A Tale of Taniwha
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On the fifth night, you dream of home again. You dream of opening the front door of the small set of rooms you share with your brother, his wife, and their children, and of being swamped in their embraces, of having your chest carried away and your cheeks petted and having to gently unlatch your limpet-like nephews from around your knees to sit down and finally tell the story of this voyage. You dream of their gasps as you tell them about giant, blue-crested birds that can slit a man’s throat with their feet, and about trees that stand on stilts above the ocean, forming a forest below as well as above through which fish and sea-snakes undulate, and about the way the stars are different, here on the other side of the world.

And then you wake up, and there is bright sunlight piercing your eyelids, and you remember.

This will be the sixth day of your stranding. As strandings go, it could be worse - at least when the hull of the HMS Ulysses (dear God, who decided on that name?) split open on the rocks, none of you were crushed under a falling mast. At least the surf was weak enough to swim through, and not dash you against the rocks. At least this inlet where you have washed up has a stream of fresh water running into it, even if only a trickle, and trees that give fruit growing above it.

You get up from where your body has dug a little hollow in the sand, and stretch the cricks out of your neck and shoulders. After feeling to ensure that no-one has stolen your knife in the night, you turn to look towards the clumsy half-shelter erected at the south end of the beach, where the others sleep.

But of course, this brings the sea into your vision, and whatever improvement in your spirits the rest and the memory of love might have given you is drained away again. Only a seasoned whaler could not quail at that sight - scarlet waves lapping against red-stained rocks, with distant breakers rolling pink and frothy.

Not hunger, nor thirst, nor shattering cold or burning heat are what threaten you now. It is this. It is only this.

The others had spent the first two days salvaging what planks they could from the ship, struggling to saw down trees with only carving knives and single-hand tenon saws, ripping out vines from the underbrush to use as rope. You are likely somewhere north of the settlement at Harthwaite - the thought was that if a raft could be constructed, two or three might set off southwards, hope to hop along the island chain until they drew close enough to cross the path of another ship near its waters.

They had brushed you off, when you had asked whether the water didn’t look siltier that morning than the other mornings, and that this was odd since there had been no storm in the night. At least until Christiania, trying to thrust one end of a pole into position, had overbalanced and toppled into the shallows.

She had screamed absolute bloody murder, which was half-accurate - by the time Eli and Keturah had hauled her out her skin was raw and weeping, dripping not only with seawater but with blood and lymph. They had had to strip her clothes and sluice handfuls and handfuls of water from the stream over her before her flesh stopped dissolving before their eyes, and even then they were not fast enough - where they had grasped her arms and her sodden clothing, their own palms had gone red and blistered. There was little for bandages - when your crew had taken up knives and tried to shave the bark away from the twisting, spicy-scented trees it had scraped off in small flakes and not the smooth spongy strips of birches and spruces. And of course, there were no amadou or bracket fungi to be found - so they had appropriated your shirt and Taylor’s and torn them up to try and keep the sand out from underneath Christiania’s skin.

You had searched the fringes of the forest for willow, and equally found nothing. The only thing that had stopped her sobbing and crying and thrashing had been time, as she eventually grew exhausted with the pain and the weeping and had fled somewhere deep inside herself to shelter from it.

The remainder of the crew she had left behind in reality, watching as day by day the sea grew redder and less passable.

(Of course, it had been necessary to replicate the experiment, prove that it was the scarlet water that had brought Christiania down. So Taylor had caught one of the pigeon-like birds that creep and coo around your camp, impaled it upon a long stick, and dipped it in the waves. Barely five seconds later, when he drew it out, the feathers were sloughing off and its flesh, when you prodded it with the end of your knife, had gone sickeningly spongey-textured. Digested, without having been ingested first.)

So this is what your world has shrunk down to, now - a crescent of beach, a grassy outcrop to its north, a stream narrow enough to jump, and a fringe of forest that gives way to impassable tangles of thorny brush and eroding cliffs. You have no hope of building a boat that could be launched without any contact with seawater, and, if you fail to build wings and fly, no other way to cross that encircling poison.

It is just as hard to be helpless as to be desperate. You could go forage, but there are enough breadfruit and kangkung tubers piled next to the shelter that such a pursuit would be redundant, and the fruits would rot more rapidly when separated from their parents. So there is nothing to do as a distraction.

In Harthwaite you would be already on your shore leave, letting the merchants and slaves haul their spices and nuts and dyes into the hold themselves for transport back to the Empire. You would have found a public house and would already be partway into a bottle of that dry talo beer, watching the dancers twirl and stomp in their red and green and purple dresses that slipped that spun out with the movements.

You only wish.

It starts raining only a few hours later. You are all somewhat used to this - ever since the Ulysses entered the tropic latitudes, short squalls of rain in the afternoons have been more frequent than not - but another phrase for “somewhat used to” could be “sick and tired of”, and your mood is significantly dampened by its fall. You curl up underneath the spreading leaves of a young fig, lying back into the hollow where its buttress-roots are just beginning to develop.

You must have drifted to sleep again, because the next thing you know is sharp gangly limbs driven into your stomach and a shouted curse. You recognize the voice as Keturah’s, and opening your eyes only confirms that impression. She gets to her feet, snarling at you to watch it, you stupid twat, people are walking here and you’re going to break someone’s bloody leg if you don’t have a care where you’re going -

It would be no good to protest that you were literally not moving and she therefore had plenty of time to potentially espy you in her path and avoid you. It never does. If you do anything that is not exactly what they desired, the rest of your crew takes this as incontrovertible proof that you are good for nothing and too stupid to be a sailor. If you do anything perfectly, it furnishes proof that you don’t know how to efficiently divide work and are just trying to make them look bad.

Ah, well. Fully awake now, your stomach aching in the way that precedes a bruise where her knee drove into it, you haul yourself up. It’ll be no good staying here on the beach as a target for all their pent-up frustration. You wander away from the shelter along the jagged line of driftwood marking where beach gives way, and come to the great pillowy mounds of black rock that form the north end of the cove. Damp wrack hangs off them, and you have seen sea anemones in the pools formed in their clefts, but now the tidepools are cloudy from the inflow and none are visible.

Fortunately, these rocks are also rough as sandpaper, and your grip is firm as you climb, and emerge onto the north outcrop.

The sea is flat and almost black under the opaline sky. You always wondered whether Homer’s wine-dark sea was only a poesy to evade the Greek language’s lack of a term meaning “blue”, or whether it was truly meant to represent a different perception of colour, now lost to time. Has any wine been even this dark, though? So opaque it seems solid?

Something rustles, in the trees behind you. You turn around, expecting to meet only another crewmember come up to mock you for wasting time just staring at the ocean, like you’re not a sailor but a sailor’s wife, a sloppy romance novel come to life.

It is not.

The branches part, and a horse-sized, arrow-shaped head slips out from among them, and you can see the purest white of the scales that cover it and the faint pink blush of the flesh underneath as the creature slithers into the open. Its body is as thick as your thigh, and its long tongue delicately tastes the ground until it has halted barely a hand’s span from your calf.

Strangely, you feel no fear. Maybe it is because you know snakes tend to be ambush predators, and if this one is allowing you to see it that means it has no intention to ambush you. Maybe it is for far more mysterious reasons.

You do not know how, exactly, it speaks. You do not see its lipless mouth move - but the words fall into your head anyway, clear as quartz: “You wonder how such a thing might be,” it says.

“Yes,” you reply.

“This island, and the seas around it, are my protectorate,” it says. “It is no great thing for me to bar them, if I wish.”

“So it is you who are keeping us here.” You realize it is not a question. “That is something you can do?”

“Indeed. And you know this,” it says. “You are not like them - you see the truth behind the legends, how they speak of things more real than simple historical accuracy. True magic is not in coloured lights, or cards. True magic must be rooted in soil, and bone, and -“

“- and blood,” you whisper in concert. “Why?”

“How can it be trusted that your rescuers would not, as soon as they are told of this island, return to claim it for themselves? Trample its meadows, raze its forests, hunt its seas to emptiness? Have they not done this on dozens of others? How can I release you, knowing what you might bring back in your wake?”

“But… we have family and friends that would mourn us. We have buyers that will suffer, and starve, if they do not receive the insurance on the cargo we carried. We do not know our location, not exactly, and we could vow not to reveal you, if you wished. It is not certain that our release would bring your doom. It is certain that our death would pain our kin. So can your curse truly not be lifted?”

It inclines its head. You take this to indicate possibility. “How may I recompense you? How may I break your curse?”

“Suppose I told you there was no way,” the serpent begins.

“Would such a claim be true?”

It pauses for a moment, and you wonder if you have offended it. If it is just going to strike you down where you stand, not even waiting for the sea or for hunger or for disease to do the work for it. But it speaks again: “Very well, little eel-mouthed one. You are not like the others, so I will tell:

“Give one of your crew to the ocean. Show your hearts are hardened - show you understand the unforgiveness of the sea. We are not kindly creatures, human; but we are just. You have taken fruit and wood, and you have frightened my fish - the sea-wolves fear for their pups, and the hawks for their eggs, knowing you to be hunters most opportunistic. Pay them back, for this incursion, if you wish ever to leave.”

But the sentence turns up at the end; you sense that this is not the final word. Another option peeks out its whispered nose. “Or?”

“Stay,” it says. “Allow the rest of your crew to set off on their fool’s errand, and live here, in peace, as your heart desires. Never have they appreciated any of your efforts, never have they appreciated you. But eel-mouthed one, you understand the way of things more deeply than any of your kin, and you shall be accounted worthy of a place in this ecosystem.

“The waters will become clear again, for you - you will see the corals blossom in all their myriad colours, and the ship-fish and the sea-wolf shall become your friends. You shall have a whole land for yourself, for once they are gone you will have time enough to cut through the thorns without having the knife snatched from your hands, without being told you are wasting your time. You will climb the mountain and explore all its caves - did you know there are birds that live only on its summit and nowhere else in all the world, jewel-coloured birds with no fear of being hunted? Did you know there are plants with silvered leaves? Did you know that the waterfall falls more than thirty fathoms, and there are trees that live fed by its spray alone? Oh, you will be happy here - I smell it on your skin, I taste it in your breath.

“You do know mankind was not meant to live as you do - cooped up in wooden holds, in squalid streets and among a million others all jostling and fighting for space and resources. So… divided from the land that birthed and sustains them. No respect for it, as their elder.”

You remember, when you were young, poring over the thin book of fairy-tales your father had given you one Christmas. It had been read so many times that the pages were tattered and some words were obliterated by dirty smears, but that didn’t matter - you had the whole thing memorized by then, anyway. You would trail your fingers over the woodcuts and imagine what it would be like, to live in that enchanted forest where the flowers never faded and the berries brought magical sleep, where the land was inviolate and being righteous and steadfast and kind, no matter what others thought of you, was what ultimately brought you through any trials.

It was a foolish, childish dream - yourself, holding court in a wood of faeries, with deer and owls coming to do obeisance. The kind of dream you had known, even then, would never come true.

And yet somehow - bizarrely, impossibly - it has. You speak with a serpent who tells you it protects this place. The rest of the world - the world where your brother and wife and small nephews live, whence the Ulysses set sail, where its cargoes of nails, wool, and naphtha had been mined and forged and harvested - has faded away like a summer’s sunset.

You are even dressed as a fae queen, now, a proper bare-breasted Amazon with ferns tangled in your hair. The thought urges you to laugh, and why not? It might loosen your heart, might help it fit itself around this unbelievable fortune. The serpent looks at you curiously as you cover your mouth to try and tame the giggles.

But eventually you sober. You think of the curve of the beach below, where Christiania’s campfire of hair is smothered in the sand as she sleeps off the exhaustion of healing. Where Keturah, irritated by the rain, will be cussing someone out savagely, and Sloan will be tearing the skin off pigeons with far too much glee and getting blood smeared all over his face. They shall never mock you again, never taunt you and force all the undesirable tasks upon you and steal from your own sea-chest again. The mist that the rain has left is still gathered beneath the canopy of the trees, veiling them from sight. Reifying that barrier.

And you will be ruler of the island and the seas around it, who lives within the ecosystem instead of dominating it, who endured all the trials and was given her happily-ever-after -

- who said nothing as her crew went to their deaths, though knowing how to save them.

You remember one other thing the fairy-tales always told you: if there is one thing above all price, it is character.

“No,” you say, and the beating of your bare feet on the stone is the tolling of a churchbell as you run the last three steps to the edge of the cliff and launch yourself off the edge. For a second you are free, you are weightless and winged as in your child’s imagination, as Völund finally released from his tower - but the sea is the scarlet gauze of a dancer’s dress and absorbs you into its billowing folds as easily as if you never had struck the surface.

The sunlight paints the backs of your eyelids mustard yellow, and you begin to lift one hand to shield your face - but you meet odd resistance, and are startled enough to blink into the brilliance instead. The flat colour gives way to rippling greens, golds, and needle-like flashes of white. Slowly, your vision unblurs, and the moving colours resolve into a mass of ribbons that flutter and sway around you in slow motion.

Well. You have to admit that you’ve never been a particularly religious person, but whatever you’d imagined death to be like - Heaven or Hell or Fiddler’s Green - this wasn’t it.

Out of curiosity, you reach out to grasp one of the straps, but it slips out between your fingers. You try for another, and catch it; it is thick and leathery, stiff as canvas but slick over the surface. When in your hand, it is a rich tarnished bronze; released, the light filters through like the evocation of Frost’s words, gold and green and ungraspable.

A sudden opening reveals something that looks like stone, and you spin (somewhat awkwardly) and kick towards it. It turns out to be stone - with wrinkled appendages sprouting from it like pasta. Long stems lead up to the forest of drifting golden straps you first saw. And you notice sea urchins with thick spines crawling over the stone, and fish in oranges and blues and yellows darting between the straps, and realize that you must be deep underwater.

You’re not drowning, though. So you must be dead after all. Well, it is fairly appropriate, that a sailor should, even in death, remain in the sea’s keeping. And it is truly a beautiful afterlife, in so many colours.

A larger shape arrows between the kelp stems. It resolves itself into a shark, whose tail beats in leisurely time until it has come to a halt an armspan away from you. And its skin is white, with pink blushing at the lips and eyes and gills, and it comes to you that you recognize it.

“Lift the curse,” you ask. It eyes you sideways with one flat, catlike eye, so you justify yourself: “You only said I needed to sacrifice one of my crew. You did not say which one it had to be. So I chose myself - now let my crew go.”

Although sharks cannot smile, you somehow get the vague sense it is amused. “Why do you think,” it responds, “that you are not yet dead? It has been lifted. It was lifted even as you leapt.”

You aren’t dead? But then how are your lungs not blazing with the lack of air? How are you not dizzy with pressure, and blinded with salt? “Then why am I -“

“True magic is rooted in soil and bone,” it repeats. “That is no statement on what it may do for those who use it.”

“But - if I am not dead,” you say, “then you can’t have undone it. The deal was that we had to sacrifice someone, and that hasn’t happened yet. You said - you said we had to see that the sea was not merciful, it was unforgiving -“

“And that I am just.” Its gills pump. “I have decided you may be trusted, little eel-mouth, because you have shown great honour, to thus sacrifice even for those whom you hate.” It nudges your hand, with a nose that feels like sandpaper. “Now go back, and claim your boon fully.”

And you kick towards the surface, and break out into a field of brilliant turquoise.

It takes you an ignominious few minutes to doggy-paddle around the cape and back to where the rocks are low enough to climb. As you break the water’s surface it is the air that stings, now, savaging the softness of your nose and eyes and down into the crevices of your lungs.

You hadn’t expected any of them to notice your absence, nor your presence now. But Taylor calls out your name, and then his arms are around you, lifting you up. He helps you stumble up above the tideline, where you curl up and shiver and try to explain the disappearance of the toxic red between bouts of salty-tasting coughing.

You’re not sure he believes you. But it cannot be denied that the ocean is no longer scarlet, and the others hurry back from foraging or tormenting iguanas or whatever it was they were doing, breathlessly claiming as much. Do you know what has happened? Do you know if this means it can be traversed again?

“Yes. Build your raft,” you rasp. “The sea is safe again.”

Wisely, they test it with the carcass of another pigeon - but by sunset of the following day the half-finished raft is completed, makeshift oars carved and lashed, outriggers bound to both sides. Eli and Sloan have volunteered to man it - you sensed that Taylor was about to defend you, argue that you should go who first noticed that the sea had calmed, but you had silenced him with a pinch. They will be no less safe than you would be: the serpent-shark will not allow the sea to spite you by slaying them so soon after you proved the worth of their lives.

It takes them most of the following day to work out carriers for nuts, breadfruit, and all your canteens filled with water from the stream. But as the afternoon shines golden down and flashes molten-silver off the sea’s surface, they push off, and row - still savagely, for this is Eli - along its rippling plain, into their own shadows.

Left behind, slowly, you wake a fire. Taylor pries limpets from the rocks with the end of his knife and settles down to shell them - while that is being done, you wander into the forest, along the use-trail you are starting to tramp into the grass, and gather more figs. They split open, the same hematoma-colour as the darkening eastern sky, under your fingernails. When you return, the limpets are hissing on a flat rock.

“Do you think,” he asks, as the sun-disk slides into the embrace of that kelpy undersea forest, “that they will actually come back?”

“Yes,” you say. “And then no.”

He quirks an eyebrow at you, clearly wondering how both might be true at once. You chuckle, and resolve to tell him how such a thing can be, about peasants’ clever daughters and wagers made for the birth of gods and the retention of kingdoms and the lives of queens and friends.

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