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Te Rou, or, The Maori at Home

Chapter IV. Preparations for Defence at Otu, and Feast of the Slain

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Chapter IV. Preparations for Defence at Otu, and Feast of the Slain.

The deed was done, and the two bodies lay cold and stiff. Pare had left his companions with their enemies; revenge had been taken, and now for defence. To sit idle would be madness. “The eyes of our enemies are full of the dust of Otu,” said an old savage. “Ah!” said he, addressing the corpses, “where will you next wash your faces? What are your ears worth now? They cannot hear all the lies told about us by your boasting fathers. Where are your tongues now? They cannot tell of great actions, never known but in the brains of your boasting tribe. How dull your eyes look! Wipe them, my sons, and take the dust out of them. The marks on your faces look like so many trenches full of dirt. Go, wash your heads, or how can a lady-love look on you; send not one of those dirty looks to your affianced one. Speak, you sulky slaves, when a chief addresses you! What say you to a warm oven to-night, when the owls can look at you while you sit on the hot stones?”

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The old man would have continued his taunting speech, but a woman rose, and, jumping like a maniac, said: “Why keep them? Why look at the dogs? Is their flesh not eatable? What wait we for? Who can sleep to-night before we have eaten the gift so nobly given by Tu?”

“I know that women are ever ready to talk about eating,” answered a young man with a dogskin mat on; “but what will you say to the fathers of the young men you wish now to eat when they come? I think your eyes will look as dull as those of their sons. Do you think they will be as deaf to insult as these whom you have killed? Let men talk of eating them; for they, not you, must give account and pay the debt.”

“Silence!” said a young woman, who rose immediately after the last speaker. She was a daughter of Kaito—a round-faced, black-eyed, curly-headed maiden with pouting lips, who had never seen the man or woman who could curb her headstrong passion for rule. “Silence! or speak like a man. If you cannot speak sense, come to me and I will teach you. Are you not angry because your sweetheart told you that you were a dolt, and but an ugly one? I will go and make love for you, if you will let me put on your dogskin mat. When you next go to make love, first come to me, and I will teach you what to say, and one of my slaves shall pull the hairs from your cheeks with cockle-shells, you hairy stupid! How dare you speak about women? Who is a coward? It was because you are a coward that you could not gain the page 48 one you loved. Are you afraid of the faces of those now before you? One of them is better-looking than you are. Perhaps if you were to sleep with his head in your arms, you might grow handsome, and then I might love you. Cook them, and let that fainthearted dogskin mat cry over them while we eat.”

“Cook them,” said Kaito, speaking as he sat in his hut. “Now for action. We will entrench our pah. Each man to his work.” He had scarcely given the word of command before they were all actively employed in strengthening their defence.

Otu pah was built on the eastern side of a deep, pebbly creek. Both banks were level for some short distance, then mountains, covered with forest, arose on either side. The creek took its source among the mountains, and, winding its way past the pah, it emptied itself into the main river. The women assisted in the work of fortification, digging with pointed sticks. A trench was soon dug round the pah, and a breastwork formed inside, to defend them from their enemies’ spears. While some were entrenching, others might be seen digging with all their might, as if bent upon completing their task within a set time. Many looked like dogs scratching. Stooping half double, they threw the soil up with their hands out of the trench into the pah, where others beat the soil with sticks, to form the rampart and to make it solid.

The fires which glared all round gave the scene a weird appearance, and it seemed as if fiends had been let loose to work their evil designs upon earth. The page 49 men were naked, and their tattooed faces and hips appeared and disappeared in the glare of the fires, while some uttered a word of command and then disappeared in the darkness.

At a distance from the pah were several fires, on one of which was a hangi being heated. Near these fires were men and women young and old; one was a priestess. They laughed and sported round the fires while the priestess divined the omens of war, as seen in the corpses before her.

“How did they die?” asked the priestess.

“One of them shook his head as he died,” answered an old woman.

“Oh, we shall all be killed!” cried the priestess. “That is an evil omen.”

“And,” added the old woman, “the other beat his breast with his right hand.”

“And see how they stare,” said a young girl.

“No omens could be worse; the gods made them do these things.”

The old priestess now stood up, trembling from head to foot, and, addressing the corpses, she cried: “Cursed be the gods of your fathers! What are you now? Know you not that we have a charm in these words, used of old—‘Your spirit is gone; the body alone is left. What can you do now?’” So saying, she left them.

The bodies were now cut into pieces with shells, limb being cut from limb, the dissectors amusing themselves with them as their vengeful feelings prompted. When the limbs had been severed, each page 50 man or woman who had an arm or leg laid it on the fire, and when it was scorched, scraped the skin off preparatory to cooking. They laughed and joked as the heat caused the muscles and joints to contract, some saying, “Does the fire feel warm? It is cold to-night.” The young women enjoyed the sight, and amused themselves by piercing the scorched limbs with sticks. The darkness of the night and glare of the fire gave a ghastliness to the scene scarcely to be conceived.

All had worked long, and it was midnight. Now the slaves (who had cooked the night's repast for those employed in strengthening the pah) scraped the earth from the hangis, when an old woman said, “I think the food is not yet cooked.”

A young girl answered: “How stupid you are! They were not so old as you, that their flesh should require to be cooked so long as yours would be to make it eatable.”.

Fires were lighted near the hangis to give light to those who were to feast. When the leaves of the oven were uncovered, an arm or a leg, with contracted fingers or toes, might be seen protruding’ here and there. The warriors, who sat at a short distance from the hangis, watched the women taking the food out, and looked wistfully at that for which they longed. The steam from the heated stones annoyed the old women; and, to cool their half-scalded hands, they would now and then lick them, with a smile of delight, saying, “How nice and fat it is!”

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A young chief took a rib, and, while picking it, stood over the old women directing the division of the flesh. A young damsel also took some flesh from a leg, and returned to a group of her young companions, who asked for a taste. The flesh having been divided, the baskets were set before those who were to feast, and soon all were eating, laughing as they picked the bones. Those who had a thigh or an arm-bone would bruise one end of it, warm it again at the fire, and suck the marrow out of the bruised end; and to make sure of getting it all out they would heat a fern-stalk, which they passed through the bone, then draw it across their lips, sucking the marrow off with their curled, protruded tongues. Old Haupa, the priestess, sat alone, eating in sulky silence the hearts, which, as a priestess, were her portion, and had been cooked in a hangi by themselves.

The feast was done; the young men and women had become tired of playing with the two heads, and all were asleep in the pah save the watch, who, with shrill and gruff voices, occasionally gave utterance to the night watch-cry:—

“The lightning is fluttering o'er Hikurangi;
It points to Tuawera;
It sports. Thy beloved is landing;
Thy love is coming;
Leave her to enlarge other lands;
Leave her to rest in Hokianga.
The battle strife will follow.”

The night air was still keenly cold; the morning star had risen; Tawera (morning star), the messenger page 52 of morning, was making her appearance, when the sleepers were suddenly aroused. There was one who had not slept; she had asked the god of war for omens; there were but few, and all evil, and Haupa was sick at heart. Her left hand smote her breast; for she saw, as in a trance, her head full of vermin. She awoke the people with her wailing.

“Woe is me! O my sons, who shall spread over you the branch of the sacred karamu?1 Who shall make you brave with the sacred words of the tohi taua?2 What do I know? I am but a woman, and women know not all. It is for men to baptize you on the eve of war, and so insure to you the victory. But,” added she, “if, by being a woman, I am excluded from the knowledge of the ceremonies used on the eve of war, I can speak my thoughts.”

Day was now breaking; the birds sang their morning song. It was not light enough for them to venture on the wing, so they sang as they sat perched on the twigs which had been their support in sleep. The mountains seemed like giants just awakening, their first breath of consciousness being a long, sonorous sigh of wild music, and hill echoed to hill. One voice alone was discordant. Haupa had come out of her hut, a shed constructed of small branches and fern, and was standing in the open space in the middle of the pah, now trembling, then stamping with rage, again pacing the length of the pah with all the contortions her old decrepit limbs would allow, then screaming in a loud page 53 and frantic voice while she pulled the grey locks from her head with both hands.

At last she seized a stick which the young men had used to spear the heads of the two eaten men, and having adjusted her mat (the only covering her old limbs required), which was wrapped round her like a bundle of seaweed, she said, while beating her fleshless limbs and breast with one hand, and holding the uplifted spear in the other, “Cursed be the head on which the ear is which does not hear what I say! May the heat of a hangi be the first to melt the ear-wax in it, and may the first sound it hears be the frying of its own flesh! Hearken, O ye, my children! I speak not to the coward—I would not give my words to such a dog. Let my words be written on your hearts. O that I were a man for your sakes! What are you? I could make you yield in the battle tide. A man would never run away: his soul would rather die than ask its body's life from man!”

1 Coprosma lucida.

2 The baptism of war.