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Lioness

by Chérie Taylor Battiste

Strid & Chez

 

I first saw Astrid in the garden

of her dad’s cottage

 

she spoke bright strong words

her hair matched the yellow clematis

 

we became friends one morning

both late for school

early for life

 

Switching out

the pleasantries

like swapping sandwiches

She said ‘my mum has hepatitis’

I replied

‘my mum has multiple sclerosis’

and the scary names paled

 

Something registered

as we missed register

 

the torn safety nets slowed

as they trembled about us

 

we somehow reassembled

as assembly groaned on without us

 

then in netball

marking each other

disposable players

sent for better balls

squeezing toady-skinned

terracotta rubber

 

I said ooh it’s like testing

melons in Safeway’s

 

we laughed

with the humour

of clever girls

needing a break from

knowing too much

 

we called the others ‘trees’

with their smooth lives

uniform branches

sliding down norms

whilst we were debating about

Apartheid

Northern Ireland

Thatcher

 

I can’t see the wood

for the trees we’d whisper

as we’d slip away from groups

never dragged into

the soup of nay sayers

who bragged about

their parents’ CD players

 

on Saturdays we’d

shop then cook

pretending

loudly

I was

an African princess

she a white lady in waiting

as we bought incongruous ingredients

and on the way home

as the old woman opposite

glared through a shield of nets

Astrid would ask

with enough volume to get through

loose fitting panes

 

‘Are you looking for the bone

through her nose or the grass skirt’

 

enough to get me through

my tight fitting pain

the bare realities

of race anticipated

aware of the British

in the bulldog we baited

 

we both had mothers who shrugged off

the shoulder padded

blouses of the times

whose rejections of norms

were scrawled on

dog eared Post-it notes

stuck on our outsides

that we internalised

 

there would be

no blue mascara

in our lives

 

after drum lessons

we’d find songs in storms

paradiddling in puddles

outside her house

pounding value into

unbelonging to norms

dancing lioness into our mouse

 

we’d talk like talking might end

as if it had limits

 

every 59 minutes

we’d power steal

cheating BT’s

under an hour deal

 

one night

I kept dreaming

her mother had died

 

I was woken by her call

and wept as she

told me she had

 

she didn’t cry

we never questioned

that at the cliff edge

 

we were psychic bungy tied

I ran to her to find

that sips of tea

were as much as she

could swallow from me

 

her eyes were a corridor

flooded with sadness

 

her shadow essence

floating foetal at the back

 

but built of Irish stone

the house of her soul

didn’t collapse

 

running home

reaping over the grim

guilty and grateful my mum

whose limbs were

falling to bits

remained

 

I was sobbing so hard

into her awkward arms

she wobbled on her

Maori walking sticks

the mother of pearl eyes watched

embedded in the grain

 

when my parents were away

and the man Astrid said

made her believe in evil

stood with a knife to my chest

 

my mind was dismembered from my body

I remembered

the Ripper’s girl

murdered on the same Wood Lane

that linked our homes

 

like an artery

feathered with trees that whispered

the bloody secrets of

what can happen to girls like Us

 

girls like them

too much too soon

knowing some clematis

never bloom in the shadows

that loom around those men

 

and just as

no emotion

no heart race

became a slow motion

other worldly place

she rang the phone

 

just as the tip of the blade

dimpled my skin

piercing his bubble

enough to let me answer

 

her only words

are you ok?

 

my only word

no

 

and she came

running like she

never did in netball

 

my mind running over

 

will he let me open the door?

 

without pause he did

without words we ran

back along the artery

to her dad’s house

me hiding in the basement

waiting for inevitability

of a shadow cast against

the tiny stone window

hearing her claiming ignorance

knowing her pitiful poker face

remembering all he’d done

imagining what he might do

 

but I slipped through the small space

like I was nothing

because I was nothing

 

she was forever a witness

reminding me

I wasn’t weak

that after the bruises healed

I could stop being

swollen with blame

that there was no shame sealed

in the trauma of what broke me

in the well-watered fear

that trailed behind me

and choked me

like bindweed

for years

and years

 

and years later

she returned from overseas

when my netball had no air

just in time to sit with me

in the days waiting

for my mother to pass

widening my stance

to catch the hurt

 

she came

she made tea

I could swallow more

than those sips

I could digest

The nourishment she shared

that my mother knew my children

that hers never had

 

from anyone else

cold comfort

but not from her

 

we cupped our hands around everything

found warmth in all the winters

and being there all along

 

she believed me when I said

I’d prepared to

be able to bear the blow

for my mum

 

that I would be able to

take the point of the blade

that somehow

we were still the punctured netballs

refusing to lose more air

 

that we would forge nets as we leapt

nets that let clematis grow

till it reeled around steel hoops

 

we fetched ourselves

running to each other

using our punctured pasts

to keep our own children

wonderfully inflated

believing what’s ruptured

can bounce back

cushioned by selves

resuscitated

 

now we are matriarchs

of our own teams

 

we mark each other

our mother’s daughters

the girls wearing tabards

but objecting to the rules

of the match

teasing out the good bits

with ease

tending to the wood

accepting the fact

that we don’t give a shit

if we don’t fit

with the trees

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