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Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori

Chapter XIV — The Fairy Woman of Takitimu Mountain

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Chapter XIV
The Fairy Woman of Takitimu Mountain

The traveller crossing the great tussock prairie of Southland in the direction of Lake Manapouri observes with growing interest a group of fantastically toothed and notched blue peaks rise on the rolling western horizon. As the car speeds round the northern side of the range he sees that it is a curious detached mountain set there like a vast uneven table-top on the forestless plains. Its form, too, as he goes on may suggest a huge capsized ark, with ragged uneven keel, and that fancy indeed will agree with Maori mythology. This mountain massif of singularly significant outline, its sawedge summits etched in rich blue against the sky, was once compared by an American traveller to the Sierras of New Mexico. To the southern Maori it is the upturned hull of his Pilgrim Ship from the tropic isles of Polynesia. Six centuries ago the sailingcanoe Takitimu, the principal vessel of the straggling fleet whose Eastern Pacific crews page 154 peopled the East Coast of New Zealand, made landfall far in the north, and sailed exploring down the eastern seaboard, until she reached this Murihiku country, the Tail of the Land. Here on the shore of Foveaux Strait she ended her voyage. Her commander Tamatea had her hauled ashore; and here she lies today. In the symbolic folk-talk of the Maori, this range is the “hereditary grand canoe” transformed to stone. In proof thereof the old men point to the outline of the isolated mountain. “See its sloping bow and stern,” they say; “see how regular is its toothed top, bitten into by the storms of the gods; that is the broken keel of our great canoe. That is Takitimu waka, set there forever to tell of our hither-coming, the landing here of our Waitaha forefathers.”

A significant legend that for the scientist perhaps; for this fanciful legend may crystallise a reference to an era—it may be not very remote in geological time—when the ocean flowed over what are now the plains of Murihiku and washed the wide-spread feet of the Takitimu.

Like many another prominent and classic mountain, Takitimu has its legends of the fairy people, the Patu-paiarehe and the page 155 Maero. Giants of the mist peopled this strange tossed-up land; uncanny folk haunted its woody ravines and its shallow caveshelters in the weathered cliffs.

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Hautapu was out hunting weka, the fat flightless woodhen, on the slopes of Takitimu mountain. He was a man of the Manapouri lakeside hapu, a tall lithe fellow with the muscles of a wrestler, the shoulders of a strong canoeman. His dark face was tattooed in a fashion unfamiliar to the Maori of to-day. Four straight horizontal blue lines, deeply incised, ran across his cheeks and nose; he looked out as from behind bars. Short vertical lines were cut in mid-brow. This style of adornment was the moko-a-Tamatea the ancient tattooing pattern of the Takitimu's captain and priest, brought from the tropic islands of the far north-east; its like is to be seen to-day in the Marquesas. Hautapu's garments were mats of flax, a thick and shaggy shoulder cape of roughly dressed flax and a kilt of similar material. On his feet he wore paraerae, plaited sandals for the stony places, made from the tough sword leaves of page 156 the ti or cabbage-tree. A white-haired dog with long pointed fox-like head and bushy tail followed at his heels.

As Hautapu came to the western foot of Takitimu he passed a long reedy pool where wild ducks swam in little squadrons, and dived for tiny fish. A snow-white kotuku, the New Zealand heron, its long legs outstretched, flapped up from the margin of the lagoon and winged its slow flight over his head. He saw other of its kind standing in the shallow water at the far end of the marsh, silent as shadows, waiting to dart a long knife-like beak.

“Spirit birds,” said the Maori; “they companion our dead in the Reinga. Yet they are good to eat;” and he set to at twisting stout cabbage-tree snares (tauhere rau-ti) which he fastened to bunches of rushes in the little channels near the shore. He went about his work leisurely and methodically and when he had finished, a score of loop-snares set here and there along the shores awaited any heedless kotuku. Other snares he cunningly arranged by tying bunches of growing green rushes in running nooses across the narrow swimming ways at just the height of a duck's head page 157 above the water; these made ambush for the teeming parera.

Leaving the pool of the waterbirds, Hautapu began the ascent of Takitimu mountain. The great range rises to between five thousand and six thousand feet above sea level. As he climbed upward he came to a kind of broad terrace, covered with snow grass. Here he stayed awhile looking back on the beautiful lake lying in glimmering breadths of steel-blue between its woody mountains in the west, Moturau, the Lake of a Hundred Islands, which the blundering pakeha mapmakers set down as “Manapouri.” At the eastern end of the isle-dotted lake, where the Waiau River issued in a smooth shining curve, he saw thin blue coils of smoke rising; that way lay the homes of his people. The grassy terrace fell to a sheltered shallow saucer of wooded land; above rose the severe slant of the main range. Hautapu exploring this depression, a kind of dimple in the mountain face, perceived that it would be a convenient camping place; if hunting were good he would stay some days on Takitimu. Through this saucer or dell, termed a hapua by the Maori, a brook of water flowed, forming a page 158 lakelet in the middle of the little glen, and then tumbling in cascades to some greater burn in the valley below. Whio, the blue mountain duck, were swimming on the clear cold pond and in the little rapids of the stream. They uttered their hoarse whistling calls, “whi-io, whi-io.”

Here Hautapu halted. With his stone axe he chopped off tree-branches and hacked down bushes and built a little lean-to wharau for night shelter. The dog came trotting in with a weka he had caught; he dropped it at his master's feet. A curious sound came from the thick belt of beech forest that made a dusky fence on three sides of the hapua. The sharp metallic noise resembled, to Hautapu's ear, the striking together of two pieces of greenstone.

He takahea,” he said to himself, and motioned to the kuri to be off in chase. A takahea would indeed be a prize for the food-hunter; it was the great flightless notornis, a fat blue turkey in appearance, but capable of making greater resistance than a turkey, for its kind had been known by Hautapu to turn on a dog and make fight with the strong heavy beak and claw-armed feet.

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The Maori woodsman was about to follow his dog when suddenly his form stiffened into watchful immobility, as his quick eye beheld something in the thick bushes a few yards away. A face in the bushes, a lightskinned face staring at him through the leaves; two great dark gleaming eyes and a glint of coppery hair.

Hautapu was startled, but gripping his axe he dashed into the thicket.

A woman crouched there, too astonished and too terrified to rise from the kneeling position in which she had been gazing at the stranger through the low loophole of foliage. Hautapu seized her by a naked shoulder and drew her to her feet. Now she drew back her head, shook her long masses of hair and straitly returned gaze for gaze. She was a tall, handsome, amazingly fair-skinned young woman; her hair, flowing thickly about her, shone with a ruddy bronze tint in the sun.

E—e! Taku wahine ataahua!” (“My beautiful wife!”) cried Hautapu. The strange beauty was his captive and, it followed in primitive custom, his wife soon-to-be. His glittering eyes roved over her strong shapely form. Her one garment was a waistmat of fandangling toi leaves, the blades of the page 160 great mountain cordyline. She looked fit to mother warriors, that woman of his, with her erect breasts, full and round, her broad vigorous hips, her healthful beauty displayed in generous curves and sturdy limbs. That was Hautapu's thought. She would rear him a family of men children for the glory of his name and the strength of his tribe.

But this wahine tawhiti, this strange, foreign-looking woman, who was she? whence came she? Hautapu loosed his grip of her, in doubt.

“What is your name?” he asked. “Whence came you—where are your people?”

“Kai-heraki,” she replied, “is my name. I have no people, I come of no race, and I know no one. My home is yonder,” and she pointed up the steep mountain side.

“But your tongue is Maori,” said Hautapu.

“I am a Maori,” said the woman, “yet not a Maori. I know many tongues; I know the tongues of the birds. I am the child of the mountain; Takitimu is my mother.”

He Patu-paiarehe!” muttered Hautapu, as he stood undecidedly regarding his beautiful captive. Truly she was desirable, but there was danger in her beauty. No mortal could safely wed a fairy woman, as she page break
Lake Manapouri, looking west.

Lake Manapouri, looking west.

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Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and the Remarkable Mountains

Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and the Remarkable Mountains

page 161 clearly was, for her enchantment might bind him to the mountain for all time. But the spell of fairydom could be exorcised. Hautapu was a tohunga, versed in charms and a knowledge of the propitiatory and death-averting rites and ceremonies of the ancient race.

The hunter grasped his fairy captive's arm and led her out to the little clearing by the lakeside where he had built his bower of branches. He would perform his rite of ta-whakamoe, a priestly ceremonial used to remove baneful spells. This was needful before he could make her his wife.

“Remain here,” he ordered, “and I shall banish the spirits of enchantment. You shall no longer be a fairy woman. You shall be my wife and in this wharau you shall repose with me.”

The woman stood still, with wondering look, while Hautapu set about making the sacred fire which was necessary to the ta-whakamoe rite. From a flax basket he took his kauati or fire-stick which he carried on hunting expeditions for the purpose of obtaining fire by friction. This was a small flat slab of kaikomako wood, which as all Maoris know contains the seed-sparks page 162 of the primeval fire cast into it by the goddess Mahuika in the beginning of all things. He took out, too, the kaunoti, a sharp-pointed stick of tawa wood; this was the rubbing stick.

“Set your foot on the end of the kauati and keep it steady,” he told the woman as he placed the slab on the ground.

Kai-heraki the fairy did as she was bidden, and Hautapu set to at his fire-kindling, rubbing the hard pointed stick vigorously to and fro along a groove in the flat kauati. The shavings and dust collected at the end of the groove presently began to smoke and then burst into a tiny flame. The woman gasped with amazement at the wonderful sight—for fairies are strangers to fire. A spark fell on her bare foot, which straightway began to spurt a thin stream of blood—for such is the effect of fire on the Patupaiarehe.

In an instant the terrified Kai-heraki turned and raced for the safe shelter of the bush.

After her leaped Hautapu. He crashed through the shrubs in pursuit and seized the frightened quivering woman. Bringing her back to the lakeside he resumed the raising page 163 of his fire wherewith to kindle a sacred oven in which a small portion of food should be cooked, the food-offering needful in dispelling the enchantments that held Kai-heraki to fairydom.

Once more the little flame burst forth in the tinder of the kauati. Hautapu set about building the sacred fire for the ta-whakamoe.

For a moment his attention left Kaiheraki and in that moment she made another dash for freedom.

Like a bird flying from the snare of the fowler she raced for the safety of the friendly forest. In an instant she had gone, with only the shaking bushes to show where she had plunged into the dusk of the woods.

With an angry shout Hautapu ran in pursuit of his woman. He tore into the forest, crying on her to stop. No sign could he find of her. She had vanished completely.

For hours he ran on in chase, calling her name. Once indeed he thought he saw her, on the edge of a steep declivity, but next moment she had vanished.

Now came rolling down a mountain fog. It grew thick and more thick. Dense swirling masses of vapour surged about him.

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In gloom and anger he returned to his camping place. Kai-heraki had vanished for ever from his eyes. Well he knew now that the gods would never permit him to wed the fairy woman of the mountains.

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That was the first and last that Hautapu saw of the strange beauty of the witchmountain. But it may be that Kai-heraki still roves her immemorial hills. The Maoris say she haunts the ranges; the spectrelike form of the wahine-tawhiti is seen on heavy still days of cloud and fog, striding like a giantess along the sides of misty Takitimu.