Tāwhirimātea wrapped his curling fingers around Maia’s hair and gently pulled at the long dark strands beckoning her, tempting her. She was sitting on the light golden sand that hugged the shore of the small bay that she and her sister liked to call their ‘private beach’. The area was nestled in native forest that stretched its nails right down to the tussock lands bordering the beach. These magnificent features were often explored and cherished by the two girls, especially the rocks that clutched at the edges of the bay, like clouds clinging to the distant mountains. At low tide, the rock pools and spilling waves completed the picturesque scene; the high-tide waves revealed their potential power, pounding the rocks, sending spray shooting high into the air, a reminder from Tangaroa that he was still there.
It was coming to the end of another glorious day spent by the sisters playing in the cool, refreshing water, hunting for crickets in the tussock dunes and scouring the shore for anything that caught their attention. Pania and Maia had narrowed down their collection to a pāua shell, pipi shell and a crab. Pania prodded the underbelly of the crab they had caught together; however, Maia was more intent on retrieving the many grains of sand that had burrowed themselves under her nails.
‘Maia,’ the younger sister turned her dark brown eyes up towards Pania’s face, which was framed by the low milky sun. ‘Look after our crab while I go get my jandals, Tangaroa is about to lick them off the shore.’
Maia nodded and watched her sister skip down to the water’s edge like a freed bird. She wondered if her sister sometimes thought her a nuisance to look after.
Looking down at the beautiful blue of the pāua shell swirling in with the green and pink like a whirlpool, she noticed a shadow crossing over the sand and glanced up. It was her sister returning. Instantly, she remembered her job, to look after the crab. Panic fluttered across her pretty little face in flashes as she glanced around rapidly in search of the crab. Fortunately, it had not managed to go very far, possibly because it had been traumatised by the many assaults it had received from the two girls. Maia leapt up and ran over to it, but before she could reach it, her sister yelled out, ‘What do you think you were doing?’ Maia turned slowly to face the inevitable lecture she was to receive.
‘You lost our precious crab! I gave you one thing to do, and you couldn’t do it, all you had to do was watch it for a few minutes! Hurry up, go get it!’ Pania, turning red from the anger she was exerting, realised that she had been a little harsh and guiltily grabbed her sister’s hand, ‘Come on, let’s go find it together.’
Meanwhile, the captive made a hasty escape and, fearing future incarceration, scuttled to the refuge offered by the water. Unsuccessfully, the girls chased the escapee as it plunged into the murky sea foam forming at the water’s edge. Staring into Pania’s eyes, Maia guessed what was coming next. Sure enough, Pania helped Maia take off her light-orange beach dress, and they waded into the pristine water. Faint rays of sunlight danced delicately on the water as they stared down through it to the sandy bottom, squealing every time a wave washed around them.
‘Look, there it is, I’ll get it this time.’ Pania bent over, dipped her head under the surface and tried to grasp the crab.
‘Ouch! Maia, it bit me!’ she exclaimed upon surfacing.
She was about to plunge the depths again when she caught sight of the expression on Maia’s face. Maia had completely transformed, her pupils dilated, her mouth ajar and she had turned a pale shade of white.
Pania immediately saw what Maia had seen; a couple of immense waves were building out the back of the rocks. Instinctively Pania grabbed Maia’s arm, forcing her to turn from the nightmarish sea, that only moments before had been their sanctuary.
Tangaroa gripped the girls tightly, laying claim to them. Alarmed by their lack of progress, Pania continued to struggle against the strength of the flowing water. Maia gripped onto Pania’s forearm tightly, forming a miniature tourniquet.
‘What do we do?’ Maia’s small voice quivered.
Pania didn’t have time to reply as they were swept off their feet and out towards the waves. Spluttering, Pania managed to warn Maia, ‘Breathe now and hold it in long.’
The first wave hit them. Driven to the bottom of the sea, they fought their way upwards, clasping each other, struggling against the forces that wanted to rip them apart. They eventually surfaced in the white frothing aftermath, both coughing heavily. ‘Hold on,’ Pania screamed as the next one of Tangaroa’s attacks advanced towards them at terrifying speed, ‘and never let go!’
The almighty force of the second wave pushed them towards the bottom and pinned them like a hand holding down helpless dolls. This one was worse, and the ordeal seemed to last forever. Maia’s chest burned with a searing heat from lack of oxygen, and her body convulsed so hard that Pania lost her grip on her. Momentarily released from Tangaroa’s vice-like grip, Pania powered to the surface, immediately scanning the water for her sister. A cold solid fear wrenched its fingers around her stomach and tightened its grip with each passing second that her sister did not appear. Thoughts scampered across her mind, unanswered questions. She began to tremble and wrestled back enough self-control to keep her head above the water.
Finally, Maia’s head popped up a couple of metres away. Pania thrashed her arms in an attempt to swim towards her and just managed to catch her flailing hand as the final wave hit. They both went down together. This time, Pania’s tenuous grip was teased apart. In her mind, Pania screamed and tried to fight against the rising terror that threatened to consume her.
Maia dreaded losing her sister’s hand and concentrated on holding her breath just like her sister told her to.
Tangaroa threw one more punch at them, and they were pummelled again.
As the energy of the last wave subdued, Pania broke the surface first and gulped in the precious air; Maia breathed prematurely and came up choking on the salty water.
‘Maia, Maia, I’m so sorry’ Pania wailed.
Maia stopped trying to fight the urge to breathe and reached out her arm to hold her sister’s hand just as her lungs concluded their endeavour to battle the seawater that had penetrated them. Her head sunk back into the water, her dark hair framing her face like a halo and her hand, suddenly very cool, lost its grip.
Tāwhirimātea wrapped his curling fingers around Pania’s hair and gently tugged the bereft girl back to shore.