Toni Wi


My mother came to life at night. A maiden of Hina, she painted the many faces of her mistress on the canvas of the ocean.

During Whiro the membrane between the bottom world and ours stretched thin, and taniwha from the deep swam skyward to get a glimpse of her. She sang for them and danced and laughed. Her laugh was the sparkle of stars caught in the dark web of the sea. Tangaroa watched her dance, pulling the great ocean currents tight so she could tiptoe and skip along the surface of the water.

The taniwha told her stories of the world beneath, of red crystal palaces and towers of hot smoke. They prodded at the barrier with their sharp pincers, waiting for the day when it would break.

The kingdom below was ruled over by the goddess Hine-nui-te-pō, and the taniwha who served her carried messages to the surface, prophecies of Te Pō that spoke of a time when the milk-skin film between life and death would dissolve and the goddess would rule over both worlds.

My mother welcomed the taniwha into the realm of Tangaroa. She would send the goddess gifts on their return of pearl necklaces imbued with starlight, and paua shells filled with the ear bones of fish, a delicacy among the dead. In return, Hine-nui-te-pō gifted my mother an obsidian circlet inlaid with black diamonds, and a single spiny urchin. The roe of the kina would allow one to traverse between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Tangaroa was jealous of the affection of Hine-nui-te-pō but dared not cross the goddess. Her domain stretched back through space and time to Te Kore, and her skill with a blade was almost as legendary as her wrath as a woman.

In the end it was Tāwhirimātea who pulled my mother from them both.

Tāwhirimātea, the god of the wind. Tāwhirimātea who could wear the sea like a korowai and call storms from the sky. Tāwhirimātea who touched everything and everyone with smooth fingers, caressing and shaping the world.

Tangaroa and Hine-nui-te-pō offered my mother a kingdom of darkness and depth.

Tāwhirimātea picked her up and taught her to fly.

There are no stories of their love and my uncle never talks about it, but I’ve heard whispers from the strangest places. Crabs speak to me sometimes. I hear about them from the worms after a heavy rain. A blackbird once said my name with a human voice before flying away. I was scared of birds for a long time, but my uncle told me I had nothing to fear of the dead or their messengers.

Still, I longed for news of my birth parents. My father had never appeared to me in human form and my mother was only visible at sea. The only comfort I had as a child was my uncle, Tangaroa, who would visit me late at night during the full moon when I couldn’t sleep. He would walk along the tideline and tell me of his parents, Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and how my father fought to keep them together. I would ask about them and he would point to the sand dunes and tell me to listen for the fall of the sand and the running of water in the reservoirs beneath the earth and the creak and groan of continents as Papatūānuku stretches her shoulders.

That’s not to say I wasn’t loved by my human parents. When my uncle delivered me to them, I was two days old and wrapped in thick bull kelp. They walked along the beach every morning at first light and one day the god of the sea rose out of the surf and bade them approach. It must have been a sight, the sun breaking over the horizon and a man out of legend, beard made of seafoam, brown skin with sea-green ta moko along his arms and eyes as black as the void. And in his arms an infant, cradled carefully.

I don’t know why my father did not deliver me to land. I don’t know if my mother cried for me. I only know my uncle loved me, as he loved his brother and as he loved my mother.

On my twelfth birthday he gave me a crown made of black glass and what I thought to be rhinestones, but what turned out to be diamonds. I turned it over in my hands and it glistened in the light of the full moon.

This came from the world below. It is a gift fit for a princess, which is what you are to me.

He took it and placed it on my head. When I reached to touch it again, the crown was gone. I didn’t understand what I had been given until later that night when Hine-nui-te-pō came to me in a dream.

I was scared at first. But then I remembered what my uncle told me about the bird: you have nothing to fear of the dead.

My child.

My mother is—

Do not speak to me of your mother.

I bowed my head. One does not argue with the goddess of death.

Come, she said.

She welcomed me into her arms and I embraced her, as we all must do in the end. She placed a kiss upon my forehead.

Soon you will join me.

I did not want to die.

You will be a princess at my side.

I did not want to be a princess.

You were born of greatness.

I did not want to be great.

You were born to rule.

I did not want to rule. I wanted only to live.

When I woke in the morning my sheets were wet with blood. I’d spent the night in the underworld in the arms of Hine-nui-te-pō and emerged bleeding into my new life. I was a princess. I was cursed. Would I live in a palace? Or a cave? And when she claimed me, would it hurt?

I didn’t see my uncle again till I was sixteen. I stayed away from the beach. I didn’t swim in rivers or lakes for fear he would find me and deliver me to the world below. I was scared of bath water. I was even wary of the rain.

He found me through a glacier, in the end. It was the last place I expected to see him, walking along the underside of the ice in step with my school friends.

Niece, he said.

He moved from the heel of the glacier to a sharp face, and I was able to make out the glint of his dark eyes and the cut of his cheekbones. He’d shaved, or maybe the beard came and went with the surf.

I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go but down the ice slope to a sure death in the rubble below. He knew this and raised an eyebrow.

I would not deliver myself to them so easily. He would see me at the side of Hine-nui-te-pō, ruling over the underworld. Dead and undying at the same time.


I ignored him.

Your mother wants to see you.


Come with me.

I started to cry. My classmates had followed the guide off the glacier and were walking along the path back to the carpark. I hid my face in my hands, and he put a hand on my shoulder. I wanted to jerk away but his touch wasn’t cold, like an early morning swim. It was warm as a summer breeze.


The man drew me into his arms. He was warm and he was real. “Tāwhirimātea,” I said, sniffing. My father.

“Hello my girl.”

I buried myself in his embrace and he held me tight for a moment. When he let me go, everything had changed. We were no longer on the glacier. The world around us was dark and hot and humid. The sound of trickling water echoed in the space, which was lit by faint pricks of pulsating yellow light from above. Glow worms, I realized. We were in a cave.

My uncle stood next to us. His eyes were still black and his cheeks clean-shaven, but his ta moko had faded into his skin as if he were just a man, and not a myth.

When he smiled there was a hint of sadness to it. “You thought I wished you dead?”

I had never heard my uncle speak before. It was always in my head. His voice was gravelly and made him sound older and gruffer than he looked.

“Māhina,” said my father. “I have a gift for you.”

I was wary of another gift. But I stepped away so I could look at him properly. I wondered if he would look like my uncle, with his long hair in a topknot and his chest bare. Yet my father did not look like Tangaroa. He had a beard and his hair curled all the way down to the nape of his neck in a wild tangle. His eyes were black and his nose was slightly crooked and just a bit too long. Where his brother was lithe and muscular, Tāwhirimātea was solid, with wide shoulders and big arms.

I could not believe he was real, that he was here at last.

My father raised his hands, palms open wide, and there perched in the middle was the cracked egg of an open kina. The deep yellow roe nestled amongst the plum-purple intestines of the sea urchin. I thought the long spines would prick his skin, but he held it as gently as if it were swaddled in cotton wool.

“What’s it for?” I asked. “What will happen?”

My uncle moved to stand next to me. He looked at his brother. “What do I always tell her?”

“You have nothing to fear of the dead,” said my father. “Or dying.”

I heard her voice then, thick and slow flowing as molten lava. The goddess of the underworld, the woman who welcomes you to the world beneath. “Daughter,” she said. “The gifts of the gods are not lightly forsaken. Eat.”

I looked to my uncle. He nodded, and I knew that even if this was the end, he wouldn’t leave me. I scooped out a fat tongue of yellow roe and let the intestines bleed through my fingers before sliding it into my mouth. I closed my eyes as I swallowed and felt it slither down my throat. It was sweet and rich and creamy. The taste of it lingered on my tongue. I gasped as it moved into my stomach and, impossibly, down my arms and legs till my fingers and toes tingled. 

I was golden. I was fire.

And then, as sudden as the sensation started, it was gone.

I opened my eyes to find them all in front of me. The wind, the sea, and the shadows.

My uncle held out a hand. “Come,” he said. “There’s someone who wants to meet you.”

Hine-nui-te-pō faded into darkness with a laugh. Tāwhirimātea stood alone as my uncle led me away, deeper into the cave until it narrowed into a tunnel. We followed it a short distance until it sloped downwards, the thread from the glow worms on the ceiling tickling the back of my neck as I ducked to avoid hitting my head.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Not we,” he said as he crawled out of the tunnel. “You.”

I followed him out and into a small cavern. In the middle of the cavern was a pool of water lit from below. Blue-white ripples reflected off the limestone walls. The pool trembled and a shape emerged slowly as if summoned out of the water. First the wide, flat fin, then the bulbous mantle, and then the head, followed by each individual arm and two long tentacles that waved about in the air. The colossal squid grabbed the walls and ceiling and ground floor of the cavern and pulled itself towards us with a great heaving sigh.

My uncle held my shoulders. Perhaps he felt me readying to run away.

I shook my head. “I can’t.”

“You can.”

The taniwha, somehow able to hold its bulk out of the water, beached itself upon the rock at the edge of the pool. It clicked its beak as if to say hurry up.

“I’ll drown.”

“You won’t,” said my uncle.

He guided me to the edge and helped me step over its arms and onto the creature. There was nowhere to hold on. The surface of its body was smooth and slippery and I slid off and into the pool. Instead of sinking underwater an arm caught me, sliding lightning fast around my waist and drawing me in towards its mouth. 

My uncle smiled. The creature shoved itself off the rock, the pool swallowed us, and I was pulled backwards into the deep, dark cold of the underworld.

I shrieked, expecting to choke, but nothing happened. I swallowed water and blew bubbles out of my nose. Did I have gills? I touched my neck, but it was smooth. My hair swirled around my face and I shivered. The water was cold and we were moving fast. The creature pulled me close, pressing me into the warmth of its arms.

Thank you, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t speak. I could only watch as fish and other things that haunted the depths of the ocean hurried out of our way. We swam up and up through the black night.

I thought of stories of the underworld, a wasteland devoid of life, but the world below was not empty. It was full of strange and wonderful creatures. If this was where the dead lived it did not seem so bad. Even my eyes were starting to adjust. It did not seem so dark anymore.

But then the creature snapped its beak and between one second and the next we pushed through a layer of cold, dense water with a pop, emerging into a warm ocean. I could feel the skin of the boundary running over my body and looked down once it passed to find the torn edges of the hole we’d made already reforming, the magic of Hine-nui-te-pō knitting it back together.

We were in the realm of Tangaroa. And there above us was the light of the moon. She was a woman with long white hair and a smile so bright it looked like pure starlight. She held her arms out to me and I swam into them, the creature releasing me and sinking back into the depths.

The sea was still as I came up for air. My mother lifted me onto the surface of the water, smooth and dark as polished glass. She spun me around and I laughed. “Come,” she said with a playful smile, and took off running across the water. Thunder clouds danced on the horizon as I followed her into the storm.

Toni Wi

Toni Wi (Ngāti Maniapoto) is a speculative fiction writer and policy analyst based in Wellington. Her flash fiction has been published in Takahē, Mayhem, Breach, and Flash Frontier.