Mere sat back into her brown chair and stared at her swollen legs. Her skin was pink under the heat of the wood fire. Over her shoulder her children whispered to one another. They looked over at her and she could just make out snippets of their kōrero.
“We need to keep her safe.”
“But she won't leave.”
“She doesn’t have a choice!”
Mere turned the dial and Radio New Zealand flickered to life. They were heading into “four weeks of isolation” with “many lives lost worldwide'' said the radio host. Mere tapped a finger on the glass of the silver photo frame on the mantle. Manahi. Watch over me Manahi.
“I guess it’s inevitable,” said Mere. Her children didn’t look up from their frantic murmurs so she left for the bedroom and pulled a brown suitcase with orange lining from her wardrobe. She opened it on the bed and a dust cloud enveloped her. She sneezed.
“Geez, I didn’t know it’s been that long since I left this place.”
In neat rows she placed her purple scarves, skirts and knitted jerseys. Then her eldest daughter Hine came in and started throwing the rest of her clothes into cardboard boxes. Mere thought to stop her, but mumbled a karakia instead as she got into Hine’s car. The 1994 white Honda took a swerve onto a gravel road driveway, avoiding the potholes.
Manahi. Watch over me Manahi.
Mere knew that she needed to sleep in the wharenui of Kura marae, under her beloved Manahi, hanging on the wall by the tāniko tukutuku panel in the right corner. She inhaled the wood and took in the faded photos of tūpuna, the tekoteko on the middle pou. It reminded her of when she was a little girl and she used to hide by the linen cupboard and listen to her whānau sing waiata and dance. Falling into her feather down pillows and double mattress bed, her eyelids grew heavy so she pulled up the black fleece blanket with a koru on it. The warmth sat heavy on her body.
She woke to the cackling of a tui in the trees behind the wharenui. Something wriggled next to her, her youngest mokopuna Tuhi. She noted the orange sunrise before rubbing her worn hands together and tucking in the bed sheet corners. Tuhi scrambled away to join his cousins and she looked up at Manahi.
Standing outside the wharenui, a whoosh of cold air fluttered past her cheeks. She closed her eyes to take in the decomposing grass and the rushing awa next to the wharenui.
Mere arched her back and inhaled. Her elbow joints were stiff from scrubbing the ceiling and her thighs burned from bending to reach the cleaning bucket. As a child Mere was taught the marae roles so she knew what she had to do while she was here. She rubbed her elbows and thighs to cool the aching.
Looking around the marae, Mere was reminded of her māmā Ngāwhetu and her long black hair. Ngāwhetu the queen of karanga and forever remembered as a wahine of beauty. As far back as she could remember her māmā had worn a moko kauae.
Mere remembered the words of Ngāwhetu’s karanga and how they would flow off her tongue, her voice powerful, clear and direct. She wandered the marae grounds and thought of whether she was living up to her mother’s legacy of karanga. Ngāwhetu had never seen Mere’s karanga. Te Arawa women aren’t allowed to karanga until their mother or older sister has passed on.
As a child Mere was taught the marae
roles so she knew what she had to
do while she was here
Her moko Puti joined Mere at her side. They picked the purple berries and squashed them between their teeth. Mere had no shoes; she enjoyed the damp of Papatūānuku on her toes, the grass tickling her soles.
Through the windows, Mere peered at Hine in the wharekai. She thought of how she’d always made an effort to kōrero to her eldest daughter, to kōrero about life, the colour of the sky, the sores on her fingers and of course Manahi. Hine was loud and hardworking, just like her father. She remembered the time Hine came storming through the wharekai to the kitchen. Both doors had swung open and nearly took out the kuia standing right behind them.
She was like a tornado. “Clean the bench, wash and dry those dishes! Why are those plates over there, they need to be over here. Start getting the cutlery ready to serve dinner.”
Mere knew Hine was not the type of woman to want to carry on her legacy of karanga but she was proud of the role she had given herself.
Mist lay wrapped around the trees in the front gardens. The tune in Mere’s head was interrupted by her moko Waiiti and partner Hau yelling at each other.
“I don’t have any more money left Hau”.
“Why not? I only gave you my card the other day! I need some cigarettes”.
“Well we can’t afford any can we... 'cos you were laid off!”
“It’s not my fault I lost my job! Where’s all my money gone then?” The door slammed.
“Well you‘ve been drinking every day since lockdown started. How do you think the kids are being fed?”
Mere had seen Hau's orange and blue uniform from the meatworks on the back seat of their car. Now Hau and the others were spending their evenings in the meat shed by the wharekai. Through the cobwebbed windows Mere stared and watched them empty bottle after bottle. Most nights they wouldn’t even make it to their beds.
Ngāwhetu the queen of karanga and forever
remembered as a wahine of beauty
Mere got up and walked onto the mahau of the wharenui. There was a darkness infiltrating her mood. It was just her on the mahau now and she realised that there was no one to call to, no one to welcome onto the marae, no one to lament the death of anyone. There was nowhere for any uri to express their pain. The sound of her mokomoko laughing and running across the ātea distracted her as the words of her call scrambled through her mind.
She yelled at the mokomoko, ‘Kati! No running across the marae when there are whaikōrero!’
Her moko stopped playing and looked back at her, their kui, and ran off to find their parents. She continued to watch the entrance to the marae. The sun dipped over the mountain onto the front of the marae. The air was afire with the sound of tui, kea and kaka. Mere watched the kaumātua give their orders to present in an orderly fashion and the people darted around as cars filled the car park. She was strong in herself, as she had rehearsed this karanga for years—a celebratory karanga to welcome her cousin Aio’s future husband Kiwa and his whānau to the marae.
The nod came from the paepae and her heart started to beat faster. Blood rushed to her cheeks and her nerves stumbled her through the first line. Mere was shocked at how her voice carried through the air and echoed through the trees as she called on the Ihaka whānau to welcome them. Then before she knew it, her job was done and the speeches could begin.
As she took her seat, she felt the eyes of someone on her cheek. A fit young man with a strong jawline, big lips and brown eyes was gazing towards her. Her cheeks burned, he wouldn’t stop looking at her and she felt hot under his stare. When the time came to harirū, Mere stood and with a brisk pace and headed toward the wharepaku.
It was just her on the mahau now and
she realised that there was no one to call to
The guitar was pulled out after the ceremony and kai. Mere heard her note and led a trio of iwi anthems. The drinks were flowing and whānau were dancing, singing and eating. Mere noticed the man who had been staring at her earlier coming towards her. He was wearing a fine brown hat and black suspenders hooked over the shoulders of his white dress shirt. His shoes reflected the light of the wharekai they were so flash. She turned away and placed a hand to her cheeks—they were hot—and then jumped a bit when he touched her shoulder. The man cleared his throat and introduced himself. He was Manahi, the best man for Kiwa. His eyes dropped and he told her of how in awe he was of the song she had sung to welcome them to her marae. Ever since hearing her karanga, he had wanted to talk to her. Mere averted his gaze but he grabbed her hand and she took in a quick breath as he guided her onto the dance floor.
Her eyes affixed to the entrance to the marae and Mere began to sing the celebratory song she remembered from the day she met Manahi. Her mokopuna heard her karanga and gathered around, she felt their hands on her shoulders and the curves of her back, offering comfort. The heartache of watching her mokopuna fight with each other had left a heavy feeling in her chest and she’d realised everything she’d lost. Only karanga reminded her of who she was, a strong wahine Māori. Karanga was the gift she liked to share with the world, her spiritual connection to those she had lost. Through her call she grieved for Manahi.
Mere wiped the sleep from her eyes. Another day and the sun no longer looked so beautiful but pulled at her heart. She couldn’t hear the trill of that tui, the birds had stopped their singing and the grass was frosted over.
Mere had received many kaumātua packages from the iwi and these were uplifting but she yearned for the comfort of her cousins and friends. They would understand how she felt sitting here with the melody of her song yet to be sung. Instead she felt the plastic of a broken white chair beneath her fingers and looked on as her kids and mokopuna drank at night and slept most of the day. She shook her head and went to bed.
Karanga was the gift she liked to
share with the world, her spiritual
connection to those she had lost
The next morning Mere took her time getting ready. Something was urging her to dress up and so she pulled over the wool of her favourite purple and black jersey and felt the warmth of her black stockings on her toes. She dragged her armchair to the mahau of the wharenui and relaxed into the folds as her mokopuna tuarua ran around the marae grounds playing, just like she used to. Mere motioned to Hine and her moko to come and sit. She wanted to tell them a story. Hine groaned and said that she was sure she had heard all Mere’s stories before.
Mere ignored her and called over the rest of the whānau. “E noho. ” She paused and waited for them to gather.
“Let me tell you,” she said, “of the day I did a karanga to our Kuini Māori on this very marae.”
“The Kuini Māori came here? To Kura marae?” shouted her moko Te Kahu.
“Her visit was to maintain whakapapa and unity between our iwi.” Te Kahu looked up at her.
“I spent all morning choosing a skirt to wear. But of course I chose the one your dear Koro Manahi gifted to me.
For a whole year your Koro must’ve saved his pennies from the sawmill to buy it. It had black pleats and red, black and white stripes at the waistband. Your koro told me it was made for his Queen and I was to go out there and represent my tūpuna with my mana and pride.”
Mere looked over at the empty concrete. “By 2pm the car park was full to the back fence at that treeline. Then a flash car pulled up and parked by the entrance of the marae. A man opened the doors and the ope surrounded the car in a protective embrace. Then they walked towards the marae.”
The Kuini Māori came here?
To Kura marae?
Mere’s stomach twisted as she remembered the emotions of that day. “I was so nervous that even my forehead was sweating and my throat closed up. Then Aunty Wai pushed me forward from behind and I knew it was a sign, I had to begin.”
Haere mai ra te Kuīni Kahurangi o te iwi Māori e
Te haakui Te Atairangikaahu e
Ki runga I tēnei marae o Kura e
Haere mai, Haere mai, Haere mai rā
The grounds of the marae were silent as Mere’s whānau listened to her. Karanga was her legacy and she had been lost without it during her stay here.
She continued, “I’ve appreciated your love and support to protect me during this time. But my wairua isn’t right here. I’m becoming tired and I’m ready to go home.”
Her whānau started screaming at her. “You can’t“ and “we’re here for you!”
Mere stood. She told them that was enough kōrero for the day and she would pack her bags in the morning and expected Hine or one of her mokopuna to take her home.
As she stared up at the roof of the wharenui Manahi again floated into her mind. Then just like that first morning, she heard the call of the tui and looked around to see all the beds were empty. She thought that they must still be drinking.
“Koretake,” she muttered to herself and in her sheets and pulled on a grey tracksuit.
Mere’s hands trembled as she rammed kākahu into her bag and then she stopped for a moment and could hear the murmur of singing coming from the kitchen. She could tell who it was from the tone, her daughter Hine, doing a pao, a karanga practised to let the manuhiri or whānau know when kai is ready. She listened to the words of the pao and realised they were for her.
She listened to the words of the pao
and realised they were for her
Mere entered the bright-lit dining room and her mokopuna started beguiling her with her own songs. She was guided to a seat with a scribbled note with ‘Kui Mere’ on it. She sat upright as a sense of pride wriggled from her toes and all the way up to her hair. The table was covered with koura, creamed paua, raw fish, mussels and boil up with watercress and rewana. Her hands gripped her fork and she realised they were all of her favourite dishes. One of her moko’s stood and said karakia. Although she was unsure what this was all for, her wairua was starting to feel normal again as she watched her whānau talking and laughing and helping themselves to the kai.
Mere put her plate to the side and her puku pushed up against her waistband. Tuhi, Mere’s piri paua mokomoko came over to Mere and asked her to teach them to karanga and Mere jolted with a wave of electricity. The whānau flowed out onto the grass and Mere called all her moko girls to her, Tuhi, Puti, Te Kahu and Waiiti. She told them the story her māmā told her about the beginnings of karanga and said that the words for karanga come from deep within the heart and then the melody follows. Mere asked her four moko girls to each practise a karanga welcoming manuhiri to their birthday. The words took her back to Manahi’s last birthday.
He was sitting on the old chair in their lounge. It was his eightieth birthday and as the speeches came to an end, Mere knew it was time for her karanga. His shining eyes looked at her as she launched into a song she had never sung before. It spoke of their travels together around the country, the birthplaces of their children and her mokopuna. The words flowed from her heart and a waterfall streamed down her face. She wished she could forever keep that moment of him sitting there on the main table, wearing his favourite buttoned black suit, chequered red tie and white dress shirt. His mouth was wide and laughing, the same smile he’d had for her the first day they met.
The crackle of the radio sounded behind Mere’s shoulder. The strict measures of the government had got a hold of the virus and a decision had been made to go from alert level four, to three and then two. Mere sighed at this announcement. She had been looking forward to returning home, but Hine said that she was still locked up for her own protection.
Mere wondered how her group of kaumātua were doing. She would call them as often as she could, but it wasn’t the same. At times, she would sneak down to cousin Pare’s house and sit by the fence and they would talk about how they couldn’t wait to play housie.
The radio was on and the host announced that they were back in level one. Mere gripped her hands tight. She was allowed back into the world again. She folded her kākahu back into her suitcase and cardboard boxes and told Hine to take her home.
the words for karanga come from deep within
the heart and then the melody follows
The next morning, Mere put on a long floral dress with warm black stockings and flat black shoes. She felt for the length of her long back hair and tied it into a plait. She wrapped a black scarf over the top of her head to keep her ears warm and waited on the porch for the kaumātua van.
The dark blue Toyota grumbled up her gravel driveway. As the door slid open her throat dried up. All her cousins and friends were in the van and ready to hit the town together. Suddenly, the van took a wrong turn and instead of heading towards town it began to trundle down the gravel road to Kura marae.
They slid to a stop and then Mere asked Ariki the driver why he had stopped there. One of the kaumatua opened the door and just as Ariki was about to answer her, a karanga began, one of the kaumatua kaitiaki. Mere walked to the front and with her head held high she replied.
This was Mere’s sense of belonging in this world, her gift of karanga that connected her to her whenua. As the still air around Kura marae was pierced by her powerful voice she walked down to the mahau.
As she called she could see her Manahi. There he was at the door of the marae, looking just as she had always remembered him.
Mere was at peace once again.