The Chinese believe in Hungry Ghosts who roam the earth. Jules couldn’t help but wonder if his own brother had joined that ghastly brotherhood. Perhaps Henrietta was sent to him as a beacon of light, a lantern outstretched by the cosmos, for his brother to find his way across the sea before the sun’s light vanished completely.
She said that life is a short stay in a place that is not yours. The bed sheets wrapped around her, she sat up staring at the window streaming with rain as she said it. Jules was watching her, listening to her, loving her. It was the last time he would ever see her.
‘Do you think it’s possible for the dead to return to life?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?”
‘That maybe the rain gives us back the ones we love, just for a while.’
The sun was rising red through the rain clouds. Her eyes reflected the dawn and her thoughts and her fear.
Jules Dubois thought about it. ‘You mean you’ve seen Joe?’
‘We’re lucky to have the rain. The grass grows greener. The trees taller, more vibrant. But maybe the dead aren’t meant to come back. Maybe the dead bring their ghosts. I’ve never heard of a ghost that doesn’t haunt before. Have you?’
Jules had never been sure about anything. He learned that there were always two sides to every story, even the ones where people were convinced didn’t have alternatives. Even now, years later, not a day went by that he did not wonder whether his life would have been better had he not met Henrietta. Up until the moment he walked out the door forever, he believed she had been given to him by a higher order.
He asked why she was crying.
‘Because of what I am going to tell you. I don’t know if you will love me anymore. I hope you will.’
The day Jules’ brother died, his father had walked into his bedroom where he was studying, stood beside him for a short time before telling him how he’d done it: a leather belt around his neck out in the tractor shed. His mother had crawled into the closet screaming his name: Joe, Joe, Joe. She would later become catatonic and smoke cigarettes by the windowsill, and sometimes she’d find herself daydreaming of accidentally tumbling out the window, secretly hoping the fall would kill her. In five years she’d take the plunge from the balcony of a hotel in Orewa and her hopes would come true.
That night, after the police left and the ambulance took away Joe’s body, the wind was nearly silent and the Milky Way was painted across the clear sky as though it were a river bursting from the rain.
People came to the house with bouquets of flowers and piled them up in Joe’s bedroom. It’s not nature’s fault that the beautiful scent of flowers becomes associated with the death of a person. In the months to come, Jules’ brother’s room gradually became a shrine odoured with spoilt plant matter and petals and unwashed clothes. Sometimes Jules would just sit at the desk–still scattered with sheets of paper and books and a freshly sharpened pencil–and remember the moments he knew he would eventually forget. One day Jules’s father walked in with a stack of cardboard boxes and said it was time to lay the past to rest and set to packing up the bedroom in the same way they’d lowered his coffin into the earth.
There are those who have little sentimental value towards objects and clothes, but Jules found comfort in the things his brother touched and used, for example a t-shirt not yet washed, the smell of the deceased who left their mark before leaving for good. The sky turned red like a cherry bursting apart and he and his father carried cardboard boxes into the garage to rot away. Then his father went to the living room and sat in front of the television eating a corned beef sandwich and drinking a can of Speights.
Jules remained in the bedroom, unsure as to why he could not let go of an empty room, as though his brother were there with him, intangible, invisible, concealed. For reasons uncertain, packing up Joe’s bedroom was harder than his funeral.
When the wind picked up, Jules opened the window an inch and let the curtains puff as though spirits had entered the house. He remembered the MP3 player he’d found in the bottom drawer. Switching it on, he was shown the screen to a half finished song. So he put in earbuds and lay on his brother’s bed to listen to it, then he listened again, and again, and again. The mattress seemed warm beneath him, somehow heavy and inhabited from within. The curtains billowed. Then it started to rain.
The funeral had been held in a Georgian Gothic church overlooking the sea, run by a one-handed pastor by the name of Sam. Though summer had begun a month ago, the sky was dull and overcast, and clouds shifted occasionally which permitted sunlight to fall against the water, turning the waves breaking against the rocks turquoise. Seagulls circled above mourners vestiged in black, and whenever the wind blew in from the east the birds would scatter as if made of paper. A priest addressed the mourners but spoke no eulogy. Instead, childhood friends stood up and said their peace and the floor remained open for anyone wanting to add something to Joe’s memory, with light some could call holy painting the floor through the stained glass window behind the altar. Jules’ parents came to the agreement that it’d be better to leave his memory to those who knew him best. Andrew Reeves told a joke. Gabe Hancox couldn’t finish his words. Rebecca Ainsley tripped on her shoe-laces and was taken to the medical centre with a fractured wrist. Jules chickened out and kept his words to himself. After all had been said and songs sung, close family members followed the procession of the hearse to a cemetery on a hill and there they lowered the body of a young man–a brother, son, friend–into the earth in a pinewood box. Later that night Jules took a box of Lion Red to his brother’s grave and pulled cans from it until they were all empty. He lined up each can carefully round the tombstone, lit a candle or two and let them gutter and dribble wax onto the grass. He pressed his hand against the earth, trying to feel his brother. He couldn’t feel anything but dew and dampness. The tombstone wavered with candlelight.
The shrine that was his brother’s bedroom was slowly transferred to his Facebook page, which was full of messages from close friends and acquaintances alike. Photographs of Joe with people Jules had never seen before were posted often throughout the day. The messages captured a neatly packaged edition of someone he thought he knew intimately, but with each message Jules learnt of another version of a man that didn’t seem to fit the one he knew. After days of reading through the messages, he came upon a name he recognised. Taking his brother’s MP3 player from his pocket, he looked at the song artist’s name. It was a match.
After a week passed—unable to think of anything else except the songs and the woman who sang them—Jules booked a hotel near the Auckland bus station. Packing a duffel bag, he told his father he was going away for a while.
‘What could you possibly want to do in Auckland?’ his father said.
Jules thought about asking what could he want here, but instead he said that he was meeting someone who knew Joe.
‘I think it’s time you put aside all that,’ his father said. ‘We need you here. Your mother’s worse than ever.’
‘I’m 18 now. I can do whatever I want.”
‘You’re a Dubois. I can’t do the farm on my own.’
‘I asked Chris to lend a hand while I’m away.’
His mother was at the window as usual. She was smoking and looking off somewhere between the hedge and the road. The wind was ruffling the wildflowers. Jules waved to his mother; she just stared. The dirt path was desiccated and the wind swept dust into the air. He carried the duffel bag slung over his shoulder to the bus stop made out of corrugated iron and a plank of wood bolted to it in which to sit, totara trees colouring the horizon green beyond the paddocks.
Besides a few school camps, it was Jules’s first time away from Whiropūaha. It was a two hour trip to Auckland and when he arrived it was raining. His shirt stuck to the skin of his back and heat rose off the pavement. A man was playing a saxophone while rain poured down from the awnings, a hat by his feet sparkling with coins. Jules listened for a time, then dropped a fifty cent coin with the others. The hotel was in Auckland Central between Ponsonby and Grafton, opposite which a modern building in the form of a cross stood, with a sign announcing it as a Church of the Latter-day Saints. His room was on the fourth floor.
Setting down his duffel bag on the bed, he stood by the window and watched the rain come in bursts, slanting with the wind, the pane beading with droplets. Car lights resembling yellow and red will ‘o the wisps moved in procession in the streets. There was a family standing outside the church, oblivious to his gaze, his existence.
Just before 8 P.M. he showered, shaved, put on cologne and dressed in a pair of tawny trousers and a nice button-up shirt.
It was an easy fifteen minute walk to the bar with blacked-out windows on an inclined street with grass sticking out of the cracks in the pavement. Stonework had been built into the side of a hill and later plastered with posters announcing singers and musicians and the remnants of political propaganda. He waited fifteen minutes before being let inside. He ordered a bottle of Steinlager from the barkeep–a young man dressed in black, with cropped brown hair, clipped stubble, edges of tattoos at his cuffs–and sat at a table in the wavering glow of a candle. He recognised her immediately when she stepped on stage.
He drank and listened to her music. Something like dark synth-wave, which she played on a digital synthesiser layered with a digitalised orchestra and drums. Her vocals, the crowning jewel of her performance, stood both apart and within the music, like a human voice enslaved and trying to break free from a haunting, foreboding world she had created.
After the show she was standing under the awning picking a cigarette out of a packet of Benson and Hedges. Her synthesiser was in a black case at her side. If Jules had a lighter he would have gone over, leaned forward, set the flame to the cigarette tip. She’d say thank you, he’d say no problem.
She lit the cigarette herself. Smoke streaked the streetlight. A taxi drove past splashing water across the footpath.
‘How about you take a photo?’ she said.
‘It’ll last longer. I’m about to scram.’ She tucked her free hand under her armpit and looked Jules up and down. ‘You look like someone I knew once. You can’t be him though. I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘I came here because of this.’ He dug into his pocket and fished around for a bit. She squinted and watched. Then he pulled out the MP3 player. ‘I found this in my brother’s bottom drawer. Your song’s on it. It’s about the only thing I can listen to anymore.’
‘When I saw that you were playing here I had to come and see you in person. I knew I had to see you in person.’
She’d smoked only half the cigarette before she dropped it on the pavement and mashed it out with the tip of her shoe. ‘Gee, that’s so great. Have a good night.’ Then she bent her knees and lifted the case and waddled onto the road.
“Joe. Joe Dubois,’ he shouted at her. ‘I know you knew him. You commented on his Facebook page.’
She’d stopped in the middle of the road. ‘Your Joe’s little brother?’
‘How did you know him?’
‘You drink coffee?’ she asked.
The coffee shop she led him to was situated adjacent to a bridge. A sign on the door informed customers that it closed fifteen minutes before the witching hour. They sat at a table by the window looking out at the haunted road. He had asked if she wanted him to carry her synthesiser for her. She told him if he touched it he’d be carrying home his legs in a cardboard box.
‘How did you know my brother?’ he asked.
‘Similar to how we’re meeting now. Except your brother had a lighter and he lit my cigarette. Fate, destiny, synchronicity, coincidence. Take your pick. He sat there, as you are now. You look just like him.’
‘You knew him well.’
‘For a couple years Joe and I were a couple of owls. He’d swoop in from wherever he was from, and we’d spend the night here, hopping bars, avoiding the light, as though if it touched us we’d turn to ash. By morning he’d be gone.’
‘He never told you where he was from?’
‘Said he was from a farm in the middle of the sticks, where at night the Milky Way looks painted on. He said he had a brother.’
Shadows of pedestrians eclipsed the window, and Jules turned back to Henrietta. ‘For two years he was coming here? How did he keep that a secret?’ The last part was a question for himself, he supposed, though he wasn’t really looking for an answer.
‘At first it was once a month. Then he was here every Saturday night. With me.’ Then her thoughts went down darker paths. ‘How’d he do it? Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.’
The conversation quickly turned to reminiscing of Joe–he’d tell her about Joe the child, and she’d tell him about Joe the owl, the party-goer, the thinker, the nightcrawler. He had aspirations of going to Massey University, once he could get the money or a scholarship. Henrietta was the key to all of it, Joe had told her. She was his ticket out of the farm. Though for every story that surprised Jules, a story surprised Henrietta, and towards the end, twenty minutes before the witching hour, they both came to the same conclusion: they had to have been talking about two different people.
Jules and Henrietta went outside, she with the synthesiser case weighing her to the ground like an iron ball. She smiled and picked out a cigarette, offered one to Jules but he declined. The street lamp caught the mist rising off the pavement and her cigarette smoke curling, curling, curling, and all this made her skin look pale, as though she were immaterial, a ghost.
‘Where you staying?’ she asked.
‘In a hotel between Ponsonby and Grafton.’
‘The one next to the Mormon church?’
‘You know it?’
‘I used to go to that church with my dad as a kid. I haven’t been that way since he left for Brisbane. Well, come on then, show me this hotel.’
Just before dawn Jules woke up. Henrietta must have opened the window in the night. Curtains puffed. The bedsheet was moulded over her figure. She rolled over and lit a cigarette and watched Jules at the window and she asked what he was thinking about. He was meant to be going back home but he felt he was home already. He put on the electric kettle and made two cups of instant coffee and dressed. A mug steamed on the nightstand. ‘I’ve seen those clothes before,’ she said.
‘They were Joe’s.’
‘Why’re you wearing Joe’s clothes, man?’
‘I don’t know. They were in the cardboard box I packed them into. It felt like the right thing to do.’ She was resting with her elbows on her raised knees beneath the sheet. The breeze smelled of petrol fumes, summer rain on warm concrete. Clouds were veined yellow. ‘We going to get some real breakfast or we just going to sit here drinking coffee?’
In the evening she took him to Skycity where she gambled what little money she had and bought champagne on a credit card that changed colour each time she drew it. When she was drunk she was loud and she drew attention to herself and to Jules. When the casino asked her to leave he had to help her out to the street and she vomited in the gutter and on his shoes. She broke free of his grasp and rested on her knees. Hair cascaded down her face.
‘Oh, Joe. I thought you were dead.’ Was there a hint of a quiver? ‘We never did do those things you promised.’
‘I’m not Joe.’
‘If you’re not Joe then what are you doing here? You smell of him. You dress in his clothes. If you aren’t Joe then what are you doing here?’
The next morning was like the one before. The curtains puffed as the sun set the clouds the colour of burning gold, above the city skyline. She apologised for the night before, about her getting drunk, messing up his shoes. She made no mention of what she’d said. Jules let it go.
He took her to Kawau Island. A ferry called the Kawau Cat picked them up from Sandspit. The windows were deeply encrusted with sea salt. She wore a pair of aviator shades and together Jules and her stood at the top of the Cat, her hair whipping in the wind, and she asked Jules to take a photo of her, the coastline and the water churning behind her, the sky porcelain blue with a single white cloud drifting higher as if a child had let go of his balloon. Then the ferry came into Mansion House Bay, where Governor Grey lived. At the end of the wharf palm trees with trunks as fat as boulders stood standing since the governance. There were peacocks lounging in the manicured grass. Jules told her there were feral wallabies on the island, from when Governor Grey brought them over from Australia, and if you were lucky enough at dusk or dawn you could see a kiwi skittering through the trees. The governor had also brought giraffes, too, but they had all gone.
‘Where’d they go?’
‘The giraffes?’ Jules looked up the dirt road for the answer. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘That’s depressing, man.’
Jules and Henrietta had lunch at the cafe and ate custard pies for dessert and drank coffee, then they walked the island, down into a secluded bay where Jules squatted and picked up a single piece of smooth, polished glass, probably from a beer bottle. He raised it to the sunlit sky and turned the sun green. On the sand they sat and watched the waves lap the shoreline, and they talked again about Joe, and they laughed and she’d brushed off the beginnings of a tear. The sky eventually turned scarlet. The Chinese believe in Hungry Ghosts who roam the earth. Jules couldn’t help but wonder if his own brother had joined that ghastly brotherhood. Perhaps Henrietta was sent to him as a beacon of light, a lantern outstretched by the cosmos, for his brother to find his way across the sea before the sun’s light vanished completely.
They took the last ferry back to the mainland as the stars began to sparkle. But before they came into Sandspit Jules grabbed Henrietta’s arm and convinced her to jump with him. Are you crazy, she’d exclaimed, but she laughed as she threw herself into the water after him. They swam to shore and Jules led her up the hill to a wooden Georgian house. That’s when he explained to her that as children they would come up here with their parents and uncle and aunt and have picnics. It was childhood revisited, childhood rejuvenated. Someone once lived in this house, a family perhaps, a farmer at least. He’d carve off a chunk of cheese with a pocket knife and eat it off the blade. His children would play right there where once a flower bed grew.
They slept outside under the summer stars and when the rain came they climbed through a gap in the boarded up window. The rain clattered on the roof and fell in torrents where the roof had collapsed. She insisted to hear more of Jules’ childhood and the world he’d grown up in: more, she’d say, I want to hear all of it. I want to hear about the real Joe.
One night during a three quarter moon Jules drove with the windows down through a small town called Waipu that sits atop caves that vein the earth below. The wind ruffled Henrietta’s hair. It was cloudy and the moon was murky and smudged and the glow of its curve bled into the sky. He led her to the mouth of a cave and she said she didn’t want to go in, but he assured her it was safe, that it was worth it. The rock below was damp and the air cold and it worsened as they descended.
Then finally the tunnel expanded into a cavern where droplets fell and echoed into the water. When she looked up the sky was painted across the cave ceiling, stars the shade of emerald and sapphire. She gasped; then she knew why he’d brought her here.
‘I’ve only heard of them,’ she said, talking of the lights. They were glow worms. ‘I thought they were only in Waitomo.’
‘I think a lot of people do.’
This was the cavern network that Jules and his brother Joe used to explore when they were young. While Henrietta was in awe with the false sky, Jules was transfixed by childhood memories. He then put his arm around her, but she couldn’t be sure if he had done so because of romantic love or comfort. ‘We should go,’ she said, and so they went. The night outside the cave was cool but warmer than deep down in the earth. Their shoes and hands and knees and buttocks were caked with mud. Jules drove to a hotel by the beach in Bellbird Bay and they slept with the window open and he could smell the sea on the breeze.
The red neon Motel sign flashed through the open window. The yellow curtains puffed. She lit a cigarette and asked him again if he believed the dead could come back.
He looked away from her as he thought about the question. The soft patter of the rain outside was soothing. ‘No,’ he finally said. ‘No one comes back.’
She got out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans and a black shirt. ‘Then you haven’t had your eyes open. What we have, it can’t last. It won’t last. If you stay I can’t promise I won’t be living a lie.’
‘You don’t love me?’
‘It’d be a lie I’d tell myself every day. Do I love you as you or what you remind me of? The day before Joe killed himself we had an argument. I asked him to move in with me, and he said he had to think about it. Think about what? You either want to be with a person or you don’t. I threw my shoe at him. I told him to go back to his hell-hole of a town and don’t come back. That was the last time I saw him. I told you already that I never believed in my father’s faith, but when I heard the news of Joe’s death I prayed to God that I could see him again, so I could apologise, so that maybe he could love me again. Then you came.’
‘I’m not Joe.’
‘I see him in you. And don’t tell me you don’t see a bit of him in me. Don’t tell me it’s never crossed your mind, just once. All this time we spent together has been some of the best of my life, but sometimes I see in your eyes that what you really want is your childhood back with him. You can’t convince me that’s not true because I know in my heart it is.’
‘Henrietta, it’s you I’m in love with. It was Joe that brought us together.’
‘You have a person and then you have the memory of a person. And a person is an accumulation of ideas and notions and they aren’t always correct either.’ She picked up the smouldering cigarette from the tray, the ash grey and as long as a worm. ‘This is his brand of cigarettes. That bar you met me in was the same bar where he first kissed me. He left in me a part of himself and I in him the same. But he’s gone now and I can’t promise that I didn’t lose the part that I gave away.’
Jules thought about a lot of things to say, but instead he stood up and walked out of the room, leaving her there, and shortly after she began to cry. The morning sun lit up the sea and shone through the motel window. Jules would return home that afternoon. Henrietta deleted her Facebook page. He couldn’t find her again even if he tried.