The Long White Cloud
by Toakahu Pere
He laid the weapon in the gentle flow of the river, careful to keep the feathers dry.
A crimson cloud lifted and floated downstream, leaving only the intricate etches of the War Master’s carvers on the quarter-staff. He thumbed gore from his ancestor’s tongue and fingered viscera from the abalone eyes that stared sightlessly. They were counselling eyes, comforting him through his new sins.
He spread crystals across the chipped neck, then down the blade that looked scoured like an old canoe. Then came the old words in sustained grinds and low groans, ancient in dialect – to the point that Te Kaha had no idea what they meant. But they were powerful and they worked; they could raise the vision of red and call the War God back to its cage.
A flush of heat signalled the return of emotion. Embarrassment and self-hatred rose like bile in his throat; the whispers of his ancestor fell silent and he was finally alone. Then, like an irritant into a pearl, his woman and son existed once more and became something to him. Everything to him.
But there was still that unquenched thirst, rioted by what the old one had said. The doubt crept in behind his family like a lopsided raincloud, uneven and unknown. Long white clouds, he had said, with black eyes that blazed fire and spewed ash.
Questions swamped him from all directions and he laid his forehead on the warm grass. He tried. That was all he could do. Try to right the wrongs of the world, try to understand the prophecy, try to solve why the Children of the Gorge were challenging their borders.
He sang a song. A ballad of love between mother and son, and wishes for a peaceful sleep. Te Kaha spoke to his mother often, the wind her unintelligible replies. Unbecoming of a warrior but what else was he to do in this world of infinite possibilities, where kinships could be married then severed within the month. He spat.
‘I miss your mother,’ a voice came. Te Kaha responded by spinning on his knee and raising his quarter-staff above his head in defiance. He slid his tongue down to his chin in hunger. More of his hair, a river of slick, matted black swung loose from his topknot. Immediately, the shame seized him and he lowered his stance, moving back as the old one approached the water’s edge. But Te Kaha did not apologise, for how can he apologise to the one who sleeps on the rim of both worlds?
There were many chiefs within his kin; many experts, many specialists. All were bent at the waist, and all had the customary cloaks made of the feathers of the long-nosed kiwi. But this one’s cloak was different; a patchwork of dried flax, roughspun reeds, and batwings. It looked to swallow him like a rotted-out tree, leaving a bald, veined head with a crown of shocked white hair.
The old one leaned over with his hands in the water and shook them free of ash and watercress, his prayers for the dead complete. How he was so limber in his hundreds was beyond Te Kaha’s comprehension and place, but if his own son ever asked, he would guess it was his diet of raw mutton and demons.
‘Would you say you miss her?’ The old one said and Te Kaha shook himself of his own trance.
‘Yes,’ he said, looking at the old one – not directly in his weak, half-closed eyes but his worn and weathered brow.
The old one nodded, looking pleased with himself. ‘You know, it was me that taught her that lullaby. It was first said by my own mother.’
Te Kaha blinked, watching the old one move to a moss-cushioned boulder with a suspicion he did not mean to hold. Many times, he simply accepted the myth that the old one was immortal; a sliver of forever; not one who was simply born. Stupidly, he opened his mouth. ‘You had a mother?’
Now it was the old one who blinked, a simple motion that made Te Kaha want to bloody his head against the rock. Then the pitted, death-mask, the old one called a face, arched into a warm, bewildered smile. ‘Yes, boy, I have a mother. She is still with me in the same way yours is with you. I hear you talking to her.’
‘I only sang,’ Te Kaha said. ‘No prayers were said.’
‘It does not matter what rhythm or dress our speech may or may not have. What matters is that we say something. We annoy the young with repetitive stories about the old and gone, so even newborns know them. It is all we have to pass down. Talk.’
Speaking of talk… ‘E te Rangatira,’ Te Kaha said, keeping his interaction formal and respectful. ‘I have a question to ask…’
‘You want to know about the cloud hanging over you,’ the old one said.
‘Yes,’ Te Kaha said, suddenly weak. ‘How did you know?’
A craned hand appeared from the old one’s cloak, long-nailed and full of quakes, and gestured to himself. ‘I am me,’ he said. ‘That, and your cousins have noticed that you are beginning to mope about. It is making everyone’s bums itchy.’
Te Kaha shook his head. ‘It’s bothering me. It’s this reminder of sorts. Something is coming and I don’t like it.’
‘Te Kaha,’ the old one said. The sound of his name coming from the ancient lips made the warrior want to wash himself. ‘How many times have we beaten back the tribes to the north and south, and now the heathens from the Gorge?’
‘Since I was my son’s age.’
‘And how many times did you enjoy spilling their blood, or depriving them of fathers and sons?’
‘I never have.’
‘But you journey forth, nonetheless.’
‘Because the War Master said so.’
There was a lull with hints of disapproval. Te Kaha, now moving into his third decade, felt the need to cry under such scrutiny.
‘Because the War Master said so…’ The old one repeated. Te Kaha realised the disapproval was not his to shoulder. ‘Yes, we have gone to war many times because my great grandson said so. Tell me, Te Kaha, have you ever buried children?’
Te Kaha thought of no worse nightmare. ‘No,’ he said.
‘Old age has its blessings and its curses. Blessings in that I see our tamariki grow; I could even pick out your son’s laughter in our meeting house. But curses in that as our borders expand or shrink I pray and bury more sons and even more laughter. I feel like I have failed,’ he tapped his head with his fingers, a stabbing motion. ‘With all that is in here, I feel I have failed to save our tribe. Illness, famine, war, one after the other or all at once. There is only one thing that keeps this head spilling knowledge instead of its own blood.’
Te Kaha waited and was rewarded with a finger aimed through the brush, over the salt cliffs, and at the setting sun. It roasted the horizon in yellows and oranges, the sea fading from hazel to ebony. He looked back at the old one, in absolute awe. Even the voice of the void doubts itself?
The old one nodded slowly. Thoughtfully. ‘In a few hours, it will rise behind me and set in front of me. Rise, set, rise, set.’
‘E te Rangatira,’ Te Kaha said, careful with his words. ‘The sun will tire eventually; the stars and clouds will catch it.’
The old one rose and shook his head. ‘Speak plainly, cynicism has lapsed my creativity.’
‘We cannot run forever,’ Te Kaha said. ‘Sickness, enemies, or this raincloud will catch us.’
The old one laboured past him, looking to chase the sun’s vanishing glare along the grass. Then looked up as if discovering the answer in the indigo heavens. ‘We could walk.’
‘E te Rangatira,’ Te Kaha said. ‘Can you not look into the fires and see something new?’
‘When I look into the fires, Te Kaha, all I get is a hot face and sore eyes.’
A wall in Te Kaha’s belief and reverence took on a miniscule crack. ‘You have been telling us what we want to hear?’
‘No,’ the old one said, playfully defensive. ‘I have told you what you need to hear. You need to bathe in a hot spring; your cousin, Mokai, needs to bathe with perfumes; your other cousin, Hira, needs to eat less or we will all starve. It is all based on the present that I see the future, Te Kaha.’
The warrior slumped. No matter how sacrilegious it was, his nails dug further into the neck of his quarter-staff. ‘So, you cannot explain the clouds with black eyes…’
‘I can only know what I do know, Te Kaha. I know that everything we have and are is not going to last. Yes, the sun rises, but the sun has to set at some point. Life offers no clear waters.’
Creativity lapsed, he says… ‘So, are we to just give up and let this supposed sun set on us?’
‘What else can we do? We who are half dead and have run out of time.’
‘And why not use that time to work towards a land where our tamariki do not bury tamariki? Is that not our job?’
‘What builds great warriors?’ The old one said, seeming to take on another subject as he nudged muddied pebbles into the water. The mud lifted like the red cloud, leaving a gleaming crumb of jade.
‘Training,’ Te Kaha said.
‘No,’ the old one said. ‘War. Suffering and turmoil create our chiefs and our chiefs create tribes. No people were ever built on weakness.’
‘And how do we know that, E te Rangatira?’
‘We don’t.’ Plain and simple that remark was, banishing all but a small ounce of Te Kaha’s patience. ‘But why not hope? If we do not know, why try to chase answers if we do not even know the questions? Have you ever wondered how your son will survive without you?’
‘Every day,’ Te Kaha said, a bitter-sweet smile teased his cheeks. ‘I have my doubts and fears.’
‘So, all you can do is…?’
‘Exactly,’ the old one said. ‘Walk an old man to the dangerous, tilted cliff, won’t you?’
Te Kaha rubbed his arm free of grime, cradled the old one’s beneath the elbow, and guided him through the brush, sweeping branches aside with his quarter-staff. They went over roots and around marshes.
‘We never know what we don’t know,’ the old one continued. ‘I am a man who sees but does not see. I know what I am and in knowing, I see my limitations. You have your limitations too. They remind you with those scars on your body. You can only be so fast, be so strong. Someone or something out there will be better.’
‘What can we do then?’ Te Kaha began as they broke through to the cliff, the smell of salt and gull scat becoming almost unbearable. His jaw sank as he saw a madman’s ramblings made flesh.
There they were, disobeying the horizon’s blackening with the crisp white of clouds larger than any cloak. Tall, layered, and widened until they bottomed out into canoes. Huge wooden whales that flopped over the distant waves. Then there were the eyes, poking out of the hulls searching the foreshore for Gods know what.
‘Two things,’ the old one said, letting Te Kaha’s stiff arm go. ‘Hope that our children find the answers to the questions we asked, or do as Maui did, and slow the sun itself. I don’t know which is more unlikely.’ Then the old one took one long sigh, one that suggested he was resigning himself for some inevitability. Then there was silence. When Te Kaha looked for more guidance, the old man was gone.
Writing became a part of my muscle memory from when I first spelled out my name. There ‘Toakahu’ was written in seven, imperfect and randomly capitalised letters. Everything about me, everything before me, everything after me.
Years later, I remember the concrete swimming in heat waves of its own and the only refuge was by the sliding door, in the shade and the breeze. It was far too hot to focus on reading and no music could cool. I signed up for monthly audiobooks; soothing, professional, helping me forget the heat.
Stephen King’s The Gunslinger was one of the first I heard.
‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,’ George Guidall said. It was a world I became obsessed with. In a few pages, King laid out a complex yet easily perceived universe. The skies, the rituals, the world that had ‘moved on.’ The concept came to King when he was around nineteen. I was nineteen.
Damn, I’d better get a move on…
What followed was an incline of imagination and a decline of Law grades, and to nail my colours to the mast: I did not care one iota. I was constructing something, aspects from memory or a long-repressed cache of creativity.
On the heels of that was a deep desire to bring my Maori culture to the surface but not in a way that invites debate and political divide; rather, in a way that King’s Gunslinger did for me: a world that people tune out to in the heat. It shows a man who’s petty struggles mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, a lesson I have only recently learned. To let go and focus on what truly matters. Health, Happiness, and Heat.
I entered the competition with no way of knowing how good my writing was; most people around me think it’s boring. But seeing the judges’ comments, words of published and successful writers, has only made me hungry to test my mettle further. A massive thank you to said judges and the New Zealand Writers College for the opportunity to be heard and my confidence be renewed.
When in doubt, say: ‘I’ll write it out anyway.’