The Tale of Rokiroki
A Memory of the Mokau.
We were paddling our red-pine-tree canoe along a quiet, deep reach of the amber-coloured Mokau, far up the winding course of that lonely forest waterway. It was early in the day, and the smoke-like mists of a summer morning were slowly melting away into the deeper recesses of the mountains, green and blue, that rose on either side, clothed from water to skyline in a dense garment of bush and ferns. Below us were the growling rapids of Panirau, up which we had poled our strenuous way the previous evening; we had camped on a shingly islet just at the top of the rapids, in a magnificent gorge, with forested cliffs lifting near a thousand feet above us. Now, on the third day of our cruise, we were afloat on the Upper Mokau, where never a boat of European construction had yet been seen. It was a grand, wild, silent place, and our inland voyage had all the freshness and fragrant charm of an exploring expedition. There were four of us—two pakeha and two Maori. Tuki and Hauraki had poled and paddled their long canoes on the Mokau from their boyhood, and they knew every mossy boulder and every outbending tree as a city man knows the street signs and the houses on his daily way. Every waterfall and rapid and every creek that came stealing in from the bush glooms had its name, and often a legend or a song, and of these one or other of the Maori talked now and again as we leisurely paddled our dug-out along that glorious rosy morning.
Two or three miles above Panirau we came to a place where a small dark stream flowed out of the misty forest between tree-arched cliffs on our left hand. Here there was a rocky rapid, and at the confluence of the tributary with the Mokau there was a little sandy spit.
“That’s the Manga-takiora, that creek,” said Tuki. “And there’s a story about that patch of sandy beach there—a very good Maori story. All about Rokiroki’s great pig—oh, what a poaka it was!”
But Tuki would not tell us the story just then. It was a long tale, he said, and it could wait until we were comfortably in camp that night. And so, at our cheerful bivouac fire in the evening, after our kai had been tucked away, we heard the tale of Rokiroki.
* * *
Down yonder at the Manga-takiora and near about it (so went the canoe-man’s story), there were cultivations and food-gardens in the days of old. The tribes have long deserted the place, and the forest has spread page 112 its arms over the place again. But our fires burned there in the days of my father, and the sound of the axe was heard in the forest clearings. A little way above the Manga-takiora there lived an elderly warrior of my tribe, Ngati-Maniapoto, and his name was Rokiroki. He lived in a hut some little way apart from the rest of the villagers, and he had but one soul to keep him company, his youngest daughter, a little girl, who would be perhaps ten or perhaps twelve years old; her mother was dead. There they lived, and the old man used to come down to the riverside, just where the Manga-takiora joins the Mokau, to tend his potato gardens and his kumara patch; and his little daughter would come with him for company, and sit quietly weaving a flax basket while her father worked. This was long ago. I do not know exactly how many years, but it was not long after the great siege of Pukerangiora, on the Waitara, in Taranaki, when our army of Waikato men captured many people of the Atiawa tribe, and brought them home as slaves.
Now, when Rokiroki came down one morning, a morning just like this, to look at his food-gardens, he was watched from the bush beyond the little clearing by a pair of glaring, murderous eyes. They were vengeful eyes, and hungry eyes! The man of these eyes was a wild and desperate man, and his empty belly ached for meat. He lurked just within the shelter of the bush, concealing himself behind the thick shrubs and ferns, and, peering forth into the clearing, he spied Rokiroki, bending down weeding his kumara. He did not notice the little girl, who sat under a tree some distance away, plaiting a food-kit. The wild man in the bush stealthily stalked old Rokiroki. As the kumara weeder moved along the patch, the man with the hungry, red eyes crept along the bush edge, too, following him and ever drawing nearer.
At last Rokiroki came to the edge of his cultivations, on the top of the bank above yonder. Still he heard nothing and suspected nothing.
Just as he was about to turn, the Wild Man sprang from the bush, and with one terrible bound was upon his back! He clutched Rokiroki by the throat and bore him to the ground.
Then the Man of the Bush reached forth his hand to his flaxen belt to draw his toki. his small stone axe, wherewith to smite Rokiroki on the head and kill him. But Rokiroki was not to be slain so easily. Although an old man, he was a man of powerful muscle, and he fought his mysterious assailant right well.
Over and over they rolled on the ground, sometimes Rokiroki and sometimes the Wild Man on top. Rokiroki at last managed to tear his enemy’s hand from his throat, and he called loudly for assistance—called to his little daughter that he was being murdered.page 113 page break page 115
The little girl, amazed and terrified, came running up. She stood there looking on, but not weeping; she was wondering how she could help her father to escape from that fearful-looking naked man with the long, shaggy hair, who had him clutched in a death-like grip.
Over and over they wrestled, until they were right on the edge of the low bank there. The next moment they had disappeared. Gripped in each other’s arms, they tumbled over the bank and landed on that sandspit. And there they continued that great battle of muscle and sinew, struggling away there on the water edge.
Now Rokiroki was underneath, with his tall foeman, his teeth grinding and his eyes blazing, trying to wear him out. But Rokiroki, exerting all his strength, gripped the stranger’s wrists so that he could not draw his hatchet. And now he called again to his little daughter, who stood trembling on the bank above:
“Come down here, come down and seize his toki! Strike him from above, strike him on his head!”
The little girl slid down the bank, and rushed to her father’s assistance. She snatched the little stone axe from the stranger’s belt.
“Patua iho ki runga!” cried Rokiroki, “patua iho ki runga!” That was bidding the girl strike down on the back of the foeman’s head.
The brave little kotiro did as she was bidden. Leaping upon the Wild Man, who could not turn because he was held so tightly by Rokiroki, she chopped and chopped away with all her force at the back of his black shaggy head.
Again and again she struck the man with the sharp-edged toki, until she stunned him, and he lay there conquered. His grip relaxed, and Rokiroki arose, torn and bleeding, but victorious, from that terrible embrace. Scrambling from under the body of his foe, he took the stone hatchet from his daughter, and, turning the unconscious stranger over, he smote him two great blows on the temple, and killed him dead.
* * *
“Ha! That was a first-rate wrestling match,” said my fellow pakeha, when Tuki had drawn breath after his dramatically told story. “But where does the pig come in?”
“That was the pig,” replied Tuki with a grin. “That Wild Man of the Bush was the poaka! When Rokiroki had killed his foe he stood there awhile regarding him triumphantly, and he chanted a song of victory over him, and he said words of loving praise to his little daughter, who stood panting beside him, the child who had saved his life from the hungry cannibal.page 116
“For cannibal he was—he was hungry for man! The dead stranger was an escaped mokai, a slave. He was a man of the Atiawa tribe, of Taranaki, and had been taken as prisoner of war at the sacking of Pukerangiora. His captors took him to the Waikato, and after a while he escaped, and, taking to the bush, was making his way through the wilderness towards his old home in the south. He was famished for food when he reached the Mokau banks, and when he saw Rokiroki in the plantation he designed to slay him and drag his body into the secret parts of the bush and feast upon it.
“All this Rokiroki knew directly he looked upon the dead man. But he said nothing of it just then. He left the slain mokai lying there stretched out on the sandbank, and, taking his daughter by the hand, he returned to his home and walked to the houses of his people near by. There he met two of his nephews.
“‘Take your canoe,’ he said to them, ‘and go down the river to the Manga-takiora. There shall you find a pig, a very great pig, lying on the sandbank. Bring it home and have it cooked for our meal this evening.’
“The young men did as they were told. They fetched the strange pig home, and it was a kinaki, a relish, that night for the fern-root and the mamaku and the potatoes, and that was the end of the Wild Man of the Bush, the runaway mokai. There was only one thing Rokiroki was sorry for—that he could not have captured the slave alive and fed him for a few days, and kept him till he was fit to kill. Yes, it was such a pity. He would have been ever so much better fattened up.”