Authors: Alan Duff
HERE HE COMES, THE YOUNG
man who left as a private and returned with
an officer's prouder posture. He's hardly looking at the throngs of adoring,
joyful villagers, not like his fellow returned servicemen breaking out in
smiles and shaking heads in disbelief that the five-plus years' ordeal is over;
it didn't feel that long, now they are back walking on home territory.
Fingers and arms of steam rise up from the thermal ground like tossed
white streamers. Great billows of steam from a pool surging with activity
like a regular, slow-pulse puffing of the Earth's heart. Cauldrons of mud
simmer and bubbles burst releasing pungent sculpture and gas smell, and
look there, the mighty Potaka Geyser blasts welcome up on the nearby
rise, a hundred feet and more high, and all around voices have risen in
song and call and crying in joy and grief.
Nor does he appear to notice the glances and looks trying to convey
Henry Takahe now, that all is not well. She is not here
to welcome you, Henry. She waits no doubt trembling with the boy to
explain, when you only expected to see for the first time the daughter
born of your loins, in your absence.
Poor Henry: no soldier deserves such news. Though if truth be
known, it is happening in other Maori villages, and European households,
imparted as the exact same shock news all over the country now the boys
are home. The Yanks were here.
She waits, Henry, but not as you have every right to expect of your
wife — untainted, saved only for you. No. She has another man's child
to introduce, a child she could have adopted out. Everyone would have
understood; she could have applied the Maori custom of whangai: given
the kid to a relation, a close friend, let them bring it up. Poor shamed,
humiliated Henry, war hero. A half-sibling to your daughter you've yet
The women are all in black with leafy garlands in their hair, weeping
and laughing and singing at the same time. Up ahead a young warrior
charges towards the returned warriors of modern times, wearing only
muscle armour and a flax piupiu skirt clacking and flinging its hard dried
strands to his violently choreographed motion in a traditional challenge,
asking are you friend or foe? Asking even of their own, since it is age-old
custom from when the challenge was real and directed at visitors.
His prancing is complex and perfectly executed; he must maintain this
standard or else the mana of the challenge is reduced or even lost. This is
the greatest occasion of his life: every staged movement of this muscled,
sweating warrior must reflect respect for these heroes and a millennium of
warriors in the proud past.
He twirls the long-bladed taiaha with magnificent dexterity, at such
speed it is a blur and it does not seem possible he will not drop the
weapon as it flashes this way and that, stabbed, prodded, feinted, spun,
action reversed, ripped from below when the emphasis was at the apex, his
tongue stabbing, sunlight catching the spittle leaping from his teeth-bared
mouth, all over with ceremonial hatred, a
dare any take up my challenge
stance, grunts and short shrieks like he is trying to convulse and vomit up
objects from his insides.
On he comes this muscled warrior from another time, to the halted
group of demobbed soldiers, taiaha spinning, bare feet on the hot earth,
backed by the steam making its different sounds, not many clouds in the
blue of a warm summer day, back-heeling, kicking up small puffs of dust,
a delicate dancing designed to fool the eyes, while clouds of steam and heat
belch up from nearby hot pools and drift across the warrior like the past
trying to claim him back.
Then he emerges from its vapoury grasp running right up close to
the lead man, Henry Takahe, who wipes not at the spit spotting his face,
flinches not at the blur of deadly weapon cut across inches from his face;
this is a fine challenge, one befitting returning heroes and remembering the
fallen in faraway foreign soil. The people reduced to silent admiration.
Nothing though can stop them wondering: what is to follow this
heroes' welcome? What will happen when Henry is informed of the
illicit child, his wife's ultimate insult? Woe is she who broke her marriage
Behind the warrior's back the weapon goes, makes his chest and rigid
arm muscles stand out, neck sinews become taut strings, eyes bulge as last
threat. Last grunts warn there be no tricks no false move as he goes to one
knee, removes from his waistband a leafy twig, lays it on the thermally
warmed ground not for a moment taking eyes off Henry, who in turn
bends and takes up the offering, brings it to his belly to say he — they
— come in peace, of course in peace for they are one people and the real
war has ended in victory, the foreign enemy lies crushed, in ruins in his
own invaded land. Freedom has triumphed, a majority have made it back
A last furious look then the warrior stands up, dances backwards, turns
and prances back to a large group of similarly flax-skirted warriors young
and old, the village all, ready to haka.
The mass war dance, carefully configured and much rehearsed to bring
down the curtain on this momentous event, is tribute and conclusion and
reminder to these returnees, you are of us we are of you. We pull you back
with glad hearts into our embrace.
And yet, villagers, and yet . . .
Yet there is change in our boys. Look how their faces are different,
see the dark around the eyes, the gaunt cheeks, stains of disillusion and
disbelief; there's a haunting in too many eyes, a couple clearly brain-damaged.
Look at the deep-furrowed brows, twitches and tics that weren't
there before, see how some look disoriented, unsure of where they are,
even here, back home at this unforgettable place. They may have come
home the victors but a price was paid.
Now, most of the soldiers are crying, though not Henry who maintains
his officer's posture, a leader of men who must set example. His outbreaks
of smile have died, replaced by confusion perhaps suspicion. But maybe
he has known for some time, maybe she wrote to him. His people observe
closely, like plotting palace subjects keeping careful eye on their ruler,
positioning themselves for his fury, his wrath to come and, one day, his
Ah, but look at poor Nathan Kururangi, who left here in 1939, the
searing late summer light of eager youth, brain blind to what lay ahead,
and came home with the darkness forever drawn over his eyes.
Look at Barney Mutu's lips moving, yet no words issue. Fine looking
still, he is reduced of the man he was, words unable to get out.
In alphabetical order Henry has committed twenty names to memory,
a brother, cousins, close friends, sons, grandsons from families he knows
so well, whom he played with as a child; schooled and fought with and
against on the rugby fields; at school athletics; swum in the river, bathed
Every spoken name makes for outbreak of grief. Henry has to pause
each time. Barney starts staring and people realise Henry is nearing the
Mutu, Henry says. Harold.
Barney's eyes bore into Henry; his mouth opens and closes.
Henry meets Barney's stare. Barney holds his captain's gaze for a moment then
closes eyes and weeps for his late brother.
The feast will become local legend: crayfish by the score, shellfish by
the sack, lamb, pork, beef, chicken, all cooked in the big steam boxes
built beside the communal dining room. In a country six years rationed
somehow food has been procured. The beer comes in kegs, whisky and
rum by the case.
Inside a large hall set with groaning tables, individuals get up and sing,
mighty natural-born tenors and baritones, big of build and raw personalities
formed from growing up in this tiny community and yet influenced, subtly
and without knowing it, by the host of international visitors and their
broader outlook. For the Waiwera Maori boys gained renown for their
excellent singing voices in that war.
The soldiers show off the Italian arias picked up while fighting, first
in Egypt then in the Eyties' own backyard. More than a few could have
had opera careers, with training. But mostly the whole community sings,
harmonised and powerful with emotion and that part of the warrior breed's
personality which turns soft and tearful on occasions like this.
The males young and old break out in haka after stirring haka, shake
the ground like the tremor before a geyser erupts, as they erupt into
choreographed display of chest- and thigh-slapping fury screaming the
words to the enemy of days a hundred years gone but alive in their minds
that they are coming for them, the hated foe.
Women take turns to sing harmonised songs. Individuals confidently
do solos and miss not a note nor falter with a phrase. Love and lust shine
openly in female eyes.
All day and into the night the celebrations go.
My mother could hardly turn up at proceedings with me in tow, just had
to sit at home and wait for Henry.
My big sister told me he called Mum a slut that night. A fucken slut.
And gave her a hell of a hiding which Mata said she'd never forget nor
forgive. Mata remembered him using the word Yank quite a few times.
That would be my father.
Growing up we read comics with pictures of Jap soldiers with buck
teeth, wearing thick-lens spectacles, depicted as little slit-eyed monsters
getting whipped by our giant, good-looking, white American ally soldiers.
I presumed my father — my real father — to be one of those Jap-killing
heroes. Tall and handsome, muscular, with shining white teeth and of paler
complexion than my olive. He'd have a chest adorned with medals won
in the war and the proud bearing of a soldier who'd served his country
I imagined him confronting Henry over beating up my mother and
saying, try me for size, buster. Swelled my chest to bursting with pride
thinking of my dad righting that wrong. But I had times of thinking what
might in fact be wrong was a man's wife having a baby to another man
while he was away fighting a war for his country.
MY HUSBAND. HE'S HOME
— if this can be called home, the place he returns
expecting a loving wife who missed him terribly, expecting to meet his
daughter for the first time. Thinking soon we will fall into each other's
arms, weep and laugh and claw one another's clothes off, make urgent
love. I can understand how he's seeing it. He can't even smile. I don't
He's never been what you would call handsome, but he has a presence
and I think it's physical, not to do with intelligence though he has that too.
Something chiefly about him even though he is not of high-born lineage.
His presence is more like a slab of timber than an intricate carved piece.
He is strength and powerful personality in one, quite dark of complexion
as if his blood line has not been diluted by white blood that runs in most
Maori veins of today.
Growing up a year younger I saw him fight boys several years older
and win more than he lost — the fury he fought with, even when he was
only nine or ten, was a scary sight to behold. Doubtless the man fought
his enemies the same.
My husband is home, and he has five years of war in his eyes and a war
of right now. His hearing cannot grasp that it is two children's voices out
that back door, not one.
Poor Henry, he is confused at why I was not there: what possible
calamity could have happened for his wife and child to be absent from
the homecoming? This day is local history, part of our nation's history, of
world history. Yet where was his wife?
I am not such a hypocrite I will go to his arms. I just say hello, Henry.
I'm sorry. I couldn't tell you in front of everyone. Tears won't come.
Tell me what? You should have been there to welcome me home.
Where the hell were you? Jesus, these are not the first words I should be
speaking to my wife after five years apart.
I take a long time to answer, realising I have not rehearsed this, it's not
the sort of thing you can go over in your mind, much too big of too much
moment, will happen when it does and now the moment has arrived. My
God, the moment is here.
I went with another man, Henry.
You what? What did you just say?
He advances towards me, all stunned disbelief, more hurt than a man
deserves to expect. I don't blame him.
I want to tell him, it didn't feel like betrayal, not in the circumstances.
I want to sit down and discuss with my husband now returned to me
nearly six years older with seemingly a lifetime's war experiences that
things don't stay the same back home either. The candle might well still
be burning in the home window but a woman — women everywhere
— get lonely and we change too. We find things out about ourselves that
we would never have if our husbands had not gone away and for so long.
A woman learns independence, how to keep her own counsel. With time
mostly to herself her thoughts change. Might be the idea of marital love
has changed too.
He's gone, Henry. Three years gone and for all I know killed.
So he's a soldier?
What, a soldier boy home on feigned injury leave? Did you and him
lie in our marital bed and laugh at my letters sent from different places after
or before you screwed?
Nothing happened here in this house. I would never have done that.
He has hardly blinked. I can hear Mata and Yank outside; Yank
is squealing at being chased by his big sister. Their sound does not —
cannot — register to the father of one of them. Rage will soon have him
completely in its grip.
He better not be from here. Henry means mortal threat in those
I shake my head, bizarrely relieved. No, not from here. Not even from
this country. And I can see the relief in his face, too: he does not have to
go to war again against my lover, against a fellow citizen.
Except it swings back at me, my lover's nationality, like a heavy
pendulum since it has already slammed into my husband's face.
Can't repeat it. Henry heard clear enough, he's trying to adjust.
I'm sorry. It just . . . happened.
You're sorry? For being a married woman going with a Yank while I
was fighting for your country, for the honour of our family, our village,
our Maori race, our nation? And you say sorry, like you spilled the fucken
milk or something?
I had his child.
His what? To a Yank? You have a kid . . . here . . . in this house? No?
You adopted it out? Where is it?
In the thunderstruck features I see another man I don't know. Not
a monster, who will come soon enough; this is a confused child, like a
bullying kid who finds the tables have been turned on him so now he's
hurt and confused and knows not what to do next.
Can he be blamed for feeling like this? For what I have done is an
outrage. But not, as Father O'Sullivan up the road tried to insist, a sin
needing time in the confession box owning up to a God I don't believe
in. For surely sin is wicked intent or a deliberate ignoring of moral
I committed no sin, even though I broke the marriage vow of fidelity.
There was a war going on. And I was caught by surprise, finding deep
dissatisfaction I had no idea existed within me.
All this way, thirteen thousand miles he's sailed. He's gone through the
unimaginable, taking countless enemy lives, seeing indescribable things,
just surviving the war a miracle when millions were killed. He has so
looked forward to coming home to me — the pure me, who has known
no other man — to see his daughter for the first time; he never stopped
saying so in his letters.
If he'd first asked to see his daughter, who is peeping through a gap in
the door in fear at this her first sight of her father; if he'd put his anger aside
for long enough to embrace her, sit her on his knee, I might just accept
him ignoring my son.
Not when he marches up and grabs a handful of my carefully brushed
hair and drives his fist into my face and throws me all over the room he
and his father laboured to build, for us, the newly married couple, a home
for our children. Hitting me, hitting me, when he must know his child
and my child are present.
I am not wearing a German uniform: I am in civilian clothes of 1945,
a skirt seven years old of tiny floral pattern in but two colours, hardly worn
because it has been saved for special occasions though of ordinary material
and cheap price.
So why would a husband, on his first day home after more than five
years, be beating his wife black and blue with two children right outside
Welcome home, husband. How wonderful to have you back. This is
your daughter. We called her Mata, after your grandmother. And when
this beating is over you'll meet the kid the village call Yank, the reason
why you're doing this to us.
Welcome home, husband, to your unfaithful wife, your first-born
child. And the child of a soldier just like you.