To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl
Published: November 2020
Age Group: Adult
There is a price to pay for becoming a story.
Kaimana has defied the gods and won the freedom to spend the rest of her days travelling the collection of tropical islands she calls home.
But the people of the islands have taken notice of her.
They have started to tell her story; for many children, one of their favourite fireside tales is now that of the Taniwha Girl, the brave woman who befriends monsters.
Some islanders even pray to her.
The gods are displeased, but they are not the only ones paying attention to Kaimana’s rise to fame. On the borders of the island ring, an ancient demon – an old enemy of the Crescent Atoll – spreads its influence, and a spider-faced figure shadows Kaimana’s movements.
To secure her own safety, and that of her island home, Kaimana has to make a choice: turn her back on the people of the Crescent Atoll and continue enjoying the life she has won for herself, or give up all she holds dear to live up to the legend of the Taniwha Girl.
A tale from the Crescent Atoll
This story takes place in the days that the demons of the world slunk between the islands, finding out what they could about the Atoll, not yet having been discovered and banished by the gods.
There was an old grandmother whose children and grandchildren would come to visit her once a month, travelling on the waves in their twin-hulled canoes, the toddlers of the family laughing as the spray from the waves kissed their faces, all the while looking forward to spending more time with this old woman that they loved so much.
The grandmother herself was content. She loved her family as well, although once a month was just long enough for her to see them, thank-you-very-much; the rest of the time she kept herself busy with her weaving.
The grandmother had a Knack for cloth making, and was known well for her skill throughout this part of the Atoll. Indeed, her gift had made her family’s fortune, allowing her sons and daughters to travel far from their childhood home to find the best wives and husbands. Chieftains and wealthy farmers from nearby islands would seek out her talents when preparing for special ceremonies, such as making the Long God’s walk, or for marriage, or simply for impressing their peers. Her tapa cloth was thin yet strong, and the detail of her patternwork was exquisite, seeming alive to those viewing her creations.
This old grandmother was not boorish, but still she did not shy away from the
This old grandmother was not boorish, but still she did not shy away from the truth; she knew well her skills, and knew also what others in this part of the Atoll said about her talents; she created the best cloth on the Atoll waters. This thought would keep her company on the days she spent alone on her island, working away at the strips of hiapo bark she would beat into cloth. As she was working, to stave off thoughts of her children and grandchildren, she would say to herself: “Oh, how lucky I am to make the best cloth in all of the Atoll. My thanks to the Earth Mother and to the gods that there are none who can compare with my gifts, and that I can live a peaceful life here on my island, doing what I do best.”
Unfortunately for the grandmother, Old Spider – having turned himself into a spider the size of a pig to travel through the islands without discovery – happened by her during one such speech, and did not like what he heard.
“Yours is the best cloth on the Atoll? We shall see about that, old grandmother,” Old Spider said to himself, and then set about proving the old woman wrong.
The next morning, the grandmother woke to an unusual sight. Outside of her home, hanging between the branches of two hiapo trees that grew nearby, was a cloth of the most curious construction. If she had not known any better, she would have said it had somehow been spun by spider silk, spun by spiders themselves and left there between the trees. Such a thing, however, would have been impossible, for no spider would have included the images that were found within that gossamer cloth. It appeared to be a map of the entire Atoll, although the grandmother could not be certain, as she had not travelled all of it herself. She recognised her own island, as well as those of her sons and daughters. The Inner Sea – the bottomless waters within the ring of the Atoll – were there, with Leilani’s volcano clear in the center, the goddess angry in the artwork, her home pumping out clouds of smoke. The grandmother spotted other sights that were familiar to her, mostly temples to the gods – Tangaloa’s temple guarding the trench leading to the Outer Sea, Nakoa’s island where his warriors trained, the Long God’s home in the far north, were the islands were flatter, and the best farm land was found.
“This is truly a work of art,” the grandmother said aloud, certain the mystery weaver would have not left such a treasure here for her to find without hiding nearby to see her reaction. Sure enough, Old Spider lurking in the treetops above, grinning wickedly at the old woman’s surprise and praise.
“Almost worthy of the gods themselves,” the grandmother continued, and Old Spider’s smile faded.
“Still,” she said, reaching out to touch the fragile material, her face thoughtful. “I think… I think I can do better.”
And with that, the grandmother retired to her home, to work on her cloth.
Old Spider was left seething in the treetops. ‘Almost’ worthy of the gods? The woman was a fool to say such things, and was ten times worse to believe she could somehow best his skills.
He was forced to change his mind, however, when he visited the grandmother’s cottage the following morning.
At first, Old Spider shrank back in fright when he reached the clearing outside the cottage, as he thought he had been discovered; it seemed as though Tangaloa himself, god of the sea, had finally found him, and had come to deal with this interloper in his realm. Old Spider quickly understood, however, he was looking upon the grandmother’s creation.
The cloth lay outstretched on the grass outside the old woman’s hut, the paint still wet. On it, the grandmother had painted a depiction of Tangaloa, seaweed in his beard, the waters rising behind him, a picture of anger and fury, ready to strike down his enemies. Old Spider did not know this, but the grandmother was depicting the scene of the one we call the Fallen God, when the Earth Mother had told Tangaloa of his unnamed brother’s treachery, and the god of the sea had drained all of the Atoll ring of its waters, using such a displacement of water to rage against his brother, casting him forever from the Atoll, and his name from the memories of all who live there, even to this day.
Old Spider, however, did not know this tale. Instead, he took this as a threat the grandmother had made directly towards him, and not a worse threat he could have imagined.
He was furious.
The next morning, the old grandmother rose early. She had woken thirsty, and stepped outside to one of the palm leaf baskets she placed to catch the morning dew, to quench her thirst without making the walk to the nearest stream.
However, all thought of thirst left her mind when the grandmother spotted the new cloth that had been left on the grass that morning.
It seemed to be some kind of map, but a map of places the grandmother had never heard of before. For a start, most of the land on this map seemed to be attached, in one large piece. If these were islands, they were larger than any the grandmother had ever heard of.
She could not know this, but this time Old Spider had weaved for her a map of the wider world, of the lands far beyond the Atoll, where Old Spider and his brethren rule.
She spied a dark forest in the heart of one of the land masses, ruled over by some ominous bird with black and white feathers, the lands around populated by such a variety of animals; mice, foxes, lions, owls. To the north, far north, of these lands were mountains that the grandmother was convinced were populated by taniwha, monsters that took on the shape of winged lizards that blew fire while men clutched on desperately to their backs in the driving snow. Far to the east were lands of sand, where great wars were fought, and a collection of animals stood against against tall, proud ladies, which brought to mind the few depictions of the Earth Mother the grandmother had seen, long before she had confined herself beneath the waves. Further east still, where more mountains rose, the grandmother could spot a city that was composed mostly of books.
Her eyes were drawn west, however; first to the sandy plans at the north of that large island, where masked mice men ran around waving swords, but then she looked south.
There were jungles there, dyed into the cloth, but somehow the images in this part of the map seemed… barren. The foliage the mysterious weaver had included on that map was devoid of any other activity, but was laced entirely with webs, thin spider webs that were just as starved of prey as the forests were of life, as if the greedy spiders there had caught and drained everything they could, abandoning those jungles when there was nothing left to offer.
For hours, the grandmother studied the map. All the time, above, Old Spider watched from beneath the leaves, his body tense, anticipating the woman’s reaction.
“This…” the grandmother began, well after midday, “this is the most beautiful piece of cloth work I have seen in my entire life.”
Slowly, as if her entire body ached, the grandmother left her garden, returning to her home.
Old Spider cackled in celebration, knowing he had finally bested the old woman, preparing to leave her island to allow his competitor to wallow in her own defeat.
That was, until Old Spider heard the familiar sound of mallet being brought against wood, of barkcloth being beaten thin.
The old woman was not giving up. He had shown her something more beautiful than she had ever created before, and yet she was still trying to best him.
Old Spider seethed for the rest of the day, perched on the grandmother’s roof. He stayed awake long after the sun set, long after the old woman had laid her creation out on her grass to dry. The moon was hidden that night, so Old Spider would have to wait until dawn to see the grandmother’s answer to his challenge.
Still, he did not sleep.
When light finally came, he hurriedly clambered into position, to see what the old woman had crafted.
She had taken inspiration from his own creation. The pattern work here was intricate – finer than she had produced in her other cloths and, Old Spider hated to admit, more detailed than his own weaving.
The artwork this time was that of a large hiapo tree, with an old woman sitting at the base of it; the grandmother herself, Old Spider realised. The branches of the tree spread out wide across the rest of the cloth, and on those branches sat men and women, and higher still were young children, all supported by each other, all looking back warmly at the root of their tree, where the grandmother sat.
“My greatest creation, and one I began weaving decades ago,” came a voice from below Old Spider.
He started, scrambling back under the roof of the house; he had not heard the grandmother awaken.
She was not, indeed, looking at him. She was studying the art herself, a lazy smile on her face, not giving any indication she knew who she was speaking to, or if she knew
on her face, not giving any indication she knew who she was speaking to, or if she knew
anyone else was there in the first place.
“Not this piece of cloth, of course,” she said, indicating her new work of art,
“although I do believe this is the best I have ever created. I mean, instead, my family, my babies.”
It was then Old Spider understood what he was looking at; this was a family tree, the grandmother’s offspring, and their children.
“I began sowing these seeds back when I was young, and they will continue to bear fruit long after I am gone from these islands. I do not know if you have finer cloth to show me, my mysterious friend, but even if you create artwork that I will never be able to match, unless you yourself are a mother, I do not think you will ever beat my greatest creation.”
The grandmother sighed, then turned to make her way inside, leaving Old Spider unsure of what exactly had just happened. Had the old woman decided she had won? Was she admitting defeat, that this art was the pinnacle of her creative skills?
The smug expression on the old woman’s face as she stepped through her doorway stirred the embers of anger in Old Spider’s heart.
That arrogant, self-obsessed old lady…
The grandmother woke early the next morning. There was no new cloth waiting for her when she made her way outside, but in truth she had forgotten all about her competition with her silent opponent. Today was more important; her family was coming to visit.
In preparation, the old woman cleared out her oven, chasing the insects that had nested in it since she had lit it last month, when her family had all last visited. She mixed some kava-kava for her sons to drink, cleaned her table, and sat down to wait for the sound of laughing children.
She took a sip of the kava-kava, and screwed up her mouth; it had always been too earthy for her taste.
Her family was late.
It was well past lunchtime when the grandmother started to worry. Everyone would normally have been here hours ago, well in time for lunch. If they did not arrive soon, there would hardly be any time to spend together before they had to leave, unless
soon, there would hardly be any time to spend together before they had to leave, unless
they were planning on staying with the grandmother for the night.
Despite the ache in her bones, the grandmother set off on the path down to the
beach. She would look for them coming; the first canoe would probably be only minutes from her island, but what a treat it would be, for the grandmother to be there to greet the youngest of them, when they first ran onto her beach.
However, when the grandmother finally reached the water, all of her family were already waiting for her.
Gossamer threads hung from the trees lining the path that led from the beach to the grandmother’s house. She had not noticed them at first, but they pulled at her face as she pushed past them, sticking to her, catching in her hair. It was then that the grandmother looked up.
Her children stared down at her, their eyes glassy, their gaze fixed. Many of their mouths were open in frozen, rigid horror. Their skin was pale, cold.
The grandmother let out a scream, without much thinking behind it, perhaps hoping her loved ones would react in some way.
They did not.
“This is my greatest creation,” came a voice from beside her, in the darkness just beyond the trees, although the grandmother did not pay much attention to it. Her gaze was drawn to her youngest son’s wife; such a lovely girl, much better than he had deserved. Most of her right hand side was missing, a piece the size of a crescent moon eaten out of it.
“And I think we can both agree, friend grandmother, that my greatest creation has just bested yours.”
Benedict Patrick is from a small town in Northern Ireland called Banbridge, but has been living and working in Scotland since he moved there at the age of eighteen. Tragically, that was quite a while ago.
He has been writing for most of his life, and has been reading for pretty much all of it (with help from mum and dad at the beginning). Benedict’s life changed when a substitute primary school teacher read his class part of The Hobbit and later loaned him the book – he fell in love with the fantasy genre and never looked back.
3 Replies to “Spotlight & Excerpt: To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl”
I do love the cover.