So the chicken or the egg? The egg or the chicken? If you’re following my way of thinking the chicken is the egg and the egg is the chicken. You can’t separate the two because they’re both the same thing. They’re only considered different things because we have chosen to give them names that separate them. But fundamentally, the chicken and egg are one. You cannot have one without the other, so there never could have been a time when one existed in isolation.
And so it is with the knife. The knife was always there. It is still there. It will always be guiding itself into my hand, and will always be placed against that throat. Those whimpers of fear will always be there, just inside the channel of my ear, waiting till the rush and noise of this current water stills, to release themselves into the ether, and dissolve.
I first remember seeing the knife over a hundred years ago, on a shingle beach not so far from where I now sit. It was a bleak day and the southern winds were howling through the Cook Strait. The outcrop of rock to our right was as always some consolation, but the water was still cold, my fear mounting. To my front the work crew were hauling hard to get the Right Whale up onto the shingle shore, as high as possible. The tide would turn soon and we would have to work fast. The knife was thrust into my hand, and I was told to hold. If one came too close, to stab it.
It was the year 1836 and I was 23 years old, a full 12,000 miles from Kent, and I was a flenser sent to make his fortune on a stone beach 20 feet deep and 80 feet long perched beneath a towering jungle.
Flenser, you ask? Later my job was to stand back while the hatchet-men hacked through the great whale’s skin, then to myself carve the blubber from the beast, a slab of flesh as much as I could carry, and to take it up the beach to the pots. It was hard, stinking, greasy work, the stones slick with blood and oil, the air laden with the sailors foul language, the smoke of the wood fires, the salt air barely cutting through the haze of rotting flesh and bones.
When the whales were in we worked all day, every day, and slept clothed and rough in poorly thatched huts. I kept the blade with me at all times, my protection against accusations of laziness, of not carrying my share of the load, and of not being relegated to the station of ‘useless’, or ‘no-hoper’.
They were hard days on Kapiti. The worst being the fear. The fear that Te Rauparaha would come along the island, for the wily little bastard was less than a mile away, the fear that disease born of the filth we lived in would poison us, and the greatest fear, the worst fear, that my footing would fail me.
Because for now my job was the watch for the Great White sharks the like of which you have never seen that preyed in those blood-soaked waters. They would launch themselves onto the beach while we hauled ashore the whales and tear great hunks of flesh from the carcasses. The slippery-soled man would himself become their meal were he to fall into the breakers beyond the whale.
And there I was standing guard, a boy with a blade, frightened beyond his wits, if not only for fear of seeming a lesser man than I was.