Keri Hulme – The Bone People, 1984

K Hulme Bone People

      She gets to her feet. She says in a strained voice,
      “I want you to come and look at something.”
      “Right.” He stands gracefully.

Thin etched arch of storm
and eggshell blue sky before it;
far away, goldened by a retreating sun,
grey streak and wash of rainclouds
over the brawling Tasman sea.

      Lone gull, sentinel, king gull, watch gull,
      night black wings, head white as a snow wave
      and cold barbarian eye:
      gull the solidity, all else mist and wraithness
      sea spume spun to light.

A moon shining a broken road
oversea;
a lone woman naked to her waist
waits at the edge of moonlight;
a shadow person watching for meaning
somewhere.

      She doesn’t say a word, holding up the boards and canvases from behind her desk one at a time.

A group of lights
that look living
crystalled in a circle;
a tree in the middle
waiting.

      Sunlight metalling horizon to silver;
      long stretch of ruffled grey.
      A matt white line of breakers.
      Behind the steel, clouds reach darkly up
      tops shaded by cold still light.

      Abstract, but it is as real a winter sea, winter sun, he has ever seen.
      She shuffles through them quickly, paintings full of strange lights and torn lands and odd people who scowl or stare or smile distantly at him.
      He practically snatches the last one out of her hand.

           Kerewin on a board.
           Wildly curly hair, darkly brown, but the normal highlights have
           turned to streaks of gold and red and grey, wheat-colour by
           her temples; bushy hair so alive, he startles himself looking
           for eyes or fingers among it.
           Broad pale face, fleshy cheeks; the V of flesh of her forehead
           heavily shadowed so it becomes a brand.
           Narrowed cynical intense eyes, neither blue nor grey. Lively
           stone eyes, hating life. Thin twisted upper lip, fat lower lip,
           chin wedged out, ever-ready to confront the worst.
           A grim face, stupid, but redeemed by the harrowing eyes.

      Look up from it, and there’s the same person staring back. A piece of soul enshrined in paint.
      He drinks the painting in.
      “These are the only things in my life that are real to me now. Not people. Joe. Not relationships. Not families. Paintings. That remind me I could.”
      She is sliding them back behind the desk, screamers and mysteries and the weeping loving pieces of her sea and land. She holds out her hand for the self-portrait.
      “But something. Something has died. Isn’t there now. I can’t paint.” There are tears in her voice, but none in her eyes. “I am dead inside.”
      He still holds the painting.
      “May I have it?”
      There are tears in his eyes.
      “Have? Not buy?” The harsh burst of laughter sneers, hits at him.
      “Whatever price you ask, I will pay.”
      She is suddenly very weary. It hasn’t meant anything to him.
      “Ah, keep it. I see better work in the mirror daily….”
      “It is, it is real.”
      Admiration she is used to. Giving paintings away she is used to. This awe she is inured against. She doesn’t reply.
      He says softly.
      “Whatever you ask of me, I will do. Whatever you want from me, I will give.”
      “Even absence?”
      He draws his breath in sharply.
      “If you wish it….”
      She hits the desk with the side of her hand and the crack echoes round the library.
      “Forget it. Have the painting with my blessing. You’re welcome to the gibbering thing, a poor gift to a good friend. But stay a good friend. Don’t come any closer to me, just close enough to be always welcome.”
      He places it down reverently. He leans over and takes her shoulders.
      She stiffens, pulling away.
      “You don’t want to hongi with me?”
      Her taut shoulders relax.
      I salute the breath of life in thee, the same life that is breathed by me, warm flesh to warm flesh, oily press of nose to nose, the hardness of foreheads meeting. I salute that which gives us life.
      He sighs loudly, then says, strongly, gaily,
      “It’s a great gift. A time when it’s right to hongi, ne?”
      She has pulled away again, leaning on the other side of the desk.
      “I suppose so.”
      She shivers. Something is crawling up her spine with claws on all its thousand feet.
      “Let’s get back to the fire and have another drink, eh? Leave that thing here for the moment. I’ll frame it and bring it round for you sometime soon, okay?”
      “Okay.”

Keri Hulme, 1947.      The Bone People, 1984. III The Lightning Struck Tower. 7 Mirrortalk

Image: First Edition cover design by Neil Stuart, illustration by Jack Frieze. Spiral Press, New Zealand, February 1984.

Hongi – greeting or salutation by two people pressing noses with each other.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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