Large brown seals dot the craggy flat like giant cigars spilled from a box. They roll and scratch against the rough rock, big blobs blending in with brown seaweed. Mātai reaches down over his own fat blubber and rubs his swollen ankles. Hot to the touch and he can barely feel his toes but still he walks out onto the bleached-white limestone, stumbles along the sea floor at low tide and works his way to the cool water.
He coughs and all 150 kilos of him convulses. Needles of pain shoot through his feet and he wobbles then wipes at his mouth, growls at the stubborn whiskers tucked under his bottom lip. He shouts at the sky and shakes his fist – Pai kare! – then carries on, feet teetering on the jagged stone, hands grabbing at the rock that grates the soft flesh of his palms. His breathing is heavy and laboured.
Back home his near-empty tea cup sits on the kitchen bench, tea leaves speckle the bottom of the sink, a fly feasts from an open jam jar. A trio of half-packed boxes fill the tiny lounge while the shower runs hot and steam fills the room.
Mātai is half-way to the sea and sand flies swarm his calves while the sun beats down. Bull kelp tangles in large puddles and black-billed gulls soar on the breeze. He looks out to the water lapping at the edge, remembers the time he and Tane and Wiremu ran out to the water in bare feet, how they came back with their soles sliced up, how it was worth it swimming far out to the rocks to collect mussels for tea.
He remembers how a few days later they went out again and Tane said he’d get crayfish and he went down a few times but came up empty-handed. Then went down one more time and never came back up.
He remembers how that night Wiremu held his hand, and how a few years later they swam bare in the moonlight then climbed out and kissed beneath the rata. How they carved their initials into the trunk and how later the council cut the tree down to make way for a carpark.
He remembers how Wiremu left for the city the first chance he got. How he turned his back on Kaikōura and barely waved goodbye. And how Wiremu wrote every week. Until he didn’t. Mātai feels the sun burning, imagines the days ahead of flaking skin while sitting in a room full of other people’s breath. He is determined to touch the sea one last time but he feels lightheaded and his feet are numb. He sucks in the salty air and then the coast twists and swirls before him, a closing kaleidoscope of colour and sound.
He falls to his knees while the ground sways and the nearby seals roar and roll out to the water. The waves slosh in, wetting his hands up to his wrists. He dry retches and a line of spittle forms between his bottom lip and a limpet hugging tight to the rock. He wipes it away, wets his forehead and weeps.
Haere rā, haere rā, haere rā.
First published in Meniscus Vol 7.1 and joint-winner of the Copyright Agency Ltd Best Prose prize