You are reading Fiddleblack #11
Sina can’t remember how many Iraqis he shot as a boy during the war. For three years he patrolled the Iranian desert while meanwhile in the States I smoked pot, stole tapes from the mall, thirteen years old. Now we’re twenty-four. Mist on the Pacific dissolved in summer air. You’re lucky to be American, he said. You can go anywhere you want.
I was holding his left hand while he drove with his right.
I spent three years in jail for painting a giraffe, he said.
We were living off the cash I got from selling my return ticket. My visa had expired two months ago, and Sina knew a nightclub up in Auckland where I could get a fake one. I needed a legal job; you can’t pick kiwifruit until autumn.
The last town we passed before the car broke down was Wharekaka.
Perfect, Sina said when the engine died. I’ll bet there’s a beach right through those trees. He leapt across a grassy ditch on the road’s left shoulder. Don’t look at me, he said, look where we are. His long black hair blew in the wind as I took note of all the hooking clouds like swaths of crinoline. This was in the early afternoon.
We shouldn’t be leaving cars across the island like slime trails, I said.
I’m hungry, he said. Are you hungry?
They’ll have your registration, I said, but I had to follow him off the road into a virgin grove for him to hear me. Striding beneath those trees he looked like silver muscles, antlers that hadn’t grown yet. He threw his sleeveless t-shirt down onto a rock when we reached the beach, where there wasn’t much sand but trees grew crazily.
What happens if they send you home to Iran? I asked as we walked downshore.
I’ll go to prison.
A year for every illegal month abroad.
How many months have you been gone?
He thought about it. Fifty, he guessed. Sixty.
Blue sky, red blossoms fought above the sea. We climbed into a vast pohutukawa tree, its branches an inverted dome where we swung our legs above the rhythm of waves. Avocados! Sina cried, and he dug through his backpack and stood up on the rough bark with three and juggled them. When he staggered backwards, I thought he’d surely fall and split his head on a rock, but for seven rounds he never faltered. He peeled his avocado in a swift, unbroken curl and reassembled its skin upon the bark. Together we bit into ripe, green flesh that melted when we mashed it in our mouths. Was that your last dollar? I asked, pointing to the fruit. He turned his empty pocket inside out and took my hand and stroked it.
What would happen if we did that in your country? I asked him.
It depends, he said. They’d probably put us to death.
The wind nearly blew me backwards from my perch. I thrust out my hand to right myself and lost my avocado to the sea. Sina offered me a piece of his, and we bit it together. He wiped its green pulp from my nose. When I’d eaten the last bite he licked the pit clean and pitched it into the water.
We rode to the next town in the back of a police car. Sina had been grinning on the roadside with his thumb out when it came. Get back, I’d shouted, but he shrugged and said, They can’t do a thing to me. We stood in the car’s shadow when it stopped. How you fellows doing? he said, and we got in. Where you from? said the cop after introductions.
Papua New Guinea, Sina said.
I would have guessed the Middle East. The cop had an untrimmed mustache, and I wondered what New Zealand called its FBI, if this was how their cars looked. What language do they speak in New Guinea? he asked.
I don’t remember, Sina said. I’ve been away from home for quite a while.
Where are you from? I asked the cop.
Here, he said.
He quickly rounded curves and overtook a van. We passed brown earth stained green, burnt stumps, hills like beached whales, wild grass that bowed in unison to the sea. Shadows all fell backwards in the southern hemisphere. Let me see your passport, the policeman said to Sina. I’ve never seen one from there before.
It’s hard to get to.
It’s against the law not to carry your passport.
It’s deep in the bowels of my bag, Sina said, and I laughed uneasily. I had a blossom in my pocket that I crushed and tore. The cop looked in his rearview mirror: he hated me, and his yellow eyes shone like glass.
I could pull this car over now.
I’ve got it, Sina said.
Let me see it then, the cop said, shouting now. High compound flowers peeked above green ceilings of the grass. As he swerved around a bird, I shut my eyes and wished for Sina not to have said New Guinea. I loved him and we needed for this cop to die. I tried to make it happen with my mind.
Who’s the leader of New Guinea right now? the cop demanded with narrow eyes. What’s the capital? He slowed the car down as he said, What city did you live in? What’s the currency? We were coming into a sad wooden town. Red roofs and a stormy sky, an empty store, a square foundation in a grassy field. Sina coughed. What’s the national anthem? sneered the cop. I was ready for him to disappear. He was turning the landscape grayer than the sky could ever light it. I saw the old roadbed by the highway, the sheep, the furrows on the hills below a sword-shaped cloud. I knew it was risky to whisper let’s kill him in Sina’s ear. I saw a perfect cliff to drive the car off.
You don’t even swat flies, Sina said to me aloud.
Please, my head cried.
The cop had stopped his car by a derelict stone bank. He turned his head around. Port Moresby, Sina said.
Are you threatening me?
My hands and forehead sweated. I don’t know which I wiped on what.
Sina held my sweating hand. Port Moresby was the capital of Papua New Guinea, he said. Bill Skate was the prime minister. Sina had lived in Lae, on the Huon Gulf. A kina equaled a dollar ten. I jumped when his palm began to vibrate from the deep, rich notes of the anthem he hummed. He sang a few words. I never learned the rest, he said. There’s so many different languages. The policeman tapped a finger on the wheel as Sina’s voice carried out into an empty ghost town: Thousands of languages.
The cop shook his head. You’ve got a good voice, he told Sina. He apologized. When Sina opened the car door, I saw the ocean gleaming across a field of yellow flowers. I felt like a chain of powerchords. It was wonderful to be walking. My legs knew the air was clean; it reeked of brine. I wanted to play those moments over and over.
Let’s work on our tans, Sina said, although his was already a deep brown.
We’ve got to get rid of that car, I said.
He scanned the sky and laughed into my eyes and said, You think they’ll come in choppers?
We could both go to jail.
My father spent twelve years in jail for owning Bob Dylan tapes, he said, and he ran ahead of me and jumped up and down, capturing energy from the sun. It made me want to be a good person. He did cartwheels. The whole town was three blocks square; electric lines petered out into the hills. Chalky cliffs rose like glaciers from the water, trees greening them like moss. When we got to the rummage sale where two old native women smiled at a table piled with bright, flowery clothes, I could see the whole ocean.
The women wore pale blue skirts that sagged on the ground, and I couldn’t help but stare at them. Kia ora, they said together.
Hello, Sina said.
Sorry, said the left one, her eyes pointed somewhere between the two of us. All we’ve got is women’s clothes.
Sina sorted through the dresses and held a black one up beside himself. This is my size, he said. In the sunlight it was deep blue, studded with ivory rosebuds. The women watched us from within their wrinkles as Sina turned to me and said, Do you want to take me to America?
That’s impossible, I said.
He pressed the fabric to his body. I think this might fit me perfectly, he said softly to the women as they stared. I watched the sea. Wind blew a silk scarf off the top of the clothes pile, and I replaced it on the table. The dress cost two dollars.
Are you ready? I said to Sina, but he didn’t answer me.
Do you have any lipstick? he said to the women who had taken his money.
Can you sell me some?
You’ll need to go to the chemist for that.
Give me your wallet again, Sina said to me. He took a twenty-dollar note from it and listed what he wanted: lipstick, eyeshadow, fingernail polish. Rouge would be good.
We were on the bleached East Cape, unpopulated, fifty miles from any city. He found a slender pair of women’s shoes beneath the dresses and squeezed his right foot into one and asked, How much are these?
Those were my daughter’s, said the woman.
What size does she wear? asked Sina.
She drowned in them.
The woman’s empty smile never changed. Sina held one shoe to the sun: it bore no sign of water. He knew just how to touch the woman’s shoulder when he asked, How old was she?
I’ll give you whatever you want for them, Sina said.
You really want this junk?
If you’re selling it.
The woman went inside. Her friend said nothing as we watched the clouds and waited, gazing beyond the trees to the calm ocean. When the woman limped back outside, the sunlight caught her jewelry. Her white shirt bore five Maori words. This was hers, she said, presenting a box inlaid with cowry shells to Sina.
I can’t take that from you.
It’ll only rot, she said.
A dozen different kinds of make-up filled her reliquary. Her friend smiled straight through me like I wasn’t there. Can make-up rot? I wondered. Sina found a white bracelet on the table to match his dress’s flowers. He fitted it onto his left wrist for my approval. We’re headed up to the cape, Sina told the women. We’re going to be the first people in the world to see the sun.
They stared back at us. Suddenly I couldn’t tell if they were smiling anymore, or if they’d smiled even once since we met them.
You can come with us, said Sina. We’re hitching to the sunrise. The older, shorter woman glanced at her friend, who held a pebble and stared at the ground. We’ve got lots of food, Sina said, which wasn’t true.
It was hard to tell how old they were. Their wrinkles said they’d smoked for many years. The cape is where my daughter drowned, the woman said. She smiled apologetically, like it was her fault, and she turned her head back down, submissive to the earth, humming and rearranging trinkets on her table. Sod was rising between her toes. Later at the beach Sina cried over what he’d mentioned, and the empty dresses, the box of moments she had known, her face against the sun. He gave her twenty dollars, which was all the cash we had. My mouth was dry. Just from breathing the town’s air I had swallowed enough salt water to sink ships.
We walked past several houses, a church, a school, weedy yards of lemon trees. Dark-skinned children giggled on a tilted porch; cars rusted along the road. I was happy for the houses crumbling in the sun; I wanted to meet all the town’s old women and stroke their hair like it was Sina’s, let the sunlight dance upon their tangles. Sina stashed his purchases beneath a fern and we took our clothes off on the empty beach and swam naked. Sina splashed my face with water. We must have floated there for hours. When the Maori boys got home from school mid-afternoon, they ran to the beach and played rugby across a tidal pool. Clouds moved like sambas across the mountain shadows. A boy dove into a dune and spoke in Polynesian as he grabbed the ball, his voice like a xylophone, his eyes drenched sixteen years by light. For a moment everyone looked like that.
The boy ran towards the game. He never caught the ball but only watched his friends and brothers. Sand fell from their chests. Starfish, Sina whispered, and when I blinked the sky turned black. Palm trees blew like jungle warriors, boys kicking across the beach. Do you really want to go to the cape? I asked him. It was at least twenty miles out of the way. Across the dunes the rusted town’s marae shone with the iridescent eyes of paua shells.
We’ve got to do it now, he said as sunlight shone on trees. For the drowned girl.
If we don’t get to Auckland soon they’ll freeze my bank account.
But I’ve got a new plan, he said as we came ashore and dressed. The boys didn’t seem to notice us.
What’s your plan?
To go to the cape.
So we hitched out to the lighthouse, two separate rides. A hops farmer from the south island picked us up at the town’s edge and took us north to Hicks Bay, then at sunset some kids from the backpackers hostel picked us up and drove us to the road’s end half an hour out the gravel. They were German; they were camping on the shore. We waved off and hiked uptrail to a cliffside meadow. It was dark now. I’ll never understand how clouds could disappear like that each night to show so many stars. The tree trunks grunted at us while we climbed the trail. These are poison trees, said Sina. They’ll kill us if they touch our ears. Up top we stood on a grassy shelf above the ocean, and I wondered if the water would show green tomorrow. It made my teeth feel dirty. I couldn’t remember if I’d brushed them the last night, or at all since we left the capital.
Where’s the toothbrush?
In the front of my bag, said Sina.
I searched for it by the light of two matches. Rocks and pebbles were collected in a pocket. A folded letter bore New Zealand Post’s embossings. It was hard to read with so little light. A note to all employees—it flickered like a vampire candle. If this man comes to collect a letter poste restante, phone the police immediately.
What is this? I said. How did you get this?
Sina was lying on his back in the tall grass, counting stars. The bloke that worked there liked me, he said.
You never told me. This makes everything worse.
It’s no different than before.
They’re out looking for you.
His name was Martin, Sina said. The postal clerk. He said the cops are always sending letters like that.
He liked you in what sense?
The same sense as anybody, Sina said.
Not everybody likes you in the same sense, I said.
Answer me, I said.
You didn’t ask a question.
The country was so small. If we were just in Australia, I said. It’s as big as the sky. We could go our whole lives. Sina hummed the ocean’s song. What a cunning rhythm bearing down on us, the smell of every bird that had ever flown above that spit of land. I didn’t really want to go to Australia or anywhere, ever, but the dark cliff where we lay that night. A morepork owl cried quorquo, quorquo. I couldn’t tell which diamond was the Southern Cross. We slept on wildflowers, the whole night. I dreamt I touched the end of the earth. It was the largest, brightest emerald I’d ever seen.
A family’s voices woke me up at dawn. They stood across the field by the lighthouse, waiting for the sun. Sina’s eyes were already open. I untangled myself from him and saw him staring at the boy who edged away from his parents towards the cliffside and followed it around to where we sat. He was sixteen, seventeen. Hi, he said. He was from Adelaide. Together we saw horizons in a circle, land and water, white and green.
I’m sorry to stare, said Sina. I just want to look at you for a minute.
The boy leaned back against the black-and-white seismometer, facing the Pacific. His skin got lighter as the sun rose over Whangakeno Island. Sina didn’t turn to face me when he said, Did we eat yesterday?
We ate avocados, I said.
We should do that again today, he said. We watched the sun sneak up behind a cumulus of gray. Every cloud was racing towards us. The boy’s mother clicked her camera, and now in a rectangle of color in Oceania I’m forever watching Sina watch a nameless boy with a pale, chiseled face.
Come with us, Sina said to him. We can go down the steep side, through the gorse. We’ll leave on a boat.
We’re not going to leave on any boat, I said as the boy gazed uneasily at the shipless sea that brewed no waves.
The three of us, said Sina.
No, not the three of us, I said. We stood on the easternmost point of land in the world, where a hundred miles out to sea it was the day before and Sina held three fingers up—we’d been the last three people in the world to see darkness.
The boy’s parents drove us out to the highway. We waited at their little car at the bottom of the hill looking helpless, and they squeezed us into the back. At the highway they dropped us by a creek where a single sheep had wandered to the water. The boy’s head bobbed above the back seat as they sputtered away towards Napier. The sheep bleated. When the family was gone, Sina declothed right beside the road.
What are you doing?
Juat give me a minute, he said.
A car will come. We’ve got to get a ride. Sina was pulling his belongings from his bag. He stretched his arms up to the blue tuft above his head that fell across him and became his dress, and he knelt to a deep pool between two rocks in the creek and dipped his head beneath the water. His hair now touched his shoulders with its added weight of liquid, and he toweled it there with his old shirt.
What do I look like?
You look like a boy in a dress, I said.
That’s not what you really think, he said. He brushed his hair with his fingers, and he leashed a string of silver around his neck. I was walking up and down the ditch. You’re uncomfortable, he said.
It makes me nervous.
You don’t think I’m pretty? he asked, his face awash in sunlight, and I wondered if it even mattered to him whether I said yes or no.
I think we’ll have some explaining to do.
We’ll get more rides, anyway. Men stop for a girl. He laughed as he applied his ruby lipstick, and he spread his arms and shrugged. When I was fourteen I was at war, he said as I kicked at fern leaves. He padded his chest with toilet paper and slid his slender shoes onto his feet. He knew how to balance on the raised black heels, and we stood on the highway beneath the sun, clouds, the sun again.
Wait, he cried, I forgot my eyeliner.
He rummaged through his rucksack for the pen. I don’t have a mirror, he said when he found it. You’ll have to do it for me.
He tossed the pen to me and said, It’s easy. Just draw a straight line.
Hurry, he said, before a ride comes.
He presented me with his eyelids. They were shut, but it felt like he was staring at my own eyes, and I decorated him to match the bright, faded land. I wondered if it tickled. You know, he said, I never get thirsty here, not once, and he was bejeweled, a gypsy princess, his olive skin now cindery with rouge. His earrings were gold inlaid with turquoise; they glistened when he turned them to the sun. He kissed me, and my face filled up with blood.
You should have painted your nails last night, I said as he brushed the ruby color on. They’ll take forever to dry.
It won’t matter.
What if you have to shake somebody’s hand? I said. My stomach churned when we heard an engine coming right then, as if I’d placed it in our distance with my words.
Two men stopped their dirty old ute on the sandy pull-off by the bridge. The passenger rolled down his window and grinned at us, revealing chipped teeth. There’s a pretty picture, he said, and Sina stroked his eyebrows once apiece.
Climb in, the driver called to us. He wore an All-Blacks jersey. Their truck had an extended cab, and their voices were difficult to understand. I was sweating. I’m Logan, said the driver. This is Gass.
Sina introduced us. Where are you going? he asked the men.
The shearin quarters. Got to open er back up.
Logan took an uphill bend too fast and I said, Holy shit.
I’ve done these curves a thousand times, Logan said to me. Your lady friend ain’t scared there.
I’m not scared, I said.
If you’re not now, you will be.
Gass burst into laughter and turned to Sina and said, We’ll take you on a wild ride.
Where you from? asked Logan.
I wasn’t asking you. I can tell a Yank when I see one.
Iran, Sina said, softening his voice. I remembered I could hold his hand now, so I squeezed it. The wind played with his hair.
Iran, said Logan. What in the hell are you doin down here? How’d you two meet?
At a bar, said Sina.
You ever shear a sheep?
I looked at Sina, who didn’t answer. Logan snorted and said, You think I’m talkin to her, Yank?
Shearin’s man’s work. They sensed things about me subconsciously, as I did about them, a smell or the shapes of their cheeks and noses in the sunlight. I felt behind myself for a seatbelt but didn’t find one.
No, I said, I’ve never sheared a sheep.
Gass took Logan’s can of Speight’s and chugged it. Logan spat on the windshield and then turned around to Sina while he drove. You want you a man that can shear you a sheep, he said, and Sina smiled politely.
Why don’t we drop this poofter off in Raukokore and I’ll take you back to the quarters, Logan said. He and Gass looked at each other and burst into laughter as I held Sina’s hand. Logan twisted his arm around his seat and slapped me on the knee. I must be awful drunk to say that shit out loud, he shouted, cracking up again. We were all over the road. Cheers to that! he cried, clicking cans with Gass, who whispered in his friend’s ear, and they laughed harder.
Should we give them a beer?
We ain’t got no pink drinks.
I’ve sheared a sheep, said Sina. Oh God, I thought. Sina’s smile was childlike as Logan and Gass fell silent, turned around. I was in the war, said Sina. Gently he brushed his bangs away from his eyebrows.
What war? Logan sneered.
She said she’s from Iran, Gass said, drawing out the hard I. They’ve got heaps of wars.
There aren’t girls in those wars.
I was in it, Sina said.
Bullshit you were, said Logan.
Everyone was in it, said Sina. It was a terrible war.
Air soared through the truck and blew the sleeves of his flowery dress, the land beyond him crisp and green. His moons of ruby lipstick stretched apart. For six months I picked up bodies, he said. When the battles were over we burned them in a heap. The dead soldiers weren’t too heavy; they were my age—fifteen or sixteen. Sometimes they still seemed to move.
Two kereru scurried across the road to disappear beneath a crop of ferns. We skidded along the gravel by the sea, causing dust to billow up behind us. Logan had been in some fights before. In admiration he recounted them, and Sina listened, smiling. In pubs in Nelson, Gore, Dunedin. They had all ended the same way.
Once we were without water for three days and nights, Sina said. I used my knife to dig for toads. We squeezed the liquid out.
Do you know how many people you killed?
Twenty-two, said Sina. His voice didn’t sound like a girl’s to me, but Gass and Logan didn’t seem to notice; they wanted him. They did it with their eyes. I could tell from watching them, how Logan pushed the gas pedal with his whole body.
Guns, said Sina.
Gass opened the glove box and pulled a revolver out and said, Like this?
They both laughed out loud.
No, Sina said, assault rifles.
Those are illegal here, said Gass.
So is this, Logan said, hitting the gun with his finger.
I was the only one who lived of all my brothers, Sina said, the first I’d heard him speak of it. I was the youngest. It was the perfect year to be born in.
I touched the azure nucleus of his bracelet. What an experience to have offered up those corpses in the desert, his ash-streaked face aglow with oil. He had obtained a visa to Kuwait where he’d fled to Greece and then to Vietnam on a false Italian passport. The jails were very comfortable, he told our drivers, moving his hands more and more as he talked. There was a library and a television. Logan nodded and blew smoke out the window as we passed a native village, a hilltop pa, a field of unshorn sheep where rimu trees were mangled by the wind. The truck was spinning wildly. Sina perched on the edge of his seat and smiled.
Where you headed to? asked Logan.
What for? he said.
To get married, I said.
The truck bounced with Logan’s hearty laugh. The sky was barbed with cotton daggers. We cut across the matai shadows westward.
Let’s see you kiss the bride, he slurred.
Gass twice clapped his hands and hollered, Woooo.
That’s a real pretty girl you got there, said Logan.
So kiss her, he said.
Sina had his eyes shut; he was smiling. In the wind his black hair shimmered like a horse’s mane. I slid my arm around his shoulder. Clouds turned the hills into volcanoes. The whole world rang.
You’re awful young to get hitched, said Logan.
Sina released me so that I could say, It’s the only way they’ll let him into America.
Sina blinked his eyes. My brain twitched. Logan said, What?
Gass threw his beer can out the window and nailed a crooked road sign rising from the left ditch.
Iranians, I said. Only way they’ll let ’em into the country.
You said him.
I said them.
Why would you say them? he said.
It’s just the way I said it.
There’s no them. There’s just you and her.
There’s different ways to talk, I said.
He narrowed his eyes into the mirror. Logan looked straight at Sina’s adam’s apple working like a piston when he swallowed. He saw Sina’s shoulders, their angles sharp and cuspidal, his necklace linked by tiny sailor’s cutlasses, forged to match his neck: I felt those blades like they touched the skin of mine. There was no them. The dress didn’t quite fit and Sina’s feet were so long and skinny and Logan’s head turned red, and I shut my eyes and listened for the car to stop.
Then Logan snorted. That’s how all you yanks talk, he said. Like your asshole’s hummin the kazoo.
I said them. Really.
Get off it already. Pass me another beer from back in the bed.
When I turned to do it, a blue fire filled the landscape behind me and burned everything at once: my red cheeks with ice, my hand by way of the cold beer I now held.
She’s only using you to get in, said Gass, so she can blow shit up.
Blow shit up, Logan repeated and laughed.
Gass shouted in an Arabic accent. I will explode you! Die Christian scum!
It was the funniest thing Logan had ever heard.
Answer me, kid, said Gass—have you thought about it?
I don’t care what she blows up, I said.
I pictured towers crumbling.
Let me kiss her and I’ll drive you all the way to Tauranga, Logan said as we skirted an island-studded bay.
That was a long way. Logan turned around and smelled like motor oil, and Gass couldn’t steer at all. We had many miles to cover. I thought about the sky, how if it did this every day I’d never sleep. Sina clawed his hands telling how he’d torn hearts out of corpses once, at a sixteen-year-old’s command, how they’d reeked like raw butcher’s beef. He spoke a Farsi sentence. Gass guffawed to Logan and they slurred in Kiwi brogue and Sina answered them. Every word was foreign. Clouds bolted across the sky. Suddenly Sina was holding a ponga frond, and he fanned me with it. That was the best moment of my life, I think. My ears couldn’t catch a single word. I didn’t even speak a language, except for the names of trees.
John McManus is the author of three short story collections—Fox Tooth Heart, Born on a Train, and Stop Breakin Down—and the novel Bitter Milk. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award, and a Creative Capital Literature grant. He lives in Virginia.