THE FORBIDDEN TREE—
The unsuspecting pig's hind legs were in his hands: for a moment he tossed and grunted with it, then into the drum it splashed, its squealing silenced by the meal it had been so greedily devouring. Silently its slayer crept away over the paddocks.
No lights could be seen at the marae. He guessed it was fairly late. Ruihi was already in bed, and if he thought she would show some gratitude then he was wrong again.
‘I'll bet when he finds his fat poaka drowned in the morning he'll offer it for the hui and not tell a soul how it died,’ was all she said. But stone the crows, how he cursed when on going to retire she ordered him to sleep with the children, as he still smelt of pigs and she had no intentions of sleeping with someone who had just killed his own brother's pig. Besides, she didn't want her permed curls spoilt before the wedding.
He grudgingly went into the bed of one of his little ones, muttering to himself about the good old days when a man ruled his home with an iron fist—what's happening with the world. All this matauranga and Pakeha schooling is taking away the Maori's mana. If a man uses too much fist in his home to beat a bit of sense into his wife or kids the police send you to the whare herehere. A man was better off when he was younger. You hardly saw a policeman then, though your life was strictly controlled by religion and superstition. Golly, those were the days.
That night Rangi dreamt he was at a party with the good-looking widow Bella. But each time he went to refill his glass, instead of wine there poured out little printed letters that made fearful-sounding words, like abomination, destruction, consequences, catastrophe and conflagration. The very first thing he saw when he awoke in the morning was the newly-framed text hanging above the bed. It read, ‘The Wages of Sin Is Death’.
Quickly he jumped out of bed, grabbed his clothes and rushed out into the kitchen. There he was scolded by his wife for his ‘total lack of hygienic understanding’, and just think what the neighbours would say if they caught him undressed in the kitchen. What with her being on all those committees and being a Sunday School teacher and due to be president of the Women's Institute.
‘Really Rangi, you and your barbaric ways do make me wild.’
This sermon against him infuriated Rangi so much that he took his time and sat before the stove, opening the door to warm himself. Stubbornly unmoved by her pleas to hurry along, he sat there poking at the fire. Words from his dream came back to him: destruction—abomination—conflagration—that was as far as he got, for with a hiss, a burning cinder shot out from the fire and landed right in his lap.
‘Aue! A-uuu-eee ko toroa au i te kapura!’
With a roar that reminded all of the lion at the last circus, Rangi leapt up into the air. Grimacing with pain he rushed to the table, picked up the butter from its dish, and vigorously began applying it to the blistered area.
‘What's the matter with Daddy? Mummy, is he doing a Maori haka?’ cried little Hemi joyously.
‘I'll haka the lot of you if you don't shut up,’ shouted his father furiously. Then to the mother [ unclear: ] ‘As for you this is all your doing, why can't you be contented with what you've got. Always wanting this and that.’
Unconcerned, Ruihi carried on mixing the batter for the pikelets she had promised the children. Her silence made Rangi twice as angry.
‘You're the biggest crook out around here, worse, worse than that scoundrel of a thief Hone Heke. Ever since your old man took to that new religion, life has been a complete ab—abo—abomination—hell on earth—that's what it is—no need to wait for the Judgment Day you preach at Sunday School.’
Startled, his wife wondered what had gone wrong with her usually docile man. She wasn't to know that just before receiving his blisters he had been thinking of the good-looking widow.
‘You can talk about me as much as you like Rangi, but just leave my father and my illustrious ancestors out of it.’
Tossing her newly permed hair about: ‘You're a fine one to grumble to me about wanting things. We would be living in a nikau hut like some of those ignorant cousins of yours’, digging gum and wearing sugar sacks for all you cared.’
It should have warned her when she saw his eyes widen and roll. No, she must have her say.
‘What about you walking around the kitchen without any clothes on. You stand up at meal times if I don't remind you to sit, and I've caught you cutting the children's fingernails at night. Don't forget the time I caught you
clipping our Hemi's hair at two o'clock in the morning. All this kia u ki to matau Maoritanga, me nga mahi o nga tupuna, you harp on—then you deliberately trample on all these tapu signs I've mentioned.’
The snivelling children cowered in the corner, huddling against each other for comfort. Perhaps Mum had finished now and would get on with the pikelets. But no:
‘And just one more word of advice Rangi, if I as much as catch you looking at that merry widow, don't bother coming back to me and the children. I'll pack your swag and take it to her place myself. Ha, ha! I heard all about you calling her name in your sleep last night.’
Poor Rangi, this must have really shook him up. Women. The cheek of her. After talking him into removing the fowls when he should have destroyed them, then nagging at him to drown Rewa's pig. Of course it was true about cutting the kids' hair, but he was drunk at the time, and hadn't she moaned at him for a couple of weeks to cut it. But it was she who made him burn the hair, which was a bad thing to do. All she was worried about was the mess on her polished floor.
Without stopping to think, Rangi rushed over to her, swiped the bowl of batter, tipped it over her smart hairdo, and biffed her on the ears. Desperately she yelled to Maire to run next door and tell them to ring Uncle Dick and Jack to come quickly. Thinking it wiser to appear hurt, she wailed twice as much as was necessary, though every now and then the thought of the now useless hairdo caused her to utter a genuine shriek.
When her brothers found her later, Ruihi was sitting in front of the bathroom mirror, her face covered with hardening batter, her hair [ unclear: ] ragged and short, and her dress in pieces. In the bedroom Rangi was covering his blisters with sticking plaster.
As usual and expected, Ruihi finally got her way. At the hui called after the wedding was over, she meekly told the gathering that try as she would, she was unable to keep her loving husband from repeatedly defiling the ‘ture of the tapu’. All listened in shocked amazement as she described how he had burnt the children's hair, and his attack on her: not
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one detail was spared.
At once Whetumarama sent her eldest daughter to fetch from another district an ancient tohunga, a man who in earlier days would have been powerful, instead of just respected as he was today. Only the close members of Ruihi's and Rangi's families were present at the whakanoa tapu-removing rites, which were carried out by the tohunga with much dignity. Ruihi was told by the wise old soul to pay less attention to the material things of life, to harbour no ill will or resentment against her ‘rangatira’ (meaning Rangi, which annoyed her, as she knew that she came of a rank higher than his), and to find in her heart a deeper respect for Ihu Karaiti. He had no doubt that a woman as clever as she, would be more than able to fuse the old and the new ways together. Thus her children in acquiring the skills of the Pakeha would be able to hold fast to their Maoritanga.
That night the meeting house was the scene of a sentimental audience as the ‘holy man’ explained to the villagers the necessities of tapu. Just as modern life has its ever-increasing statutes and regulations, so tapu served as a forging of bonds in the communal life of our Maori ancestors. Such as the best times and places for fishing and seeking kai moana: the correct ways and know-how for the planting and harvesting of crops; and when to gather the bark and berries from the bush for remedial purposes. The tohunga ended his speech with the whakatauki, ‘For women and for land men will die’, and enlarged upon the great importance in the scheme of things of the role of the women-folk.
To get back to the Ra Marena, all agreed that without doubt the bridal couple had been the most handsome ever seen on our marae. So plentiful was the supply of victuals that the returning manuhiri were loaded with gifts of food to take home. Rewi was profusely thanked for his generous gesture in providing two pigs instead of the promised one. The cakes, rich in variety and filling, were credited not to the baker but to the person who donated the eggs at such cheap prices—not to mention the fowls, which the same soul of goodness had seasoned and roasted herself in spiced cream.
For Ruihi had been none the worse for her ordeal. In her cherry red velvet suit complete with matching accessories, she had been a fair dinkum knockout. If the others had gaped at her shorn locks, the more stylish women were quick to notice the similarity with the hairstyle of a famous actress appearing in a film about the Spanish Civil War. If any of them noticed Ruihi's lack of interest in eating poultry and cakes, they put it down to her new religious diet fads.
As for the peach tree, it is still there today, its limbs entwining the age-old bones of those who built a bridge to a new world. Its fruit are still the source of temptation to another younger generation of children, as it weathers life with the poise and bearing of a regal old duchess. With the sacred ground which nourishes it, the tree is a living monument to the fact that the old-time Maori founded his society upon laws which, like the ‘law of Moses’, were based upon the beliefs and circumstances of the people.
How did I know the fruit was juicy? That's another story. Like cousin Ruihi, I must keep such things to myself. The thin coating of sophistication I have acquired from the new world is as yet insufficient to cover the beliefs of my childhood, let alone pacify the many idols of civilization I now pay homage to.