Mattie got it into her head that the child was too afraid to come into the world. One night this thought was so strong she couldn’t sleep. She got out of bed, dressed quietly so as not to wake Trill and went outside. The old sycamore stood in a pool of moonlight, its branches brushed with silver. Mattie heaved her belly up with her arms and walked over the damp grass to the tree. She leaned against the trunk, feeling the texture of the bark on her skin, listening to the night sounds of birds and the scuttling of small creatures. She breathed in the earth smells of the surrounding fields. She made her child a promise.
Next day Hathor was born. Mattie and Trill buried the afterbirth under the sycamore tree. Trill’s parents, not unexpectedly, refused to attend the ceremony and took the opportunity to voice their displeasure at Mattie’s naming their only grandchild after an Egyptian goddess.
“Hathor? Lady of the sycamore?” Trill’s mother shook her head in disbelief. Nor was she soothed by Mattie’s explanation that the goddess, like the tree, embodied the qualities of sky, love, joy, beauty and music. Everything, in fact, that she wished for her child.
“What nonsense!” Trill’s mother said.”She’ll never fit in anywhere with a name like that.”
“So... you didn’t feel that Trillion Pi was a wee bit out there too?” Mattie said.
“Of course not. We’re mathematicians. What could be more natural?”
Mattie looked at Trill. He shrugged. The shrug said, let it go. Don’t waste your breath.
Hathor’s hair was flaxen, unlike her dark-haired parents, but by her third birthday it had taken on a distinctly green tinge. To refute his mother’s accusation that Mattie was dyeing their child’s hair, Trill brought someone in to look at the pipes. The plumber confirmed that the source of the problem was the copper sulphate that was leaching from the old corroded copper water pipes. When Mattie was reassured there was no danger to health she decided the pipes could stay and so could Hathor’s beautiful green hair. Trill, for once, told his parents to mind their own business.
When Hathor started primary school her name and her hair caused enough of a stir for her parents to decide that the Rudolph Steiner school in the city would be the better option and well worth the longer commute.
“Oh Martha,” said Trill’s mother, “She’ll never fit in anywhere with that hair.”
“She doesn’t have to,” said Mattie.
At her new school Hathor’s name was not considered unusual amongst all the Skylarks, Rains, Birdies, Celestials and Guineveres and nobody commented on her green hair. At home she picked wildflowers from the river banks, sang and danced in the fields and climbed the sycamore tree where she stayed for hours listening to the wind and drawing pictures of clouds and sky.
“What about friends?” the grandparents asked. “It isn’t normal for a child that age to play on her own all the time. She should be in a sports team. A debating club. She should have piano lessons. Gym. Ballet. Choir. She should join Girl Guides. She needs to stop wasting time. She needs to study maths. She needs to stop dreaming her life away. She needs to stop drawing rubbish.”
Trill suggested to Hathor that it might be best not to tell grandma that she had all the friends she needed in the larch, the poplar, the lacewood, the holly, and the sycamore, nor that she talked to them and that they told her stories and taught her songs. Hathor said why not, when it was true and Trill had no answer to that.
By the time Hathor was eighteen her hair was the colour of spring leaves. As many of her classmates at art school sported multi-hued hair, Hathor’s green locks passed unnoticed and everyone there dreamed and drew. At home she still sang and danced in the fields on her own, but she also painted trees and rivers and sky in all their different moods and seasons. Instead of the holiday jobs her grandmother told her to apply for to earn some money and to stop being idle, she spent her summer vacation painting. She told her parents it was a surprise and they couldn’t see it until she feltit truly expressed what she wanted it to.
When the painting was finished Hathorpropped the canvas up on the mantelpiece and called her parents to come in and look.
They could see the painting was of the sycamore. But it looked not so much like a tree as a young girl with hair the colour of leaves, feet elongated into roots that fastened her to the earth, fingers tapering to twigs that stretched out towards the sky.
“Is it okay?” she asked.
Her parents nodded.
“More than okay,” said Trill.
“Much more than,” said Mattie.
The Girl with Green Hair was first published
in The Airgonaut in April 2017.
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is a novelist, essayist, short story and flash-fiction writer with a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her work has been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally and has won several awards. Her flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Blue Fifth Review and was selected for the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
Why do you write?
My fiction often draws on environmental elements and their impact on people’s lives. Some of my short stories are set in the Arabian Gulf where I lived for a year and saw ancient buildings buried by the desert wind, and in Brazil, where I watched wind-fanned grass fires disfigure the Cerrado. In New Zealand, scorching nor’west winds rage across the Canterbury Plains in spring and summer, uprooting trees and sucking moisture out of the earth. During one such blistering wind, I saw, scored into a wooden plaque in the local butcher’s shop, the following quote from Gogol’s Dead Souls: ‘The air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind and everything on earth comes flying past.’ Soon after, I read Jan deBlieu’s book, Wind, where she describes the different names hot dry winds are given in various parts of the world and how they affect the inhabitants and the landscape. She relates advice from medical professionals about avoiding major decisions when wild winds blow. With all this in mind I wrote the short story that appears in Headland 8, "When the Wind Blows", which deals with the effect a prolonged nor’wester has on several families who live on the Canterbury Plains.
When I was 12 I watched a film on television about a herd of wild horses galloping through the surf. The film was in slow motion and I was mesmerised by the way the horses’ manes and tails caught the sunlight and sea spray, and the way light and shadow turned their eyes into dark hollows. As soon as the film finished I ran up to my room to write what I’d seen, thumbing through a dictionary to find new words to help me express my awe. I kept coming back to this story over several years, polishing and re-writing until eventually, six years later, I submitted it for a college assignment in creative writing and received a Distinction. That’s when the idea of becoming a writer seemed less nebulous.
My love of language grew from my father’s story-telling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands. When he exhausted his store of tales about the places he’d seen I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to make up. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though the career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my late teens I read my way through the Brontes, Austin, Elliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette, and Woolf. In my twenties, I taught, travelled, married and wrote, mostly poems I had no intention of showing anyone. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.
My first novel, A Distraction of Opposites, published in 1992, also excavates beneath the surface. What began as an image of a big black spider lurking in the centre of a web became a metaphor for how people can become trapped in sticky situations. The novel examines the world of the subconscious in parallel with the conscious and the story is narrated by the female protagonist trapped by the ‘spider’, a mentally unstable male. I completed this novel while holding the inaugural Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary. My second novel, Tomorrow’s Empire, explores the rise of a religious fundamentalist in Turkey and the culture clash between east and west. This novel took ten years to write, off and on, as I needed to do a great deal of research and travel through Turkey. It is narrated through the voice of the Turkish male protagonist and was published in New Zealand in 2000, two years after the Iranian President Khatami declared he no longer supported the killing of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, though the fatwa would remain in place. The previous ten years had seen book burnings in the UK and bombings and killings elsewhere. Sensitivities about Rushdie’s book still ran high. When my publisher tried to have Tomorrow’s Empire published in the UK, not surprisingly, he was unsuccessful.
Can you tell us a little about the origins of this piece and why you wrote it?
A year after Tomorrow’s Empire was published my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22. She died 13 months later in 2002. In the year following her death I could no longer read or write or listen to music. In 2003 my husband and I decided to change our environment and the opportunity came to live and work in Oman for a year. It was a good decision and I filled notebooks with the characters we met, the situations we found ourselves in and the beautiful lunar landscape of Oman. We returned to New Zealand via a short visit to Brazil, a country we’d lived in a few years earlier. Back in New Zealand I completed, with High Distinction, a Master’s degree in Creative Writing through CQ University in Australia. Some of the short stories which resulted from this, set in Brazil and Oman, were broadcast on Radio New Zealand and one, The Stone, was included in The Best New Zealand Fiction, vol 4. This story was inspired by finding a stone with our daughter’s initial on it as we swam in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of her death.
My reading at that stage consisted solely of books about grief and I found that although there was no shortage of literature on grieving young adult death from suicide or accident, young adult death from cancer was so rare that there was very little material available. I thought that writing my own book might go some way to filling that gap. Because of the amount of research necessary it made sense to tackle the subject as a doctorate. I completed my PhD in 2010. The creative non-fiction part of my thesis, which details my own experience of parental bereavement, was published in 2011 by Canterbury University Press as Sing No Sad Songs. After producing several papers from my exegesis and attending conferences delivering them I was finally able to move on from this topic. In 2013 I began writing a new novel and completed the first draft while I was the recipient of the Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writing Residency.
When I finished the final draft of this novel in mid-2016 I discovered the New Zealand flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier and its store of beautiful short narratives. I loved the use of language in many of these stories and the way so much could be implied in so few words. I decided to set myself the challenge of writing in very short forms. Flash fiction generates a continuous flow of ideas and I have found it to be excellent discipline for writing longer pieces too. Looking at the flash fiction and short stories I have written over the past few months I see that many of them deal with loss of various kinds, but also suggest new possibilities. The ideas for these stories come from diverse sources – newspapers articles, fragments of conversation, images, memories, but some appear perfectly formed, apparently out of nowhere. An example of this is The Gatherers in Headland 7. This appeared one day as I walked by the Selwyn River with my dog. The sky was vivid blue, the Southern Alps glittered with snow, the tracks were covered in wildflowers, and the only sounds were bees and birds and the dog splashing in the water. These things filled my mind. And The Gatherers arrived.
In your childhood, who in your family encouraged you to tell stories? Who were some of your formative influences?
My love of language grew from my father’s story-telling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands. When he exhausted his store of tales about the places he’d seen I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to make up. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though the career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my late teens I read my way through the Brontes, Austin, Elliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf.
You’ve also been a teacher.
In my twenties, I taught, travelled, married and wrote, mostly poems I had no intention of showing anyone. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.
What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I'm interested in music and art but literature is my primary focus.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently completing a book of flash fiction titled The Girl with Green Hair and other stories.
What are your views on the future of communication and how technology is changing the way we communicate, read, interact with the world and our imaginations?
Flash Fiction is a form which has interested me in the last eighteen months. Many people believe it appeals to the internet generation because it is easily accessed and read while multi-tasking. However, I believe the best flash fiction should be read like poetry and returned to again and again for the beauty of the words and hidden allusions.
Parts of this interview were adapted from
a piece which first appeared in Headland 8, January 2017