“E koro, purea ake te rangi!”
O sir, cast the spell to stop the rain!
Noon, 21 November, 1841, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.
There is a deluge raging around me, but . . . I am gazing through the deluge . . . as I am staring . . . at them . . . at the Robertons.
Their burnt corpses are lying in a large clearing carved through the thick tangle of ferns and trees of Motuarohia Island. Their house was the only settlement among the lush greens and dark browns here and now it is gone; a large black smear of char and a fallen frame of burnt jutting timber is all that remains.
I continue to stare, through the bodies of the Robertons, and never has the land been so quiet. Even with this endless rain pouring off everything in sight, with thunder groaning and lightning scintillating the horizon, it is silent; the world is simply soundlessly flickering before me like a candle alone in the darkness. There are birds somewhere hiding from the sky’s tantrum, animals burrowed and dry, insects buried, the cicada waiting for its leap and roaring ascent. Life is here, hidden amongst the death and darkness of these burnt Pākehā bodies, more vivid to me than ever and it is throbbing with horror.
The thunderstorm that sends the rain is right above us and has been raging for nearly two days. It is like this storm and these bodies are linked, as if Tāwhirimātea, the god of the tempest, is trying to wash them away.
I wish he would.
The four corpses lie about ten yards away from me, not far from the waterlogged vegetable patch. Three of them are burnt beyond recognition and scattered haphazardly like black clumps of beached seaweed upon a shore. I can see the charred remnants of heavy white cotton from the hem of one of the little one’s skirts, little Askena. One of the boy, Gordon’s, brown leather shoes lies sodden, with laces still tied, on the wet ground away from the house. They used to run around the island playfully, laughing together and I used to watch them and sometimes join in. I look down and see I am standing amongst a scattering of shrivelled rhubarb leaves, one of the stalks only half eaten. A long, black sigh escapes me.
The silence thickens with these thoughts of the children, leaving me heavy and drained.
“Why?” I whisper. It is like my voice is floating off into the rain.
Ata, I am tired.
A shroud of numbness covers me, pulsing as I continue to stare at them, entranced and weary after a listless night over in Paihia where the chiefs of the Ngā Puhi talked an eternity. They discussed what was to be done about the events that occurred on this island yesterday and even this morning before I left to come back here, they were still unsure of whom to blame.
The body of a man lies further away, unburnt on his side, just past the blackened remains of the Roberton house; it is old Thomas Bull, a farm hand for the family. Someone has put a blanket over him that is now soaked from winter’s last stand, its hem ending unseen in a murky red-brown slough that has pooled around him. Watching him now, through the driving rain, lying peacefully on his side, a man would be forgiven the folly of thinking he still dozed beneath the blooded pink linen. Removal of his shroud would reveal the large axe gash running through his neck and head and put your thinking straight – he sleeps not – or maybe he sleeps eternally. They should be buried or whatever the Pākehā custom is – put to rest – then the storm will stop and Tāwhirimātea will sleep and peace will come.
The wind suddenly kicks and whips my clothes about my body, pulling me from my trance. Takurua’s wintery fingers still cling to this land but soon it will be summer. I look forward to that, as I’ll be a little freer after I don a light shirt and shed this long, thick European jacket my father makes me wear.
I look back towards the beach and the dozen other Māori with me. Most of them are dressed in a mismatch of European and our Māori clothes, although some wear nothing but traditional Māori garb as they find Pākehā clothing too tight. A few have guns slung over their backs – a few even have shot for them. They are talking loudly in the rain, fighting over what to do, as we are all worried.
One of them, Emoka, is wearing a thick waistcoat, a piupiu and a battered top hat with water trickling off its back end. He has a faded pink parasol and points it at the burnt frame of the house and declares loudly in Māori; “If they think this was done by us then it means war with the Pākehā! I’m sure it does!”
He may be right.
He walks towards me gruffly with his brummagem slung over his shoulder.
“What did you see, Maketu? What happened here?”
Say nothing to anyone about what has happened, Maketu – not Māori or Pākehā. Be careful, our people are in danger; My father’s voice, his creased eyes strong and demanding. It was the last thing he said to me before he turned and walked back into the whare of meeting. Before I returned to this sodden island.
“I did not see anything,” I reply. “I was over at Cook’s Cove.”
Flabby Rewi walks over. He is a friend, or more like an acquaintance, as is Emoka.
“No, Emoka, I think this was white folk,” he says. “They have been doing this thing a lot. Those that hunt the whales are evil. They do anything for the money. Did you see white folk, Maketu? Any Pākehā?”
“I do not know. I was sleeping. After I saw the bodies I went to find the chiefs. They are still talking over in Paihia.”
“I know they are. Sleeping, eh? Maketu, was it you?” Emoka asks suspiciously.
“Shut up! These are my friends. I know them!” I shout.
I think the rain streaming down my face hides the tears from around my eyes, but he doesn’t say anything more, no one does.
We look out toward the beach and the choppy sea beyond.
In between the mutterings of thunder it is so quiet, only the sound of the rain on grass and leaves can be heard; it seems so permanent, like it has always been this way and never has the sun shone here. But I know it has.
A lost cow from the paddock at the west end of the island is chewing grass peacefully near the shore, another sits nearby, sheltering from the rain under a pōhutukawa tree. Normally, Tommy Bull and I would round them up one at a time and slowly lead them back to the paddock.
I look over at the figure lying on its side in the puddle.
That old cuss.
Maybe I should round the cows up and move them back to the paddock?
Why? Who for? Those blackened bodies there?
My thoughts are interrupted by Emoka crouching down and gathering everyone in.
“Gather in! Gather in! Maketu, come over here. This is a dangerous time. You know of the revenge from the battle over that ship, the Boyd, many many years ago – these Pākehā may go to war over this too and do slaughter once more, on our tribe. Here is what we will do. When the Pākehā from Kororāreka get here we must be strong – we must – ”
His words fade, as there is shouting from behind us. Eriva is running along the beach from the west of the island.
“I found something! I found something!”
He is carrying a brown sack in one hand and his club in the other – my heart drops; I already know its contents.
“I found this around there,” he says pointing westward with his mere, “stashed in a shrub.”
He drops to his knees on the sand and pulls some sheets from the sack. Toku grabs one and wraps it around himself whilst speaking in a high pitch voice pretending to be a white woman, everyone laughs, me included until I see the blackened bodies through the endless rain.
“Do not laugh. Look at them!” I say elbowing Toku hard in the ribs.
They all stop their laughing.
He proceeds to pull out some white shirts that look bright and unreal on this grey day until he throws them on the sand and seaweed and their colour fades. There is a silk bag with two rings, Eriva is trying them on but his fingers are too big. A few others grab them and try, but none have the fit. There are also two pocket watches, one a man’s and one a little smaller and more decorative, Mrs Roberton’s. The last item from the sack is a bottle, some kind of grog. We all take a swig from it – ah, the sweet kind – delicious and warm to the throat. So good.
A memory comes back as I take a second swig; it is a warm memory on this cold thunderous day. I recall Mrs Roberton sitting quietly at the table smiling softly with a cup of this stuff, the watches and rings sat on the table in front of her whilst she knitted Gordon’s gloves and the children played pick up the sticks and giggled on the rug in front of the dancing fire. A warm memory, yes, but that place is gone with the dawn now – it seems so long ago, almost like another lifetime, like another person saw those things, those ghosts.
“I think this is theirs,” Emoka says, dragging me back to cold reality, pointing towards the burnt house with his umbrella.
“Ae, they are – they are Mrs Roberton’s things – I have seen them before,” I add.
“Someone took it from them and hid it around there. This was done by thieves!”
Toku, still in the white sheet, is pointing at the water with his face dropped.
“Who is this?” he burns.
Two full waka are coming with Māori onboard. We run to the waters edge.
They are from our iwi, the Ngā Puhi tribe, but we don’t know all of them; they’re Chief Rewa’s warriors from his hapū.
We quietly watch them power over the waves.
As they pull their waka onto the beach many of them jump out and run to the burnt house in agitation. They wear the same mix of Māori and Pākehā styles as us and a few even have their kōtara on as if ready for war, which is odd. They are shouting and yelling to someone still getting out of the waka.
“Come look! Over here!”
I have heard about this warrior. His name is E Puki – they tell me he is as hotheaded as a kea and as stubborn as a tuatara. My uncle has warned me of agitators like him in the past, he is just what we don’t need to flare the tempers, but it does explain their kōtara.
I can’t hear him but he is over by the bodies now, angrily pointing at the remains of the children – one in particular. He pulls back the sheet covering Tom Bull and makes no reaction to the massive gash that has nearly cleaved the man’s head in half.
I can hear him now.
“I know this one too,” he says nodding. “It is Tom Bull. I have traded the flax with him. It looks like he was sleeping, eh?” He carelessly throws the sheet back down on the body, failing to cover the head and the gash.
They come over to us.
“Who did this?” he demands, the other men behind him. I notice Eriva stuffing the things back in the sack.
“We do not know,” Emoka says. “Maybe white folk.”
“That is dangerous talk,” E Puki says. “If this is white people then Chief Rewa will have to war against them. We will all have to war against them. It is utu.”
“Utu? Why would we go to war when a Pākehā kills a Pākehā?” Emoka asks.
“That is my sister’s child,” he says firmly, pointing behind him to one of the dead children. “That little one there. That Roberton lady was looking after her on this island. Who did this?”
His sister’s child? That would make that child Chief Rewa’s grandchild. That is a complication – that is a big complication – and probably why the chiefs have been debating so long.
“What are you looking at me for?” Emoka blurts. “I was over in Paihia. Ask Maketu. He knew them. He was working here like a good little Pākehā.”
“Shut up, Emoka!” I shout.
E Puki walks over staunchly, eyes cold like a river stone.
“You killed my father’s grandchild?” he asks.
The coldness bites as they all look at me through the downpour. There are nearly one hundred Māori on Motuarohia Island now and the tension is so thick it could be struck with a mere and dried for eating later.
“No, it was not I. I was sleeping.”
“You were sleeping?” E Puki replies.
“Ae, round there,” I say pointing to the curving beach.
“Why were you sleeping on Motuarohia?”
“Like Emoka said, I work here for Mrs Roberton and help her around the island.”
“You? You are just a boy! What could you do with those tiny muscles there?” he laughs and the others join in. It’s been the same teasing my whole life.
“Ata! Shut your lips! I’m no boy! This will be my seventeenth summer!”
“Alright, alright, be quiet. But I will ask you again. Did you kill Moewaka’s child – Chief Rewa’s granddaughter?”
“She was Chief Rewa’s granddaughter?” I ask. Sometimes it is best to change the subject to avoid conflict.
“Ae. That is his granddaughter. My sister is Moewaka and I will kill the man who killed that child. There is utu.”
“We found some things. Maybe the killers are coming back for them? Or . . . maybe they are still here. We can look for them and if we find them you can kill them.”
He eyes me distrustfully – maybe he sensed that my heart wasn’t in it.
The interrogation ends.
The deluge continues.
A few of us have decided to split up to search Motuarohia.
We have looked around, but there is no one else on this island and no trace of anyone either.
From the top of the hill I see longboats coming from Kororāreka – or Russell-town, as the Pākehā sometimes call it. That will be the white folk coming back to see their dead. Eriva said two were here earlier and went to get a doctor.
Why would they get a doctor? They are dead.
That is not the only confusion. Many of the Māori here say there will be war with the Pākehā if they think we killed these people, but if Chief Rewa thinks Māori did it, then there could be some kind of tribal war for revenge for the death of his granddaughter.
We are all at sea at the moment and bloodshed seems inevitable.
But we cannot have another kaiākiri, the last one killed many of us and it was all for nothing. We had to stop because the tribes had been decimated after so much conflict. But those are the two possibilities ahead – a war within our tribe or a war with the Pākehā – and we desire neither, we desire peace. My father, Chief Ruhe, said we must avoid war at all costs.
Yes, we are all at sea, in a waka with a crack running along its hull.
The Pākehā boats are drawing nearer.
On the way back to the beach, walking through the bush I see the Roberton’s axe lying among the leaves, with traces of red on the blade and handle.
Should I pick it up?
The rain continues and thunder seethes overhead while I think.
I leave the axe where it is and trudge on through the bush.
This is an evil day.