The Weka-Feather Cloak
A New Zealand Fantasy
By Leo Madigan
This adventure story for young people was published by,
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Publication Date: 02 / 2002
Binding: Quality Softcover
Size: 5.5 x8.5in
Content suitability (Age): 12-up
After quiet, artistic Danny Mago gets a new job at the St. Martin de Porres Convent-home of the famous Maori painter, Mother Madeleine, he stumbles across an ancient, unused elevator and the uneventful tenor of his life takes a decided turn . . . upwards! The resulting wild and sometimes hair-raising adventures become strangely entangled with the mysterious quest that has brought beautiful Zelia Mazloum all the way from Turkey to New Zealand.
Demonic creatures, angelic beings, sly villains, an old and beautiful weka-feather cloak, a blank wall in a new Cathedral and an unforgettable Maori nun come together in this amazing tale of spirit and laughter.
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The Oceania Airways flight 313, its tail ablaze, burst out of the night sky like a meteor. All Wellington to the south, and the Hutt Valley to the north, saw the fiery monster hit the harbour and skid on its fuselage across the surface of the water. Hissing and spluttering like a steam iron, it came to a standstill with its nose against the low, bush covered cliffs of Somes Island.
The city, suspending breath and movement, was tensed for an explosion. But it never came. Instead the great machine belched like a sleeping elephant and settled itself a half a metre onto the shallow seabed.
Straightaway sirens started up, searchlights drowned out the moon and an armada of launches and helicopters sped off towards the island.
On a television screen in a shop window in Lower Hutt High Street, Danny Mago caught a glimpse of the survivors being brought ashore. Women clutched at salvaged purses, children at sorry looking toys. The men were nonplussed. All were dishevelled and wet and their eyes were frightened.
Danny pulled up his bicycle and wheeled it onto the pavement. There was something ghoulish about watching people who had suffered a tragedy, but something compelling too. Danny was vaguely wishing there was something he could do to alleviate the shock and devastation these people were undergoing when the screen suddenly switched to a helicopter landing with survivors.
Among those who emerged was a blond-haired young man in a white shirt, still so wet that it clung to his skin. His trousers were torn so that they looked stereotyped, Robinson Crusoe trousers, and he had bare feet. Yet he moved like a prince. A Red Cross nurse placed a blanket around his shoulders, which he wore like an ermine cope. He smiled as he passed the camera, just as a prince might smile.
Danny had the oddest sensation that he had seen him before. Or maybe it was just an even odder presentiment that he would see him again.
When Year 10 crowded into the Art Room much of the working space was taken up by the project that Year 9 had left. What was it? Year 10 asked. What was it supposed to be?
“A pyramid of death,” Mr Grundy explained. “Year 9 conceived, designed and constructed it all by themselves. They got no help from me.”
“Very wise of you to disown it, Mr. Grundy. An art teacher could lose his job if it got about that he had been promoting rubbish like that.”
“The word ‘rubbish’ in this context, Duffy, reflects the disorder in your own mind. Year 9 was asked...”
“It’s just black crepe paper wound around a bamboo frame, Sir. It’s not a pyramid. No self-respecting Pharoah would be seen dead in that. It’s a wigwam.”
“4A were very disturbed by the plane crash in the harbour on the weekend. They got together and decided to express their concept of death in some tangible form.”
Mr. Grundy was an Englishman. He looked like an Englishman. He spoke like an Englishman. His Englishness prompted the extrovert element of Year 10, born and bred Kiwis who wouldn’t normally address a knight of the realm as “Sir”, to come over all Tom Brown’s Schooldays in Mr. Grundy’s class.
“Sir?” Pascal the Handsome, who never got less than 90% for Geometry, made two, maybe three, questioning syllables out of the word. “How can a polyhedron with a polygonal base and triangular faces meeting in a common vertex represent death?”
“How indeed, Pascal. How indeed! When you know that you will understand the Poetry of Art, and the Art of Poetry. We live in a world of representation as a fish lives in a world of water. What is this? “ Mr. Grundy took a ten dollar note from his pocket and waved it above his head.
“A ten dollar note.”
“That’s mine, Sir. I dropped it earlier. Honest!”
“If I was starving,” said Mr. Grundy, “could this keep me alive for another few days? Don’t bother with smart answers. It could. Or rather its buying power could. We all know that. However, were we to turn the clocks back two hundred years and I was standing in this same spot would this ten dollar note avail me any?”
“The Maori would have eaten you before could spend it, Sir.”
“There were no dollars then, Sir, and none of us pakeha.”
“The Maori had eaten them all...”
“Yeah! And not paid the bill. We should mass together and demand payment for our eaten ancestors....”
“It’s like refusing to pay the tab in a restaurant, only on a global scale...” “Too right! We demand compensation...”
“The United Nations...”
“It’s traumatised my life, I can tell you...”
“Settle down, now! Settle down!” Mr. Grundy summoned placidity into the room by patting the air with his hand.
“Now I want to go over your term papers with each of you individually. While I’m doing this I want you to design what you think would be an artistic representation of death AND...listen for it...Pascal, sit down, Libby Wright, over here where I can see you...AND I want you to write why this represents death for you. I don’t want a plate of spaghetti and then some airy speil about how it could be poisoned spaghetti. Paper there, pencils there. Each student to work individually. No need for discussion.”
“Please, Sir, Mago’s cheating already. He deserves a beating, Sir. Will you thrash him?”
“I will not. Settle down now, will you, and give this project some thought.”
“There’s nothing to stop me from thrashing him, Sir. Shall I do it? I could put the boot in, Sir. Or maybe garrotte him.” This was Myers. Myers was adept with words. “Oh, do let me garrotte him.”
“Cut the cackle, Myers. Get on with your work.”
“Sir, I need a model for death. Do let me use the Maggot, Sir. He’s a very insignificant maggot. No one would miss him.”
Mr. Grundy said, “Danny Mago’s got more artistic potential than all of this school put together, and that includes the teaching faculty.”
This was greeted by a rising groundswell of OOOhhhs! Thin, plain, timid Danny Mago bent low over his desk as the blood burned his cheeks.
“I think he’s haemorrhaging, Sir. Shall I finish him off? Please let me finish him off.”
Sister Eileen, the Deputy Headmistress, entered the art room from the corridor and within an instant the class was absorbed in work. She wore a long white gown and around her hair was a thin blue veil. A silver crucifix hung from her neck on a silver chain. All the students admired Sister Eileen, she had the knack of making each feel that she was his, or her, Guardian Angel. But you didn’t fool in Sister Eileen’s classes. You didn’t fool if she was anywhere on the horizon.
Sister Eileen smiled briefly at the class and conferred quietly with Mr. Grundy. Occasionally they would look out over the sea of heads and then both nodded in agreement. Sister Eileen walked to the door. Before stepping into the corridor she said, “Danny Mago, I’d like to see you in my office after school.”
The door had barely closed behind the Deputy when the whispering started. “The Maggot was in for it. The Maggot was in deep trouble. He’d been found out, the miserable little Maggot, whatever it was he’d done. He’d probably get the death sentence.”
“Sir, let me put him out of his agony. A quick chop in the nape of the neck, thus...” Myers had jumped up from his seat and was standing over Danny Mago demonstrating his karate movements when Sister Eileen stepped back into the room. She said, “I’m sorry, Danny, if I made that sound like a summons. I want to ask a favour of you, that is all. Do forgive me if I alarmed you. Or gave anyone else the wrong impression." She smiled sweetly at Colin Myers, who was still standing over Danny Mago’s desk as if, like Lot’s wife, he’d been turned into a pillar of salt.
As a kid I was privileged, not that I knew it then, of being a border at St Thomas’ Preparatory school for boys in NaeNae, Lower Hutt, near Wellington, New Zealand. St Thomas’ was, I think, an orphanage though I wasn’t an orphan. It was also a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. There must have been about 20 nuns there, and superb women they were, too, in recollection; all New Zealanders living their religious life in the old voluminous habit with kindness and humour which helped to set my very wobbly compass on the right course in later years.
Among the boys there were about twenty of us pakehas, white New Zealanders, 20 Maori and Island boys and about the same number Poles – refugees from WWII. A ship full of Polish children was swinging at anchor odd Port Said in 1945 when the Prime Minister of NZ was returning home after a Commonwealth conference in London. He adopted the whole ship-load and it tagged along behind him all the way to Wellington. As the Polish children were presumably Catholics they were distributed among the Catholic Schools. That’s how St Thomas’ happened to have such a culturally varied student body.
St Thomas’ was set into a forested hillside. The dormitories were part of a large house dating from the early days of New Zealand. It was above the working part of the convent and school – across the full-bodied Waiwhetu stream and up a half a dozen flights of zigzagging stone stairs. Many reminders of the opulence of the original builders were evident in the native NZ woods of the walls and staircases. Even the toilet bowls had lavish floral designs worked into the porcelain. The ‘Top House’, as we used to call it, was deep in glorious ferns and native bush.
It was always in my mind to incorporate something of St Thomas’ in a story – a sort of belated appreciation. I had published The Bank of Infinite Reserves myself because I couldn’t find any publisher interested in children’s Catholic fiction, and then I heard of Bethlehem Books somewhere in the centre of the U.S. I sent them a copy in the hope that they might do it there. They didn’t want it but were very gracious and encouraged me to try my hand at something else that might fit their lists. This was the opportunity to enshrine St Thomas’ on the printed page and The Weka-Feather Cloak is the result.
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