The Whales Beneath
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
An excerpt from "What the Bird Sees in Flight: Collected Stories of a New Zealand Farming Family." Available for purchase in paperback and ebook from online book sellers.
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Tory Channel, 1956
The small fishing boat tacked east and west, making its way south along the Tory Channel toward Picton. The two men aboard were broad shouldered, with knit caps over their long, dark hair. Rocks jutted upward sharply from the sea to starboard. Beyond them, the land formed a backdrop of brown wrinkles. To port, narrow peninsulas extended out toward the boat, forming small, shallow bays where ships liked to run aground. It was getting late in the day, and they still hadn’t caught anything.
Mikaere cracked open a beer and took a swig. From his perch on the other side of the mast, Rangi tried to imagine what the drink would feel like going down his throat, which was currently salty from the ocean spray. He tried to remember why he’d agreed to help his friend with his far-fetched scheme to bring in a haul of mackerel. Rangi had spent much less time on the ocean than Mikaere. He was a land dweller, a farmer’s runaway son, and his upset stomach was the only reason he didn’t join the other man drinking. Seasickness was almost akin to intoxication—light-headedness, distorted vision, and vomit—but without any of the more pleasant, albeit temporary, side effects.
“They hated her.” Mikaere pulled a net into the boat as he spoke, the Maori tattoo patterns wrapped around his forearms rippling. “The first time I bring a woman home for them to meet and they hate her.”
Rangi, barely listening, kept noticing instead where Mikaere left his bottle, instinctively positioning himself to catch it if the boat shifted unexpectedly. Why didn’t his friend pay more attention to his things?
“Do you even know what I’m talking about?” Mikaere adjusted the sail to increase their speed. “You’ve dated a Pakēhā before, I’m sure. What gets me is this girl really could be the one. I wouldn’t have taken her to meet my parents otherwise, white girl or not. My mum doesn’t know about all the women I’ve been with. She wouldn’t want to. But this one is special.”
“I haven’t dared take a girl home, even now that my parents are practically on their deathbed.” Rangi felt awkward just sitting on a crate, but he truly couldn’t bring himself to stand up.
“Of course you haven’t. You never go home.” Mikaere laughed deeply from his belly.
Rangi took a deep breath. The wind was on his back, so he hoped Mikaere couldn’t hear his curses.
“I’m telling it like it is, ain’t I?” Mikaere shouted over the wind.
“Leave me be,” Rangi said.
“Damn, you’re terrible at conversation.”
Rangi finally stood and leaned over the side of the boat. Gigantic mammals circled beneath the choppy surf. A jet of warm mist shot into the air as a whale surfaced nearby. He’d never seen a whale so close before.
“Pull your own weight, won’t you?” Mikaere threw him a rope to coil. He had brought the boat to a standstill and was gathering a net to cast.
“There are some humpbacks below us,” Rangi said, struggling to wrap the rope around his arm, still distracted by creatures.
Mikaere inspected the turquoise water, which sparkled like the underside of a paua shell. “What such strange beasts. Takes a hell of an operation to bring ‘em in,” he said, his neck craned over the bow. “My mate was on one of the last ships to hunt those things. You know they say the entire industry’s over.”
Rangi nodded, continuing to wind the rope over, under.
“Have you ever been on a whaling ship?” Mikaere asked, throwing the net out into the water with a labored grunt.
“I used to work on the docks,” Rangi croaked, pausing to rub his abdomen.
“Yes, of course. You told me that. You were the only Islander, weren’t you?”
“I’m used to it.”
“What’s it like? I mean, your mum’s a Pakēhā, isn’t she?” Mikaere gave him a genuinely curious look.
Rangi spread his feet further apart and closed his eyes. His body felt like rubber. He wasn’t sure if it was shame, withdrawal, or the seasickness.
“Hurl over the side, mate, or you’ll be scrubbing the decks.” Mikaere seemed to finally take notice of his condition.
“I’m OK.” Rangi opened his eyes and looked at another whale surfacing, deciding to tell more of his story. “Yes, my mum’s white. My dad was Maori, but he was killed during the first War.”
“So you’re an old bastard then?”
“I’ll be forty next year.”
Mikaere chuckled. “No, I mean your dad knocked up your—”
“They were married.” Rangi tossed the coiled rope into a pile on the deck.
“Oh, wow. That doesn’t happen.” Mikaere surveyed the horizon as he prepared another net.
“Well, they were. But my mom remarried later. A businessman more than ten years older than her, who then started a dairy farm. I was just a little tyke, but then all of a sudden I had four younger siblings. It was a blur.”
“I think that’s the most you’ve ever told me about yourself.”
Rangi staggered to the side and vomited. Now his mouth was sour, but at least the churning in his stomach subsided.
“I didn’t mean to make you sick.” Mikaere tossed his empty bottle in a canvas bag and then reached for a new one.
“Throw me one, will you?” Rangi said, his hands on his knees, staring into the grimy, tan deck.
“You sure? I know how you get,” Mikaere said condescendingly.
“I need it.”
“Yeah, just not too much. We need to catch something if we’re gonna make this trip worthwhile.”
“Not like you do.” Mikaere tossed Rangi a cold bottle.
Rangi threw his head back and felt the chilled rush of beer through his chest. He didn’t notice the taste—it was a light, flavorless brew—but he was immediately at ease to be drinking.
“You don’t think it’s bad, do you?” Mikaere asked.
“What?” Rangi licked the foam off his lips.
“Me being with a white woman.”
“Hell, no. I thought you were asking about the beer. It’s terrible.”
Mikaere mockingly stepped back in shock. “You feeling better now?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Rangi said, but his gut was disagreeing with him again. Still, he continued chugging his beer.
“Well, how’s it like for you? Is it easier to date a white lady or a Maori?”
The question Rangi hadn’t wanted to think about or answer. “Shit, it’s just the color of her skin.”
“I don’t see you with many women.” Mikaere checked the nets stretched over the side.
Rangi cursed at his friend, cast his emptied bottle over the railing, and wobbled angrily toward the stern. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair and clenched his other hand tightly into a fist. It was a while before he realized he’d been staring cross-eyed at the same rock, lost in thought about jumping overboard to join his bottle.
“Come here, mate! Help me pull this in.” The urgency in Mikaere’s voice convinced Rangi to take him seriously. He was surprised to find the other man straining to bring a net onboard. Once they’d heaved the load of fish onto the deck, both men sat back against the side of the boat, breathing heavily.
“There was one time where my mum set me up with this white girl in our church,” Rangi said in halting speech, as if talking to himself. “Honestly, we hit it off. I didn’t think we would. Then a while later, when we were walking through town, she made these snide comments about a Maori family, and then another about a group of Islander men at a bar. It was then I knew she didn’t really see me. I was just one of her people.”
“What did you do?” Mikaere asked quietly, reminding Rangi he wasn’t alone.
“That was around the time I left town. I never saw her again.”
“She was a bush girl, probably never left her own town. City women like some brown skin.” Mikaere growled lasciviously. Rangi feigned a half smile. They sat silently for a minute. Memories continued to rush through Rangi’s mind. He felt less sick as he talked openly, so he eventually continued.
“I fell in love with a Maori woman on the coast a few years back. She had the most lovely hair and eyes, and a keen sense of business. She was a chief’s daughter, the whole lot. But you wouldn’t have known from the way she carried herself. She worked on the dock because she wanted to. And she had a connection with animals, like me.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t make a joke about your connection with animals.” Mikaere tugged at the net to keep the fish contained.
Rangi glared at Mikaere.
“She sounds like a keeper,” Mikaere said, straight-faced.
“She was wild, carefree, brilliant. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.”
“Did her father not take a liking to you?”
“I never met him. I couldn’t. I don’t know anything about Maori tradition. It gnawed at me. I don’t think she saw me as one of her people. I was just the bloke at the dock she had a thing for. I picked up and left soon after.”
As the sun set, the boat rocked and the dying fish in the net flopped at their feet.
“Well, if my woman and I have a kid, I’ll be sure you’re the godfather.”
“You’ve thought ahead about that?”
“I just did.” Mikaere laughed.
For some reason, those words meant something to Rangi. Mikaere reached over and squeezed his friend’s shoulder. Rangi was suddenly conscious that he was leaning back against Mikaere’s other arm. He thought about when he and his brothers used to pile into the tiny cow shed on their farm to hide away from their dad’s chores, their bodies huddled close as they took turns peeking through the small window, surfacing carefully like the whales beneath the boat coming up for air. He turned his head to look at his friend.
Mikaere smirked. “You want another?” He stood and retrieved two more beers.
“No, I couldn’t stomach it.”
Rangi hoped he could stay sober when they got back to land.