Mrs Edwards scraped a nail against the mouldy window sill and sighed. She’d scrubbed it only a few weeks ago, but the mottled wood had bucked and bloomed in the heat. The tree was wilting too, a bushy, dark-leaved thing stuck in the corner, placed there after she had received a letter from her sister.

“We do not entirely agree with inviting the whole tree into one’s home.” Her sister had written, “But one must trust in Queen Victoria and not fear the peculiar customs of her Germanic relations. I enclose a print of Her Majesty’s Christmas for your instruction.”

Her sons had taken the print into the forest and returned with this tree, with all the pride and fanfare of a successful hunt. Adorned with sprigs of red pōhutukawa flowers and candlelight, it had enchanted the children, but now it wept sap onto the walls and shed its leaves onto the floorboards. We are both in silent protest of this custom, Mrs Edwards thought.

She swept a few dead sandflies off the sill and brushed the hearth as best she could, avoiding the eyes of Her Majesty, whose portrait hung above the fireplace. They’d decorated the hearth with the linen samplers of her needle class, designed to help the daughters of the Missionary Station learn basic stitch work. Her own daughter, Maria, had done a fine sampler, the stitching was neat and accurately sized, but there were several embellishments to the border which looked strange, swirling patterns that seemed to move in the corner of your eye. Mrs Edwards had never seen the like of it before, and Maria should not have either.

She bent down to sweep the dead leaves from behind the grate, cold since October and full of Paua shells from the beach, when she heard a scream come from the kitchen. She stood up as fast as her stiff knees would let her, just as her second youngest charged full pelt into the room, followed closely by James, her second eldest.

“Run Piggy!” James bellowed, raising a long stick up to his eye, “Or my musket will get you!”

Piggy, nick-named after his upturned nose and round cheeks, dove behind his mother’s skirts.

“James!” Mrs Edwards cried. “Stop that at once! I’ve not finished in here-”

They were already running out, but before her gangly son’s frame could disappear into the garden, she called him back.

“Have you brought out the long table from the barn?”

“Yes, ma. We moved it just now.”

“And the doorway? Does the Reverend think it will do?”

They had been unsure of how to solve the dilemma of the doorway. Traditionally, as the clock struck midnight tonight, the Edwards’ front door would be opened to let out the old year and welcome the new, and they would be visited by friends and neighbours bearing gifts and glad tidings for a felicitous year ahead. It was imperative a man took the first footing over their threshold, preferably with coal for their fire and bread for their bellies, and if he were a good-willed stranger of handsome height and dark hair, so much the better.

 But there were no strangers in the Missionary, just three humble families, all of whom were attending tonight’s party. And as for the knocking on their front door, the heat and sour air within the cottage had forced them to host the party in the garden, on a long table made just for the occasion.

 Rather than have their guests wait for midnight in the discomfort of the cottage, it was the Reverend who had the idea to make some form of doorway outside which the men could step through, to give candied fruit and toys to their families.

“He’s still fixing the archway with the flax, but it looks better now.” James answered, tapping his stick against the flagstones. “It should be rather fun. Will I get to do the first footing this year?” 

“Not likely, while your father lives. Now on with you, go see if he needs help. He’s been working like a carthorse all day.”

She watched her son as he ducked into the garden, swinging his stick like a dandy in Oxford Circus. All he needed was a gentleman’s hat, Mrs Edwards smiled, and then she remembered Maria.

“Oh, James! Have you seen your sister?”

“Not since breakfast.” He called over his shoulder.

Mrs Edwards put a hand on her belly, feeling some knot there shift and tighten. Beyond their garden fence, in the shimmering heat, she could almost see Maria walk through the long grass to the gate, her hair whipped out its pins by the sea wind. But the mirage melted, and the cicadas laughed her back into the cottage.


Maria was breathing heavily, with every inhale she felt her damp corset press against her skin. The boy’s finger was hovering over the linen neckline, close enough for him to feel the fibres against his fingerprint. He traced the embroidered flowers, an inch left, an inch right, never fully touching, before descending a slow line towards where her navel lay. He tapped the stiffness of her corset, a frown crumpling his brow.

“It’s whale bone.” Maria breathed, “I hear they are from your whales.”

“Your dress … it is whale?” Ari asked, feeling the rise and fall of the ridges beneath the cloth.

“Yes. From the whalers in the Bay of Islands. My father tries to convince them to come to church on Sundays, but they just laugh.”

Ari was staring at her again, how much he understood, she’d never know. “It must be terribly lonely. Father says they often lose their boats and get marooned on the islands for years.”

Ari shook his head, rocking the feather in his head band, and sat to face the sea. She followed, pushing herself up from the shingle, and watched the rising waves catch the sinking sun. Like holding amber to the fire, the waves were veined with silhouettes, the shadows of sea creatures, weeds and shell.

“We make this, from whale bone.” Ari said, lifting a curling pendant from his neck to show her. “Matau. For fish.” He hooked his finger into his mouth.

“May I?” Ari nodded, and she bent closer to inspect the pendant. The maker had carved mesmeric patterns into the bone, capturing the arc of the surf and the whorls of a river eddy. 

“It looks how water looks.” She said, feeling foolish, but he smiled.

“It is a gift, a Matau. From my hapṻ, we live by the sea.” 

Maria nodded, and carefully placed the pendant back against his chest. She had moved nearer, they both knew, and as their eyes met she felt that curious sense of loss, as if she was parting with something she had never known she owned.

“A gift!” She jumped, grateful to move away. “I almost forgot, I have one for you.” She began to search her skirts for her pocket. “It is here somewhere-” But a dark-skinned hand stopped her arm.

“No gift.” Ari said, frowning once more, “I do not…” He searched for the word, muttering a language that sounded to Maria as clipped and melodious as the birds in the forest. “Win. I do not win a gift.”

“Do you mean earned?” She asked. “That’s ok, no one does really. But today is the eve of the new year, this is our tradition, my family, my whānau.” She gently moved her arm out of his grasp, to produce a piece of thick, folded paper from her pocket. “We give each other gifts today to say thank you. It’s fun.” Slowly, she placed the paper in his left palm. A moment passed, until his fingers closed around it.

“Tēnā rawa atu koe.” Ari murmured. He unfolded the paper and became still. It was a drawing of a Tui bird, cocking his head with a mischievous eye, his white collar bulbous beneath the beak.

“It is the Tui, do you remember? The one I said looked like a Reverend had been caught by your gods and turned into a bird for his Christian ways. Ha!” She shuffled closer, inspecting her work. “He’s an odd thing to draw, I thought I might have got the beak wrong, but I was quite pleased with the wings. I did a Weka for mother too, that’s a joke really because she hates them coming into the kitchen.”

Still Ari did not speak, only the Kaka’s startled cry could be heard over the forest hill. Maria bit her lip and began to talk faster. “The new year is fun because we get presents and have a feast, and oh! We do the first footing, that’s silly but I like it because father lets you stay up late to see who will knock on your door first.” The boy at last titled his head to her. “It’s a tradition, after midnight, everyone runs to visit your house, and the first visitor brings gifts with them to bless the family. Mama says a man who is tall with dark hair and carrying riches is the best, but I doubt we will have many of those knocking on our door!” She laughed, hoping for a smile from him, but he looked solemn. 

“Do you… do you not like it?” 

Ari took one last look at the drawing, before carefully folding the paper and tucking it away into his piu piu. He stared at her, just as the year’s final sun started to slip into the sea.



Piggy had run away. He had run as fast as his legs could carry him, which, compared to his brothers, wasn’t that fast at all. But seeing as they were all so busy, he only had himself to race, and he happily made his way through the forest without fear of being beaten. 

Pulling a bun from his pocket, he slowed down as he neared his secret beach, the one between Giant’s Rock and God’s Arc, where he knew the tide would have left all sorts of treasures to discover and covet. He crashed through the bush, frightening a Kaka from its nest, and broke through the grassy cliff overhanging the beach. The sun was just slipping into the sea, and he raised his arm against the blinding light. Below, shrouded in gold sea mist, he saw them.

Piggy dropped his bun.


He drew his lips from hers, taking her soul with him, she thought. Who knew what magic the Maori possessed? Perhaps she had been bewitched, for she had never shared a breath with another, nor one that filled her lungs with such lightness. It was as if she had inhaled the sun itself, and she wondered, is this how God feels? Is this Heaven?

  She leant closer again, but a movement up on the hill caught her eye. A round, pale face and what looked like a white ball, bouncing down the rocks. She locked eyes with Piggy. And then he was gone.

“PETER!” Maria screamed.


 The light was fading, but Piggy knew his way to the meadow well enough. He ran back through the forest, the cacophony of birdsong spurring him to go faster. Just imagine, Piggy thought as he ran, how clever ma will think me, and how jealous James will be, that I found out why Maria had been so absent these past few months…

Piggy stopped to catch his breath at the edge of the field. He could see the thatch of their roof, see the smoke twist from the kitchen chimney, and hear laughter rise into the dusk air. A few paces closer, and he spotted his mother, alone, laying the plates onto the table. He wiped the sweat off his brow and started to run again.


Night had fallen in the Edwards’ garden, and the table was aglow with candlelight and red faces. Handfuls of smoking eucalyptus leaf hung from the posts, warding off insects and releasing a drowsy scent.

 A little way from the table, the new year’s doorway had been constructed over the meadow gate that separated the garden and the field beyond. The gate was flung wide open to let out the old year, and the Pratts’ girls had decorated the arch with ferns and white-belled Kaihua flowers. The Reverend and Jimmie had already been the subject of much praise for their handiwork, and even Mrs Pratt had commented it was pretty enough to make do for a May bride.

 The port had been uncorked, the Apple Jonathan dish licked clean, and Maria, whose swollen eyes were noticed only by her mother, had been called to the head of the table.

“My friends, it is almost midnight.” Reverend Edwards said, checking his pocket watch. “Let our sweetest voice sing us into the new year with Auld Lang Syne, Maria? If you please?”

“Perhaps Maria is too tired to sing tonight.” Mrs Edwards muttered to the Reverend, “I hear she has had rather an adventurous day.” 

“Nonsense, she by far has the best voice of us all! Would you rather our James sing?” 

The table burst into laughter, James shouted mock protests, and the Reverend had laughed so much he’d had a coughing fit. “Come, Maria,” he gasped, waving his kerchief at her, “Sing for us.”

Maria swallowed, and stepped forward, out of the bruising gaze of her mother. Her voice carried through the valley, the echo of the hills created a gentle canon to her words, and their guests looked about them in wonder.


We too have paddled in the stream

From morning sun to night

But the seas between us broad have roared

From auld lang syne...

She took a breath for the final verse, but stopped, a look of shock on her face as she stared at the archway. Both her mother and father turned, the rest of their table peered around to find the cause of her distress.

There Ari stood, bare chest, in his skirted Piu Piu, cupping a cloth bag in his hands. “I have brought you a gift, Maria. For your whānau.” He said, stepping through the gate.



January 02, 2020 20:13

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