Or is it just fantasy?
“Okay, so… what happened?” I ask as I look between Tane and Rongo. The two brothers are standing side by side almost against the opposite wall, as if needing to put some distance between us. Rongo almost looks scared, concerned.
They share a lot of similarities, but Rongo’s eyes are hazel instead of green, and unlike Tane, who’s built like a lean athlete, he’s built more like a rugby player. Rongo’s as tall as Tane, but he walks around with his shoulders slightly slouched, like he’s trying to make himself look smaller. Which considering his size, is basically impossible, but it makes him look adorable in a weird way. He looks like the older brother every girl would want to have looking after her.
“What happened in the forest was last night, not even 24 hours ago,” Tane says after a moment, and then he seems to scan my face for a reaction.
There are so many questions in my brain, that the effect is the same as if my brain was blank. It makes my head hurt, so I rub a hand against my temple. I look at Em, and she nods a little, letting me know that what Tane is saying is true.
"Where are we, exactly?" I ask. I know there's more important questions to ask, but a part of me still wants to delay the moment of finding the truth, unsure I'll be able to handle it.
"We're in the marae at the Whakarewarewa village," Em says.
"You could say we asked for a favour to stay here for a little while," Rongo adds.
That doesn't make much sense, but as I look down, the more persistent question escapes my lips without my consent.
“How?” I ask looking at my palms, and I can tell everybody knows I’m referring to my injuries.
Rongo is looking at me, same as Em, but Tane’s eyes are on the floor. Since I woke back up, he’s been distant and weird, which has been making me a little nervous.
“Tane,” I say as commanding as I can, and he looks up at me, his green eyes piercing into my soul. “How am I healed?” I ask, being fully aware of how weird and stupid my question sounds.
“I don’t know where to start,” Tane says with a frustrated look on his face.
“Why don’t we start from the beginning?” Rongo suggests before I can say anything. The brothers share a look, and Rongo nods after a moment as Tane looks back down to the floor. He looks at me through his lashes though, his head still slightly tilted down.
“Have you heard about the story of the origin of the Universe, according to Maori legends?” Rongo asks us.
I share a confused look with Em, and she replies before I do.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
I think about what I know about the story, which is barely what Emma told me while we were walking around the woods in Wai-O-Tapu, and I try to understand how that story might have anything to do with what happened to me. I draw a blank.
“Everything,” Tane says as he looks back and forth between us. “You need to understand that story to understand what’s happening here.”
I have no idea why we are talking about mythology instead of talking about what happened in the woods, but there’s this feeling of calmness in the air, and I can’t help but listen to the story being told.
The one to tell us the story, to my surprise, is Rongo. Tane just stands against the wall next to him, his eyes focused on the space between us.
He tells us about how Rangi, father sky, and Papa, mother earth, used to live in a tight embrace, all their children in between them. And how the children grew uncomfortable and decided to separate their parents. The memories from the story that Emma told me only a few days ago start coming back to me.
“One of the brothers was the one chosen to do the deed,” Rongo says after talking for a little while. “He laid his back against his mother's womb, and pushed his father with his legs.” Can’t be. “His name was-”
“Tane,” I finish for him, remembering very clearly that part of the story, and thinking about how Tane pushed that dead tree in the woods.
All eyes are on me now, even Tane’s, as he lifts his gaze and watches me with hopeful eyes.
“Are you trying to tell me what I think you’re trying to tell me?” I ask no one in particular.
My voice sounds way calmer than what I actually feel. There’s a battle raging inside my head, a part of me is thinking this is all insane and these guys have lost their minds and we need to run away. But then there’s a part of me, the part of me that’s been having flashbacks about the accident, that wants to believe this. I want to believe this is true, because it’d mean I’m not crazy, it would mean all the things I felt in the woods weren’t my mind playing tricks on me, but something else. It would make sense, in an eerie and unnatural way. It would explain the roots growing from my feet, the vines tangling around my legs, the shape in the sky as the thunder rolled…
I look at Tane in the eyes, waiting for him to answer my question.
“Yes,” he says after a moment that stretches forever, and I notice his voice has lost all its warmth, and he sounds almost lifeless, resigned, as if he’s about to tell me someone died. "I’m Tane, God of the Forest.”
I hear Emma laugh next to me, and her hand flies to her mouth as she tries to muffle the sound. But Tane is serious, and I can see the grief in his eyes. I feel like an eternity goes by as I just stay there, unmoving, my eyes glued to Tane’s as the green in his irises takes me back to the woods. The memories from the accident all come flashing back into my mind in perfect order, and it’s as if I’m watching a movie where a little two and a half year old Sam is the protagonist. The images fill up the holes that still lingered in my memory, and help me make sense out of every dream, every nightmare and every flashback I’ve had in the past week.
I don’t know how long it’s been when I feel Em’s hand on my shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asks me, bringing me back to the present, to the Marae, to the two Gods standing in front of me.
I turn to look at her, my vision blurred by the tears rushing down my cheeks.
“I remember it all,” I say.
I want to run to her side. I want to wipe the tears rolling down her cheeks, I want to embrace her and make it all go away. But I can’t, not yet. I need to know how much she remembers, I need to tell her everything first. I need to… no, I don’t need to. I want to. I want to give her one last thing, I want to give her the truth. Even if it’s probably futile. Even if she might hate me for it.
“What are you talking about?” Emma asks, and I can feel her emotions like rippling waves in the air.
This girl feels everything so intensely, I had to get Rongo to constantly monitor her emotions for the past day to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid. It was hard enough keeping her memories blurred so she wouldn’t think it was completely unnatural that Sam had healed so quickly. I wasn’t ready for her questions, I needed to concentrate all my power on Sam, on making sure she’d be okay.
“I remember the accident,” Sam says in a small but confident voice. “I… I remember the car accident,” she says again.
Emma’s eyes open up wide, and she gives Sam a quick but strong hug. When they pull away, Sam starts talking again.
“We were in the car with my dad, I was in the back seat, and he was driving while he sang ‘Wagon Wheel’,” she says with a sad chuckle. “He kept glancing back at me and pulling silly faces, because I was crying and saying I wanted to go back with mum.”
Emma’s got both of her hands clasped against her mouth, little gasping noises coming out of her lips every once in a while. But my attention is on Sam, on the emotions dancing around her like ribbons of silk. I remember how unsettled she was when she told me about her father in the lake shore a couple of days ago, how I had to charm her so she wouldn’t remember how much she actually told me. Things are so different now, I don’t know exactly what it is, but her emotions are nothing like they were back then.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, I didn’t have my high seat so I couldn’t really see out of the windows, but suddenly the car was spinning in circles and we hit something, real hard. I ended up curled up in a ball on the floor between the front and backseat, and I had to crawl out.”
“I can finish the story for you, if you want,” I say before I can stop myself. Emma and Rongo both give me a weird look, but I keep my eyes on Sam, on her beautiful green eyes and the way her lips curl up in a tiny sad smile.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I can keep going.”
She stops for a while though, like she’s trying to gather her thoughts.
“I was in a lot of pain,” she says then, and I have to fight the urge to run to her side again. “As I crawled out, I saw dad behind the wheel… there was… there was blood everywhere, but he looked at me. He looked at me and he said-”
Her voice breaks a little and she looks at me, uncertain.
“He said,” I finish for her, “Please God, Lord of the forest that surrounds us, save my child.”
Sam’s eyes are still on mine, and the emotion I see in her face almost rips my heart to shreds.
“So it really did happen?” She asks me, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“It did,” I say as I take a tentative half step towards her, but then stop myself. Sam is looking at me as if it’s the first time she ever sees me, and I can see the images from the woods flashing behind her eyes again.
“How do you do that? How come I can see my past when I look into your eyes?” She asks me, and I can feel all eyes on me, not only Sam’s, but also Rongo’s, and Emma’s too, the latter having her jaw hanging open.
“It’s because… because I took it from you,” I finally say, hating myself for it. And readying myself for her hate.
“I don’t understand anything that's happening,” Emma blurts out. And to my surprise, Rongo is the first one to talk.
The memories from that day come back to me in full colour, and I see the little girl with her dark curls and big green eyes that laid in a puddle of blood and pine needles. She had a shard of metal stuck in her abdomen, and I could see the life slipping away from her. She looked so innocent, and fragile, but then I looked back at the car, and realised that she had managed to get out. She had crawled almost 5 meters away from the wreckage, which was starting to burn. The air smelled like petrol, and fumes, but all I could sense in that moment was the braveness emanating from this little girl that looked at me right in the eyes, and showed no fear. Her father’s voice still resonated in my mind as I approached her.
“And you saved me,” Sam says, wiping a lonely tear from her cheek. She smiles a little, and I take another half step towards her. “You saved my life.” She says again as she stands up and takes a step towards me.
I remember how I pressed my forehead against her that first time, using the hongi to breathe life back into her broken body. She was almost dead by the time I arrived, and I had to weave a tiny shred of myself into her to keep her soul from slipping into the underworld. My Koru was the thing I had to part with, as everything comes with a price.
It’s as if she’s reading this from my expression, or maybe she's seeing through my eyes again, because her hand darts to her chest and she holds the pounamu in a fisted hand.
“This wasn’t a present from my father,” she whispers, “It was from you.”
I nod, and she takes another tentative step towards me. Two steps; only two steps and I could hold her in my arms, I could try to press all her pieces back together, I could make it all feel better. But I don’t. It’s not my place to fix her anymore. And I make myself keep my distance as we keep on talking, as she keeps on asking questions. I tell myself I won’t take that step unless she takes it first.
As I prepare to explain how I saved her, and why she lost her memories, I remind myself that this is not the same Samantha I met 18 years ago. Neither the one I saved in the woods yesterday, she’s not the one that was broken, lying on the forest floor and needing a God to save her. This Samantha is a strong and brave woman, not a girl, not a teenager anymore.
This Sam, my Sam, she’s all the way up in the canopy, watching the world with knowing eyes from up above. This Sam believes in me, not just in Tane, but in the God of the Forest.