My cousin was terrified of it, the morepork. When we were younger she would come down to our place for a chat, and we'd sit and talk and laugh mainly about boys—who we thought was nice looking or which film star, male of course, we had a crush on at the moment.
We were happy in our dreams. Our homes were rather unsettled domestically with mums and dads always fighting and we children getting the laying on of hands in the form of the manuka stick. I must admit there were times that we deserved it, but sometimes it was because our parents lacked the communication with one another and became frustrated, taking their feelings out on the children.
So we made our own happiness—cut out pictures of Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey, Greg Peck, and Esther Williams, whom I thought was extremely beautiful. Whenever we went out to the river, she was the one we would imitate, with sommersaults, twists, group flower arrangements … all the beautiful movements we saw her do on the screen, we did.
We sang a lot too, usually while we milked the cows. ‘Little White Cross on the Hill’, ‘Sweethearts or Strangers’, real sad songs about lost ones. Perhaps beneath it all we felt a little lost ourselves, but there was a bond between us children.
Then at the weekend we would go up to the bush to swing on the vines that grew
behind Ramlose's property, making out we were Tarzans and Janes. My sister, who was the oldest, would test the vines by jumping up and down on them like she was a baboon. We called her that whenever she gave us a clout too, but not too loud, otherwise we got another. Then she would swing out over the crevasse and we would all call, AheeeAheee Ahhhhhh as she clung to the supple-jack that separated her from life and death. Beneath her lay a drop of at least 100 feet with rocks protruding from the valley below. But we were happy in our world of entertainment and rather carefree in our actions.
On Sunday we went to Sunday School. Sister May was there to play on the little pump organ. I wished that I could play that instrument—it had such a beautiful sound. One day before Sunday School while all the kids were messing about outside, I climbed through the window and ran my fingers up and down the keys, singing away merrily as I did so. I didn't hear the key turn in the door until I looked up at Sister May's stern but friendly face.
In the summer we would go to the river where the flats were, and swim, then sit around arguing as to which horse could run the fastest. To settle the argument we all trotted over to our horses, lined them up and the race across the flats was on. My big sister's horse Emily would win, as she usually did, all the races. She was a determined horse. When she ran her head was thrust out in such a way that it made her look like a hare streaking for its burrow. She had a few foals, but they couldn't run like she could. Then someone got the bright idea that she should be mated with a thoroughbred rather than the wild horses at Peter Poi Poi's, so she was sent to a show jumper to foal. But Emily preferred her kind to his, and turned to run from his advances, her smoky white mane and body streaking across the hilly terrain, jumping gullies, tree trunks, running to escape the stranger … my friends, I need my friends, those that I love, not this proud arrogant stallion … no, I must escape him.
When it was time to get her, we were told she had run herself over the cliff. So we stood where we saw the slide marks and wept for her.
These are the things we have been talking about, myself, my husband and my brother-in-law, who along with my sister, live on the farm.
My cousin married and went to England with her husband, but I can still hear her say, whenever the morepork cried, ‘Hey Anna, take me home. That thing's outside.’
‘But it's only a bird,’ I would tell her.
‘Yeah, but I'm scared of it.’
‘It lives in those bluegums, silly.’
‘You take me home, I am really frightened of it.’
So I would take her up the hill to their house and tell her spooky stories as we went along. This would make her rush into the house screaming.
Then I would run down the hill to our house tripping over the massive tree trunks that crawled over the path.
The trees must have been as old as the hills, I thought, as I made my way up the path and through the blackberry bushes that morning, living my childhood days over again. I even stood on the hill and called ‘Buddy’, just like my Auntie did.
Buddy had been in New Guinea for seven years and although he had returned I had not seen him. He was in Rotorua holidaying with my big sister, and I was longing to see him.
So we sat that night, my brother-in-law telling us about his childhood in Hokianga and me telling him ours.
Then the morepork cries. I laugh and tell the stories of my cousin. But he is serious.
‘When that bird cries there is death,’ he says.
‘No, that's the fantail.’
‘With our family it's the morepork.’
So we retire to bed, my brother-in-law with the light on, and me listening to the morepork cry.
In the morning the phone rings. My brother-in-law's wife, my big sister, in Napier on holiday with the family, is ringing to say cousin Buddy died. What time … ?
The time the morepork cried.