A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

Kaiwhakaruaki was a taniwha of horrific countenance who put terror into all who saw him. He took a beautiful wife who greatly feared him, for he was very cruel. She only wanted to escape back to her own people.

To prevent her escape he tied a woven flax cord to her and held the other end whenever he went foraging in the forest. He regularly tugged the cord to be sure his wife had not escaped.

One day while he was in the forest, his wife undid the cord and tied it to a springy sapling so Kaiwhakaruaki would not detect her absence. In this way she escaped back to her own people. Knowing she would be followed, her people devised a plan to rid her of her horrific husband for once and for all.

When he arrived the people made him welcome and enticed him into a whare. When he had entered they quickly blocked off all entrances and burned the whare with the dreaded Kaiwhakaruaki within. Only his tail escaped the fire through a crack in the wall and made its way into the forest. The tail’s offspring and descendants are the gecko and skinks of the forests, and this is why they are able to detach their tails to escape when in mortal danger.

To many in this valley, particularly those who work in the depths of the forests, the gecko is a messenger of death to be avoided at all cost. The very topic of lizards is carefully avoided. If a tree is felled and a gecko is shaken from its hiding place by the shock, that tree is shunned sometimes for weeks until it is certain the evil has moved on.

One notable exception who did. not hold, this superstitious belief was Old Cobber. Cobber had worked as a bushman in the forest for most of his life. He was short and broad, and very strong. His whiskers and hair were white, a contrast with his dark skin. He was kindly and friendly, calling everybody, Maori or pakeha, “Cobber” – hence his own nickname.

Cobber had no fear of gecko at all. He jeered at the respect and caution of his fellow bushman mates, and they in turn feared for his foolhardiness. Cobber had even captured two gecko alive and kept them in the whare where he lived down the valley a way, where they earned their keep by controlling the flies and insects that were foolish enough to enter. They were very efficient and freely roamed the dwelling.

One day in the forest, Cobber, about to fell a tree, saw a gecko under the bark, and attempted to capture it to add to those he already had. He failed and the lizard escaped. His mates were fearful for him but he only laughed.

Next morning dawned wet and grey and foggy. Close to the site of the previous day’s abortive chase, Cobber began to fell a huge rimu tree, its massive head lost from view in the swirling fog. The fog hid from Cobber a massive, dead, decomposing pillar of wood high in the canopy. Normally the dead wood would be light and powdery, but the rain had made it heavy, soggy and unstable. Cobber worked away at the base of the tree until it was ready to topple.

In that first juddering movement a large section of the sodden pillar silently broke off, one hundred and twenty feet above the forest floor. With ever increasing speed, hidden by the fog for most of its journey, it fell to earth.

Our old Cobber had no chance. He never knew what hit him. After this dreadful event it was a long time before bold men ventured into the old whare which had been Cobber’s home – but they need not have feared, for after the old man’s demise the two gecko, which had dwelled there were never seen again. They had gone, back to the forest, where they belong in mythology