I wrote this a couple of years ago for a steampunk magazine and can’t remember if I ever shared it. It’s a quick read, hope you enjoy
THE TICKING TANIWHA
A new world beckoned, and my family answered the call. In 1862 we left behind the mud, poverty, and back breaking labour of life in England. We traded everything for mud, poverty, and back breaking labour in New Zealand. Father secured forty acres in a little settlement called Oratia. He said it would be a better life, that there would be many opportunities in the new world, for Lawrence and me.
“Some opportunity,” I muttered eight years later, carrying the bucket from the nearby stream, over the rough pasture and tree stumps, up to our little cabin—careful not to spill too much, otherwise I would have to return for another bucket load.
“At least the mud has dried up.” I tipped the bucket into the barrel at the corner of the roof. A dry summer meant more trips back and forth to fill it.
I peered into the cool depths of the water container. Life in England seemed like a dream lurking at the bottom of a well and veiled in thick coal smoke. I was only five years old when we left, Lawrence four years old, and the baby not yet one. Our family of five boarded the Hanover in May 1862 and our reduced family of four arrived in Auckland sixteen weeks later.
Although young at the time, three things about our trip from England are carved into my memory. I remember the instant I first saw a watch mechanism, and my fascination for all things mechanical burst into life in my brain. Secondly the stench below decks—so thick at times it could ram its fingers down your throat, making you gag. The third memory was the overwhelming desire to toss my little brother over the side.
Every single day started the same way. Lawrence scrambled down from the hammock he shared with Da. He would stare at me, and utter those words.
“Are we there yet?”
“Are we there yet?”
Sometimes twice a day. For one hundred and twelve days.
We lost the baby after eight weeks aboard, and the captain ordered her tiny body thrown into the swirling ocean’s embrace. I thought Momma would jump after her, Da had to hold her so tight. Watching her cry, doubled over in grief, was the only thing that stopped me from pushing Lawrence into the deep. I figured losing one child was enough. But it was a close call, the boredom of endless weeks confined to a rolling ship, almost too much for a child with an active mind to endure.
I dropped the wooden bucket on the veranda and dipped my hand into the pocket of my apron. My fingers closed around the watch, safely nestled in the fabric. The casing may be battered and dented, but it was my most prized possession and I carried it everywhere. Amongst our fellow passengers on the long journey was a jeweller. He occupied his time fixing watches, music boxes, and trinkets for the others on board.
He drew me in like a magician, casting his magic and drawing life from inanimate metal. Day after day, I sat at his feet, mesmerised by the intricate workings of the tiny mechanical devices. Unlike other adults, he didn’t shoo me away; he answered my endless questions and let me help. At the end of the voyage, he slipped the old watch into my small hand.
Da scowled, tinkering and clockwork no fit occupation for a girl. I was supposed to be content milking the cow, lugging water, toiling in the fields, and maybe aspiring to being a school teacher. Experience taught me to hide what cogs and springs I found. I stashed them in a box amongst the roots of a sawn off kauri. When time allowed, I pulled out the box, and tried to assemble something from the scavenged parts. In my mind I saw a tiny mechanical horse, which would raise and lower his head and paw a front foot. So far I had a skeletal outline, but I needed parts for the mechanism to make it work.
“Lettie?” Mother called from inside.
“Yes, Momma?” I dropped the watch back into the folds of my apron.
“Have you finished your schoolwork? The teacher will be here at the end of the week.”
I heaved a deep sigh and walked through the open door into the dim interior of our two roomed home. Momma pounded dough on the table, making bread to accompany dinner. She looked up and gave me a tired smile. The schoolbooks sat to one side of the table, waiting for my attention. I scoped the pile into my arms. “I’ll go sit outside.”
Finding my favourite spot of soft clover and moss, I flung myself down, opened the book and held the pencil, poised, in my hand. I screwed up my face at the algebra problems. Time passed. Tui sang as they drank nectar from the flax flowers. A heavy whump whump signalled the fat kereru flying overhead.
The page swam in front of my vision. I finished algebra and moved on to the next set of tasks. What a waste of time, conjugating Latin verbs. We should be learning Te Reo so we can talk to our neighbours. How can we trade with the Maori when we don’t make the effort to learn their language? I haven’t heard one yet at the local store asking in perfect Latin to purchase coffee or a saw blade.
A sod of earth landed on the open page. A brown splatter covered up my chicken scratches. I frowned and looked up, scanning the dense forest edging the small pasture. “Kereama!”
A fern rustled. I picked up a rock and hurled it at the swaying greenery.
“Ow,” the bush cried out.
I picked up a twig and scraped the mud off my book, as a shadow fell over the page and blotted out my sun.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“You ruined my school work, and the teacher is here at the end of the week.” Shutting the book, I shoved it away from me. I would have to re-write the lesson, or take a caning across my palm for the lack of care.
A boy close to my age, tall and scraggly, beamed from behind black hair. “I know where there’s a taniwha.”
“You do not.” Rising made our height difference more obvious. It wasn’t fair, he had shot up last summer, and now the top of my head barely reached the middle of his chest.
“I do too. Want to come see, or are you too scared?” He held out his hand in challenge and invitation. The two of us became firm friends the first day we met, the little English child unafraid of the savage boy, mischief our common language.
“You’re not a warrior yet, Kereama, let’s see who is scared,” I shot back, grabbed his hand and pulled him into the calm haven of the forest. As we walked, fantail kept us company. They dived and chirped. One brushed my outstretched hand as it flitted to sit on a ponga, head tilted as we passed. Another caught my eye, ducking and weaving higher than the others, a flash of gold amongst their muted grey blue and soft yellow.
I squinted to see it better, sunlight reflecting off its feathers in an unusual way. “Hey, look at that fantail.” I pointed to the little creature dancing on the nodding boughs of a manukau.
He raised his head to follow my outstretched hand. “It’s just a piwakawaka.” He pushed through the scrub.
“This one’s different,” I whispered, my gaze tracking its progress and I failed to see the ponga frond that bounced off Kereama, and swiped across my face. We followed the Otamai stream upriver until the surrounding bush gave way to a large, deep pool. A waterfall, twenty feet high, tumbled over rocks to dash into the water below. It swirled and frothed before flowing down river where it would eventually run past my home.
Kereama put a finger to his lips. “Shush. The taniwha lives here. You don’t want to wake him up.”
I laughed, and picked up a stone. “Does not,” I replied and tossed the rock into the water. The black depths swallowed the object, and my gaze couldn’t track its progress below the surface. A hiss bounced off the rocks and echoed through the trees.
My head shot up. “What’s that?”
“I told you not to wake the taniwha.” Kereama backed up, hands raised as he edged away from the pool.
The waterfall drew my gaze; it seemed to be the source of the noise. The sheet of cascading water hitched at one point. Two dark brown nostrils appeared through the curtain and a slow curl of steam blended with the mist, rising up to meet the clouds above the tree tops. My heart pounded in my chest.
Kereama’s eyes widened—moments before he turned tail and fled. My feet stayed riveted to the earth and I watched as the nostrils turned into a long snout the length of my arm, gleaming fangs hanging from the top jaw. My brain saw enough and booted my body into action.
“Wait for me!” I cried, and crashed through the undergrowth, running back to the safety of our cabin.
All night I tossed and turned in my little cot, clutching the thin blanket around my shoulders, muttering in my sleep. There’s no such thing as a taniwha, whatever Kereama might believe. But I saw its snout emerging from the waterfall, rivulets of water running off the gleaming hide.
Morning broke and I slipped from bed and padded over the hard timber floor, escaping outside to allow my thoughts to soar in the open space. The pocket watch danced over my fingers as I replayed events over and over in my mind, the thin blast of steam from nostrils, the way the light hit the burnished nose. The fantail guard who flashed in the sun unlike any of its companions. Details nagged at me until I made my decision.
I had to go back.
After breakfast, I stole the bread crusts and stuffed them into my pockets as I headed outside. At the edge of the dense bush, I lifted the corners of my skirt and looped the fabric through the hitches hanging off my belt, raising the hem to knee height and out of the way of my feet. Time lost meaning in the green and leafy surrounds. With slow steps, I waited for the fantail to return and dance around my head. The chirping came first as they called to one another amongst the canopy. Hopping and diving they edged closer to me.
“Come on, little ones.” Breaking up the bread in my fingers, I littered the ground with enticing crumbs, waiting for their curiosity to drive them nearer. “Where’s your special friend, the one who is kissed by the sunlight?”
The birds darted back and forth before diving down to scoop up crumbs. They called out, attracting their comrades to the unexpected feast. I waited, leaning against a rough trunk, my fingers tracing bark fissures, until I spotted him.
He flitted back and forth, showing no interest in the bread as though he guarded the others from above. With each circuit, he edged closer. My eyes drank him in, soaking up the details of his feathers, discerning why he looked different to the others. Intricate koru adorned his silver tail fan. Tiny mechanical joints allowed his steel toes to flex and grasp branches. His wings stretched out to reveal beaten brass feathers.
“You’re clockwork,” I breathed in wonder.
He gave a chirp and fluttered higher in the trees.
“Well that answers one question, now to solve the other.” I left the friendly birds to their breakfast and kept walking through the forest. I followed the path worn in the earthy detritus and made by a multitude of animal feet as they trekked to the water source.
At the edge of the pool I stopped and drank in the beauty of the gushing water and over hanging silver fern. Then, I picked up a rock and tossed it into the swirling eddies and waited. The hiss came first, scraping fingers of fear down my spine.
The nostrils emerged from behind the waterfall. I told my feet to stay put even though my heart tried to burst free and run on its own. Nostrils turned into a snout. Above the snout, two enormous black eyes the size of dinner plates spun and rotated. I forced myself to concentrate on the details. The colour and texture of its skin, the way the light hit the hide, the slight stutter when it moved to the left.
The creature’s heart beat echoed around the small glade like the sound of two stones striking each other. A steady tick tick as the head swayed back and forth. I shook my own. No, it doesn’t sound right. The beat lost the rhythm, slowed, and then sped up before halting. The giant head slumped to one side with the last tick.
Clockwork? Like the fantail? My brain yelled yes, but my feet didn’t want to budge and be taniwha toast. Seconds passed, my hand dove into my apron, and my fingers curled around the pocket watch. The steady rhythm of the mechanism reassured me, convinced me I was right.
I crept closer, one eye kept a vigil in case the creature moved, as I edged around the side of the pool, wondering how to get closer without being drenched by the waterfall. Creeping closer to the sheet of water, I found stones laying like a giant mosaic, stopping the ground from becoming mud from the constant splash back. The small path disappeared behind the waterfall. Following the stones, I found a two foot gap, allowing me to pass close to the rock and remain dry. Holding my breath, I approached the slumbering giant from the side.
From tip of its nose to the end of its tail, the taniwha’s body stretched for nearly twenty feet, back into the cave. The head and long neck thrust through the watery sheet, rivulets running down its back and pooling around the large clawed feet.
A large work bench ran down one side of the cavern, every available surface covered in components and half assembled contraptions. The walls were adorned with instruments and tools, ready to be plucked down when needed.
I drew my gaze from the workshop and took another step. I reached out a hand, touching the dull hide, screwing my eyes up in case it let out a roar. Contact, no reaction. I let my breath escape and opened my eyes.
Cold. Hard. Metal.
Scuffling feet came from down the tunnel and my head swung at the intruder. An old man with long white hair and beard, dressed in oil and grease stained pants and shirt. He stopped on seeing me, blinked his eyes, and then waved his arms above his head. “Oh no, a terrifying taniwha! Run girl, run.”
I blew a snort of laughter. “It’s mechanical and it’s seized up.”
He waggled his fingers. “No, he’s not. He’s just sleeping. Run while you can.”
I rapped my fist on the metal hide. “It’s not asleep. It’s over wound.”
His arms dropped to his side. “Oh, bother. Are you sure?”
I nodded, while trying to find the access panel. “I heard it, quite distinctive before it froze.”
“Blast, not again.” He stalked to the other side, stuck his fingers between the scales and pulled down the entire side of the creature. “I’m Magnus by the way.”
He moved over, giving me room to half climb inside the creature. My fingers caressed the springs, clogs and pendulum.
“Lettie,” I threw over my shoulder. “Something’s not right. Pass me a screwdriver.”
I stuck my hand out and cold metal was pressed into my palm. My eyes were drawn to the part that didn’t look right. The beat was off, discordant with the rest of the mechanism. I tinkered; my fingers brushing over the cogs, feeling the weight of the metal, seeking the imbalance.
“Ah.” A small adjustment, I gave the pendulum a swing and the device sprang into smooth action. I pulled my body out of the hatch, a broad smile on my face.
“Why have you got a taniwha anyway?” I asked, waiting for the beast to stir.
He smiled. “Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa shelters many creatures, with my taniwha standing guard, to scare away the curious.”
The taniwha lifted its head and continued the low rumbling hiss. Magnus raised two bushy eyebrows. “You have a gift, little one. I could use your sort of help around here.”
I raised my shoulders in a shrug, watching the creature draw its head in and settle down to sleep. “Mechanics and clockwork aren’t a suitable occupation for a girl.”
“Who told you that?”
“My Da.” My toe stubbed a stone, sending it scuttling along the ground.
“What if we don’t tell your Da?”
My head shot up, hope bursting into my chest, sending warm sun into the dark corners. “I can keep a secret.”
“So can I.” He gave a wink. “Come again, when you have finished your chores. I have an idea for clockwork kiwi, and you can help.”
I couldn’t speak, words wouldn’t form in my throat, joy filled every part of me. All I could do was nod, my eyes shining, and then I scampered past the taniwha, and ran all the way home.