The new book by Sophie Rogers is set in 19th century Alexandra, New Zealand. The…
A family group of early Moa hunter people settles in an area rich in moa and other large ground living birds. However this is also the home of a pair of giant eagles —the hōkioi. With the female hōkioi an ever-present threat, will the close bonds of kinship, courage, strength, and even sacrifice, be enough as the people try to defend themselves against the terrifying bird? As the story unfolds, who will be the hunter and who the hunted?
The Young Hunter
Beside the lake, a small boy sat very still on the lowest branch of a gnarly old rata tree. He felt himself to be as motionless as the rocks, just as Uncle Heretoa had told him he must be when hunting. Bright sunlight, trickling through small leaves above, made gentle patterns on the rough bark and patches of grey lichen where he sat. It patterned his naked body, blending his shape with the tree. The rain forest all around was lush with spring growth.
Hema had risen well before dawn and now the sun’s warmth was making him drowsy. He blinked hard to stay alert. A grey stick insect, with long legs and fleshy body, clawed up the mountain of his inner thigh and paused to wave fine feelers in the air. Hema tensed his leg muscles against the tickling. The insect paused, then made its unhurried way across brown skin and disappeared under the branch. The boy wanted to twist about, to watch where it went, but he knew that a hunter must remain motionless so he gazed at the sunlit patch of grass below instead and thought about his cousin Tonga-Hiti’s words.
“You’re too small, Hema—too small to hunt—too small and too slow!” He’d laughed then as he walked away with a long bird spear over his shoulder. Tonga-Hiti was almost a man because he had fifteen winters.
Hema’s straight, black brows drew together in a frown. He would show his boastful older cousin. He would show him that, even with only five winters, he was not too small to hunt. In his mind he saw himself walking into the camp with a fat goose for the women of the hapu to cook, and Tonga-Hiti’s look of surprised admiration. His round face brightened at the thought and his dark eyes shone.
His daydream ended abruptly.
They came … two fat geese, heads bobbing up and down on long necks as they probed for tender shoots and tasty water creatures at the lake edge: the gander in front, female not far behind. About their large feet the water became murky and small ripples broke the glassy surface.
Good! When the geese had finished feeding they’d come up onto the bank to preen and bask in the sunshine, just as they had for the last three days. Like a true hunter, Hema had watched and waited, and today he would strike.
He clutched the handle of the toki tightly in his small hand and slowly squared his shoulders, his mouth tightened. He was ready—ready to drop onto a goose below and deal a fatal blow. Tense, he waited …
There was movement by the stones, more ripples on the muddy water. The gander started up the bank first. Pebbles scrunched under its two large, partly-webbed feet, and water dripped from grey feathers. With his pale-yellow bill pointing to the sky the bird stood tall, stretched his neck and flapped stubby wings. Water droplets glistened in the air around him. Had they been standing side by side he would easily have reached to the boy’s shoulder.
Hema’s heart raced and his knuckles were white on the wooden handle. Here was meat for many, and a fine trophy for a young hunter. Only his eyes moved.
The gander shook its feathers back into smooth planes and came pattering along the grassy bank towards a patch of sunlight beneath the old rata tree. The smaller female followed close behind.
Hema hardly dared blink. They were almost at the spot where he’d attack … but not quite. The geese began to preen themselves, burrowing fat bills deep into tight breast feathers.
Hema’s eyes darted back and forth, back and forth, measuring the distance from his branch to the birds below. He needed them directly under him.
Closer, come closer.
“A hunter must have patience of the mantis when trapping,” his grandfather Te Tama had said. “He must be quiet and still for as long as it takes.”
But this was not a trap with corded noose and sticks; this was a true hunt, and Hema’s chest swelled—he felt like a hunter. The gander stepped closer, and the small boy took a slow, deep breath, ready for the final moment . . .
But . . . something was wrong.
He knew he shouldn’t take his eyes from the geese, but in the back of his mind a warning flashed. Nervously he scanned the lake edge and the surrounding trees and bushes. The raupo reeds edging the lake, sun-washed in the morning light, looked as they always had. The songbirds were quiet, but that was because they knew he was there. They weren’t stupid like the fat geese that were unaware of anything but themselves and deserved to be in the umu. His puzzled gaze searched the trees on either side and up into the canopy.
Then he saw it and his blood ran cold, his throat tightened in horror.
From high above cruel yellow eyes were fixed on him, and in their pitiless depths he knew himself not as the hunter but as the prey. The bird was huge, its dark shape framed by the canopy of sunlit leaves above. The long, hooked beak curved to a sharp point, and four claws, each longer than the toki blade, gripped a branch below legs as stout and sinewy as the shaft of Uncle Heretoa’s thickest spear. Hema’s insides cramped into a knot of terror and the toki fell from his limp hand.
The hōkioi bird—the fierce hōkioi that kills the giant moa with its sharp talons!
Paralysed with fear, Hema watched as the beak rocked forward … the eyes blasted into his … huge claws released the branch and the giant bird dove. Dark feathers flashed past. He felt the wind of its passing and he heard the gander shriek once as an enormous claw grasped its neck and the other ripped its back apart.
Hema slid down the other side of the trunk, scraping the skin from his thighs but feeling no pain. His legs trembled and he stumbled as he ran. Behind him the hōkioi paused, lifted its blood-soaked head to listen, then called a mocking cry: hoookioooi-oi-oi-oi.
Hema ran faster, gasping for breath and sobbing, his eyes wide.
The giant eagle dropped its head again to the kill.
Hōkioi is the sixth book which author Suzanne Clark has created through The CopyPress. She has also written Āwhina’s People (2011), Mrs Lacy (2012), His Father’s Will (2014), Keep Your Head Up, My Girl (2016), and Ram on the Roof (2019) a children’s book illustrated by Mike Howell.