Cane Leaves

Andi weaves dried cane leaves with nimble fingers, the strips bending and pulling and knitting together to quickly form a tapestry. I crouch beside her, my hair plastered stickily against the back of my neck. I am sucking on a pink ice-block, made from frozen milk and strawberry flavouring.

The ice-blocks are a year-round currency in my grandmother’s shop. The muggy heat in Fiji ebbs and flows over the months, but in December and January, the air feels thick and moist around us, and the cool block of ice against tongues is the only relief to be found.

Raki Raki and my grandparent’s farm is a world apart from our suburban house in Sydney, but these summer months are a different kind of home. The electricity is on a generator here, and the only air-conditioning is by way of the evening breeze and hand-held fans. I sit with my ice-block next to Andi throughout the morning, where she lounges on the back steps with her strips of cane leaves.

‘You see, this is how we make those big mats you sit on,’ she says to me, not looking up from her fingers’ work. ‘And those baskets your grandmother likes.’

‘And the fan that you use!’ I chime in. I love Andi’s big woven fan, which she flicks impatiently at her face every so often, quick blasts of air to offer a temporary cool-down before her hands are needed elsewhere again.

I am ten years old, and my entire day is spent trailing Andi as she completes her work – feeding the chickens with last night’s scraps, sweeping out the porch with her twig broom.

I like watching her face as she squints and picks through a bowl of dried lentils, sifting out the rocks and other impurities, and separating the good grains from the bad. She has a wider face than mine, her skin a softer shade of brown. Her hair is a towering afro, the frizz of it so tightly curled that it seems almost solid.

I ask my mother why Andi’s hair is so different from my wavy, softer mop.

Kaivitis have different hair,’ she shrugs. ‘Aren’t you glad yours isn’t like that?’

*

Andi lives across the road from the farm, in a series of small huts with grass roofs with her large extended family. There are always four or five children lingering in the front yard, playing with sticks and old bike tyres, which they wheel so quickly down the street, their own feet can’t keep up.

At the end of the day, when she has finished the dishes and helped lay out dinner, Andi grabs her cloth bag and fan, gives me a quick one-armed hug, and yells out ‘See you, Mrs Ahmed’ to my grandmother.

She always looks down as she passes my mother and father, and no one ever acknowledges her leaving except me. I follow her to the door, and wave as she wanders across the road to her house.

As soon as she reaches the front yard, other children race over and attach themselves to her like barnacles.

‘Aunty,’ they call. ‘Aunty!’

And one little girl, her smile wide and her limbs waving calls, ‘Mummy!’

I always turn away then.

Inside, my cousins and mother serve dinner.

I sit outside while the others clear up, with Andi’s basket of cane leaves. They have already been cut into strips, and although dry, are still soft enough to bend.

I try to work them into a weave, but the pulling and pushing and twisting just won’t come together for me. The sun is finally sinking, the air growing a fraction lighter around me. I sit holding the strips of cane leaves, my chin resting on one fist.

The door clatters behind me as my mother steps onto the porch.

‘Put those away, Aysha, what are you doing?’ she snaps.

I jump up quickly, and put the leaves back in the basket, rubbing my hands guiltily as if to rid myself of any lingering essence.

‘I was just learning how to weave,’ I mumble.

‘Why do you want to do Kaiviti things, eh?’ Mother says, shaking her head. ‘Next you’ll want to live in a mud hut and eat lovo, all the time, too. We are Indians, ok? Why don’t you play a game with your cousins or something?’

I keep my face down, and wait until she walks back inside, sighing to herself in exasperation. But we sit on woven mats, I want to say. We eat lovo sometimes, too. I don’t know what is so wrong with weaving.

*

One morning, Andi is waiting for me outside when I wake up. She has a bucket of grit for the chickens in one hand, and her fan swatting away in the other.

‘I have a surprise for you, Aysha,’ she says, her eyes bright and secretive.

I leap down the back steps, barefoot on the squishy ground of weeds and grass. There is chicken shit everywhere, but I don’t care.

‘What is it?’ I whisper, following Andi as she walks towards the sheds and buildings behind the farmhouse.

‘You’ll see,’ she says.

The chicken coop is a dilapidated corrugated iron building, more of a rain shelter than a home for the birds. I can hear the ‘surprise’ before I see it, and I quickly push past Andi in my excitement, rushing to the corner where I can just see three, fuzzy forms bobbing their heads up and down.

‘Chicks!’ I exclaim.

‘Little bubbas,’ Andi smiles. ‘Like you!’

‘I’m not a baby,’ I say impatiently, but I am still smiling as I hover over the chicks.

Andi reaches past me to scoop one up, and she deposits it into my outstretched hands, helping me cup my palms so it doesn’t topple onto the floor.

‘I have something else for you too,’ she says. She is watching me hold the chick and pat its head with my pinky finger. I am being so careful not to hurt its tiny head that I don’t even look up at the promise of another present.

‘Aysha,’ she says again, her voice now amused. ‘Look.’

I finally glance up, and immediately gasp, almost dropping the chick in surprise.

Andy is holding a fan, half the size of her own. It is tightly woven into a diamond shape, with a handle made out of the twisted ends of the cane leaves. The weave resembles rows of small squares, each of which has been painted a different colour. The paint looks like it is peeling already, but I don’t care.

‘It’s beautiful,’ I whisper, stepping closer to her.

‘It’s for your birthday,’ Andi says, suddenly sounding shy. ‘That’s soon, isn’t it?’

My birthday is in February, several weeks away. I will be back in Australia by then.

‘Thank you so much,’ I say. I place the chick carefully on the ground, and walking to Andi, I give her a big hug.

She hugs me back, the fan still clutched in her hands. She smells of sweat, and coconut oil. Her wide body is perfect for close hugs.

‘Aysha!’ My mother’s voice is a whip crack. ‘Andi! What are you doing? What is this?’

‘Andi gave me a birthday present,’ I say quickly, showing her the fan. ‘And there are chicks!’

My mother’s eyes never leave Andi’s.

‘I’m sure that’s very nice, but Andi knows we won’t be allowed to take that back to Australia. They won’t let it through Customs,’ she says. ‘Go inside now. I’m sure you can find something to do other than following the maid around.’

This last part is said scathingly. I feel awkward and overheated suddenly, and I don’t want to look at Andi to see the shame that will inevitably cloud her brown eyes.

I trudge out of the chicken coop, the fan clutched in my hands.

Behind me, I can hear Mother talking to Andi in biting, hissed words. There is something in the way she is standing, the tilt forward of her shoulders that reminds me of the way the boys at school in Australia stand when they surround me at lunch times.

Mother hisses, ‘inappropriate’ and ‘who do you think you are?’.

The boys hiss ‘currymuncher’ and ‘you’re brown like poo’.

The words are different, but I flush with fear and anxiety just the same.

*

I don’t see Andi again that day. I stay inside with my cousins, playing an endless game of Monopoly on a set that is missing several pieces, with tatty and stained cards.

The next morning, I wake up to the sound of cars roaring down the highway that runs in front of the farm. The sound is guttural and metallic. I know that the air will be thick with fumes, if I go outside now.

When I wander into the kitchen, Andi is not there. Instead, a thin, bony Indian woman is stirring a pot of chai on the stove.

She looks at me with an ambivalent gaze.

I stare back at her, my hands hanging limp by my side. Realisation begins to dawn on me.

I back away, and race to the front door, wrenching the screen open. I squint and stare across the road, trying to make out the figures in Andi’s front yard.

I can see a woman sitting on the porch, her large afro the only recognisable thing about her. The little girl is perched on her lap.

She watches the farmhouse, unmoving. I stare back, my hands holding onto the fly screen.

Sweat drips down my back, and the air is thicker still. If I had my fan, I think, I would swat the heat away forever.

Image : Alma Gamil

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