What I think of when I smell Kowhai (a story about New Zealand)

by Alex Stronach


Lovecraft Idea #60
Fisherman casts his net into the sea by moonlight—what he finds.

I never knew my mother. Mrs. Lewis who worked at the Library told me that she'd been hit by a truck and it was a crying shame my father told me all those lies. Come to think of it, I barely knew my father either. Not for lack of time together and I'm sure that he tried, but the old man had always been distant. There was something cold about him. Something in his eyes. The only way I'd ever get him to talk to me about anything was after he'd had a few drinks. It must've been a strange sight: a boy breaking into the liquor cabinet and slipping of a glass of something noxious onto his father's nightstand, then hurrying furtively back to his room and waiting for a real bedtime story.

Sometimes, he'd tell the story of how he got here. How he and an Australian called Paulson had met in Paris after the War and Paulson had told him about a place where the government was practically paying people to take good farmland off their hands. How the farm'd gone under after just one bad winter and Paulson, for all his bravado, had had a nervous breakdown and the men in white coats had had to take him away. How the men in white coats had said it was PTSD and they'd given Paulson a medal for bravery to stop him from talking to the papers.

And sometimes, after I'd poured just the right or the just the wrong amount, he'd tell the story about how he and Paulson went fishing out Takaka way and they'd pulled their nets in one night to find a beautiful woman in the net. It was my favourite story because, for a few sweet moments, I saw something glowing in his eyes. The colour would flush back into his cheeks and all of a sudden he wasn't just my father; he was my dad.

“Listen close,” he'd always say, “because you're only going to hear this once.”

He told me that the two of them had been drinking.

“Fuck farming,” Paulson had said. “Fuck sheep and fuck frost and fuck this godforsaken country.”

I'd always ask dad what 'fuck' meant and he'd always look a little shocked and stop right where he was. From that point on in the story, Paulson had a habit of trying to forget anything he didn't like.

“Forget farming. Forget sheep and forget frost and forget this unpleasant country,” dad assured me Paulson had said.

I'd once asked dad why Paulson had been so eager to forget and in an instant, all the colour had drained from his face. He'd stopped the story right there and gone straight to bed. I never asked that question again.

Dad would forget about the swearing though. Every time he told the story, like clockwork, he'd forget to censor Paulson then have to tell me how eager Paulson was to forget. Every time I'd choke back the same question for fear of losing dad for another night.

Forgetfulness set aside for the night, dad would shake his head and laugh and continue. So they'd been drinking and one of them (dad never remembered who) had suggested they cast out their nets at night. It was midwinter and there was a storm brewing over the Tasman Sea. There was always a storm brewing over the Tasman, dad had said, but this one had teeth. Two men stood against it. Two men who had dragged themselves to the edge of the earth to find better lives and knew full well that they'd failed but damned if they weren't going to fail with a little style.

They stood in the wind and rain. “Forget you, sea!” they'd screamed. “Forget you, New Zealand!”

As the night went on, they forgot a lot of things. They forgot wind and rain. They forgot the women who'd left them behind. Dad forgot Paulson for having 'a pair' but not knowing what the hell to do with them. Then, suddenly, the storm forgot them. Dad said it was like magic: all of a sudden, the wind died down and the air filled with that crisp, sweet smell of the kowhai tree in bloom. For a moment, they forgot about forgetting and just stood there: two angry drunks deprived of anything to rage at. Slowly, numbly, Paulson had suggested pulling in the net. Dad had nodded. They'd come out here to fish, he'd told himself, not to engage in a drunken, existentialist shouting match.

They pulled the net in, slowly, because (as Paulson had noted, dad assured me), it was 'really forgetfully heavy'. They'd speculated about why the storm had died so suddenly. They'd wondered why they could smell kowhai, since the bloody tree wouldn't flower if the frost so much as looked at it funny, then they'd shaken their heads and got back to work. No point questioning good luck. That's how you scare it away.

They'd tried not to notice it but as the net came in, the smell of kowhai got sharper and sharper until you could almost feel it in the air. And as the last of the net came in, everything went dead silent. “As if God himself didn't want to spoil the moment” dad always said, with a tear in his eye.

There, in the net, was the most beautiful woman dad had ever seen. “Your mother,” he'd say. “Your mother was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Pale as the moon, with big green eyes and hair that was almost as white as her skin.”

Dad had cut the net open and held her, there on the beach in midwinter with the cloying air drenched in the smell of the kowhai. She'd whispered something to him. “What did she whisper dad?” I'd say. I knew the answer but I'd always ask. He'd smile, bigger than I'd ever see him smile. “She said that she'd give me a son,” he'd say, grinning from ear to ear, lost in the moment. “She told me to come back in the autumn and I'd find what I was after.”

“Then what dad?” I'd ask, squirming under the covers.

“I did. I came back in the autumn and there, on the beach, I found you wrapped up in seaweed. You looked at me and laughed and I knew that God was watching.” he said. “I love you,” he'd say. He meant it. Every word.

Once, as he was leaving, I'd asked him what Paulson had thought of the whole thing but he'd shaken his head. “Went a bit funny in the head after that night. Couldn't stop talking about your mother's eyes. Saying I wasn't looking deep enough. I reckon it was...what do you call it? Shell shock, battle neurosis: whatever. He was in Crete during the war. Saw far worse than I did. In the end it all just got too much for him. Don't worry about it though. You're safer here than you'll ever be. Now go to sleep,” he said, and left the room muttering quietly to himself. And I did, because my dad wanted me to. I dreamed of beaches and storms and kowhai trees and a beautiful, sad woman with eyes as deep as the sea. As I got older, I forgot that part.

Every year, in the last days of summer, we'd drive over to Takaka and spend a few days fishing. It was a family tradition: just me and dad in an old cabin by the beach. We never talked: just sat there on the golden sand for a few days and pretended that we were bonding.

One night, when I was fifteen and dad was sure that I was asleep, I heard the cabin door open and quickly slam shut. The place reeked of gin. I waited a few minutes then snuck out of bed and down the beach. There, framed against the moon, was dad. He was staring out to sea, bottle in hand, crying to himself over an empty net.

And in the distance, I smelt the kowhai.

Alex Stronach lives in New Zealand and is constantly overcaffeinated

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