Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize Runner-Up, Bite the Hand


How is the Pacific in the evening? Wobbly like a drunk or a toddler. In the lounge of the Diana Star, the passengers are singing karaoke in the dark. On a wall is an enormous projection of words, in blue font bordered with white, marching against a backdrop of phantoms. Nowadays, all karaoke videos are sourced from the dead. When someone passes away, their family, friends, lovers – whomever has access – sell the deceased’s Cloud to content companies. Memory vultures, buying wreckages of grief, reducing them to stock images. Now, to the tune of Karen Dalton, flashing ghostly: a woman does a pirouette in Venice before it was swallowed by the sea; a line of schoolchildren outside the science museum of an unsunken Osaka. Something’s on your mind. Death is everywhere, especially in song.

We are on course to Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Predictions have listed it a low-risk destination, meaning: no active outbreak of disease, little possibility of environmental disaster, minimal civil unrest. We would not travel this far south otherwise. Some onboard Diana Star have been seasick since we departed Europe. Others have been on this ship pursuing safety for a decade and are more at ease under a massive wave than a roof. It has been three years for me. I will probably die a sailor. While touring crumbling civilizations, I have caught myself yearning for storms in restaurants or in the crossways of foreign roads, swaying to imagined swells.

This far from land, Andrej starts acting like a caged dog. He is pacing outside on the bow of the ship, longing – I never ask what for. I can see him down there with his younger sister, Vita, getting high. The blaze of their shared joint, a paltry signal in the pitch. They are taking turns walking back and forth, glancing every now and then at the upper deck. Conversing about their next move, how to squeeze me for another thousand. Vita throws back her dainty head and cackles in the salt air. Andrej surveys the black water. I watch him roll his shoulders.

People sometimes ask me where I found him, never, how did you meet? Women like me do not meet men like Andrej. There are no Andrejs at the fundraisers or the dinner parties, none schmoozing at the glittering galas, or golfing within the gilded gates of well-heeled retirement communities. He has just turned 25. When he was born, I’d already lived once over. Been married, had twins. By the time he was three, I was divorced and refurnishing the husk of my youth with expensive trinkets, a new love and a new career. Then all that new ended, and something else began, something nameless. Where did I find him? A year ago, while cruising the Danube. The captain dropped anchor in Belgrade. I went to the nearest supermarket to buy a punnet of raspberries. Andrej was working there, among the fruit. A beautiful face. Brown eyes, thick hair, strong nose, he was craning over the granny smiths, lit unnaturally by fluorescents, the green of the apples colouring the bone of his jaw, his neck. Like an angel designed by Lidl. He straightened up when I came over. His accent neutral, he said, ‘good day ma’am, how will I help you?’



Before we left Europe, Martha took me and Vita to the vintage cinema. She bought us caramel corn and ice creams. The cinema was empty, with seats of dull velvet that reeked of soured butter. Vita’s ice cream melted onto her wrists. While the animated mice on the screen sang about America, Martha touched me.

Now, weeks later, Vita complains about Martha’s behaviour during the movie. Over the crash of the waves, she yells to me that I should have stopped her. What can I say? Vita should not have come with us. She replies, ‘Martha asked me to,’ then laughs loudly.

Vita would not be so hateful if she could remember exactly how bad things have been for us. But her memory is hollowed out and she often forgets what has happened even hours before. Consequently, she believes we can do better than Martha and the Diana Star, and that our lives might yet improve, the icebergs will return, the Amazon resurrected. When she finishes the vutra, I tell her if she is humiliated by our situation, it is only because she has forgotten where we came from.

When I was 7 and Vita 4, we were involved in a harrowing event which led to her being scheduled for a Hippocampus Restructure, a surgery for which I was too old, my mind already “hardening”. The procedure was still experimental, doctors understood that a level of brain plasticity was necessary for the restructure to take but had not confirmed precisely how high. Children who had traumatic memories extracted back then have since entered adulthood with forgetfulness and dysfunction. They suffer spectres of memory, somatic responses that link to nothing, obsessions without origins, unmoored terrors. Still, those haunted few are better off than the many who remember. Sometimes, when I see Vita tremble at a certain tone, or halt before a blue-lit room, I am seized by the urge to scream I know what your body knows! I have not forgotten! I am trapped in time!



‘Top-up, Martha?’

I pull myself back, squint at the waitress who has come onto the terrace where I am reclining. I rattle my glass towards her. She pours me enough Montrachet to put me in a lasting stupor. In the lounge, a white-haired man sings off-key. I do a double take. He resembles my first girlfriend, Billie. Extremely demanding, Billie. That was part of her appeal. Her eagerness, her seriousness when she would describe what I should do, where to kneel.

‘Did you want anything else, Martha?’

I say no. Stare at the whip of her ponytail against her back as she turns to leave. She passes Andrej and Vita as they wobble across the deck. Andrej stoops and kisses me. A taste of weed and salt on his lip. Vita observes us coolly. She bears, along with severity, a trace loveliness which is being eroded by each of life’s slights. I am charitable to her brother and to her, but she withholds affection. Yet she brims with feeling, aimless hunger, I can sense it. Just beneath. Andrej takes my drink and downs it in one.

Vita sighs, ‘how far from shore?’

I study the stars, pretend to comprehend their twinkling. Were there not navigators once who knew the language of light in the velvet dark? I stroke Andrej’s hand, thumb the callous of his palm. Oh well, they are gone, chewed up by time and digested into mythology. Now there is just me.

‘One day,’ I tell them both.


I wake in the night and stare at the ceiling. It pulsates like it is breathing. Lately, I am finding it difficult to sleep and stay asleep. Something is fucking with me. I get up and roam the outer deck until dawn, then sneak into Martha and Andrej’s room. They are both dreaming. Martha is drunk and twitching. On the floor beside her is a puddle of vomit. My body stirs with remembering at the stench. I do not know what the memory is, I only feel it. My skull is full of vacant buildings.

I rummage through the vanity and find Martha’s suede-bound diary. She has told me before that the suede is of the deer that lived on her father’s estate. I have read that deer herds used to graze at the foot of mountains, and gallop among the dunes of the river Danube. There was once enough deer that they could be hunted, skinned, their heads mounted on the walls of diners. I open Martha’s diary and pocket the €1500 I discover tucked in the jacket. On the latest page she has drawn a couple fucking in several different positions.

Before breakfast, Andrej tells me death is in song. I ask him where he procured this idea from, he says Martha. I say, how about Tubthumping? When we sit at the table, he sulks and ignores me. He is always being a bitch. Martha is still in bed, and her porridge goes cold while I eat the imitation blueberries from the top of it. It is lunchtime when she slinks into the dining room with tortoiseshell sunglasses, a coat of fox fur the same colour as her dyed-hair. She winces extravagantly and pushes the porridge away.

‘I can’t eat this,’ she declares, ‘this isn’t real milk is it? I can’t eat this.’



When we are minutes from docking, we wait at the bow of the ship. We can see the harbour and a long white cloud hovering low against the land.

Vita says, to no one, ‘Aotearoa has some of the last herds of sheep in the world. If I do not see sheep during our visit, I never will.’

Martha says, ‘when I was a girl, there were hundreds of species of native birds in New Zealand.’

Vita glares at me. She hates that Martha is always beginning sentences, when I was a girl. Vita believes that Martha is bloated with her own glorious past. True, some of us have only the present, and settle for scraps of history handed down to us by the generations that squandered theirs. In any case, I do not know what to do with history. Has anyone ever known? There is a gust, and Vita leans on the railing. Martha braces against my back.


After bringing down our bags, Vita and Andrei share a look. They savour the solid ground, poor land creatures. I have seen how their legs shake when the waves rock, their bloodless faces when the sky blackens with cloud. I point to a sausage vendor nearby and ask Andrej to get me something to eat, and then take Vita’s arm.

‘I would like to see sheep soon,’ she says.

‘It’s important to have fun,’ I tell her, ‘But what’s really important is to enjoy yourself.’

I rub her shoulder, see confusion sour her expression – she does not understand. Fun is a children’s game. Enjoyment connotes possession. To enjoy something is to delight in an object that you understand has more or less power than you. Or this is all nonsense. Anyway, I have no faith in anyone’s ability to comprehend anyone else. Only sensation has any tug, any influence at all.

‘You will need to show me what this means,’ she says.


After we have checked in at the hotel, I take an evening walk to a lookout atop a hill. Below, the lights dim as curfew nears, then a strong wind blows, shakes the branches of dead trees, and the city goes black. An hour passes before someone else comes onto the lookout. I discern only their shimmering, mercurial outline. They may not be real.

‘Kia ora,’ they say, ‘you a local?’

I say that I am from Diana Star and see them shift their weight from one leg to the other.

‘Right, one of those nomads chasing the safe zones. So, what are you, a financier, a princess?’

Like a lonely bitch, I crave confession. But I do not say I am poor or that my survival depends on whether an heiress wishes to continue fucking my brother.

‘How long you here for?’ The stranger asks.

I tell them the Diana Star will leave at noon on the 31st. Before the stranger disappears into the bush, I imagine them winking at me.


In the morning, we go by train to Akatarawa Valley where the sheep are kept. The train stops in Te Awa Kairangi and I go to purchase Martha a drink from the woman making rounds in cattle class. From my book of common phrases, I say to the woman, ‘morena one drink. Koa.’

‘Kia ora. What flavour would you like?’ She replies. Her white earrings dangle soundless against her neck. But I hear them in my mind.

There were windchimes in the doorway of mine and Vita’s apartment in Belgrade where we stayed during the droughts. During those months, only windchimes rung to break and mark the silent hours. There was no work to be had then, no food. People were so emaciated, they could not bring themselves to either pleasure or violence. And each day I awoke to a feeling of immense purity, the kind that can only be had in complete desolation.

‘Raspberry,’ I say to the woman, ‘it is not for me.’


Martha draws the curtain of our train compartment and takes a pottle from her purse. She smiles at me and rubs lavender-coloured cream on her forearms.

‘Have you seen many sheep before?’ I ask. She nods.

‘When I was a girl, my father leased land to a sheep farmer. Naturally, we weren’t allowed much around the lambs. They’d be off to the slaughterhouse soon enough. You shouldn’t get attached to something not long for this world. So, I’ve seen many. But in another sense I haven’t.’

I do not pry or she will begin waxing lyrical. Silent, I think of how much she has seen and how little it has meant. I think about the strange, inhuman eyes of sheep.


The sheep live inside an enclosure where the temperature and humidity are regulated by a dome which keeps the foliage alive. The guide leading us through the enclosure tells us that the earth within the dome is imported from the Asian steppe and supplemented by soils from North America. During drought, water is pulled from the sea by the dome which distils it to produce rain. The guide does not tell us what becomes of the salt or how the dome is powered. Vita scans our surroundings and even gets on her tippy-toes.

Finally, we reach a clearing and the guide halts, points. A few metres ahead of us, a tiny creature stumbles through the bush. Its legs are crooked, its spine is dipped, its wool is patchy and sparse.

For several minutes, it struggles feebly to climb a slope before slumping on its side, defeated.

‘What’s that smell?’ asks Vita.

‘Sheep shit,’ says Martha.


On our last day in Aotearoa, I bring Vita and Andrej to a marae. It is not a real marae, however, it has no iwi – the Māori word for tribe. Or perhaps I am wrong. Iwi may mean family. I have given up on memorising new meanings.

Our cicerone is, I think, a Māori man. He tells us about the history of Māori people, the ongoing trauma of colonialism, the tenets of te ao Māori. He gestures and pronounces foreign words – kūwaha, maihi, heke. I try to listen to him, but am distracted by the laminate flooring, the 3D print carvings, and how Vita and Andrej glow in the glare of the sun through the door, like holographs.


On the Diana Star, I unpack Martha’s toiletries, but leave our clothes in the suitcases. We are sailing to Mianjin. The journey should be only a week, provided there are no disasters.

Predictions forecast a low-risk passage across the Tasman, but I am suspicious of those who attempt to divine the future. My mother was a fortune-teller, and she, like so many of us, had been unable to see tragedy coming even when it was breathing down her neck.

Before entering the dining room, I pause outside the windows to observe Martha and Vita together. Vita wears the new cotton sundress that Martha bought for her from a vintage store.

Martha is in her dressing gown. Despite the many cruel things Vita says about Martha, she is an attractive woman. I have come to appreciate the dips in her haunches, and her low, calm voice.

She drinks her martini and says something which makes Vita smile. When I come to the table, they are laughing at something which neither of them explains.


On the second day of our journey to Mianjin, everyone receives a memo about missing food items. It reads If any passengers are found entering the kitchen without permission, they will be asked to leave Diana Star permanently upon arrival at Mianjin. Martha throws the paper into the sea. I laugh for her.

On the third day, we are told if any suspicious individuals are seen on the ship, they should be reported to security. Incessantly, passengers discuss sightings of an ill stowaway on the lower levels, but by the fifth day, there is still no concrete evidence that this is true. A final memo is sent out on the sixth day, requesting that anyone who has symptoms of the latest virus strain report to the medical team.

‘Remind me the symptoms,’ says Martha.

‘Shortness of breath, brain fog, fever, heart palpitations,’ says Andrej. There is a pathetic urgency in his voice that I am tempted to mock.


On the day of our arrival to Mianjin, we sit on the deck and Martha orders each of us a martini. Every few minutes, the speakers around the ship repeat this message:

This is a final request for reports of any suspicious persons or symptoms of illness. Honesty is essential. Diana Star must not dock in Mianjin if there are any undocumented or infected persons onboard.

Martha laughs and says, ‘would anyone tell? So, either they throw a person overboard or we all stay here and die of the virus.’

Martha is right. None of us have any choice about wretchedness. That is survival.

We sit and watch as the ship approaches the harbour. I feel Martha’s hand grip my thigh and turn to meet her profile, her contented expression. I notice, then, that her other hand is curved around Vita’s thigh. I look back at Mianjin in the distance and the thrum of my heartbeat fills my ears.

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Mikee Donato Sto Domingo

Mikee Sto Domingo is a Filipino-New Zealander currently living in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara. She has a BA in English Literature from Victoria University and an MA from the IIML. Her work has been published in Turbine, Newsroom, and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand.

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