The Forbidden Tree
It was the biggest fruit tree in the whole district, the largest we children had ever seen. Boy, you should have seen the peaches from it. Yet to one and all, this richly desirable tree with its sweet, firm, succulent flesh was beyond reach; forbidden.
Every year we would watch the peach tree as it blossomed into a floral pink umbrella Overnight it would burst forth, its hundreds of fragile flowers heralding the spring. Later we would gasp in wonderment as the tiny green bundles of bitterness turned to mouth-watering maturity. We youngsters would stare at it longingly, straining hard against the fence with bulging eyes and hands that were kept from temptation only by the unseen frightening fear of the tapu.
Yes there it stood, like the tree of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Many were the stories that told how it came to be where it was. Some even said that when the clothes of one of my cousins were returned from France after he had been killed in the First War, a peach-stone had been found in a pocket. As was the custom, these articles were buried in the family plot, and from the stone there sprang this unknown variety of peach.
Anyway, nature had reared this solitary specimen in the midst of an old private family
burial ground, and there it flourished, side by side with the bones of some of my ancestors, whose lineage could be traced far back to pre-European times. So sacred and tapu was this ground that only the descendants of the family concerned were ever laid to rest there. From the very first time a baby in our village began to talk and notice objects, he was made to understand in no uncertain way that this cemetery and all within it was something to shun and stay away from. To touch anything that grew there was nothing less than sacrilege. Countless tears have been shed over toys and play-things that accidentally fell there, even once a football.
There was a strange ending that time though, one which strengthened the power and mana of the tapu. For a number of years, our local football team had successfully defended a big silver cup, called the ‘Heiwari Cup’ after grandfather. One year, things weren't going too well. The challenging team was leading by three points, with ten minutes left to go, when an accident punctured the ball. The only other available ball was brought into play. Within seconds the home team scored, evening the points. Rallying, the challengers forced the play into our own back line. Excitement was at a pitch. If they scored, the cup would go.
Whether this crossed the mind of our full-back Tamiti, and whether he did it in desperation, I cannot say, for he never told anyone. But he scooped up that ball, and with a powerful boot, he kicked it far and high. The spectators' cheers and clapping were loud in praise of his play.
Then suddenly, the applause abruptly ceased. The players, trance-like as if in the grip of an evil spell, stood like toy soldiers in battle. A hushed silence stilled players and spectators alike. That kick had done two things. It had removed the danger against the hard-pressed home team, and with the help of a high wind it had carried the ball right off course, right into the wahi tapu. Nothing like that had happened before. No one would move to touch it. It was out of bounds for all time. What a lot of cursing and uncomplimentary things the visitors had to say about us. Seeing the game had to be discontinued for lack of a ball, the trophy remained ours’.
‘Kia mahara hoki koutou, he tohu kino hoki tenei mea,’ called an old kaumatua, and though we were happy, and laughed and sky-larked at the dance that night, we were to remember those words later. Tamiti, a happy carefree chap with an engaging disposition, began to get surly and nasty in the months that followed, showing a total lack of interest in everything. One night, while crossing the harbour bar on horseback, a thing that he had been doing for years, he was swept away and drowned. An accident, the policeman from town had said. But to us children, and to the others who remembered the old kaumatua's prophetical message, it was a living proof that an infringement of the laws of the tapu, intentional or otherwise, had been dealt with.
Once a year the older folk, and sometimes a few of the younger ones, entered the wahi tapu to clear away the fern and bracken, and trim the long grass near the fences. Afterwards the implements they had used were washed and left soaking in a drain near the swamp. For those who had taken part in this labour, a cleansing ritual was performed by the oldest kuia, who some people said was related to a very ancient tohunga I had once seen.
If any animal in our settlement were seen to reach over and sample the grass that grew within the burial ground, tradition demanded that the owner destroy the beast, or sell it out of the district. This was so uneconomic that most of the inhabitants managed to keep what stock they possessed secure in their own paddocks, but sometimes a gate would get left open.
Which reminds me of the time that one of my cousin Ruihi's fowls decided, rightly or wrongly, to lay its eggs in the cemetery. Noticing that her daily collection of eggs was decreasing. Ruihi bribed her children by telling them that if they would watch the henhouse, she would take them to see the monkeys next time the circus came. She suspected a little bit of thieving was going on: but no, the children too were puzzled, until her eldest daughter Maire saw one of the black chooks fly over the fence, then make its way straight to a clump of kaikato in the wahi tapu. After a short time out the old hen came again, ruffled her feathers in a ‘see who cares’ attitude, and quickly flew up over the fence. Not until she was safely on the far side of the paddock did her laying song begin.
Maire kept this secret to herself, and when the hen began to absent itself from the fowl-
house at night, she knew that soon the mother would emerge with a brood of fluffy chicks.
Great was Maire's happiness when at last the clucky mother and her family of mottled fluff appeared on the scene. Triumphantly she shut them away in the disused tumble-down hapuki.
But as these little balls of fluff grew bigger, Maire began to have the most terrible dreams, with fierce-looking animals, and horrid witches who all had mokos like old Rihipete from the Coast. They chased and pursued her, and each time she would run to the wahi tapu and hide in the kaikato where the chicks had been born. Sometimes a horrible great creature, half man and half bird, would swoop down to where she was hiding and drag her away. Ugh. It used to wake her up shivering with fright.
One night, piercing screams awoke Maire's parents from their sleep. Rangi rushed to the adjoining bedroom to be greeted by a great din of wailing. All the children had awakened, and joined in the noise out of fellowship for their sister.
There stood Maire in the middle of the bed, her innocent face ugly with pain, her body shaking with fright. Seeing her thus, and moved to pity, her father made to gather the child in his strong arms. But the child, on seeing him in his long white undershirt and gaudy pink ‘long johns’, leapt to the bottom of the bed shrieking and screaming with renewed vigour. Dressed like this, he looked too much like that half-man, half-bird in the nightmare. It took the comforting presence of her mother to calm the little one's fright; and then, between sobs, out came the secret of the cemetery.
Rangi was aghast, and spent the rest of the night sprinkling the whole house with holy water, muttering prayers and reading texts from the Bible. The third time that he opened the Bible at random, he got quite a shock. Looking for something to soothe his troubled mind, he came upon this text: ‘Why criest thou for thine affliction? Thy sorrow is incurable for the multitude of thine iniquity: because thy sins were increased, I have done these things unto thee.’
‘Mother of God, save me!’ he cried out. ‘Help me! I am caught between the devil [ unclear: ] and the deep blue sea.’
What could one do in times like this? They were all going to be punished because his eldest child had tried to defy the tapu. Violating the tapu, they had contracted a hara; a calamity had befallen their home.
Now, Ruihi liked to think of herself as a progressive thinker. She was one of those individuals, found in all walks of life, who read a lot; and while she was not well educated, she was very intelligent. Deep in her heart she never believed in all this tapu thing-ma-jig. Times were changing and one must live accordingly. If they found out, some of the old kuias and kaumatuas would insist that her daughter had done wrong. Well, they wouldn't find out from her. Something would be done.
Already a plan had began to take shape, a plan that would solve this problem, and with care bring in a little money on the side. With care, she would be the envy of all the other women in her smart red velvet suit at Moana's wedding in a few months' time. Oh dear, if it didn't succeed. No, she must not think like that. Of course it would.
Next morning the neighbours looked on in surprise while Rangi and his family rushed around catching squawking fowls. The speculation became serious when all the family set out in their ancient car surrounded by boxes of dazed hens and enough flying feathers to stuff a couple of mattresses. Ruihi and the children shouted and waved in merry acknowledgement, while Rangi hunched over the wheel and drove like the devil himself.
An hour or so later the jalopy stopped in a cloud of dust in front of an old weather-beaten shack, whose occupants were related to both Ruihi and Rangi. Let out of their boxes, the shaken hens staggered wearily under the shack.
Yes, the generous old couple said, of course they would care for the fowls, and they would willingly save the eggs for them. They were pleased to oblige, for since their house was off the beaten track, visitors to their home had become a rarity. Ruihi explained that three of the fowls were at the clucky stage, and they could place some eggs under them and keep whatever hatched out. No, they were sorry they couldn't stay even for a cup of tea, as they wanted to do some shopping in town. They left in a flurry of haste and dust. Not a mention was made to the kinsfolk about the chooks being contaminated by those which had nested in the takotoranga tupapaku.
On the way home Ruihi called on the Dalmatian farmer's wife, whose fame as a baker of delectable cakes was known far and wide.
Asking about the cost of baking for a large number at a not-too-distant wedding. Ruihi hinted that she would be able to supply a quantity of fresh eggs at a cost to be agreed on later.
Certainly she would be happy to cater for the cakes, and to take as many fresh eggs as possible, said the cheerful Dalmatian wife.
‘But you make a de sure de eggs are all a fresh. None of dis Maori bizness like a de eggs for fishing de eel,’ she called with a good-natured flourish, as Ruihi laughingly bade her goodbye.
When a meeting to discuss the wedding plans was held at the marae, it was an easy thing for Ruihi to get herself appointed to do all the kai arrangements. No one objected, for they knew that if anyone could obtain a few extras from the storekeepers, it was she.
All smiles, Ruihi was the image of politeness as she charmingly thanked the committee for choosing her. Yes, she assured them, of course she knew where one could get juicy fowls at five shillings less than the usual twenty shillings Mr Long charged. Cakes, and eggs for everything, she would be able to procure at cut prices. All the simple souls present marvelled at her knowledge of these things, while ever-present in the thoughts of Ruihi was the red velvet suit and its trimmings.
Now, Rangi's brother Rewi had a herd of swine of which he was very proud. Two of the best sows were well on their way to littering, and the rest would be away to the freezing works in a month or so. Since Rewi was a close relative of the bridegroom, custom said that he must donate at least one of his pigs to the hui marena. This he accordingly did.
But this was not enough for Ruihi the troublemaker, and she started up over the teatable.
‘That stingy old brute of a brother of yours has only given one pig. Selfish and mean, that's what he is.’ Then, as Rangi helped himself to a second helping of pudding: ‘He ought to be ashamed. With all his goods. One lousy pig and a sack of kumaras. I don't know what this district would do without the help of my family.’
‘Well what can I do about it? They belong to him, not me.’
What his wife had to say to this made his heart beat twice as fast, in fact he felt as though it might have stopped a couple of times. He went out to smoke his pipe and think things over: maybe by the time he came back the missus would have changed her mind.
But no: she was at him again. After a solid week of ear-bashing for the sake of peace he finally agreed, as both had known he would.
Saturday night. The marae was a scene of activity, for the next day the bride and her people would arrive, also a large crowd of manuhiri related to both bridal parties. In the whare kai a group of men was preparing the meat, sweating from the heat of a vast open fire. Women busied themselves making up clean beds that smelt sweetly of newly-cut hay, and working at the hundred and one other jobs still to be done.
The walls of the hall were covered with punga fronds, waewae koukou, green flax and branches of red and white manuka, while strips of multi-coloured crepe paper criss-crossing the ceiling gave a rainbow brightness to the place. On the stage a young schoolgirl vamped a tune from the halfway-to-the-century piano, whilst a ring of shiny small faces scaled the notes of popular songs.
Ruihi had produced two jars for the men, saying that her husband had shouted it since he was unable to be there tonight, as one of the children was not feeling too well. But both she and Rangi would be along bright and early in the morning.
Meanwhile, Rangi was making his way to his brother Rewi's pig pen. Quietly quietly, just a little sucking noise with your tongue and out from the pen they'll come. Pigs can tell when someone's about. Sure enough they had smelt him and out they came, just as Ruihi had said they would. Now to give them a sniff of what's in the bucket. That's it you beauty—carry on down to the cowshed. The stage was set, and hungry pigs need no prompting. Straight down to the drum of skim milk they grunted. The overflow from it went into a big drum that was buried in the ground. Quickly Rangi lifted its wooden cover, careful to make it appear as if the pigs themselves had done so. Squealing and grunting, the six pigs plunged their snouts into the tasty curdled whey. Don't be hasty. As soon as the milk empties a little lower they'll bend their front legs—he'd never hear the end of it if he mucked this up. Right, the black one: the biggest, as she had said.
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.