The Uncle’s Story


Witi Ihimaera

For all the Sams and Cliffs of the world

Alone I watch in the night

Over you who laugh in your dreams

Listen to my warning for someone comes …

Sleepers, wake up! Take care!

Soon the night will pass —

Brangäne’s Warning

Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde

PART ONE I, Michael

Chapter One


The irony is that Jason began it all.

‘It’s about time your folks knew,’ he said. ‘If you don’t tell them now, you’ll never do it. You owe it to them, to yourself. You owe it to me.’

‘Yes, I’ll tell them,’ I promised.

I stepped into the car, waved goodbye and headed out on Highway One. Four hours later I reached Hastings. It was dark and I could have pushed onward to Gisborne, but I decided to check into a motel for the night. I should have known that the night would bring with it the dream that always made me wake up screaming.


You know what it’s like in nightmares, especially the ones you’ve had since you were a child. It’s dark and you’re always alone. You feel so foolish that you’ve made yourself vulnerable again. You’ve gone to sleep and you’ve put yourself in a perilous position. Nightmares never go away. They simply watch and wait. They have all the time in the world. They watch you as you laugh in the sunlight. They watch you with family and friends. Then one night, when you least expect it, they curl out of the darkness, and your sleep is filled with that very special dread.

I was walking along a black highway at midnight. I heard a thrumming sound. Something was coming from out of the darkness behind me. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was the huge nightmare stallion that had pursued me all my life through countless years, countless beds and countless dreams.

I began to run but my limbs were leaden. I could move only in slow motion. I tried to concentrate. I knew I was grinding my teeth. I willed myself to run faster, escape from the blackness. Before I knew it, I was drenched with sweat.

I looked back. All I could see were the eyes of the stallion, and the sparks as his hooves struck the highway. He was all the more frightening because he was only half glimpsed. His shrill whinnying proclaimed that this time he would get me.

My heart began to race. I heard myself moaning, felt myself threshing, trying to run. I willed my arms and legs to pump me forward. It was too late. The stallion had struck out to the left and was taunting me, circling in the blackness, choosing its moment. The thrum, thrum, thrum was all around me, the hooves on fire, and then —

There he was. Coming towards me. There was nothing I could do.

Wake up, wake up.

But the stallion was rearing up on his hind legs. He was screaming his rage, his hooves slashing steel blades, shredding the blackness with arcs of fire. His eyes were bulging. The veins on his neck were like ropes.

The hooves descending. Slashing.


I twisted clear of the falling hooves. Screaming, I threw myself out of the darkness and found myself falling into the light. The thrumming, palpable, taking shape, bounced around the walls of the motel and I listened as the shapes began to recede out of the room.

I leapt from the bed and followed the sounds towards the window. Opened it. The cold stung my face. In the early mist of that grey winter’s morning, jockeys were at training on an adjacent racetrack. The sound of hooves ricocheted in the room. The riders rode high in the stirrups. Steam jetted from the horses’ nostrils. I put my hands to my ears.

My heart was racing. I was still disoriented. I dialled Reception.

‘My watch has stopped. Can you tell me the time?’

‘Six-thirty, Sir.’

‘Where the hell am I?’

‘Hastings, Sir.’

‘And who am I?’

The receptionist thought I was joking. I heard her whisper, ‘The guy in 41 doesn’t know who he is.’

‘Neither would I if I had drunk as much at the bar last night,’ someone said. ‘Better humour him.’

A rustle of papers. A pause. ‘You’re Mr Michael Mahana, Sir. You booked in last night. From what I gather, you’re on your way to your sister’s wedding?’

‘Oh. Yes. What time’s checkout?’



Just after midday I reached Gisborne. Half an hour later I saw the valley and the village ahead. Nothing seemed to have changed: the grape and kiwifruit vines on either side of the road; the same red-roofed houses in between — though, hello, somebody had a satellite in their back paddock. And was that a black Mercedes parked in beside the old meeting house? This was what Maori economic development was all about: extra, and expensive, toys for the boys.

A few kilometres past the village was the gateway to the farm. Somebody had given a new lick of paint to the gate and the sign: MAHANA WINES. No doubt Amiria had badgered Dad to do it. Make an impression on the prospective in-laws. Even the road to the homestead had been gradered and gravelled. I turned in at the gate and across the cattlestop, put my foot down and roared the car over the rise. There was the homestead and the complex of buildings and vats where Dad produced his Cabernet Sauvignon for export.

Amiria was coming down the steps. People say you can always tell a Mahana by the way we walk. As if nothing can stop us doing whatever we want to do. As if we own the world.

‘I thought you only drove Japanese,’ Amiria said, as I stopped the car. ‘You must be making a lot of money. Or — is it my present?’

I got out, grabbed Amiria in a hug and kissed her. Wide handsome face; a thick, glossy mane of hair; eyes sparkling with good humour; generous mouth and a gap in the middle of white teeth. When Amiria and I were younger we always used to argue over whose gap was bigger. Amiria liked to win — that is, until she read in a glossy magazine that the gap was a sign of a lascivious nature.

Mum came bustling down. ‘You were supposed to be here last night.’ She looked across my shoulders as if expecting to see somebody. ‘Did you come by yourself? Why didn’t you bring a girlfriend!’

Dad was at the top of the stairs. He shook my hand in greeting. ‘The place is a bloody circus,’ he whispered. ‘Your mother has gone mad tying ribbons on everything. If I was you I wouldn’t stand in one place too long.’

Wouldn’t you just know it, Mum had been waiting for me to get home before letting slip to Amiria that the arrangements for the reception after the wedding had — well, changed. Mum hoped I would take her and Dad’s side against Amiria’s formidable anger.

‘Are you telling me the reception’s now at the marae?’

‘Dear, the Starlight wasn’t big enough,’ Mum said.

‘Wasn’t big enough? It’s a cabaret. It can take two thousand!’

Mum looked to Dad for support. ‘You are from a family of mana,’ Dad said. ‘Everybody will expect to come to your wedding. They will come out of respect for your grandfather Arapeta’s memory and they will come because of our standing as a family. We will not be able to deny them. What would Arapeta have said! He would turn in his grave if he knew we weren’t doing the best to uphold the family’s status.’

‘I will not stand here, Daddy,’ Amiria said, ‘and let you drive over me as if you were a tank.’

‘It’s more appropriate for the wedding to be down at the marae. All of your kuia can come, and their mokopuna. And all your Mum’s people from up the Coast with their kids.’

Dad was getting that stubborn look, his chin jutting further and further out.

‘I told you I only wanted to have a small wedding,’ Amiria said. ‘I also told you I didn’t want to have any kids at the wedding. How do you think Tyrone’s parents will take all this! They’ll think we’re like Indians having a pow wow.’

‘If they haven’t been on a marae it’s about time they did,’ Dad answered.

‘Dear,’ Mum tried to explain, ‘the real problem was that the Starlight had no place where your father could put his hangi.’

Amiria went into overdrive. She’d lived so long with passive Pakeha friends in Auckland she’d become accustomed to getting her own way.

‘Look. Read my lips. When we first discussed this wedding, Mother, we agreed that it would be silver service, with knives and forks —’

‘There’ll be knives and forks,’ Dad interrupted. ‘We haven’t used our fingers for years. Do you think we’re cannibals or something!’

‘I wanted it to be like — like — a Pakeha wedding! With waiters and a band! You promised me! When I rang from Auckland you said that —’

‘We do have waiters, dear,’ Mum said. ‘Your cousins are getting dressed up in their flashest clothes and Uncle Bimbo is bringing his karaoke.’

Amiria’s mouth dropped open. ‘That’s it!’ she screamed. ‘The wedding is off. Off, off, off.’

It was Dad who had the last word. ‘Amiria,’ he said. ‘What kind of Maori are you!’

I decided to extricate myself with a quiet escape to the front room. I flipped the cellphone open. Dialled Wellington.


‘Hi.’ It was Saturday afternoon but J ...

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