From the author: Earthquakes are caused by monsters under the earth; a giant squid advances on Wellington, and a young boy knows the magic words to keep the city safe. But will his grieving father ever believe him?
He was scared of the sea. Always had been. Ever since he was a tiny baby. I never really knew why. It bothered Bekkah, but it never bothered me. I always thought that he simply needed time to feel ready. To learn to love it like I did.
Everyone told us we just had to keep taking him to the water, show him how fun it could be. Every clear, sunny day, whenever we could, we went out to the one of the bays on Wellington’s beautiful south coast — Scorching, Lyall or sometimes Worser. They were all safe and clear, and the waters were warm, especially in the summer. But no matter what we did, if we tried to take him into the ocean, he would cling to us and cry.
My mother grew frustrated once, plucked him from my arms and carried him into the sea. I was sure his terrified screams could be heard several miles away, every face on the beach turned to watch us. She sat him down in the shallows, barely two inches of water, and he struggled and flailed and scrabbled for the shore. His face turned grey with fright.
It wasn’t the water he was frightened of, we had no difficulty bathing him, or even sitting him in a paddling pool. No, it was only the ocean.
He was six when the Southern Right whale came to the harbour, four years after Bekkah had gone, and it was the first time I had ever seen him interested in going near the waterfront. We watched it together, swimming around near Carter Fountain in the middle of Oriental Bay. I gave him my binoculars and he sat, entranced, for almost an hour. Afterwards, he handed me the lenses and said with a solemn calmness, “She is here to warn us of the Beast, Daddy.”
Shocked, I asked him many questions, but he would not elaborate, nor offer any explanation. He merely shook his head and said nothing more, skipped away from me and chased butterflies on the breeze.
At home he drew a picture of the whale in the harbour, followed by a giant, hulking monster with vicious, roving tentacles. I asked him why. What was that thing? He said it was the Beast.
We had been to Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand, on his birthday a few months prior, and we had seen the Colossal Squid. A massive, sea-dwelling invertebrate, the very biggest of its kind, it was the only such specimen on display in the world. I had worried at first that he would find it frightening. Instead, he had been enthralled.
Afterwards, at the City Library, I had read to him about the Māori legend of the great explorer and fisherman Kupe. How he had chased the monstrous octopus, Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, down the eastern coast of Aotearoa. The story went, that as their battle raged, moving across the ocean, the octopus used its giant tentacles to try and smash Kupe’s canoe. He jumped from his boat onto the monster’s head and struck it with his heavy weapon — his wooden taiaha. The force of his blow was so mighty, the creature was rent in half. Its eyes flew through the air and landed in two different places, where they both turned to solid stone. Kupe was victorious. The giant monster vanquished.
He had been both scared and thrilled by the epic tale. Had acted out the story with the help of his plush toys and a dollar-store plastic sword for days afterwards.
I suppose, if I’m honest, I didn’t want to think about the picture. I was sure it was nothing more than his imagination had been triggered, perhaps by some recent memory, and had sparked an urge in him to draw. There was nothing to worry about, I told myself. So often, I almost believed it. That was, until my mother came to our house the next day.
She asked him about his drawing, and he told her the exact same thing. Except this time he added with great conviction, “And the Beast is coming for me.”
My mother sat down next to him. She took his tiny hand in hers and asked him why he would say such a terrible thing. He said that the whale had told him in his dreams. He said he could feel it coming. It had been asleep for a long time, but now it was waking up.
“Every time the ground shakes,” he told her, “it is the great Beast unfurling its giant tentacles, getting closer and closer to the shore!”
My mother had laughed and ruffled his hair. She said she was delighted to know that he had such a vivid imagination, but the shaking earth was due to faults in the tectonic plates. Didn’t he remember from school? “The ground moves because of earthquakes, my love. Not monsters. They are not real.”
He looked at her, screwed up his face and said, “You’re wrong, Grandma. There is a Beast in the ocean. I know there is.”
He took himself to his bedroom with his drawing pad and pens and refused to talk to us any more. He went into what my mother, somewhat unhelpfully, calls he ‘shut down’. Becoming so engrossed in his work and his art, he was oblivious to anyone and anything.
I admit, the new pictures disturbed me. So many images of hooked, bloody tentacles, wrapped around screaming people and draped over the masts of boats. In one, they wound their way into the city, oozing over the roof of Te Papa. Bodies and bones were strewn on the streets. The roads were scarred black with deep cracks.
He had always been a remarkable artist for his age, but these pictures were strikingly realistic. They were minutely detailed and horribly graphic. Far too violent for the mind of a child. When I asked him about them, he would either ignore me, pretend he hadn’t heard, or tell me he was simply drawing his dreams.
Eventually, I took him to see our doctor. I was worried that he seemed to be so withdrawn, that his nightmares and the things he was creating were a sign of something troubling him. Something I’d missed in some way.
The doctor was wonderful with him, and he spoke more openly with her than he ever had with me. He told her all about his nightmares of the Beast and his calmer dreams of the whale. He spoke about dolphins and rays entering Wellington harbour, trying to warn those on the land. He told her that most people had forgotten how to talk to those creatures, and more importantly, how to listen.
“When the orcas come,” he said, wide-eyed, “the Beast will not be far behind. People will need to keep away from the sea.”
She asked him why he seemed so sad, and he told her it was because he knew the Beast was coming. It would take him, just like it had taken Momma, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
I was shocked, he’d never talked of Bekkah like this, but the doctor spoke to him calmly, and made no effort to convince him he was wrong. She nodded her understanding and asked why he thought it was coming for him; why him and not someone else?
“Because I know the Beast is real,” he said. “Because I can talk to — talk with — the creatures of the sea. Because everyone else believes in earthquakes but no-one wants to believe the truth!” He picked up his favourite teddy bear. Fiddled with the scuffed black buttons that formed its eyes. “There has to be a sacrifice to keep the city safe.”
Afterwards, the doctor told me that she thought it would be best if she referred him to another doctor just in case. She knew a specialist in the field, someone who was a good friend of hers. I was scared and confused, almost burst into tears, but she put a gentle hand on my arm and told me not to worry, that this kind of thing was very common. There was nothing obviously physically wrong with him. It was probably just an emotional phase. His vivid imagination running wild. Perhaps he was finally feeling and understanding the terrible loss of his mum.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently. “Could I ask you, how did his mother pass?”
“It was a car accident,” I told her, the words thick in my throat. “A drunk driver crashed into us on the highway. Nothing to do with the sea at all.”
At home, we sat on the sofa together, barely saying a word. He watched Disney cartoons while I checked the news on my tablet. There were dolphins in the waters off Tarakena Bay. He read over my shoulder and gave a sad little smile.
“It won’t be long now, Daddy,” he said.
I did cry then, and hugged him close, as tightly as I dared.
A few days passed and he drew no more pictures. I was hopeful that perhaps the ‘phase’ had passed, but he awoke screaming and crying in the early hours and I ran to his bedside to comfort him. He would say nothing at all of his nightmare, only slung his arms around my neck and sobbed until there was nothing left. He slipped down, exhausted, onto the blankets, and fell back into sleep.
I picked him up and carried him to my bedroom. I needed him beside me. To know he was okay. His presence beside me was more for my comfort than his, I couldn’t bear either one of us being alone. When I asked him about it in the morning, he claimed he didn’t remember a thing.
That afternoon my sister sent me a photo she had taken of Eagle Rays in the harbour, swimming in Whairepo Lagoon. I kept the picture hidden so as not to upset him or encourage a repeat of before. I knew that the occurrence of these creatures was quite common, but still, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. I crept to his room and removed the pictures he’d drawn, hiding them at the bottom of my closet. I wanted to burn them. Purge the world of their horror, but I couldn’t destroy my son’s work.
It was a glorious, hot summer Sunday when he asked me if we could go to Tarakena Bay. He said we could watch the ferries sailing past and the aeroplanes flying overhead. Maybe we could hunt for pāua shells? Or for starfish in the rock pools by the edge? I was nervous, but also I didn’t want to discourage him. It was the first time ever he had asked to spend any time near the sea. I suggested perhaps we could take some food, walk around Moa Point and make a day of it. He agreed, and I bundled snacks and drinks into a bag. He seemed excited and happy, keen to be getting out of the house. He had me completely fooled.
We took a bus from our house to Moa Point Road. We could have walked the whole way, but I didn’t want to tire him. I thought it would be nice to spend some real time together. Forget the stresses of previous weeks. I watched him walk down the path in front of me, his sunhat flopping around his face, his jandals slapping on the ground. He stopped, turned and smiled at me. There was a dark gap in his mouth where he’d lost a baby tooth. His cheeks were framed by soft, dark curls. His brown eyes, flecked with stars of gold, seemed almost amber in the sunlight. I saw so much of Bekkah in him. My beautiful boy.
He looked at me for a long time, holding me in his gaze, before mouthing, “I love you, Daddy,” and setting off at a run towards the rocks.
I dropped the bag and started after him, shouted his name and told him he had to stop. He ignored me and carried on, heading straight for the sharp edges that cradled the water. He kicked off his jandals and began to climb on the rocks. I was surprised at his speed and terrified that he would fall.
I called his name so many times, but he did not ever look back. Eventually, he stopped at the very top of the rocks. He wasn’t high up, but he was far out, leaning towards the water. I caught up with him and began to clamber up behind. He turned and put a finger to his lips.
“Wait, Daddy,” he said. “The little whale is here.” He pointed out across the bay and I looked out in the direction he showed. I saw a sudden movement in the water. A flash of black and white.
“Come down,” I said to him, quiet and calm, though my heart threatened to jump out of my chest. “Come back to me.”
“I can’t, Daddy,” he replied. “She’s here to help me.”
I moved towards him, intending to grab him, to stop him from moving any closer to the edge.
“Daddy, no!” he cried out, just as I was about to grasp his leg. “I must listen! It’s important!”
The orca was swimming in circles in the water, making clicks and whistles as it moved. If I didn’t know better I might have believed that it was trying to communicate with my son. He was listening intently, and replying with sounds of his own. Of course, that was impossible. No matter how eager and earnest he seemed, or how strongly he believed, he could not speak to sea creatures. Could he?
I watched him for a moment before I reached out quickly, and snatched him from the rock. He struggled and screamed.
“No, Daddy, no! Put me down! Put me down!”
I dragged him away from the ocean, as he writhed and kicked in my arms, landing hard blows with his heels on my legs.
Behind us, the orca leapt out of the water, covering us with spray as it landed. I could hear it chittering as I fought with my struggling child. He kept shouting that I had to let him stay. That the Beast was coming, but he knew now how to beat it. That the orca had told him the special words.
I was tired. Frustrated. Sick of feeling scared. After one more kick, I reacted without thinking. I slapped him across the face.
He fell silent. Stared at me with big, sad eyes. I apologised immediately. I had never, ever hit him before, and I promised him that I would never do it again. A livid mark blossomed across his cheek. I leaned down to kiss him and he flinched away. I felt sick to my stomach, like my soul had been run through. I went to speak, to apologise again. But I saw his eyes widen and his jaw fall slack as he stared past me over my shoulder. I turned. Something hard yet strangely rubbery, like the edge of a heavy bicycle tyre, struck the side of my face.
I was dazed and I stumbled, but did not fall. I looked around, trying to see what had hit me, and I saw my son perched once again on the rocks. He was standing in a starfish pose — legs wide, arms outstretched, his head tilted upwards to the sky. An unholy wail was coming out of his mouth.
I saw the sea churn and seethe before him, as if the very waters were boiling. Giant tentacles rose from the waves, grasping at the air. They thrashed and flailed amongst the surf. They came so close to him that I was sure he would be smashed against the rocks or tossed into the sea. I shouted his name, but he did not respond, and I tried to run towards him. I was hurled backwards by the blow of a massive tentacle, and thrown to the rocky ground.
Two eyes emerged from the water and fixed themselves upon him. I remembered the Colossal Squid on display at Te Papa, and how huge and impressive it was. That was a mere baby compared to this monster. This creature was immense. Each eyeball the size of a family car, set into each side of its bulbous head. Its black pupils were fixed upon him, unblinking and intense. I watched as it rose up out of the waves, grasping the rocks with its giant appendages, attaching its suckers to their saw-edged surface and heaving itself level with the land.
It snapped its tentacles in the air, twisting so close to his tiny body that I felt sure they would engulf him and drag him down to the depths of the sea. I was terrified that I might lose him. I could not let this Beast take my child away from me. I picked myself up and ran to the rocks, reaching up to grab his legs. I looked up and saw his face; something strange in his expression made me pause.
He stood stone-still on the jagged edge. His wail deepened to a mournful bellow, like that of a frightened cow. But he didn’t seem frightened. Quite the opposite in fact. In that moment he seemed bigger and stronger than I had ever seen him. No longer a child. Small and weak. Now he was a great warrior. A protector of the sea.
Finally, he grew silent. The creature stopped, its tentacles still. Both of them seemed to be regarding each other. Staring the other down. He put his hands in the air and spoke words I did not know, in a tongue I had never heard before. It made me think of the land and the sky and the sea, of a language as old as the Earth. It hung in the air like a spell made of smoke, floating upwards and outwards from the shore. Whatever he said, he said it with conviction. This was a declaration. An admonishment. A demand that could not — would not — be ignored.
The monster bobbed in the water before him. It looked cautious. Pensive. Contemplating its next move. As if it were far more sentient than it had any right to be. Slowly, I saw it begin to recede. Its eyes sank beneath the surface. Its tentacles twirled and fondled the air before disappearing into the waves.
He scrambled from the rocks and I threw my arms around him and kissed him, over and over and over. I took his hand and pulled him away from the water’s edge, and this time he came without resistance.
“I did it, Daddy,” he said with a gleeful grin, almost as wide as his whole face. “I kept the city safe.”
“You did. My little warrior.”
We were almost at the path when I heard the splash behind me. Felt a giant band wrap itself tightly around the full of my chest and haul me off my feet.
I heard him shouting as I was dragged, screaming, backwards to the water.
“No! You can’t! I sent you away! You can’t take my daddy from me!”
It’s cold and black. I can’t see anything. There’s blood on my face; it runs into my eyes. A pounding pressure crushes my chest. I’m clamped in an iron vice, squeezed so tight it makes my face bulge. The weight of it; oh, God, I can barely stand the weight. I struggle to breathe. Bubbles of spit cling to my lips. Every breath I take arrives with a wheeze and rattles around my crumpled lungs. Every part of me is broken.
I tilt my head to the left and I can just make out the shape of her, slumped in the seat beside me. Except she’s not there any more. I know straight away that she is gone.
I hear him wailing from behind me. I try to call out to him, to tell him it’s okay, that I’m here, but I cannot speak. My voice catches in my throat like the words are barbed and leaves nothing but a painful, bloody burble. I hope to God that he’s not hurt.
This moment, I know I won’t ever be allowed to forget it. Our life is ripped and turned as topsy-turvy as the mangled car. Everything we knew, every happiness we’d found, snatched from us all in an instant.
It’s just me and him now.
I heard him crying out for me. I had to get back.
I clawed at the rocks, desperate to gain purchase, to stop myself from being plunged into the churning waves. The Beast was strong and wickedly fast, I had no chance to grab a hold. A pāua shell grazed my fingertips, and I snatched it without thinking, or knowing why.
The edge of the shell had been ground thin by the waves, making it razor sharp. I hacked at the tentacle that held me fast as it began its descent into the water. It was like trying to fell a tree with a butter knife, but I was determined and enraged. This monster would not take me away from my child. He would not lose me too.
The skin split and black slime oozed from the wound. I slashed harder, gouging at it with all my strength, plunging the keen edge of the blue-green shell deep into the Beast.
The tentacle’s grip seemed to loosen. I kicked and writhed and twisted my body until I could slither free. I took a deep breath and plunged into the water. I swam for the shore as best I could, weaving through the rocks and seaweed. I knew the greywacke guardians at the coastal edge were jagged and rough, and could cause me even greater harm.
A heavy weight came down on my back, forcing me deeper underwater. My cheek grazed the edge of the serrated rocks. I felt my flesh split, and hot blood rushed from the wound. I pushed away with my feet, reaching for the surface. I gasped for air as my head broke the surf. I could see shadows rippling under the water as the monster rose to catch me. The clear blue painted black as it bled.
A sacrifice. That’s what he had said it had come for. He thought it was him, but why not me? Could I save our city and my son, simply by letting go?
Could I? …
No. Fuck that! He needed me.
Much more than that… I needed him.
I took a breath and filled my lungs and dived back under the surface of the waves. The Beast was rising to meet me at great speed. I had no time to think. I aimed for its head, the pāua shell held out in front of me. We regarded each other, the monster and I, as we swam towards one another, aiming our bodies like fighter pilots aim their guns in the sky.
Its one eye was bigger than my whole self, yet I was not afraid. I plunged the shell with all my might into its giant head; slicing and chopping and tearing at the tough tissue. Its tar-like blood stained the water, covering me as I fought. The foul reek of it filled my nose and mouth, made me want to retch. Undeterred, I wrenched and slashed again. I opened up a gaping hole; a vicious, ragged maw. My skin was slathered in thick, bloody mucus — brain matter, scrambled and torn — as if I’d thrust my arm into a vat of warm, pink jello. The creature shrieked and writhed in anguish. It thrashed its tentacles and tried to throw me off.
My anger sustained me. Fear drove my hand. My love for my child gave me strength. I did not stop. I could not stop. I would never, ever cease fighting. Not while I still had breath in my lungs and might in my hands. For the memory of Bekkah. For my boy.
The Beast was viciously wounded. Quite clearly in terrible pain. Its thrashing ceased, the monster relented. It twisted and pushed itself away from the bay, headed out towards the open ocean. I swam, exhausted, victorious, to the shore. It was not dead, perhaps not even fully vanquished, but should it ever dare return, we would be waiting. I would be ready.
My son stood at the edge of the rocks. His eyes and arms wide open. His face full of pride and awe. I was his Warrior Father. Together, we were protectors of Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Defenders of the land on which it stood.
I ran towards him and lifted him high.
“You did it, Daddy! You beat it! You won!”
I kissed him many times and spun him round in my arms.
“We did it,” I told him. “You and me together.”
“Always,” he replied and reached out to me. He put one small hand over my heart and the world around us grew still. A weight left me, a millstone cast from my neck. I finally felt complete.
Behind us, the water rippled, gold-sparkled by the sun as the Beast dived down to meet the dark.
Strange creatures lurk in the shadows of the Beehive, while a beast From The Deep is determined to destroy us all. Being Neighbourly might just change your life, and if you listen closely you can hear demonic Whispers in the wind. So sit back, take a sip of A Good Cup of Coffee and question all The Things You See. In the city, there are no Second Chances and every chapter might be your last.
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