it flows, the heat, a lava river that sears and blisters inch by inch. I hear my screams and see the women gape and Annie turn away, and just as all is turning black, I’m floating high and weightless on the ocean, the sun a blinding dazzle in a perfect arc of sky. The women rush to wrap their shawls around me, and though their hands are gentle, their voices sizzle, rising to a howl when the birthing waters break between my legs and soak the Town Hall floor.
I am smallpox, diphtheria; my children are pestilence. The Northern sea curdles at the sight of us, our dark roots torn from the earth and left to fester. We are orphaned from our fenua, our own beloved land. Never again in my lifetime will I tread the sharp coral of the reef or smell the drifting scent of pitate or drink from a cocoa-nut, its husk like whiskers on my lips. The baby lies beside me in the bed, a lick of ginger hair on his milky scalp. I roll away to face the wall and dream of a tall ship with straining sails, feeling it buck and plunge beneath my feet as we race the flying fish into an infinity of blue.
Fiona J. Mackintosh (@fionajanemack), a Scottish-American writer, lives near Washington D.C. She is the author of a flash collection, The Yet Unknowing World from Ad Hoc Fiction. In 2018, she won the Fish, Bath, and Reflex flash fiction prizes and had work selected for Best Microfiction 2019, Best Small Fictions 2019, and the 2018-19 BIFFY 50. Her short stories have been listed for the Cairde Word, Colm Toíbín, Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Short Story Prizes. www.fionajmackintosh.com.