by Tina Makereti
It came out of the sea on a Saturday morning, heaving its body onto the rocks beside the boat sheds in the darkness before dawn. It sat in a shallow pool potted with black mussels and a slick of seaweed while it took a few breaths, then drew itself up the stairs. It could smell rust and exhaust fumes.
The dragon boaters had woken it the day before, crowds of them, their barrage of noise muted only slightly by the shallow watery cradle of the harbour. Somehow the tides had brought it in as it slept, released from its bed in the depths of the Pacific by the rumblings of a quake. It wasn’t just their yells that woke it, or the slice of their paddles in the water – a thousand small splashes that sounded like storm rain from where it lay. They brought something else with their bright-painted hulls and racing arms. It felt them moving above, pushing against the limits of their age just as they pushed through the water, a hard-held breath waiting for life to happen. It felt the enormity of future somethings beating in their chests. It opened an eye and saw the firm thighs flash, the twist of wrist tendon.
It wanted them.
It watched all day, one eye and then two, from just below the surface. A girl looked right into one of those round dark lenses just before she plunged her paddle, but quickly dismissed what she had seen as reflection – the heat and sweat of the day causing distortion in her vision. Even so, that afternoon she developed an aversion to water, preferring to keep fingers and toes above. The others on her team teased when they noticed her reserve, dipping their own fingers in to splash her. The thing beneath could almost taste the juice in their taunts. It dreamed of nibbling their sweet digits.
Still, it stayed – calm, quiet, breathing in salt-wet infused pockets of air, readying itself for the closing of gills and opening of lungs. It could wait. The upper world would still be there when it was ready. Last time, the land under the sea had rumbled the thing up from below in great surges, wave after wave, until it found itself pushed up into the harbour and past, washing through a beachfront house with the massive tide. The house had been quickly abandoned when the sea came knocking; so it stayed awhile, slumping and sloshing from room to room, curious about the upper world. The house was wood, and spare, and the contents were now damp and sandy and preparing to rot. There it found a woman’s petticoat among some items pushed into a wet corner, and a framed family portrait that had remained miraculously nailed to a wall. It wondered about the smooth-skinned creatures in the picture, with their coverings and ruffles and silky heads. It reached thick fingers to the bulbed seaweed and baby mussels that formed stringy colonies on its own head, felt its own calloused black barnacle skin, and made a sound very like laughter.
The man of the house came back the next evening to see what he could salvage, and was sure as he approached that he saw his own wife through the open door, naked to her waist, which was circled by the petticoat he had seen her slip on and off many times. He was at once puzzled and aroused, but as he stepped closer the mirage disappeared, and there was only the house, the sand, a mound of seaweed and barnacled rocks in the centre of the room. He gathered the family photo, an unbroken chair, and some of the clothes he thought would dry well once cleaned. The petticoat, though, he could not find.
When the man was gone, the thing left the house and returned to the waterfront, which was now in a different place than it had been before the quake. For a time, it became a swamp creature, settling itself to sleep in beach mud for the day, spending its nights marauding through the town. In those days it was a small town with not many people about past sunset. It met the occasional drunk on the street and befriended him, fitting in well with the night women and hardy types that dwelled in the afterdark world. They did not notice it was different, only that it closely resembled a cousin they once had, or their brother long since married and gone to Auckland, or their Great Aunt Sandrine, a handsome woman of grand proportions and grander desires. Occasionally, someone would get to wondering whether the thing was actually man or woman.
In the dark hours before dawn, when even the most wretched of wanton society had crawled to their beds, it went back to the harbour, hoping for a meal on the way. The possibilities in the town were few, but there was the occasional weak dog or shivering goat not far from its demise. Once it found a man, half mad with fever, wandering close to the water. It sensed the weakness of his breath and drew him in. In the morning a ship’s pilot found the man stiff and cold and curled like a baby on the lip of the jetty.
Those days did not last. More people began arriving in the harbour, and not all of them were fooled by its appearance. If they looked too close upon it, they would see an unsettling roughness of skin, and if this caused them to look further, they began to think they saw something that was not possible. Over time, it began to spend less time in the town, and more time in the muddy bed of the risen harbour. Eventually the people decided to take the wetland and make it dry for their own use. It had loved to go among them and hear their stories, but it could not tolerate their interference. The deep wide blue bed of the Pacific beckoned.
It had been asleep a long time.
Now the upper world was so thick with hungry brightness that the thing took its time to emerge. From beyond the wharf, glass and metal monoliths shone knives of light into its eyes. The surface seemed like a place of too many sharp edges. Why not return to the blessed blue? Perhaps it was not meant for surface walking at all. But then a lunch-break couple would pass, and it would catch a whiff of the heat that passed between them, and it knew that it wouldn’t be able to stop itself from going after a taste.
When it emerged in the early hours, no-one was around to see. It hauled itself out, huffing against the barometric pressure that made it feel heavy in the upper world, grunting when one of its tusks snagged under the edge of the dock. It righted itself and sat, dripping and belching, until the thing in it subsided, and it took on a softer shape. People would see what they would see, according to their fate.
An hour or so later, the early morning workers and joggers that hurried past saw nothing more than a heavy, misshapen figure, which they took for a street person wearing layers of hand-me-down jackets. The snuffling coughs and dank odour only confirmed this impression. By the time the full light of the morning cleared the shadows, it was not noticeably different in shape from the trotting office workers it watched go by. They seemed constantly distracted, at the bid of the whirring and tweeting mechanical birds in their pockets, constantly in mid-sentence or mid-argument. Even the quiet ones; it could sense the inner wars playing out behind their eyes. This made them much easier to fool than their ancestors, but the easy defeat made the thing sad. It walked among them all morning, and hardly one looked close enough to see. Their chatter was so constant, none had time to hear the clunks and snufflings of its long disused lungs. If any had been accustomed to paying attention to the air pressure around them, they would have noticed the void that encased it, as if space had formed a vacuum to contain the impossibility of it.
There was some relief when a small boy ran past with his father in pursuit. The boy looked directly into the thing’s eyes and it felt itself seen, in every form it inhabited. The boy did not flinch, or even blink. He was very small and soft-headed, and he had yet to speak more than seven words out loud. But as he ran and looked straight into the thing’s eyes, it was as if he spoke directly into its mind: Look at me. Look at me run! My legs go fast. Do you see me? Do you see me run? I am fast. Faster than Daddy. Look at me.
Every one of them, the land walkers, left parts of themselves out in the world as they moved through it, and none of them seemed to notice. It was these trails the thing followed and tasted – the boy like honey and fresh cucumber; the office workers like sharp steel and arugula leaves. The young people from the day before had scented the wharf with new apples and uncooked chicken. The flavours of people called it forward to the city streets, where it could walk amongst them and sample unhindered.
This time it spent its days on the streets – a taste here, a whiff there. This new world was so full of different flavours, so fast and shot through with colour. This was an addictive place. The thing rarely took a whole meal, so full it was with all the tastes offered on the streets. The city was teeming now with people from worlds it had never encountered before – processed silk and exhaust fume tang, body-sweat and sundried-fruit relish. Some children were fresh and clean, like the running boy, some already curled like burnt plastic and dry leaves. It was awed by the world the land walkers had built up for themselves – a place of extremes. It felt its appetites had been equalled.
Each night it returned to its under-jetty home, calmed by the rhythmic sway of the waters and the sleepy taste of salt. It knew the flirtation couldn’t last – the dry world was too full of danger and temptation for a creature like itself. But it continued like this for days that turned into weeks.
There was a bitter wind the morning it woke to her feet dangling over its corner of the wharf. The gulls had begun to call as light that breached the waves and saturated the sky. People did not usually choose this place for sitting, which made for a good home. Her scuffed sneakers were an unwanted invasion of space, but she smelt like star anise and the lovingly dissected entrails of some water animal that thronged the seas in miniature multitudes. Something else too, faintly. Peat mud sprinkled with powdered sugar, a sure sign of sadness.
She seemed oblivious.
It drew itself up from the bed of the harbour, snuffling and rattling as its lungs settled. The girl showed no signs of noticing her new companion. After some minutes, its breathing steadied and the thing began to dry out. They sat like that for a time, and then she drew a packet of cigarettes from her pocket, and it found itself enveloped in tobacco smoke laced with chemicals, sharp and toxic and suffocating. It coughed.
She seemed determined not to notice at first, but then she did look, vaguely. Only a second later, she looked again, squinting and then drawing back, eyes wide. She jumped up, scattered her cigarettes everywhere, and began to back away in small steps. It felt itself fully seen, such a rare occurrence these days. There it was, exposed – a hulking mass of impossibilities, something so ancient there were no longer words for it in any language. It waited. She would go, shake it off, like the others; put it down to the light, or lack of oxygen, or some excuse.
But instead she backed herself up against the wall of one of the waterfront cafes, wrapped her arms around her middle, and bent over, shuddering. The thing could see her loss, coming off her in waves: a city packed with buildings so thick it was maze-like; structures that reached much further into the sky than the whole width of their base. Scores of them, so that a creature on the ground might not see anything other than concrete its whole life, so that the concrete might become like a cradle, the safe enclosure of rooms and streets enveloping those that dwelled there. The choke of exhaust fume and human waste and heat. It saw the buildings that went on as far as the horizon, as far as its beloved ocean, broken only briefly by patches of green, trees or filthy waterways. It sensed the stink and the garbage and the bent backs of millions. It saw their joys, contained though they were. It saw their inexplicable warmth. Heard them laugh. The vision was terrifying, and glorious.
She looked up then. Set her lips in a firm line, and as she began to move, a wave of feeling hit it – horror at the wide-open spaces of this pretty city, a dizzying nausea like that of a fish without oceans to feed its gills. The way a wide blue sky and sea and green hills filling the horizon could break a person who’d never, ever been alone. She came as close as she dared, and began to cry. It recoiled and shuffled back. It was one thing to be a monster to this upper world, quite another to be the catalyst for such raw pain.
‘Don’t,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t leave. I’m so tired of being frightened all the time.’ She said the words as if the shape of them was too difficult for the shape of her lips and teeth and tongue. ‘You could take it all away, couldn’t you?’
This was not how it was meant to be.
It did not take what was so vibrantly alive. It felt itself go all smooth, like oilskin. It shifted, tilted its head, regarded her with two human-like eyes. Then shook itself out to full height. She shrank back but did not move away. It looked pointedly around – the sky, the shining buildings, the wide blue harbour and the uncrowded paths. The world is more, it thought, than you know. We can always find something to be afraid of, anywhere. It nodded towards the Pacific’s blue bed. If you want it, follow me. It began to move towards the edge of the wharf. I am tired too. This city, and all the places like it. You have made it so hard for yourselves.
It paused at the edge, and thought of all the things it had seen, and tasted, and it knew she could sense a little of this too. It had had so many meals, so flavoursome and rich, all of them so different, yet all of them the same. Such a little life, they each had. With their petty needs and their grand presumptions. They could spend a lifetime just figuring out how to see.
The girl didn’t follow. She stood away from the water, looking bereft but somehow lighter. She stared at her feet as if wondering what direction they might take her now, and then met its gaze. She lifted her hand in a small wave. It read her gesture: not today. It blinked, turned, and let itself sink into the sea.
© Tina Makereti. First Published in Overland, volume 219, Winter 2015
Tina’s most recent publication is her new novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, September 2018