The Last Moa by Gemma Wells was the winner of the Short Story Competition 2016. The judges both picked Gemma’s story as a clear winner, commenting that it was:
beautifully composed and written…We get a fabulous sense of place and the two voices are rich and distinctive. I love the casual and appropriate use of the Latin and indigenous names – not talking down to us as readers, nor explaining, but giving us context which allows us to understand, while also giving as a vivid glimpse into the world the writer has created. Fabulous!
The Last Moa
Nov. 12 1968 Diary of Dr. Brigitta Weber, Natural Scientist
There is tell of a remnant population of moa, order Dinorniformes, in Fiordland on the South Island of New Zealand. I have come here to look for them. So far it has pissed down with rain and I have seen nothing and feel, indeed, like the “very stupid little woman” that the locals in Te Anau were giggling about. It’s supposed to be summer but I am yet to see the sun. Yesterday found a feather. Possibly kiwi, Apteryx sp., since it is spindly, soft and certainly not for flight. I hear them calling at night from my tent so parsimony tells me not to hope that it ever belonged to a moa.
They named him Tane, after the god of the forest. He grew, under the watchful eyes of his iwi, to be wiry and nimble – a perfect hunter. He was taught what they all knew: how to live from the forest; how to survive the changeable tempers of Ranginui, the Sky Father: the wind, rain and snow; and how respect Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, that she might nurture him in return.
It was a dappled-sun day, the best kind for hunting moa. The meat of one bird could feed the whole iwi, its hide would warm and shelter them and its bones would be carved into strong tools. They had not had moa for a while and the children whined for the taste. Since the day was so good, the men picked up their taiaha spears and set off into the forest. They had the moa on their minds, so the smaller birds – kakapo, takahe, weka – were passed unmarked.
As was the way, they split off into pairs or, if they felt they knew this part of the forest well enough, alone. Tane went alone: he had never been lost. He was a part of the forest and the forest lived inside him. It wasn’t silent, there was a cacophony of birdsong all around, but Tane felt only his breath, the hairs on his arms and the vibration of steps on the damp, spongy moss underfoot. He let these feelings lead him, and tried not to think too much – it only distracted him.
His instincts led him away from the rest of the men. Sounds now engulfed him: the melodic chiming of bellbirds, mechanical whir of tui and flutterings of tomtits, swooping onto the insects he disturbed, but all went unnoticed as he stalked through the bush: a predator in search of prey. Rough ferns brushed at his knees, dense shrubs caught his skirt and cold streams sent chills up his legs but, as he toed skilfully through them, he made not a noise. Suddenly, he juddered to a halt as, through a veil of greenery, he saw something move.
Dec. 18 1968
Over a month of being eaten alive by sandflies as I walk my transect. Have spent so long looking for footprints, feathers, browsing signs etc. that now these things haunt my dreams and I feel like I am going mad. Did find a midden from old Maori habitation last week though, amazing the kinds of bones in it. Kakapo, S. habroptilus, and takahe, P. hochstetteri, both now critically endangered, make up most of the midden waste. The story of the takahe – rediscovery in Fiordland after 50 years of being classed extinct – fuels me every day. That and my unidentified feather. Field assistants tell me they’re certain it’s not kiwi.
Tane’s whole body seized up as he saw a moa, ahead, in a clearing. Its round little head nipped jerkily at a makomako bush, while its gigantic, shaggy body stood still and camouflaged. Thick legs like tree trunks rested heavily on two impressively clawed feet, a blow of which could easily kill a grown man. Had easily killed a grown man, Tane remembered. He didn’t recall this particular bird, it was smaller than most and wasn’t one he had seen before in a failed hunt or while out gathering fruit.
As he watched silently, he mused on the fact that he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a moa. Was it three moons, or four? In the stories of the iwi elders, there had once been so many moa that you almost tripped over them in the forest. And they had been so unafraid that they almost speared themselves. How different it was now.
Tane stopped himself from sighing. He had been taught to care for Papatuanuku, their Earth Mother, and all of her bounties. What if the iwi had hunted the moa too much? And if they had nearly hunted all of the moa from their forest, how must the Earth Mother feel about them? Not good, he imagined, shuddering. His iwi could not afford to suffer the anger of Papatuanuku. He thought on the alternatives. The iwi had plenty of birds to hunt, meat wasn’t short. As for clothing and weapons, there were many other options in their forest. The moa made life easier but they weren’t a necessity.
Tane faced his choices: the taiaha in his hand, the death of a moa, maybe one of the last; or… not. To not would be to cut a tie between him and his people, his iwi. The disapproval he knew they would feel was almost too heavy on his chest. He must have let out a sigh because the moa had stopped its little pecks. It had heard him. Very slowly, as he crouched in the bush and cursed himself, the long neck brought the squat head and beady black eyes around to look for him. He must make his choice now.
Dec. 25 1968
Happy Christmas, me: today I saw a moa. Probably bush moa, Anomalopteryx didiformis, a small one, just over 1m tall. Was alone, saw it run from nearby, leap over fallen deadwood and disappear into large stand of red beech trees with dense undergrowth. Am into the true Fiords now, probably never explored, and so doubt I will see another. Can’t believe I’m writing this, but after much thought I have decided not to tell anyone. The scientific community would do a worse job of protecting a remnant population of moa than me just leaving them in peace. Fiordland is safe; the civilised world is not.
“I saw nothing,” Tane told the other hunters as they returned to the village, exhausted but not upset by their failure. A few of them had gathered some smaller birds instead so they wouldn’t go hungry tonight. After the meal of meat and mashed kumara, Tane swam in his thoughts alone. Children and older people, followed by parents and finally the youth, drifted away to bed. Tane sat, watching the embers turn to ash.
“Earth Mother,” he whispered, eyes closed. “What I do, I do for you and I do for my people.” He stood, took up his taiaha and walked into the black forest.
That night, Tane returned to the clearing and saw the very same moa. They met in moonlight, as dappled as the sun had been at their last meeting. An expert in pushing birds towards his fellow hunters for the kill, Tane now lifted his taiaha gently with both hands. The moa turned and began to walk slowly away from him, as planned. Like he’d always done in the hunt, he found he could direct the moa using small movements from his taiaha.
Tane walked the moa many leagues to the mountains, up gradients that left him panting, through valleys and along the jagged coasts of sounds, so far that he no longer knew where he was. This was no longer the forest that lived in his heart. After time he and his moa walked, slept and ate in companionship, and the taiaha was no longer needed. They walked until Tane felt it would be safe. He said a short goodbye to the bird who was now a friend, turned and walked the way he had come, vowing: “I will do this until I have paid my peoples’ debt to Papatuanuku.”
Jan. 31 1969
Back in Te Anau to write up my “failed” research. Still certain I did the right thing in keeping my moa a secret. Will present feather and photographs of “possible” footprint though. Was talking to a lady in a bar yesterday. Maori, from the iwi (tribe) Ngai Tahu. Only person to not laugh when I tell them about my study. Said it reminded her of a legend she then told me about a Maori who left his tribe to herd moa from lowland forest into the mountains of Fiordland to protect them from being hunted to extinction. Apparently he lived with the many moa he had saved, as one of them, until his death. Fascinating tale – not to be believed of course – but may, I suppose, contain some semblance of truth in explaining my findings.