Kaikoura, Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand
Tipene te Kanae spoke English perfectly well. He spoke many languages well. His father had sent him to an immersion school where only te reo Maori was spoken, thus he was fluent in an ancient tongue which had been discouraged after World War II, revitalized and declared one of New Zealand’s official languages in 1987. And yet, despite the resurgence of immersion education from the Kohanga Reo movement, it was spoken by less than five percent of the population.
His mother spoke Vietnamese, of course. She was one of the 412 original boat people admitted to New Zealand in 1977. She was well-educated with a passion for languages and a good ear. On any given day she would lapse into English or French or Chinese, and was currently trying to master Russian.
All this gave Tip a huge advantage in his business of running boat tours off the Kaikoura Peninsula. Or rather, it would have, had he been socially inclined toward tourists. He cared little for advantage, and cared less for social niceties. Fluent in multiple languages, he preferred not to speak at all, although the truth was as a writer, people interested him. He collected characters.
Only appearing aloof and reserved, he possessed near total recall, was keenly observant at best and a pathological snoop at worst. Pretending not to understand his customers allowed him to openly eavesdrop on their conversations, and at the end of the workday he either took his findings home and carefully transcribed them into a journal, or he took them to the local bar where his reputation as a storyteller preceded him.
The bookings were handled by his assistant Hannah (her name was Airini but she Westernized it during the summer, encouraging him to do the same and change Tipene to Steven. Needless to say the advice went unheeded). Tip never knew who he was taking or where to until Hannah put the itinerary into his hands. So it neither surprised nor concerned him today’s last run would carry only a single couple, and when he saw them waiting on the dock, it was no surprise it was the Americans.
They had come with him before: two days ago to see the fur seals, and just yesterday to whale watch. They had captured Tip’s interest right away, for not only was their attraction to each other a fascinating and intensely palpable thing, but as a couple they seemed to attract the rest of the passengers. On both cruises it had happened: wherever they went on the boat, others longed to follow. Whatever place they settled was the place to be.
Ironic, Tip thought, for clearly the one thing these two loved best was to be solely with each other. The man, especially, revolved around his lover like a satellite, leading Tip to privately refer to him as Marama, which meant “moon.” He often made up names for his passengers this way, but not always in flattery. It seemed he, too, had fallen under the spell of this couple, who, when they locked gazes, made the sun surge brighter overhead.
Tip drew on his sunglasses as he walked down the dock, nodding curtly to them.
“Tipene,” the woman said as he passed, which made his step falter. Rarely did he hand out his name to his customers and he didn’t recall doing so with her. But she knew his. How? Had she overheard it? Eavesdropped? He looked back and smiled, something he did even more rarely on the job, and with a small gesture indicated they were welcome to board.
His gaze followed the woman, whom he had not yet named. If the man was Marama, the moon, then she should be Whenua, which meant “earth.” Her eyes were an intense blue-green, like a jeweled planet, but Tip didn’t think Whenua suited her. It was a fat woman’s name. This woman was thin, even skinny, but no such term existed in Maori and he hated it in English. Skinny was a mean word.
He regarded his female passenger, finding no meanness. She was slender, not skinny. Slender was a good word in English. Sexy, even. It conjured up an instant sensation of small but lush, solid weight in your arms. It slid around your mouth like a piece of hard candy. Slender.
Slender as a blade.
The simile pleasant and sweet on his tongue, Tip opened throttle and headed out to sea, the peninsula unfolding in all its breathtaking beauty as they left the dock. The day had been fine and clear, the peaks of the Southern Alps visible in spectacular detail, looming in violet and white majesty over the bay. Now clouds began to gather at the peaks, turning faintly orange and pink as the sun changed angles in the sky.
Tip was pleased: he knew the dolphin pods well and sunset was a good time to swim. Cold, but that was what the wetsuits were for. He didn’t say a word to the Americans, who seemed equally content not to engage with him. It was not unkindness, just a simple realization the people here had their preferences. Tip wanted his time to observe. They only wanted each other.
From behind tinted lenses and an unreadable face, Tip watched the lovers. She, still nameless, sat on one of the bulkheads and Marama sat on the deck between her feet, his elbows draped over her knees. Tip lowered his sunglasses a little, squinting at the woman’s leg, suntanned the creamy brown of an egg. A long scar ran from the bump of her knee joint nearly to her ankle. A startling vein of pink quartz in the smooth skin. Marama’s fingers caressed it as his chin lolled on his chest. The woman had her hands on his shoulders and was pressing her thumbs along his spine. Skillfully she took his head in one hand, moving it here, turning it there, her other hand pressing, kneading up the back of his neck and then down between his shoulder blades again.
Tip rolled his own head around in empathy, divining her touch. She had good hands. She was strong. Strong, slender and scarred.
Strong heart, Tip mused, trying out and rejecting various nouns and adjectives. Strong hands.
Kaha meant strength but it was too clumsy for a name. He kept coming back to slender as a blade. He liked it. The curve of her calf was like a Samurai sword. The long scar could easily be a battle wound. And in bed she could probably get both legs around your back and...
He smiled. Yes. He would call her Haori, which meant “sword”.
Forty-five minutes offshore, above the underwater canyon that stretched down over sixteen hundred metres, Tip maneuvered the boat to the approximate place he knew from both experience and instinct where the dusky dolphins would come at sunset. From his captain’s chair he brought up his binoculars and scanned the horizon patiently. No sign of a pod. He looked back to the stern: Marama and Haori were changing, donning their thick wetsuits, masks and snorkels. They seemed to know what they were doing. No doubt Hannah had drilled them well.
Tip raised his binoculars once more. There. Moving south. A pod, close to two hundred by his guess.
“Papahu!” he called out, not taking his eyes from the creatures who were beginning their antics. Of all the dolphin species, duskies were the most acrobatic and social. Blatant show-offs.
Tip turned in his chair. Marama was watching the dolphins, open-mouthed, both hands pressed to his head. Haori was looking back at Tip, her turquoise eyes huge, the whole of her body tense with anticipation. Again, Tip was moved to smile at her, then he flicked the back of his hand at both of them, indicating “Go!”
They moved as one, pulling their masks down, snatching hands and leaping into the cold blue of the open sea. The combined splash of their bodies set off a chain reaction. The water around the boat was filled with dolphins, fins breaking the surface, shiny grey bodies launching. It seemed even they could not resist the gravitational pull of this man and woman. Tip left his seat and lounged against the starboard side, watching intently.
Swimming with dolphins was always a profound experience, and over the years he had seen every kind of reaction from hysterical weeping, to uncontrollable laughter. He had seen elderly women scream without a shred of inhibition as dolphins arced over their heads. He had seen the most hard-hearted man’s man reduced to a humbled, tearful wreck after coming face to face with a dusky. Young and old, they all left Tip’s boat altered by the encounter. “Amazing” was a word thrown around a lot as they stumbled ashore.
Amazing. Dude, that was amazing. That was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. Ever. Dude. Amazing.
Hannah would lecture customers to remember the dolphins were wild creatures. This wasn’t Sea World where they were trained to be on-demand entertainers. In their own habitat, they were the ones making the demands, like entitled teenagers, and if you bored them, they would move on. You had to keep them amused and Marama was proving to be a pro at it: splashing around, diving often, talking and singing out loud, blowing streamers of water out the end of his snorkel. Haori was attempting to do the same, but she was laughing too hard, and at one point she spit out her own snorkel, pulled up her mask, and treaded water, laughing helplessly, the sound echoing back to Tip’s ears. Duskies sliced through the water all around her, clicking and huffing, wanting her to play.
Marama surfaced and pulled up his own mask, honing in on his lover. Tip squinted and raised the binoculars. Two circular fields of vision merged into one. Marama had Haori’s face in his hands and he was kissing her. They were both breathing hard from the effort to keep treading. Tip imagined the heat of her mouth, salty with icy ocean water, the juxtaposition of heat and cold against his mouth. He felt the heave of her lungs for air, for more of his air, and how her jaw and cheekbones would roll against his palms. He wanted to trap their passion like pinning a butterfly specimen to velvet. They would leave forever after this trip, but he could keep this moment.
Still kissing, the couple sank beneath the surface, sending up a soufflé of bubbles. All around where they had just been, the sleek, domed heads of duskies popped up. The humans resurfaced, laughing again, and in a cacophony of squeaks, chatters and clicks, the dolphins scattered.
The pod moved on. Marama and Haori climbed aboard the boat and Tip set out to follow. They got in four good swims before Tip judged both the angle of the setting sun and the chatter of Haori’s teeth, and deemed it time to go. Once his charges were safely aboard, he pulled the makeshift curtain, giving them privacy to use the hot water hose and change into dry clothes.
Accompanied by a cloud of cape petrels and another pod of duskies, Tip took his boat in. Marama stood in the stern, strong and windblown in sunglasses, Haori held tight in his arms. He moved his chin, then his mouth over top of her head. She was soft and small in her shorts and sweater. Her hair, Tip noticed, had been sleek and straight at the start of the trip but was now drying into rippled waves. Her hand moved up and down Marama’s back. She tilted up her chin to look at him. He turned his head to look down at her. The sun surged in the rosy sky. Tip lowered his sunglasses and watched them kiss.
Once docked, they thanked him profusely. Then Marama went to square things with Hannah, leaving Haori on the dock, leaning her foot and forearms on the rail and looking back out to sea. Tip’s eyebrows lowered in consternation as he noticed a second long scar running down the inside of her calf. And further up, above her knee, a cruel-looking starburst of puckered flesh on her inner thigh.
Three wounds to the leg.
Tipene te Kanae, who had no care for social niceties, approached this female warrior on reverent feet. As he set his own elbows on the rail, he felt as audacious and reckless as if he were slipping into bed beside her.
Haori didn’t move a muscle or turn a hair in his direction. “That was amazing,” she said.
He nodded, wanting to ask her name but overcome with shyness.
“We didn’t talk to you much,” she said. “I hope we weren’t rude.” Her hand came up to toy with her necklace, a thin gold chain off which hung a tiny pair of gold scissors.
Kutikuti in Maori. A silly word at odds with her pensive expression and the loving caress of her fingers on the charm.
Tip swallowed. “What are you called?”
“Daisy,” she said.
He looked at her. “Daisy? The flower?”
She nodded, pulling her hair back from her face. “Do you have them in New Zealand?”
“Of course. Tikumu,” he said. “Mountain daisy. What happened to your leg?”
Then she turned her head. Looked at him with those blue-green eyes. A flush of sunburn on her cheekbones. A smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She was proud, brave and lovely.
“Long story,” she said, smiling. “And long ago.”
“Happy ending?” he asked. Her smile widened, and her elbow bumped his as if they had passed a private joke.
Tip thought up and threw out a half-dozen responses. He hardly knew what he wanted to say. She had touched him. Her eyes and her scars and her untold story moved him. She was a dolphin arcing over his head, leaving him humbled to speech instead of silence.
“I’m glad you could come again today,” he said, his voice caught up and gruff in his throat.
“I loved it.” She pushed off the railing with an easy, unconscious grace. “Thank you.”
“Kia kaha,” he said softly. She wrinkled her eyebrows and, in one of the few times in his life, he explained himself. “It means stay strong.”
“Kia kaha,” she repeated. Perfectly. Like his mother, she had a good ear. She smiled at him, raised her hand briefly in farewell, and then walked away to where Marama was waiting for her. She dug him in the side playfully, he dodged, then wound his arm around her, pulling her in tight, his hand disappearing in her wind-tangled hair.
As the Moon and the Sword left the dock, Tipene te Kanae lifted his sunglasses from his eyes and longed to follow.
My apologies to all New Zealanders for inaccuracies in spelling: my style template won't format a macron (the horizontal line over the letter A).