Where it came from no man knew. What it was only a handful of wise men had an inkling. How to use it only the possessor could tell and he chose not to.
He, the possessor, was Te Maunga-i-tawhiti, high priest of Te Kahui Maunga, mortal repository of immortal truth, latest in a line of seers, prophets and wizards stretching back in time and space through Hawaiki-nui, Hawaiki-roa and Hawaiki-pamamao even to ancient Irihia itself. That which he and no other man in Aotearoa possessed was the kura. The few wise men who had an inkling of what the kura was would have said it was knowledge, greater wisdom than the mind of man could grasp, greater power for good or evil than the mind of man could conceive. And Te Maunga-i-tawhiti had chosen not to use it because he did not know how and feared to try.
That is, until now. For Te Maunga-i-tawhiti, on this sunny summer morning of the year that white men far across the sea were calling Anno Domini 1459, had climbed alone to the altar of the gods on the summit of Karakatahi Pa and there had resolved to put the kura to the test.
He prayed. In chants old and sacred even when Kupe was a boy he prepared the way. He approached the gods of heaven and earth, paid tribute to them, passed on to the threshold of the One Whose Face Is Covered, prayed leave to enter the abode of the All Highest.
“Prepare me to use the kura, let me not be harmed by it. Show me that this which I have believed through the years is true. Reveal to me this last mystery that I may pass it on to those who come after me. Let the years swing by as a shooting star gleams and is gone. Let five times a hundred years pass as this day passes. Let what is to be pass before my eyes, Oh Lord of all the Heavens and of the Earth and of the sad souls lost in the night which ends not.”
Thus on his palisaded hill top prayed Te Maunga-i-tawhiti and as he prayed the spirit of the kura descended and stood beside him in the likeness of a little grey cloud.
The old people gave Tiputoa his name because they hoped he would grow to be brave. But Tiputoa had only grown to be fat. And, so his wife Puarata said, lazy. This she told him frequently, loudly, fiercely, publicly. Sadly enough the rest of the people of Karakatahi agreed with her although some were a little sorry for him as he was, as so many little, plump, long-suffering men are, quite a likeable fellow in his jolly, ineffectual way.
That morning Puarata had been quite explicit about her husband's shortcomings, making pointed reference to his lack of prowess as a provider. “Useless one,” she had observed, “if I had to rely on you I would starve. If the rest of the people didn't give me my share of the common catch of bush and swamp and sea shore, I would fade quite away. I have to work like a slave in the kumara field to make up for what you don't do, Fat One, Useless One, Man of Little Merit…” And so on in the manner of women kind of all ages in similar plight.
Tiputoa knew all too well the futility of replying. He picked up a spear, three-pronged, and waddled off. Moi, his little white dog, trotted silently at his heels. As he passed through the narrow gate in the palisade the sentry grinned at him. “Going far?” he asked, partly in fun, for he knew Tiputoa was in the habit of going out ostensibly to catch eels and of then dozing on an old log in a sunny hollow of the swamp, and partly because it was his duty to know where all the able-bodied men of the pa were if the alarm had to be raised.
The fat man stopped. “Today,” he said, “I am going to kill a taniwha.”
“I'll be bound that not even a little eel will fall to your spear,” checkled the sentry. “Be off with you before that woman of yours hears what you are boasting about.”
Tiputoa moved on, through the three gates, down the long slope and along the path past the kumara field.
The sentry turned away. “Taniwha indeed,” he muttered.
On the hill top Te Maunga-i-tawhiti watched the fat man pass through the gates and willed that the kura should follow him. No one but the old man saw the mist move across the pa to hover over Tipitoa, to follow him past the field and into the bush and down the valley to where the swamp lay with its pools of water, its fresh green raupo and its half buried logs.
Tiputoa entered the swamp and probed under the first log he could find, half-heartedly, knowing deep inside that no one ever caught an eel like that. He splashed through the raupo to an old log he knew and without even pretending to look under it, climbed up and sat down. Here he was in his own world, away from all he disliked and yet could not do without, locked away amid the green rushes and the grey logs where he could sun himself under the blue sky and think great and beautiful thoughts. All that reminded him of the other world was a far-off call now and again drifting from the kumara field where a woman called to a wandering child and a glimpse over the trees that bounded the swamp of the summit of Karakatahi where the sacred place lay and where no one went anyway, no one, that is, except the old tohunga or his assistants. Perhaps the old man was up there now, thought Tiputoa. Yes, something moved up there.
Moi splashed through the water and scrambled up the log. He scratched himself and curled up beside the fat man.
And then the little grey cloud came down and fell around them and they slept.
When Tiputoa woke it was nearly dark. A single star was peeping out to watch the day die and in the bush a strange bird called a shrill warning note as it hurried through the trees. It made the man feel ill at ease for he had never in his life listened to so strange a call. The dog stood up quickly and watched where the bird had disappeared into the blackness of the bush.
Tiputoa picked up his spear and slid off the log. He was cold and worried too that he had slept so long. He hurried away toward the place where he had entered the swamp. Then, suddenly, he stopped. A cold, terrible realisation came to him that things were not as they should have been. The land he was walking on was dry. The place seemed much the same, the old log was still there but the water was gone and the raupo was gone. He stood now no rough grass. Small bushes grew here and there where that morning had been shallow pools of water.
Before him was a ditch about a spear's length deep and half as wide. He could hear water running in it. He leaped the ditch and in a sudden ecstasy of fear plunged towards the bush where lay the path to the kumara field and home. He had known this path from childhood, its every twist and turn, so fled as if Te Reinga had opened and Hine-nui-te-po herself were at his heels.
Then something cruel and sharp lashed across his shoulder and chest and threw him to the ground.
He lay there, half dead with fear. Moi panted up to him and licked his face.
Slowly, out of the black dread that engulfed him rose the spirit of the man he had dreamed he was. Slowly he rose to his knees. He reached for his spear which had been hurled down with him and peered into the gathering darkness.
He saw nothing. There was no sign of man or animal or of the evil thing which had torn at him. He wondered for a moment whether he had imagined it all and felt almost happy as he became aware of the pain of the lacerations across his chest and of the blood dripping from them. He stood up and, spear held ready, inched forward.
He saw a short post, touched it. Beyond it, almost out of sight in the gloom he saw another. Between them was something that gave an errie ring as he probed at it with his spear. He walked up and reached out cautiously with his left hand. On the thing, which was like a cord but hard and cold, were sharp projections at intervals. He saw that below it was another of the same kind, barbed at intervals like some terrible bird spear. It rang softly as he drew his hand away.
Anger boiled up within Tiputoa. He flung himself at the thing, plunging his spear with all his
force into it. It rang and whimpered as if in agony and he heard its fellows take up the low chorus to right and left.
Moi jumped through it and waited. Then Tiputoa saw that the thing was a kind of palisade erected diagonally across the path. He had run against it, not quite head-on and the thing, being as resilient as a supplejack, had flung him to the ground. He found that there were eight of the hard cords strung between the posts. He went to the post he had first seen and climbed over.
Through the trees the path still ran. It was changed, being no longer the foot-smoothed earth that he had known but rather a narrow rut such as water will make on an exposed slope. With a clod resolution he had never known before Tiputoa moved along the path, spear held with both hands at the ready position diagonally across his body. He wished he had some fighting weapon rather than the eel spear but this would suffice. The thought came to him that at last he had entered the heroic world he had dreamed of. Oh, the pity of it that only a dog could see him as he faced the unknown!
Weird cries came from time to time through the trees. One, several times repeated, was low and deep, not unlike a trumpet not but with something of a living quality about it. In the distance another, sharper and thinner, appeared to answer it. Quite involuntarily he shuddered as the realisation came to him that it was probably a taniwha calling to its young.
He pressed on.
Then he heard the worst sound of all. It began in the far distance, not unlike a whirring of innumerable wings, something like the sound that a host of pigeons make as they fly from one miro tree to another in the berry season. Deep in the heart of the whirring there was a drumming sound as of pounding feet, feet stamping faster than any he had ever heard. The sound came closer and closer, moving at a fantastic speed.
Tiputoa stood stock still. Indeed, in spite of all his new-found courage he could not have moved an inch. The sound came closer and closer. With the noise of a fierce wind, not so loud as it was unearthly, with the pounding and whirring intensified beyond all imagination, the thing swept close by, apparently not far from the ground, about a spear's throw away through the trees. He saw a glow as if of a swiftly moving fire and listened as the monster hurtled away in the distance. He felt force of the wind it created with its passing and smelt the foul reek of its breath. It had a strange sickliness with something of the character of burning to it.
For a long time he did not move, Moi pressed silently against his leg, shivering.
When Tiputoa stepped out of the bush on to the edge of the kumara field his feet touched rock. There had been no rocks there that morning. This place, a flat-bottomed shallow valley above the swamp, did not contain a single stone and yet here rock. He walked across it and found it slightly warm beneath his bare feet. He discovered that it was about three spear lengths across. On the other side there were small small stones and the trees silhouetted black against the night sky looked rounded and unfamiliar.
He sat down at the end of the rock, which was level with the bare stony ground, and wondered what to do next. His wounds had stopped bleeding and did not trouble him. He felt utterly exhausted with the terror of the past few minutes and with the excitement, too.
The second monster came almost before Tiputoa had realised that the whirring and the pounding had begun again. He saw the glow of it before it came in sight and he had just leapt to his feet as it came over the brow of the rise on one side of the little valley. Its two great gleaming eyes glared at him and he could see nothing else as it rushed down straight to where he was standing.
All that was manly in Tiputoa swept from its hidden depths. His right arm swept back. “I die like a warrior,” he screamed and hurled the threepronged spear with all his might between the wicked, gleaming eyes.
The rushing wind and part of the monster's body flung him to the ground but even as he fell he knew that his spear had hit hard for as it passed him the creature seemed to wince and it had howled in agony before it crossed the field and vanished over the far slope.
The little fat man knew that this time he had been really hurt. He had a gash on the side of his head and another on his right leg. He had a feeling too that the monster had stamped on his right foot as it had passed. He crawled towards the edge of the bush and collapsed. As his senses faded he felt something hard and cold near his hand, something about the size of a patu but hollow like a container.
“I have broken off a taniwha's tooth,” he thought, holding it close to him. “I, Tiputoa, the Useless One, have fought a taniwha. I, Tiputoa ….”
And merciful unconsciousness, like a grey cloud, descended on him.
They found him in the morning in the kumara field with his dog watching by him, near dead from loss of blood, and they carried him back to Karakatahi. They also brought his spear, broken in two and with one prong missing. They did not laugh when later he told them he had fought a taniwha for had he not been wounded and did he not bring back its gleaming tooth? What probably influenced them too was the fact that fearsome old Te Maunga-i-tawhiti watched over him as a mother over an only child, sitting outside the house chanting the incantations which would ward off evil and restore health. It was the old man who questioned him first about his adventures and if he were impressed could the others doubt?
“Funniest damned thing I've ever struck,” said Bill Cummings to Katherine his wife when he got home. “I come over that rise into the dip by Jim Stace's place—you know where that swamp was that Old Man Stace drained, where Jim stuck an eight-wire barb fence in to keep old Tawhiti's pigs out of his bottom paddock—And I seen a kinda mist in the dip, not a white mist but a grey kinda mist. Well, I was doin’ about 50 more or less when I got to the bottom and just as I went into the fog I seen a Maori joker damn near stark naked with a dirty great spear thing in his hand. I seen him as clear as I see you now and I seen him heave the spear straight at the car and I'll swear that I heard him yell as I went past. Well I swung to the right and jammed on the brakes and did those tyres scream! I was over the hill before I knew where I was and then I turned round in Jim's gateway and went back. Well, I couldn't see a thing. No one was there. Even the mist was gone. I had a look in the scrub but I only woke a blackbird which gave me a hell of a fright. Anyway one of them chrome cross-pieces on the front bumper's gone And I found this stuck in the grille.”
He tossed a sharp-point, six-inch piece of wood on to the kitchen table.