Short story: Raupatu, by Nadine Anne Hura
"Raupatu means to confiscate, to conquer, to take without right": a story of possessions and loss, by Wellington writer Nadine Anne Hura.
Moira wasn’t angry. She was pissed. She’d arrived home from her weekend-long yoga retreat feeling physically nourished and spiritually restored, only to discover that her brother’s navy chest - a family taonga - had been removed from her garage while she was away. Ignoring her final intentions on the yoga mat to spend less time on social media, she immediately jumped on Facebook to ask the Single Mums Aotearoa network what she should do. Within minutes the advice started pouring in. Sisilia said that at a minimum she should file a police report, and preferably a trespass notice as well. Manda agreed and added a GIF of Beyoncé walking away from a flaming car with the words “Don’t Mess with Mama” underneath. The flurry of outrage on her behalf validated Moira's anger but did not make her feel better. The yogi inside her whispered wisdom about focused detachment but nothing could settle her rapid heartbeat.
How could she possibly explain? It wasn’t just a chest. It was everything the chest held. Everything the chest represented.
There were battles fought and lost over that chest. The fact of its disappearance wasn’t material, it was symbolic: The taking without asking; the helping of oneself. Alienation is the transfer of property rights in a language more palatable than theft, but raupatu means to confiscate, to conquer, to take without right.
Moira thought about the last time she’d carried the box in her arms. It was at her mother’s storage unit in Thorndon, just before she’d gone to live in America. They were there sorting piles for the Salvation Army - a decision that had taken months, if not years - for Glennis to arrive at. She had claimed the lion’s share of chattels when her marriage dissolved but as anyone who has ever been divorced knows, chattels aren’t valuable to anyone except the people who once shared them. It was bizarre what some people were prepared to fight over. Moi knew. People could fight over kava bowls and coat stands and bikes and brooms.
And now, it seemed, a chest.
It had belonged to her brother, Robbie. The one living overseas who she hadn’t spoken to in years. He’d given the chest to their mother for safe keeping when he left the navy nearly 20 years ago. Moira couldn’t be sure, but she liked to think that the chest had been with him on all his overseas tours, from the Solomons to Singapore to Samoa. It was several inches thick with massive metal clasps. Probably bullet proof. Definitely liferaft-able in a shipwreck. An army-green glory box for the Menz.
Her other brother, Jason, the younger of the two, had come across the chest when they were sorting piles at the storage unit and expressed interest in it.
“You can’t have it,” Glennis said quickly.
“I thought you were trying to get rid of all this stuff. This is something I could actually use.”
“I’m giving it to Moi to keep for your brother,” she said. “In case he comes back. Here, have this instead.” She handed him a flimsy plastic container with a broken lid.
“I don’t want that,” Jason said, looking insulted.
Moira tried to intercede. “Isn’t it better that the chest gets used? Otherwise it’s just sitting around taking up space being sentimental.”
Glennis acted like she hadn’t heard and pulled out a George Foreman Grill. “Who wants this?”
Moi shook her head.
“I won’t use that,” Jason said.
“How about this?” She held up an enormous commercial-grade box of Gladwrap.
“I’m plastic free,” Moira said.
“I’m going,” said Jason.
“What about these rubber microwave covers?” Glennis said, waving them above her head. “These are brand new!”
Moira watched Jason walk away. “He only wanted the box.”
“The box is special.”
“You say that about everything. That’s why we’re in this storage unit situation.”
Glennis ignored her and lifted up a large blue mountain pottery eagle in full flight. “Isn’t this beautiful?”
“No,” said Moira.
“Your brother bought me this with his first pay packet when he was 16. Do you remember?”
Moira nodded. “For your birthday.”
“Do you want it?” Her mother’s voice was hopeful.
Moira took a deep breath and pushed the emotions back down into her belly. “No. I don’t have any surfaces for ornaments. Especially not literal spread-eagles.”
Glennis sighed and wrapped the blue eagle gently in tissue paper.
“It’s just an ornament,” Moira said, meaning to be comforting. “It’s not worth anything. The story is what’s valuable. You can keep the story and throw away the eagle, and save on storage costs in the process.”
Her mother stood up and turned away, hiding her face. “You don’t get it.”
Moira thought of her own garage piled high with a lifetime of boxes no amount of focused detachment could bring herself to part with. “I do,” she said quietly. “You think I don’t but I do.”
When the Salvation Army people came to collect the boxes Moira stood to one side and tried to disengage. She almost couldn’t watch. The strange thing was that her mother, after all these years of holding on, was suddenly letting go with a vigour that almost seemed feverish. She explained what each box contained and thrust them into the workers' arms along with instruction manuals and power cords.
“And these,” Glennis said proudly, “are my preserves.” She fanned her arms out wide to reveal an array of jams and pickles stacked neatly on the shelves behind her. “Help yourself.”
It was only when they got to Robbie’s chest that she stopped them.
“Not that one, sorry. I’m keeping that for my son. He’s coming back for it.”
The next day, Moira met her mother in town for lunch to celebrate the empty storage unit. Afterwards they stopped by the Salvation Army.
“I don’t understand why you want to do this to yourself,” Moira said, trudging along behind Glennis as she took photos of all her stuff and in particular the prices on them.
“Look!” she said, holding up some of her old tea cups and saucers. “$20!”
Moira didn’t want to look. She especially didn’t want to look at the blue mountain pottery eagle in the window priced at an unfathomable $100.
“I told you it was worth something,” her mother said proudly.
“Doesn’t it make you sad?” Moira said.
Glennis snapped a photo. “Not really. I thought it would but now that I see it here I just feel glad. I feel lighter. I’m thinking about all the people who are going to be happy eating my preserves.”
Moira reached out to touch a white taffeta wedding dress. She let the fabric slide through her fingertips, imagining it was possible to know its story through touch. Who had worn it? What declarations of love had been traded in the dark as the clasps were undone? It made her think of her own wedding dress, dropped off at a different Salvation Army across town the previous year. Ice blue satin with an interlaced bodice that did up so tight it slowed her breath. Moira closed her eyes and touched the sleeve of the dress, trying to picture herself at the altar of someone else’s story.
She couldn’t. The dress just felt stiff and cold. She looked at the price tag. Forty-five dollars! How was it that a thing stripped of its story represented both a loss in value and increase in price?
The blue mountain eagle stood in the window of the Salvation Army at the top of Willis Street for a full month after Glennis left for America. Moira walked past it every day on her way to work. It seemed to be getting more majestic by the day. She was grateful for its hefty price tag. She thought maybe it would never sell. She liked knowing it was there; a physical placeholder for her absent mother. More than once she thought about buying the eagle back. Of course she did. But that would be a crazy. Why would she buy something she could have had for free a month ago? It’s a just a thing with stories attached, she told herself. Stories are what give possessions value, not their price.
And then one day, Moira turned the corner and looked up at the window to find that the blue mountain eagle, which her brother had bought for their mother on her birthday with his first pay packet when he was 16, had gone.
The worst part about the theft of the chest, Moira realised a few nights afterwards, was that she couldn’t explain to the person who took it what its loss represented. Its value was impossible to describe. How to even begin to explain to someone who doesn’t know - who doesn’t have the language to understand - the link between blue mountain eagles and siblings and the depths of an empty chest?
A few weeks earlier, Jason had come over to say goodbye. He’d handed in his notice and terminated his lease and was moving to Auckland. He’d got rid of all his stuff and was planning to live out of his van. The only thing he wanted to keep was his tools – a lifetime’s worth – and Moira agreed to let him store them in her garage. She clicked the remote and raised the door. There were boxes and bikes and paintings and suitcases strewn across the floor.
“God, Moira, what’s all this shit?”
Moira looked around, embarrassed. “Just some stuff.”
“You know what your problem is?” Jason said, making space on one of the shelves for his tools. “You buy all this stuff, and then you need shelves to put the stuff on, and then you need a house for the shelves to go in, and before you know it you can’t go anywhere because your stuff needs you.”
Moira was defensive. “Not all of this stuff is mine. I’m storing some stuff for Mum and now you as well and…” Her eyes landed on the chest. “There, why don’t you take that with you.” She kicked the chest with her foot. “Someone may as well use it.”
Jason shook his head.
“But you said you wanted it. Mum’s not coming back. She’ll never know.”
“Nah. You keep it.” He gave her one of those awkward brotherly half-hugs. “In case he comes back.”
Moira felt her throat closing. “What about you? When are you coming back?”
He got in his van and wound down the window. “Dunno. I’ll keep in touch.”
Moira nodded. There was something else she wanted to say but he was fiddling with his radio and besides, she knew the words weren’t going to come.
“Oi,” she said, pointing to the trailer behind his van. “What have you got in there?”
He brother looked in the rear-view mirror. “Just some stuff.”
Moira smirked. “Some stuff that needs you?”
ReadingRoom remains dedicated to publishing new short fiction by New Zealand writers every Saturday, and will resume the series in 2020. Scheduled writers include Harley Hern, Colleen Maria Lehman, Elizabeth Morton and Vincent O'Sullivan.
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