“Taupiri mountain was filling with bones,” writes Ben Brown about his mother’s childhood at Waahi Paa.

Ben Brown’s classic memoir A Fish in the Swim of the World has recently been re-released by Penguin. It recalls a childhood spent on tobacco farms in Motueka and the ties of whakapapa to Tainui waka.

Ben says his book operates on the premise “that ordinary people have worthwhile and interesting stories to tell . . . There is the notion that a life lived in a certain way has meaning, has significance, though it may not change the world, nor even ripple its waters.”

Here, in the chapter “Mākutu”, he reflects on his mother’s relationship with death.

 

Ma carried her fate where you could see it, in the tilt of her head, the set of her chin and her direct gaze — tiro mākutu — a granite glare forgiving nothing. In many respects, she felt at ease in harm’s way, comfortable in the face of potential negative consequences. She was intimate with death, conversed with it sometimes, muttering away, defying, even threatening. How the hell do you threaten death? A frequent reminiscence of her childhood at Waahi Paa was, “Too many tangi, Son.”

Death stalked her, she reckoned.

“But you know what, Sonny? Death can piss off!” Ma wasn’t being melodramatic. She didn’t do melodrama.

Realist drama maybe — conflict, confrontation, attack, attack, attack. One speed. One way. Keep up or cop it. Unless her heart started doing that thing that rheumatic fever dictated it would do for the rest of her life since childhood. Two or three times a year it would slow her to a standstill and try to kill her.

Dad reckoned Ma had it back to front. “It’s your mother doing the stalking, Son. She’s been looking to pick a fight with the reaper all her life. Ask her about the curse — the mākutu. Maybe when she’s in a good mood though, eh.” Yeah, eh! Dad made a good point.

It’s Ma’s fifth birthday and she’s come home from her first day at Rākaumangamanga Native School and her father tells her through his tears, “Auē Puti. Kua mate tō māmā . . . E ngaro ai taku tau.”

She’s bound to get a shitty on about it one day. Add over a dozen cousins around her own age over the next ten years or so, plus uncles, aunties, kuia and koroua. Taupiri mountain was filling with bones.

Everyone on the pā was whānau.

“Ma, where do Māoris go when they die?” I asked her when I was nine or ten.

Fifty years ago, the plural for Māori was Māoris. Ma used to point out “No bloody s in Māori!” For some reason though, I had this idea in my head that Ma’s people, my people, might have a better option than the whole Heaven/Hell dichotomy I’d lately been presented with at Sunday school.

It was bad enough discovering that death was a thing, that everyone you love will die one day. Drop dead and decay like an old sheep on the hill. No refunds. No comebacks. After a while you can’t even see where they’ve been. Then, you gotta get your head around dying yourself! And then, you gotta worry about what happens after that!

To be honest, I had my doubts about the Sunday school line. Heaven is somewhere in the sky. Hell is somewhere “down there”. God lives in Heaven but really, he’s everywhere and he’s a Pākehā. The Devil lives “down there” and he doesn’t look Pākehā and has a pointed tail and horns on his head. Except when he’s a serpent of some description, sliming around in a fruit tree, talking his serpentine shit.

They told us at Sunday school: “God loves a sinner.” But not as much as Lucifer the Serpent. Sunday school also said we were all of us sinners on account of Eve — the first woman, apparently. I think Tāne Mahuta might have something to say about that. First woman to get blamed for EVERYTHING, maybe. I feel pretty stink for Eve. I reckon she was set up. The victim of a Creator who likes to mess with his creations, set little traps for them, tempt them, give them free will and then curse them for using it.

I can’t figure out what Eve did that was so monstrously evil that all of us since Eden gotta wear a soiled soul and start behind the eight-ball. But if you manage to clean up your act, do the right thing, hang your head and say “Sorry, God” like you believe it, you might become one of the “Good ones”. Good ones go to Heaven where, clearly, it’s all heavenly, with perfect reception, no adverts and whatever you want to watch forever.

The Bad ones are screwed. “Down there” you go — down, down, down into the abysmal hāngi pit of Hell where you will burn for all eternity. Now that’s what you call “te ahi kā”. No pardons, no appeals, no second chances, just burnt toast ad infinitum. I guess that’s where Eve found herself in the end.

Back then, I was informed that I incline toward wayward or even miscreant behaviour from time to time, with no obvious motivation other than “I wonder what would happen if I did/ went/tried/stole/blew up/burnt down/blah blah blah .  .  .” Never, it has to be said, with malice aforethought. Rather, there was just a simple curiosity at play as to the nature of cause and effect regarding some randomly selected ill-thought-out sequence of events.

Usually though, my “misadventures”, as I preferred to think of them, would involve some particularly concerning circumstance or situation I’d been explicitly forbidden to engage with or involve myself in. Everyone knows that kid — the one who’s gonna do exactly what you tell him not to do, because you told him not to do it.

So it seems unlikely that either the Wayward or the Miscreant will ever reconcile with the Good. For a while then, I saw no heavenly aspect on either my near or future horizon. If Hell is for the Bad ones, that’s where I’ll be bound . . . I’m not embarrassed to admit it. That worried me for a bit when I was a kid.

I still wasn’t certain about what happened after . . . That vexed me more than it should have. It seems to me that the human spirit is predisposed to explore, expand, extend and express. Ultimately, the human spirit does not want to die. Not wanting to die is a completely natural response to a proposition along the lines of “Life is everything. Death is nothing.”

Exploring, expanding, extending and expressing is how the human spirit seeks to avoid becoming nothing. The idea that this little bit of autonomous, movable, flexible space that contains you in shadow and shape, matter and substance, thought and deed, should revert to an emptiness, to a nothing, once you die — as it was nothing before you were born — well, to some people, that is almost an offensive idea.

Ma did know all about death, though. That’s why I asked her . . . “Where do Māoris go when they die?”

She didn’t even pause to think about it.

“We go home, Son.”

Even today, though I concluded for myself a long time ago what “after” looks like, I still find her answer a comforting thought. It is a mother’s answer of simple and practical reassurance. The more so when I pursued the issue of the Good ones and the Bad ones.

“We all go home, Sonny, ne’mind about good and bad.”

“What about Dad?” I asked, panicking at a sudden implication. Dad was Australian.

“He can come if he wants. More than likely want to bugger off to his bloody outback though, eh.”

*

I remember a small plaque and a name. William Alfred Brown. I remember Ma — firm and resolute. No tears. Set face. We were on a hillside between Stoke and Nelson. I was five or six years old, so fifty-five or fifty-six years more or less before I write this. I remember Ma dressing me in my best shorts and jumper, my best shoes and socks. I remember the smell of Dad’s Vaseline hair tonic and Ma parting my hair to the right. I remember just me and Ma driving toward Nelson from the valley. I asked if we could stop for an ice-cream at the dairy on the straight on the Nelson side of the Waimea River.

“On the way home, Sonny.”

I said, “I hope they’ve got banana chocolate chip.” 

Ma said, “I’ll give them a bloody good growling if they don’t, by crikey!”

*

She would too, eh. Ma could deliver a fearsome growling. I saw her make Aunty Bitchface cry once, just with a growling! I don’t know what the growling was about, but Aunty, who was bigger than Ma . . . well, she was just a Bitchface, but she had to stand there and take it, cos Ma was planted in front of her like a rock from out of the ground.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me when I’m talking to you!” she snarled.

Ma had her pointing finger right up there in Aunty Bitchface’s kanohi, and she had on her most angry war face, which glued Aunty to the spot when she said, “I know what you are and I know what you did and if you don’t fix it now, you’ll regret it!”

And when Aunty started to answer, it seemed like Ma doubled in size, but she didn’t — it was just Aunty Bitchface shrinking away as Ma really let her know how it was going to be: “DON’T GIVE ME YOUR BULLSHIT! You heard what I said! Now go and bloody FIX IT! Or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

I felt a bit sorry for Aunty after that. But she was still a Bitchface.

*

The drive from home at Ngātīmoti to Marsden Valley between Stoke and Nelson City took about an hour. It is my first recollection of visiting the dead. There were so many of them. And then the plaque, somehow affixed to a square of concrete set into the ground, and the names: Ma’s father’s name; Dad’s father’s name; our family name.

“This is your big brother,” Ma said. “He’d be a year older than you.”

Both my sisters asked me the same question sometime or other in the intervening year: “Did Ma ever take you to see our brother?”

On the way home we stopped at the dairy on the straight. Ma got us both a cone, banana chocolate chip. Billy Brown. Or Piri, like Grandad. That’s what I would have called my brother. Billy and Benny Brown. We would have been unstoppable!

*

“What’s the curse, Ma? What’s the mākutu?”

“The mākutu? Don’t you know what a curse is?”

“Well kind of but . . . Are they real?”

“What does that mean? ‘Are they real?’”

“You know, do they . . .”

“Look, if I put the mākutu on you, and I believe it will do what I intend it to do, then it’s real for me. Eh!”

“Yes.”

“And if you believe the same thing — well, you tell me. Is mākutu real?”

“. . . Yes . . . it is.”

“Āe. Ka tika . . . All right then . . . Suppose I put the mākutu on you. And you know what the mākutu is. And you decide, kāo, you’re not going to die from my bloody mākutu. You’re going to defy it. You’re going to laugh at my silly little mākutu. You’re going to tell my mākutu to bugger off every chance you get. Is the mākutu still real now?”

“Umm . . . no . . . yes . . .”

“That’s right, Son. The mākutu is always real. It’s mākutu. Whether it works — well, that is a matter of belief, a matter of defiance or acceptance.”

Suddenly, it occurred to me. “Did someone mākutu you?”

“No, Sonny, not me . . . but I was born on the wrong side of the blanket. Some said your nana — my ma — paid the price for that . . .”

“The wrong side of the blanket?”

“Āe, that’s what I said. My ma and dad were not meant to be together. They defied —”

“But your ma . . .”

“Ma died of the same things everybody else was dying of . . . TB, influenza, rheumatic fever. Take your pick, Sonny. Too many tangi. Our whare . . . we didn’t live in houses, we lived like we’d always lived — in huts, on the pā, by the river. It was not a healthy way to live for us with all the sickness. But it is what we were left with so we made do.”

And Ma told me about dirt floors and ponga-log walls and smokey fires set in an old oil tin. She told me about lamps that smelt of kerosene, and tobacco pipes kept alight with little embers of coal, and healers that cured with karakia who could not even look at Pākehā people, for fear of succumbing to Pākehā sickness and Pākehā curses.

She told me about the old people who avoided her when her mother died, and her nana — my great grandmother Kāhuki — who kept her safe and taught her how to defy and rarked up anyone who even whispered ill of my mother’s fate.

“Yes Sonny, mākutu is real, just as death is real. But defiance, well — defiance is life.”

 

Extracted from A Fish in the Swim of the World.

Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Paoa) is currently Kaipukahu University of Waikato Writer in Residence. Born in Motueka in 1962, he has previously worked as a tobacco farm labourer, market gardener and tractor driver, and has been writing and publishing since 1992. He was awarded the 2011 Māori Writers’ Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre. In 2021, Ben Brown was appointed as the inaugural Te Awhi Rito New Zealand Reading Ambassador for children and young people, a role in  which he advocated for and champions the importance of reading in the lives of young New Zealanders, their whānau, and communities. He is currently working on an historical novel.

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