This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. No reproduction may be made, by any means, unless a licence has been obtained from the author or publisher. ©️ Tabatha Wood 2019
First published in ‘Dark Winds Over Wellington: Chilling Tales of the Weird & the Strange” Tabatha Wood – Wild Wood Books 2019
He was scared of the sea. Always had been, ever since he was a tiny baby. I never 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 and beautiful it was. Every sunny day, whenever we could, we went out to the one of the bays: Scorching, Lyall or Worser. They were all safe and clear, and the waters were mostly warm, especially in the summer. But no matter what we did, if we tried to take him into the water, he would cling to us and cry.
My mother got frustrated once, grabbed him from my arms and carried him into the ocean. I was sure his terrified screams could be heard several kilometres away, probably as far north as Porirua. 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 seven when the Southern Right whale came to the harbour, five 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 Oriental Bay. I gave him my binoculars and he sat, entranced, for almost an hour. Afterwards he handed me the lenses and said solemnly, “She is here to warn us of the Beast, Daddy.”
I asked him many questions, but he would not elaborate, nor offer any kind of explanation. He merely shook his head and said nothing more.
At home he drew a picture of the whale in the harbour, followed by a monster with giant tentacles. I asked him why. He said it was the Beast.
We had been to Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand, a few months ago, and we had seen the Colossal Squid. A massive, sea-dwelling invertebrate, the very biggest of its kind, it was the only specimen on display in the world. He had been enthralled.
Afterwards, at the library, I had read to him about the Māori legend of the great 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 moved 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 weapon — his 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 stone. Kupe was victorious. The monster vanquished.
I remember that he had seemed both scared and thrilled by the tale. He’d acted out the story with the help of his plush toys and a plastic sword for many days afterwards.
I didn’t think too much about the picture, I assumed that his imagination had triggered some memory and sparked an urge in him to draw such a thing, until my mother came around to our house the next day. She asked him about his drawing, and he told her the same thing. Except this time he added with great conviction, “And the Beast is coming for me.”
My mother sat down next to him 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 shook, he told her, it was the Beast unfurling its giant tentacles, getting closer and closer to the shore.
My mother 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. Earthquakes, not monsters.
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 about it any more. He went into what my mother calls ‘shut down’. He became so engrossed in his work, he was oblivious to anyone and anything around him.
I have to admit, the new pictures he drew disturbed me. So many images of giant, bloody tentacles. They were 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.
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 drawing were a sign of something more concerning. I didn’t know if this was linked to some repressed memory. I wondered if he was finally processing the loss of his mum. If he was struggling with that.
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 dreams of the Beast and 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 came, he said, the Beast would not be far behind, and people would 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 spoken of Bekkah like this, but the doctor talked 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? He said it was because he knew the Beast was real. Because he could talk to, and with, the creatures of the sea. That everyone else believed in earthquakes but no-one wanted to believe the truth. He said there had to be a sacrifice to keep the city safe.
Afterwards, she told me that she thought it would be best if she referred him to another doctor just in case. Dr Ames was a specialist in the field, she said, and a very good friend of hers. I got scared and 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 in children. There was nothing obviously physically wrong with him, and this was probably a phase. His imagination running away with him. Perhaps he really was finally feeling and understanding the loss of his mum.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently. “Could I ask you, how did his mother pass?”
“It was a car accident. A drunk driver on the highway. Nothing to do with the sea at all.”
When we got home I sat him on the sofa next to me. He watched 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.”
I did cry then, and hugged him as tightly as I dared.
A few days passed without him drawing any more pictures, and I was hopeful that perhaps the phase had passed, but he awoke screaming in the early hours and I ran to his bedside to comfort him. He would say nothing 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. When I asked him about it in the morning, he claimed he didn’t remember a thing.
That afternoon my sister, Tasha, 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.
It was almost two weeks later, and he had drawn no more frightening pictures, when he asked me if we could go to Tarakena Bay. He said we could watch the ferries sailing past and aeroplanes flying overhead, and maybe we could hunt for pāua shells. 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 said we could take some food, maybe walk around Moa Point and make a day of it. He agreed, and I bundled snacks and drinks into a large bag. He seemed excited and happy, keen to be getting out of the house.
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 out too early. It would be nice to spend some time together in the sun. I watched him skipping down the path in front of me, his sunhat flopping around his face, his jandals slapping on the ground. He turned and smiled at me; his cheeks were framed by curls, a gap in his mouth where he was missing a baby tooth. 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 look back. Eventually he stopped at the very top of one of the rocks. He wasn’t high up, but he was far out towards the water. I caught up with him and began to clamber up behind him. He turned and put his 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 movement in the water, a flash of black and white.
“Come down,” I said to him, quietly. “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 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 from his heels on my bare legs.
Behind us the orca leaped 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. Scared.
After one more kick I reacted without thinking.
I slapped him.
He stopped shouting, merely looked at me with his 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 from me. I went to speak but then I saw his eyes widen and his jaw fall slack as he stared over my shoulder. I turned, and 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 standing 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, thrashing and flailing among 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 ground.
Two eyes emerged from the water and fixed themselves upon him. I remembered the Colossal Squid on display at Te Papa, how huge it was. That was a mere baby compared to this monster. The creature was immense. Each eyeball was easily the size of a 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, grabbing the rocks with its giant arms, using its suckers to heave itself out of the water.
It snapped its tentacles in the air, twisting so close to his body that I felt sure they would engulf him and drag him down to the depths of the sea. I was terrified 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, saw his face; something made me pause.
He stood stone still on the edge. His wail deepened to a mournful bellow, like that of a frightened cow. But he didn’t seem frightened. In that moment he seemed bigger and stronger than I had ever seen him. No longer a child; now he was a great warrior and a protector of the sea.
Finally, he grew silent. The creature stopped, its tentacles calm and still. Both of them seemed to be regarding each other carefully. Staring each 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 sea, of a language as old as the Earth. Whatever he said, he said it with great strength in his voice. This was a declaration. An admonishment. A demand that could not, and would not, be ignored.
The monster bobbed in the water before him. It looked like it was thinking. Contemplating its next move. As if it were far more sentient than it had any right to be. Slowly, I saw it recede. Its eyes began to sink 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 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 can’t speak. My voice catches in my throat 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 fast, I had no chance to grab a hold. A pāua shell grazed my fingers, and I snatched it without thinking, or knowing why.
The edge of the shell had been ground by the waves, making it razor sharp. I hacked at the tentacle as it began its descent into the water. It was like trying to fell a tree with a butter knife, but I was determined. 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, plunging the keen edge of the blue-green shell into the Beast, gouging it with all my strength.
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 started swimming for the shore, trying to avoid the rocks in the water. I knew they were rough and jagged, 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 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 the shadows underneath 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. Was that me? Could I save the city and my son by letting go?
No. To hell with that. He needed me.
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 soft tissue. Its tar-like blood stained the water, covering me as I fought. I did not stop. I opened up a gaping hole; a vicious, ragged maw. The creature shrieked and writhed, it thrashed its tentacles and tried to throw me off.
My anger sustained me. My love for my child made me determined. I did not stop. I could not stop. I would never, ever cease fighting. Not while I still had breath in my lungs and strength in my hands. For the memory of Bekkah. For my boy.
The Beast was viciously wounded. Quite clearly in terrible pain. The thrashing ceased, the monster relented. It twisted and pushed itself away from the bay, headed out towards the open ocean. I swam, exhausted yet victorious, back to the shore. It was not dead, perhaps not even fully vanquished, but if it ever dare return, we would be waiting. I would be ready.
My son stood at the edge of the shore. His eyes and arms wide open. His expression a mixture of pride and awe. I was his Warrior Father. Together we were protectors of the city, and 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.
Behind us, the water shone and rippled, as the Beast dived down to meet the dark.