Octopus

by Nicolas Low

AT TEN THE sun finally sets and the pub fills up and the news comes on. It's my round. A couple of aunties up the back give me a nod but everyone else looks pakeha. The publican looks at my tarred hands. You must be one of the roading gang boys, he says. I'm Don. Got any ID?

There's a couple of bushwalkers sitting at the end of our table when I get back. Cheers. Cheers. A news item comes on about the Ruatoki terror raids.

Farkin rubbish, says the first bushwalker. Eight million bucks of surveillance and they catch some guys shooting pigs in the hills.

Shooting their mouths off in the pub, more like. Cops've been watching too many movies, says his mate. They reckoned there'd be grenades and napalm and all they got was three old rifles. Like there'd be Maori terror camps in New Zealand.

Taihoa puts down his beer and leans in close. Nah, he says quietly. It's for real.

What is? the first guy says.

The training camps. Cops found nothing 'cause they're stupid. The real guns are buried. My cousin went to that training camp. It was awesome.

The two guys go real quiet.

Cops only found the one camp, Taihoa says, but there's heaps. That's why we're down here. Got work on the roading gang so we got an excuse to come to the island and train. He nods over at a bunch of fishermen at the pool table. Those guys too. They're hardcore.

What do they teach you? the first guy whispers.

Taihoa glances round, then leans in even closer. It's the al-Qaeda training manual but with a Maori flavour. Mostly heavy weapons and explosives but they throw in some taiaha and waiata and a bit of cannibalism too.

The guy sprays his beer all over the table. JJ's pretending to look for something under his chair so they can't see his face.

And bushcraft, Taihoa says. When we get the signal we gotta leave the cities and live off the fat of the land. Or the fat of our enemies.

The two guys are staring at Taihoa. Now's my chance.

He's just taking the piss, I say. The real danger is the octopus.

At that the boys just lose it. The what? JJ gasps.

The octopus.

Farkin yeah, splutters Taihoa. You tell 'em. The al-Qaeda terrorist octopus.

I'm serious, I say. There's a giant octopus out in the bay. If we make a wrong move and wake him up, we're done.

The boys are crying with laughter. People are looking at us. Taihoa slides the heavy sash window up and tries to light a cigarette. The wind keeps blowing his matches out. There's a buzzing sound coming from nearby.

Hear that? says Taihoa. They're training out there now. How to use a chainsaw in the dark.

Shut the bloody window! yells Don the publican.

Sure, Taihoa yells back. He grabs his phone off the table and climbs through the window, then closes it behind him. The whole place cracks up. Then the window opens again and Taihoa's face looks in.

C'mon boys, he says. Bugger the tab. Let's go.

The boys climb out the window in a sag-arsed tumble and it's just me left in the pub. Something inside me goes crunch.

Octopus, bitches! I scream through the half-open window. There's a mean-as motherfuckin octopus out there. I'm not coming out! You better run!

Through the gap in the window I see Tama's sprawled out under the island's only streetlight. He's fallen over from laughing so hard. Taihoa pulls him up off the gravel and they head towards the wharf. They think the octopus is a helluva joke.

Thing is, I'm not joking.

 

THEY CALL ME Little Shit. On the days I don't feel like leaving the house I'm Little. I don't believe anything those days. Other days I'm king of the world and probably up in your face, they call me Shit. Those days I believe too much. Today's one of them. I grab the window and crash it shut. I can't see the boys out on the road any more. Just the foggy reflection of every single person in the pub staring at me. I turn to face the bar, breathing hard. Crazy bastards, I say. They think I'm taking the piss.

Nobody moves. They've all stopped talking. There's just the tinny chatter of rugby on the TV and the clink of glasses going down along the bar. Don the publican's watching me through slit eyes. I'm still in my dirty work blues and orange high-vis vest. My dad told me to watch for signs. We're six days into a summer building roads on Rakiura and I've found one. I step forward into the middle of the pub, and start to preach.

Listen up all right? You fellas gotta be careful out there. When you leave the pub tonight and get in your cars you go in fear and trembling, 'cause I saw this huge octopus from the back deck of the launch. Yes I did. He's sleeping in the middle of the bay. You piss him off, and we're all dead.

I turn to the fishermen. You fellas must have seen him out there on the boats. He's massive.

The nearest fisherman looks at me real hard and gives this little shake of his head, like he's trying to tell me something. There's no time to ask. The beach is right across the road and the octopus is right there, a black stain under the water. I raise my voice and let it ring out the way Dad does at his sermons.

He's old too. Real old is Te Wheke. He's got a hardcore long memory. He never forgets.

I try to smile but it comes out wrong, all big eyes and teeth like a pukana grimace. Don steps out from behind the bar and walks towards me.

C'mon, nutjob, he says. Shut up, pay up and piss off.

I take a step back. There's no hope for this lot. What are you fellas looking at? I ask the room. Don't you know, we're the roading gang. We tried to warn youse. See youse round.

I slide the window back up and half climb, half fall through it. Outside, the wind tears my clothes off. There's only one thing for it. Run.

 

WHEN I CATCH up with the others they're at the wharf. The wind's up and singing through the masts. They've got the back door to the ferry terminal open. JJ's up to his usual shit, banging round inside using his phone as a torch. Taihoa sees me and turns.

Octopus! he yells. Run, you bastard, run!

Tama cracks up but then he sees my face. He's got his hood up and his big curly afro's coming out the sides. What you on about this octopus, bro? he asks. Are you Little or Shit today?

Shit, I tell him. He's somewhere out there, bro. I saw him. Fifty arms and a big evil eye. We wake him and boom, we're done. I jab Tama in the stomach, harder than I mean to. Sorry, I say. But it's not safe. We gotta go.

Taihoa frowns. He cocks his head on one side, like a sparrow. You're not joking, are you. How'd you know there's an octopus out there?

Saw him from the ferry on the way over.

How big is he?

I lower my voice. Bigger than the pub.

Tama leans back against the railings and folds his big arms. Right, he says. Bigger than the pub.

I tried to warn the guys in the pub but they didn't want to know.

Aye, bugger them, says Taihoa, hopping from foot to foot to keep warm. Pakeha get what's coming to them. But it's all good. This octopus isn't gonna come for us, right? We're safe here?

I can hear waves surge against the wharf beneath us. Taihoa's being nice but I gotta tell the truth. No one's safe on this whole island, I say. If he gets pissed off, no one's safe.

You're crazy, bro, says Taihoa. He lets that hang there, then suddenly grins. Let's catch him, he says.

My heart bumps.

Tama groans and unfolds his arms. Oh here we go. For Christ's sake. Taihoa!

Taihoa's nickname means 'stop'. Taihoa ignores him like he ignores everyone. How about a spot of late-night fishing? he says. We could grab one of these boats.

How we gonna catch a giant octopus? asks Tama, sucking his breath in through clenched teeth.

I dunno, says Taihoa. My grandad caught octopus but we never learned. He turns back to me. Your dad used to catch them too, eh? Before he turned all God-freaky?

Seriously, I say, wrong idea. You don't wanna get his attention. He'd kick your arse.

Nah man, we'd be like Maui. The great ancestor takes his jawbone and tames the sun – we tame the octopus. There's heaps of boats around. C'mon.

Before I can say anything he's down the wharf. He stops at a little dinghy at the far end. Aw yeah! calls Taihoa. Late-night fishing here we come.

While he's trying to untie the ropes, I get this real clear feeling that Taihoa's right. We have to go fishing. Dad's always telling us there's a reason for everything, everything for a reason. Tells it to his congregation too, chairs pulled up on the lino in our kitchen on a Sunday morning. Says it so gentle. A reason for everything, everything for a reason. Just watch for signs. So there's a reason I got kicked out of school and got a job out here, and a reason I saw the octopus. That's the sign. I'm not shit on the end of a shovel today. Over the surf I can hear Dad's voice, clear as. Watch for signs and you'll know what to do. I say a prayer under my breath. Lord bless the people in the pub who don't want to know, and bless us and the boat, and we'll go do some fishing in your name. Ko Ihu Karaiti, tou matou Ariki, amene.

All right Taihoa, I shout. Let's fuckin go!

 

WE'VE JUST ABOUT got the ropes clear when there's a shout from JJ inside the ferry terminal. Check this out, boys!

What is it? Tama calls back.

Just come, dick. Have a look.

We shamble over to the doorway, where JJ's standing with this long black bag. He's busted the padlock and flips it open. By the light of his phone I can see it's a gun case. Three rifles held in grey foam.

Shiiit, Tama says. Where'd you find them?

In the office, JJ says. Must belong to some hunter going back on the morning launch. No bullets though. They store them separate.

I start giggling. Everything is clear. Sweet as, I say. We can shoot the bastard. I reach into the bag and take one of the rifles. It feels cold and smooth and good to hold. I point it out to the bay. Bang! Right in his big horny mouth.

Taihoa's grinning like a madman. This is his kind of game. He grabs the other rifles, and hands one to JJ and keeps one for himself. C'mon, he says. Help me find the bullets.

No way, Tama says. Leave the bullets. That's heavy shit. Let's just grab the boat and go for a fish.

We're so busy with the bag that we don't notice the truck pull up at the wharf till its headlights blaze across us. The doors slam and two big figures come marching up the wharf, just black shapes against the light. We're too stunned and drunk to move and in a second I see it's the island's one cop, a chubby Maori guy in a heavy Swanndri and a black beanie. The other guy is Don from the pub, angry as.

Shit, Tama hisses. Shit shit shit. Put them away –

Oi! a big voice yells, what in the hell –

The cop's voice dies when he takes us in: four ragged mainlanders, hoods up against the cold, pants slung low, rifles glinting in the yellow glare. I'm still wearing my high-vis vest, lit up like an angel in the headlights. The cop reaches out his hands, palms down, real slow.

What you boys doing?

I'm trying to find some words but Taihoa starts taking the piss. It's Tino Rangatiratanga, eh.

Eh? says the cop.

JJ starts to giggle.

Time to make the white man pay, bro, Taihoa says. I can feel Tama stiffen beside me, mouthing What the fuck?

We're the roading gang, I say. We're the four road workers of the apocalypse.

The cop's only metres from us but he turns and runs, grabbing at Don on his way past. Taihoa cracks up. Tino Rangatiratanga! he yells at them, then: Fuck the police, nigger! In a second they're in the truck and screaming back down the road towards the pub. We just stand there in the growing silence, caught between shit-scared and that mad humour that gets you when you've gone too far.

Ha, time to get the hell out of here, eh boys, says Taihoa. His clean-shaven cheeks are glowing.

Where the hell we gonna go? Tama demands. The temperature suddenly drops. Go hide out at ours? Like they don't know where we live? Only two hundred people on this bloody island.

Man, we're just messing around, JJ says. They know that.

Are we? Taihoa says. Do they?

Let's take the boat and go, I say. We have to go after the octopus.

There's just the road end, the wharf and the boats. Everything else is a black wall of bush and water. There's nowhere else to go on this island. We've got to go, I say. It's our calling.

Oh for Christ's sake, Tama says. Let's go – look.

There are lights moving outside the pub, lights going on in houses up the hill, cars heading our way. We stumble back up the wharf and climb down into the boat. JJ and Tama find a couple of orange plastic oars and we push off into the bay. The sound of the waves is the sound of the octopus breathing. I cradle the rifle to my chest and hope I'll know what to do. Taihoa's laughing, crouched low in the back of the boat, yelling insults in Maori that the wind snatches away.

Shut up, dick! Tama says. You don't wanna mess with these guys.

The oars aren't doing much, but once we clear the little point the breeze and the current push us out towards the middle of the bay. I look back. I can see cars from the pub pulling up outside the Four Square supermarket on the waterfront. They're making a line, blocking off the road down to the wharf. The police truck's red and blue lights pick out figures moving in the dark, black clothes, the glint of rifles.

A bus comes down the hill behind the supermarket and turns towards the wharf. Must be the tourist bus dropping people off for the dawn ferry. They stop the bus at gunpoint and make everyone get off and lie on the ground. I can hear static and feedback in the dawn air. Someone's bellowing into a megaphone but it could be in another language. Tama's saying something to me but I can't hear him. We're getting close now. I can hear the creature stir.

Oi, you okay? Tama says again. He shakes my arm.

I open my mouth to make a joke but nothing comes out. I feel the thunder of long arms running across the ocean floor. We're out in the bay, crouched in a rowboat right over the creature's great unblinking eye. The shore's crawling with cops and hunters and tourists, all luring him out. Down on the beach a hunter's dog stands frozen, pointing out to sea, a loud growl of fear in its throat.

I look at the rifle in my hands and I know it's useless. But it's the only jawbone I have. I know it's my calling, to raise him. I'll raise him up and I'll tame him. Before anyone can stop me I'm on my feet in the middle of the boat, a luminous orange angel in my high-vis vest. It's the uniform of the reckoning. The uniform of Tino Rangatiratanga. I think of Dad's fierce eyes. I raise my arms towards the wharf with my rifle in my hands, towards the lights and the voices and all the people and I begin to chant.

'Haere mai –'

A flare of light. A flare of light and a fierce crack and this huge wind picks us up. Someone cries out and beneath us the surface of the bay explodes. With a monstrous roar a blue-black knot of ancient muscle surges up beneath us like a blunt-nosed submarine. He rises. The octopus, the mighty octopus Te Wheke, rises from the boiling sea. Oceans thunder off his back. He rises and we fall, and as I fall my gaze takes in the frightened faces of the hunters and the farmers hunkered down behind their utes. Eight tentacles go hissing out across the waves – as thick as mighty tree trunks, as thick as mighty waka horned with weed and lethal suckers – and the last thing I see before I hit the water, before a tentacle lashes through the front of the pub in an explosion of wood and glass and the gas tanks go up with a thumping flash, before another great arm hurls the police truck through the front of the Four Square, the last thing I see is the gleaming, dripping moko carved upon the creature's chin and the look in its single world-sized eye that says, finally: it's time.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.