Lord Of The Wings, Witi Ihimaera

Lord Of The Wings 

(extract from forthcoming novel )


One day Karuhiruhi, chieftain of the large black seashag iwi, decided to leave his cliff-faced pah and travel throughout his coastal kingdom. His wife, Queen Kara, had just given birth to his first-born son; although Karuhiruhi loved his consort and his new heir, he felt the need to escape the royal rooms, husbandly duties and fatherhood. Flying low over the water, sometimes diving undersea in pursuit of fish and crustaceans, he reached a wide river estuary. There, while wading in the estuary and reflecting on his life, Karuhiruhi was confronted by the chieftain Kawau, Lord of the rivershags.

“E tu,” Kawau challenged, “who are you to trespass in my river domain?” Flashing his sharply hooked bill, he executed a haka of splendid jumps and swoops.

Karuhiruhi bowed in acknowledgement. “E te rangatira,” he said, as he proceeded to mihi to Kawau, “I am sorry if I have strayed into your territory. It was not intended.”

The exchange that followed was elaborate and formal but, by the end of it, Kawau had accepted Karuhiruhi’s apology and his credentials. Once that was done, and the atmosphere more relaxed, he  extended the hospitalities of his estuary. “Please rest as long as you wish before you resume your travels,” he said.

“Thank you,” Karuhiruhi answered, “but it is time for me to return to my pah. E hoa, since you have extended the courtesies of your home to me, may I extend to you the courtesies of mine?”

“I would love to visit,” Kawau said. He followed Karuhiruhi as the black seashag took off from the estuary in a long series of jumps before becoming airborne.

On the way back to the island fortress, the chieftain Karuhiruhi proudly showed Kawau the extent of his domain and his tribe. His personality was invested with vanity and arrogance and he could not but boast about the vast coastal kingdom that he ruled. Kawau himself was not without his own pride and, as Karuhiruhi waxed lyrical about his possessions, he felt himself becoming irritated by the boastful fellow. He bided his time, knowing that an opportunity would eventually come to take Karuhiruhi down a peg or two.

Queen Kara was awaiting her husband’s return. “My Lord, your son is in his nest. You have arrived just in time for kai.”

“My Queen,” Karuhiruhi answered, “I have brought a guest, Kawau, chief of rivershags. Let him be welcomed in the appropriate manner.” As commanded, Queen Kara and her female attendants called in karanga and young warriors assembled to exhibit their skills at taiaha, peruperu and other martial arts.

Then it was time for kai. “Let it be only the best for our guest,” Karuhiruhi said. He dived from the cliff, plunging into the sea and, swimming deep, caught the choicest fish he could find and gave it to Kawau.

“Aue,” Kawau grimaced. The spines of the fish hurt his throat, and he saw his chance to hang one on Karuhiruhi. “Your food is no good, Chief Karuhiruhi. Where I live the food is much better.”

There was nothing more humiliating than to have a guest belittle one’s hospitality. “Much better?” Karuhiruhi hissed. “What food do you have, Kawau, which could possibly compare with ours?”

Kawau smiled, and his smile was not entirely guileless. “There are eels in my rivers which are so smooth that it is a pleasure to swallow them. Not like your fish which make me feel as if I have eaten razors.”

Oh, if only Kawau had been more diplomatic. Karuhiruhi became incensed at what he considered to be a display of arrogance. “Is that so?” he asked, beginning to take a dislike to this poppycock rivershag. “Prove it.”

“Be my guest,” Kawau said. He led Karuhiruhi back to his river domain. Toroa, the albatross, Karoro, the chieftain of the large, aggressive and powerful tribe of black-backed gulls, Taranui, the tern, Parara, the broad-billed prion, Queen Kara and other seabird courtiers accompanied them. Kawau was oblivious to the foreboding swish of Karuhiruhi’s dark wingspan or the glitter of anger in Karuhiruhi’s eyes. And he was so foolish! He took Karuhiruhi and the seabird entourage far inland, further than any seabird had ever been before, to a river lagoon renowned for the deliciousness of its eels. Although neither he nor the seabirds realised it at the time, this journey into the heart of manu whenua territory was to prove fatal to the landbirds because, on the way, it was clear that all this land was undefended.

The river lagoon was below. With a cry, “Taiki e!”, Kawau plummeted from the sky, diving deep into the sunlit waters, pursuing the eels as they fled through the sunken logs and forests of their world. On returning to the surface, he nonchalantly tossed a gleaming eel to Karuhiruhi. “Here!” he laughed.

Karuhiruhi arched his face to the sun. He saw the eel wriggling in the air, its sinuous length flashing in the sky towards him. “So this is better kai than my own?” Karuhiruhi sneered. The gleaming eel fell towards him. He opened his bill. The eel slid down his throat, cool, wriggling, sweet.

Nothing had prepared Karuhiruhi for such joy. His green eyes widened with shock. “It is true.” His senses exploded with ecstasy. Even before the eel reached his stomach, Karuhiruhi knew he wanted more. He saw that Kawau was offering eels to the other seabirds. He wondered whether they would have the same reaction as he had. Yes, when Queen Kara swallowed hers, her entire body went into orgasmic spasms. As for Karoro, he was already crooning for more.

Always ambitious, Karuhiruhi’s mind immediately flicked to the ultimate possibilities: if this was the food in one lagoon, imagine the bounty in all the others. He saw that his companions were having similar thoughts. Stunned by the sensuous taste, smell and texture of the eels, they stared at each other, speechless. Their sensory perceptions were in overload.

“So what do you think?” Kawau laughed.

The words flew out of Karuhiruhi’s beak before he could stop them. “One could murder for such sweetness,” he said.

The Great Book of Birds tells us that this is how the battle between the land birds and the seabirds began. It quotes a proverb that has since become famous in the literature:

He tuna, he wahine, he whenua, ka ngaro te tangata.

(Over such things, eels, hens and land are wars fought.)


Witi Ihimaera’s most recent novel is The Uncle’s Tale.


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