Skulls and Bones


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Skulls and Bones

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

The maritime museum was alive with the shouts of excited children. The Christmas holiday program was entering its second week. The middle gallery was hung about with pirate paraphernalia; replica skeletons were lashed to walls; crawl through caves tunnelled through imitation cliffs rearing up from the floor, their hidden speakers issuing melodramatic threats when tripped by diminutive entrants; chests overflowed with all manner of gaudy jewels and plastic doubloons; battery driven parrots flapped their incandescent wings and screamed out “pieces of eight” when addressed; treasure maps and pencils were laid out on tables for the older ones to hunt down clues.

I was patrolling, hoping to instil by my uniformed presence some sense of order into the fairground mayhem that erupted throughout the building each time our little pirate play was over. I was concerned for the protection of our more delicate exhibits. Much as we needed the extra revenue we were still a museum after all. Christmas was always a nerve-wracking experience for the guides on duty. Parents tended to congregate in groups and engage each other in adult conversation, somehow unaware that their over-excited children, wound up tight by the twice daily pirate show, were now running riot.

The question had been addressed to me by a tall, gangly man with thinning white hair, late sixties or early seventies, who was keeping a weather eye on two young boys adorned with black eye patches, gold-coloured hoops clipped to their ears and scimitar shaped plastic swords thrust into the red sashes that wound around their waists.

His eyes flicked back and forth from his two charges to the plinth at his side which supported a realistic-looking skull beneath an acrylic cover.

“No,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just, I don’t know, a building like this, with the rough stone walls and the massive timber pillars, it’s very atmospheric. The sort of place you can imagine being haunted. Especially down in the underground basement.”

“It’s one of the oldest buildings in the port but there’s the remains of another one underneath. Some archaeologists a few years ago were doing a dig down there; studying early colonial building techniques. They were quite shocked when they came across the foundations of a previous building. It must have been built pretty much straight after the colony was founded back in 1836.”

“There you go, a revenant from a former life.”

I laughed. “I don’t think bricks and mortar have ongoing souls. Or dead bodies for that matter. Why? Do you?”

“No, not really, at least I didn’t use to. I think it’s all in people’s heads.” With that he fluttered his long fingers towards the skull as if longing to stroke the polished dome which reflected strategically placed illumination.

“It’s not real, is it?”

“No, it’s ceramic. Very lifelike though. Or deathlike rather. Realistic shall we say? And putting it inside an acrylic case somehow gives it more authenticity.”

“I didn’t think so. I’ve handled a few, in the flesh, as it were.”

“Really?” He was starting to creep me out a little. He’d seemed like an ordinary old bloke, out with his grandkids for the day. Now, after only a few words, the sunken cheeks and the wrinkled skin stretched out over his own physiognomy were taking on an altogether more ghoulish aspect. As if reading my disquieted thoughts he immediately sought to reassure me.

“Oh, nothing out of the way, don’t worry. I find it quite amusing that post-enlightenment Westerners should be so fascinated by ghosts. It’s different for other cultures of course, but really, that table rapping stage that all of our adolescents seem to go through, scaring themselves at séances, they’re almost a rite of passage. Something to do with their own fear of death I imagine. Or perhaps it’s to do with the death of mainstream religion. I like to think I keep an open mind though, and I am grateful there are still people who can take precautions.”

“What do you mean; precautions?”

“Oh, it was something that happened to me once. I’ll tell you if you like. You probably noticed I’m a Kiwi?”

A laugh that was more a release of tension escaped me. “Your accent does kind of give you away.”

From our vantage point at one end I could survey most of the gallery. I usually enjoy talking to overseas visitors, although I tend to ignore it when people try to retail some supernatural anecdote to me. This gentleman with the unusual vowels sounded as sceptical as myself however, and that piqued my interest.

“You over here on holiday?”

“Helping out my daughter. Her husband’s just buggered off with a younger woman. I’m looking after the grandkids so she can keep working whilst she sorts herself out. Maybe I’ll move. My own wife passed away a couple of years ago.”

As he said this he was again staring distractedly at the skull.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, you didn’t know her. Now that I’m solitary this could be a good area for me, I’ve always been attracted to ports and to old buildings, places with a bit of history to them.”

“We’ve got plenty of that,” I laughed again, “but what were you saying about precautions?”

He turned from his contemplation of the skull to check that his boys were engrossed in solving the treasure map puzzle before starting his tale.

“I used to work in a museum too. Retired a few years back. Quite a big place it was, more of a cultural centre; part museum, part art gallery, with a small concert hall that doubled as an art-house cinema every fortnight. So there was a lot going on. I was sort of general handyman, had my own little workshop down in the basement. There was always something needed fixing, gutters to be cleaned, pictures to be framed, exhibition furniture to be built, painted, that sort of thing. If there was a concert coming up some guys would deliver the council’s Steinway concert grand and wheel it onto the stage for the tuner to come in and do his stuff. Trouble was the architect had specified hardwood in short lengths for the floor of the stage. Heart rimu, great looking timber, hard as a bastard but brittle with it. And those Steinways, you know how much they weigh? Tons. And all balanced on three convex brass rollers, so that all the weight is on the middle point. I swear after every concert, once they’d wheeled the beast back out to the loading dock, I’d have to go in and replace at least one board that had cracked under the pressure. I used to fantasise about the pianist hitting some massive chord and the whole thing disappearing through the floor.

Well anyway, that’s beside the point, you’ll know as well as I do how much work goes into a place like this behind the scenes.

You ever hear of Te Maori? It was a big exhibition of Maori art and artefacts that was sent over to America some thirty/forty years ago. It was a really big deal, the best and most important exhibits from each of our various museums were collected and toured around the major institutions over there. Cultural groups and elders went over with them to perform the necessary ceremonies to welcome the ancestors and their works into each of their new temporary homes. Put New Zealand on the map way before Lord of the Rings. Like I said a really big deal, for us as much as for them.

So when it was over, and all the artefacts were returned to their local institutions, our curator decided to completely re-do our Maori gallery. Ngati Kahungunu; that was the tribe from our area, and he spent a lot of time in consultation with their elders. The whole emphasis changed, it was to become their treasure house rather than our gallery display.

The most prestigious local Maori artist designed it and I got to do the construction. Best piece of work I’ve ever done. Something to be proud of. Sort of a representation of a meeting house. We painted the walls and ceilings light blue instead of the usual boring museum cream. I suspended sloping beams all covered with geometric designs on steel cables from the ceiling, made special cases for greenstone axes, tikis, a kiwi feather cloak, someone’s whakapapa stick, even constructed a little palisade of ponga logs that I wired together.

Plenty of big wooden carvings of course fixed to the walls and one massive one, all black, that I had to attach right up at one end, overlooking it all. Tane Mahuta it was, the Lord of the Forests. Amazing piece of carving. Massive, half a bloody tree. Tongue out, challenging you know? Like a haka. Like ‘what are you doing in my place? Have you really got the balls?’ I had to bolt this steel cradle high up on the wall and then two big Maori fellas with a cherry picker came in and lifted him right up there. Boy, you should’ve seen their muscles bulge. That place sure had atmosphere. Completely different from the soulless exhibition space it had been before. It had life in it, you know?

It wasn’t just the artefacts, majestic as some of them were. The elders breathed life into it. Talked and sung life into it. At the end of every week during construction a group of them would come in, poke around a bit, watch what I was doing and then perform some kind of a ceremony; talk to the carvings in their own language, sing them their own songs to make them feel at home. As the opening got nearer I started doing some overtime and I tell you being alone in there at night, the blue walls, the carvings grinning at me, and all the time Tane up there behind me, watching me, making sure I was being respectful, I tell you it was the weirdest feeling I had ever felt. Damned sure I was being respectful.

The leading elder was also an Anglican Canon. A plump little man with a huge beaming smile, a dog collar and a black cassock. I don’t know how they reconcile their Christian beliefs with all this, let’s face it, pagan stuff, but they do and it works. They’re a very deeply spiritual people.

Canon Whiti had been a bit worried at first about me handling their treasures but when I told him I was a vegetarian because I was doing a bit of yoga that seemed to ease his concerns a little. Then he asked if I was married. So I told him that I’d recently had a rather messy divorce. “Girlfriend?” he enquired, so I’d told him I had given up on women for a while. “Good idea,” he told me, grinned broadly and said that that was just perfect. He put his hands on my head and said some words in language and everything was fine. It felt as if I had been adopted into a very special family and I threw myself into the project with alacrity.

Over the years the museum had acquired a number of skulls that had been collected by nineteenth century amateur anthropologists, or dug up when roads were laid, that sort of thing. Older visitors were always asking where the shrunken head was. Apparently there had been one on show as late as the nineteen seventies, and it had obviously been a highlight of their childhood school visits. As a mark of respect the current curator had withdrawn all human remains from display, with the exception of a flute carved out of a thigh bone, but there were still seven skulls in storage. After an amount of soul-searching in professional museum circles, in consultation with the local Maori communities these were now to be buried.

So, just as the project was nearing completion, I had to build a coffin. Nothing fancy, just a plain wooden box, and not large either, just seven heads and a few odd bones inside, that one man could carry by the handles at either end. The problem was that it was the middle of summer and the burial was to be at dawn. Now I’m not a morning person, the only dawn that I see is in the very depths of winter, not even then if I can help it, and it was down to me to deliver my somewhat eldritch cargo to the ceremonial ground. So I took them home with me overnight.

Good job I was divorced, the first wife would never had let them in the house and I couldn’t leave them in the van. As well as our old house she had kept the car and I was now driving a rusty old Ford Escort van and living in a broken down wooden cottage that I was gradually doing up. In a fairly insalubrious area. On one side of me was a family of Black Power gang members and they were fine. Bit of a pain when they knocked me up in the middle of the night to bludge smokes but apart from that pretty good people, just rough as guts looking. I just thought, well they’re not going to steal a coffin and if they do once they’ve opened it they’ll bring it straight back. Disturbing their own ancestors has got to be the worst kind of mana.

No, it was the other side I was worried about. Four young pakeha girls sharing. All of them on the dole and maybe the game too. I was never sure, but there was always a lot of action late at night, bloody V 8’s pulling up outside with their engines revving at 2 and 3 a.m. Nobody about when I had to get up for work in the morning. The number of times I felt like putting the Clash or someone on full bore first thing – see how they liked it. But I didn’t of course. Just moved as soon as I could find a better place. But, I wouldn’t have put it past some of their visitors to snatch a box if they saw one in the back of my van. Couldn’t see myself turning up and telling the elders “Sorry, someone stole your rellies.” So, they came in the house with me and sat on the carpet in front of the fireplace.”

“So did you hear any noises in the night?” I couldn’t help myself from asking him.

“Not a whisper. And my bedroom was right next door. I did wake up a couple of times but I reckoned that was the girls next door doing some entertaining. So I wasn’t too bothered about being quiet when I loaded up the van and drove off first thing.

The burial ground was about twenty miles up the coast, a beautiful spot on a little headland thrusting out into the Pacific. Couldn’t see much at first, just hear the sound of waves below rolling in and out on a sandy beach, like a giant softly breathing down there. Canon Whiti appeared out of the darkness with a couple of other men carrying shovels. I was expecting them to carry my little coffin but the canon disabused me, ‘you been working with them boy, you deliver them eh? The hole’s dug, just waiting on the light.’

And gradually it came. Far out to the east the horizon was lightening. At first only a grey spreading then suddenly crimson bands which stretched across the heavens from north to south with an occasional golden beam shooting straight up. The light was rushing back into the world from the direction that the ancestors of these ancestors had first swept across the ocean on their valiant canoes. Then, as the burning disc rose up over lip of the planet, a woman’s voice greeted it with a high keening song that seemed at once a mixture both of joy and of regret that was wrung out from her very guts.

I’m no poet so I can’t do it justice but I tell you the feelings I experienced then, it was like being in a poem, you know what I mean? A small group of us standing around this shallow hole in the ground, a woman wailing, the sun casting a golden column across the ocean straight towards us, the sound of waves lapping in the background and all sorts of birds waking up around the place, it was just magic. So I knelt down and lowered my wooden box and the two fellas with the shovels covered it up.

Canon Whiti walked me back to my van. Seeing it in full daylight for the first time, taking in its dilapidated appearance, he clapped me on the back and said ‘neat hearse, eh?’ Then he extracted a bottle of water from beneath his cassock and proceeded to spray its contents around, over and inside the back of the van. ‘Don’t want no ghost or bad luck attaching itself, do we?’

‘What about me?’

‘You? You’re fine. You been tapu for a coupla months now boy. Nothing going to touch you. Once the opening ceremony for the new gallery’s over at the weekend you’ll be able to have sex again,’ at which he dug me in the ribs and added ‘if you can find some nice young wahine to take you on that is. I got a coupl’a daughters I want to unload if you’re interested. ‘Course I’d have to marry you to one of them first. I am a priest after all, can’t have people getting the wrong idea. The museum we cleaned up as soon as they told us about the heads, so that’s everything protected.’

So there I was. I was totally fascinated by this plump and jovial priest, who could crack jokes one minute and recite esoteric prayers, spells even, the next. But so far I had been nothing more than a curious spectator of their culture. O.K. I was deeply interested and was grateful for the window which had been opened for me, but I still felt that I had just been standing and staring. Back when I was at school they didn’t teach us much about Maori culture. Just how to do a haka if we were playing rugby, that they rubbed noses and liked to cook over hot stones buried underground, that they operated on Maori time, which meant they were unreliable, and that they would bugger off to a tangi for a few days every now and then if they felt like it. Oh yes, and that they liked to drink. Bloody ridiculous really, you live right alongside another culture, it’s all around the place and yet you know virtually nothing about it. Just a bunch of handed down prejudices. Thank God it’s changed now; they teach the language in schools these days.

So here was an opportunity, an invitation that had been handed to me. It felt like I was balanced on a pivot point and only I could decide which way to fall. I could shut up and say nothing. I could hug my western, empirical, humanist, and ultimately cynical rationality about myself like some kind of armour. Protect myself from the possibility of an alternate reality unsettling my carefully constructed world view. Or I could open myself up; invite the canon home with me to expel whatever malevolent presence that might have leaked from the coffin overnight and infected the fabric of my house.

Of course I could have done just that without believing in its efficacy, passed it off as just some interesting incident with which to regale people at dinner parties and such. But that would have been cheating. Would have been ‘in-authentic.’ I don’t know why, but after several weeks of working on the exhibition, of handling the artefacts and conversing with the elders I felt compelled to make an honest decision, to accept or to reject whatever insight had been vouchsafed to me. To immerse myself fully into the process or not.”

At that he fell silent and returned his gaze to the cranium that grinned on its plinth beside us.

Finally he said “Strange the fascination we all have with skulls. Stranger yet the multitudes of worlds that can exist within such a fragile dome.”

“Come on, you can’t leave it there. What did you do?”

“Do you know your Hamlet?”

“What a piece of work is man?”

“No, I was thinking of ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ I told the canon that I had kept the skulls at home with me overnight and he insisted on coming back and repeating his water casting, thankfully more fastidiously this time. With that action he banished any ghost that could have appeared in this story, and then we both sat down for a cup of tea and a biscuit, which apparently is the proper, formal way to end a burial ceremony.

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