Rawhiti (an excerpt)
by Max Johansson-Pugh
The small hours of the morning was an impenetrable darkness, a darkness so thick it’s any wonder first light managed to cut through it. Crashing waves and a strong sea breeze were all that could be heard on the island. The smell of the sea wafted throughout, equal parts because of the sea’s strength and small size of the island. It was home to fishermen who lived in shacks and took advantage of the lively surrounding waters. They took their fish to the various buyers and markets in Auckland–the monolithic city that stood across the water. Rawhiti was one of these fishermen. The only separation from Rawhiti’s home and his work was the white, restless sand of the island’s shore.
Rawhiti lay face down on his haggard mattress, his tanned body naked and sprawled. A tanned and lean body was what you got from extended labour in the Hauraki Gulf; the tan always dirty and cracked; the lean always tending toward impoverished. The morning’s wan light unveiled Rawhiti’s white, weather-boarded shack. The weathered shack’s roof, part corrugated iron, part thatch (all equally weathered), was victim to incessant sea winds and the shack’s location near the water–the last guard before an unstoppable force. Wild wheat and toetoe littered the island, rustling in the morning sea breeze. Rawhiti’s aluminium skiff rested in the shack’s shadow; thoughts of thievery or damaging fishing gear never crossed the minds of the fishermen. The island banded together in poverty, sympathising with one another; a chain-gang of sorts, though rather than manacles, bound by fishing line and tackle. Rawhiti’s bedroom faced eastwards, the new light illuminating his room through a quartered window, leaving a shadowed cross over the sleeping fisherman.
He made the first movements of another long day of another long week. Rolling over like a boulder, barely moveable, his countenance looked dark and tired. Bags begot bags under his heavy eyes; his muscles hung loosely on his bones; sinuous cracks on his skin begged for shade. His innate grimace suggested terrible dreams, though it was the reality that was terrible, echoing the day’s prospects. With a great sigh he blinked his eyes open, picking sleep out of his eyes and rubbing his sore body. Sitting up on the edge of his mattress, the morning sun warming his back, Rawhiti rested his face in his hands, waiting for energy. In the light you could see, like the island and the house and the skiff and everything else on the island, all was beaten by the sea. Rawhiti sat this way for a while.
Pictures of family littered a solitary table, adjoined by a solitary chair. Aunties, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, all had a place at that table. A bottle of cheap whiskey, empty to the bottom of the label, stood among the photographs like some shrine to remembrance. The whiskey helped him feel like the family were at the table eating with him. There was never any water to cut the cheap liquor with. Got to conserve water. Rawhiti grabbed his shorts and shirt to combat the cool morning air, and made for the stove, the wooden floorboards moaning with every step. Being clothed took a few years off him though he looked and felt a decade older than he was.
Here began his morning routine. The gas stove had two elements, one for the kettle and one for his canned breakfast. Canned beans, canned stew, canned soup, you name it, he had it. The element’s low, cultish light illuminated the kitchenette side of the shack. Rawhiti often considered running the generator to use one naked bulb that hung from the patched ceiling, but always resolved not to expend the fuel. An exact cup worth of water entered the kettle; slightly less came out. Water was scarce on the island. The summer months were especially unhelpful in keeping Rawhiti’s water tank full. The howling and splurging of the kettle and stew meant breakfast was done. Turning off the stove quickly to conserve the bottle, Rawhiti threw a tea bag into his mug and poured himself a black tea and dished up the stew. The day did not start until these warm goods awoke motion in him.
Sounds of his neighbours waking up seeped into his porous abode. Delighted barks came from his closest neighbour, whose dog was feasting on yesterday’s scraps, gnawing as fervently as you would imagine a hungry island dog would. Derek was Rawhiti’s closest companion on the island and Rawhiti often wondered how he provided for himself and the dog–you would never ask such a question; poverty may have banned them, but they did not like talking about it.
Rawhiti swept the photo and bottle on the table aside and threw down his bowl and mug. He dropped his flesh and bones down on the wooden chair and ate furiously. He was hungry and knew he would be for most of the day, unless he got lucky at sea.
Rawhiti was usually out the door before six, but last night had been nursing a drink longer than expected. Leaving his mug and bowl, Rawhiti filled up his bottle with tank water, put on his tattered sneakers and large brimmed straw hat and made his way to the tackle box before walking out.
“Gidday, Rawhiti.” Derek said, standing outside the shack.
“Guess it’s a late one for both’ve us!”
Rawhiti chuckling, “yeah, guess so.” Derek’s dog scampered around to the sounds of their voices.
An orange band wrapped around the horizon, topped by a deep blue, becoming lighter as it tended toward the water. Rawhiti’s loose button up shirt whipped about in the breeze; golden toetoe moved gracefully above the tussock grass undergrowth. The sun gradually rose behind Rawhiti as he stood head-on to the ocean breeze staring toward Auckland city: the city of sails. Great white towers stretched toward the heavens, all rising toward the Sky Tower–a building that, put simply, lived up to its name. Lit up at dawn, it looked like hallowed ground.
“Forget about it, it’ll never happen,” Derek smiled, looking at Rawhiti’s contemplation.
“What’re you on about?”
Still smiling, Derek shook his head and turned. “Good luck on the water, Rawh.”
Rawhiti knew full-well what Derek meant. Each morning he stood thinking, ‘what I’d give for one of them apartments. Nothing flash. Just something nice to be proud of. A place to eat well, sleep well and get by. Doesn’t have to be much!’ Qualifying the wish made it more plausible to Rawhiti. What Derek did not understand was the clause that always preceded this; not for lack of compassion, but because Rawhiti never spoke about such things, thinking it better to ruminate over alone. I could be close to my family, my whanau. God I’d kill to have ‘em ‘round. Have big meals together; laughing, singing, drinks and kai. Rawhiti would get sad, then angry with himself. Remembering he had fish to catch pulled him out of brooding.
He poured fuel into the motor’s tank and, throwing his fishing rod, trawling net, and tackle box into the skiff, dragged it to the water’s edge. The skiff tracking through the damp morning sand was a familiar grating sound; the sand getting into his sneakers was a familiar feeling. Onto water now, he jumped on the skiff, the engine howling with ignition, and cut through the calm surface. He was getting some speed. Rawhiti’s hat would blow off if he didn't hold it down. Looking back at the island he saw the inviting toetoe sitting beneath the early sun and behind that, disguised, his decrepit shack in shadow. Rawhiti kept one hand on the ruddered motor and the other on his hat while his shirt blew against his lean body. The wake of other fishermen and the faint sparkles of their vessels could be seen in the distance so Rawhiti aimed away and dropped his trawling net. He would catch fish in the net, mostly undersized, but sometimes he forget to throw them back and happened to have enough food for the day. The motor purred as he continued across the water.
The skiff was Rawhiti’s most prized possession and one of the last things he bought before leaving the mainland. Without the skiff, Rawhiti would have no means to work, no means to move, no means to live. He was well aware of this, frequently patting the motor like some house pet. His pace quickened, gently squeezing the accelerator, pointed away from the island and the glowing city toward the Hauraki Gulf. Most headed toward Auckland, perhaps hoping the auspicious city would rub off on their fishing, but it was always better to work somewhere else than fight a crowd.
Rawhiti stopped after trawling through an area of activity and turned about to go again. Nothing. He pulled the wet net in and baited the sinker on his line before casting off into the gulf. Rawhiti sat on the thwart, patiently waiting, fighting with sea life and occasionally reeling in a fish.
It was hard to ignore the volcano which accompanied Rawhiti in the gulf – Rangitoto. Like mother nature placing her loaded gun on the table, Rangitoto sat a trigger-squeeze away from levelling everything in sight. Light travelled from east to west, consistently bombarding his straw hat with the particularly carcinogenic New Zealand sunlight; the water danced gold and blue.
Rawhiti spent the time, and there was a lot of time, between fish looking toward Rangitoto and the city, day-dreaming of getting back to the mainland.
“If I caught a case of money or some gold, that’d do it.” Rawhiti sat slouched on the thwart chuckling to himself at the absurdity of these thoughts. He pressed his cracked lips together, whistling something along the lines of Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, his dry mouth garnishing the song with unexpected mute notes.
A tug at the line piqued Rawhiti’s focus. The line began to run and Rawhiti, immediately standing, pulled the rod up. Struggling with the fish, he adjusted the drag dial keeping the rod high. The surface of the water was calm, but Rawhiti, and surely some creature beneath, were writhing with fight. Rawhiti dropped the rod, spinning the crank as it fell, and quickly pulled back up, pointing the rod toward the sky. Sweat formed on his forehead as Rawhiti continued to drop and pull, urging the fish closer and closer to the skiff.
“Ah, c’mon you little shit!” Veins grew on his tensed forearms. “C’mon!” His arms began to shake. He had caught something big. He knew it and his body was beginning to understand.
The calm surface broke with ripples. ‘Here she comes,’ Rawhiti thought, exhaling a tight breath as he wrenched the rod up; furiously spinning the crank, sweat now dripping off his head and glistening on his skin, he pulled up again. Ripples turned to splashes–he pulled again. The rich blue of the water was tainted by a mustardy green below–again. Scales and floundering now reached the surface–again. Rawhiti’s eyes widened as he saw the size of the fish, but there was no time to be distracted by the haul, he had to bring it in. Rod erect, Rawhiti looked about the skiff for his mallet. One last crank and the fish, a kingfish, was thrashing in the air. Rawhiti braced his legs for stability and muscled the fish and the rod onto the skiff. He threw the two down over his gear and quickly made for his mallet, smashing the kingfish’s head with a series of blows.
Quiet. The skiff rocked to a still and the sea breeze picked up. Rawhiti breathed heavily, smiling. Next to the Kingfish, Rawhiti howled on his knees, exultant at the catch. It had to be at least a meter long.
“Not the biggest kingfish that ever swam, but big enough!”
Rawhiti grabbed a mesh bag and fitted it over the kingfish, the fish’s mouth jutting out of the end. He tied the bag to the thwart and lugged it into the water. This may be my biggest catch! Exhausted, Rawhiti collapsed into the end of the skiff, tilting his straw hat over his face. He enjoyed a well-earned rest. He would not be hungry tonight.
Day time turned to dusk and the ocean took on a darker shade of blue; sea birds headed home to nest. Rawhiti fought with trevally, moki, and snapper at one point, but had not caught anything quite like the day’s kingfish. He was still tired from that fight. He brought in the line, secured his gear under the thwart, and headed toward the city with lips curled in a smile.
The means by which Rawhiti sold his fish was not strictly legal. An old friend, Andreas, from a time long before Rawhiti ever imagined he would be a fisherman, ran a small restaurant on the city’s waterfront. Andreas encouraged small-time fishermen to sell to him. He paid a good rate because it saved him going through the incumbent fishing companies’ costly supply channels, which eateries were supposed to do. ‘Supposed to’–a term Andreas had little or no regard for. Rawhiti breathed deeply as he approached the city, one hand on his head, the other guiding the motor. The other island fishermen would do the same. A few of them had freezers so when the handful of illicit restaurants did not want their fish, they would save it to sell, or eat, another time. Rawhiti could not afford a freezer and all the power that appliance demanded, so when he could not sell fish it was particularly hard. Though, the bottom line of purveying fish is--assuming you have caught something--you have dinner. Other goods may be missed without a day’s income, but at least you will have something to put in your belly.
Rawhiti knew he would not be able to eat the entire kingfish before it went off and wanted to get some money for it. He was nearly out of drink. Also, and more importantly as immediate emotional responses are concerned, he knew that Derek’s dog would happily eat the rest of the kingfish.
A red neon sign---“CARRUTH’s”–bled into the darkening sky. Rawhiti loosened his grip on the motor and slowed as he approached the quay. The kingfish floated alongside the skiff. The back of the restaurant loomed dark over the quay; all the show and glamour was on the other side–a false-fronted building of lights. You could hear the muffled sounds of festivities with the calm lapping of water and the sea breeze. Rawhiti made sure the fish could be seen from the backdoor and tied up to the closest piling.
Humming and smiling, he wondered how much he was going to get, the delayed smack of his shoes’ detached soles echoing with every step toward the alcoved backdoor. Two knocks and Rawhiti patiently waited.
God, I miss my family.
He suddenly craved a drink.
Max Johansson-Pugh was born in London and came to New Zealand when he was four. Since then, he was raised in Auckland and feels a great sense of place in Aotearoa. He gained an English scholarship out of high school and has since worked many contrasting jobs from construction, to bartending, to coaching tennis but has fallen out of love with following a roster and currently runs a small gardening business. His work includes “A Tale of Two Birds” published in Pif Magazine and “Roundhouse” published in Hypophora Creative Arts Journal.