Fishing for Māui, by Isa Pearl Ritchie

Fishing for Māui, by Isa Pearl Ritchie (Fiction)

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A novel about food, whānau and mental illness.

Valerie reads George Eliot to get to sleep – just to take her mind off worries over her patients, her children, their father and the next family dinner. 

Elena is so obsessed with health, traditional food, her pregnancy and her blog she doesn’t notice that her partner, Malcolm the ethicist, is getting himself into a moral dilemma of his own making.

Evie wants to save the world one chicken at a time. Meanwhile her boyfriend, Michael, is on a quest to reconnect with his Māori heritage and discover his
own identity. 

Rosa is eight years old and lost in her own fantasy world, but she’s the only one who can
tell something’s not right.

“An accomplished story of a family in crisis – Ritchie’s great skill is her ability to conjure the inner lives of her characters. Fishing for Māui is a compassionate meditation on what it means to be well.”
– Sarah Jane Barnett

From: Fishing for Māui, by Isa Pearl Ritchie


I love the early mornings. I don’t think I’ve naturally woken up this early since I was a small child, but the hormones, combined with that sinking instability – low blood sugar from the long stretch of night with no food – leave me wide awake before first light. I lie in the stillness and listen for the first bird calls, bringing in the dawn chorus of another chilly spring morning.

Staying still feels almost unbearable. I push back the duvet, tuck it around the sleeping, snoring Malcolm, and I’m out of bed. I don’t mind the cold; my body is running on overdrive trying to sustain this new life growing inside me. It doesn’t feel real, but at this time of day nothing is.

The world is grey. I look out the kitchen window at the cluster of north-facing trees that obscure the sunlight and protect us from the world. Today something is different. I notice one of the old plum trees is leaning on a strange angle. It’s probably been dead for some time. You can’t tell in the winter because all deciduous trees look dead, but now that spring has sprung and peridot peppers their grey, licheny branches, it’s obvious which ones have been left behind for good.

When a tree falls in a dense forest the noise it makes is minimal. There might be a cracking sound as the trunk breaks away from its roots, or they might have softened to a point not much stronger than bread. It doesn’t really fall; it just leans on those around it and slowly decays. Every particle returns to the ecosystem. That’s what happens in the suburban forest around our cottage. I didn’t hear it in the night; it just leaned forward, like a sigh, surrendering its burden.

I make my cup of peppermint tea and sit by the window, nibbling at yesterday’s scones. It is a sick paradox. I am nauseous because I need to eat, and I don’t want to eat because I’m nauseous. But here, looking out at the garden, I always feel at peace. The morning sickness is fading now that my first trimester has ended and I can enjoy this personal time.

The garden next door is lush with plant life. I love the way these two properties sit, small houses with sprawling jungles, compared to the tight compartments of suburbia all around us. From where I sit it creates the illusion of more space, as if both sections combine into a wilderness and the fence is irrelevant. For me it is the illusion of freedom. I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly free. It would be terrifying to have no attachments, no restrictions – but the illusion is liberating.

I reheat some gelled porridge, presoaked and cooked yesterday. When I blog about porridge I call it oatmeal, at least in brackets, so my American readers know what I’m talking about. I have a whole blog post dedicated to explaining why people traditionally soaked their grains. Blogging is about all I have the energy for lately. Even the slight exertion of making my breakfast is taxing to the point of exhaustion.

I go back to the window and sit with my legs propped up. I sip my cooled tea. At least herbal tea is still pleasant when it’s no longer hot. I look out at the garden, in full swing now that the sun has risen. The bees dart about, busy gathering nectar, contributing to their role in the life cycle of other living things. It makes me feel lazy.

We moved here when I was almost three months pregnant, the bulge of my belly just starting to peep over my jeans, just starting to ‘show’. I thought it would be impossible to find a better home than the one I was leaving, the 1960s state house with the kitsch linoleum and my best friends in the world, Henry and Tanya. My chosen family. I resented Malcolm and his excitement; he couldn’t wait for it to be ‘just us’. I told him it would be hard to find a place I’d be happy with. I actually thought it would be impossible, but it only took a week.

The first time I saw this little cottage with its sprawling overgrown garden, so close to the university – the section so big compared to the house it could easily be in the country – I knew it was perfect.

It had belonged to an old woman, obviously. The Romanesque statuettes in the garden, the seven dwarves on the back porch and the old-fashioned ornamental plants were a testament to her.

‘She passed away – not in the house,’ the real estate agent assured us. She fidgeted nervously with her hot-pink manicured nails. I’m not ageist but she did look too old for that shade of pink. They were so long they looked dangerous as she raked them through her bleached blonde hair.

‘She was in a rest home. The family have decided not to develop the property.’ Her tone was disapproving. I could tell she thought such a large garden was a waste of space. She quickly righted herself and continued in the pseudo-positive tone that made half of me cringe, while the other half struggled not to laugh.

‘The garden is lovely. It’s fenced off so will be safe for the little ones.’ She glanced at my protruding abdomen, making me feel self-conscious. ‘As you can see, there’s lots of room to play out here.’ She gestured around as she walked us through the quarter-acre, its winter branches bare and still. Early daffodils peeked up at me and I knew it was right.

I love it here, as I knew I would. I watch the wax-eyes darting from branch to branch, knowing that this perfect morning will be over soon and I will have to face the day. The grey slowly turns to green. I hear Malcolm stir, confirming my thoughts. As soon as he is up my peace will be interrupted and once he leaves for work I will suddenly be rendered lonely, aimless, with just my blog to keep me company.

My shoulders sink into the faded pumpkin-coloured cushions of the couch, my mind comfortably blank. I’ve never in my life been able to sit still for as long as I have the last few weeks. I can spend an hour or more in the bath, not minding the cold. I can sit here and not realise the whole day has slipped by. It’s as if my body, in its all-consuming effort to produce this baby, forgets to give me time, or perhaps the baby, as it grows, is consuming more than just my energy – perhaps it is eating time. My conscious mind is deprioritised, but at least I’m never bored.

My blog is the only thing that keeps my brain ticking over; it helps me feel as if I’m still connected to the world outside this garden, this cottage, this pregnancy, outside the insular nest that Malcolm and I have created. The food that I make just disappears, but the photos last. The recipes that I type up are shared with my followers and anyone who stumbles across my blog looking for a healthier version of apple crumble (cobbler to the Americans) or instructions on how to make your own jerky. The comments I receive give me a boost. I feel like this network – this community – of other food bloggers, are my friends. Even though we’ve never met we support each other, we commiserate and joke, debate and philosophise, marvel and praise. The blog posts sit there, in cyberspace, proof that I’ve been doing something these past few months, seemingly permanent in a world where nothing seems to last.

It’s already 9am before I remember it’s Sunday. Market day. I feel a rush of excitement and then wonder briefly what my life has become with a trip to the farmers’ market being the highlight of my week. Malcolm still hasn’t stirred from his Sunday slumber so, rather than risk missing out on fresh, local produce for the week, I go it alone.

The tree-lined car park bustles with activity. A chill still clings to the morning air as I climb out of the car, guiding my slightly bulging belly through the small space allowed by my terrible parking. The man sitting in the new-looking navy blue sedan next to me glares as my door brushes his car. I smile cheerfully at him anyway.

I do my usual circuit, scoping out all the stalls before I settle on purchases. I’m excited by the first strawberries of the year and by the luscious looking asparagus. I also pick up some sourdough bread (since mine won’t be ready for another day or two), more venison salami and a jar of raw honey.

I stop by the herb stall and buy a pot of lemon thyme before heading back home to the cottage surrounded by trees, back to Malcolm and my cat and my blog.

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Tags: Fiction