Sky Dancer

Sky Dancer


Witi Ihimaera

for Jessica Kiri

Part One

Chapter One

— 1 —

The sea stretched brilliant and glistening to the horizon. High in the sky, a seashag hovered. It saw a fleet of tiny boats, nets straining with fish, bobbing over the rich kahawai grounds. Further out, a pod of whales was making its way northwards.

The seashag was preparing to relinquish its patrol and seek its lunch from a shoal of minnows broiling below. Suddenly, there was a flash from the coast, the border between sea and land, at the seashag’s extreme right perimeter. Alert, the seashag circled towards the land, descending slowly to make a reconnaissance.

A beat-up Jeep shuddered around a bend and up to the top of the mountain road.

With a shiver of apprehension the seashag stalled, spilled air from its outstretched pinions, and dived. Like a stone it hurtled down to take a closer look. At the last moment it swerved, gliding parallel to the Jeep.

The hood was down. The seashag had a clear view. Two women. One older: the hen. The other younger: the chick. The young chick spotted the seashag. Its eyes grew wide and golden, and the seashag knew:

Yes. Yes.

The seashag opened its beak and uttered a gutteral hunting cry.

Kaa. Kaa.

Veering away, it sideslipped down the flanks of the mountain back to the sea.

— 2 —

The seashag had a greater effect on Cora than it did on Skylark.

“Oh my God,” she screamed. She put both hands up to her eyes and covered them. The trouble was she was also driving.

“Watch out,” Skylark yelled. She grabbed at the steering wheel and righted the Jeep. But Cora had also taken her high-heeled foot off the accelerator.

“Oh no you don’t,” Skylark said as the vehicle began to jerk to a stop, threatening to stall. “We haven’t nursed you all this way up the road for nothing.”

Quickly, she pushed her right leg over Cora’s body and stamped down onto the accelerator. With her left hand, she changed gear. Surprised into action, the Jeep leapt ahead with a roar, crested the hill and, in a last gasp of petrol fumes and smoke, died.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Cora said. “Did you see that crazy bird? It gave me such a fright, darting at us like that.”

“At least we made it to the top,” Skylark answered. “Otherwise, we would have rolled all the way back. From here we’ve got a chance.”

Behind, the road twisted and turned back through thick green forest. In front, the road snaked like a roller-coaster down and around the contours of the coast. Tuapa, the small town Skylark and her mother were heading for, was just visible in the distance. The rest was sea, unrolling like a bolt of blue cloth to the horizon.

Skylark opened the bonnet and found the problem almost at once. “I’m going to kill that Zac,” she said. A faulty petrol pump — or, rather, Zac’s faulty replacement.

“Can I help you, honey?”

Skylark looked up, shaded her eyes against the sun, and saw that her mother was picking wild daisies further down the road. This was the way Cora always dealt with her problems: if you went wandering in the flowers long enough, by the time you returned somebody, usually a man, had made it all better.

“No, I’ve found what’s wrong,” Skylark answered — and her mother began sauntering back.

“Can we make it to Tuapa?” she called.

“Yes,” Skylark said, slamming down the bonnet. “I’ll just put the Jeep into neutral and we’ll freewheel into town and —”

Too late, Skylark saw that Cora, trying to make amends, was already behind the wheel. Which was how, halfway down the mountain road, Cora had to overtake a big grader and, swinging widely, almost ran down two old Maori women who had chosen that moment to cross the road.

“Oh no,” Skylark yelled as Cora, yet again, took her hands off the wheel, screamed and covered her eyes.

Skylark grabbed the wheel and pulled hard on it. Rigid with fright, she watched as the two women slid from the left side of the windscreen to the right. She saw two shocked faces, hair covered with scarves, dresses of a formless black. The larger of the two women pushed the smaller woman with a yell so that she would fall out of the Jeep’s path.

Two bends down Cora asked, “Did we hit them?”

“No,” Skylark said. “One of the women looked really angry, though. She was shaking a fist at us.”

“We should go back.”

“How can we? We’ve got no power and, anyway, it’s too late.”

“Well they should have been using a pedestrian crossing,” Cora said. She reached in the glovebox for a cigarette and lit it.

“Mum,” Skylark asked after a while, “do you think you could take the steering wheel again?” With Cora, you had to keep on joining the dots.

“The wheel? Oh! Yes, of course.”

Puffing nervously, but still shaken, Cora guided the Jeep into Tuapa.

— 3 —

“Honey, please don’t tell me that this is where we’re staying,” Cora said.

The main street led down to the small port. On one side was a pub, a fish and chip shop, a takeaway bar, a video rental shop and, interestingly, a massage parlour advertising in Korean and Japanese. On the other side of the street was another pub, a hall which looked like it offered Housie during the week and showed action and sci-fi movies during the weekends, a corner supermarket which also sold Lotto tickets and, next to it, an all-night diner. The diner had a couple of cars and a motorbike parked outside.

“Look on the bright side,” Skylark said. “It’s off season, so it’s not costing us too much to stay here and —” she pointed to the all-night diner — “at least there are some signs of a pulse.”

“You told me it would be a seaside resort,” Cora wailed.

“There really wasn’t that much time to organise this holiday,” Skylark said. “I left it up to the travel agent.”

“You mean we’ll be stuck here for a week? In a place which doesn’t look like it even has a mall?”

“Mum, you’re such a fashionista.” Skylark sighed as she stepped down from the Jeep. Just her luck — the garage, like a mirage, was down the other end of the street.

“Do you want to wait here?” she asked. “I’ll get us a tow truck.”

“Definitely not,” Cora answered. “Who knows what might happen to a single woman in a place like this? One moment.” She took out a lipstick to freshen her lips and flicked her fingers through her hair to give it sass and sex appeal. “How do I look, honey?”

An icecream on high heels wouldn’t have looked any better. “Like the best thing to ever hit this town,” Skylark said, knowing it was just the kind of soap-opera comment her mother liked. Which was why, when mother and daughter walked into the Tuapa Garage, Lucas, the owner, was immediately smitten.

“You’ve broken down, Miss?” he asked, all solicitous, as if Cora had stubbed a tiny red-painted toe. “I’ll get Arnie to tow your Jeep in … Hey, Schwartzenegger!” he shouted, turning to the far end of the garage.

Arnie, the apprentice mechanic, did, in fact, look like a Maori version of Big Arnie himself. The hair was American crewcut. The face was handsome in a pretty-boy kind of way. The body was unbelievable. Even in his overalls, Arnie was a sight to see.

“The little lady’s Jeep is just up the street,” Lucas told him. “Bring it back here and fix it, okay? As for me and her —” He was suddenly painfully aware of the Playboy centrefolds plastered on the walls — “we’ll be at the diner. Come and get us when you’re finished.”

“Hel-lo?” Skylark said. “Would you mind if I joined you?”

But Lucas wasn’t listening. He motioned to the centrefolds.

“Arnie’s,” he told Cora.

Trailing after her mother and Lucas, Skylark took her irritation out on the disconsolate mechanic.

“If you think I don’t know what’s wrong with the Jeep, I do,” she hissed. “It’s the petrol pump.”

Arnie gave her a dirty look but that didn’t faze her one bit.

“Don’t try to overcharge us either,” she added.

The diner turned out to be a surprise. Clean, bright, with sparkling formica tables, plastic tablecloths and pretty little plastic roses in Marmite jars. Along one wall was a bar. On the other side of the bar a waitress — the peroxided Flora Cornish, who was fifty-nine but had been forty for the past twenty years — went about the business of dispensing very bad coffee to patrons who wouldn’t have known the difference.

“Oh, how pretty,” Cora cried as she picked up a handful of roses and sniffed them.

Flora Cornish looked at Cora, wondering what kind of dingbat she was, and her look changed into recognition.

“Here it comes,” Skylark sighed.

“I know you,” Flora screamed. “You’re Cora Edwards. You used to be the weather girl on television, didn’t you, love!”

The diner’s other patrons stared at Cora, struggling to make the connection between a girl who had once been a nightly fixture on the six o’clock news and the older woman who stood before them. After all, her heyday had been five years ago.

“See?” Flora Cornish said, rummaging behind the bar and waving a dogeared Woman’s Weekly. ...

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