A pair of white-faced storm petrels wheeled towards the Taranaki coastline as a bank of ominous cloud brewed in the western sky. Wind-borne spray was whipped from whitecaps generated by the developing low. The beachfront below the historic maori Te Namu pa, Wiri’s regular fishing spot, was littered with ankle-deep kelp cast ashore like unwanted gift-wrapping. Distant thunder telegraphed that the weather gods were generally displeased, or were perhaps issuing a timely warning to the foolhardy angler standing at water’s edge on an Opunake beach. As Wiri Rahotu’s fishing jacket flapped metronomically with the gusts of salt-laden winds, he realised he would have bugger-all chance of casting out into the teeth of this weather. Should he persist or retreat?
Wiri bore his connection with the ocean as others bear tribal tattoos. He was a proud descendant of Wiremu Kingi Matakatea, the renowned Taranaki war chief who, almost 200 years ago, had fought off a northern tribe at the pa on the headland just above Wiri’s favoured fishing beach. While the shoreline defined and connected him with his ancestor, it also put plenty of kai on his table. But with the impending storm and walls of Taranaki’s notorious horizontal rain, the lure of steaming coffee and hot greasy chips in vinegar stirred his olefactory memories. Most of Opunake’s 1200 residents, particularly Wiri’s long-suffering wife, knew he truly was an all-weather fishing tragic, however, on this occasion his stomach prevailed. It would prove to be a life-altering decision.
Turning to withdraw to the ‘Fish n Chippy’ before the tempest struck, rod and reel slung over his shoulder, Wiri glanced momentarily into the kelp piled at his feet amongst the rocks and black sands of the Taranaki coastline. A glimpse of rubber was evident amongst fronds of yellows and browns. Curious, he kicked away the sea-kelp. Partially buried in wet sand lay a forlorn gumboot, an essential element of the dress code in Taranaki province. Prising it free of captivity, Wiri gave it closer inspection. Housed garishly within the confines of the wet boot were wilted tendons, mushy bone and putrid decaying flesh. The gruesome sight caused him to drop it involuntarily and he leapt backwards in horror, uttering a high-pitched profanity.
With his heart rate elevated, and skin tingling, Wiri’s mind raced wildly. What to do, what to do? He scanned the beach frantically, hoping, hoping… but he was quite alone. Abandoning fishing tackle and bait bag on the sand, he tentatively approached the boot for further scrutiny. He peered in, inhaled cursorily, grimaced and spontaneously dry-retched. The ghastly sight and stench of rotting flesh overpowered him. Shiiiit! His initial fear was confirmed… the boot contained the remains of a leg.
With both hands he gathered up the gumboot, trembling fingers squeezing the top closed. Carrying it at arm’s length, head turned sideways, face contorted in horror, Wiri padded quickly towards his car through gusts of wind-borne drizzle, stifling the urge to vomit. All thoughts of hot coffee and chips were now extinguished. As the rain finally enveloped Opunake’s surrounding dairy pastures, he placed the gumboot and the remains of its owner into the tray of the utility, propping it between a car jack and a whitebait net. Jamming the old Holden into first gear, he drove the kilometre back into the village, wipers slapping in the squall, his mind a jumping-jack of gruesome scenarios for the victim’s demise. Shark attack? Sunken trawler? Foul play? He was considering the possibility of a worker being swept from the offshore Maui gas platform as he halted outside Opunake Police station.
The inexperienced young Constable Cairns, equally aghast at Wiri’s macabre find, urgently summoned a forensics officer from New Plymouth, less than an hour away. Wiri’s boot was inspected, photographed, bagged and duly spirited north to New Plymouth. A week later, the forensic report arrived at Opunake Police station. Wiri Rahotu had been correct in his assumption. The report stated that it was indeed a leg. A leg of prime New Zealand lamb had been jammed into that boot.
Moping more frequently these days at the main bar of the Opunake pub, and fishing less often, Wiri Rahotu morosely consumes quantities of DB lager, whilst mulling the puzzle which has made him an object of Opunake’s collective mirth. Just how did that boot get onto his beach… or who might have planted it?
And even more galling, he fields the constant jibes of his drinking mates… “Hey Wiri, you could’ve photographed it and sold bootleg copies!”