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Legends of the Maori

Episode IV. A Great Fish from the Sea

Episode IV. A Great Fish from the Sea.

The dawn of another soft summer day spread over the Maori world, and the gentle swell of the Tai-Rawhiti came mildly pulsing in from the vast smooth expanse, meeting the crescent of white sands in a long murmurous ear-soothing snore and pause and snore and roll again. No wind yet stirred the just-waking face of the deep; a morning when the smallest kopapa canoe could have been launched where at other times the great rollers came thundering in upon the shore in a smashing cannonade. The kaka parrot screeched his “Get up” cry in the dark thickets that filled the valley almost to the beach, and presently the bellbird and the flute-tongued tui set the shores and hills ringing with their sweet tinkle and gurgle and bing-bong of bush song.

Soon the fisher-folks’ camp began to show signs of life. A woman, with a rough cloak of flax about her shoulders, came sleepily out of one of the sapling and fern-frond shelters that leaned against the black Cave Rock. Throwing off her garment she stretched her arms and yawned, and stood there awhile listening to the bird-song of the morning, a strong, firm, tall figure, in all the rounded vigour of young womanhood, a Juno statue limned darkly against the yellowing dawn. She walked a few steps along the sands, stooping to pick up pieces of dry driftwood, and turning to the shallow holes where the cooking fires were daily kindled, she set to at the task of lighting the haangi for the morning meal.

But the meal was not enjoyed leisurely by the lords of the fishing camp. Scarcely had the people seated themselves about the mats on which their food baskets were laid, when a youth who had walked to the sea-edge scanning the tideway for signs of fish shoals and the morning sky for weather omens, suddenly clapped eyes on a sight that set him quivering with astonishment. A flock of seagulls hovered over a long, black mass which lay like a half-tide rock just in the wash of the little surf on the point of the sandspit which ran out on the opposite side of the estuary. A moment later and a yell like a war-cry rang out over the sands and brought the kainga to its feet, as a whaleship’s crew scuttles up at the look-out man’s cry of “Blo-ow—there she blows!”

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Launching the Spell.

Launching the Spell.

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He ika moana! He ika moana! He tohora nui, kua pae ki te oné!” A fish of the ocean, the cry went, a great fish of the ocean—a great whale, stranded on the shore!

Down to the water’s edge the whole camp came dashing, and with wild cries of astonishment and delight they verified with their own eyes what the young sea-watcher had discovered.

“Launch the canoes,” cried Turaki-po. Several of the long dug-out fishing craft were shoved into the water, and into them tumbled the naked brown men. The paddlers sent their canoes swiftly shooting across the outflowing tide of the estuary and out they dashed on the opposite sandbank, and in a few moments were clambering over the stranded monster.

It was a dead paraoa, a sperm whale, a rich haul indeed, for its flesh was the sweetest meat to the Maori, and from certain of its bones he could fashion his long, curved broadsword-like weapon, the hoeroa. The receding tide left it lying almost dry and clear of the water, and the fisher tribe made the most of their time before next high tide. Turaki-po ordered all the camp dwellers to set to work to strip the flesh off it, and men and women laboured with fierce delight, cutting into the blubber with obsidian knife-flakes and sharp shells and tearing off strip after strip of the whalemeat. Fires were kindled close by on the sands and the toilers took brief spells to feast on half-cooked slices of the blubbery flesh, and set to again with renewed, savage energy. It was the feast-day of a life-time.

So there on the hot and shining sands the mother-naked tattooed toilers sweated at their oily work, and canoes went to and fro across the river mouth loaded with whale meat for the camp. But Turaki-po sat by himself on the beach, silently watching the workers. His behaviour was strangely listless for such a man of fierce action.

Turaki-po, in truth, was secretly suspicious and frightened. He had had a curious dream, a moemoea, which he read as a warning, the previous night, and now his nerves were tingling and twitching. His own special and personal god was at work. The coming of this great fish was of a surety a work supernatural; but the strange fears that crept over him gradually overmastered his cravings. However good this treasure from the deep it was not for him. And so, possessed by a conviction that his own atua did not wish him to join in the whale-meat feast on the beach, he resolved to remove himself for a while from the danger area. It may be that he was possessed of a more sensitive nose than his fellows. Certain it is that he denied himself a share in the blubbery banquet. He quietly paddled himself across the estuary in the smallest of the canoes, and saying not a word to any of his people he set off homeward by the foot trail which skirted the foot of the hills. There he betook him to his spells for the page 104 averting of witchcraft and the machinations of his enemies. And on the sands at the Opaawaho mouth his tribespeople feasted long that evening, by the light of the great blazing fires of driftwood around the foot of the old Cave Rock.

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