As they left the cemetery, the two elders washed their hands and sprinkled water on their heads to cleanse them. The path back to the marae was clear and well-trodden, but Hepu pulled his companion to one side to let the others pass, before they fell in behind.
“My brother Tamati died suddenly,” Hepu said. “Without naming a successor.”
Niko looked at his old friend warily and shook his head. “The tohunga named his successor. I think it’s more a case of you not wanting to hear.”
Hepu scowled and spat to the side of the road. After five days of mourning, he was dizzy from lack of food and sleep. Back at the marae, there’d be entertainment on show for hours yet before he could excuse himself to rest. Then, it would be in the main hut with the constant snoring and farting of dozens of men to keep his hair-trigger nerves awake for half the night.
“It’s not right to have a girl take over,” he said. Although his voice was strained already from long days of speeches and offering condolences, he still managed to speak with enough force that the stragglers ahead of him turned in inquiry. Hepu flicked his hand at them, mind your own business, and they turned to face forward again.
“There’s nothing mandated against a female tohunga,” Niko said. “One of my own aunties had the calling back in the day and there was never any trouble.”
“I don’t believe for a moment that Anika has the calling,” Hepu retorted. “And she’s not a woman, adept at the old ways. She’s just a kid.”
“A kid that your brother spent his time and energy training,” Niko said. “Unless you’re doubting Tamati’s power of judgement too, then we must trust that the spirits directed him to the right successor.”
“His mind failed well before this latest notion to train up a child.” Hepu stamped his right foot down hard as he walked. The heel of it had grown progressively numb as the day dragged on. Now, so little feeling was left, he became scared that he would stumble and fall. At his age, a fall could mean big trouble. A bad fall could mean death.
“Tamati’s mind wasn’t keen, I’ll give you that, but he still performed well despite his limitations. The power was coming through to him from somewhere, and I’ve no doubt he followed the path that the spirits lighted for him.”
“I have doubts, and many,” Hepu grumbled, stamping his foot again.
“What would you have us do?” Niko asked. The reasonability of his tone riled Hepu, perhaps that was half the reason he kept it up. “Unless we put out a call to the other iwi, we have to fill the role ourselves.”
“They might have more suitable candidates,” Hepu said. “Certainly, better than a fifteen-year-old.”
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