Topic: Tall Tales of Tokoroa by Piper Mejia

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Childhood memories of Tokoroa inspired Piper Mejia's entry in the 2011 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

73 Arawa Street, Tokoroa, New Zealand was the first address I ever memorised.  Chanting proudly I wrote it, and a five-digit phone number, on the inside cover of all the books I owned, in case they went missing. It was the home where, as an immigrant child, my family and I puzzled over the strange customs of our adopted country; the meaning of ‘bring a plate,’ the year round wearing of jandals, and our neighbours’ obsession with the Queen.

But what I remember most was the lake across the road from our house, Lake Moananui.  It was a place of magic, where tadpoles turned into frogs, where watercress became lunch, and where islands of reeds became faraway places to be explored.

Year round, as long as there was sunlight, my sister and I could be found somewhere around or in the lake.  Once a year the mysterious they would drain the lake leaving dying fish struggling towards the remaining wells.  If we were in a compassionate frame of mind we’d rescue them, carefully carting them in tea towels, only to be disappointed by their upturned bellies as they floated in their new homes. But most often we’d forget the fish and ignore the rotten smell to enjoy more tactile sensations.

I remember the feeling of the silty sludge squelching between our toes and fingers as we wallowed like hippos.  I loved the power of being able to walk to the inner islands rather than swim, to create mud castles defended by mud balls which made us the envy of front yard friends watching cleanly from the bank. Our mother was a marvel to them as she didn’t ‘kill us’ for turning up home, late, with mud cracking along our clothes and skin as it dried in the warm evening air.  Instead, as we stood naked at the bottom of the steps, no fence to hide behind, she would hose us off to the amusement of the neighbourhood. Devoid of shame we would excitedly recount the day’s adventure before being hurried inside with the dying light.

The lake was the centre of our lives.  Every evening my parents would get up from the dinner table, make themselves a cup of coffee and head out for a walk around the lake.  That was the signal for my sister and I to fight over doing the dishes; who to clear, who to wash, who to dry and put away.  Who was too slow, who wasn’t doing it right and who was going to tell on whom. 

We would pull each other’s hair, call each other names that would surely earn us a sore behind if our father overheard, but without fail, an hour later, our parents would return from their stroll, carrying with them a calm that signalled the end of the day.  Hand in hand they would find us in our pyjamas, faces cleaned and teeth brushed ready for our story.

Even at bedtimes the lake would find its way into our lives.  My father never read to us from books; he could weave reality and fantasy into tales that made us beg for more, or beg for the light to be left on.  It was his telling of a creature of the deep, which had found its way into the lake in the stomach of a prehistoric bird, that I remember clearly.  Sitting on the edge of my bed he unfolded the story of an unknown creature that slumbered for centuries in the mud at the bottom of the lake; slumbered until the right moment to wake, to grow, to satisfy its hunger for little girls.

When everyone was busy getting ready for bed the creature from the lake would rise to the surface, its eyes peering into the night for a victim.  And if a little girl was out of bed, out of the house, after dark; about her business of retrieving the full milk bottles from the mailbox, she’d be unaware of the danger hiding in the still water. It would happen so fast she wouldn’t have time to scream, she’d be snatched, her legs tangled in a mess of tentacles, and dragged beneath the waters of the lake. No one would ever know what had happened to her, no one would ever guess as the creature returned to its hibernation, contentedly waiting for the centuries to pass until another opportunity for a snack arose.

For months after, while winter was still shortening the days, my sister would push me out the front door and stand holding it shut until I had retrieved the milk.  No amount of crying or banging would change her hardened heart; it was better me than her as she was sure our parents could always provide her with another younger sister if necessary.

Things are no longer as I remember them, Google maps insists that Arawa is a crescent not a street, the phone number dials no one’s home and the house has been remodelled beyond recognition. Even the lake is unfamiliar, the reeds cut down, and the islands removed. Instead, trees have grown in carefully designed arrangements, picturesque but unexciting. There are no pictures to match my imagination; my remaining souvenirs are the books on my children’s shelves. 

Still my favourites, scrawled with the identity I used to have, taken down from time to time to be read to, and read by my own children who do not have a lake of their own.  Their daylight adventures and monsters after dark come from the bush behind our family home.

 

Tall Tales of Tokoroa was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty Region with support from Tauranga Writers, and was awarded [1st/2nd/3rd Prize] [was Highly Commended] by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/373N-A6Z9

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