As I flew down the hill, my bare feet slapped the packed earth. My chest surged forward, my upper body threatening to over-end me. I had done it before; flown head-over-heals into the ravine and lay there at the bottom, bloody and breathless. This was what the village boys called “Wooing Mother”. If the earth is Our Mother, the hills that rise around us her breasts, her hips, her thighs, then this deep valley is her inner passage. Boys had been plummeting into it for generations. If they fell in a bloody heap at the bottom, they weren’t yet men. If they ran into the Great Mother without spilling themselves, they’d proved themselves worthy of a more material woman.
What it meant for me was something different. My first womb blood had come when I was ten. I’d gotten to paint it onto the carved door of the Wharenui, onto the tongues of my ancestors. I was already a woman. I had nothing to prove. Except that I was as good as any boy.
My feet slowed. I had made it. I stopped and turned, looking up to the heights from which I’d come.
“Woohoo!” came a lone cheer from the top of the hill. Chest heaving, too winded to call back, I waved to Chatham’s lone figure framed by the afternoon sun. He was taller than I and older. Lanky and awkward, he took after his mother rather than his father, Baka Tay, who was short and thick. Chatham had never tried the hill run. He had a cautious nature that caused much trouble between him and the other village boys. They did not respect him, the chief’s son. It did not help that his favorite companion was a cast-off girl called Little Mouse who had a way with vermin.
“Come on. You can do it!” I yelled and stepped off the beaten path to make room for his descent. We had snuck away from the village bullies, but if we waited too long, they’d track us here to taunt and tease. If he could do it now, they would take my word as witness. I would swear on my womb blood if I had to. He was hesitating, thinking too much as was his tendency. “Chatham, it’s like flying,” I pleaded. “Come on.”
He bent one knee, pushed off and came barreling down the hill. Half-way down, I could see he was in trouble. His body was ahead of his feet. He needed to lean back. I saw panic in his dark eyes. He was going to fall, crash, smear in the dust. I had been wrong. He was not ready. If he went back to the village, bloody and limping, everyone would know. He would be shamed more than ever.
His body left the ground, arms flailing, and I screamed in my head, calling for help. I reached into the bush, the brush, the depths of warrens and dens, commanding them to come. The ground surged with scurry and shuffle, scratch and claw, as mouse, rabbit, possum and rat rushed the valley floor. They gathered together, sniffing the air, hoping I had a treat, and just as Chatham’s shadow fell across them, I froze their little minds. I watched the shine in their beady eyes grow dim.
He hit them with a muffled thud, a soft crunch and squish where his knees and elbows dug into the pile. It was a terrible fall. He didn’t tuck and roll like I’d coached him. He might have broken an arm or a leg if his landing had not been cushioned. I heard the air “whoosh” from his lungs as he hit, and I ran to his side, barely noticing the scurry of animals fleeing back into the thicket.
“Chatham, are you hurt?” I stroked his arms and legs, checking his fingers and toes the way a mother checks her newborn. Amazingly, there was no blood, except what was beginning to ooze out from beneath him. “Get up!” I commanded, and he scrambled to his feet, gasping, standing over me. I cried out, looked away, laid my head against his bare calf and let the tears come. “What have I done?” I whimpered.
Chatham sat next to me, pulled me onto his lap with warm arms. “You saved me,” he said. He kissed my eyes, my cheeks and licked the tears away. His mouth ate at mine, his breath still coming in huffs from the fall down the hill. I pulled away and looked into his eyes wanting- wanting it to be worth it. If I had lost the trust of the little ones forever, I wanted something in exchange, something magical to replace it. I pulled Chatham’s mouth back onto mine and wrapped my arms around him.
A little later we lay in a naked, sweaty heap at the bottom of Mother’s shaft. Chatham was a man, and I wasn’t sure if I had lost something or gained it. We heard a noise, a catcall from the top of the hill. I raised my head from Chatham’s chest to see the staggered silhouette of the village boys.
“Woohoo!” came the faint call of their voices from the top of the hill.