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Te Rou, or, The Maori at Home

Chapter XV. Cooking a Dead Slave

Chapter XV. Cooking a Dead Slave.

During the absence of the priest and corpse-bearers the people remained sitting in the places which each had taken after the dirge had been sung. They sat crouching, listening attentively for the return of the priest; for no one knew by what path he would return to the settlement.

Takabo returned by a different path, and upon emerging from the scrub, he cried out, “Now may man eat, and Hineteiwaiwa1 have command.”

Hearing this expected command, all the people in the settlement sprang on their feet, and immediately the women were talking and laughing, the children running and shouting, while the men ordered their wives or slaves to prepare food. Now might be seen women leaving the settlement for a short time, and returning with bundles of dry wood on their backs, which they threw near to mounds of black earth, half-charred embers, and black burnt stones. While

1 The goddess of midwifery.

page 223 some of them were breaking up the wood, others scratched out the holes near the mounds; then putting in a little fire, then the wood, and on the top of this the stones, smoke was soon issuing in all directions from these hangis. They were all at some distance from the priest's hut.

Women gathered round the hangis, and were soon busy preparing kumaras for the coming meal. Each one held a cockle-shell between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, and taking the kumara in the left hand, one end of which was being held against the little finger, with the strength of the thumb, at one scrape, a strip of skin was taken off from end to end.

The stones piled on the wood had, as the wood consumed, dropped one by one into the hole, which was now half-filled with nearly red-hot stones. The hole was about a yard in width, and about eighteen inches in depth. Water was then poured out of a calabash on the stones, which sent up a cloud of steam, rolling away like a white ball in the still air. Round the edge of the hangi were now placed the remains of old flax baskets, which had been previously thoroughly soaked in the stream. The scraped kumaras were placed on the stones, and covered by another lot of old baskets, the whole being covered by mats made of the unsplit flax-leaf. Some water was again poured in the hole; and in the midst of the steam the women might be seen, like so many dogs, scratching the dark earth and charcoal on to the heap of mats until the steam page 224 ceased to escape. Thus covered up, the food was cooked.

One woman had taken no part in preparing the food; but since the lament was sung she had sat at the feet of the corpse of the young woman and wept. No one noticed her save her boy, who sat with his head leaning against her clasped hands, which covered her eyes. The tears, oozing between her fingers, trickled down the child's head. He did not heed the tears, but sat silent, looking at the crowd of children (who had been busy ever since the preparation of food had begun) cutting up the corpse of an old man. Once, and only once, did the boy laugh; but in an instant his voice was hushed, as if something had commanded silence.

Some of the elder boys had severed the old slave's head from the body, and it had been taken possession of by one of the girls, the blood trickling down her arm, and bespattering the small mat which was tied round her waist. With the other hand she held the snow-white beard, by which she opened and shut the mouth, making the teeth gnash and snap, at the same time uttering a wild yell. While doing this, she rushed here and there amongst the little children, to the horror of some and the amusement of others. In one of her wild flights she put the head up to the face of a slave who was passing, and made it gnash at him. The slave with a vigorous stroke sent the head out of her hand, and in its fall it knocked a child down. Immediately there was a rush to get possession of the head, page 225 and the children rolled and tumbled over each other. It was this that had caused the little boy to laugh. One of the boys had gained possession of an arm, and placed it on the fire to roast the flesh near the shoulder. This act had been seen by a slave, who because of his great muscular strength had with impunity done many things which men in his position did not ordinarily dare to do. He stepped up behind the boy (who was in the act of putting the cooked flesh to his mouth), and suddenly jerked it out of his hand; at the same time the boy fell on his back. The slave tore off a few mouthfuls, and threw the arm down again, and ran away, to escape an attack from the enraged lad and his associates. As soon as the boy regained his legs he seized the arm, and with a spiteful yell threw it after the slave. The aim not being good, it went rolling and tumbling in the air, and fell near to a wrinkled, decrepit, half-blind old woman, who had just before been begging for a limb. Taking this as one thrown to her, she snatched it up and put it under her mat, her face at the same time lighting up with a smile of supreme delight.

The owner of the arm stepped up to her, and asked, “Why do you steal my food?”

“Your food!” answered the old woman. “It is mine. Those boys threw it to me.”

“Yes,” said one of the other boys, “we did, because you asked for it.”

“No,” said the owner; “it is mine. I threw it at Kaikai, in revenge for his impertinence.”

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“What are your words to me?” answered the old woman. “I shall not believe your lies—I will eat the arm. Go away, and do not talk to me. My ears are old, and your noise pains them.”

“Give me my food,” said the boy, “or I will talk to you until the hairs jump out of your old ears, and then the cold air of winter will get in and kill you.”

The old woman, addressing the boys who had the other limbs, asked, “You gave me this?”

“Yes,” they answered with one voice.

“Then be kind to this boy,” said the old woman, “and give him some food, so that I may sit here, and not be killed by his voice.”

“Yes, we will give him enough,” said the biggest of the boys. “Come here, Piu, and be one with us now, and you shall have a long piece of food.”

To keep his promise, the last speaker took up the bowels of the dead man and threw them right in front of Piu, the contents bespattering him and the old woman in a most disagreeable manner.

The old woman jumped up in a rage, and holding the hand of the arm in her hand, she swung it round and round her head, uttering the most furious words of anger at the boys.

Piu, fearing to receive a blow from her weapon, left her, and sat down with the others, who with one voice ordered him away.

One said, “Go and clean yourself. We cannot let you come near us. Who ever sat with a dirty fellow? page 227 You shall not eat of our food if you are so dirty. Go away!—go!—begone!”

All this time the little boy had been looking at the scene, nor had he moved since his short laugh. At last he spoke, taking hold of one of his mother's hands, which he partly pulled from her face, and said, “Look, mother, look! Do you see yon old woman who is in a rage? She is going to kill some one with old Koko's arm. You see yon boys. As soon as old Koko fell down in a fit this morning, because he was full of sorrow for his master's death (over whom you sit and cry so long), yon big boy hit him on the temple with a stone. Why did you not save his life? He is your slave; for your cousin is dead. She was his master. Old Koko might have worked for us. If your cousin had not died, he would not have fallen down in a fit of sorrow; then he would not have been killed. If you cry any longer for your cousin I will cry for old Koko. He was kind to me: he gave me eels and other things which he caught for himself.”

“Hush!” answered his mother; “you are only a child. Koko was a slave, and my cousin was a woman of high rank, and sacred; for the gods protected her. Old Koko was left to his fate by the gods: hence he was taken a slave. When the gods abandoned him, self-protection left him; and as he had no god to guide him, he can be eaten by any one without fear of harm coming to them. The gods reside in and rule the body; and to eat a body which is their house is an page 228 insult which they resent by killing those who dare do so bold an act.”

“Then your cousin was left to her fate by her gods,” asked the boy, “or else how did she die, not having been killed by any one? Mother, perhaps the gods killed her. If so, what evil have either of you done? She loved you much, and you were like one. Did you ever do any great evil, mother?”

The mother answered, “Look! Go and see what those boys and Kaikai are doing. Kaikai is my slave; go to him and he will feed you when the food is cooked.”

Moe, for that was the name of the boy, went, not so much in obedience to his mother's command as because it suited his inclination. Children of his age, about eleven summers old, hold it as an undisputed point that they are their own masters, and can do whatever they please, unless thwarted by some one stronger than themselves. Kaikai was expending the strength of his arm, tongue, and voice, to the great amusement of a lot of men, women, boys, and girls. He had made a large circular fire, about two strides wide; around this he placed, on sticks about a yard long and stuck round the fire, the limbs of Koko. A leg was stuck with the foot in the air, the stick having stuck in at the thigh end, and pushed up to the knee; an arm came next, the stick having been thrust right up to the elbow; one side of the ribs was put between the split end of a stick, the ends being tied together to keep the ribs from falling out.

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As the heat acted upon the limbs, Kaikai said, “Now, children, old Koko will show you how to use your arms in the kauikaui.1 Look, look how that arm twists! See, the old man is about to walk! Look, his thigh quivers! There,” he said, as one of the legs fell down, “he will kick you if you do not stand farther off.” At the same time swinging the the limb round, which was now hot, he struck a number of the children with it, who ran away screaming and laughing, each rubbing that part of their body where the cooked limb had hit them.

The limb was again replaced, and Kaikai was kept busily tending the roasting until the women began to open the hangis in which the kumaras had been placed to cook. The young dissectors, being chiefs, could not cook, hence Kaikai had to do it for them; he also cooked the arm which the old woman claimed.

While Kaikai was thus employed, the women were busy making small baskets, called paro or kono, out of which the people were to eat the kumara. Now and then Kaikai would touch a nearly-cooked limb, and, licking his fingers, say to the women, “If you do not make haste, the sweet morsel to eat with what you have cooked will be spoilt. Quick! quick! Make the paros faster!”

Said a young woman who had not yet called any man her master, “Kai, you come from the same place as old Koko?”

“No,” answered Kai. “He came from stupidity,

1 The same thing as the haka described in Pipo's love-tale, p. 98.

page 230 and took a journey to man's mouth. I am still a man.”

“No,” said the girl. “I mean that you and Koko were taken at the same time and place.”

“Oh, no,” answered Kai. “I was out catching eels, and had my hands all besmeared with the slime, and could not hold my weapon; hence I was taken. I helped to take old Koko.”

“But you were bought for a dog,” said the girl, “by the man whose corpse lies yonder.”

“No; a dog is a dog,” answered Kai; “but my food is cooked, and you cannot eat food cooked by a dog. Here, Moe,” addressing the boy; “you and I are to have this. It is not very fat; but you shall be a brave man, so come and eat out of the paro which I shall choose.”

Moe gave his consent by lifting his eyebrows.

“Do not go with him,” said the girl. “He will make you a bad man like himself.”

“I will feed you,” answered Kai, “and make you a big man; your father is so small.” Addressing the girl, he continued: “Tell your years not to increase for eight more summers, and then you will break your heart if you cannot call my boy Moe your husband; but Kai will see who gets him. Kai has more than blood in his heart. The bat does not fly by day; and great thoughts, like little stones, lie at the bottom of the river. Sit here, Moe, and see that no one takes that limb,” pointing to one thoroughly cooked and well browned.

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Kai soon returned, bringing a paro of kumaras, which he placed pretty near to Moe, but at some distance from the fire. He then took the rest of the limbs, and stuck the sticks on which they were about three paces from the young chiefs who had cut up Koko. They sat in silence, not deigning to thank or in any way recognise Kai's service. To do so would have been an act of supererogation on the part of such young chiefs; being a slave, it was his duty to do anything he was ordered to do.

Not far from the fire sat the old woman who claimed an arm, waiting for Kai to attend to her. She was the cast-off wife of a chief, and being also of high rank and old, she was precluded from going near any fire at which food was being cooked. She could not take the joint she was waiting for.

While Kai was busy taking the different joints from the fire, and sticking the sticks on which they were into the ground before those who should eat them, to keep them from falling down and being soiled by dirt, the lad who had thrown an arm at Kai ran up to the fire, snatched the disputed arm, and said to the old woman, “You have already had twice as much as I have; now the eating is mine. You had your nose filled by the bad smell of the raw meat, and you have had the sweet smell of the arm while cooking; so now eat your kumaras, and let the smell, which must still be in your nose, go down bit by bit with your kumaras into your stomach. You are old, and cannot do much page 232 more work in this world; I am young and shall be needed: good food gives power.”

The woman uttered a scream, and ran after the limb in the boy's hand as fast as her old trembling legs would move.

Kai heard the old woman scream, and turning round he saw what had taken place, and called to her, “Stop! You cannot catch him; you will only fill yourself with wind, and when you eat the food you get you will be ill. If you had not attempted to run after him I would have followed and taken it from him; but as you did not call to me, I will not attempt to get your food. I cooked it for you, and you might have ordered me to take it from any one who stole it; but you said in your heart, ‘Kai is a slave.’ Yes, I am a slave; and now you may eat your kumaras without any nice dainty to sweeten them.”

The old woman sat down, wrapped her mat over her head, and wept.

A young girl came up to where she was sitting, placed a paro of kumaras before her, and said, “Here, old woman, eat with me. Why do you cry?”

“Who wants your food?” she answered. “Let me die. I will not eat any food; I am old, and shall not live long now. Why should I live any longer?”

“But look,” said the girl. “I have a mullet in my basket. Eat it; you can have the whole of it if you like.”

“No; I will not eat unless I can have better flesh than the flesh of fish,” answered the old woman. “I page 233 will not eat what your lover brought for you; it was not intended for me. I am old, and good food is not for those whom no one loves. Eat the gift of your lover yourself.”

“You are mistaken,” said the girl; “for I took it from the basket belonging to Namu, while Kai turned his head to look another way. It was a fish which jumped last night into a canoe which was sent with messengers to the Taheke people. Come, old woman, eat it; and Namu may scold Kai, and blame him for eating it, and there may be anger about it; but what do I care? Old Kai did wrong by not keeping his eyes on his master's food. I did not steal it, as I took it out of the basket in his hand. The man was a fool to look another way when he had nice food in his hands. I took it, as he did not keep sufficient guard over it, and that is not stealing.”

“Eat your own food,” answered the old woman. “Kai let a boy take Koko's arm, which he had cooked for me, and now I am dead for want of some flesh to eat.”

The girl no longer pressed her; but with a fern-stalk she took some kumaras out of the basket and laid them down before the old woman, saying, “As you do not want me, I will eat my fish myself.”

Rising, she went to a group of young men, who were laughing and joking while enjoying the cooked limbs, which by this time had been torn joint from joint, and were being passed from one to another of the young men, who sat in a circle round three baskets of kumaras.