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Legends of the Maori

How He Lost His Ears — The Pakeha-Maori’s Yarn

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How He Lost His Ears
The Pakeha-Maori’s Yarn

HE was an old grey-headed Pakeha-Maori who lived at the pa. He always wore a silk handkerchief around his head, having, as the Natives informed me, lost his ears: how, they did not seem inclined to say. I knew that his kind are accustomed to ambush the truth in a wily and strategic manner, and that caution was necessary in questioning him.

It is many years ago now. It was far back, and “square-face” was precious. I took a bottle to his whare, and, enquiring the price of flax, pumped the liquor in and the following narrative out.

* * *

“Well, it is right on forty years since them lugs o’ mine added finish to my plug. I were at old Ruhia’s whare, down river. She were mortial bad, the old man away but sent for, and the kids grown up and scattered. I got her what bush physic I could but she were a goner, no doubt. The old man came in the afternoon and walks over and looks at her without speaking, nods his head and goes outside. By an’ by he come back, with two or three soap boxes he’d got from a pile on ’em outside the store a bit down the stream. He got a hammer and a saw and started in making the coffin.

“Says I: ‘Nirai, old buster, hold hard, she ain’t kicked out yet,’ and I rushed over and took hold on him and tried to stop him. He said, ‘Alla right, Bobbie, taihoa she go. I make it time she ready.’ And damn me if the old haybag didn’t hobject to me touching her man, and, groping about with her hand, found a stone corn crusher and landed me with her last bit o’ strength. When I got up I thought I’d better leave the old couple to spend their last loving moments alone. It appear’d it were pretty near a dead-heat, but if anything the coffin were finished first. The husband was thoughtful for the wants of his loving wife to the end.

“The old man fixed her and left her alone and came up to the pa, and we all went down and tangi’d over her and ate up all the tucker they had and as much as old Nirai could borrow and steal, and we left arter that duty were done. I were one as helped to tote her to the grave, and she felt pretty heavy. She had a beautiful inscription in the proper place on the coffin page 156 which read, ‘Prime Household Yaller,’ and the whole turn-out were high-toned.

“That night says I to young Tiopira, ‘She were heavier than I thought, Tio.’ He was a toa, one o’ those who does the forlorn hope business in a scrummage. ‘Yes,’ says he, ‘me think old Nirai bury greenstone and money with old Ruhia.’ Says I: ‘The ground were quite soft digging, weren’t it, Tio?’ and he says, ‘It am softer now, Bobbie. S’pose you and me go and look for greenstone.’ There was only a young girl eight or nine years old in the whare, and Tiopira told her he knew a hole where an old eel was putting in the winter and we was going to get him.

“It were pretty dark when we reached the grave and we didn’t want to strike a light, so the digging was rather slow. But when we struck wood we pried up the top and then both on us put out hands down one at each end o’ the coffin. We both got a start at the same moment, and giving a yell each we jumped out o’ the hole and bolted. We pulled up ’bout a quarter of a mile away by tumbling into a crick, and then Tiopira said, ‘Old Nirai cut open Ruhia, I ’tink. What er name er dog he do that for?’

“I told him Nirai was growling about his pet kaka parrot being gone and he might er been searching for the remains. We went back and though Tiopira didn’t like it I struck a light, as I didn’t see what was the good o’ leaving a lot o’ greenstone to ornament a body with the innerds open. Tiopira were on top and he gave another yell when by the light o’ the match he saw a fine old sow cleaned and scraped with white flax spread out and head complete, lying in the coffin all beautiful in death. He said old Patara, the magic man, had done it, or else Ruhia was getting ready to come to the world again in a different body, and the race instead of developing into angels was going back to pigs. Howsomever, I showed him where the knife marks was and told him I had seen that pig hanging up in the next whare a day or two back, and that it belonged to the pakehas at the store. We lifted it up to see if Ruhia was underneath, but she wasn’t, so we hauled up the pig and filled in the hole. But where in the name of God was Ruhia? It appeared as it she’d ascended, as they say.

“There was an old bone-house by the river bank where a chief’s bones was stored after being scraped, what yer calls a mausoleum, I think, and as that was tapu we knew the pig ’ud be safe ’cos no one goes near. Afore we left I cut off a few of the short ribs and then we went home. I went into the next whare and the pig weren’t there; no more was Ruhia. My dog, where was that demon, Ruhia? We started to roast the pork but the girl was sulky and wouldn’t speak. She rolled herself in her blanket, and then I minded that just when I picked up myself out o’ the crick I had seen a flash this way as if a door were open and shut.

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How He Lost His Ears.

How He Lost His Ears.

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“When I woke up to light my pipe afore daylight she was gone, and ’bout seven o’clock I was woke up by finding the whare was full o’ Maoris shouting and knocking me and Tiopira about. They wouldn’t listen to us but just bundled us into a canoe. As fur as I could make out the girl had told ’em we had cut some chops off Ruhia and left her in the pantry till called for. They oughter knowed I wouldn’t touch the old piece, if they’d er minded the trouble they had to make me eat a bit o’ a fresh killed baby which I only took ’cos they said they’d eat me if I didn’t. I’d never ate a bit since. Tiopira was a terror for it in war time but that was his funeral, and has he liked to get outside his victims it were no reason why I should suffer.

“When they came to question us up at the pa I told ’em we’d a seen some chaps digging at the grave in search of greenstones and that we’d drove ’em away and found the pig in the coffin, and if they didn’t believe me I told ’em where to find the carcase. Well, they tied us up while they went to look for the solid ghost o’ old Ruhia, and yer might er knocked me down with a rush when they come back and couldn’t find the pig nor Ruhia neither! We had a post apiece to lean against and flax ropes round us so as we shouldn’t tumble, and was facing one another ’bout ten feet apart and the natives sitting all round yelling and doing the musical part of the play. Ruhia’s two daughters was the chief performers and they had each just a piupiu round the waist and the hard flax fandangles rattled at each jump they made. And, great God, didn’t they sing out, with voices that come out o’ their great round bosoms what was quite bare. They had sharp shells in each hand and every now and then with a screech they’d bring the edge down over their breasts and the blood ’ud spout out and get smeared all over their skirts, and they rubbed it on their faces till they looked painted pictures. They was two fine women, no doubt, even without paint.

“By and by, to vary the performance, one of the women goes and gets a sharp knife out o’ the whare. I knowed that knife: the handle was ornamented with a bit o’ bone for every life it’d took, and there was plenty room for more on it, which was very encouraging. She made pretend to shove it into me and flourished it about my face for about a year or a year and a half. And then, ketching hold o’ one ear by the tip, she swooped the knife down and slashed off the lug clean. She puts it into her rosy lips, and, shoving her blooming face close to mine, she started chewing in rather an obtrusive manner, I thought.

“The other sister got jealous ’cos she got no applause, so she collars my left ear and serves it the same, and then the two on ’em stood chewing and smacking their lips. Then the second one thought she’d go one better and she rushes over to Tiopira and left her knife quivering in his heart. He page 160 never blinked, by God! and his face was sneering and haughty like, but he saved my life, same as the ram saved Father Isaac, just as I thought t’other one ’ud see her sister’s antic and call her up by sticking the knife inter me.

“All Tiopira’s relations got up and I thought there was going to be a general scrummage for they was bound to have utu (payment). Howsomever, an old tohunga spoke to ’em through a hole in a stone like a funnel, and they all quietened down and goes in to the whare to deliberate. They decided that Tiopira was to be given to his friends to be buried, and he was guarded all night for fear t’other side should steal him and scoff him. They hadn’t settled ’bout me, so I was left at my private hitching-post all night, and it appeared as if I was going to be upright to the end.

“About midnight a little girl came up and held a calabash to my lips. She was the girl that became my missus arterwards. In the morning it was found that full payment for Tiopira wasn’t to be taken yet, although he was considered to more than pay for Ruhia, but I was to be given to Tiopira’s friends as payment on account, and it were very satisfactory to find I was of some value, although I’d er preferred to be in circulation stead of a fixed deposit. I began to think if I could only get a knife and my arms and legs free I’d er made a Malay rush for it and er-took some on ’em along with me to the Judgment Seat. Anyhow, I was going to die solid, and began to think what I should say. I were first thinking it’d tempt ’em to strike deep if I said old Ruhia was an old woman of surprising flavour for her age but ’ud been a bit tender if she’d been living, when I heard a lot o’ shouting, pakeha voices, from the river-bank. Presently up comes the Captain who owned the vessel what was anchored off the mouth loading flax for Rauparaha to buy guns with, and behind him came half-a-dozen sailors carrying a box just like the one Ruhia was buried in with the same ‘Prime Household Yeller’ inscription. We soon found that the lady was inside, for the skipper says, ‘My friends, I thought some of you had been playing me a trick, knowing my fondness for the fair sect, but believe me I prefer them as much alive as convenient.’

“It were soon explained. The two young storekeepers was there, and they had packed up the pig in the boxes just like Ruhia’s wonderful great coffin. Them boxes come handy for both purposes nailed end for end, with strength’ning planks at the joints. They had left the box in the whare next to the whare Ruhia was in and the sailors had gone to the wrong whare and took the wrong box. As to the pig in the mausoleum, the boat was accustomed to trade up the river and take grog with ’em and they had the same idea ’bout the tapu as we had and used to leave grog under the table what held the chief’s bones. The night afore they came down stream and went to page 161 put some grog in there, when they found the pig and snavelled the lot. As to how Ruhia got into the wrong house, it were this way: Old Nirai, when he had packed up Ruhia, came up to the pa and sent the people down to do the tangi-ing, whilst he went further up to fetch some more. And when the first lot came down to the whares they thought Nirai had got the body into the other whare for convenience of working at the coffin, so they shifted it back and everything looked ship-shape when he returned

“It were some time afore my ears healed up, and I wears the handkerchief so as not to be teased, for the youngsters used to bring me great fungus lobes and sing out ‘O taringa’ (‘your ears’). Then, again, they used to chaff me and say I’d swapped my ears for a pair o’ pork chops. I stopped it at last by saying I’d go for ’em for utu, although of course I couldn’t kill ’em, ’cos that ’ud be suicide, and if we could only hidentify ’em I expect I’m blood relations to quite a tribe on ’em and I’ve of’en thought I’d put in a land claim in consequence.”

“Do you think it would stand?” I asked.

“Oh, I think so. There was an old chap claiming a bit one day ’cos he said his father was buried there, but another got up and said it were a lie for that chap’s father was buried in his innerds and he got the land, so I think I’ve got a show.”

“I suppose the two young women were very sorry and tried to make it up in some way?”

“Well, they lent me their ears, as you might say, when I wanted anything. There was a rare bobbery at first. Tiopira’s people started it. They was going through the lot o’ Ruhia’s people for killing Tiopira in payment for pork chops. It were a dreadful insult and I backed it up on account o’ my lugs, and the tribe decided that the two young women should sack their blokes and marry me. They was willing and was regular screams, perfect models, as I’d seen when they was performing on me, but somehow I thought after swallowing my ears as they was within the forbidden relationship and that it would ’er been worse ner incest, as I should be marrying myself, as it were, and if a man is forbid to marry his grandmother he’d no right to wed with the lady who’s had a slice of his own flesh, as yer might say, so I declined. I allers took a great interest on ’em and a pride in their forms, though I’m not given to vanity as a rule, but it ’ud come unexpected like and never expected when I was born that part of me should grow into such out-and-out fine girls as them. I was terrible wild when one on ’em took my left ear away and I lost sight o’ her for ever, so as my right ear is now the one left, but it wasn’t her fault.”

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“How did it happen?”

“Well, yer see, there came a great war-party from Waikato with guns, and my left ear dropped first volley and was scoffed o’ course. So she’s gone a long way north and is much divided, and we’d meet as perfect strangers if we met, and there’s so many of her by this time as I should hardly know myself, ’cos, in course, what’s her is me and all the fellows what scoffed her likewise and we are all very much wrapped up in one another. My right ear used to come and see me often. She’s been a fine woman, but the girl as gave me the water didn’t like to see her foolin’ around and used to tell ’er there’d be more o’ me if it wasn’t for her and less of herself if every one had their rights. She married years agone and the children is like half-castes. It’s astonishing how a little of the blood of a Hinglishman colours them hinferior races, and my ear is gone through the whole crush on ’em, and no doubt it’ll improve the breed.”

* * *

“Thanks for the yarn. Can I do anything for you?”

“Not as I knows on. If yer should want a good carved head, there’s an old feller what’s a slave up the river a bit, and the chief, I guess, is only waiting for enquiries after such goods, when he’ll scoff him and cure his headpiece. I’ve been on the look-out for a customer ever since I see the old feller a-pickin’ up flesh. My word, it’s a real stunner, as beautifully tattooed as they make ’em. So long.”