‘Carved’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The moon is uncarved bone. Raw, untouched, smooth like water. I run it tenderly through numb fingers. On the sand lies a crescent-handled fretsaw, the glint of chisels and files. Dark marks spread like moss creeping across the south side of stone angels, bitter black shadows of clouds as they swamp the horizon.
I smell salt in the air; the sea is a single tear on my cheek.
I reach for the moon and start to work.
Paula McKenzie was a year older than us. She used to hang out down by the netball courts, her skirt hitched up above her fat knees as she practiced goal defence. Some of us gravitated towards her because she knew all the cool stuff, like the world’s hottest chilli is called Dragon’s Breath and can kill you. And how to make boys like you.
My best mate Nicole reckoned we all gathered round her because she generated her own gravity field.
‘She’s so fat,’ said Nicole as we walked past the boys in the cricket nets at lunchtime. ‘She could make a fortune selling advertising space on her arse.’
I watched as Sam Tyler’s arms cartwheeled like beautiful windmills. The red ball left his fingers and arced towards the boy crouched over a bat by the wickets. He sent it spinning into the net with a metallic clang. Sam ran over and scooped up the ball; his chiselled legs flashed in the sun. A smattering of applause rippled around the other boys. I imagined my skin as red leather, his fingers gently scooping.
Sam glanced across at me; I quickly looked down and kept walking. The hollow sound of willow echoed behind us.
‘Paula’s so fat, boys have to swipe left twice just to get her off the screen,’ continued Nicole.
‘Hey Nic,’ called Paula, as we shuffled across the netball court. ‘Hi Marama.’
Paula tucked the white netball under her arm, balanced it on her wide hip like a baby. Sweat trickled down her temples; her fleshy belly peeked from under her purple polo shirt. Tūī chased each other above the snatch of native bush, wet from recent rain. They flashed black and blue in the sun.
‘Did you see Sam Tyler looking at you just then, Marama?’ asked Paula, her voice full and plump. ‘I reckon he likes you.’
Nicole’s laugh sprayed the back of my neck. ‘Sam Tyler and Marama? Ha, don’t be stupid,’ she giggled.
Paula shushed her with one look. Then she grinned at me like one of those pumpkins people carve at Halloween. ‘Na, for real, girl. I reckon he likes you. He even asked me about you. Said something about your eyes.’
My heart was like the tūī above the trees. It dipped and dived, surged and plunged. I could hear it in my ears like the sea. I thought it was going to burst out into the sky and spin red through the air.
‘Na, he did not,’ was all I could say.
‘Don’t call me a liar, girl,’ replied Paula. ‘He really likes you. Don’t you like him?’
I glanced at Nicole. Her face was marble. She’d had the hots for Sam for ages; that’s why we always walked past the cricket nets instead of taking the more direct route through the quadrangle.
‘I dunno,’ I said. ‘I guess he’s OK.’
I wiped a light sheen of sweat away from my face. I couldn’t stop my hands shaking.
‘OK? Girl, he is fine! Look at your face, red like a ball! Hey, I could probably put in a good word for you. Only if you want, though. I wouldn’t want to waste your time.’
Nicole’s stare scorched my skin. Paula hiffed the netball at the hoop; it hung in the air like the full moon before sailing past the pole and into the macrocarpa hedge by the cricket fields.
‘That would be nice,’ I said.
I watched Nicole slouch back towards the quadrangle, her skirt sliced the complicated air.
I start to cut, feel my saw bite the moon’s thick crust with every grinding swipe. Fine dust mists the stars as the blade orbits the rough stone. I take a file and feel its teeth gnash and grip. Delicately. Furiously. Every slash joins night and day, the carver and the carved.
I run my fingers around smooth edges as it wanes. The gibbous shine dulls my skin. I wrap my breath in flax and bury it with hot rocks for warmth.
Sam Tyler was older than me. Older than Paula.
‘He wants to know if you would like a walk on the beach,’ said Paula the next day. ‘You’re one lucky girl, Marama.’
I looked around for Nicole, but she was over with the makeup girls. The makeup girls, that’s what I call them anyway. They spend every lunchtime comparing lipsticks and mascaras, fluttering their eyes and pursing their lips into their phones. I don’t know what the attraction is. Red is red, in my opinion.
‘Sounds good,’ I replied. ‘When?’
The tūī flickered and tumbled over the trees, fighting and making out with every flap of their wings.
‘What’s tomorrow? Saturday? He reckons Saturday evening, after they play their last match of the season. About 6 p.m.’
‘Sounds good,’ I said again. I tried to say it all calm and awesome-like, but I’m flying over the trees with him, embracing as we rocket to the sky and tumble from clouds.
‘See, Marama,’ said Paula. ‘Stick with me. I look after all my girls.’
The moon isn’t all there. Or perhaps it is almost all there. Depends on how you look at it. I use my chisel to gouge its glossy face, chasms for shadows to run through like blackened veins.
I hack with all my strength.
I have no strength.
Sam Tyler was handsome. More handsome up close than I thought. I said handsome, not hot. Not a babe. He was above all that. He was practically an adult. He shaved—I could tell because of the red rash that bloomed across his throat. Stiff hairs thrust through his skin, wild constellations of black stars.
‘Hey,’ he said. His voice was deep, tidal. I longed to wade into it, feel it lap at my waist.
Seagulls threw lazy shapes against the setting sun. Kāpiti breached like a whale on the horizon. The houses beyond the dunes caught the sepia light with their feathered paint and salt-crusted, battered weatherboards. Black and white clouds brought news of a storm at sea. There was beauty in this fish and chip town I hadn’t noticed before.
Sam scooped a shell from the spume that rolled around our feet. It fit snug in his hand like a cricket ball, a brown koru coiled around its hard surface.
‘They reckon if you hold a shell to your ear, you can hear the ocean,’ he said as he raised it to the side of his head like a telephone.
The waves swished, ruffled skirts in the sunset.
‘Yip, they’re right,’ he added. ‘You can smell it, too.’
He was so funny. My laughter was like foam bubbles bursting. The gulls shrieked, scattered like knucklebones along the low tide line.
We talked of all sorts of things as we walked. Obesity in children and the need for exercise. Water quality. Hate speech on social media. Climate change.
Driftwood loomed from sandy tombs. We stepped over plastic bottles that lay in brown froth. Fish heads dumped overboard from boats slapped staccato rhythms on the sand. Brackish water pooled near the boat ramp, where diggers and bulldozers had scarred the dunes.
A deep chill swirled and dipped; a cold breeze sidestepped Kāpiti and stroked my hair. I didn’t care. Sam radiated heat like sunburn.
‘Autumn light is beautiful,’ he said as water left a skin-thin sheen on the sand. ‘Like your eyes.’
I melted at that.
‘I really like you,’ he continued. ‘I think we should maybe, you know, go out together. Date.’
Sam took my hand. It was warm. Hard. Marble.
‘But I need to find out if you’re the right girl first. Come with me.’
I didn’t know what he meant. The right girl? He led me across the beach and through a cutting. Pampas scratched my arms.
The sun set behind us.
The moon is a needle. The moon is a crooked smirk. The moon is whakairo in my hands. I file the corners, dull them to darkness. The moon is a hook. Matau. Strength.
I have no strength.
I take my chisel and carve.
The wind had sculpted the trees behind the dunes; they leant like old people in a westerly. Darkness crept over the carpark as a few seagulls fought over some chips scattered around greasy paper. Sharp beaks tore them to bits.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked.
‘Just over here,’ said Sam. ‘You like me, don’t you?’
I nodded. The moon stared down at us, ignored the shadows that spread mossy and dark over the concrete.
‘And I really want to like you,’ said Sam. ‘But you need to prove you’re not just like the others. You want me to like you, don’t you?’
I nodded again as he hooked his powerful hand tighter around mine and tugged me along behind him.
There were wooden picnic tables in the park behind the beach. The kind with long seats attached that overshadowed the long grass. Dandelions had shut their doors for the night; their long stalks hovered in the breeze and threatened to bend. The trees, like dark patches of sweat, dominated the sky and engulfed us.
We stopped by the macrocarpa hedge. I saw something detach from the groping branches. Figures gathered; bulky shapes dawned around me. I smelled cheap deodorant and booze.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, but my voice went behind a cloud.
‘Don’t worry, babe. You can trust me. You don’t want these guys to think you’re a dick. You wouldn’t want to let Paula down, would you? You’ll enjoy this. Just do as you’re told, and then we’ll go on a date. A real date.’
I felt the eclipse of rough hands as the moon turned its back and abandoned me.
I polish the smooth curves with fine sandpaper. They sparkle in the twisted light of the stars. There is dust on my fingers, my clothes, in my hair. I shake my head; comets burst around me. With my file I scrape the moon’s last gasp.
And then it is gone.
Plastic bags and paper blew across the netball court the next day, forming dirty skirting boards around the grey classrooms. Paula sat laughing on the asphalt, her skirt snagged around her massive thighs. The younger girls crouched around her. She glanced over at where I stood by the toilet block, raised one eyebrow and smeared a wet smile across her face.
Nicole huddled with girls in the quadrangle. She ran red lipstick around her gaping mouth, then squeezed her lips tightly together. The other girls took photos; their sparkling phones caught the muffled sun and reflected its hideous beauty.
There were no boys in the cricket nets. The season was over. I heard the dull thump of muscle and gristle out on the footy field.
I weaved between the flaxes and out onto the grimy road. Overflow from the toilets trickled out of the stormwater drain and down towards the beach. I followed it, unclean and ashamed, until I stood on the sand.
I stayed there, alone, as the moon chased the sun from the sky.
Where were you when I needed you? I asked.
I put the ocean to my ear and heard the sound of shells, slowly hardening.
I hang the departed moon around my neck with a flax cord, let its dark and empty space sit over my heart. My carving tools, the fretsaw and chisels and files, fall into the sand and are buried.
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