by Annette Edwards-Hill
I clearly remember the last time I went fishing with Cathy and Neil. It was a winter afternoon and unseasonably warm without a cloud in the sky. The adults said we needed to leave for home before it got dark but we were still fishing in the late afternoon and didn’t notice the reddened hills and sea as the sun went down. It was Cathy who looked up from her fishing rod with the line trailing into the black depths of the sounds and said the sun had gone down and we needed to leave. We hadn’t had even a bite all day and Neil and I left our lines in the water hopeful that in those last few minutes a school of fish would swim past.
Neil and I looked up from our fishing lines to see the sun dipping below the hills and the red glow on the water being replaced with darkness.
‘Now,’ Cathy snapped at us. There was warning in her voice. The moon was rising over the ocean.
Until that day we’d spent every school holiday at my uncle’s house by the sea in the Marlborough Sounds. Us two boys and Cathy shared the bunk room. I slept on the bottom bunk because Mum didn’t trust me not to fall out of bed. Cathy would sleep up the top and Neil slept on a stretcher on the floor. He was two years older than me and had just turned nine.
Cathy was thirteen and Mum said she wasn’t really my cousin. She was Auntie Sharon’s daughter but Uncle Blair wasn’t her dad. They’d met when Cathy was six years old. Cathy told me she hadn’t seen her real dad since she was a baby.
Auntie Sharon scared me. She had a high tinkly voice when she spoke to me but I would hear her slam doors and sometimes scream at Cathy at night after I had gone to bed.
During the day us kids would walk to a rocky point and cast our lines into the sound. Sometimes we caught fish. It was usually blue cod and many were undersized and we had to throw them back. Neil said the fishing officers who regularly cruised around the coast in their boat looking for poachers had caught Uncle Blair with a couple of undersize fish in his bucket and he’d had to pay a big fine.
On that last day that we fished together we packed up our gear quickly after Cathy told us we needed to go home. I fumbled reeling in my line as quickly as I could. Cathy impatiently shut the plastic box I kept my pocketknife and sinkers in and put it in her backpack. We walked home as the moon rose and cast its half-light on the hills. The skies were clear and Neil pointed to a cluster of stars low in the sky.
‘Dad says those stars got there after a Māori god threw his eyeballs up into the sky,’ he told us.
I said that god was crazy because those were definitely stars, not eyeballs. Neil laughed at me and said it was a myth to explain the stars that could only be seen in winter.
We were quiet for a bit after that. We could hear weka squeaking in the bush, and the odd branch crack. Neil broke the silence saying there were possums in the trees. I covered my head with my hands when I heard that. I knew the possums had sharp claws and Derek in my class told me they could dive on you from above and rip your brains out.
Cathy had been quiet since we left our fishing spot but she finally spoke. ‘I heard the stars are really a lady and her six daughters visiting their grandmother. Papatūānuku,’ she said slowly. I knew who Papatūānuku was, the earth mother. We had read about her at school.
I squinted at the stars but I could only count six not seven. Even when I covered my bad eye with my hand, which made me stumble and stub my big toe. I sat down for a moment and Neil told me to get up. He said that it was my fault for not wearing shoes.
We were almost on the other side of the point when we saw flashlights bouncing over the water, then the rocks by the beach, eventually landing on Cathy. She looked like a stunned animal caught in the headlights of a car about to hit her. That was when I realised we were very late and the adults were worried and looking for us.
A figure rushed towards us. It was my mum, she was making funny little gulping noises.
Auntie Sharon was right behind her. ‘Why did you bloody kids take so long?’ she said.
Then she hit Cathy hard across the back of her legs and whacked Neil’s bum.
‘I’ve told you what happened to Grandad.’
Cathy and Neil sprinted towards the house. I hid behind Mum’s legs in case Auntie Sharon whacked me too but she was chasing Cathy and Neil. I heard a bang and Cathy screamed. Then Auntie Sharon yelled, ‘You’re so bloody stupid, I wish I never had you.’
I looked at Mum. Her mouth was set in a thin line.
Later after we’d gone to bed I whispered to Neil, ‘What happened to your grandad?’
‘Mum said he got eaten by an octopus,’ he said. ‘Leaped out of the water and grabbed him. Right by that spot where we fish.’
‘And did it eat him?’ I asked.
‘I haven’t seen Grandad since I was little, so maybe.’
I lay in bed unable to sleep. I tried looking out the window for the seven stars, the mother and the six sisters, but there was nothing. Only the black night sky, the screech of possums and then the call of a ruru.
The next day the ocean was still, the surface like glass. I stared at the water, waiting for it to be broken by a creature from the deep. I asked Mum if there was such a thing as a giant octopus, that could eat people.
‘I haven’t heard of giant octopuses,’ she said. ‘But that doesn’t mean there aren’t giant octopuses.’
When Neil suggested we go fishing, I said I would stay home and work on my book of pictures. ‘Suit yourself,’ he said and left with his fishing rod and bucket. I drew a picture of a massive octopus, its beak a sharp cruel thing. Neil was back before it was dark, his bucket empty.
‘No fish today?’ I asked him.
‘I put them all back,’ he said.
He looked at the picture I’d drawn.
‘Don’t show that to my mum,’ he said.
I hid the drawing in the bottom of my suitcase.
Years later I left school and studied marine biology at university. I was in my second year of study when Mum rang and said that Neil was having his 21st birthday party in Hamilton and I was invited. I hadn’t seen Neil for years. Aunt Sharon and Uncle Blair had divorced a while back and Cathy had fallen off the edge of the earth. Nobody had seen her since she left school and disappeared up north to work. There were rumours she was living with an old man on an orchard in Kaiteriteri. Someone else said she’d moved into a commune and had ten kids.
Cathy wasn’t at Neil’s party, but Aunty Sharon was. She gave me a hug and I felt myself shrink away from her. Her hair was dyed bright red, she wore a purple satin dress and she stank of smoke. I thought about the sounds of her hands slapping Cathy’s legs, of her yelling. I tried to smile and respond politely when she asked what I was doing. When I said I was at university she said she always thought I was a clever boy and patted my shoulder. I could smell stale smoke on her hands and I excused myself saying I needed to find my mum.
I went outside to get away from her. There were three or four people smoking on the balcony and I stood away from them and looked up at the night sky. It was late June and cold. I couldn’t tell the difference between my condensed breath hanging in the air and the clouds of smoke from the smokers. I entertained myself by trying to spot the planets. It was cloudy and I couldn’t see the stars or the moon. I thought about Neil and Cathy telling me the stories about the God throwing his eyeballs in the air and the six sisters.
I turned to go back inside, hoping I might get a chance to talk to Neil who’d been busy with his friends since I’d arrived, when an old man left the group of smokers and came and stood next to me. He drew heavily on the cigarette in his mouth then tapped the end of it on the balcony leaving a tiny pile of black ash.
‘Bit of a cold night for it,’ he said to me. I nodded and smiled.
‘So you a friend of Neil’s?’ he asked me.
I shook my head. ‘A cousin.’
He looked confused for a moment. ‘Then how come I haven’t met you before?’
I realised he must be related to Aunty Sharon. ‘I’m Blair’s sister’s son,’ I explained.
‘That makes sense,’ he said, ‘I was a bit worried I had grandchildren I hadn’t met, or worse couldn’t remember. I’m Neil’s grandfather.’ Then he laughed, a raspy old man’s laugh.
I looked at him for a moment. I’d completed a paper on mollusks earlier that year and I knew octopus definitely didn’t launch themselves out of the water and grab people off the land and eat them. But I still felt confused. Wasn’t Aunty Sharon’s dad supposed to be dead?
Probably Aunty Sharon had been joking, or trying to scare us. But all I could remember was the way she slapped Cathy, then looked at me like she was going to hit me too. She didn’t look like she thought any of it was funny.
The old man smiled at me. ‘Penny for your thoughts,’ he said.
I looked back up at the sky as the clouds parted in the southerly breeze. ‘See those stars,’ I said pointing low in the sky. ‘Know that Matariki story about the God throwing the eyeballs in the air?’
‘Best not to believe in stories,’ he said.
He flicked his cigarette butt over the balcony and we both watched the embers disappear into the darkness.
Annette Edwards-Hill lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Her short stories and flashes have been published in New Zealand and overseas. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize in 2018. She has been shortlisted for New Zealand Flash Fiction Day, Micro Madness and the Sargeson Prize. She won second place in the Reflex Fiction Autumn 2021 competition.