I'm pleased to announce that the winner of the Wild Words Writing Competition Spring 2015 is Taniwha by Nikki Woods. Congratulations to Nikki.
By Nikki Woods
Mother lays my vest and pants on the Terylene towel and rolls it carefully to hide the contents.
‘We don’t want to embarrass your father,’ she says, wedging the cloth parcel under my arm.
I wear my swimsuit beneath my tunic to minimise the potential for immodesty, but it’s outgrown and cuts where my legs meet my privates. As Mother bends to tug at the costume, I curl my arms around her neck and rest my head in her vinegar-scented hair.
'The sooner you go, the sooner you'll be back,’ she reassures, but her bright tone is belied by her downcast eyes.
Mindful of my father’s determination that the weekly ordeal should harden my feet as well as my character, there is nothing more that mother can do than to rub oil of Benzoin onto my soles, best to protect me on the barefoot walk to the pool.
I hear my father in the porch putting on his thick-soled walking boots.
‘Come on, girl,’ he barks. ‘Time is not for wasting.’
We set off on the long walk across the station - hundreds of acres ‘cleared with my own bare hands,’ Father will tell anyone willing to listen.
Mother says he is a proud man, but I know that his conceit is as fragile as the life of a winter-born lamb. A sickly child born with a hole in the heart, I think it’s a fault that has never mended, and I imagine the goodness that might once have been there seeping away, oozing out of the hole. But Father believes that he left the spectre of death in the harsh old country, and he attributes much to our new land of adoption, with its temperate climate and fertile soil.
My father’s satisfaction with the new country is matched only by my mother’s sorrow. A timid woman, made more anxious by displacement from her birthplace, she plants sweet pea flowers to remind her of home. The sights, sounds and smells of the new land make her fearful: she finds the mountains too high, the sky too bright and the air she breathes too sharp. Every day Mother weeps for her loss and every day I watch her, hoping to learn the lesson of how to live a different life.
On the journey to the pool, I am tested on my bible knowledge:
‘Who was the first man and who was created to serve him?’
‘Adam and Eve, Father,’ I reply,’ and they both lived…’
‘And what does the bible say about idle chatter?’
This is a trick question and I have learnt to stay quiet.
‘Women are to be seen and not heard,’ he spits.
And so I follow Father in silence, my swimsuit scratching against my skin and my feet splintering as I am marched over the stony ground.
At the entrance to the gorge that leads to the pool, we find the familiar circle of woven eucalyptus twigs, a decoration carefully arranged by the Maori whose bushland home was proudly cleared by my father. Tied to the place of their ancestors, the family have not gone far and I sometimes hear them singing:
Kehua, Kehua hine, ‘Ghost, ghost girl,’ they call, gently mocking the paleness of my skin.
The wreath is arranged as an offering to their Taniwha, the fierce guardian of the tribe to whom homage is paid with gifts and sacrifices.
‘Beware the worship of false idols!’ Father warns, as he kicks violently at the offering, scattering the green shoots.
‘Down you go,’ he says, pushing me ahead. ‘Down to the pool where the monster lives.’
At the water’s edge, Father takes his place on an overhanging rock, trailing his feet in the pool. I tremble as I take off my tunic and enter the deep, shadowy water.
‘Head under,’ Father shouts and I obey, squeezing my eyes tight shut so as not to see the beast below.
‘Float! Float or the monster will eat you,’ he orders, and I lie on my back, arching my spine away from the lurking serpent.
In this position of watery suspension, I fix my eyes on the sky above and it is a while before I realise that my father’s shouts have been replaced by shrieks, the piercing screeches of an animal caught in a trap, knowing its fate. I lift my head to look across to the rocky commanding post to see my father twisted in agony, his body contorted and his face blown, the colour of a ripened bruise. There is fear in his eyes as he lurches from the rock into the pool and gasps for breath as, in turn, he thrashes his arms and holds his chest, thrashes and holds, thrashes and holds.
When the last ripple gives way to smoothness and the pool is still, I swim to the shore and sit a while, staring out across the water’s soundless surface. My father’s boots stand at the place he took them off and I step into them:
‘Hurry, girl,’ I say. ‘Hurry now, there is no time to lose.’
At the top of the ravine, I collect the scattered twigs and crouch to resurrect the offering. The warmth of the sun spreads across my back and I am enveloped in the sweet smell of eucalyptus. I lift my face to the light that will turn my ghost skin brown.
Now that the time for muteness has ended, the stories of my life will begin. Soon, I will tell the first of these. The narrative will be for my mother, who presently waits patiently for my return, not knowing that our lives are forever changed. I think of the words I will use for the story that must be told and relish the sounds on my tongue, the sounds that will break the silence to tell the tale of the day the Taniwha took my father.