There’s a schoolhouse in South Taranaki, a neat old place nestled in the bosom of a church and a cemetery, the home of three generations, a mixed family, Pākehā and Māori. Its inside is decorated with the regalia of colonial life: a copper bedpan, an oil lamp, and a saddle posted on the living room wall – an odd contrast to a pretty little portrait of native birds watching over the same space. Two fantails, tūī, a kererū.
Every new door in this strange place reveals new oddities: yellowed pictures of aged Māori men posted above a brick fireplace, decommissioned muskets lined on a hallway wall, two bookshelves decorated with the esoteric texts of native legend and history (I never could tell the difference), a PlayStation, a 52-inch plasma TV, Kate Shepphard painted on a teacup alongside Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia. Suffragettes I am told.
Some of the land wars were fought nearby. The grandfather of this place carries a metal detector that is always singing with the songs of that time: dated coins and the occasional nail. No musket balls yet. They are almost certainly buried behind the fences of Pākehā farmers, those who have buried the bones of local history beneath cow manure and fertiliser, cordoned it off with barbed wire and the hum of electric gates, unduly large signs reading warnings of private property, fines and dogs and police calls and gunfire. No bad intentions I’m sure, but those types have always been precious, never tolerated anyone trotting on their land, let alone the locals, those who might have a bone to pick. More than just one if those history books hold any truth.
A fantail visits this old place on occasion, flies in through the back door, ducks and dives and dances around the living room light, sings a little song, then leaves the same way it came in. Sparrows have visited, but they have never shown the same grace, bashing their little heads against every wall and window until someone dumb-lucky enough screams in the right direction or traps them with a tea towel. The kaumātua warn the fantail is an omen, those who deliver the news of death. They say it has been this way since Māui crossed Hine-nui-te-pō, a different story in different parts but always a fatal encounter. The younger ones in the schoolhouse, a superstitious pair, camp by their cell phones every time, waiting for the hotline bling of bad news, desperately searching their memories for the last location of all they love. The others in the house are not so concerned. The baby is a baby, nine months old, still crawling, and his grandparents are incredulous, having long dismissed the awesome power of the natural world, more concerned with the troubles of men. A fact unsurprising to anyone who knows their history.
The churchgoing folk next door share the grandparents’ disbelief. They scoff at the thought of their mighty God speaking through a bird. He speaks only through the Good Book, they say, forgetting the clouds and the trumpets and the plaques and the angel that wrestled with a man. Even so, they have a point. But then so do the superstitious, the cemetery next door hosting guests almost equally as often as the old schoolhouse hosts that fan-tailed messenger. A coincidence, they would claim, and they might well be right. And so too the stories in that book of theirs founded on much less evidence.
The walls are dry rotting and worm-eaten and rattle violently in the wind, the taps leak and the floor squeaks and the cold hangs in the air, the ceiling is compromised and the fireplace smokes out the house and the power goes out with every storm. Still and all, it is a beautiful house, a real-life real-world landmark.
In the backyard sits a mighty macrocarpa, a half-fallen-down tree almost as old as the schoolhouse. The macrocarpa is home to a great many birds, few more than the hawk and the magpie, competing kings and queens over this rural field. The whole of it is framed by a boxthorn hedge, a too-large bonfire burning through the night whenever it has overgrown. Sparrows and finches and tūī dot the gardens, more interested in the magnolia than the turf war over the fence. Pūkeko pace the country roads and ducks fly daily overhead and fantails are only ever spotted inside, those dancing-all-the-time messengers of God – of death.
An old community pool rests easy opposite a tin fence, rusted through, a silhouette of children holding their breath underwater painted on a nearby shed. The concrete pool is more algae than concrete, the whites and greys and blues having long taken on an ugly shade of green. The grandmother is an avid swimmer, even swam in it once – and only once. Lesson learned. The dogs love it though. Or they used to anyway. All they do now is eat, drink, sleep and bark at the birds. Never the hawk or the magpie. Those dogs want no beef with those winged kings and queens.
When night falls over this quiet place a string of fairy lights shine pretty on three steel statues embedded in a wooden post. More wildlife. More native birds. The late sky here loathes a dull sunset; the edge of the earth every night setting the heavens aflame with colours pink and red and purple. There are few sights in this life as remarkable as Taranaki Maunga dressed in his late sky korowai. If only Pihanga could see him now. Whanganui would surely go dry.
There’s a schoolhouse in South Taranaki, a neat old place nestled in the bosom of a church and a cemetery, a real-life real-world landmark, a home to the mixed family, a refuge for a world that once was.