Sacred Island

Chapter Six  – The Sacred Island

The aged boat slid through the water and gently nosed out into the harbour. She was a well-loved and open sixteen-footer with mainsail and jib. A gentle breeze tickled her sail as she began to slip along and out in the middle there were fierce gusts filling sails and pushing other vessels towards Rangitoto. With six of us crammed in there amongst our bags and food – three boys and three girls – we hung low against the waterline. With one leg cocked up on the sideboard, Choc sat strumming an old battered guitar, humming gently as long black hair tumbled about his shoulders.

Waves began to beat against the hull as the boys debated which path to sail. It is a natural disposition for boys to select the tallest as leader, just as it was natural that a discussion should quickly develop into a robust contest for authority. Being small it naturally fell to me to sprinkle the fine dust of derision over proceedings; and this task should in no way be considered any less important than the initial debate. My task was to perch low in the bow, ready to pull free the sheet whenever the call “Ready About!” was given. I would jerk free the jib from it’s cleat and then jam it roughly over to the other side of the bow as she tacked heavily into the wind, hoping that this might somehow impress the girls. I was glad to do so, for when we are given a task at hand time runs quickly in a boat, as swiftly as the water sliding past below. It was a beautiful, radiant day – so it was a pleasure to feel the breeze on my face as our little vessel bobbed its way through the swell. Gradually the sea changed from an opaque green to a somber blue and we knew that at this point, there was no turning back.

At last the flat green expanse of Motu Tapu loomed up before us – the sacred island. Thinly connected to Rangitoto by an old concrete bridge built by the Yanks during the war, she lay like a vast pancake with high edges. After creeping along the lip of the island we hit some shallows just after lunch-time, as Isaac leapt into clear water to turn the bow, so that we could unload our bags. We set up camp in the long grass and built a rough fire ringed with stones on the edge of the beach.

“Here we are on the island of the mighty tohunga!” proclaimed Isaac, waving a branch of broken Pohutukawa regally above his head. “You know they buried their dead up there in the caves…”

He waved a brown arm across the vista before us and I wondered if that mighty priest from ancient times might still lurk amongst the red-tinged trees arching over the glistening water. A single heron glided in from the clifftops, as if to acknowledge our arrival and protect its sanctuary.

Night embers wafted over our rough fire. Darkness had settled and delicate lights glimmered on the face of the water. Above us a carpet of yellow stars had been poured through an obsidian sky as we sat crouched around the camp fire, sipping battered tin mugs of rum. We had two rough army surplus tents, supported by branches culled from the bush. We were cooking floury bread in oil on a blackened pan and sometimes on the periphery of the scrub the curious green eyes of wallabies crept in for a closer look. As Choc strummed his guitar to the strains of “Hoki Mai”, the girls clapped in time and the lilt of music filled the night air.

To hear this song was a simple joy. From the first refrain it brought on the sweet sadness of welcome and regret. This was a song for the Maori Battalion, back from the war. “Welcome home!” sang the five friends togethor and through the smoke Huriwai’s jet black hair swung freely about her face. The girls swayed like branches in the wind. Huriwai’s hands flicked with movement, in time with the others, while the whites of her dark eyes flashed gold with a mystical, bohemian warmth.

After the music had died down, the boys called for a story. As if waiting for this very moment, Huriwai gathered her patchwork skirt beneath her and moved closer, stirring up the embers of the fire.

“That song brought a memory of an old family story,” said Huriwai in a whispered hush, and we all bent closer to catch her delicate words.

So she began to recite a tale which I have never forgotten, even to this day. As we settled back in the sand we let words float on the air like whisps of smoke. Huriwai’s dark eyes reflected the fire’s glow as she spoke – a story told and retold until it was sharper than a talon.

Huriwai and her two younger brothers were playing one afternoon on the neighbouring farms of her home town of Kawhia, an isolated and pretty harbour nestled on the West Coast. A pink dusk was falling as they stumbled across an old desolate homestead; windows were broken and the front door was ajar and unhinged. Pushing over the balcony, painted a faded and peeling purple, they found inside small rooms coated by layers of dust. The torn and faded photo of a soldier still stood on the mantelpiece next to a small tin box and pots hung precariously off the pantry ceiling. There were gaps in the roof where heavy branches had burst through, breaking apart cobwebs but not yet touching the floorboards. Huriwai’s brothers began leaping about recklessly at the excitement of their new discovery – their voices growing ever more boisterous in the crisp evening air. Leaping from furniture and beds or thumping down the corridor on their bare heels as young boys are apt to do, they began to sing and whistle into the night air.

Annoyed by this unholy racket raised up from her brothers, Huriwai sauntered out over the little balcony. She spied a hasty movement over in the thicket some distance away – and had the disconcerting perception that eyes were upon her. The boys were whistling louder now, a piercing sound that made a shiver trace her spine like a claw. Through the mist she thought she could make out a withered woman keenly gesturing at her on the edge of the trees. She held one gnarled hand high and Huriwai was sure that she heard hissing through the gaps in the old one’s teeth – as if she was annoyed. A pang of shameful deference passed over Huriwai’s face and she brusquely called for her brothers to quieten their din. Yet when she turned back again, the old white-haired woman had merged back into the dusk. Unnerved, Huriwai quickly hastened her brothers outside and they promptly left the ancient cottage..

Later that night Huriwai recounted to her Aunt what she had seen. A blanket of silence fell about the room as adults cast knowing glances to one another.

“You must never return there,” proclaimed Aunty Jen, sternly.

“But why not Auntie, why can’t we go back?”

The boys’ eyes were rounder than an owl’s.

“That house is tapu,” declared her Aunt, “it will bring bad luck on all of us. You boys must never whistle at night, it brings on the spirits…..”

The table was silent and Huriwai could tell that this was somehow a serious matter. Her uncle turned his heavy shoulders to the women. Huriwai knitted her brow and her eyes welled with frustration…

“What spirits? I don’t understand. Why can’t we play there anymore? Nobody lives there, it doesn’t make any difference…..”

Her voice grew louder with each protest.

“Quiet!” thundered her uncle, his face flushed to amber. “You should ask permission to go there. You will do as you’re told or you will be punished – do you hear?”

Uncle Matt thumped the table so hard plates rose suspended into the air. This was unusual as Uncle Matt rarely flashed anger towards the children. Aunty Jen’s face was bowed. Huriwai’s words gagged in her throat. Her Uncle stormed down the hall, slamming the outside door so hard that the little wooden house shook like a petal. Now Huriwai was not a naughty child by any means. She was simply not used to grown-ups shouting. She felt hurt and girls of this age have a high and emotional sense of injustice. Her Aunty Jen took her warm hands in hers and sat hunched in the chair alongside. A single tear slid down Huriwai’s round cheek as she strained to hear her Aunt’s hushed words…

“Listen,” whispered Aunty Jen, crinkling the lines of her eyes in a gentle smile. “You are too young to know these things. That house is tapu – out of bounds – and you must never, ever go back there again do you hear me?”

A single tear slid down Huriwai’s cheek as she leant in to her Aunt’s words.

“But why not Auntie Jen? What did I do wrong?” and she buried her head in Auntie Jen’s lap, for there is nothing more impassioned than a girl in tears.

“Shh my child – you will bring bad luck on the family. Not just you but everyone. Even the young ones. Now hold back your crying and let me tell you the story of Anahera, our family angel, okay?”

As emotional as a young girl’s grief can be, it is nothing compared to her innate curiosity. Huriwai pricked her ears as Aunty Jen settled in to the tale. Her brothers glanced at each other in bewilderment.

“Anahera was born on a farm not far from here, to a struggling family. This farm was a good one, but it depended on a single spring of water, on the neighbouring property. Crops were good until one day the neighbours, partly from pride and partly from sheer spite, decided to dam the head of the spring. This created a great pond of water, dammed at the edges. Then the stream to Anahera’s farm became a trickle no stronger than the milk from a cow’s udder. Anahera’s family did not have enough water to feed their cows, to water their kumara and tomatoes or for the daily needs of the family.

The dispute soon welled up like the pond that the dam had now created. Former friends from both families would no longer speak – and this is harsh here in the country where neighbours need one another for the floods and droughts and for the bad times which always come sooner or later. The only contact was when Anahera and her cousins would visit the neighbour’s pond in summer, to laze about under the hot sun. A great mass of brown children would splash about in the water until the late afternoon sun hid beyond the hills. It was here that Anahera met Joseph, one of the boys from the neighbouring family who was a few years’ older. Joseph was a quiet, kindly boy and they soon grew fond of each other. Joseph’s words towards Anahera grew softer until everyone noticed that they were sweet on one another. Gradually this drew the two families back in together. Joseph would come quietly calling each evening, knocking softly on the door of Anahera’s cottage after tea.

Anahera’s mother made sure that she was always ready to let him in.

Anahera was barely sixteen years old when she finally threw the blanket over Joseph’s shoulders. This was the way that the women chose their men, back in the day. Words were not needed so both families understood. The men talked in hushed tones, as men do, and soon the women began talk of a betrothal. The following year the elder women of both families sat perched on the cold wooden pews of the tiny Anglican church that served the community, waiting for this beautiful, dark bride to arrive with her proud father. It was a simple ceremony; the church was crammed with well-wishers and the simple choir sang so beautifully that the old people spoke of that day for years……”.

And here Aunty Jen squeezed Huriwai’s hands tightly as she gazed out through the window.

“Well Anahera moved away to live with her young husband. They moved over the hills there to live in the purple house that you visited. They were happy and working hard and every morning she rose to light the fire and to cook his breakfast for when he came in from the milking. Anahera’s family grew to love her, even her hot country temper and her brutal honesty. Their two families were together again now, drawn back in by the warmth of this loving, young couple.

But things were not to last. This was the time of a great war and a mighty call was made for all the men to gather together to sail overseas, to fight for the King. Every able man in this country signed their name to the registers and bid their farewells. Anahera kissed her sweetheart goodbye at the gate, not daring to travel with him into the town.”

Aunty Jen turned away now, so that Huriwai could no longer see her face.

“Well that mighty war changed everything, my girl. It ground on for years; some thought it might never end. Each year Anahera waited patiently for letters to arrive, and when they did, her cousin would bring them specially to her from the town. She took to smoking a carved pipe – it was her grandfather’s. Every evening she built the fire, lit her pipe, and read his letters brushing her fingers over the words while she thought of her Joseph.

Just as the war was almost at an end, the letters stopped coming. They dried up like the stream from the spring. A young woman in love does not give up quickly; Anahera was terrified to even consider what this meant. Long after the men began arriving home, there was no sign whatsoever of her young soldier. Anahera’s parents were careful to keep her out of town, now bustling with young returned servicemen, all of them drunk and cheery, with stories to tell and cigarettes jiggling merrily in the corners of their mouths.

Still no Joseph. Anahera’s very being was locked in a state of wistful suspension.

Finally – long after the men had all come back – an old black Ford arrived at her gate early one Saturday morning. From the balcony of her little cottage Anahera could make out her mother and father as they clambered down from the car. They did not come in. Instead a sprightly young Maori in green uniform slid heavily from the driver’s seat and gingerly prised open the gate to her cottage. Without a word and not pausing for invitation, with a small tin box under the crook of his arm, he made his way up the steps to the purple balcony. Who knows what words were spoken that morning, but one can be sure that they were heavier than all the yellow mists that settle over Kawhia Harbour. When the young man left, Anahera’s mother made her way up the path towards the house, pausing to thank the young soldier as she passed him on the path. The young soldier departed briskly with her father.”

Again Aunty Jen paused to stoke the fire. She went back to the table to drain her cold tea from an old floral china cup and quickly dabbed her eyes with an old lace handkerchief.

“They took her away. To live with her in-laws. Anahera became a pearl for that family, a reminder of the precious young boy they had all lost. Whereas before they loved her, now they held her closely like a priceless gem. From that moment on Joseph’s name was only ever whispered. Anahera became Aunty Ana and she bestowed her unused love all about; on nephews, on nieces and all over the little mokopuna trailing in her path. But still that did not satiate her tremendous capacity for love. With a fierce but quiet determination she began to take in strays; the mix-ups, the orphans and the half-castes abandoned or disowned by the townspeople. She could never understand how Pakeha could call children “illegitimate”; as if precious children could somehow became illegal. Her adopted children would leave her in their teens, keen on finding a future out in the big cities,  returning later in their middle-age to kiss her wrinkled face and marvel at her boundless optimism.

She was a deeply spiritual matriarch treading a lonely path.

Years passed and there are many stories to fill those passing years. Always placed in the background was her Joseph, smiling down from the mantelpiece, his dark hair neatly greased and combed. Each night she lit her pipe and caressed the creased letters. Now Aunty Ana began to be left alone by the war generation that had surrounded her. One by one they all passed, leaving her high and dry like an octopus stranded on the sand by a spring tide. Aunty Ana, as everyone in the district knew her, was especially fond of her sister-in-law’s grandson, Walter. Some say it was because his eyes bore a striking resemblance to the young boy of her past. Aunty Ana was now a charmed relic living in a future long past her time. Gradually all of her generation lingered, then dried up like the stream, leaving her amongst younger relatives.

As surely as a flower will fade, Aunty Ana’s health began to fail. No longer did she shuffle down the corridor just past five o’clock in the morning to light the breakfast fire. Now she lingered over breakfast dishes and often dozed before the fire. Still the young family about her moved all around; lovingly but letting her be. She began to whisper incoherently, to lose the conversation, even as it flowed all about her. Often she confused the names of her mokopuna, or at night, dozing in her chair amidst in the warmth off the fire, her nephew Walter could distinctly hear her mumbling names.

So many names.

Then one morning Anahera could not rise at all. She tried, but the effort would overcome her, and she would shrink back down into the blankets. At first she called for Walter, instructing him to lift her into the armchair in front of the fire. Once she called him Joseph. For months Walter lifted her every morning. Yet every morning he could feel the strength ebbing away from her bones. Then when Walter came to lift her there was no response at all, so he simply let her doze. It was then that the women would sit by her in the chilly morning. Quiet words were whispered that Aunty Ana’s time had come at last.

Haeata, Walter’s daughter, noticed it first. That morning Aunty Ana was no longer restive; no longer gently snoring, no longer pushing her feet up against the bedstead. As her family went about their business, taking breakfast and preparing for the day’s work, Haeata bustled into the kitchen to return with a glass. This she pressed close to Aunty Ana’s mouth; when no mist appeared, she sat and stared. She tried again – still no fine mist from the faint tickle of breath – and it was then, tears welling up in her eyes, Haeata went to fetch her father from the outside shed.

Walter was beside himself. He propped Aunty Ana up, listened for the rise and fall of her frail chest – nothing. Walter wept openly beside the bed as Haeata crossed Anahera’s withered arms over her chest and then ushered her father from the room. Later that day, once cows had been milked, Walter sent word to the men of Anahera’s family, so that arrangements could be made for the tangi. To do this Walter needed to walk to the neighbouring farm, since his farm had no telephone. As he returned a steady and persistent rain began to fall like a pestilence over all of Kawhia.

Haeata was made to stay home from school, to wash the body of her Aunt and to dress her in her special Sunday dress. Now for the Maori a body must never be left alone – this would be an immense sign of spiritual abandonment. Since Walter was busy with his work, and since the women of the house had already left that morning to work in the town, arrangements needed to be made. Haeata sat perched in the chair next to her Aunty Ana’s bed. The rain was becoming ever more persistent now, till the roof clattered like a tin drum. By late afternoon the farm was flooding and there was talk of a great storm. Now it would be difficult for Anahera’s family to make their way to the farm to discuss funeral matters. All that night the rain fell heavily and lightening flashed, till in the morning there came a tremendous pounding on the door. It was the neighbours and their farm was flooding. They needed urgent help with their stranded stock so Walter and his young boys all left to assist.

Still Haeata waited and still the rain pounded. By nightfall her mother returned with word that Walter would not make it home safely that night – the roads and rivers were now in deluge. Early in the morning Haeata’s mother left to fetch Walter and again Haeata was left alone to wash the shrunken body of poor Aunty Ana. Sometime during the day, it was difficult to know exactly when, there came another great thumping on the door – for people always pound hard on a door during the rains. It was another boy from the neighbours’ farm.

“Haeata, it’s your mother, she slipped and hurt herself. Go and get your coat girl.”

“Where is she?” cried Haeata, desperate for news.

“She’s lying on her back in the back paddock – I need you to go to the Craddock’s and to bring back some men and a car. And hurry!” he cried.

Without a moment’s hesitation Haeata grabbed her coat and hat and fled down the steps, forgetting to bang shut the front door and abandoning the cold body of Aunty Ana. In fact it wasn’t until she was almost to the neighbours, sliding over rough mud-tracks and clambering over wooden gates, that she remembered her old relative left alone in a dark cottage. She paused to consider her best actions, as if wandering about in a dream. Then Haeata remembered her mother’s distress and recalled that her father, after all, was due home at any time.

Surely the living are more important than the dead? She must help her mother! In truth this simple country girl was glad to be back amongst the living.

Back in the cottage, all was now dim. Gradually, Aunty Ana’s cheek began to flicker. Prising her eyes open into thin slits, Anahera was confused in the gloom. She could make out the window at the foot of her bed. Startled by the mighty crashing of rain against the old tin roof, she stared out into the darkness for what could have been hours. She crooked her head to make out a vase of flowers on the bed-side table and noticed that her arms had been neatly crossed over her chest. Her nose filled with the sweet fragrance of oil.

“Am I dead? Am I passed?” she hissed to herself, as she slid out from under the covers and down the side of the bed. Eventually, seated on the cold, wooden floor, she heard the hollow call of an owl sheltering on the balcony, and it made her tremble with fear. The call was clear and close.

“More-more!” cried the owl. “More-more!”

Anahera was bewildered. Was this what death meant? Stumbling about the room she made her way down the corridor and through the open door. Outside rain was still splashing about as Anahera dragged her feet through puddles of mud, as if wandering into a dream. Now her head was filled with conflicting thoughts. Was she dead in the land of the living? Or was she living, wandering in the next world of the dead? Or was this simply a dream where she would wake abruptly at the hearth of her fire? Eventually she crashed through the door of the old shed in the garden to lay trembling amongst the old discarded scythes and rakes that lay strewn about the rough earthen floor.

“Am I dead? Am I passed now?” this lonely old woman whispered to herself, her arms casting about desperately in the darkness, stretching her eyes wide to take in the gloom.

There, early in the morning, amongst the worn-out tools, Anahera fell once again into a deep, unrelenting stupor.

Early that morning, not long afterwards, Walter crashed through the front door of the little cottage. Calling for his daughter he heard no reply. Even the wide-eyed owl had long since departed. Having rescued his wife, who was resting with an injured knee with the neighbours, Walter had thought of his daughter alone in the house with the restless spirit of Aunty Ana. Finding neither his daughter, nor any of the family, not even the now still figure of his old Aunt, Walter lit a fire and soon fell exhausted from his day’s efforts into the old armchair. It was only later that day, in the soft light as rains began to ease, that Walter realised that Anahera’s family surely must have arrived to claim back her body for the tangi.

The eyes of the smiling Joseph looked down with a wry smile.

Yet the afternoon light had wakened Anahera. In her stupor she had left the shed and began shuffling about the bush, mumbling to herself, calling out names. As darkness fell the women and boys returned to the little homestead from the neighbouring farms. Anahera lay motionless on her back in the thick mud. Her eyes fixed on the moon as it peeked out between dark clouds. Later that night she stumbled towards the light of the house; for a time she stood staring in through the thick glass of the balcony window, peering into another world. Inside she could make out Walter, and she mumbled to herself. She could feel muffled voices and the stamping of heavy feet through the golden glow of the window.

“Joseph!” the old woman cried, but her voice was only a frail whisper, “Welcome home!”

Then she glanced again through the window in confusion, hissing to herself, “Walter! No it’s you, this is only the world of the living!”

And with that Anahera waddled down the path to the road, determined to return a final time to her childhood home. She had it in her head that she must find again her Joseph. With the patience of the elderly she waited out in the middle of the dirt road, cloaked in darkness but ready to wave down the next car to arrive.

Inside the little cottage an argument raged like a mighty fire. For Anahera’s family had arrived, to collect the old woman’s body and to make ready for the funeral. The body was nowhere to be seen! Walter was in a state of utter dismay. Did Aunty Ana really die or had someone stolen away her corpse? The womenfolk, returned from town upon news of her death, shot question after question at poor Walter. Still exhausted from his previous day’s efforts, Walter rashly accused Anahera’s family of stealing her body away and of stirring up trouble. Quite rightly these proud men, embued with the very same temper of their once fierce matriarch, accused Walter of not tending to her spirit properly and of abandoning her in disgrace. Once again the old family feud of yore was rekindled so that men almost came to blows in the tiny room, which now shook like a volcano about to erupt.

Haeata broke down in tears. She was the one, after all, who had left her beloved Aunt’s side. She had brought her family shame this way. Consoled by her injured mother, she wept and wept. Surely the living must be more cherished than the dead? So why was Aunty Ana’s family saying that Walter was now cursed?

“It’s all because of me!” wailed Haeata. “It was my fault, I did it! I abandoned our Aunty Ana!”

“No, no my child!” consoled her mother. “It couldn’t be helped…”

With that she cradled Haeata’s sobbing head in her arms.

Deep in the night the old woman had been dropped off near her childhood home by a startled truck driver. Later at the pub that driver spoke of a ghostly meeting on a lonely back road, out in the middle of nowhere. For all intents and purposes, he was right. Anahera could barely speak now, a mere ghost of her former self. Mud caked to her frock, hair dishevelled, her eyes round and frightened, he caught her in the glare of his headlights – slumped in the middle of the road. It was well past midnight when the truck driver braked heavily, skidding over gravel to avoid her. She barely acknowledged him once she had scrambled up into the cab, mumbling to herself and simply rattling the door the moment she meant to get out.

Without a moment’s hesitation Anahera slid from the truck and made her way down past her old homestead -stumbling down the dirt path to the neighbours’ pond. Her tired eyes stared blankly at the reflection of the moon on the water, as if she was about to reach out and touch it. Finally she sat down wearily, until the black sky above began to turn.

Waking from her stupor into daylight, she heard a young Maori boy playing by the edge of the water. He was cheerfully poking sticks in the mud when he spied a wild-eyed ghost motioning to him and hissing words he could not understand from over the dark pond.

“Is he real or is he a dream?” mumbled Anahera to herself. “Joseph!” screeched this miserable woman. “It’s me, I came home!”

With that she began thrashing through the water, reaching out towards him. The boy was too terrified to speak. He ran down the rough grass track to tell his father. Of course this further drew on the old woman…

“Joseph!” she hissed again. “It’s me, I’m alive, come to me!”

Her body was found when the boy’s father reluctantly returned. He hadn’t believed his son’s breathless babble about a deathly-pale ghost, yet he agreed to check the pond so that his son would stop tugging at his sleeve. They found an old woman face down in the centre of the pool, her white hair spread about like angel’s wings – Anahera, desperate to prove that she was still alive had finally crossed over into the threshold and back once again to her long lost love.”

The fire had died back now as Huriwai tended the dying embers. We all six slept outside, huddled together under blankets. With the warmth of Huriwai pressing against me, I looked up to the golden tapestry of stars which bore down over everything; over the present and over the past, over the living and the dead.

kumara = sweet potato
mokopuna = grandchildren
Pakeha = New Zealander of European descent
Pohutukawa = a native coastal tree that blossoms red in summer
tangi = traditional funeral
tapu = taboo
tohunga = priest


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