This story was my attempt at writing a love story (just to see if I could do it) within the world I’d created for an alternate history science fiction novel that I’d abandoned. Me being me, it came out a little twisted. I’d love your feedback on this - should I write more in this world? Should I resurrect the novel?
This was first published in Te Korero Ahi Ka (To Speak of the Home Fires Burning), in 2018, by SpecficNZ. This anthology of Speculative fiction by New Zealand writers is available at Amazon and other booksellers, click the link to check it out.
Moa Love by Aaron Compton
I stretched out my arm, wafting pungent basil, and the moa swung its long neck around, sniffing and huffing, its breath steaming into the night air.
Ruru hoot-hooted from the forest while I coaxed the big idiot away from the broad beans in the veggie garden. Brown eyes flicked from me to the leaves in my hand. A whole stalk of beans disappeared into its beak. Then it strode towards me across the stepping stones in the soil, light-footed on those great claws. I stepped back. The furry-feathered hump of its back curved as high as my shoulders.
Great-great-Grandfather whispered through my earpiece, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Now?” I turned to the tekoteko carving of the long-dead man who stood guard above the gabled roof of the main- house.
“When you’re done there,” he said.
The moa boomed an almost-subsonic bass I felt in my chest. I locked the great bird away behind the nearest gate. He’d be lonely for the night, calling for the females waiting in another paddock.
“You and me both, e hoa,” I said, although the damned moa would get some action before I ever did. I’d just about had enough of farm life. I was over the gruff orders fired at me by Great-Great-Grandfather, done with these oversized chickens escaping from their paddocks. I could manage this place better without the constant interference of that old kēhua—ghost.
In my heart, the boom of the city called me from over the hill. I headed back to the house to see who was so bloody important I had to meet them at this time of night.
I flopped into a recliner in front of the office cypher-space rig.
“Who is it?” I said, feeling every bit the petulant grandchild of his grandchild.
Triple G, aka Great Great Grandfather, had been a rangatira, a chief. When he died, our people kept him close. He was lucky his accident happened after we were given resurrection germs — before then, all that would’ve become of him was a grave and the tekoteko on the roof. His wairua— spirit— would have swum across the Pacific to Hawaiki. We would’ve talked to the carving, and some of us would’ve heard him answer. After death though, he transformed into an enhanced model of his own brain, every neuron, every dendrite replicated by a colony of microorganisms in a tank.
His village wanted him to run the new community centre, but resurrection changed people. He’d done his time as the big boss, preferred a quiet afterlife. Even his wairua, no longer defined by human flesh, had been transformed.
Fifty bloody years later, he’d run a couple of generations of us into the ground, or away to the big city, and now he was doing the same to me.
The faint whiff of fermentation came from the tanks of the bio-machines in the next room, where Triple G's brain floated in a tank of probiotic solution. It smelled like kimchi. My stomach rumbled. Dinner had been hours ago.
Yawning, I took off the earpiece, replaced it with a rubber Lucidity cap that gripped my skull like a too-tight wig, with filaments of wire for hair, each one connected to a tiny magnet in the rubber. Bundled into a cable at the back of my head, the electric ponytail connected me to the old man.
Lean back. Deep breath. Close eyes.
My vision fills with a swirling mandala; a hand reaches out, I take it in mine; the mandala swallows me.
Lush burgundy and gold carpet under me, tasteful landscape paintings on the walls around me. A huge chandelier sparkles. Rich cooking smells, spicy and savoury. A string quartet plays in one corner. The murmur of other diners talking. The clink of cutlery on crockery. Triple G sits by the big window, wearing his good suit, about a hundred years out of style, but dapper anyway. Medals hang on his chest. A fit fifty-year-old, his short hair shows only a hint of grey. We’re on a cliff, the ocean below us.
The woman across the table from him stands when she sees me approaching. She’s blonde, white, and slightly more fashionable, in a flapper dress about thirty years out of style — short, strappy, sequined, with a matching headband. “Esme, this is Boy,” Triple G says.
“Boy, hello. I’ve heard so much about you.” Her accent is American, Southern, and her smile reaches into her blue eyes. I smile back and kiss her cheek.
Triple G grins like the dog who got the cheese, crinkling the green-black lines etched in his brown face.
What must a Southern girl think of these tattoos?
They didn’t use a needle gun for tā moko in Triple G's day; they carved the swirls and spirals from living flesh with a tiny adze, then pressed ink into the wounds, leaving a shallow, pigmented scar. He’s a good-looking man, and the design of the tattoo accentuates his cheekbones, his broad forehead, the cheeky twinkle in the old man’s eye. If he sits still and expressionless, he could be mistaken for the carved wooden tekoteko above the house. Sometimes, I reckon that would be better.
I look from Esme to Triple G and back again. An odd match, this white girl and an old Maori chief.
“Where did you two meet?” I say. “In a database somewhere?”
Esme’s brow furrows for a moment, as if confused, then she grins. “Oh, no, it’s not like that. I was at an online grain auction with Daddy. Ata was there as well. I just couldn’t take my eyes off him.”
I look at Triple G. I’d assumed she was a bio-machine like him. Her style of dress made me think she was from the nineteen twenties, but if she’s living, she’s most likely as young as she looks — while he’s from another era.
“Now, Boy, before you say anything‒” he starts.
“You mean, you’re alive?” I say. Liaisons between the dead and the living are not forbidden, just awkward.
“Never mind that,” the old man says. “Here’s our kai.”
A waiter puts a plate in front of each of us. I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hāngi— moa, potato and vegetables buried on top of hot rocks and cooked slowly in an earth oven, absorbing the flavour of the earth.
Triple G mutters a karakia under his breath. After all this time, after life with no death, the missionaries still have his soul colonised. His fork trembles in his hand as he waits for one of us to smell it. Esme looks into Triple G’s eyes and takes a deep sniff. This is what he was waiting for— his face melts in delight, his fork hovering above the succulent meat.
The dead have no noses, taste buds, or skin. Except for sight and sound, from cameras and microphones, they’re sensorially deprived, and it can drive them mad. They need the living. In the dreams they induce in us, like this figment, they bleed our senses, smelling, tasting, feeling the world.
Esme provides the sensual detail Triple G craves. She lifts the flesh to her teeth.
Triple G nods and follows suit. He moans, ecstatic, as he chews a mouthful of meat and sweet potato. Esme returns his hungry gaze.
I don’t eat.
After dinner, Esme snuggles up to Triple G on a couch, the two of them sipping coffee liqueur. I lean forward over the low table and say:
“Esme, what does your family think of this?”
Triple G glares at me.
“Oh, they don’t know,” she says. “They think I’m playing Chewy Crush. My Dad isn’t the most tolerant of men.” She looks out the window, her gaze on the horizon. “I’d do just about anything to get away from him.” She looked back at me and, realising I was listening, shook her head, put on a grin, and turned to Triple G. “And boy oh boy, was my daddy pissed when your grain got a higher price than his! Hooo! He might not understand this at all.”
“Grandfather, I’m not trying to ruin this for you both‒”
“…but even if Esme isn’t playing out her Daddy issues, trying to rebel, how can you possibly make this work? You’re a century older than her and you don’t have a body!”
“Boy,” Esme says, “that’s a very unkind thing to say! I’m here because Ata is the most fascinating, kind, and thoughtful man I’ve ever met.”
Triple G leans forward — oh god, they’re going to do it — and kisses her.
“Our first kiss,” she says, her lips still against his.
Her hand goes to his face, strokes the artful scars there. He’s purring, I swear, although he can't really feel her.
“I love these tattoos, and this face.”
“I may be just a brain in a bottle,” he says, “but I’ll find a way to return your love.”
That’s it. I’m out. It’s not enough the old prick does a job a young man like me can do, now he’s taking a living woman. Jealousy is ugly, but the dead should make way for the living. I stand, fiddle with my pocket watch, and exit cypher-space for flesh-space.
In the office recliner, the rumbling of my stomach accompanies the distant booming of the bull moa, calling for a companion.
The big feathery bastard was still booming the next day. After I’d fixed the garden fence, I opened the gate to lead him to another field, this one lined with rows of fodder trees and undergrowth. The females, even bigger than he was, were already pushing at the fence. They reached over the wire towards the bull, their necks like huge feathered serpents.
He ran through the first gate, pushing so hard against the second one that it flew out of my hands. I left him there for the giant hens to fight over.
“Good luck, buddy.” I locked the gate.
If only life was so simple for humans. If only there was some village girl straining at the fence for me.
I walked to the farm buildings, the heels of my gumboots clop-clopping on the hard dirt track. Daffodils bloomed alongside the track. They were early this year.
“Boy, I need your help,” Triple G said in my earpiece. I’d been waiting for this.
“I know what you are going to say,” I said. “Don't bother. It’s too weird.”
“You’d deny your rangatira?”
“You gave up being a chief a long time ago. No, I won’t do it.”
“There’s nothing here for you, Boy. You want more. I’m making plans for you. Help me with this and I can help you.”
“What can you bribe me with? A promotion? Doubt it. No. Nah. Not happening. It’s wrong and just… gross.” I kicked a stone along the track. “Final answer. No.”
I expected anger, but all I got was silence.
Another farmhand was in the big shed.
“Kia ora, Boy,” said Nancy, looking up from the seed spreader she was working on.
“Kia ora, Nancy,” I said. Her husband was an old mate so I made the effort to not look at the way her overalls stretched as she worked. “Hear the booming?”
“Yeah, spring is coming, huh?” she said.
“Yeah eh, they’re gonna need some more feed, I reckon.”
I climbed up behind the wheel of the tractor, pulled a chain from my pocket and plugged my ignition bead into the slot, and pushed the button.
I tried a few more times, then swore.
“Won’t start?” Nancy opened the hood and peered at the engine. “Try again.”
I pushed the button and she shook her head.
“Not even sparking.”
I climbed down and looked in.
“Can you hit the ignition for me?” I said.
She climbed into the driver’s seat, put her own bead in the slot and pushed the button. Sparks clicked and small flames jetted underneath the angled rows of sealed cylinders. In a few seconds, the pistons inside began clicking, faster and faster until the clicks became a quiet whirr and the flywheel spun.
“That’s odd,” Nancy said.
He’d revoked my access.
I went into town and found I hadn’t been paid. I borrowed the bank's phone.
“You can’t just deny me my wages, we have a contract!” I said, trying not to let the teller overhear.
“Your contract gives you a responsibility for my welfare, which includes sensory stimulation, so as to avoid mental distress. Technically, this could include‒”
“You old shit!”
I couldn’t argue the contract. He had me by the short and curlies.
Esme wears a silver, low-cut dress that clings to her curves. Her hair is down this time, long blond waves hanging over her shoulders. Part of me aches just looking at her.
I’m in the khaki dress uniform of the Te Ngau Mounted Rifles, a regiment that was disbanded in the eighteen hundreds. I feel ridiculous. Triple G insists it’s the height of masculinity. He wears the same, except his insignia is a higher rank.
We stand in a large gazebo, wooden posts supporting an open framework of beams and lattice that drips with bunches of purple wisteria and fragrant white jasmine. There’s no entrance — thick vines enclose us. I push aside some leaves to look out, but there’s no out, just blackness. A private figment.
From the darkness, I hear a booming call. I glance at Triple G, who doesn’t look away quickly enough for me to miss his grin. Cheeky old devil. He controls every aspect of this place; that boom is his little joke.
Triple G takes a long-stemmed rose from the huge four poster bed in the centre, then turns to Esme and I, both of us hesitating at one side of the gazebo. He hands her the glistening red bud. She accepts it with a smile and concentrates for a moment. The bud grows fuller until the petals spread open into a mature bloom, dripping with nectar. She holds it out to me.
She doesn’t let go when I take the stem, not until I look into her blue eyes. I inhale the sweet perfume, then pass it to Triple G. He breathes deeply, then sighs in satisfaction.
She pulls me towards her. I hesitate, but Triple G’s hand is on my back. I’m in her arms, her mouth on mine, her tongue between my lips.
She peels off my uniform. I almost rip the silk dress off her. I rub against her, her skin on mine. I smell her, taste her. I take my time, feeding my senses, so Triple G might experience her. We both moan when I move between her legs.
All too soon I stand back. Triple G’s uniform has vanished. Esme holds her arms out to him. His buttocks and legs swirl with carved tattoos.
Esme lies him down. I’m only here so he can bleed my sense of touch, but before she lowers her head to kiss him, her eyes meet mine, and it’s my chest that aches.
Days later, my bead glowed in the ignition, the particle of Luciferous Aether pulsing with light to let me know the boss wanted to talk.
I was still thinking about Esme.
I pulled over, jumped out, the quiet whirring of the old truck engine slowing to a fast click as I walked to the phone booth.
The screen inside the booth was intact so I plugged in my bead, expecting orders to pick up something from the hardware store.
It was her. Esme. My heart leapt. Her smile pushed her cheeks up, making her eyes smile too.
I was being foolish— did I really have a crush on my Great-Great-Grandfather’s girlfriend?
“How did you get through?” I said.
“Ata patched me through. He wants me to talk to you. He thinks you are having problems with… what we did?”
I hoped the camera wouldn’t pick up my blush.
“It’s not my problem, Esme. It’s yours. How are you going to deal with this when your family hears about it?”
“Yes, I hear you. Pa has told me that as long as I live under his roof, I ain’t to have any boyfriends.”
“How would he feel about you having a tattooed boyfriend who died decades before you were born?”
She laughed but the smile was gone from her eyes. “Oh, he would flay me alive, I’m sure.”
“Do you like me, Boy?” she said. “Because I sure like you.”
My throat closed up tight. I choked on my words.
Two weeks later I was digging moa manure into a garden bed when Triple G whispered in my earpiece:
A giant cargo ship floated above the forest, heading towards town. The blimp was V-shaped as if two giant rugby balls had been stretched and joined at the nose. The triangular space between them was the cargo bay.
“Are you feeling strong? There's a package for you to pick up,” he said.
When I got to the airport the huge ship was being tethered to concrete anchors. Chains rattled, a ramp thudding onto the dry grass. A forklift drove down, crates high on the forks. It towed three trailers behind it, the wheels bumping over the lip of the ramp.
Men unloaded boxes and cases. I asked an official with a clipboard if there was a package for Mamae Ātaahua. He ran his pencil down the list, found Triple G’s name, then took me to the last trailer and pointed me at a leather trunk. I grabbed the handle and hefted it up.
“What the hell is in here?” I said, under my breath.
Behind me, she said: “That would be all my worldly possessions, so please treat them well.”
She was here, in flesh-space.
In my ear Triple G, more beautiful than any carving, said: “I told you, I had plans for you.”
I put the trunk down and she was in my arms.
In the forest a moa boomed.
Copyright Aaron Compton 2018