Another white feather appeared in our letterbox today.
“Manaaki, remember, don’t tell your Kuia about the white feathers. It’ll only cause her unnecessary upset,” my mother insists as we pack our bags in readiness to catch the bus from Blackball to my Kuia’s home near Greymouth.
In all, seven white feathers have been shoved through the slot of our letterbox. Who is responsible for these feathers? Neighbours? Friends? Father’s workmates whom he stood alongside during the miners’ strike last year, seeking a pay rise and the repeal of the Military Service Act for compulsory conscription?
Boarding the bus, Mother chooses seats halfway down the aisle.
“The likes of you can’t sit there,” the driver bellows at us from the front of the bus. Mother, clutching her hold-all bag tightly to her chest, looks straight ahead.
“Get to the back.”
As I rose to my feet, my mother pushes me down firmly.
“Don’t you dare move,” she hisses.
The driver stomps down the aisle, leans across me and tries to wrestle the bag from my mother’s grasp. I smell his anger as his bulk leans over me. Spittle dribbles from his scrunched-up mouth. Like a stone statue, my mother sits, her gaze fixed straight ahead. The driver and my mother continue to wrestle with the bag as other passengers board the bus, hesitate, choose their seats. “Conchie coward, shirker, traitor, socialist scum,” the irate driver mutters, returning to his seat and starting the motor.
The seats near us, across the aisle, in front and behind us, remain empty. Three or four people are squished together on some of the benches. I notice the whispering behind hands, sense the sideways glances.
One man from further back in the bus strides towards us. He stands in the aisle beside us. Swaying with the motion of the bus, he holds the hand-grip above him. He makes a noise in his throat. I know what’s coming. Beside me, my mother tenses. She too knows. The glob of mucus, like a plump white-yellow slug, missing mothers hand’s, stick’s onto her bag. Titters of laughter and clapping from the other passengers. The man erupts in laughter. Mother looks straight ahead. As the man returns to his seat, the driver, taking a sharp bend, brakes suddenly. The man lurches and is thrown to the floor. I smile but suppress the urge to laugh.
As the rickety bus winds it’s creaking bones around the bends and twists in the road toward Greymouth, towards my Kuia’s house in the hills, I consider our ‘change of circumstances,’ as Mother calls it. Father’s arrest last month was not unexpected. When his birth-date was drawn from the ballot and he received the notice to report ‘for duty’ he ceremoniously burnt the official government paper.
My thoughts wander to the scene my mother created at school yesterday, the last day of term. As is her custom, she visited the school to thank Mr Johnson, for his administrations. Mr Johnson, a pale-skinned man, with sandy coloured sparse hair and a distinctive limp is a soft-spoken, fair-minded and patient teacher, especially to those who struggle with written tasks. He seldom resorts to the use of the cane, like some of our past teachers have. And when he does, his body shakes.
After any caning, his mouth drawn tight, he’ll say, “Go and play.”
Some people in the community say he is too soft. I think he’s just right.
“You must listen before you act,” he says. “You must understand the full story.”
One time, when Charlie Stubbs asked him how he got his limp, he told us there was still shrapnel in his leg from fighting in the Boer War.
“You’re a hero, Mr Johnson. Fighting in a war, shooting up the bad guys. Peow! Peow! Wish that were me,” Charlie imitated shooting a gun.
“There are no winners in war, Charlie. Differences are better solved through rhetoric, not by the barrel of a gun.”
Yes, Mr Johnson is just right.
Learning has never caused me difficulty. I devour books, as Mr Johnson often comments and mathematical equations excite me. As one of the older students, Mr Johnson tasks me with tutoring the younger ones with their reading and writing.
One day, following a hushed conversation between the mayor and Mr Johnson by the classroom door, Mr Johnson carried my desk to the corridor. He avoided eye contact with me, mumbling that he had no choice. I felt betrayed. That day, my opinion of Mr Johnson became distorted.
My banishment spread to the playground. I now sit alone under the oak tree. The boys, once my mates run past throwing the football, shouting ‘shirker, coward custard, Conchie.’
When my mother saw me sitting at my desk alone in the draughty cloak bay, she flew into a rage. She stormed into the classroom. I watched through the open door.
My mother, her face flushed red, yelled, “You have no right. Your treatment of my son is unfair.”
Backed-up against the blackboard, Mr Johnson trembled, his face depleted of the little bit of colour he had. My classmates sat frozen in their desks.
He tried to deflect my mother’s angry words. “But Mrs Hohaia, a man regardless of his beliefs must serve his country. He must do his duty to defend his country.”
At home, my mother’s mood did not abate. “Why, Manaaki, why didn’t you tell me?”
I hung my head, shrugged. After today’s performance, you may well ask why I kept my banishment a secret, Mother. And how is our secret, about the feathers any different? My inner dialogue spins.
Later, gathering firewood from the woodshed for the stove, that guilty thought about my father returned. Why couldn’t he have just ‘reported for duty’, do the required training and with any luck, he’d not be sent overseas to fight. There is strong talk that the war, the Great War, will soon be over.
I hear my father’s voice. ‘The Great War, hah, what an oxymoron that term is! There is nothing great about the imperialists using our menfolk as cannon fodder, being maimed and slaughtered in some faraway place over issues of no relevance to us here in Aotearoa.’
I shuddered. I tried to shake the traitorous thought from my mind before returning indoors with my arm-full of wood. As I entered, Mother hummed at the bench as she prepared the skinny wild rabbit she’d trapped earlier, for our supper.
The bus rattles on with no further incidents. Time at my Kuia’s is just what I need. Images of catching those slimy, fat eels in the creek behind her cottage, filter through my mind. The driver drives past Kuia’s gate. Stopping some distance ahead, he slams on the brakes.
“Conchies’ stop,” he shouts.
Mother, stepping towards the driver, wipes the yucky, mucus slug from her bag with her hand, bends slightly and pats the driver’s shoulder, depositing the slug.
“Thank you, kind sir,” she says stepping off the bus. “You have a nice day, now,” and waves as the bus speeds off, spraying an arc of dusty gravel.
By the time the two of us reach Kuia’s gate, we are doubled over with laughter.
Mother and my kuia talk long into the night. I lie on my bony stretcher, unable to decipher what they are saying. Mother leaves early this morning to visit my father before his eleven months of hard labour commence.
“Mokopuna of mine, open up those taringa of yours for I have a story you need to hear.” When my kuia speaks, I listen. On the veranda of her ramshackle house, overlooking lush native vegetation, to the wild grey seas beyond, I perch on the wooden bench my father carved many years ago. My kuia rocks forwards and back in her chair, the runners on the chair create a grinding rhythm on the rough boards. She opens the tattered scrapbook I call her Memories Book.
“Do you know who this gentleman is?” she asks, tapping a grainy picture of a man, copied from a black and white sketch. I peer at the picture. A man with a mop of dark wavy hair, a thick bushy beard and moustache, with one outstretched arm, two fingers pointing, appears to be speaking to an unseen gathering. I shake my head.
“This is the great manu korero, the great orator, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai. This sketch was drawn before his arrest in 1881.”
Kuia turns the page of the book. “And this place, Parihaka? What do you know of Parihaka?” The old photo shows a typical Maori village from long ago, only this one does not have fortifications. Again, I shake my head. I shove my bottom to the back of the bench knowing I’m in for one of Kuia’s long stories.
“This is Parihaka, a peaceful, happy place where I spent my childhood and early adult years.”
Kuia pauses, closes her eyes and smiles. My chance to escape. I wriggle forward on the bench, my feet touch the floor-boards. I’m about to sneak away. Too late, the old woman’s eyes flick open. Her chair stops rocking.
“Parihaka is nestled on the slopes of the sacred maunga, Taranaki.”
“How come it doesn’t have a fortress, like other Maori villages?” I ask, feigning interest.
“Parihaka is a place of peace, a place where everyone is welcome, everyone is listened to. There is no need for a fortress. My own family sought sanctuary there when our village was destroyed during the conflicts, in the 1850s, shortly before my birth.”
I nod my head.
“Let me take you back a few years, back to 1832 and the siege of Otaka by the Waikato Tribes. During the siege, Te Whiti, then a young man, witnessed the death of his father. Following the battle, the Te Ati Awa people drifted south.”
“Hah, so the Waikato tribes won?”
“No, Te Ati Awa were the victors. They migrated south through fear of reprisals, settling at a coastal village called Repanga.” As the creak-creak rhythm of her chair slows, Kuia again closes her eyes.
I’m confused. A man called Te Whiti who likes to talk a lot, an ancient battle, a coastal village called Repanga and another village called Parihaka on the slopes of a sacred mountain. What has any of this got to do with my father being imprisoned for being a conscientious objector? So much for eeling, I’m stuck here on this hard bench listening to Kuia’s never-ending story. But I know better than to protest, passively or otherwise!
As if in a trance, Kuia continues speaking. “An ancient prophecy foretold of two birds of knowledge, who, receiving a message from on high, would lead the people to everlasting life. Those two birds were Te Whiti and Tohu-ao-ariki. They moved their people inland to the slopes of Maunga Taranaki, and renamed the settlement Parihaka in recognition of the sufferings of earlier occupants.”
“And this was before your people moved there?”
“Āie. Your taringa are working, Manaaki.” Kuia chuckles. “Te Whiti, who had ‘heard a thunder and sensed an approaching flood’ counselled restraint… ”
“Hah? Thunder and flood? What did he mean?”
“That the European were coming to take our land.”
“And what did he mean by ‘restraint’?”
“That any resistance to the taking of their lands, be passive, not aggressive. As the spiritual leader of Parihaka, Te Whiti preached peace.”
“He wanted peace, not war?”
“Āie. Te Whiti held strong Christian beliefs.”
“And the people listened to him?”
“Yes. The settlement grew in numbers and strength, attracting many disenfranchised people from near and far. Tohu organised the tautohe, the protest actions against the confiscation of our land.”
“Under the cover of night, Tohu led parties of men on raids. They pulled out surveyors pegs, cut the fences of the settlers and ploughed their fields.”
“You’re saying that although their land was being stolen, they did nothing but pull out pegs, cut fences and plough fields?” I perch on the edge of the bench. Although Kuia’s story is long and confusing, I am becoming interested. Those eels will have to wait.
“Yes. They fought against the settlers and the government peacefully, not with guns. Through his oratory, Te Whiti continued to urge the people to be manawanui, to stay strong, to show tolerance but be persistent.”
“The government didn’t pay for the land, they simply stole it?”
“ ‘The Settlements Act’ passed in the early 1860s, allowed the government to confiscate the land. In exchange, they promised reserves. They failed to honour their promise.”
“Those nightly raids, Kuia, did you ever go?”
My kuia laughs. “No, only boys and men were permitted to do that. Your koro took part in many raids. Each time he went, my manawa, my heart, would swell with pride.”
“And did any of the raiders get caught?”
“Yes. Many men were caught, imprisoned and sent to the South Island. Some did not return. I became more fearful with each raid, for now, we had a son, your father.”
“But you didn’t ask him to stop?”
Kuia shakes her head.
“What happened to my koro? Father says… .”
“Have patience, Mokopuna. What happened to your koro is yet to come.”
Neither of us speak. The runners creak-creak.
In a whisper, Kuia continues. “The people of Parihaka believe an albatross descended, leaving a white feather, a symbol from the Holy Spirit, sanctioning the growing movement at Parihaka. Others believe the vision was a celestial trail of light from a comet in the shape of a feather. Either way, the white feather, the raukura was adopted as a symbol protecting the mana of the Parihaka movement.”
“No! That’s wrong. That’s not what the white feather means. It’s a symbol of cowardliness. Since Fathers arrest, Mother and I have received several white feathers in the post.” I can’t stop myself from blurting the secret, correcting my kuia.
“Tēna rūkahu tēna! Don’t talk such teka, such nonsense, boy! The white feather represents a peaceful protest.” Kuia’s anger slices the air, the chair rocks rapidly, creak-creak-creak.
“So, what happened? Did the government return the land?”
“Anything but. In the final year of the 1870s, the government confiscated a further sixteen thousand acres and surveying began. The raids intensified. Many men were imprisoned. Te Whiti’s influence throughout Taranaki and beyond worried the government and frustrated the settlers.”
“Yet they still would not listen?”
“Āie. The government were not ngakāu whakaute, they neither listened to nor respected the wishes of the people.”
Kuia rests her head. Rocking gently, she returns to her trance-state, her voice a whisper. “Through his teachings, Te Whiti cautioned his people to remain steadfast. ‘Though some, in darkness of heart, seeing their land ravished, might wish to take arms and kill their aggressors, I say it must not be. Let not the Pakeha think to succeed by reason of their guns. I want not war, but they do. The flashes of their guns have singed our eyelashes, and yet they say they do not want war. The government come not hither to reason but go to out-of-the-way places. They work secretly, but I speak in public so that all may hear.’ ”
“And they remained strong?”
“Indeed. On November the fifth, 1881 when fifteen hundred armed troops entered the settlement, we were ready, we were prepared.”
I squiggle to the edge of the wooden seat, anticipating an action-packed ending to Kuia’s long story.
“The children, including your father, greeted the troops with dancing and waiata. They skipped and played with spinning tops. Us woman offered freshly, baked bread.”
“And then the men rushed forward, surprising the invaders. At the end of a ferocious, bloody battle, victory was yours!” My heart raced at the thought of this great victory.
“There was no battle, no shots were fired.”
“Hah? No battle? You gave up?”
“Listen, with your taringa and your ngākau, Mokopuna. We resisted passively.”
“Te Whiti, Tohu, your koro and others, wearing three feathers in their head-gear, were arrested and led away. Your father and I weren’t to know that we’d never see your koro again.”
Kuia, her chair no longer rocking, sighs deeply. “Charged and tried for sedition, the men were held in the New Plymouth jail, before being sent to the South Island.”
“And you and Father remained at the village, waiting for Koro’s return?”
“Āie, Te Whiti, Tohu and others returned two years later. Your koro did not.”
“After the invasion, many fled. Our houses were burnt, our crops destroyed and other unmentionable acts were committed. A constabulary remained at the site for five years.”
I pull my legs up to my chin, cover my head with my arms and shiver.
My koro died for his beliefs.
My father is in prison for his beliefs.
The white feather is a symbol of mana, of courage.
Kuia strokes my hair. I raise my head, wipe the tears from my cheeks.
“On his release, Te Whiti continued his teachings, his influence increased. Your father became a faithful follower of Te Whiti, adopting his philosophy as his own.”
“Hence father choosing to object to war.” As more tears trickle down my cheeks, Kuia embraces me.
“Did you know that in the year of your birth, 1907, your father took you to Te Whiti’s funeral?”
I shake my head.
“Manaaki, promise to always remember the fifth of November and the true meaning of the white feather, of courage.”
“Now, get yourself down to the creek and catch a big, fat eel. We’ll cook it over the fire for our supper.”
As I meander through the scrubby bush towards the creek with my eeling pole, I think about Kuia’s long story. Through the sadness, a spark of warmth ignites inside.
Then I see it on the muddy track.
In a splinter of sunlight through the trees, a glow of white.
Picking up the white feather, I tuck it into my shirt pocket, close to my heart.