'let it be. waiho.'
by Christopher Reed
Your father died in July. A week after your sister’s birthday. A month before the birth of your second child. You’ll hear stories about the timing. People have a way of telling you things you don’t need to hear as a way of working through their own catharsis. Or a desperate reach for something – anything – to say. Now here you are, standing in front of a marae. A year to the day. That day. How much can change in a year. waiho.
“At least it was quick.” You nod.
You learn a lot about your father after he died. It wasn’t expected – his death, not the information learned. You always knew he had a significant past that he either refused to talk about, or never got the chance to. Distance does that to a relationship. His death wasn’t expected, but looking back it took little more than rudimentary science to see the high chance of mortality. The stories were told. The obligatory and predictable jokes at things that weren’t really funny but were laughed at. He was a cyclist. Terrible at school. Perfectionist. Funny how they don’t mention alcohol. Zero about smoking. Nothing about his two divorces. You’re waiting for someone to mention diabetes, blood pressure, depression or aggression. It doesn’t come. waiho.
“Gosh, he thought the world of you.” You nod.
As always when your family meets, you run through the same conversation. The awkward expectation to connect with cousins. The perfunctory conversations with distant relatives you last saw at the last wedding or funeral, on work, family, life. Both sides of every conversation back-fill chapters of an autobiography increasing in brevity as both parties look for an easy exit strategy. waiho.
“He wouldn’t have suffered.” You nod again.
You’re led to your great aunt who has bouffanted her hair for the occasion. Class. You kiss each cheek as you had been instructed as a child – both sides twice. The script is played out again. Yes it was sudden… No, I saw him the week before… Due next month… Yes, a real shame. waiho.
You’re midway through the catered savoury mince pie when she drops the casual mention of the Māori side.
“The what?” I reply.
“The Māori side of the family from Gisborne. Did you see them in the back?” I had not.
“You’re Māori,” she said. “Did you not know?’ I did not.
“Your great-great grandmother was a Māori Princess.” Of course she was. waiho.
“He was a good man.” You raise an eyebrow.
“Were you with him when he passed?” You shake your head. No.
You notice the tattoo emerging from the man’s suit sleeve. It’s Māori…you think it’s Māori. You’re not sure what’s Māori and what’s not anymore. Are you Māori? The wake has wound down to little more than the red-nosed brigade of aging car enthusiasts like your father. The ones who you knew would add an extra $250 to the bar tab before 6pm. waiho.
You ask questions of the man. But not the ones you want. You’re too caught up in moments of grief, incongruity and confliction. How do you rationalise being in two worlds simultaneously, and yet not knowing either. What do you do. Just the one daughter but one due in September. Yes, good to meet you too Tāne, Seymour was it? waiho.
It took a week for you to discuss the very concept of your identity. Your sister knew less than you. She had not spoken to your aunt and in the time between the funeral and then, she too had passed away. When it rains, she says. You tell her you didn’t think that was the right idiom to use here. She disagrees. She’s a lawyer, she tells you that she should probably know. She pauses. What we took for granted, huh? waiho.
The man with the tattoo never came to your aunt’s funeral. And no one you asked seemed to have any knowledge. Who? Nah. You curse yourself for your inadequacy when you met him. The only clues you go on are Gisborne and a name – Seymour.
The marae sits on the edge of the moana, the ocean. The land undulates in waves away from the water – waves upon the land – that’s how the books you have read and studied explain it. The tekoteko is one you know well, now. From books. From films. From dreams. It stares down at you. The whale. The rider. The two acting as one. Paikea. Of course you had watched the film. Any New Zealander worth their salt had. Certainly any student of an English class in a New Zealand high school had. Had Ihimaera come here? Was he Ngāti Porou? You decide to look that up when you’re back in coverage. Damnit why do you feel so alien here? Isn’t this exactly how you not are supposed to feel. waiho.
It’s the third marae you have visited today. This pilgrimage to a lost bough in the upper branches of your family’s tree had (to this point) achieved little more than a smudged coffee stain on the otherwise perfect picture of your life.
“Go to Gisborne. Go to the marae. You’ll find the answers.”
So you go. But Marae are not welcoming places for those who feel on the outside. You feel on the outside. You don’t belong here. Not yet anyway. This isn’t like other trips. You aren’t just visiting a marae. This is the missing puzzle piece. waiho.
The imposing figure of a wharenui sitting stoically among picturesque settings daring you to come near. The stories of battles etched into the walls of the marae. You know that each stroke of the whakairo tells two stories: the story being depicted (the myth) and the master carver (the legend). Year 9 compulsory Māori Studies takes you only so far, or that leadership camp you went on in Year 12. A couple of phrase books won’t help now. But you try. waiho.
Surely this marae can’t be it. You had left it to last as it was the long shot of your day. The least likely in your mind. There was a plan: three on the Tuesday, three on the Wednesday. Easy. You begin working through that checklist compiled from those who told you they knew. You always check the church first. Sure enough. ‘J.M. Seymour’.
Out from the wharenui stepped the leathery figure of a Māori elder. Do you call him ‘kaumatua’? Just ‘matua’? Not just kau… surely? Hey, bro?
He looks at me. Direct. Inescapable. He turns with conviction and points threateningly to the sign to my right, his left. It reads in handwritten letters ‘private road’ and underneath ‘definatetely no tourists’. Should you mention the spelling? You consider your options and decide against it. waiho.
You hold your hands in that universal ‘it’s ok’ signal – directly in front of you, palms facing out. You call out that you need to talk to someone about whakapapa. You still smile. You’re not mature. waiho.
You try to tell your story. He has an eyebrow raised the entire time. Just one. His left, your right. It’s disconcerting, but not antagonistic. You trip over words. You use te reo when you know you shouldn’t. You can’t help yourself. You think that maybe chucking the odd ‘whenua’, ‘whanau’ and ‘rohe’ into your conversation you may gain some sort of Māori credit. waiho.
He listens. He waits. He stays silent for a time that you are uncomfortable with – having talked non-stop for about two minutes – but he clearly is not. He turns his face to the sun – apathetically shining in the mid-afternoon and thinks.
“You Murray’s boy?” he asks. You are. You sense, for the first time, that the two of you are no longer alone. Perhaps you haven’t been for a while. Time seems to have stopped. waiho.
“Nau mai haere mai young fella, you’re home.” A voice says behind me. It’s Tāne Seymour. His full arm now in full view with his whakapapa visually laid out and inked into his flesh.
This is your mountain.
This is your river.
This is your marae.
“Your dad came here once,” the old man says. ‘Spoke fluent reo. Too much. He loved it.’ Dad. Your dad. Things you never knew. How much can change in a year. waiho.
‘The tree of a whanau always leans to the son. Remember that, young fella,’ Tāne says. ‘You bring those girls of yours down here soon.’
Kia ora matua. Kia ora.
Ko Pukehāpopo te maunga
Ko Waiōmoko te awa
Ko Tereanini te waka
Ko Marukauiti me Te Riwai me Wahakapi ngā hapu
Ko Ngāti Konohi te iwi
Ko Whitireia me Wahoterangi nga wharenui
Ko Hokowhitu te wharekai
Ko Wahakino te urupa
Ko Patoromu te whare karakia
Ko Paikea te tipuna
Tīhei mauri ora!
“You’ll miss him.” You nod.
Chris lives in Mt Wellington in Auckland with his wife, two daughters and a cat. He plays the guitar in a covers duo and even held a Guinness World Record for the Longest Solo Concert (now beaten). As an English teacher, he has spent years studying the great stories of the world through poetry, songs, novels and (his favourite) short stories.
One of Chris’ true passions in life is the opportunity to make young people ‘see’ the text for the first time and to unpeel the layers to find something that is unique and special to them – in the aspiration that it will unlock a part of themselves they did not know existed and plant a seed for their own creative endeavours. He hopes that just maybe this story will have the same impact on others in the wider community.
This is Chris’s first attempt at short story writing following some introspective moments during the second pandemic lock down in Auckland. Achieving this placing has really sparked the impetus to continue, develop, and improve.