New Zealand Girl: Hene and the Burning Harbour
Author: Paula Morris
1 The two boats
Hene sprinted down the path, leaping over rocks and straggly bushes. Her heart was pounding. She needed to run as fast as possible, as fast as she'd ever run before.
But she also needed to be careful. On one side of the narrow path, kumara gardens stretched in terraces up the hillside. On the other side, there was a long, sheer drop into the blue water of the bay.
Although Hene knew she was a strong swimmer, she didn't like jumping – or, even worse, falling – into the water from such a great height. Lots of the other girls and boys at the pa thought nothing of leaping into the sea from a big rock, or from high on a hill. But Hene preferred to walk into the water, one step at a time, from the beach. She didn't care if other children laughed at her and called her a coward. Maybe one day she could show them she could be brave in other ways.
Hene stumbled on a knobbly root, stubbing her toe.
'Ow!' she cried out, but there was nobody to hear her. Nobody was digging in the gardens. Nobody was carrying kete of squirming fish back from the point, or hauling dried seaweed up the ladder to the pataka where they stored supplies for the coming winter. There were big things going on at the pa, serious things. All the adults always seemed to be talking and arguing. Sometimes her parents seemed sad. Other times, they seemed angry.
'Too many bad things at the same time,' her grandmother said every day, shaking her head and shooing Hene away.
Everyone was always shooing her away, Hene thought, her bare feet slapping against the cracked earth of the path. Her heart thudded along in time with every step. Well, maybe this time they'd be pleased to see her. Today she had news that everyone would want to hear.
Hene had spent much of the afternoon trying to keep out of everyone's way. She'd followed this path away from the pa all the way to the end, where the land stopped and you could see far, far away – past lumpy little islands, all the way to the blue horizon.
That's when she saw the two boats.
The first boat was huge, as big as any boat Hene had ever seen in her life. It had masts as tall as trees, and great sails that billowed like puffy white clouds. In the bright sunshine it was hard to see clearly, but Hene was sure she spotted two things: big guns, big enough to cast a shadow on the water; and soldiers, Pakeha soldiers.
She'd never seen a soldier in person, but Hene had heard lots of stories about them. Someone told her they all wore red coats and had such long whiskers that they looked more like dogs than men.
Her twin brother, Taehi, whispered to her that the coats were red because they were stained all over with blood, but she didn't believe that. She didn't believe any of Taehi's stories or jokes. And anyway, he'd never seen a soldier either, so how would he know?
Taehi. Hene's heart thumped even faster when she thought of him. Usually Taehi was the brave one, fast and fearless. He was the best runner of all the children in the pa. But now he was a shadow of himself, struggling to open his eyes.
He couldn't come outside today, or yesterday, or any day. He was sick, and nobody knew why.
Lots of the children in the pa were sick, and some of the older people as well. They were cold and shivering, then they were hot and feverish. They were too tired to get up, and often they struggled to breathe. They had to stay inside, in the dark whare, sleeping or shaking and moaning.
Everyone was worried about them. All the usual remedies and prayers didn't seem to work. Two of the younger children had already died, and now people were afraid that all the children would be lost to this strange new disease. Hene couldn't understand why one day Taehi was racing her out to the point and back, and the next day he could barely stand up.
Now Hene had to sleep in her grandmother's whare, to keep safe from the sickness. Each day her grandmother gave her jobs to do. She had to fetch water, collect feathers, carry flax to the weavers, and lug bundles of fern and firewood. There was no time for swimming or kite-flying, and anyway there was no one to play with. Nearly all the children in the pa were ill.
Hene felt lonely spending long hours by herself. She wanted to sit with Taehi, telling him stories, trying to make him feel better. But everyone just shooed her away.
Today's job was to watch for the boat – not the one with soldiers, but another, much smaller, boat. Hene had seen it not long after she watched the big ship sail by. As soon as she saw the little boat, she took off running along the narrow path. She had to get back to the pa to tell them the news.
Two men were rowing the boat, pulling as hard as they could against the big waves. There was a Pakeha lady in the boat, too. She wore one of those enormous hats that they called a bonnet, and on her lap she held a kete. In this kete, Hene knew, there was special medicine. The lady was the wife of a missionary in Paihia, and two men from the pa had gone to fetch her. Paihia was a long way away, further than Hene could run.
The lady's name was Mrs Williams, but everyone in the pa called her Mata Wiremu. She was very good at helping sick people, so today they were bringing her to the pa to help Taehi and everyone else who had the fever.
'They're here!' Hene shouted, although she was still too far away for anyone to hear her. Every time she shouted, her voice sounded like a squeak. 'They're here!'
Hene's hair was plastered to her head with sweat. Her chest hurt from running so fast. Her breath felt trapped in her throat. She could see the spiky fences of the pa up ahead, and the thatched roofs of all the whare. She could even smell the smoke curling up from the fires.
'The boat is here!' she called, and this time a man standing on the ramparts heard her and took up the cry. The hubbub of the spreading news rose up from the pa. But Hene kept running. This was good news – the first good news they'd had in a long time. She wanted to be there to tell her mother and father. Maybe this time they wouldn't shoo her away.
Maybe now Taehi would get better, Hene thought. Their lives would go back to normal. She couldn't imagine a world without Taehi and her parents and grandparents. All Hene wanted was for them all to be together.