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Aunty sat down in front of the fire with her cup of tea. My cousins and I waited as she slurped her tea and dunked her biscuits. She knew we were waiting.


That's what we did every night when the dishes were done, the floor swept, and the fire stoked. We waited, waited for aunty to lean back in her chair and focus her glassy eyes. "You kids might not be old enough for this story!" she would start, pointing a crooked finger. "You kids might get nightmares if I tell you this one."

Our protests only made her laugh a shaky belly laugh which dissolved into an eerie silence as suddenly as it erupted. Aunty then arranged us the way she wanted, "I want to see your eyes," she said with a serious tone. "How can I tell you a story if I can't see your eyes?"

When she had us settled, she sucked in her breath then released it with a huge sigh and a tremble to her lips. "You kids need to know of the Tūrehu, the fairy people. They live in these parts, they haven't been seen for many years but they're still here up in the hills, hiding in the mist." Aunty turned as if listening for something, then stared into the flickering flames.

This is the story she told us.

When we were young, we lived on fish and the kai we grew. Fishing and gardens kept our community and families together when there was nothing else. We shared everything with everybody, there were no shops or flash cars, we just had what we could make or do for ourselves. In those days most people had moved away to the cities to find work and whatever else, but our family stayed and so did some others. We had our gardens, fishing, horses, and a whole bay to keep us happy. Three kids to one horse, that's how we went to school, clinging to each other on its bare back.

During the school holidays lots of families and relations came to fish and camp by the sea. Those were fun times when our little village doubled in size overnight. The fishermen went out on boats and set nets, us kids helped around the camp, mending the holes in the nets that the sharks and stingrays had ripped holes in or salting fish hanging over smoky fires. It was hard work at times but we still managed to have plenty of fun.

I remember one particular time when I was no older than you are now. We were camped above the beach just after the new moon, and one morning us kids headed down to the wet sand to play cricket. We used a ball made of bull kelp and a driftwood bat. That was when we spotted the tracks in the sand. Hoof tracks they were, not big ones like our horses made, but small delicate ones. No sooner had we discovered those tracks when a wave raced across the sand and wiped them away. We stood looking at each other, wondering whether we had seen anything at all. My cousin, your uncle Pita, reckoned some goats or pigs must have come out of the bush. But we'd never seen that happen before.

Later when we arrived back at camp for breakfast my aunty told us we'd done a great job of fixing the net but it wasn't us who did the work. The uncles were already loading the boats up for a day out on the sea, so we just pretended it was us. Anything to get in the good books with the aunty.

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The next morning those same tracks were in the sand again and another net was mended. Us kids liked dodging work, but we also wanted to know what was going on. I convinced my cousins to sneak out of our tents that night. We huddled around the fire and took turns at staying up, each of us gripping a stone or a stick to feel safe with. Just in case it was kehua we were up against.

I don't remember falling asleep, but I do remember waking up. Pita was gripping my leg. I sat bolt upright, he was pointing in the direction of the beach. It was just before dawn and the sky was beginning to lighten. I could see them, tall people, with red hair, pale and half naked, dancing on the sand. I woke my other cousins and we sneaked closer hiding behind some driftwood.

Cousin Rose spotted two of them working on one of the nets. She squealed and they turned to us, looked us straight in the eye. I was so frightened I couldn't move and Rose started to cry. They came closer as if they were stalking us, like they were floating and dancing at the same time with their red hair blowing around them. Their legs were mucky, covered in hair, and they had hooves like that of a goat. They looked so powerful, their skin so pale, almost transparent and their eyes were huge and pink. Pink staring eyes. It was like, they were telling us to come with them, hypnotising us, wanting to take us away. I could do nothing except grip my cousins as tightly as I could. Pita had a stick but we knew it'd be useless.

Then suddenly they stopped. Stopped and turned away from the beach and towards the hills. Pita later said he could hear a fine whistling sound, like a hollow bone when it's blown, flute sounds floating down through the valleys. They all turned, those strange people, seeming to glide effortlessly away, up over sand dunes and into the bush covered hills. We sat looking at each other until the sun rose from the sea and into the morning sky, not speaking, just thankful.

We tried to tell the adults that ghost people had mended the nets, but they laughed and told us to get on with our work. All except Aunty Pare, she took us aside that night and listened to our story around the camp fire. She told us about the Tūrehu, the fairy people, who live on the ridges of the highest hills. "They dance in the mist," she said, "playing their bone flutes, trying to lure you away. They're spirits that haven't reached the after world and were the first to make the fishing nets used today. They won't go near cooked food or red clay and will take unsuspecting children back into the hills if they ever got the chance." That's when we knew we were very lucky.

We didn't see footprints in the sand after that, nor were the nets mended without explanation. My cousins and I made little necklaces from bull kelp and kept a cooked kumara hanging around our necks for the rest of the holidays.

Aunty laughed to herself, leaning back in her chair, rubbing her hands gently together. The fire light flickered shadows across her face as she turned back to us.

"No one has seen the Tūrehu as close up as we have. Sometimes just before dark or on a clear morning when the mist comes down through the valleys, you can hear them dancing and playing their spirit filled songs. As if they're calling out to lost children, singing to them, whispering in the mist, but we know better, don't we?"

We sat in silence looking at each other. Aunty turned back to the fire humming an old song to herself. I noticed the huge black pots sitting next to the fire.

"Are there any cooked kumara left Aunty?" I asked.

(c) Wiremu Grace

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