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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

♣ Alison Glenny — Mutes and Earthquakes

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Alison Glenny

Mutes and Earthquakes

There are many stories which could be told about this land.

There is 'The Magic Kumara', which tells of an old woman, a digging stick and a pair of magic gumboots. Of an enchanted flock of sheep, frozen on a hillside, and a kumara that sings and dances as it jumps from the old woman's frying pan:

    Peel me, slice me, pop me in the pan,
         Fry me, salt me, eat me if you can!

This story asks the questions we are always asking, the questions which haunt us: 'What has been lost? And what has been stolen?' But like most such tales, it hugs its answers to its chest.

Then there is the story of the girl whose mother drowned herself in a wash-bucket. The water from the wash-bucket spread out and covered the land, and saved it from drought. But the girl went out into the world in search of her mother and received strange gifts: a needle, sharp as a rapier with a smooth, oval eye to carry the thread, an inexhaustible skein of yarn ...

It is said that my great-grandfather, who was a descendent of pirates, was also a collector of stories. 'Myths and Legends of the Tartan Isles', 'The Magic Kumara and other stories', 'The Trembling Isles: a personal record of the Seismological Crisis of 1907'; these are some of them. But mostly, he collected words. He collected them wherever he went. The lists grew longer and longer until, many years after he had first begun, they became a book, his Dictionary of the New Shetland Vernacular.

Once, I possessed copies of all my great-grandfather's books. But a few weeks ago, I noticed that some of them had disappeared. I searched for them all over the house, but I did not really expect to find them. You see, it is a familiar pattern in our history. first the earthquakes and then the thefts of language. Straightaway, I knew that it was happening again.


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Oh, they began well enough, those first white settlers! Their hopes were high, they had crossed the oceans on a raft of raised promises, loans and expectations.

Homesick and seasick, they clutched the deck rail of their ship. They saw the land dimly, through a mist of demanding memories. In their minds they named it 'The Tartan Isles'. The hills seemed to sing to them in familiar voices as they glided past. 'Oh, ye banks and braes!' And soon, they unrolled across the country the carpet they had brought with them, a plaid of lines and rectangles, fences, farms and paddocks. The plaid was strong and stubborn. It erased everything in its way. It had a familiar pattern.


Here is another story about arriving.

My great-grandmother was little more than a girl when she arrived on the good ship 'Pride of Erin'. She had been named for a flower, the Iris. And yet in Ireland, where she was born, and where her local renown as a singer of popular, sentimental ballads had earned her the soubriquet 'The Nightingale of County Clare', she was also a bird. (In her new country she should, perhaps, have been a bellbird!)

This is how my great-grandmother tells of her arrival in The Tartan Isles, in a letter written home to her family in Ireland.

'You have asked me to describe our first sight of the land ... I shall say then that it appeared to me like a shawl, spread across the ocean, fastened at both edges and billowing in between.

'A shawl, a token, a sign to shipping, the land of the long white tablecloth ... later there would be time to think of what might be spread before us when we came to land. For the moment it seemed enough merely to feast our eyes ...

But there is no record of the words she exchanged, on closer acquaintance, with her new land. I do not know what messages she addressed to the hills and valleys where my great-grandfather strode, his mind a collecting bottle, gathering the words which he took home and arranged in mute, alphabetical ranks in the back of the family bible. Arranged, with either supreme confidence or an equivalent lack of imagination, on the blank pages which follow The Book of Revelations!

Was he handsome and stalwart, silent and strong?

Was she young, spirited and inwardly vulnerable?

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Once, I saw their portraits: matching daguerreotypes in frames of polished wood, backed with velvet the colour of plums. From my great-grandfather's likeness I retain only a memory of whiskers; of a lichen-like growth concealing the lower part of his face, of hair, which though thinning, was bushy about the temples, and eyebrows that resembled wiry gorse. Probably he was a pink and white man, susceptible to freckles, wrinkling easily, with fair hairs sprouting along his fingers ... The nightingale, in contrast, was dark, although her portrait was pale, faded almost to a silvery absence, its surface more that of mirror than of photograph. I recall the sinuous line of her back, curving from shoulder to bustle. Her eyes, which had been hand-coloured by the photographer; faded violets. The fall of lace from her throat, like the perfect bells of foxgloves.

Together they lived in the house that my great-grandfather, who made his living as a builder, raised on the edges of the tartan. Over time, they filled the house with children. The place was called 'Katote'. Once, it had been forest. Did they know, I wonder, that one of the meanings of its name is 'quake'?


It seems as if earthquakes were always a feature of the land. The original inhabitants, a race of noble Polynesians, devised many strange and haunting legends concerning the tremors.

Many of these tales concern an earthquake god, Whakaruaumoko, whom they propitiated with gifts of kumara and intricately carved wooden boxes.

The legends and the gifts, although beautiful, do not seem to have stopped the earthquakes. However, most people agree that matters have become very much worse since the arrival of Europeans.

Sometimes I wonder what they must have thought, my ancestors, when they first felt the ground trembling beneath their feet. Perhaps they thought little of it, blinded by the richness of the land, the abundance of nature. So much rich, loud rain. The wind. Sunlight, abundantly bright. So, there were earthquakes as well ... So, the country was young, it was enthusiastic!

Such a young land.


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My great-grandparents must have survived the first great seismological crisis with a sense of relief. And then it began, the thefts of language. All over the country, in small numbers at first that rapidly increased, men and women began to lose their voices. At the same time, books began, mysteriously, to disappear. Nobody knew why. It was as if they had simply dematerialised, melted into thin air. There were theories, of course. Some people said that there were thieves of language hiding in the hills, the mountains, the bush that had continued to lie just beyond the fringes of the tartan. Some said that it was a virus that had been lurking all the time in the swamps, with the sandflies and the moa bones. Whatever the reason, it was clear that something was being stolen. Or, perhaps, merely lost.

One morning, my great-grandmother woke up and discovered that she was mute. How upset great-grandfather must have been! He, a collector and defender of words, a self-appointed guardian and advocate of fragile and endangered meanings! To have the thieves of language strike at his heart, in the centre of his home. He raged, impotently. For how can you rage against an invisible enemy? The nightingale no longer sang about the house. Silently, her sorrowing family cut up sheets of wrapping paper and left them, with pencils, in strategic places throughout the homestead. Communication went on, although the difficulties were greater than before.


Arriving back by plane, I find myself released into the golden light of late afternoon. How familiar it is, how well-remembered! And yet, almost at once I am aware of a subtle change. Something is missing. Lost, perhaps, or merely forgotten ... Then I realise what it is. The rich, buttery haze, the reflection no doubt of our perfect dairy products, our abundant produce, no longer hangs over the land, softening the harsher edges with its tender, translucent glow. Everything seems harder and brighter. At the same time I recall the anxiety in my father's voice, crackling, long distance down the line... 'We've had some trouble at home ... it's your mother ... we had to let you know ... she's lost her voice . . .'


Do you remember the last great seismological crisis, the earthquakes of '89? The year, unprecedented in the history of our occupation, when the earth buckled and gaped, when buildings shattered and fell? Those were page 9 dangerous and disturbing times! Bewilderment was general and extreme. The rivers rose and shrank accordingly. The mysterious comings and goings of the ocean swallowed chunks of land we'd been familiar with all our lives, or, even more strangely, threw up others where no land had been before, and this newborn land was still moistly pale, strewn with evidence of its former life as ocean floor: a litter of weed, small shells and slowly expiring sea creatures. The capital sustained some of the worst damage. I was there at the time; it seemed that every day brought a new tremor. The Quay and The Terrace were canyons, filled with shattered glass. The Houses of Parliament remained standing, but tilted dangerously to one side, so that they resembled a crazed, antipodean version of Pisa's more celebrated leaning tower.

At that time, sects sprang up amongst the homeless, who roamed what remained of the streets and made a living by begging; they claimed that responsibility for the quakes was ours, and that the earth, like an angry beast of burden, had finally risen up in protest against our mistreatment of it, the constant prodding and digging, burning and scarification.

At the same time, a strange exhilaration seemed to have sprung up amongst the ruins. The normal, numbing routines of work and travel had been disrupted. We were like pedestrians, released by a changing light from the weary confinement of the kerb, who seem suddenly to have woken from a dream and been propelled forward into the empty street. Those of us who had survived became accomplices in an almost festive elation, flip side to our coin of despair. Discernable emotions could be read on the face of every passer-by. Strangers grew chatty and intimate, liable to tell their life stories to anyone they met.

When I went home to visit my parents, they seemed, in comparison, tight-lipped and solemn. My father's face, bent over the food to bless it, seemed to have grown cadaverous, his prominent nose a bony ridge from which an imaginary explorer could have surveyed a landscape of planes and furrows. At first, excitement made me loquacious. But their silence reproved me. I remember thinking, with a kind of despair, that if I reached my hands down their throats, still I would never be able to find their hearts.


On the train going north to my parents' house, I gaze out the windows. As we pass the bay there is a clear view out to the treble cones of the Trembling Isles. Today, the islands live up to their name, trembling and shaking page 10 beneath the long cloud of steam which hovers above them. I cannot shake from my mind the sound of my father's voice, distant on the line. Love and fear fill my heart in equal proportions.

I read the book I have brought with me. My great-grandfather's 'Myths and Legends of the Tartan Isles'. The story I am reading tells of the great Polynesian hero, Maui-of-a-thousand-tricks, and of his attempt to challenge the earthquake god, Whakaruaumoko. The author claims that the story was told to him by a native farm-hand, a man of prodigious memory. He says that he copied it down exactly. Although recently, scholars have thrown doubt on my great-grandfather's stories. It seems that he was not a good listener. That he made his stories up. That they are more pakeha lies.

How Maui Challenged the Earthquake God

Everyone has heard of the adventures of the great hero, Maui. Of how he stole the fingernails of his grandmother, Mahuika, so that he might bring fire to the earth. Or how he wounded the sun with a magic jawbone, so that it was forced to move more slowly, thus giving us day as well as night. Here is another of the trickster god's adventures. It tells of how he travelled deep down beneath the surface of the earth to challenge the mighty earthquake god, Whakaruaumoko, so that the earth might be freed from earthquakes. For in those days Whakaruaumoko walked indiscriminately across the surface of the world and his passing caused great fear, for fire and earthquakes sprang up in his footsteps, and the earth trembled and shuddered at his approach.

It seems that the earthquake god lived in an enormous whare set on an island in the middle of one of the mighty rivers that flowed into the underworld. The river was swift and dangerous, its waters boiling hot and filled with sulphurous fumes. Nonetheless, Maui and the two brothers who had agreed to come with him succeeded in bringing their canoe unscathed through the water, until they came to the rapids in front of Whakaruaumoko's island, and there, standing up in the rapids, and towering over the tiny canoe, were three enormous gateposts, intricately carved. Fire flickered behind their flashing eyes, inside their grimacing mouths. They were the sentries of Whakaruaumoko, whom he had carved himself and set there to guard his house while he slept.

When Maui's brothers saw these terrifying figures they cried out in alarm and confusion, and would have paddled back the way they had come. But page 11 Maui instructed them to hold the canoe steady against a rock while he himself stood up and addressed himself to the gateposts, greeting them boldly. The gateposts did not answer. Instead, they reached down and seized hold of Maui and his two brothers and their canoe, and they held them tightly in their wooden arms, without saying a word. And this is how Maui and his brothers might have stayed until the earthquake god came out of his whare and killed them, if Maui had not seen the reason for their silence. The reason for the gateposts' silence was that they had been carved without tongues, for Whakaruaumoko believed that they would make better sentries if they could not speak. But when Maui saw that the gateposts had no tongues, a plan began to form in his mind, for he knew that above all else, all living things desire a voice.

Then Maui addressed himself to the gateposts. 'Gateposts,' he said, 'if you release my brothers and I and our canoe, I shall carve each of you a tongue.'

One by one, the gateposts released Maui and his two brothers and their canoe. Their huge wooden arms dropped back to their sides, and Maui climbed up on each of them in turn and carved tongues in their huge, horrible mouths.

When he had finished, and was back in his canoe, the gateposts, began, one by one, to move their tongues in their mouths.

The first one said, 'Whakaruaumoko sleeps in the afternoon. That is a good time to approach him.'

The second said, 'Behind the whare of Whakaruaumoko is a small whare pataka. That is where Tuatara lives, in whose body the earthquake god keeps half his strength.'

The third said, 'Next to Tuatara in the whare pataka is the net which Whakaruaumoko uses to fish, and no other in the world is as large or as strong.'

Then Maui and his brothers passed through the rapids beneath the gateposts, but the gateposts did not notice them go, they were too busy trying out their new tongues.

Soon Maui and his brothers drew near to the island of Whakaruaumoko, and saw his whare which was as big as a forest. The floor was filled with ash and lava, fires slumbered uneasily behind the doors and windows, and dimly, in the glow of the embers, they could see the gourd containers in which Whakaruaumoko kept the floods and tidal waves.

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Maui and his brothers paddled to the far side of the island where they would be out of sight, and they waited until the afternoon, when they could tell by the rumbling and shaking of the ground that Whakaruaumoko was asleep. Then they came on shore and crept across the island to the whare pataka, and Maui climbed up inside it and found Tuatara dozing there, just as the second gatepost had told him. Before Tuatara had time to wake, Maui bound his limbs with flax cords and popped him into his kete. Behind Tuatara, just as the third gatepost had told him, he found the fishing net, and he brought it out with him. Then Maui and his brothers spread the net over the entire island, and when it was fastened, Maui began to pull on it.

The movement woke Whakaruaumoko from his sleep. He emerged from his whare in a fury, and when he saw that he was surrounded by his own net, he raged and fumed and tried to break out of it, but Whakaruaumoko had knotted the flax himself and strengthened it with powerful spells, and it could not easily be broken.

All the same he would have killed Maui and his brothers with his fiery breath if Maui had not stood up in the canoe and showed him Tuatara. 'Now you must obey me,' said Maui, 'or else lose half your strength.'

Then Whakaruaumoko raged and fumed some more, but he saw that he had been tricked, and he asked Maui what he wanted of him.

But Maui saw that Whakaruaumoko, even with only half his strength, was too strong for him ever to destroy. Then he racked his brains to think what good might come of the adventure, and he said to the angry god: 'You must come with me to a place below the regions of the earth, far away from the villages of men and women, and promise to remain there. Tuatara shall be my hostage. As long as you keep your promise Tuatara will live. But if you ever break it and walk across the earth, then Tuatara will die.'

Then Maui dragged Whakaruaumoko deep down beneath the earth, the lakes, and the rivers, below even the ocean floor. Down, down, into the underworld, he dragged the weary god. And he tied him there beneath the roots of the mountains, to sleep for eternity.

Whakaruaumoko sleeps there still, and the children of the earth are able to continue with their lives; to build villages and prepare gardens for the cultivation of plants. But every time that Whakaruaumoko has a nightmare, he turns in his sleep and wakes to find himself trapped beneath the mountain; then he struggles and tries to break free and the force of his struggle sends tremors as far as the surface of the earth, before he feels the page 13 folds of his own net about him, and remembers his promise to Maui. Whakaruaumoko has never broken his promise, and for that reason Tuatara is still alive, and is the oldest living creature in the world, and he is so old that he has almost turned into stone. And some people say that when Tuatara turns into stone, then his strength will return to Whakaruaumoko, and on that day the earthquake god will wake up, shake off his bonds, and return to the earth.

By the time I have finished reading this story the curve of the bay and the outline of the Trembling Isles have dropped far behind us.

I put the book aside and gaze out the window again. Oh, but this is an attractive part of the line! Ferns brush the top of the carriage and purple foxgloves grow amongst the wild grass in the cuttings. I doze uneasily beneath the flickering shadows of the telegraph poles, and then I must fall asleep, because I dream.

In the dream I am walking up a hillside. The hillside is bare, except for some patches of gorse, dried and stunted by the wind. Wind scrapes the surface of the hillside, the side of my face. I must lean into it to make any progress. In my arms I am clutching a copy of the Dictionary of the New Shetland Vernacular. It weighs me down; its sharp edges bite into my arms. However, I clutch it more tightly and toil on. There is a voice in the wind. I listen hard, I strain to catch it, but I cannot understand what it is saying.

I wake beneath the flickering shadows of the telegraph poles, still struggling to understand.


My mother is in hospital for tests. Although it is not expected that the tests will reveal anything useful. Later, I will be allowed to visit her.

I stand in the middle of the living-room. It does not seem to have changed much. Although I notice that some of the books have gone; there are bare patches on the shelves. My father, coming through from the kitchen, notices the direction of my gaze. 'They keep disappearing,' he says. 'We try to fill the empty spaces, but . . .' His voice trails into silence, as if gravity itself were standing in the room with us and draining his sentences of their words, swirling them, like water, down an invisible plughole. My father coughs nervously. Abruptly, he thrusts a cup of tea into my hands.


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I have taken the stairs to the very top of the house. Here, amongst the attic clutter of dust and broken furniture I am delving into my grandparents' iron-bound chests, digging down through the layers of their history, the sedimentation of their lives.

One layer is a christening shawl of fine wool. I set it to one side. Here is a pair of linen sheets, still faintly scented with lavender; silent accomplices to intimacies of which their owners preferred not to speak. And here is the daguerreotype of the nightingale, my great-grandmother, still in its wooden frame. Yes, it is as I remember, she is standing with her hands resting on the back of a chair. Behind her, the photographer's backdrop of mountains and waterfalls is almost invisible. Indeed, her image is even fainter and more fugitive than I remember. Little remains besides the faded violet of her eyes, the froth of her lace jabot which falls from the high collar of her bodice in folds that resemble the perfect bells of foxgloves ...

I cough. What is this contraction in my throat, the sudden thickness? My hand flies to my mouth, while my lungs, a useless bellows, pump frantic air.

All that emerges from my mouth is a soft sigh.

And yet, I am still holding my grandmother's portrait. As I put it down, I see that it has begun to fade.

Look: she is disappearing before my eyes. Soon there will be nothing left but a silvery rectangle of glass, a wooden frame, and a velvet backing, the colour of plums.