The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 8 (November 2, 1936)
The Singing Tree
Arini Tu Pura was not beautiful. Her face was too oval, too pointed for prettiness, and her hair was short and very, very straight. Her sister, Kahurare, had none of these defects, but was possessed of good looks to such a degree that more than half the young men of the place could be numbered among her admirers.
Accustomed to being overlooked when her sister was about, it was small wonder that Arini had added to her natural reserve of manner a decided love of solitude. Sometimes, when the fact of her loneliness thrust itself too sharply upon her she would creep away into the cool forest-places, and the stillness and the beauty would capture the soul of her, and presently she would make a little song. And the trees would be in her song, and the grey, elfin shadows and the moist brown smell of the leaf-mould, so that unhappiness would have no part in the singing at all.
There was one tree she loved better than all the others. Tall and slimstemmed it stood where the forest bordered the shores of a lake and its strong leafy boughs spread far out over the water. Arini, lithe and agile as any boy, often climbed high up among the branches. And the blue of the sky was the tranquil blue of the lake, and the distant hill-ridges would shimmer with haze, and wind and sun would whip the lake-ripples to dazzling silver. Then the words would come swiftly into Arini's head, like birds winging home through the dusk, and she would sing them to a tune of her own devising. Old Nua, the tohunga, he who had taught her many chants and songs of the tribe, prophesied in this wise: “You do well to hold the tree so dear, O bird-voiced one; for love hides lightly in its leaves and when the shadows fall across your path, then will the tree show you the way of escape.”
One day Arini fled to the bush in great trouble. Her sister, for all prettiness, was exceedingly bad-tempered, and because Arini had not performed some task exactly to her liking, she turned and abused her, even taunting her over her lack of suitors. Wearied with sobbing, poor Arini sought the refuge of the tree. The sunlight wove delicate traceries round her, the sky shone blue through the gossamer network of leaves, and a wind went shimmering by. Some of the hurt and shame departed from her and in their place a melody began to take shape. Haunting and wistful it was in accordance with her mood, but the sweetness of it was beyond all telling.
Now it happened that the chieftain Tareha was passing through the forest just at this time and feeling thirsty, he sent his servant to the lake for water while he himself sat down to rest. Soon the slave came back, saying, “There is something strange happening at the edge of the lake. I can hear the sound of singing, yet though I have searched all about I can see no one. I am afraid.”
“Nonsense,” said his master, and repeated his demand for water.
Reluctantly the man went, but in a few minutes he had returned, saying, “I can hear the sound of singing more plainly than before, yet I can see no one.”
Thereupon Tareha became angry and commanded him to go at once for the water, but the man came back shaking with fear and crying that the place was possessed of an atua, a spirit. So terrified did he look that Tareha took the calabash and went himself to see what it was that had given the fellow such a fright. Presently he heard singing just as his slave had said, and following in the direction of the sound he found himself standing at the edge of the lake. Carefully he peered in all the bushes, but no trace of anyone could he discover; and then somewhere overhead the singing started again—the merest whisper of a song, soft, caressing, lilting to a rippling crescendo of sound. Now he could make out the words—exquisite words matching the beauty of the song—words that caught at his heart and lingered in its secret places.
Swiftly he swung himself up into the branches of the huge tree, and there, high above him, sat a girl looking out over the water and absorbed in her song.
And suddenly he knew! And the love-song of Tareha, the chieftain, mingled with the clear, high notes of Arini, the flute-like one.page 10
Ecstasy gave to her colouring warm, ivory tintings, deepening the poignant curve of her mouth and making her smile such a vivid, spontaneous thing that her face was more lovely than a flower. Tareha was enchanted, and the spiritual quality of his love that worshipped her for her voice alone quickened to a greater, more wonderful emotion—the love of a man for a maid.
As for Kahurare, the newcomer made no response to her beauty, no avowal of homage whatever, and her annoyance was in no way lessened when she learned that her father had promised Arini to him as his wife. Tareha never once wavered in his choice, for he saw Kahurare as she really was, jealous of others and spoilt, in spite of her good looks; and so he troubled about her not at all, and he and Arini went forth to their happiness.
Alas! that happiness was short-lived. A raid was made on the tribe of Tareha by an enemy band, and they immediately planned to avenge the attack. The women-folk anxiously waited the return of the warriors to the kainga, the village, and when at last they came they walked slowly and in grief, for Tareha, their chief, had paid the price of victory with his life.
All feeling seemed to die out of Arini. Gradually one thought shaped itself in her mind—the tree—the tree whence came her happiness—the tree would show her the way of escape. Away into the bush she went, on and on, caring naught for hunger or fatigue, never stopping until she was secure among the topmost branches of the tree-of-dreams. The face of Tareha seemed to laugh up at her from the shadowy ripples of the lake; and the prophecy of the ancient priest was fulfilled and the way of escape made plain. Music trembled on her lips, beautiful and unutterably sad, a song of farewell, and at the end joyousness stole in till all the sadness had gone, and standing poised an instant on the bare branch-tip, she slid smoothly down into the cool grey water. The quiet depths closed over her, and the soul of Arini took flight to join Tareha in the dim Reinga, the Place of Departed Spirits.
And the wind sprang up and the sound of singing swept through every leaf and branch, so that people passing by called it the Singing Tree. Henceforth it was treated as tapu, as sacred, and even now in these times of encroaching settlement and dwindling forests the tree still stands by the lake-edge, untouched by axe, unharmed by fire. The Maoris say that misfortune will befall the disturber of its branches, for sometimes in the wind can you not hear the sound of singing, haunting and sweet beyond all telling? Then you know that Arini, the bird-voiced, and Tareha, her lover, have crept back for a space to the place of their happiness—the Singing Tree.