David Whitehead

Rite of Passage

I am Māori and I am becoming a man.

It is dusk in the tohunga tā moko, our expert tattooist’s, hut. My days of being a boy are ending. I lie still on a finely woven flax mat. The tohunga bows his head, places his hand over my eyes and prayerfully recites a solemn karakia. He angles my head. I know the pain is close. My breath catches as I feel the sharp teeth of his seabird bone chisel mark my face.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

I smell the oil and charcoal pigment.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

I feel the ink—or is it blood?—dribble down my cheek.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

Like last night, the rhythm is hypnotic. The pain is excruciating. I dig my fingers into the mat’s fibres and stifle my cries. I do not grimace. I am strong. I listen to elders croon soothing waiata. Their song helps stave off the pain.

“Breathe,” says the tohunga.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

I sip mānuka bark infused water. Its bitter tea tree taste helps numb my face.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

I retreat into the cuts. Pain blurs time.

“Enough,” I hear the tohunga say.

It is over for now. A karaka tree leaf balm calms my swollen face. I am happy.

My tattoo is me; left side for father’s whānau, right side for mother’s. We are one, forever. When I am older, the tohunga might tap into my skin again. It depends on my accomplishments; if I become a man with mana.

Tomorrow, before the kererū, the spirit pigeons, repossess Otumutu Island, my mentor since birth and expert spiritual tohunga Uncle Tama and I will complete the next step of my journey into adulthood. We will visit our sacred island and he will teach me what I need to know as an adult. I respect Uncle Tama because he has mana, and I fear the spirits of our ancestors who reside on the island.

The night owl makes his haunting call, “more-pork”. It is late, but my mind will not let me sleep. I keep my face still.

 “It’s time,” says Uncle Tama at midnight. I am sore and weary, but quick to rise. I feel cold.

“Carry these kete to the dinghy now,” instructs Uncle Tama. “The basket contains gifts you will give to our ancestors.

“Turn your head flashlight off. I can’t see with those things on,” says Uncle Tama, as the dinghy carves through a charcoal-black lake. Uncle gazes up at Māhutonga, the stars of the Southern Cross.

He recites an ancient inoi, a prayer acknowledging our whānau, flesh and spirit, who have passed this way before. I try to remember the words. The motor cuts to sudden silence. We glide. The dinghy’s bow scrapes up the island’s rough pumice shore. What had led Uncle so precisely to this cove in the dark?

We stand before a cave entrance; fleeting apparitions form in the beams of our head flashlights. I recite a kupu acknowledging the spirits. Uncle Tama listens. My first test. Heads bowed, we advance over rocks; there is no clear path, but Uncle Tama knows the way. My knees are unsteady. My bare feet slip on the sharp volcanic rocks. I conceal my fear.

“Sit down.” Uncle Tama’s firm instruction echoes off the cave walls.

I lift my head. Surrounding us on pumice platforms are bones, many bones, and bodies, many bodies; some are children, some new, others ancient and dry, wrapped in plaited flax fibres. Our ancestors. My skin prickles in their presence.

“Light off,” orders Uncle. I watch the glow-worms in the ceiling slowly brighten through the night.

Uncle Tama explains our tribal values.

Talk, test. Talk, test.

Uncle Tama explains my role as a man and a husband.

Talk, test. Talk, test.

Uncle Tama’s voice is a low whisper as he shares our sacred knowledge.

Talk, test. Talk, test.

I must remember his ancient knowledge. My eyelids begin to droop. I feel a sharp tap from his walking stick, an intricately carved tokotoko. How did he know? I learn again.

A dull light penetrates the cave and begins to outline Uncle’s tattooed face. I think he is smiling.

“Ma te mahi. That will do,” says Uncle, who abruptly stands and silently departs. I sense the old man is tired from his slow steps. I know what to do.

I place the basket on a carved ledge beside the bodies of our ancestors, close my eyes, pause, and sense a slight breeze caress my head. It is a sacred time. I linger and feel at one with my people.

On strong legs, I exit the cave along a clear path and into the beams of a new-born sunrise. I hear the kererū whooshing back to the island on pulsing wings. Most settle nearby in weeping rimu trees, but two perch on carved guardian poles in front of the cave. They twist their iridescent heads toward me. Their eyes burn crimson. They stare and remember me. I breathe deeply and stand proud in their presence. They glide down to my feet. Life has changed.

The Seagull outboard motor chugs us toward the lake shore. An ethereal, gossamer mist drapes the lake, but somehow Uncle Tama knows where we are. I devour Aunty Mere’s potato bread—the best bread ever. I drink water that Uncle Tama sweetens with honey. He is silent for a long time.

“Pull out the kete stowed in the bow, young man,” says Uncle.

“Young man,” I echo quietly.

I see a kaitaka in the kete.

“Drape the cloak over your shoulders. Tie it across your chest. Stand tall and face the shore.”

I stand, cloaked, somehow knowing where the shore is, and lower my head. I see Uncle smile.

Like the phantom waka, we move through the mist. The dinghy caresses the powdered shore of Te Karamea Bay. My whānau are celebrating my transition with haka and waiata. I stand proud in the bow, then stride toward my pāpā and whaea. We hongi and embrace as pakeke. Eligible young women gaze at me, and giggle. Young boys stare in awe.

Tomorrow I will shoulder new responsibility in our village market garden.

I am becoming a man.

David Whitehead

David Whitehead has published six academic books and numerous journal articles, the latest in the Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. He has a historical fiction novel under review. This is his first fiction short story.