“We wanna wish you a Maori Christmas, we wanna wish you fellaz a Maori Christmas…”
The nasal twang of Billy T. James echoed from the PA system speaker at the edge of the porch, and I gave it a Hera-worthy glare. “Seriously, Castor? Billy T. James? And now already?” I felt as much as heard him chuckle in the back of my head. I took off one of my boots and threw it unerringly at the speaker. The speaker crackled as it fell, but Billy T. continued to sing. I swore in several languages.
I have no fondness for the mortal celebration of Christmas. Call me a grinch or a Scrooge if you will, but I personally find it a singularly pointless exercise. Mind you, I’d never much appreciated offerings to Castor and I back in the day either, so it’s not as if the dislike of ceremony is exclusive to this one. Still, at least when the mortals were making offerings to the Gods (and I can fully endorse offerings to any of the greater Gods and Goddesses, don’t get me wrong), there was some greater purpose to the ritual. Whether it be for fair winds, bountiful harvest, or victory, tribute was given with a specific objective.
I’ve never understood the objective of Christmas and, as I’m not huge on gatherings, I tend to want to be elsewhere during the so-called festive season and wait for the hype to pass. It seems the hype begins earlier and earlier every year, and it’s getting harder and harder for me to avoid.
Castor loves Christmas. Of course he does. He says he enjoys it on behalf of all our staff and clients, but I know better. My perception may not run as deep as his, because I’m far more private than he is and don’t like to intrude where I don’t belong (are you listening now, brother?). But it doesn’t take a genius to know he’s using them as an excuse to get into the celebrations on his own account. Christmas carols, Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Secret Santas. Even the animals are dragged into it and have to wear inane reindeer costumes and antlers!
I couldn’t care less.
I’m doing my best to enjoy my espresso and Marmite on toast and ignoring the continuing murmurs of Billy T. when Castor waltzes round the corner. His Akubra is at a rakish angle over his blue eye, a ridiculous grin plastered on his face.
“You haven’t shaved again,” I observe, not lifting my eyes from the paper. I got in off the red-eye from Greece via Dubai this morning and I’m not fully functional yet. And yes, I know I could simply ‘poof’ or ‘pop’ like the rest of the family seem to make a habit of doing. But I actually quite enjoy flying as a rule. It gives me time to think almost uninterrupted.
Castor rubs his stubble speculatively. “Makes it easier for the crew to tell us apart,” he says.
As if they couldn’t already. Technically, we’re half-brothers, though admittedly since the event we look even more alike than we did previously. Just one of the many consequences of what was, after all, a divine gift. But even if we were identical, Castor’s manner and dress (in comparison to me) would be an instant giveaway. Like not shaving, or like dressing like a jackaroo ever since we worked on The Man from Snowy River. I may not like suits, but I also don’t like looking like a horse wrangler.
None of which has anything to do with this Christmas palaver.
“Are you going to organize a tree for me?” Castor asks. “Actually, we probably need at least four if we’re going to put one in the house, one in the staff mess, and one each in the staff quarters.”
I scowl at him as I pointedly fold my paper and lay it down on the table.
“You are swimming in common labor around here,” I remind him. “All those people shoveling shit and brushing and cleaning, surely a couple of them would be simply delighted to go and find you your blessed trees. Why me?”
Castor tips his head and grins at me, waggling his eyebrows in a manner guaranteed to irritate me.
“Because our instructions, if I might take a moment to remind you, are to, and I paraphrase, get more involved in mortal affairs. I’m fairly certain one of the biggest religious celebrations in the world qualifies as getting involved.”
And I suspect the emotion I feel at his callous reminder of my pending change of circumstances qualifies as being close to hate. However…
“I have packing to do and preparations to make,” I smirk at him. “There’s this minor matter of my being obliged to set up a new office in the OA, as Father likes to call it.”
“Five trees. You’ll need one there, too.”
Not close, definitely ‘hate.’ I stand up, my chair scraping across the oiled Rimu decking. “No trees. Pine pollen makes me sneeze.”
“Then take the pohutukawa from the Memorial Garden,” he says, and I know he’s only half mocking me. “Not only will you not sneeze, but it’ll remind you of home.” His face softens and I feel my own caustic exterior melting to reveal the affection I have for him, which resides beneath. The pohutukawa tree. I almost wish he hadn’t remembered.
The pohutukawa is known as the Kiwi Christmas tree, mainly because it exhibits its masses of bright red flowers in full summer or during the Christmas season. But that isn’t the reason the Memorial Garden pohutukawa holds significance for me. I don’t, as you might recollect, have any particular connection with Christmas, never mind a Christmas tree that also has no true connection to it. No, the pohutukawa in question has a completely different significance. To me, at least.
To appreciate my attachment, I have to take you back a few years. About seven hundred, in fact. Japan. Not that the tree and I began our association there, but it was the beginning of my own personal love for the aesthetics of bonsai. And even that requires a little explanation and going back even further, to where Castor and I began. Bear with me.
Recall my saying previously, on the occasion of my recall to the OA, that I’ve spent a lifetime, an immortal’s lifetime, learning to plan and prepare on account of Castor? Do you also recall my mention of Castor’s tendency toward recklessness? I’ll expand on that a little, because it’s relevant, I promise. And right now, I have no need to ignore Castor because he’s sitting there, smiling at me. He’s contemplating lighting a cheroot, a habit he picked up in Morocco once upon a long time ago, knowing he’s not about to stop my memories.
My step-father, Castor’s father, King Tyndareus of Sparta, had no particular love for either of us. Clearly, as his bastard son (and it was patently obvious I wasn’t his), he outright hated me. At the same time, because his rightful son, Castor, had no chance of demonstrating any of my strength or skills, he hated him, too. The result was that we spent our youth evading his temper and equally as often evading the threats of those seeking his favor on our account. And, to be honest, I had no greater faith in the immortal branch of my family. I knew plenty about betrayals and jealousy, and I had no wish to experience any of it firsthand from my divine relatives.
When Zeus restored Castor to me after his untimely death at the hands of our cousin, Idas, I made the decision, only half-heartedly argued by Castor, that it would be best to exercise discretion and make ourselves rather more absent than present from the realms of Olympus. We all know how Hera feels about bastard children, and it’s also no secret how demi-gods fare at the hands of just about any God or Goddess. It rarely ends well and Castor had absolutely nil experience at either subtlety or evasion.
We went AWOL.
We traveled a lot of places, some of which might eventually prove to have relevance, many not. But somewhere around the early fourteenth century, we ended up in Japan.
It wasn’t a good time for me. I was tired. We’d somehow gotten ourselves entangled in the so-called Holy Crusades (against, I might point out, not for) and I’d seen more bloodshed and atrocities in the name of a foreign god than I cared for. I needed a break and eventually, we ended up in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, in the guise of wandering monks (I know, don’t ask!).
In any event, I spent the better part of my time in the temple gardens, learning the art of bonsai from an elderly former Tendai monk. It was soothing and taught me a great deal about imbuing the spirit of the past into the aesthetic of the present. Castor, of course, was bored almost to imbecility, and eventually caused sufficient strife we were obliged to move on. I left my peace of mind and my trees behind.
Fast forward a few hundred years and several more wars and conflicts, and we somehow ended up on the shores of what had already become the newest jewel in the British crown, New Zealand.
It wasn’t any prettier there than in any of the multitudes of other places we’d witnessed “colonised” and, being familiar with being the underdogs, we chose to sympathise with the native populace, the Maori.
I’m not going into the politics of the matter here. It’s history now, but what I will say is that I became friends with a particular Maori woman who taught me a great deal about Maori lore, spirituality, and custom. I didn’t love her, not in the sense that Eros might have prompted from me with one of his accursed arrows, but I had a deeper affection for her than mere friendship. She reminded me of my long-suffering mother, of my sisters, and of my wife, all long gone and fading from memory. She died of measles, an illness introduced by the colonists and over which neither Castor nor I had any power. I buried her in a place she’d told me was sacred to her people.
A pohutukawa tree grew on the spot in which she was buried. And the pohutukawa tree I now have as a bonsai in the Memorial Garden was grown from a seed of that tree.
It represents more than my wahine, my lost Maori love. It represents all that has been lost, all the lives we’ve touched through our centuries of moving through the mortal world. It was after I began the bonsai that I realised I, for one, no longer wanted to keep moving. I wanted to put down some kind of roots and establish a measure of permanence. It was the time in which I realised I wished to claim New Zealand as homeland, even though it was about as far from my true home as it was possible to get.
I’ve reclaimed my seat while falling into my reminiscences of the past and somewhere along the way, Castor has brought me another coffee. I collect my wits to find him opposite me, his bi-colored eyes, the mirror to mine, locked on my face. He smiles, his thoughts for once not linked directly into mine.
“You just figured it out,” he says softly.
“Figured what out exactly?”
“What Christmas means to the mortals.”
“I’m sorry?” I fail to see the connection between my bonsai pohutukawa tree and Christmas, other than the one I’ve already mentioned, the pohutukawa being the symbol of a typical Kiwi Christmas.
“Aroha, whanau, homecoming, the spirit of peace,” Castor says. “Perhaps you should give that some thought when you return to your new office.”
I blink stupidly at him. Profound words coming from Castor, but I’m reminded of Father’s unexpected words as I’d turned to leave his office. “It’s good to have you back, son.”
Love, family, homecoming, peace. I feel the significance of the tree bearing down on my heart and I get to my feet, foregoing the coffee growing cold in my cup.
“I think I’ve got some trees to organise,” I mumble, not looking at my brother. “And I’ll be taking my bonsai to the new office with me.”
Suddenly, returning ‘home’ bears entirely new implications and responsibilities.
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