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Hine e Hine

A short fiction work by Ayeesha Ash, recipient of the All About Women of Colour & Sweatshop Mentorship for emerging writers

A woman with Afro hair wearing a black suit jacket.
Ayeesha Ash Recipient

Like the gap between Penny’s front teeth there was always a space between the sisters. It was hard to miss. Penny and Ginny by themselves were standouts, wāhine ātaahua, who stole the eyes of whoever they were with.

Ginny’s skin glowed in the colour of honey. The Old Ones said she must carry the story of the bee in her blood, but her mother said it was simply an appreciation for the sun. Ginny walked through the world in a body that was built for running. Her legs could carry her beyond the horizon but she didn’t care for covering distance. Her preference was to saunter, swinging her hips to an island beat that only she could hear. As Ginny aged, her hair turned from gold to bronze, matching the flecks in her eyes. The bronze gave her a complex. Still, Ginny lived her life in a constant dialogue with the ancestors, always questioning why they chose to cast her in the colour of a loser.

Penny was lighter in tone and spirit. As a baby, her eyes were so big that Aunty Kuia started to take her to bingo and charge folk $5 to look into them, promising a vision of the future. After their father found out the family didn’t speak to Aunty Kuia for a year. By her twelfth birthday Penny’s hair was so long and thick she convinced herself that she was Rapunzel. In the evenings she’d sit on the windowsill of their inner-city terrace, hair hanging over jasmine, waiting for Prince Charming to arrive. After a year of nothing but Mr Whippy vans and last-to-leaves from the local pub, she gave up waiting and found a love of soft-serve ice cream. It was all she ate. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Ginny was secretly thrilled at the thought of her sister transforming into a dumpling, but the opposite happened. Penny got thinner and thinner, her hair longer and longer, her eyes big as the moon. The boys would yell, “Ay, Snow White, wanna climb up my beanstalk?” and Penny would yell back “They’re two different stories, you gronks!” with a strength well beyond her body. 

As childhood turned into the age of teens, Penny and Ginny would pass each other in the hall, step out of the door almost in sync, then walk to the same school separately. Weekends were spent joyfully apart; Penny holding the hand of some boy who just learnt how to drive and Ginny covering herself with coconut oil on Bondi Beach. That was until their mother’s nervous breakdown (only mentioned in public as “A bad migraine that won’t seem to go away.” and “No, it doesn’t run in the family.”), after which their father desperately proclaimed that Saturdays were now “For the whānau.” and neglect of this unwelcome tradition would result in loss of privileges, including their weekly allowance and Thursday night’s Chinese takeaway.

Money was neither here nor there for the sisters. Penny’s boyfriend would buy her whatever she needed. Ginny had recently taken up stealing as an afterschool sport. It gave her a thrill and Ginny thought that petty crime would make a nice addition to her autobiography someday. It was the possible loss of the Chinese takeaway that really had the sisters pressed. Eating the Billy Kee chicken made by Mrs Lee was a religious experience. A piece of Billy Kee scooped in dark brown chopsticks, a bite, a moment of gratitude, a mouthful of rice and then the ritual would begin again. There was a time when the smell of Mrs Lee’s cooking was overshadowed by bad plumbing in the street, driving customers to the competitors two blocks over. That was until the sisters’ father did a karakia (and paid a plumber to fix the issue). The Lees expressed their thanks with the restaurant’s highest honour: a permanently reserved table for the whānau. Here, at this table the sisters were at peace, connecting through the cultural cornerstone of food, albeit someone else’s. 

For six years of Saturdays, the tradition pushed the sisters together. Some Saturdays like stepping on a bindi, a quick rush of pain forgotten in an instant. Others were like getting punched in the face at 12pm on a Saturday in Pitt Street Mall and having the cops laugh at you once they found out you were sisters, and having your mother cry inconsolably and having your father tell you that if your mother goes back to the “resort” you’ll be keeping a shaved head until your 30th and 33rd birthdays. When Ginny raised her fists, it carried the weight of jealousy. A heaviness wrapped around years of skin envy, of longing for a body that would never be hers. It hit Penny’s cheek with a crack, breaking the fraying rope of sisterly connection and flinging them into the reality of their disconnect. Penny didn’t cry, she didn’t know how. Instead, she grabbed Ginny’s bronzed hair with such force that Ginny expelled a sound so primitive it woke the spirits of her great-great-great grandmothers. Frail from years spent on the cusp of sickness, all their mother could do was sway her body from side to side. Their father saw the scene unfolding in slow motion. He saw his brothers in his daughters; ancient memories of violence he had failed to forget. Breaking them apart was like separating a mother from her newborn child. When the sisters finally stopped to breathe, their father’s proclamation of the shaving of their heads as punishment for going against their nature was proclaimed throughout the whole city.