Title: Leaves

Author: Anna Taylor

In: Sport 40: 2012

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, 2014, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 40: 2012


page 66


‘I’ll die if I can’t go,’ Ruth said, and she made an exaggerated display of her arms. The lid of the pocket mirror—which moments before she’d been using to examine the stye, forming there on her eye— splayed open too, catching the last of the evening sun; sending an arc of light up across the porch ceiling, a flutter of white down the verandah beam.

Alice gave her a small smile, though Ruth wouldn’t have noticed that—the smallness of it. A smile is a smile, that’s what Ruth would say.

Of course it was Alice who felt like she was dying, much of the time. The pills were supposed to ease the pain, the doctors had said, but there was nothing they could do about the tiredness. The skin on her hands was blotchy, knobs of red on the knuckles and wrist bone, and in the mornings she had to hold them—her hands—in a pail of hot water before she could open them up, the fingers having set into fists overnight. And then there were the asthma attacks to contend with, though they were currently in a lull. The winters were dreadful, but it was summer now—the mountains behind them bare of snow, the walnut trees in the paddock covered in a thick froth of leaves.

Ruth was prodding at her eye again with one finger, the bronze case of the mirror held firm in her other hand. She was younger than Alice by six years; had all the bristling robustness of their father. Ruth was stocky, well-built. Stocky and sticky, that’s how Ruth referred to the two of them, to the differences in their shape. She had reason to be jovial about that, Alice decided, since it was Alice who had been behind the door, as they say, when the constitutions were being handed out.


page 67

Ruth’s dress was still with the dressmaker on Deal Street. She had caught the bus to the city a month ago to buy the fabric, and had come back with yards of the stuff folded in a perfect rectangle, wrapped in a sheet of city-smelling brown paper. It was a beetle green, shot through with threads of gold, and she’d been inspired to go for that colour- tone, she said, by the poster of Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me, though that dress was more teal than green, perhaps, and much more daring than anything Ruth would ever consider trying to jam herself into. She had said all this in a jumble of words and exclamations as Alice had walked a little way out to meet her, as she was making her way—her silhouette all bags and triumph—back up the drive. Doris’s shoes matched the colour of her dress, exactly, Ruth had said. But the cut was too modern, too revealing.

‘Fancy turning up to a dance in our little old town dressed in something like that!’ she said, as if Doris Day herself would wing her way over from America, and bustle her way into the Kaikoura Memorial Hall. Alice had walked beside her, trying to keep her stride even, and had felt a soft, familiar tugging inside her abdomen. She had done all the jobs—milking the cow, digging potatoes for their dinner—as best she could, but now she felt the dullness of a day spent doing that, when Ruth—Ruth had been in the city, running her fingers over yards of metallic-coloured cloth. Before she had felt excited that Ruth would arrive home to see how much she had achieved, how well she’d done despite her bad hands and weak limbs, but now all she could see was dirt from the potatoes, the little lines of it under her fingernails, and the sourness of the milk that she’d spilt on her shirt, the smell of it, wafting towards her when she moved her arm in a certain way.

‘And what did you do today?’ Ruth finally said, but her face was half turned away when she asked, her eyes scanning the line of macrocarpas on the driveway, moving up towards the sky.

Their father had died at the end of that winter, suddenly—a heart attack felling him out in the paddock, as though someone had shot an arrow, sent it whistling towards his chest. When they were younger there’d been their mother’s illness, both of them having to help out, and Ruth, of course, always having to care for Alice when her lungs page 68 and joints were at their worst. Ruth was thirty-two, still had a chance to claim her life. There was the farm—neither of them knew what to finally do with that—so they’d got Allen and Dick in for now, to keep it running. Ruth had made sacrifices—oh, more than you could count on both hands. Alice could never forget that. And now, Ruth’s chance—Allen free of his ailing wife, thank goodness, and not too old, not really, to start again.


That summer was stifling, only the thinnest threads of white cloud in the sky, and in the midday heat the leaves on the bean poles drooped. Alice ferried cans of water back and forth, sprinkling it around their roots, but that only seemed to perk them up for an hour or two. The north-westerly winds were worse than they’d ever been before. Often the gales would build over the course of a day, but one night they came up out of nowhere, the branches of the walnut trees outside the house making a terrible sound—a roar—and the door of the shed at the back of the garden hurling itself against, and then away from, its frame. Ruth and Alice were just clearing away their supper dishes when the house began to shake. And then the sound of it: like a huge wave bearing down on them. They both paused, before placing their dishes in the sink.

The moon was almost full, so the sky was lit up a lurid blue. The shed door needed to be dealt to, and there was yesterday’s washing still on the line.

‘Don’t you come out here with me,’ Ruth said to Alice. ‘You might snap like a twig!’ She said those sorts of things good-naturedly, her eyes bright with humour, but sometimes Alice found it hard to laugh along. Who was it but Ruth, though, who ran down the hall at night whenever Alice called out; Ruth who laid her warm hands encouragingly on Alice’s heaving chest. She would not say to her— how dare you say such a thing.

‘I’m coming,’ Alice said, and looked around for her shoes.

The wind was hot and filled with tiny airborne shards of wood (twigs did snap out there, as it turned out) and invisible clouds of grit. The whites of Ruth’s eyes were lit up, and the leaves on the writhing walnut trees were a ghostly kind of green. Branches as thick as Alice’s page 69 thigh were falling, skating across the grass. Ruth covered her head with both hands, protectively like a helmet, all the material around her body flapping maniacally. Alice held onto the verandah beam and wondered at it: the way the air had formed itself into this great noise. The cry of the wind was inside her body; her blood, she imagined, roared like that too. She could be swallowed up into that sound, lifted by it, her limbs flapping like leaves. She took one step out onto the grass, and then another. Opened her mouth to taste the wind’s gritty heat.

Allen came by early the next morning, his big hands held awkwardly in front of his body. His hair was greying, but he had a smoothness around the skin of his eyes, the blue of them pleasingly light, like the irises had been mixed with a thimbleful of milk.

‘How’d you fare?’ he said, even though he could see, just by looking around, that the grass was strewn with branches and leaves and the green husks of hundreds of unripe walnuts. Alice and Ruth hadn’t even been to see the vegetables, couldn’t stand the thought of the tomatoes and bean frames tossed all over the place, everything flattened out.

‘I thought of you ladies last night,’ Allen said. ‘Wondered if you’d be doing okay.’

He stood in the kitchen, his shoulders rolling forward slightly, as if the ceiling was too low and he was trying to fit himself in.

‘I’ll make you some tea, Allen,’ Ruth said, and as she filled the pot, Alice noticed how she touched her other hand to her hair, patting the stray pieces back into place.

It was Alice who had befriended Allen, at first. His wife had a cancer that had got into the bone, and near the end she had to lie down all the time, plaster casts trying to hold her hips and legs together.

Alice had been bedridden for some time too, and even though moving around was like dragging her limbs through oatmeal and water, she was refusing to go back to bed. Allen’s wife could have her books and magazines and embroidery patterns, she said, and she bundled them up in her sewing basket.

‘You won’t be needing these any time soon, Alice?’ he said, but she page 70 shook her head, no.

‘Well that’s very kind of you,’ he said, and he held the basket against his body with his big dirty hands as though it was something fragile, a creature with a quiver to it, pressed tight against the scratchy wool of his shirt.

She had watched him go down the path with it, open the door to his truck, slide the basket into the passenger seat. She had the cow and calves to check on, and walked across the grass as he pulled away from the drive. The light was bending in through his window, forming him into a perfect silhouette. The sound of the wheels against gravel; Allen’s arm outstretched—hand steadying the basket—as he turned the steering wheel to move out onto the road.

Even though she had given, not lent, he brought the books and patterns back to her, one by one. There was an air about him when he did this, a kind of concentration. He would step through the French doors, bowing his head as he moved under the doorframe, and would give Alice a white smile when she offered him tea. Always, he waited for the kettle to boil, and the cups to be set on the table, with his gaze fixed on the floor. But when he drew the pattern book out from under the crook of his elbow, he would turn his body towards her, eyes on her face.

‘Now she quite liked this one,’ he would say, turning to a page, holding it open for Alice with the palm of his hand.

They would look at whatever it was, together, as if it was a discovery for them, too.


The house was filled with empty rooms—it was ridiculous, just the two of them living in there. Ruth said things like that, and even though Alice agreed, the thought was like something sharp in her lung. They would joke together about ways they could fill the house up. Farming small children, Ruth suggested.

‘Where might we find some of those?’ Alice said, and Ruth covered half of her face with her hand and laughed, the skin on her neck flooding red.

That summer they played cribbage almost every night. It was page 71 something to do with Ruth’s ruffled energy—her wanting to fill the evenings up from the moment they’d finished clearing away dinner, until they went to bed.

‘Crib?’ Ruth said the Wednesday before the stye emerged. ‘Or euchre? You choose.’

Alice was wiping down the bench; Ruth patting her hands dry.

‘Crib,’ Alice said. Really, she would have liked to just spend the night with a book.

She went to look for a cardigan—the lightest one with the blue trim—and when she returned the board was already laid out on the table, its little pegs by its side.

They played together, in the low light of the lamp.

Alice felt listless, didn’t care about poor pegmanship, but somehow she still won. She’d been winning all week.

Ruth played dynamically, but in a rash kind of way, making errors that she never normally would have made. She seemed pleased to see Alice win—once again—and the corners of her mouth curled upwards as she shuffled the cards into a bundle and slid them back into the box.

‘I don’t know why,’ she said, ‘but I just seem to be on an unlucky streak tonight,’ and then they’d caught each other’s eyes. Did she feel it—that Alice was looking at her hard? There was a knowing there between them, just a flash of it, before they both turned away.

Months after his wife died, Allen returned a reel of embroidery cotton. He was ashamed, he said, for having kept it so long. It was the end of his working day, and Alice had been out in the garden, pinching off the curled leaves that had formed on one lack-lustre little tomato. She had been kneeling in the earth when he came up behind her. She hadn’t noticed what he was holding in his hands.

‘I only just came across this, Alice,’ he said, his palm half open. She craned her neck. Embroidery cotton: bright green. At first she had thought it was a praying mantis—that that’s what he was holding out to her.

She was down in the earth and he was standing, but it was awkward for her sometimes to get up gracefully, and so she stayed there, her toes pressed into the dirt.

‘You didn’t need to bring them back,’ she said. ‘They were hers to page 72 keep.’ But then she faltered, knowing that the dead didn’t get to keep anything at all.

Allen stood there, looking out at the sky. The skin around his eyes was all wrinkled up—that wasn’t like him.

‘I just couldn’t go through it again, Alice,’ he said. ‘Caring for someone who was ill.’ And for some reason, in that moment, her legs decided to stand up, quite of their own volition. It wasn’t even that she immediately understood the implication, just that her legs knew what to do to prove, perhaps, that she did have a working body after all. She got up off the ground so suddenly, and Allen, taken by surprise, put his arms out, as if to catch her. Her shoulder collided with his chest.

Just above them, there was the sound of a wood pigeon’s wings beating at the air. They both looked up. Allen’s hand was pressed against the small of Alice’s back.

The light had a filtered look to it, the green of the hills washed out; more yellow than green, but really hardly a colour at all. It had been the first of the summer’s hot days. Was her blouse damp with sweat?

The bird was gone, and Allen’s hand pulled back away from her body. Alice, too, took an abrupt step backwards, her left foot sinking down into the dark dirt of the vegetable bed. It was an awkward stance, with that one foot buried in there.

It wasn’t until later that she found Ruth in a bedroom, their mother’s dresses strewn across the floor. She turned towards her, and Alice knew, immediately.

‘You’ll never guess,’ Ruth said. ‘You’ll never guess what Allen asked me today.’


The stye came up the Thursday before the dance—Ruth could feel it, she said, even before there was any sign of it; like a grain of sand was caught there, under her lid. She had come at Alice holding her lashes up against her brow, the rind of her curled back eyelid exposed.

‘There’s something in there,’ she said. ‘Can you see it?’ She breathed heavily on Alice’s face. Her breath smelt—what was it?— slightly sharp; metallic. Alice had never examined Ruth this closely page 73 before, or so it felt. There was the lightest sprinkling of freckles under her eyes and across the bridge of her nose, but some of the pores there were large. Veins were threaded across the white of her eye. Would Allen notice that too? A passing thought, just sliding in and then out of her again. There was no answer to that question, not one that Alice could find.

‘There’s nothing,’ she said to Ruth. ‘There’s nothing in here at all.’

‘Look harder,’ Ruth said, and she rolled her lid right over her thumb, deftly, like handling pastry.

Alice could see it then, a tiny spot of red on that organ-pink sheen of skin.

‘A stye,’ she said, and Ruth exclaimed, throwing both hands in the air.

By that evening the swelling was visible, perfectly round, pregnant- looking. They sat on the porch in the last of the sun, Ruth with her mirror. She would put it down and then pick it up again minutes later; waiting for the lump to grow, or shrink.

‘A watched stye doesn’t boil!’ she said to Alice, before lapsing into a full body slouch.

Alice looked at her own hands sitting in her lap; at the knotted thinness of them.

A falcon was circling on a current of air, right above the shadow- cast hill. It tipped its wing and dropped—fell, it seemed—before completing the same circuit, a little lower down.

‘It will come to nothing,’ she said to Ruth, though she knew that that wasn’t entirely true.

The dress was collected on Friday, and hung alone in the empty wardrobe in their parents’ room. When Allen’s truck came winding up the drive that evening, Ruth collided first with Alice, and then with the china cabinet—leaving it rattling, like a quake—in her efforts to leave the room before he’d even turned off the engine.

‘I’m resting,’ she called to Alice, and then, from down the hall.

‘Don’t say why!’

Allen appeared in the glass-paned door, and when Alice opened it to him, he didn’t kneel to take off his boots. He just stood there, one page 74 hand resting lightly on the frame.

The skin of his neck, she noticed, had a fine crepey look to it, a cluster of dark hair at the mouth of his shirt.

‘All done,’ he said to her, meaning the day, she supposed. Alice nodded at him, lightly.

‘And I just wanted to let Ruth know,’ he said this, though he didn’t look around for her, ‘that I’ll be coming by at seven tomorrow’— he paused—‘to get her for the dance.’ He hissed that last word, the sound almost inaudible, and Alice realised that they hadn’t even acknowledged it between them, not for that whole month since he’d asked Ruth.

‘She’s looking forward to it,’ Alice said, ‘very much.’ And when she smiled at him, the muscles in her face suddenly softened, as if they believed that smile, and were relieved to be able to hold it there for her, until Allen had turned to go.


The colour of Ruth’s dress seemed to fill up the kitchen. The waist was fitted, but there was a soft cowl neckline which showed off the little dip at the base of her throat. Her shoes clattered against the floorboards as she moved in and out of the room, adjusting her hair, tugging at the hem of her skirt. They had fashioned a piece of fabric that could be a shawl, or a veil: Alice’s idea. She could wear it over her hair, partially obscuring her bad eye until the lights were dimmed. When Alice suggested that, both of Ruth’s eyes had filled with tears, little pools of them gathering at the base of her bottom lids. She had gripped one of Alice’s hands, tight like a child, as Alice patted powder over the rheumy fullness of that eyelid.

‘I’ll find a clip that you can use to hold the veil in place,’ Alice called to her as she rummaged through a box of their mother’s things. The sound of her own voice: so bright. She put her hand to her forehead and felt the heat there, the faint pulsing under the skin.

There were dishes to do. The whole house, in fact, in a state of exhalation, scarves and bags and curlers in collapsing piles all over the floor.

The sudden quiet. And Alice sitting in the midst of it, breathing.

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Outside there was the rustle of wind, the leaves of the walnut trees all moving against each other at once. She had only to do the dishes. One thing at a time. If she staggered them she could make the jobs last all night.

She turned the wireless on and then off again; tried the gramophone, but the symphony seemed harsh, filling her body up with the gnaw of its strings. Silence was best, moving around the house with bare feet and bare arms, the heat of the night settling on her skin. She scrubbed at the undersides of the pots, keen to get them clean, though they never had been before—not in her memory. Once she saw the headlights of a car rolling along the road beyond the end of their drive, and her breath seized, but the lights did not turn towards her, just moved smoothly along the road then swung away round the corner. Good, Alice told herself. It was too early for Ruth to be returning, surely.

She opened the kitchen windows to let the heat out. And then the doors—open too—the one to the verandah latched back, the front door held in place by its little iron stopper. The breeze made its way inside, cautiously at first. Then the sound of the peg bag shifting in the air was followed by a wave of movement inside the room. A pile of papers on the sideboard flapped like wings, and then fell, skidding across the floor.

Alice poured herself a glass of water; sat by the window to drink it, where she could look out at the road. Perhaps Ruth’s eye might get worse, she thought. Might she slip and twist her ankle, what with her vision being so poor? That thought: like a small gasp right inside her diaphragm. Surely it was not hope that filled her body up—everything poised, as if listening for a note—before quietly deflating with the realisation of what might then unfold: Ruth being carried towards the house in Allen’s arms, her bad foot swinging close to his leg. And besides, she, Alice, was not the sort of person to take refuge in the misfortune of others. No. Such a thought was ludicrous.

She went to the door to listen then, for the sound of night and trees. The way those leaves rustled, they could have been the wheeze and suck of air inside her lungs. A gust swept down the valley towards the house, and the patter of leaves moved through her body like applause. A gladness in her chest came over her so suddenly that she had to sit down. How long had the world been calling to her like this? All night page 76 those leaves had been shuffling against each other, and she had barely heard.

It was almost ten, and Alice had paced herself perfectly—after all the hours that had passed she was still occupied, still had some tidying to do. She sat on the floor surrounded by little mounds of jewellery, the odd stray stocking. The fabric of scarves and clasps on small evening bags seemed suddenly foreign to her, as if she had never seen them before. She held them in her hands, one at a time.

Their mother had loved fashionable things, had collected them, even though there was rarely anywhere to go. There were tiny geometric shapes etched into the bronze handle of a clutch. A glove with a crescent-shaped button at the base of its wrist. The red of a necktie with a shimmer to it, like sunlight on water. Alice ordered everything into assorted piles, folded the fabrics so that the edges exactly matched. She moved from room to room, her feet hardly sounding against the floorboards, putting it all away.