It’s hard, some mornings, to believe in magic. When dawn has barely broken and the kids are thumping their way from bed to breakfast to school; when Sorry’s long gone, hurtling down the hill and around corners on his way to work; when she’s tripped over the cat three times and still not managed a cup of coffee: it’s hard to believe in magic.
It’s still there, though, barely hidden in the sage and thyme on the back patio, curving up the pohutukawa and nestled in the gorse across the valley. It’s what whispers to her on slow, sunny days. It’s the flicker at the edge of her vision, right as the sun is swallowed by the hills behind the house. It’s in the howl of the wind, hammering sharp and constant against the weatherboards. And sometimes—hardly ever, really—it shouts.
There’s a tui singing outside the kitchen window.
It’s perched in the flax flowers not three metres away when Laura glances out, carolling loudly as though it doesn’t care that it’s not yet 8am on a Saturday and the house three doors away had a party until late.
She keeps looking at it as she puts the kettle on and gets out the stuff for scrambled eggs. The kids are well and truly old enough to get their own breakfasts these days, but she likes making something nice on weekends from time to time—and, anyway, she’s awake and so are the kids, bickering at the table and generally being their usual cheerful selves. The tui keeps singing the whole time she’s working, cheerfully loud, and out of the corner of her eye she keeps catching glimpses of it staring straight at her. It’s never looking when she turns her head.
Sorry wanders out of the hallway as she’s buttering the toast, lanky in a worn tartan dressing gown and sheepskin boots. He’s got a silk robe that hangs on the back of their bedroom door—she gave it to him for Christmas two summers ago—but it mostly stays there, only getting dragged out once in a while when he feels like embarrassing the kids.
“Morning, love,” he says, pulling the plates and cutlery out. It all gets haphazardly stacked on the bench while he kisses the back of her neck, and she hums in response.
“Oh god, gross, guys,” Mike complains.
Sorry laughs into her hair, and it’s left to Laura to respond. “Grow up, kiddo,” she retorts. “Be grateful you’ve got parents who still love each other.”
Mike snorts. “Yeah, but at breakfast? Really?” He’s just trying it on, not really complaining; not that she’d care if he was. She meant what she said.
She elbows Sorry away gently. “Dish up the eggs, would you?”
They sit at the table as a family, Mike pissing about on his Gameboy and Steph with her head in a book while Sorry flicks through the weekend paper and Laura sips at her tea.
Whenever she looks out the window, the tui’s still there.
“Yeah?” she asks. Mike’s meant to be doing his homework, an exercise that always involves a lot of wandering between the fridge and the couch. Laura doesn’t complain: he always gets it done. “You want help with your maths?”
He rolls his eyes. “I’ll ask dad for that. No, there’s this kid. At school.”
She looks up from her draft Cabinet paper. “Are you being bullied?”
Mike rolls his eyes again and drops into one of the armchairs. “No,” he says, like it should be obvious. “No, she’s just. Weird.”
“Okay?” she asks. “Do you... like her?”
“No! No, just. She’s weird.”
She waits to see if he’ll add anything. Kids, jesus. They could try the patience of a saint.
He sighs loudly. “Weird like us, okay?” He’s got one sock pulled up and the other down round his ankle; his shirt’s crumpled and far too large, and the whole scene is very Teenage Rebellion.
She blinks. “You mean—”
“God, mum,” he exclaims. “Magic!”
She leans back in her seat and thinks about that for a while. “Huh,” she says eventually. “Do you think she knows about us?”
Mike shrugs. “I dunno, eh.”
“Well, what’s her name?” He’s actually doing pretty well at the moment, her youngest child. He’s communicating in more than angry grunts and frustrated questions about what’s for dinner. Sorry really didn’t prepare her very well for other teenage boys, and Jacko had gotten through puberty without ever losing his belief in Laura as a source of authority and wisdom. She’s still not used to Mike, aged fourteen and possessed of the sure knowledge that his parents know nothing about anything.
“Ashley. I dunno her last name.”
“Alright,” she tells him. “I’m going to have to talk to your father and grandmother about it. Can you find out her last name?”
“I guess,” he replies. “Can I go now? I’ve got homework.” He gets up without waiting for a reply and heads off in the direction of his bedroom by way of the fridge, because heaven forfend he go more than an hour after school without eating something.
“You’re helping me with dinner soon,” she calls after him, and gets a muffled grunt in reply.
“Mum,” Steph says, in precisely the tone of voice she uses when she’s about to ask for something.
Laura looks at her suspiciously. “Yes?”
“There’s this really nice dress at Glassons.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Laura agrees.
“Can we maybe go look at it on the weekend?”
“We’ll see,” Laura says. “Your dad could use another couple of shirts, so I was planning on going shopping. You could come.”
“Awesome!” Steph’s grinning, her dark, curly hair tied up in a messy bun on the top of her head and her hands covered in dough. They’re making scones—or, rather, Steph’s making scones while Laura sits on one of the stools at the bench and drinks a cup of tea. Her kids aren’t going to go flatting without basic life skills, the way so many other people (case in point: Sorry) did.
Laura swirls the residue at the bottom of her cup while Steph’s cutting up the dough. The tea leaves are taking on a distinct shape, through vines and flowers and into that of a bird taking flight. Steph bangs the oven door closed while Laura’s lost in concentration; it makes Laura jump, and the tea leaves get shaken, the puff at the base of the tui’s throat floating off to become stuck to the side of the cup.
There’s a path up from their backyard that leads to a council reserve; a scrubby, steep patch of land covered in elderly pines and the first nascent seedlings of what will in a hundred years be native bush once more. There’s a patch of grass at the top kept clear by Sorry, who goes up every second Saturday evening with a scythe and his notebook, all the better for birdwatching.
Laura doesn’t go up very often, mostly because it’s good in a marriage to each have your own space, but also because she’s grown to love the glimpse of harbour she can see from the bench seat in the corner of their front garden.
He finds her there one late November evening as she’s sitting typing on her laptop while the sun sets behind her. When she looks up at him, Sorry looks pensive, maybe a little mischievous. “What’s up?” she asks. “Did you find rodents or a cat?”
He shakes his head. “No, nothing like that. The wards seem to be holding up well. It’s just—oh, come up and have a look for yourself.”
She raises her eyebrows at him.
He rolls his eyes and grins down at her. “Oh, come on, Chant. It’s nothing terrible, I promise you. Just a little strange.”
She lets him pull her up and takes her laptop with her, shoving it through the kitchen window and onto the bench as they pass by.
She isn’t wearing good shoes for walking up the hill, just jandals, and she ends up taking them off a little way in. It’s not a long path though, even if it is steep, and they’ve lived in this place long enough that it’s worn, smoothed out in places through long, sweaty weekend afternoons of work. When the kids were little, this hillside was their playhouse. Now that they’re older and look towards town and their friends for fun, it’s left to Laura and Sorry alone.
The stars are beginning to show in the twilight when they get to the clearing. Nobody can see it from the road; it’s just a gap between trees near the top of the slope, nearly flat through both chance and a little surreptitious landscaping, and maybe six metres across. There’s the falling-down remains of a lean-to built by Steph and Mike a few summers ago on the eastern edge, right where it catches first light if you happen to be lying under it at dawn.
Steph had her changeover here, and Mike too. If they could convince the council to sell, Sorry would buy the land in a heartbeat. Laura isn’t so sure, vaguely feeling that spaces like this should be kept public—a hypocrisy, perhaps, given that they’ve warded it so heavily that nobody else even thinks of walking through the natives they’ve planted and the bird nests Sorry has patiently encouraged.
The New Zealand spinach is doing well, climbing over the stump of a fallen pine, and Laura stops to eat a few leaves while Sorry gathers together the tendrils of whatever it was he brought her up here to say.
“I keep seeing tui,” he says eventually.
She looks up at him. He’s still lanky; he spends his weekends in loose cargo pants and old tee-shirts from fun runs. But there are smile-lines around his mouth and eyes now, the result of spending thirty years loving and being loved, and he walks with the casual ease of a man who knows he is adored wholeheartedly by someone who will nevertheless put up with no crap.
“That’s what we’ve been working for. Isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, Chant,” he shoots back. “I just wanted you to come and see.”
There’s a rustle in the leaves and a pair of pīwakawaka fly off. When they first moved here, back when Steph wasn’t even at school and Mike was still toddling around unevenly in soft-soled shoes, the only birds were sparrows and crows. Now the trees sing, and Laura thinks whatever secret disappointment Sorry had about moving to the city away from his beloved national parks has gone.
“There,” he says, stroking his fingers down the skin of her arm until she turns to look. There’s a tui perched on one of the young pohutukawa, its neck puff fluffed out as it calls into the swiftly-darkening sky. “It’s been hanging around.”
“There’s been one hanging round the kitchen, too,” she replies. “It’s never looking at me when I look at it, though.”
“Hmm,” Sorry muses. “I don’t think it wants anything from us.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t think so, either. I think it just wants to know we’re here.”
The very land is suffused with magic; Laura has known this ever since the skin and bone and blood of Carmody Braque had turned into the fallen, rotten leaves of imported trees. It’s in the sky and the sea, the push of water through rivers and the burble of streams over rocks. Laura forgets it sometimes, when she’s trying to convince the sausages in the frying pan not to burn or encourage her errant son to wash his damn hair.
She can’t forget it now. It sways towards her in the wind; wraps itself in the ruffle of her husband’s hair, no longer as dramatic as it once was but still as dear. She didn’t love him when she was fourteen but by sixteen it had sunk into her bones and formed a skeleton just as unyielding, and she’s loved him ever since.
“Laura,” he says, and reaches for her. He still mostly calls her Chant, although that hasn’t been her legal name in a long time now; she still mostly calls him Sorry—but never when he’s calling her Laura.
She goes to him easily, and loops her arms around his neck. When she leans up to kiss him it’s as familiar as daybreak, and he bends down to meet her halfway. They exchange kiss after kiss, and when next she opens her eyes it’s gone fully dark, the clearing lit only by the moon, high in the sky and almost full.
“I’m not having sex on the grass, Sorensen,” she informs him, and he answers her first by kissing the smile off her lips.
“Always so practical, Laura,” he says, next time the kiss breaks. “Luckily, I’ve got a blanket and a torch.”
She bursts out laughing. “What if the kids come up?”
He smiles into the place where her neck meets the edge of her shirt. “I might’ve set a tripwire alarm over the path. Won’t do anything to them, but it’ll let us know if they’re coming. It’ll give us time to hide.”
“Well then,” she says, and unbuttons her shirt. His long, narrow fingers meet hers over her breasts, and she lets go of her own clothes to pull at his. At this stage in life, with two teenagers at home, sex has lost some of the spontaneous thrill it had when they were first living together in a tiny cottage in Te Anau. But it’s developed a kind of rhythm and comfort to it that she wouldn’t give up for the world, a familiarity with Sorry’s body that rivals her knowledge of her own skin.
There’s a morepork calling when they creep back down the path and through the french doors into the kitchen. The kids have left the light on in the hallway—thoughtful of them, really—and it casts long shadows over the polished floorboards.
Sorry’s languid behind her, shoving the blanket under a pile of detritus in the laundry and kicking off his shoes. “Did you take me up there just to see a bird?” she asks him.
He snorts. “Well, not just that,” he says, and in his voice there are the remnants of the boy who wanted to be the pirate-hero in a romance novel. She doesn’t indulge that often—there’s only room for one romantic in this relationship—but she’s feeling soft, satisfied and weary, and so she turns around and leans up to kiss him.
His hands are on her hips when she breaks the kiss, and he’s looking down at her adoringly, expression caught between the hall light and the moon. She grins. “You did a good job, too,” she teases, swatting him on the bum and pulling away to go to bed.
Mike’s light is still on, but she lets it slide for once; if he wants to stay up way too late and spend the next day fighting to stay awake while his teachers glare at him, that’s his problem. She calls out goodnight to him and Steph, who’s typing away at her laptop surrounded by textbooks, and doesn’t wait for Sorry to finish closing up the house for the night before shrugging off her clothes and slipping into bed.
The tui’s there in the morning, sitting on the fence and making a racket. Laura flings open the windows to catch the breeze, and it calls out once, almost mournfully, before staring straight at her and taking off into the day. Maybe it’ll come back; maybe there’ll be more portents in her teacups and omens at dusk. For now, it’s enough to know that something is coming, whatever it is and wherever it wants her to go—magic isn’t the kind of thing you rush.