Vaughan Rapatahana

He pahemo

Erana looked up from washing the dishes. There it was again, that rather high-pitched wail. It sort of took off like a jet airliner zooming upwards and then fell back into disuse just as quickly.

She listened, but it was gone. There was only the indecipherable yakking climbing out of the television in the lounge next door. Erana sighed. Her dad was probably sound asleep again and the TV now merely served to suffocate his snoring. She put down the dish scrubber, dried her hands on the wayward tea towel and went into the lounge to switch it off.

Her father had his head back resting on the couch, his eyes shut tight as a droning buzzing rhythmically emanated from his open mouth. She sighed once more and glanced at the old clock resting on the mantelpiece. 7:15 pm already.

She went outside, shut the gate behind her, and quickly stepped the short distance to the RSA a couple of streets away. It was not yet dark, but twilight was creeping in unasked and the penumbra reflecting from the few scattered houses she passed, stretched well across the skinny street. She had wrapped a cardigan around herself prior to leaving the house, as autumn had decided on a takeover.

There was no one standing smoking at the outside tables, and there were few inside the building. One couple was chattering away indecipherably over in a far corner of the largish room that was the interior of the RSA, while two others were playing a slow hand across the solitary pool table.

Gilbert had already poured her a vodka, lime and soda – with ice. Erana smiled, said nothing and placed the gold coins on the bar.

“How’s things?” he enquired, as he wiped down the bar for the umpteenth time that evening.

“O.K.,” Erana replied with a smile. She didn’t really want to share her qualms about the weird whistling noises she was sure she had been hearing. She didn’t want people in her small town to start talking behind her back about “that Erana, she’s pōrangi, eh.”  She had enough other things going on without that sort of crap jumping onto the pile.

Trouble was, she was sure she did hear that bloody sound again, when she went outside with her next drink to relax in the mild night air suddenly sweeping around her, like those wasps on her uncle’s farm down the road a few kilometres. She placed her glass carefully onto the wooden bench and listened very intently. No, she could not hear a thing, other than Hēmi boasting that he was going to get ”that big boar tomorrow, man, just you fellas wait and see” as he sunk yet another beer back inside. Erana also heard the jeering guffaws in response. But the noise, the sound, the whistle – whatever it was – was nowhere around right then.

She sighed and turned her thoughts to her recent divorce from her husband of 14 years. He had, at long last, gotten around to signing the papers for it to be finalised. Several years too late, as far as she was concerned. As she slowly leaned into her drink, she wondered briefly about where he was these days and what he might be doing. However, her dreamy reflections were soon stolen by Hēmi and Jake yobbing their way outside to light up their roll-your-owns.

“How’s it?” asked Jake in his usual cheery fashion.

Erana flicked them both a bit of a smile and said, “O.K. boys. What about you?”

“All good,” Jake replied for the two of them, just as Hēmi drowned another drink. Erana noticed that Hēmi gave her a sort of odd look as he was doing so. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and muttered something about, ”good to hear, Auntie.”

“You going out to the hui tomorrow?” asked Jake, just to fill in time.

Erana shook her head. She was not too interested in another meeting about marae business, even although she knew her father would probably want to go. “Don’t think so.”

The three of them said nothing for a while. The night was a korowai by now, spattered with stars jinking here and there. The naked lightbulbs burning dully above them, reduced their vision, as Erana fleetingly wondered why Hēmi always wore his shades seemingly 24/7.

The two cousins soon went back inside and left Erana submerged in her thoughts. Her glass was long since empty and she was getting colder. She paused for a bit. Go back inside and buy another drink? Go back home? There weren’t too many choices actually. It wasn’t as if there was a hamburger bar down on the corner or anywhere else to go to on a Tuesday night in a tiny coastal town.

Back home, her father must have gone to bed. All the lights were off – all, that is, except the back door light she had left on for herself to come back to. Erana sat at the dining room table and looked at her phone to see if there were any new messages since she had last checked earlier that afternoon. Nothing.

She got dressed after her shower and was just on her way to her room when she heard the noise once more. There it was, just outside their cottage. She could have sworn it was someone whistling – building up to a peak and then, just as abruptly as it had begun, dying away again into the usual stillness. Erana listened again. Nothing now. She shook her head briefly and climbed into bed. The RSA drinks soon had her heavily asleep, and soon the whole village fell into slumber, as if in sympathy.

It was two or three days later, when Hōri Bates turned up at the local grocery store, the same place where Erana worked part time. There were the ‘kia ora’ and ‘what do you knows’ that always broke out when a former resident with strong whānau ties walked in after quite some time away. Hōri always made Erana smile, because he generally had a grin splattered onto his face and today was exactly the same.

“Jeez, girl, you look good. Must be all that kina eh! How’s your Dad?”

Erana told him her Papa was well enough, but had retired from working stock and now spent most of his time in front of the TV yelling at Clint Eastwood to “turn around, man,” before Clint got shot by one of the inevitable bad guys. Hōri Bates laughed again, but then went quickly downhill into seriousness. “Sorry to hear about your ex, girl.”

Erana had no idea what he was on about and her face must have reflected her puzzlement. “You didn’t know? Oh, sorry about that, I thought you fellas would have heard the news by now, eh.” Erana’s workmates behind the counter were by this time listening with their ears agape.

“What happened?” Erana asked quietly.

Hōri Bates was still now. No smiles anywhere near his face this time around. “He came off his bike up North…died in hospital a couple of days later.” Hōri added, as if to make everything natural, “It was in all the papers…”

Erana felt a quaint mixture of emotions as she sold a few grocery items back to Hōri. She gave him his change, he now noticeably quiet, and went out back of the shop to sit down for a bit. She did not know what to think, to feel, how to respond. Part of her was upset, part of her was untouched, some of her felt a bit guilty, though she couldn’t work out why. Maybe because of the terms she had insisted on about matrimonial property. Even after she sat there for quite some time, she felt no more settled that she had when Hōri had imparted the news to them all inside.

And when she went back, her two workmates looked at her and smiled, a bit sadly, Erana thought, just as her boss, Beth, who was also her whanaunga, asked if she was O.K.

“Yeah, I’m O.K. Bit of a shock, that’s all…” Erana’s sentence dribbled into a pool of nothingness.

“I always thought he was an O.K. guy…he would have still been quite young too,“ said Beth a bit later, when the three of them were about to lock up and go to their respective homes. She looked fully at Erana, who showed no emotion for or against and who smiled wanly, turned and went back to her home by the beach.

Her father must have known straight away that something was troubling his daughter. He had that talent after all. People round that area knew of him as a bit of a matakite, a seer, and he quite often spoke of things he sensed, he saw, he talked to, which no one else even knew existed. When Erana turned on the jug to make them both a cup of tea, he was already asking her what was the matter even though he already had a fair idea.

Erana paused. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to share with her father what Hōri Bates had shared with her. Her father was not a fan of her ex-husband, thought that he was rubbish. But she said matter-of-factly anyway, “Hōri Bates tells me that Rōpata is dead. Had a bike accident apparently…” Her voice trailed off somewhere oblique, as she suddenly realised the finality this meant and the emotions it stirred up, even after all of this time apart. Erana felt angry, sad, sorry, all at once – a weird compote suddenly surging through her, making her body tremble more than a little.

Her father merely remarked, “Well, I always said he should have been careful about riding that bloody bike. Probably been drinking too, the idiot,” as he buttered some more bread to swipe the tangy juices around the near empty boil-up pot.

That shut Erana up a bit. “Yes, he was a bit of a clown on that bike, all right,“ was the best that she could mutter right then, at the same time not being able to quell the swirl in her guts. Her dad didn’t seem at all interested.

“How many years you two been split up, girl?” he managed as he slurped on his sandwich

“Dunno,” lied Erana, knowing full well that it was about five years already.

Her father was searching her face like a lighthouse beam. “What’s wrong with you really girl?” he asked straight up. She was well into her fifties, but he still addressed her as if she was a kid.

She did not want to unburden herself about the sounds she had started to hear, because, quite frankly, she wasn’t even sure she had actually heard anything. Maybe they had been something she imagined up from her spending too much time by herself recently and by the consequent over-thinking that went with this condition.

Erana busied herself with slicing the sponge cake that she had made yesterday and buttering themselves a couple of pieces. Her eyebrows furrowed in cliché.

She looked up to see her father staring at her – expectant. “Forget about him, girl. He’s gone. He was bloody rubbish leaving you like that anyway…”

“Dad, I think that I can hear funny sounds sometimes – just started a few days ago actually…not too sure how to describe them…sort of like a whistle that goes quite loud then…just stops.” She found herself going red. She must have sounded like a nut job.

Father seemed interested all-of-a-sudden. “When do you hear them?”

“I dunno…in the late afternoon, I guess,” Erana was reflecting back to just when she thought that she had picked up some alternative universe somehow.

“Phew,” her old man exclaimed in a short rush of breath. “Bloody kehua, girl. Bloody kehua want to talk to you about something…Hmm.”

Erana went a further shade of florid. “Do you hear them too?” She had to know.

He was shaking his head by now. “They want to speak with you, woman,” was the best he could do.

His daughter felt muddled even further. “What, what do they want, then?”

Dad was by now standing at the fridge door, retrieving a cool bottle of beer from somewhere inside its cavernous maw. He turned to her, looked her dead set in her eyes. “You know what kehua are. I’ve told you about them buggers before. They won’t go away until they get what they want.”

Erana felt volcanic, ready to erupt in spleen. She had had enough of her father’s evasiveness. “What do they want?”

Now he was shaking his head and drinking slurps from the bottle all at the same time. He exclaimed ‘phew’ all over again and sat down abruptly on the stool.

“Kehua are spirits. They are hemo, eh. They haven’t settled on being dead yet. They hang around waiting to be told to leave.” He drank down an extra-large gulp. “You will have to talk to this one somehow, girl. Sounds a bit like a kikokiko this one, the bugger. Better karakia him away, I reckon.”

Erana wanted to grab her father by his sinewy arm to drag out some more, but he was already half way to the lounge, going to turn on the television for that night’s cowboy movie action. Yet, he turned back to her just before he went through to sit down. “You were good at school, girl. Put two and two together. Sort it out.” He vanished, leaving her sitting next to her cake, drumming her fingers on the table, churning away inside like the old mixer they still had somewhere languishing under the sink.

Later, just before she fell completely asleep in the huge bed two sizes too big for her, Erana paused from her swarm of thoughts. She would go and see her Aunty Polly tomorrow, after work. Polly was the local minister. Just as old as her father, but a lot more amiable than he had become of late.

Erana also looked at the one or two photographs that she still had of her ex-husband, having ripped up or thrown away all the others after he had run off with that ‘other woman’. She had kept their wedding portrait though. She found herself smiling slightly inside. They had had some good years together, despite his shit. Anyway, one thing her Papa had repeated over and over again when they all grew up in their family home, was, ‘Always respect the dead. Whakaute tonu te hunga mate.’

She had the best sleep she had had for a while.

Aunty Polly was baking scones in her old wood stove when Erana went round the next afternoon. Polly smiled her ubiquitous smile and beckoned Erana to come in and sit down, handing her a cup of hot sweet tea almost all in one motion.

“He aha tāu kōrero?” Polly was a bit like her cousin, Erana’s father. Straight to it.

Erana unveiled her tale. She also mentioned Rōpata was gone, “up North somewhere.” By now she had tallied the figures up.

Polly listened closely. She stood, clasped her niece’s hand tightly and prayed hard, her eyes tight shut.

Erana had bent her head, listening as the crisp words of the karakia swept over her like a balm.

As soon as the prayer was finished, Polly said, “I suppose that old bugger didn’t tell you much…”

“No,” Erana answered. Her father had revealed little about all this sort of stuff.

Polly shook her head slowly. “Girl, you must get rid of this man. He’s hanging around, you know.”

“But he left me ages ago. I’d almost forgotten him. Never heard a dicky bird from him for years now.”

Polly was looking strongly at Erana.

“And anyway, he had a new missus somewhere, a whole new life. What does he have to do with me nowadays?”

Her aunt was jamming up the hot scones and thrusting them at her niece.

“Only you can answer that one,” she munched through her own mouthful.

Erana ate, feeling pissed off now that her ex-husband was hanging around her. Her frustration must have been eating away too, because Polly said, straight out, “Help him let him go. He does not even realise that he is gone, eh. Was his new wahine Māori?” she added.

“I don’t think so, why?”

“Because he has to be told he is free by us. Sounds like he lost track of his roots,” Polly spoke this as another question. “Tino ngaro tēnei tāne, nē rā.”

Later, after another karakia, Erana thought that yes, Rōpata was a lost soul all right, alive - and dead. She smiled at that one as she walked slowly back down the hill to her home, passing where they had smooched together all those years before. She also reflected on her aunt’s final brisk words, “And you let him go too.”

Her father was snoring unbridled. Clint Eastwood was shooting his mouth off. The heater was on low, as the evening dipped into cold stream. She looked around the lounge room. Rōpata had painted all the walls there. And the ceiling.

She said her own prayer that night. In her own bedroom. Alone. She asked for release. For both of them. She asked for peace. She sprinkled the water Polly had blessed, by shaking her hands above her head. Just as Polly had taught her.

And in her mind she directed him where to go. Further North. As far as he could.

She listened straight away afterwards. Intently. The television had been switched off by her father who had showered and stumbled off to his room to snore some more. The night was quiet. Still. No whistling. No sounds. Nothing at all.

It was only the next morning, when she saw the wedding photo had slipped off the bedside table onto the carpet.

It had come out of its frame.



Glossary: Ki te reo Māori katoa, taku reo tuatahi [All in the Māori language, my first language]

he pahemo – a passing, a death

pōrangi – crazy

hui – gathering

marae – communal gathering place for Māori

korowai – traditional cloak

kia ora – hello, literally ‘be well’

kina – sea urchin(s)

whanaunga – blood relative

matakite - seer

kehua – spirits, ghosts who often do not realise that they are dead, who have to be redirected to the most northern point in Aotearoa NZ, Cape Reinga – the departure place for the spirits of our dead. Two of their reputed attributes are a whistling type sound and a warm draught of air when they are present.

hemo – (have) died

karakia - prayer

kikokiko – spirits, ghosts who often have evil attributes and can invade a living person’s body

whakaute tonu te hunga mate – always respect the dead

he aha tāu kōrero? – what do you have to say?

wahine – woman

tino ngaro tēnei tāne, nē rā – this man is very lost, eh

Vaughan Rapatahana

Vaughan Rapatahana photo.jpeg

Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines, and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genre in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian, Spanish.

He earned a Ph. D from the University of Auckland with a thesis about Colin Wilson and writes extensively about Wilson. Rapatahana is a critic of the agencies of English language proliferation and the consequent decimation of indigenous tongues, inaugurating and co-editing English language as Hydra and Why English? Confronting the Hydra (Multilingual Matters, Bristol, UK, 2012 and 2016).

He is also a poet, with nine collections published in Hong Kong SAR; Macau; Philippines; USA; England; France, India, and Aotearoa New Zealand. Atonement (UST Press, Manila) was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines (2016); he won the inaugural Proverse Poetry Prize the same year; and was included in Best New Zealand Poems (2017).

In July 2018, he participated in the Hauterives Literary Festival in France. In September 2019, he participated in the World Poetry Recital Night, in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia. In October 2019, he participated in the Poetry International Festival at The Southbank Centre, London. He also appeared at the Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia during August 2021. All going well regarding te huaketo (the virus) in 2022 he has been invited to appear at the Curtea de Arges Poetry Festival in Romania.

Rapatahana is one of the few World authors who consistently writes in and is published in te reo Māori (the Māori language). It is his mission to continue to do so and to push for a far wider recognition of the need to write and to be published in this tongue.

New Zealand Book Council Writers File is