(This short story originally appeared in the South Boston Literary Gazette, and was awarded “best in issue.” Unfortunately, that literary journal was print only, not online, so I am sharing here online for the first time.)
THE PINK AND WHITE TERRACES OF NEW ZEALAND
Of the months at sea, the less said the better. Although the journey itself certainly must be mentioned. I set out from my adopted country a bride and returned a widow, a change of status I now think of as an improvement.
I was not altogether ignorant of a bride’s responsibilities and duties toward her husband. I had no mother myself, but in the convent there were young women my own age, and also maids and such who came in who talked a great deal more than you might think about the relations between men and women.
When I was a certain age, an acquaintance of a distant relative wrote to the sisters asking if I might be suitable for a match. I had not known of any relatives until then, and apparently they wished to remain anonymous, because I was never given their name or their whereabouts.
But that hardly seemed important, as the background credentials of Mr. Tucker were analyzed and it was deemed that I could do worse. I was sixteen and strong and healthy and couldn’t remain a ward much longer.
In exactly six weeks I was on my way to New Zealand. The year was 1885.
There were two reasons given for our journey to such a far away land, though it hardly mattered to me. The first was that my husband was associated with a trade society that wished to develop farming interests in this mysterious and fertile land. He was to stay there for a minimum of two years traveling to the larger towns and making connections with local landowners. My wifely presence would gain him access to more social occasions and contacts; thus my value.
The second reason was personal. I did not know it at the time, but my husband, Mr. Tucker was of a weak constitution, the weakness centering in his throat and lungs, and he hoped that the thermal springs of the north island would offer him some relief.
Let me just say that in the beginning I wished no ill upon my husband, even after those times on the ship when I was forced to stay in darkness in our tiny quarters to nurse a blackened eye or bruised cheekbone. Mostly I was able to conceal the marks he made on me with scarves or a hooded cloak. There was always a wind, and we covered ourselves well for protection.
By the time we landed in Wellington I had better learned some of my husband’s ways, and it seemed that away from the ship’s cramped quarters he was less likely to find fault with me. Around other people he was convivial and relaxed, almost languid in his physical demeanor. He reminded me of the sharks we sometimes saw in clear waters, circling about lazily and playfully. You wouldn’t sense you were in danger until they were on you.
It was only my unwavering faith that evil ways will meet an evil end that enabled me to put one foot in front of the other. This was all I could trust in – I certainly didn’t know another woman well enough to confide in, and many of the men we met were more than a little rough and unused to the company of a woman.
My husband spent a certain amount of time doing business, so I had long, uninterrupted days to walk about and explore my new home. I found that I was eager to know everything. It was my first experience feeling such largesse from a place and it was exhilarating. New Zealand was full of strange natural wonders, nothing at all like we had in England.
I remember the first time I saw a wild parrot, which I later found was called a kea, swoop down on a sheep, repeatedly puncturing the wool on the sheep’s back with its curved beak. I was told that it did so to get at the sheep’s kidney fat. It was one of many natural oddities that plagued ranchers, and one of the most fearsome sights I have ever witnessed. There were also wild boars whose hides were so tough bullets bounced right off, and the foliage where I took my walks was like something in a fairy tale gone mad. Breathtaking in its beauty yet sinister in the way it pushed upward and outward overtaking everything in its path.
We had been in New Zealand about three months when my husband came home and told me to pack some things for a one-week journey. I had heard about the Pink and White Terraces and was very excited to see them for myself. Some called them the Eighth Wonder of the World. Of course we were not going there to sightsee, as most visitors at that time did. Rather, my husband had heard about the particular healing properties of the hot springs and natural therapeutic waters adjacent to the Terraces.
We left from Ohinemutie traveling twenty-four miles by horseback through mountains to the missionary station at Te Wairoa. There we paid the sum of four pounds to a Maori chief who gave us a choice of two guides. It was rumored that these Maori guides were famous rivals but were equally competent.
It turned out that the guide who had been recommended to us, Sophia, was hired out by another party, so we came to be led by Kate.
Mr. Tucker and I were also accompanied by two scientists, Mr. Hathaway and Mr. Malcolm. Mr. Hathaway was studying the botany of the area and Mr. Malcolm was observing the geological formations.
After hiring our guide from the head of her village, we learned that she was deaf. At first I was disappointed, although when I thought about it, I supposed it didn’t really matter since I only spoke a few words of the Maori language. At any rate, Mr. Hathaway and Mr. Malcolm more than made up for any silences on our guide’s part. They were naturally inclined to share any discoveries and knowledge they had of that strange land.
So many sights from that one small journey that I will never forget. First of all, our guide, Kate, could be classified a natural wonder herself. She was as tall and muscular as the largest man in our party, and, as Mr. Hathaway confided, a half-caste, born to a Maori mother and a Scotsman. Her deafness made her quiet but she was never still. Her individual features were unattractive in the particular, yet I found her to be compelling to look upon. She was typically Maori, with a high forehead and oval face, and with her upper lip outlined in dark blue tattoo, but she had an unruly bush of red hair that sprang from her head like it was on fire.
Mr. Hathaway relayed to us a remarkable rumor – that Kate had had eight husbands, all of whom, as he explained it had “died away somehow.”
Our first night after leaving Te Wairoa we camped by the banks of a lake that was a perfect oval of the most brilliant sapphire blue. My husband was irritable because his cough was bothering him terribly. Each cough came from so deep inside him that I thought his internal organs must suffer with each new attack. I stayed out of his way as much as was possible in the close quarters of our tent.
Around the campfire that evening Mr. Malcolm told us stories of the sapphire lake and also of the Terraces, which we would see the next day.
My husband wanted to know why we couldn’t just row directly across the brilliant blue lake instead of walking all the way around it. “We would be there by now, I’d say, instead of sleeping in this damp air an extra night.” He sounded petulant and annoyed, a tone I recognized well.
Mr. Malcolm puffed heartily on his pipe, and the smell of his tobacco smoke mingled with that of the campfire. “It is said that no boat can float on the surface of this lake, and that it harbors no living thing, except for a dragon. The Maori won’t sail on it.”
At this my husband laughed loudly setting off a new round of coughing. He discharged a great deal of phlegm into his handkerchief, which he then handed to me to take care of.
Even today I cannot say precisely why I chose that moment to stage my small act of rebellion. I gingerly took my husband’s handkerchief from him, and instead of tucking it into my pocket to be washed later, I tossed it into the fire. As I watched it burn he struck me sharply across the face with the back of his hand, not even looking at me. I knew his knobby middle knuckle would swell my lower lip, and so it did. The other two men were so astonished it appeared they were unable to speak.
I looked over the heads of Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Hathaway wishing myself invisible, and found myself staring into the hard eyes of Kate. Even crouched on a fallen tree trunk in the dark night behind the two men I could make out her fiery hair and wide blue eyes. I looked down in shame, and as I excused myself I looked back up and the eyes were gone. Only a cloud of fireflies remained.
. . . . .
The next day we walked through a forest of ferns and clumps of trees with glossy leaves that intertwined to form a dense canopy. Some of the ferns had fronds as delicate as fine Irish lace while others had trunks as thick as a man’s waist.
I worked at my lower lip and kept to myself as much as possible. It wasn’t difficult to do as everyone was much taken by the sights. Occasional bursts of sulfurous steam appeared out of rock fissures casting a ghostly spell. Kate strode ahead of us at a steady pace looking neither left nor right. As we left the sapphire lake behind we came to several small cataracts tumbling down a rugged ravine. We wound our way about one half-mile more to a river where we were joined by another female guide, Marileha. She and Kate paddled us across a narrow, churning river in rickety bark canoes lined with moss, and then we were there.
Even now that I am much older and have traveled over a great deal of the world, the image of that first sighting of the Terraces is still clear in my mind’s eye.
Some have described the hot springs and sulfur pools at the foot of the Terraces as something out of Dante’s Inferno. But then, some people see ugliness even when beauty is right in front of them.
True, the boiling pools of mud and the blasts of steam and the pervasive smell of sulfur all served to give the impression that one had slipped unbidden into the Underworld. Mr. Malcolm showed me how a silver coin quickly turned black from exposure to the gassy air around Devil’s Hole, a dark gaping chasm with water boiling furiously at its bottom. Years after standing at the rim to Devil’s Hole I read a description by another traveler who expressed better than I could what it felt like to be there, “…as if a legion of imprisoned devils were roaring to be let out.”
But if the hot springs and steaming crevices were the devil’s playground, then the Pink and White Terraces were a vision of heaven. They were gleaming crystal staircases rising up out of Lake Rotomahana, and spread out from there like terraced fans of mineral ice. Looking down through the crystal steps we could see the names and dates of past visitors etched and carved under the new layers of silica, as if under glass in a museum.
“The silica from the boiling water in the crater above crystallizes as it flows outward and gets exposed to air. One sheet layers upon the other, but you can always see through it like a prism.” Mr. Malcolm had come up to my right. “I’ve been here twice already but I still feel absolute awe seeing it again…”
And then, looking at me directly, “How are you going to live with such a thing?”
The last sentence was uttered almost as an afterthought, but I knew it was what he really wanted to say from the start. My eyes stung at the unexpected kindness and I was unable to reply.
“Ah, well,” Mr. Malcolm clasped his hands together in front of him as if he didn’t know what to do with them. The skin on his hands was pale and freckled, with fine red hair on the knuckles. I was seized with a strange desire to kiss the back of his hand.
Just then we heard a burst of loud whooping and we both turned to see my husband stripped down to his leggings and undershirt with Mr. Hathaway, who was similarly attired, testing the waters of a bubbling spring. Marileha and Kate were directing them, indicating which pools were good for bathing and which pools were so hot that even breathing their steam could melt your insides. That was one reason we had been told to hire guides. The Maoris had been coming to the Terraces for generations, as their winter retreat, long before the first white person set down in New Zealand.
“Are you going to take the waters, then?” asked Mr. Malcolm.
I hadn’t decided I would until that point, in fact had thought I would not since my husband had told me it would be immodest. But to come all that way and not – it almost seemed a sacrilege.
I went into our tent and put on a plain cotton shift that might have been appropriate for a summer day working in the garden. As I walked past my husband I could feel his eyes upon me. He and Mr. Hathaway were up to their necks in bubbling water.
“Right, right, Mrs. Tucker,” called Mr. Hathaway as I made my way toward Kate and Marileha. “It’s a feeling like none other in the world. I actually feel the years slipping away.”
Kate quietly cupped my elbow in her monstrous hand and led me to a private pool that was gurgling gently.
I lowered myself into the hot water like I was being baptized. And indeed I felt I was. Baptized into the world, and my place in it. I felt awe and fear and fate and love in the steamy caress of that primeval hot spring.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my husband, already bored with his pool and wanting to be paid attention to, climbing out of the water and strutting about looking first at one pool and then the next. He pointed at each one he passed, looking to Kate for her approval or disapproval.
At each pool she shook her large head, her hair a blazing cloud in the hissing steam of the springs. Finally he came to one, and she nodded. Later I would remember that he didn’t test it first. And it was only in the silence that came immediately, in the absence of his cough, and, in fact, in any trace of Mr. Tucker himself, that the others and I realized what had happened.
It was Marileha’s scream that broke the spell. I have never heard such a scream since: terror and horror and fear all one as she pounded furiously on Kate’s massive arm.
Kate stared at the pool where Mr. Tucker had disappeared. She then touched her hand to her left eye, where the Maoris believe the soul resides, and turned and walked away.
The rest of us along with some others from another group of visitors, stood frozen in that eerie tableau of bubbling mud, rolling vapor and above all, the gleaming crystal terraces of pale rose and purest clear white. For a moment I thought I would throw myself in the same pool as my husband. I felt my past and future disappear as one. Mr. Malcolm must have sensed something because he held fast to my arm and turned me away.
Just eight months later, back in England, we heard of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawara. By that time I was accompanying Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Hathaway as an assistant in their botanical and geological studies and collections. It seemed that I had an aptitude for that type of work, which I am to this day grateful for.
We were preparing to leave for the United States to travel across that country to a wilderness area called Yellowstone, which we had read had similar geysers and geologic formations as those in New Zealand.
In the eruption it was said that molten lava flowed like the devil’s own river, covering countless square miles with its destruction. The Pink and White Terraces were completely obliterated by lava and soot and volcanic debris, although I have read accounts that even today if you stand at the edge of what remains of Lake Rotomahana, you can see a rosy pink reflection, stair-like in appearance, spreading downward as far as the eye can see under the rippling surface of the water.