Airana Ngarewa

Philosopher Warrior Chief

Eight boys sit spread in the glow of the late sun, a declining sky casting shadows over the shattered glass, snuffed cigarettes and street art murals that have become the backdrop of their tweenage lives. The youngest rested easy atop a dilapidated bowl many decades ago sculpted from the bones of sand and gravel. His handed-down-from-his-born-again-brother board leaned precariously into its dip, its underside an ugly mural of scratched design and pockmarked lumber. Its own biography was thus carved into it – the whakairo of a new generation’s master carver. The nascent artist adorned himself only in a pair of cargo shorts (no socks, no shirt) and a league mullet, his skull shaved everywhere down to the skin except that curly mess of black hair that dressed the back of his head.

He furrowed his brow, folded his tongue between his teeth and gave himself to the mental emptiness that novelty in this world demands. He is recklessness incarnate, the rugged wee thing. But not even recklessness can escape the all-consuming lack of intuition one feels skateboarding. The appropriate machinery is simply lacking. You cannot see the play inside yourself before it has been experienced. You cannot feel it. You cannot, except in the most literal sense, even imagine it. And so, one must evoke in themselves a mental emptiness, a feral abandoning of foresight, and commit with head and heart and soul to a fate beyond sensation. Such is the thrill of skateboarding (terrible and wonderful as it is).

The remainder of the boys watched him with maternal apprehension; their eyes flicked between the barefoot boy and their neighbours; they traded looks of a secret knowing. These loaded schemes rarely go right the first time. It is an unfortunate reality the scars on the heads and hands of the boys can well attest. Still, they stay quiet. Any expression of fear they knew would serve only to upset the kid’s composure, reawaken in him the plenitude of voices that plead one desist and abstain and retire to a life of untrying serenity. A fate much worse than any fall.

He turned on his toes, the rugged wee thing, and fixed his feet to his board. His breath slowed and his gaze unblinked. The late sun continued to retreat and the steel and concrete of the skatepark took on a scarlet hue. No wind could be felt. No sound heard. The only truth that remained manifest was the vile smell of spilled drink and smoked smokes. It appeared the whole world had joined the boys in their pained waiting; perhaps it too traded looks, too knew the misfortune that awaited the Māori boy and his whittled colt. (Surely for its second life that steed could still be young.)

In a moment, he blinked, shifted his weight forward and dove into the asphalt dish. The rubber legs of his steed howled as they tried twice to grab at the concrete, the barefoot boy a half-second too late to straighten his legs. Restoring himself, he moved with unperturbed haste, conquering the awful emotion that bubbled up in him. So, he regained his balance (late as he was to do it), his whole frame steady as he accelerated into the bowl’s bottom. He softened in his knees and kept his gaze fixed, resisting every untimely impulse to celebrate. Pride cometh before the fall, he remembered his brother telling him – one of very few things any older person has shared that made to him any sense.

The board reached critical speed as it kissed the bottom of the dish, that small distance where it neither dropped nor rose. Its young rider weathered the transition as best he could; he shifted his weight and bent at his knees, his gaze staying fixed and his being absent of thinking. There was nary a change in his visage, the rugged wee thing seemingly possessed by unemotion. Incapable of it. He looked little more than an extension of his cadaverous steed. A wooden boy on a wooden board.

But destiny would not be undone. Before the bowl could ramp again, the grand couple began to tremor. It had to be this way, the more senior skaters understood. The rubber legs of his steed, wavering under the exponential forces of celerity, failed to keep their grip on the asphalt. The barefoot boy, thinking for the first time, jut into consciousness by the jerking of the unbreathing beast beneath him, turned his gaze and cradled his head into arms, his stoic expression giving way to a brutal zeal. His rear wheels skid and his steed bucked. For a moment he was weightless. The rugged wee thing hung in the air like nostalgia. A fond nightmare to the boys watching. His board crashed against the concrete and bits of timber were torn from its head. A foretaste of the kid’s fate.

He crumpled against the ramped wall of cement and gracelessly, the industrial tide carried him to where that thing neither rose nor fell. There he lay. Bloodied, soundless, unmoving.

 

The barefoot boy was raised in an open flat a small distance from the skatepark. He lived there with his brother, shared a single room with him. He had heard only careful whispers of his parents, those phantom lovers, that ethereal couple little more than a decoration in his life, an unaging photo above his bed. (A double mattress on the floor he and his brother slept in.) He had loved them of course. The patched man. The bruised woman. As much as you can love a thing you do not, cannot ever, know. His love was more a decision than a feeling. They were his parents, and one loves their parents.

It was a God-fearing flat, the walls of every room plastered with angels and empty crosses of eclectic design. The kid’s hulking, drinking, fighting brother had recently given himself to the church in hopes of coming to terms with the world, cruel as he knew it to be. It could only make sense to him as a sort of divinely inspired inquiry of the soul. For what other object could one justify such suffering? He had come to think of himself as a contemporary Adam, a native Job, the Lord of Hosts paving his way to pearled gates with unrelenting trials and tribulations. He had even, and this is perhaps the greatest testament to his faith, come to think of respite (any deviation from complete and total displeasure) as a holy machination of the All-powerful evoked only to increase his personal anguish, to better try.

After the barefoot boy’s begetters, his brother was his second lesson in the imprudence of adults, the illusion of their knowing anything worth knowing falling from his eyes like scales. (Another allegory from the Good Book he had grown rather fond of.) At school, he found his third and was thus convinced he must carve his own way through the world.

His teacher (one Ms Davids) was an amiable creature, a kind of tall doll with a peculiar habit of calling his brother his father. He corrected her only twice before resigning himself to the ubiquitous commitment to unenlightenment that is maturity. Still, he was open to the possibility that despite such unreadiness to hear him she might be ready to meet him on grounds more important. With all his being, he craved to know. What is rich? Poor? Good? Evil? Why do the old despise the young, flee from them to destinations unknown? And knowing this, how come the immature show such haste to join the anxious masses?

Almost immediately, his curiosity was squashed. There was no place for questions here. It was an institution of imposed knowledge, of being told what one must learn and how one must learn it. It was neatly penned letters at 9 then neatly penned numbers at 10 then an untrue-to-life story about a rainbow fish after a too-short break narrowly confined to using the playground exclusively as designed. No asking, no exploring, no delaying their reformation. O, they sang on occasion and danced on others, but only ever the songs and dances institutionally approved. So, even their free expression was constrained, but another mode of the Māori boy’s re-education. Assimilation.

The young rebel was unseduced, unimpressed, unwilling to surrender himself to the illusion of necessity the school dressed itself in – that false god. He (that young barbarian, pagan, sceptic) could not believe. He (that precocious philosopher, warrior, chief) would come in a moment to know his life would forever be a war against those everywhere all-the-time forces that sought to constrain kids like him, confine them, make them smaller (different) than they knew themselves to be. He understood that to this end he was willing to spend his life – give his life. So did he remind himself at the top of the asphalt bowl, in the blackened gaze of the pregnant woman painted in the concrete, before he cast away all thought and committed himself to motion.

 

All but the unmoving child of seven formed a circle at the head of the asphalt dish, their eyes downcast, searching the rugged wee thing for the signs of life. None desired to intervene too soon, to steal from the child his agency, to make him feel any more atomic than he undoubtedly felt already. Assuming, indeed, he could still feel. Each of the boys wore at least one scar for a like-spirited error of sympathy. The hard-won wisdom: The powerless do not, perhaps cannot, tolerate any reminder of their powerlessness. Hard-won wisdom aside, the law of this place demands one never denies a peer an opportunity to restate their independence, to stand on their own two feet. All the better if their unbowed heads are bloodied. One should know well independence’s price.

It was with great seriousness then that the oldest of the lot, a giant of a boy at 12 years old, a half-smoked cigarette burning between his lips, scaled the melted sand and gravel and lay a knee at the philosopher’s side. Hey kid. You good? He spat the cigarette, nestled his arm beneath the barefoot boy’s neck and lifted him from the concrete. Like the angels of his brother’s stories, he was raised. Piki mai, kake mai, pounamu iti. Then he did the same with his knees, pulling the kid from the earth and kicking his steed up the dish and into the hands of one of the metropolitan cowboys watching on. Soothing the wee treasure in his arms, the giant spoke. That was dope, kid. Straight up. That was dope. His lips sung with a sympathetic pride, his visage a marriage of warmth and concern. I ain’t never seen no-one full send it like that. Straight up. Should’ve seen Joey last week. He’ll tell you. Aye, Joey? Fella spent a good half hour shivering ‘fore he even put his second foot up.

He lay the young chief under a fading streetlight, his figure twice-bordered by the boys and the puku of the pregnant woman painted in the concrete. It looked a sort of cult baptism. The bloodied kid (unconscious); the ragtag group of the beaten and cast out; the pregnant woman with the crying child and the kahu kiri kurī and the blackened gaze; the recently-set sun; the glow of the dying streetlight; the intermittent glitter of the broken glass; the smell of cigarettes and alcohol in the air and on the breath of the already indoctrinated. By accident or design, I suppose, that’s exactly what it was. A second birth. A new life.

The boys watched the kid. And the rugged wee thing opened his eyes and smiled a bloodied smile. He was awake. Alive. Reborn.

 

He first caught the eyes of his soon-to-be crew carving through the befouled streets and sidewalks of this decayed suburb on his tailor-made steed (it was 1pm on a school day), his hair too short on top and too long in the back, and his shirt too large and pants too torn. He was a perfect fit. Like the rest, only a few years their junior, he moved in strange juxtaposition to every man and woman he crossed. Not that he intended it, although, it would be a falsity to claim he gained no satisfaction from the scorn he evoked in the architects and anchors of this depraved way of being; the very one that meant to squash him, constrain him, contain him, confine him; the very one he intended to spend his entire life evading, effacing.

An unburdened curiosity, still unsquashed, inspired the crew’s approach. Seven tweenage boys, armed with skateboards, cornered the kid on a quiet block. The giant (only 11 at the time and not yet the giant he was to be) broke from the pack and stood over the budding rebel.

That your board?

With feigned hubris, he nodded.

You get it from your brother?

He pierced his eyes, folded his tongue between his teeth, clenched his fists and stepped a half step backward.

Tends to be that way. A brother or a father. And the boys say your daddy went away. Figure then it had to be your brother, yeah?

He was a peculiar individual, the giant. 11 years old and 5’5’’, he had a reputation for being unusually kind and incredibly volatile, that lofty king of the outcasts always ready to wield his board as sword and shield for his ragtag gang of misfits. Tua the streets had come to call him; kaitiaki of the lost, the lonely and the damned. His father was a white man, his mother Māori. If it weren’t for his wintry blue eyes one might never have guessed his Pākehā ancestry. This unhappy reality divided the son and father, the parent unseeing himself in his child and questioning his paternity and the child seeing his father’s distance, wondering why he was undeserving of his love. By the time of Tua’s tweens, he and his father had resigned themselves to their fate and become little more than flatmates, strangers in the same house.

He was apprehensive at first, the barefoot boy, he had heard nothing but troubling tales about Tua and the metropolitan cowboys. Depending to whom you spoke, they were either organised criminals, the sort to scheme and conspire and appear from nowhere and disappear into the shadows, or a mess of lost kids merely doing what lost kids are compelled to do. Scrap, steal, smash. In reality, they were largely harmless. Idle even. They skated where they weren’t supposed to and played their music way too loud and tended to run their mouths at passers-by who made the mistake of giving them the eye. Nevertheless, they were largely harmless. Like dogs barking. Like dogs chasing cars. More yet, like dogs when they felt backed into a corner.

The young philosopher rode with them that day, still unspeaking. His lips loosened only with a generous helping of chicken and chips Tua had stolen from a ruined dairy. It was as simple as asking for what you wanted and leaving without paying for it. They then rode gently to the pregnant woman painted in the asphalt, just the two of them. Those men in blue were surely looking for a group of eight, not a wee thing and another who, by a glance, looked like his father.

One year, you reckon?

With less hubris this time, the wee boy nodded.

Damn son, you might just be a regular Rodney Mullen. You know who he is, right?

Yeah, nah.

Look, this is why you need to ride with us. Rodney is the Godfather of street. Nobody should even touch a board until they watch at least one of this dude’s videos. He practically invented the art of skateboarding, you know. Hol’ up, let me see if I can find a good one to show you.

New names and videos were cast like incantations over the kid, Tua gradually wearing down his guard and for the first time in his seven years of life evoking in him a sense of visceral hope – not that dreamy sort of hope one gets swept up in as they drift away into sleep but hope manifest, the sort of thing one might literally choke on should they breathe it in too hard. It was a peculiar feeling. It was a feeling unlike anything he had ever experienced previously. The young rebel feared it. Accepting it (acknowledging that you felt it) meant acknowledging a thing he was not sure he could live with. The possibility that things might be different. The ambiguity of this feeling, its sweet indeterminateness, was to the Māori boy with the league mullet its only redeeming quality.

 

The rugged wee thing, baptised and bloodied, rested easy atop a dilapidated bowl many decades ago sculpted from the bones of sand and gravel. His handed-down-from-his-born-again-brother board leaned precariously into its dip, its underside an ugly mural of scratched design and pockmarked lumber. Its own biography was carved into it – the whakairo of a new generation’s master carver. His last attempt carved into him.

He furrowed his brow, folded his tongue between his teeth and gave himself to the mental emptiness that novelty in this world demands. He is recklessness incarnate, that precocious philosopher, warrior, chief.





Airana Ngarewa

Airana Ngarewa's (Ngāti Ruanui) work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stand, Headland, Mayhem Literary Journal, Turbine, Takehē Magazine, Newsroom, Mātatuhi Taranaki, and Kaupeka.