Why the Pākehā Have No Fairies
Few know that the very first and last European fairy to land on the shores of Petone beach did so in the arms of a five-year-old girl. Her name was Caroline Petherick and she called her oak sprite Oaky. His real name, if spoken aloud, would sound to us like wind through branches, or the rustling of dry paper. They came on the ship Aurora. It was the 22 January 1840, the beginning of disappointment.
The general excitement aboard turned to disbelief as the ship rounded the heads. The land was bush covered and waterlogged. A full pōwhiri given by the Te Āti Awa Māori only added to the sense of displacement. They were to name their settlement Britannia, but they might as well have been trying to take England to the moon.
Caroline’s father smiled as he saw his daughter talking to no one on the white sands. He envied her. Caroline could retreat to whatever imaginary world she wanted, but he could not.
‘Don’t go too far, Oaky.’
‘Father says we’re going with the Aurora up north. He doesn’t like it here. Do you want another acorn?’
The acorns had kept Oaky alive on the 110 day journey.
‘There are many trees here, Caroline. I’m sure to find my oak. Save them.’
He hugged her then hopped up the beach; no taller than a rabbit, his thin limbs wrapped in green leaf. Oaky (or in his own tongue, Gwarcheidwad y derwcysegredig, ‘Guardian of the sacred oak’) entered the thick bush.
He’d told Caroline that he was the pilot fairy; the beacon that all the other northern fairies would follow. He hadn’t told her that he could only survive a few months away from an actual oak tree. He looked at his arms and saw the first hints of reddish discolouring. He was fading like the autumn leaves.
Back home, he could hear an oak from five miles away, as the wind passed through it. Here, the sounds the bush made were foreign: clanging, rasping, grating.
Exhausted, Oaky fell to the forest floor. After a while he thought he heard the sound of flutes. Then three Māori, half human size, stood around him. Their skin was fair and their hair red.
‘Ko wai tō ingoa?’ said one wearing a coat of flax dyed red.
‘Kei te haere koe ki hea?’ said a hunched one with a shell for an eye-patch.
‘E kore ia e kōrero i te reo,’ said a female with long rust coloured hair and green stones for eyes.
Then, without reason, Oaky could understand their speech.
‘Wait, I have it,’ said Flax Coat. ‘I hear his language. He’s one of us from the far place.’
‘I had a cousin went to that far place,’ said Shell Patch, ‘on Cook’s waka nui.’
The woman laughed, like she’d heard that story a hundred times. ‘Boy, we are Patupaiarehe . . . fairies like you,’ explained the woman.
‘He’s nothing like us,’ said Flax Coat, ‘more of a weed actually.’
The woman with stones for eyes shushed him. ‘Be polite, he’s te aheinga, a guest.’
‘He don’t look too good,’ said Shell Patch, his face close to Oaky, ‘looks a bit . . . mate. What wairua-kai you need, little fella?’
‘The girl from the ship calls me Oaky. I’m a sprite of the oak tree. Have you seen an oak tree anywhere here?’
‘An oak?’ repeated Flax Coat, who seemed to be the leader, though the woman spoke more. ‘Don’t know that tree.’
‘What sound does it make in the wind?’ asked Stone Eyes.
Oaky puffed up his tiny lungs and blew, ‘Deeee-rrrr-ww-eee-nnn!’
‘I’m so sorry, little one. That sound has never been heard here,’ she whispered.
Oaky slumped. ‘Then I must go back to the beach. My humans have decided to leave on the ship when it sails north.’
The three Patupaiarehe immediately huddled and spoke in their tongue. At length, Stone Eyes knelt by the dying sprite.
‘Listen here Oaky, I have the sight of their future. You do not want to go on that waka. It will sink at the mouth of the Kaipara. It is a very wild place. Full of bad Ponaturi, sea fairies.’
‘Whakarongo ki ahau! I think I know this rākau,’ said Shell Patch. ‘My cousin, who went on Cook’s waka, brought a seed of this rākau back with him. It should be a giant tree by now.’
‘And where is this famous rākau,’ scoffed Flax Coat.
‘North, at Te Kokoru o Motu.’
‘Kei te pōrangi koe, that’s a month’s trip,’ challenged Flax Coat, who liked to have all the good ideas.
‘Not if we use mākutu,’ said Stone Eyes, ‘I have some magic left.’
‘And leave us defenceless against all kinds of nga kirehe kino?’ chided Shell Patch.
‘Did the fairy-folk of ‘Far Away Place’ not look after your cousin?’ said Stone Eyes.
‘Āe, they did,’ nodded Shell Patch.
‘I decide!’ exclaimed Flax Coat. ‘We will take him.’
‘But I must go back and warn Caroline… she mustn’t be on the Aurora. She mustn’t go north,’ whispered Oaky, his face now as transparent as a leaf.
‘If we don’t get your spirit food you will die . . . and boy, you’re the only fairy they got here. They’ll go mad without you.’
‘Āe, our tangata would go pōrangi without us,’ agreed Flax Coat.
With their help, Oaky got to his feet. He was torn between the thousands of fairies waiting for his signal to come south, and his love for a little girl.
He thanked them, then said, ‘I’m sorry, sorry to all my kin, but I cannot betray Caroline.’
The three fairies understood such loyalty. They watched him stumble back to the beach. Then they vanished into the mist. Yet, the Patupaiarehe still sing a song today called ‘Oki’.
And that is the reason why the Pethericks have many descendants in Aotearoa, but the Pākehā have no fairies.
Geoff Allen’s play Sister Anzac premiered at the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum in 2014. In 2000 he studied at Whitireia by day and worked at Helms Deep by night. He has just completed a novel called The Troll Bookfinder. He hates soup and beer dinners.