Once upon a time, there was a girl called Alice who lived with her mother in an old khaki-blue shearer’s quarters, far away from the river. There were two bedrooms, each with enough bunks to sleep six men. Alice slept in one room, and her mother slept in the other. Alice liked living a little way out of town. It meant she could sleep with the window open at night, and let the sweet dark air in, without having to worry that someone might jump the wild hedge, bursting with small starry white flowers fading to slender reddish-pink throats, and climb in her window. In town, her mother would have made her keep the window shut. Alice’s mother’s number one priority was to keep Alice safe.
The river was on the other side of the tiny town, which had more people than it had houses. Her mother was a cleaner in the next town, which was bigger. But there were lots of cleaning ladies, and sometimes there wasn’t enough work, so she didn’t get the hours. That meant less money, and sometimes there was hardly any food. Alice was a skinny pale girl, turning red when she blushed; from white to red and back again at the drop of a hat.
Her mother told Alice always to: “Keep away from old men, never accept food from strangers and don’t let anyone you don’t know take your photo.” “And always,” she said, “always keep safe.”
Alice had to walk past the house where the old man lived every day on her way to school. The other kids would taunt him as they skipped past his house on the corner. “Kingi Black, Kingi Black; go away and don’t come back!” His mouth was twisted at the corner as if something had ripped it, and when he stood up to do whaikorero on the marae, it was hard to know whether he spoke Maori or some other tongue, so confused were the sounds that tumbled out from his mouth. The occasional “tenei” or “no reira” floated to the surface, but that could have been accidental. He noticed the girl who turned from white to red when they teased her, too. (She had no brother and sisters or extended whanau to get her used to such things.)
One day after school, there was a thunder storm. The black sky was so heavy, it seemed to be falling. All the other children ran inside; to their own homes or their auntie’s houses. Alice had no aunties, and home was still a long way to go for her. She had no raincoat, because her mother couldn’t afford one, and she was lonely and wet outside in the afternoon darkness, while the lightening decorated the sky like tinsel.
Kingi Black was in his doorway. On his own porch, his voice sounded clear.
Alice said nothing to him at first, because he was an old man. But she was wet, and his porch was dry.
“Come in,” he said, “I’m having a party.” But once inside, she and he seemed to be the only guests. His house smelled a bit, as if something damp was somewhere. But the kitchen table was loaded with food. There was fried bread and real butter, doughnuts like round balls with jam holes in them, and neat little plates at each setting with knives and forks by their sides. The air inside the kitchen was a dim blue, because the mirror in the hallway seemed to be leaking out from the glass and into the room.
Alice didn’t eat at first, because the old man was a stranger. But soon she could almost taste the strawberry jam as she watched it running down the funny corner of his mouth and on to his chin. And she thought to herself that if she could already taste it just by thinking about it, actually putting it into her mouth wasn’t going to make much difference. So she took the plate that he offered her.
Afterwards, she stood in front of the photos on his wall. But it was as if the photos were under the surface of a glassy stream, because the funny mirror light refracted off them so that she couldn’t see them properly when she looked straight at them. There was only one photo; of three little girls, with their arms around each other’s waists, that she could see clearly at all.
Kingi Black came to stand next to her. His skin seemed warm and dark, almost smooth. “I like taking photos,” he said. “Would you like me to take a photo of you? I could tell you the story about those three little girls while we get you ready for your picture.”
Alice wasn’t going to have her photo taken at first, because you shouldn’t let people take your photo. And then she realised; it was only people you didn’t know who you shouldn’t let take photos of you. But this old man wasn’t a stranger, because she had eaten his food. And she wanted to hear the story.
She sat down on a chair, and he picked up a sleek black camera and started screwing lenses on and off. “You must be hot,” he said. “Your cheeks are going pink.” This was because she had just finished blushing about the very idea of having her picture taken. “Take off your jersey,” he said. So she took off her red jersey, and hung it over the back of a chair. It was wet and she was getting warm now that she was inside.
“Once upon a time, when I was younger, there were three beautiful sisters: Alice, Iris and Hinetemoa,” he said. “I’m Alice,” said Alice. “She had the same name,” agreed Kingi Black. “Alice, Iris and Hinetemoa were fisher girls. Their mother was dead, and their father was dying. They swapped the eels, or tuna, that they caught; for food and anything else that they needed. Their secret was that they dug with pointed sticks for special worms to use as bait. The worms were dark and slimy, but when they were crushed between the girl’s fingers, they became fluorescent blue, and that attracted the tuna.
Usually, they fished in the river not far upstream from the little town where they lived. They had been told not to go past the big bend, where it narrowed, because there was a taniwha who lived further up. But one day, when it was getting late, and the afternoon sun was falling, and they hadn’t caught any tuna, they did.” “Why?” said Alice. “They were told not to.”
“The girls saw a really big tuna stir in the shadows of one of the pools at the bend, and they began to chase it upstream. It was the fattest, blackest tuna they had ever seen. Because the surface of the stream was like a mirror in which they and the tuna were reflected, looking down into it, the world seemed so much bigger, a thousand times so, and they didn’t notice that the ngahere was getting tighter and darker. And because the surface was a mirror, they didn’t notice the light around them swallowing itself, because, in that glassy surface, they world was so much brighter and bluer.
They ran out of worms, because he wasn’t taking their bait, so they began to dig for more with their sticks. But up there, the ground was hard, and the sticks just scratched the surface. Eventually, Alice saw a little blue caterpillar on a leaf, just near her shoulder. Iris pierced its stomach with a hook, and Hinetemoa flicked the line out to the middle of the pool. All three of them grasped the fishing pole, because they didn’t want that big tuna to pull it out of their hands. It was quiet for a minute, and then suddenly the rod doubled over, making a bridge between them and the surface of the water.
They pulled up a tuna, a king tuna. His mouth was broken and bright blue with the stain of caterpillar, but he could still talk. “If you let me go, I can give you three wishes,” he pleaded. “You can have anything you want. You can wish to smell like the deepest darkest part of a velvety red rose for as long as you live. You can possess a smile that makes everyone you meet love you. Anything you can dream or desire… but the problem is that I can only give the three wishes to one of you, and not one wish to each,” said the tuna. “So which one of you will I give them to?”
The little girls looked at each other. None of them wanted to give the wishes to the other. “I found the caterpillar!” said Alice. “I baited the hook!” said Iris. “I cast the line out!” said Hinetemoa. And they began to argue. They clawed at each other’s eyes with the fish hooks they had made from old nails and sharpened hair pins. Eventually, Alice managed to push Iris and Hinetemoa into the water, where their blood mingled with the current, and one bled to death, and the other drowned.
“So what happened after Alice went home? What did she wish for?” “Well, she had to waste her first two wishes; one on wishing that she wouldn’t get into trouble for going where she shouldn’t have gone, and one on wishing that no one would realise what she had done.” “What about the last wish?” “She saved that. She knew by that time how easy it was for wishes to be frittered away, and she wanted to keep it for something important.”
Kingi Black came over to stand behind Alice. “It will be a better picture if we let your hair down,” he said, pulling at the black velvet ribbon in Alice’s hair, so that it slid through his fingers and shimmied to the ground. He supported her hair in the flat of his hands, and raised it to the nape of her neck, admiring the curve of her jaw. “Your skin is so unmarked,” he said softly. Alice went red.
“Maybe,” he said, “it would look more natural if you took your dress right off, and you let your long hair be your dress.”
There was a thunk as the outside door opened inwards, and Alice’s mother rushed into the room without knocking. “Alice Iris Hinetemoa!” she said, calling her daughter by her full name. “Hello, Alice,” said Kingi Black to Alice’s mother, because she had named the little girl after herself. “Stop telling my daughter your evil fairy tales!” she said. “Use the wish, Alice,” he said. “I’m tired, and I want to go back to the water.”
Alice’s mother turned the other side of her face towards them. Where her eye should have been, there was an empty pool of skin, full of shadows. Long dark scars marked her cheek. “Get away from her! I need to keep her safe,” she hissed. “If that’s your priority,” he answered, “you’ll use the wish.”
Alice’s mother closed her single eye, and suddenly Alice was walking home with her hand held tightly. “I could have used that wish to give you the moon,” said her mother, “or to have had a handsome prince take you away. But there is nothing I would rather have spent it on.”
And Alice wanted to ask her mother whether it was true that she had gone to unsafe places and done unsafe things when she was young, but she knew that now was not the time. “I suppose you think we’re all going to live happily ever after?” said her mother. “Well, think again. You’re grounded. Every day after school, you will stay in your room. And you will sleep with the window shut. Until I calm down.” Alice turned red.