‘The Trolley Ladies’
by Jess Aitken
You see her near the bus stop every morning, lugging a trolley bag behind her. Her grey hair hangs loosely over her shoulders, sunhat tilted back, as she strides, chin raised, down the street, crying out, ‘Excuse me!’
She works her way down one side and up the other, entreating anyone who meets her gaze. ‘Excuse me! Are you going to Northwall Road? Are you going to Gracefield? Can you take me to Maitangi?’
The destination always changes; only the pleading, frazzled tone remains the same. She needs to get somewhere, anywhere, desperately.
A man crossing the road bites—unfamiliar with her routine, or kind enough to offer anyway. She mumbles something unintelligible and tugs her trolley bag in the opposite direction.
Maybe she doesn’t want to go anywhere, you think, trying not to stare. Maybe she just wants the option.
‘Hey!’ A shout carries down the street. Here comes the other player in this daily drama.
This woman is tall and sinewy, dressed in work gear and heavy boots. Her hair is an unlikely orange, her face lined with a lifetime’s cigarettes. She storms towards Sunhat Lady, pushing a supermarket trolley full of plastic bags.
‘Don’t you give her anything!’ she yells. ‘Don’t listen to her!’
Nobody replies. You wonder why she cares so much.
Sunhat Lady continues down the street. Work-Gear Lady gives chase, pushing her trolley. She pauses for a moment to rifle through a rubbish bin, then continues the hunt, bellowing her warning. ‘Hey! Don’t give her anything!’
Your bus arrives. You all crowd on, thankful for your sanity.
She stands in the shallow bay, fossicking for shellfish. If you could see her now, you wouldn’t recognise her. Her skin is darker, her long hair more black than grey. You might think there’s something familiar about the way she wears her straw hat tipped back, or the way she occasionally lifts her head to stare, wary and defiant, along the empty beach. If you saw her, you might wonder.
But you cannot see her. It will be another three hundred years before you are even born.
She works her way through the shallows, digging for pipi with her toes. Each small, white mollusc goes into the kete she carries on her hip. Apart from the hat—its style close to that of the Europeans who are yet to reach these shores—she could be one of the locals. She’s learnt it pays to blend in.
The sun beats down. Tūī sing in the native bush that grows to the water’s edge, decades before this bay will even be a town, never mind a suburb of the sprawling city in which you will one day live.
Laughter carries around the headland, followed by a group of young women. Their long hair is wet, their breasts glistening with sweat and sea water. They are sunlight and laughter, strong, brown limbs climbing over rocks to where the low-tide mussels sit exposed.
The woman in the hat slips from the water. She is drawn to the girls’ chatter, the way they move so confidently through the world, harvesting food in baskets made of nothing but grass and human ingenuity. These girls are her. Or she is them. She cannot quite remember.
‘Such clever things,’ she coos, stepping from the cliff’s shadow. She speaks their language, as she speaks all tongues. Language was her first great innovation.
The girls’ startlement turns to polite interest. Life has taught them they have little to fear from an old kuia.
‘What will you think of next?’ the woman asks, moving closer. ‘Perhaps some way to gather mussels faster, eh? Or maybe grow them larger?’
The girls’ mouths are wide, their eyes transfixed. The woman is a beacon. A light to which they cannot put a name. She is possibility and potential. Ideas and impetus. She is the future laid out before them. They only have to step towards her, listen to what she says.
‘Enough!’ The shout echoes through the bay.
Another woman stands on the beach, feather cloak around her shoulders, chin marked with the whorls of moko kauae—but the lines are curling vines and leaves. She, too, knows the benefits of blending in but is yet to master it.
Head thrown proudly back, she glares across the dozen paces between her and her old nemesis.
With a howl, the hat-wearer throws herself at the woman in the cloak. They roll into the shallow water, hands around each other’s throats. Salt-spray blinds them both. They splutter, trying to blink the sting from their eyes. Once, such things wouldn’t have bothered them. But life is different now.
The woman who’d been wearing the hat twists away, gasping and waving her hands. ‘Stop. Stop.’
She retrieves her hat from the shallow waves and sits at the edge of the surf. ‘We have done this enough, don’t you think?’
The tattooed woman rises to her feet, cloak streaming water. ‘It is enough when you stop.’
‘I cannot.’ The defiant one looks up, unapologetic. ‘It is what I am.’
Her argument needs no elaboration; they’ve had this conversation countless times.
Moving slowly in the sodden cloak, the other woman joins her at the edge of the surf, sitting an arm’s length away. The woman with the hat settles the wet straw back on her head. There is no need to rush these meetings.
‘You will not stop pushing,’ the cloaked woman says eventually. ‘And I shall not stop holding you back.’
They sit another moment—long to most, but not to them.
The woman in the hat looks to her companion, something fearful and frazzled in her face. ‘Do you remember what, exactly…what it is we are?’
The cloaked woman looks back at her, strong and just as lost. ‘No. Not exactly.’
‘It is important though, I think. Time after time, we have chased each other across this Earth. Ever since I began. That was a long, long time ago, and we both were different then.’
‘No. We are different now.’
‘Change is good. Change is life—surely we agree on that.’
The cloaked woman studies the other. They are both so much closer to human, so more easily damaged. Perhaps the chaotic wretch cannot be stopped, but she could be constrained. Lashing out a dark hand, she seizes the hat-wearer by the wrist, holding her still with all the force of her withering power.
‘You shall not leave this bay.’ Her voice is as sharp as wind through winter mountains, as compelling as the tides. ‘You will remain here, until you are no more. I will stay to see you do. This is where it ends.’
The woman in the hat leaps to her feet. The drive to conquer and explore still burns. She wants to leave; she needs to move on. But she cannot go. This place has dug hooks into her soul.
She pushes back against the magic, but her own has never been as strong. No. That is not the way. But she will find one. She will.
Tears mark her cheeks. She glares at the one who has done this to her. ‘You cannot hold me. Not forever.’
The cloaked woman gazes up at her. ‘Let us see who withers first.’
Her body is shifting flames, her veins a trillion synapses all firing at once. She stands in a forest of tall trees, their trunks as straight as the pillars of the temples her people will one day build.
You would not recognise her, not now. There is no hat. There is no long hair. There isn’t even skin. But she still stands with her head tilted back, as if staring at some distant horizon.
She is here, in this forest, and she is everywhere humans gather. She is in every moment a hunter hefts his spear. Every tanned hide, each clay pot, every careful preparation of herbal medicine.
She always has been. Prompting, driving, growing as their minds expanded. But she has not always had a body, not always had the pleasure of moving through the forest, smelling the leaf litter burn under her white-hot feet.
This is new, relatively speaking. And it is something wonderful.
Ahead, she hears the low babble of chatter and animal sounds, sees plants growing in lovely rows.
The burning woman smiles. They have flourished well, spreading from where they first began to shape sticks and stones into tools. With each innovative thought, her new body grows stronger. Their cleverness feeds her—and she will pay it back in full.
A sudden roar thunders from beneath the earth. The ground heaves, bucking under her flaming feet. Trees split and fall.
The burning woman turns to run to the settlement’s aid but is halted by another roar. A wall of water rises from the nearby ocean, toppling trees as if they were nothing but the smallest twigs.
The people up grab their children, running, screaming.
The wall of water falls upon them. The screaming stops. The wave powers on, remorseless. It hits the woman where she stands up slope. She drops to a crouch, head down against the onslaught.
Pressure. Cold. The hard hits of shrapnel wood. They cannot harm her. No more than a thrown stone can crush a thought.
As the water recedes, she picks her way down to where the settlement stood. There is nothing to mark the place. Nothing but a stretch of mud where crops grew moments ago, splintered wood, and a creature standing at the centre of the devastation.
For an instant, the woman thinks it is a tree—an old matriarch that has somehow survived.
But no, those gnarled boughs are legs and arms. The vines are hair, hanging to the ground. Dark moss shadows the lines of mouth and nose. Eyes burn in this strange face, simultaneously as warm as summer sunlight and as cold as midnight stars. It is a being. Old, far older than anything the burning woman knows.
And it is smiling.
The woman’s hands clench into flaming fists. All these people dead. All this destruction. And this thing stands here, grinning about it.
‘You did this.’ She spits the words in the language of the recently dead.
The tree-woman turns her head, slow and insurmountable. Her eyes burn as brightly as the flaming woman’s flesh. ‘I did.’
‘It was needed.’ She bends, touching a splintered trunk, and new leaves spring from it. ‘They cut and burn. Slash and steal. They take more than they give.’
Ah. The flaming woman knows now what this is.
‘You are an old god.’ Her features form a fiery sneer. She likes the righteous feel of it. ‘Bitter and malicious. Pushed aside now they know their worth. They do not have to ask for anything.’ She flings her arms wide, gesturing to the broken forest. ‘All this is here to serve.’
The tree-woman smiles and bends to touch another stump. ‘I am no more god than you. I care not for prayers and offerings, hollow rites and empty words.’
She straightens, growing taller, her hair of vines curling out across the sky. ‘I care for balance. For leaf and bird and earth. I care for order. So I shall halt these hairless primates where I must, for they have outstepped their bounds.’
The flaming woman leaps towards her, meaning to wrap fiery hands around the wooden throat. But the other is gone, and she is alone in what once was a clearing, nothing but shattered trees and mud for company.
‘You will not stop them,’ she whispers. ‘Not while I live. And no one can kill invention.’
You watch them through the bus window as you pull away.
Work-Gear Lady stands beside her supermarket trolley, sorting the recyclable goods she’s reclaimed from the bins. Sunhat Lady strides past her, gaze set on the end of the street, defiance in her upturned chin. For a moment, their eyes meet, and you catch a glimpse of something else.
Something ancient, beautiful, and fierce.
Jess is a research scientist and amateur writer of speculative fiction living in Auckland, New Zealand. Her early love of stories, and the characters within them, lead to a general fascination with what makes us who we are and a career studying human development.
She holds a PhD in psychology. Her research, focused on the development of empathy and social cognition, has given her a deep understanding of how experiences and social interactions shape people and relationships throughout life. This interest and expertise is reflected in her stories.
When she’s not writing or reading, she loves re-watching old favourites like Buffy and Gilmore Girls, playing boardgames with her husband, and going for walks on the beach near their house.