It was a good day yesterday to venture back to see Christine for a start on my left arm tatau: the dear cat Tohora left our lives on Friday at 4pm after near on nineteen happy years of her indomitable self; I couldn’t find my strongbox, with passports and all, along with my Dad’s WW2 naval campaign medals, nor his father’s Baghdad medallion from 1919; it seemed with a broken night’s sleep prior, I was in a bad zone. Once the needle was back on my skin, I somehow knew there wouldn’t be time to angst and grieve.
And so it proved: once I had entered the warmth of my artist’s home, said kia ora to the home-schooled tamariki and Theo the rabbit, settled on to the chair by the tatau/moko table, plugged into Hirini Melbourne singing waiata Maori from the ngahere up amongst Tuhoe, the day’s hassles and the sadness were leaching away. I was looking forward to beginning the adventure of the left arm. It was in some ways, nature as opposed to the nurture, the human elements written on my skin to the right arm.
Here we have Papatuanuku, the earth, the rivers, the mountains and the ngahere (the bush) of my childhood West Coast/Grey Valley world. Yes, there are human powers there too: the Blackball bridge frames the design on the upper arm and the dead of Strongman and Pike River, the wristband, like a Celtic gold torc dug from the earth. But the powers that predominate are those of the world as we find it.
Left arm draft.
We make a few changes from John’s original (skin is not paper) and bring the number of river lines on the wrist end down to nineteen from twenty nine, keeping the Pike River men as stones in a flow of nineteen Strongman miner streams. In this way we have both tragedies remembered: those who died in 1967, including my high school classmate Noel (“Wrecka”) Prescott, and another Grey High boy, Buffer Cust, as well as the men and boys from 19 November 2010.
Strongman miners’ mass grave, Karoro, 22 January 1967.
I refuse to forget these men and all those who have died before and since, more often than not the victims of poor safety standards and the pressure to produce coal whatever the cost. And now they lie under the gaze of the those same mountains they mined, deep underground all their working lives in the dangerous belly of the Paparoa range coal seams. The mountains come next as we work up the arms, the lines drawn in green reflect the cover image Colin McCahon drew for Bill Pearson’s 1963 West Coast mining novel, Coal Flat, based on his experiences teaching in Blackball during the war.
Coal Flat Cover (Colin McCahon, 1963): section.
So the drawing begins, all the way up to the lines to capture the borders of the heavenly bodies, the bush and the bridge (the latter will have red and black sections for the town’s rugby league colours). Christine is excited by the colour choices and steels herself for the many lines it will take to get the wrist end started. She has a supply of string which she cuts and wraps around my arm to get the circle on the flesh made straight, and then adding more lines, parallel. It’s a real test, as what looks flat or straight on application may not when the skin is working and the muscles are moving underneath. She tells me horror stories of newbie moko artists drawing on the lower back and getting a surprise when the recipient stands up and the picture shrinks and distorts: too late! But she is well aware of these tricks and traps and the drawing (followed by the inking and then the needle) is smooth.
Drawing the lines.
It takes nearly ninety minutes to get this far, before the needle even strikes skin; this Niuean design in very geometrical compared to the flow of moko, and once she had expertly cut the river line and stone circles into my skin (counting to get them exactly right and spaced), she rejoices at the swooping green lines of the Paparoa mountains: “at last, some curves!”. Hirini meanwhile sings to us nearby and we talk of his genius, his ngawari nature, his humility – and such a premature loss in his early death. Haere ra, e te kaitito, kaiwaiata rangatira hoki no Ngai Tuhoe!
Mining the Paparoa lines.
My premonition the day’s worries would evaporate once the needle bit into the skin is only too true. I can’t think of anything as she traces the drawn, inked lines and feel the burning as the needle runs from my thicker upper arm skin to the almost translucent whiteness below where my veins are visible: that does cause a few winces. And we talk, and the time flows from stillness to stillness. After three and a half hours of another dimension, today’s work is done. Christine cleans my arm, sterilizes the angry red lines and rubs on a healing balm.
We have a final karakia and talk about the the books I have given her as a koha for last week’s work: my story about Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau, the great Tamakaimoana chief, and a novel by Tina Makareti, about Rekohu/The Chathams. We have shared much about Maungapohatu (again, always), and her journey with te reo Maori, Nga Peka Matauranga and university language papers: “I didn’t want the tohu, just the reo”. She is so refreshing: learning was not just a meal ticket, but a need to reclaim her Maori language and identity. She takes photos of the finished day’s work and we head into the kitchen for pikelets cooked by one of her very clever children – what a delicious end to the day.
We make arrangements for another session next week and I head home in the blue Honda Fit, in the gathering evening, my arm stinging but my heart just that bit closer to the peace Jesus promises, the kind “that passes all understanding”. Knowing I will enter the gate our cat passed through underlies all my fear, but the pain of moko is in some small way a door to that door, a reminder that our storymaking will not always be easy, that it one day must end, but till then, we can live and grow – if we choose – into nicer giants. Back home, one last search of my new study reveals where I carefully hid the strongbox with all my documents and treasures. Hallelujah! I feel like I have just dodged a very cruel bullet.