It’s out there, waiting. I’m certain of it. One of those trees, the one that is covered in leaves that are too perfect and has branches that are too angular, doesn’t move like the others. It pretends to sway from side to side with the wind, but I can tell.
If I try to remember how this all started, then it would be within the dark, creaking depths of that ship. I hated that ship; the endless chores, the thick humid air, never being more than five metres from another crewmate. We'd been at sea for months - or was it years? - navigating the South Pacific. For what, I might ask? So King George can add another spice to his decadent banquets? So the Captain can plant the Union Jack into another far-flung rock that no one cares about?
My good friend Robert and I were ordered to tally supplies. A job few volunteered for. It’s as black as a Kraken’s eye down there. Huddled in that claustrophobic space, with barrels stacked high above us and our rough bearded faces illuminated by flickering candlelight, we checked and counted. I had only gone several paces from Robert when an almighty crash startled me. The commotion caused the candle to slip from my grasp and be extinguished on the mouldy, damp floor.
To be in absolute darkness is an unsettling experience. Without the power of sight, the other senses heighten. Suddenly you can taste the salt on your tongue, feel the stale air on your skin, smell the sharp tang of alcohol stored in the casks of rum. But it’s your hearing that sharpens the most - the creaking of the ships timber hull cracks like lightning. The dripping of water becomes a high-pitched plip that makes you wince.
However, it was Robert’s cry for help that cut through all of these senses. I could feel every muscle that was being crushed and discern the breath leaving his lungs with each shallow gasp. Navigating by my only means necessary, I ran my calloused hands along the wooden casks as I searched for my trapped friend. His voice echoed around the hold, confusing and disorienting me. Lost in the dark, I stumbled over something fleshy that let out a muffled cry. Regaining my balance, I fumbled in the void to find Robert pinned under several barrels. With all my might I shoved them off him, hearing them thud and roll around on the galley floor.
We could hear voices and footsteps above us and soon the hold began to fill with crew members and precious light. Lifting Robert under the arms, we dragged him out as best we could. It was later that night, when I was sat by Robert’s side in the infirmary, that we decided to free ourselves of this ship, of this life. At the next landing we would make our escape. Desertion carries a heavy penalty, but only if you’re caught.
It was a week or so later that a cry from the crow’s nest told of land on the horizon — some place called New Zealand. I’d heard many tales of its natural beauty and fierce Maori inhabitants; warriors who tower over the average man with tattooed faces, bulging eyes and lizard-like tongues.
The following day, with loaded rifles on our laps, a small group of us rowed ashore. At the bow of the boat was Poly – a dark-skinned, friendly islander that joined us at a previous stop. The missionaries had got to him a few years ago and for all their faults, had taught him and his tribe the language of the civilised world. The Captain had allowed him to join us, thinking that his language skills may prove useful.
A line of warriors awaited our arrival, and before our vessel had even ground to a halt on the golden sand, Poly had jumped out. With his hands splayed in front of him, he slowly approached while speaking in some incomprehensible dialect.
The rest of us remained on the boat, our fingers tensed around rifle triggers, staring intently at the exchange.
On the beach, stern faces turned to broad smiles, and within minutes we were welcomed onto their land. Up close, the natives were far more welcoming than the stories had made out. While we greeted each other I noticed that a green stone was worn around many of their necks. The smooth rock was a colour and composition of which I’d never seen before – it was as if a piece of the forest had been compressed into a beautifully curved pendant. My eyes widened at the thought of how much a precious stone like that would be worth back in the civilised world.
That evening, sat around a raging bonfire, the hospitable locals entertained us with exotic foods, dancing, and stories that Poly attempted to translate for us.
There were huge giants that stepped from mountain to mountain and drank rivers and lakes dry.
Then there were the tiny, pale-skinned fairies known as Pakepakeha that could be seen floating down rivers laughing and singing.
And finally, there was the Tipua – a shapeshifting being that dwelled within the dense forests and could take any form it desired. It guarded the Pounamu - the green stones I’d noticed earlier - only allowing them to be taken if they were to be gifted to a loved one.
The crew members and I smiled along politely; it wasn't the first time we'd heard such nonsense from simple natives. They probably think the world is flat too.
The following morning Robert and I approached some locals and attempted to coax them into gifting their stones to us. None of them could be swayed, with many muttering something about Tipua. So instead we gathered together our possessions so we could trade. I had a tarnished snuff box and a bronze pocket watch. Robert’s contribution was less impressive, with a stained handkerchief and a pair of tattered shoes. With a mischievous grin, he disappeared for several minutes and returned with a selection of polished musket balls.
However, it was not possible to find one native that would part with their pendant, regardless of how much shiny metal we offered.
Undeterred, we tried a different approach, and with the help of Poly, managed to convince one of the local boys to show us where the stones lay. All it took was a handful of lead balls, the boy’s eyes lighting up at the sight of them, saving me from having to relinquish my timepiece.
Soon Robert and I were engulfed by vegetation as we followed the boy deeper and deeper into the forest. Our guide didn’t seem to follow a path, but instead navigated via strewn boulders and fallen trees that littered the endless greens and browns that surrounded us.
We followed him blindly for hours until eventually arriving at a secluded waterfall. The tumbling water splashed into a shallow pool before continuing on its journey. At first we thought he’d stopped to take a drink, but as he bent down he picked something up and showed it to us. Intrigued, we moved in for a closer look and nestled in the palm of his hand was a Greenstone. I reached out to take it but the boy snatched his hand back. We locked eyes and he cautioned something in his mother-tongue, his voice now serious and grave. That word Tipua was uttered again.
Robert and I nodded in understanding. We then looked at each other and exchanged the smallest of smiles. The boy considered us for a moment, then glanced up at the sky. It was beginning to darken. He shrugged his shoulders and lay down next to the river, content on sleeping on the rough ground until the sun rose for another day. Without saying a word, we waited until the boy's breathing deepened and slowed. We then began filling our pockets.
I slept well that night, exhausted from the hike, but also comforted by what riches awaited us once we arrived back home. I fantasied over the trading company I would set up, the riches I could lavish upon my mistresses, my new life in the upper echelons of society.
The soothing thoughts were rudely shaken away by the boy as he tried to wake me. It was morning, and he was pulling at my sleeve, wanting us to leave right away. The youngster seemed agitated. He struggled to focus on me, his attention constantly drawn to the surrounding trees.
“Alright, alright,” I muttered, getting to my feet. Unbeknownst to me, several Greenstones had slipped from my pocket while I slept.
The boy gasped at the sight of them. Before I could attempt to explain he broke into a run, swallowed up by the forest in seconds.
I looked over at Robert, who just shrugged. “Guess we’re finding our own way out of here.” He flicked a pilfered Greenstone into the air as if it was a coin while sporting that same mischievous grin as before. It didn’t take long before it was wiped from his face.
With no other bearings to work from, we headed in the direction the boy fled, doing our best to locate his footprints and hopefully follow them back to the coast.
It was only when we slowed to check which way to go that I noticed the silence.
“You hear that?” I asked.
“Hear what?” Robert replied.
“Exactly.” During our walk the previous day the canopy and undergrowth had been teeming with birds, their calls filling the woodland. But now, nothing. Just the footsteps and heavy breathing of two lost foreigners. “This isn’t right,” I cautioned. “Something isn’t right.”
The forest felt different. The tree bark was rougher, the greens more vivid, the earth under our feet more compact. And there was something always there, just in my peripheral vision. A subtle movement that I was unable to identify. A shadow almost, that was continually at my side.
Robert turned to face me. His complexion was paler than before; his eyes more distant. “You think that kid is spying on us?”
I just nodded in reply.
Robert continued, “I just get this feeling that we’re being watched, you know?”
The same thought had crossed my mind not long after we left the waterfall. With my hands in my pockets, I turned over the stash of Greenstones between my fingers, feeling the smooth surface against my clammy skin. For a moment I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
The worried thought was interrupted by a rustling and Robert suddenly being dragged into the undergrowth. It was as if the trees burst into life, freeing themselves from their deep roots and rigid stances and enveloping Robert. The last thing I saw was a pair of kicking boots being dragged from sight.
I tore off in the opposite direction, forcing my way through branches and vines that gripped and clung at my clothes. I leapt over roots that grasped my feet and I dodged boulders that seemed to block my way continually.
And in that frantic blur of panic-filled escape the shadow was always there. It moved with me. Almost anticipating my every move.
I drove on, forcing one foot in front of the other. My muscles burned, screaming out for me stop. My lungs inflated and deflated like bellows as I tried to breathe in the thick humid air. Just as I felt I could go on no longer, the trees parted to reveal a cave, the only place this shadow couldn’t follow me.
I stumbled towards it, falling onto my hands and knees and scurried into its gloomy interior. It was not deep, perhaps only a few metres, but it the sanctuary was dark enough to offer protection from that which stalked me.
And it’s here that I now sit, curled up at the back of this cold and damp place. The dank air smells of sweat. The sound of trees shaking in the wind scrapes against my eardrums. The stolen treasure that fills my pockets feels like broken glass against my skin.
I wait from in here. And it waits for me out there. We’ve been at this standoff for hours now. It’ll be dark soon. I’ve outwitted this being, this Tipua. Maybe I’ll be able to make it to the coast before sunrise and flee to the safety of the ship. I just need to hold on for a few more… wait! I can hear something. No! Someone. It’s distant, but it sounds like… my God, it’s Robert. He’s calling out to me. He’s alive. He needs my help.
I shuffle to the front of the cave. I hesitate, just for a moment, but his desperate cries overcome any doubt.
I climb out and feel the warm, comforting daylight on my skin. A relieved smile comes across my face. “I’m coming, my friend. I’m coming.”