Ted Jenner's waterborne monsters
As well as being a writer whose work inhabits the strange borderlands between prose and poetry, Ted Jenner is perhaps New Zealand's foremost scholar of the fragmetary textual remains of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Jenner is particularly fond of Heraclitus, author of the famous formulation 'one does not step twice into the same river', and Thales, the philosopher who believed that all material objects were ultimately composed of water; it is perhaps not surprising, then, that he has an intense, undiscriminating love of creeks, rivers, estuaries, ponds, lagoons, swamps and other bodies of water.
Ted has never met a waterway he didn't want to bathe in twice, so when we came upon a modestly-sized creek in the lower Kaipara in the middle of a boozy afternoon last Sunday he didn't hesitate. When I mentioned that a taniwha was reputed to live under a waterfall a little way upstream, Ted insisted that I help him search for it. He explained that, like the sprites which the ancient Greeks imagined into even their humblest streams, taniwha are 'harmless, not really proprietory' creatures, which would never think of attacking well-intentioned visitors like us. After a few splashes, we found ourselves in a pool which had been shallowed by a month of dry weather, underneath a waterfall that burbled with all the ferocity of one of the weed-clogged fountains in the Auckland Domain. As we slopped and sloshed back downstream, cracking open a couple more bottles of the exquisitely sour homebrew Brett Cross had made using the manuka-heavy recipe Captain Cook devised during his second visit to New Zealand, Ted began to repeat some of his favourite stories about the maladies he has seen unlucky swimmers and bathers suffer over the years. Ted has no fear of taniwha, but he does have an anxious reverence for the various snakes, lizards, bugs and bacterial potions which can make the water a dangerous place in Malawi, the country where he spent many years earning a living as a lecturer in Classics. Last year I published a poem which was based on one of Ted's dubious yet terrifying anecdotes about the waterborne hazards of Malawi:
The Worm (for Ted Jenner)
I feel stupid, cooking a feast like this, even after fasting for a week. A whole chook, caked in gravy thick as farmyard mud. Cobs of corn the size of forearms. Potatoes as big as fists. Perhaps I should set a place for another diner?
I pissed the worm out of Lake Malawi. I remember stumbling out of my tent and down a clay bank, then aiming the yellow stream into dark water beside a big rippling moon. ‘It was at the embryonic stage, then’ the specialist explained, scratching his second chin. Small enough to shimmy up a jet of piss, all the way into my bladder, my stomach. ‘It’s a little bigger now.’ Agreed. The thing looked like an extra intestine. I pushed back the X-ray and retched into an imaginary bucket beside the door. ‘You needed to see. It’s feeding off you. There’s only one way - ’. I retched again.
I fill my plate, sit down, open my mouth. Perhaps I should say grace? What harm would it do? Dear Lord, I thank thee, I think to myself. Not quite right. Dear Lord, we thank thee. I can feel it now, uncoiling, loosening its grip on the lower intestines. Smelling the hot chook, the gravy, the buttered cobs, remembering the taste of food after seven days’ famine, sliding through my stomach, into my oesophagus. For what we are about to receive. Filling my throat, pushing greedily between my jawbones, filling my mouth, sliding over my trembling tongue toward the table and its mountainous plate. Suddenly I close my mouth, and cough, and retch. In a second the worm recoils, sliding backwards down my throat and through my empty stomach, until it sits still again in my intestines, an indigestible meal.
I stop retching, and part my lips again, but before the worm can respond my right hand begins to move by itself, picking up a fork and shovelling a potato into my mouth.
Lying in an accident and emergency room, feeling a doctor sticking damp, pointed things into my ears and hearing him ask me 'Have you been swimming in any creeks lately, drinking creekwater perhaps?', I thought of Ted Jenner's story about the worm. Perhaps the tale had more truth to it than I had wanted to believe? The worm Ted described had reputedly emerged from Lake Malawi, in the middle of faraway Africa, but what was to stop its genus migrating, in this age of global warming and porous borders, to New Zealand's subtropical north? Would I be instructed to go home, to cook a sumptuous meal, and to open my mouth and wait for the worm to emerge?
Happily, I feel much better today, and I've been assured by people who seem like reputable medical professionals that the worm-monster of Lake Malawi owes more to the singularly strange imagination of Ted Jenner than it does to biology. The results from the blood test haven't come back yet, but my body has probably been hosting the 'flu, rather than anything more exotic. All the same, I might think twice before taking a swim with Ted Jenner again.