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The Death of Tutunui

The Death of Tutunui

A tale told throughout the Pacific islands with slight variations, this is much in the international tradition of duels between magicians and sages. The tactics employed here are in some ways unique, however.

The Maori chieftain Tinirau looked far out across the blue waters surrounding his island home, his face showing excitement and anticipation. Over his shoulder he shouted last-minute instructions to his children and people for the feast they were preparing. His guest of honour, Kei, was a famous magician and a powerful chieftain. Tinirau was relishing the prospect of impressing Kei, and making a friend of him.

From high in a palm tree a sharp-eyed boy called out that he could see a canoe. Tinirau squinted into the distance, trying to make it out. He thought of the surprise he had in store for Kei and looked forward to springing it. A modest man and, like Kei, a fine magician, although he did not consider himself as such, Tinirau hoped it would be appreciated by his honoured guest.

Slowly the canoe came into view. Tinirau could just make out the figure in the middle of the craft, staring straight ahead as the strongyoung men around him rowed, rhythmically and with ease. When it entered shallower water Tinirau waded into the surf to help his guests disembark and to greet Kei warmly.

Though their islands were not far apart, a history of suspicion had long separated the two chieftains, and this was their first meeting. A strange feeling of disquiet came over Tinirau as they went through the traditional greeting, but when this quickly passed he thought no more of it. After each chieftain had given a formal speech of greeting and friendship, everyone sat down to the feast.

Kei was a small, energetic fellow with an appetite that was on a scale with the largest of men, and while he took his pick of the bountiful array of fruits he was looking forward with relish to the arrival of the meat course. There was no sign of anything being roasted, nor the smell of so much as a bird or fish cooking. As the remains of the first course were cleared away, it was all he could do not to comment on this, though the distraction of the beauties waiting on him, particularly his host’s eldest daughter, helped.

“Next,” Tinirau smiled, having noted the greedy look, “whale meat.”


Rising, Tinirau beckoned to his guest to follow him and they walked onto the sands of the beach.

“That is a rare treat,” Kei allowed, aware of how hard it was for the young men to catch anything as big as a whale. Still he was wondering why he had smelled nothing of the cooking of such a delicacy. Beside him Tinirau, spreading his arms and looking out to sea, took a deep breath.

“Tutunui,” he bellowed. “Tutunui!”


Out among the gently lapping waves a water spout suddenly shot into the air, then a moment later, leaping clear of the surface, a whale sailed across many feet of sea before spectacularly splashing down, disappearing underwater.

With satisfaction Tinirau saw the wide-eyed look on Kei’s face as again the whale appeared, gliding along in the surf heading straight for where they stood. Again shooting water into the air almost as a salute, it came to a halt in the shallows. Tinirau waded out to it as a small boy ran up to hand him a large knife. Intrigued, Kei followed, although at first wary of approaching the whale too closely.

Running his hands along the whale’s side, Tinirau whispered happily to the beast and it seemed to respond to him. As Kei stared in amazement, Tinirau brought the knife up as if to show it to the mammal then slipping along its flank proceeded to cut a big slice out of its flesh.The whale appeared to accept this without alarm or protest.

Handing the generous portion of meat to the boy, who ran back to the beach to give it to the women to barbecue, Tinirau stroked the whale, still somehow conversing with it, and then turned to Kei.

“Come, let us eat some more,” he smiled, as the whale wriggled its way into deeper water and swam back out to sea. The other magician’s astonishment was most gratifying, though once more Tinirau momentarily felt uneasy at something in Kei’s expression. But again the moment passed and soon they were drinking together without a care in the world. When the meat was served, Kei’s praise was lavish and his enjoyment obviously immense. For the rest of the day he charmed
everyone by performing small magic tricks, which he deprecated as illusions, and entertained his hosts enormously. Tinirau was very glad that he had extended the invitation to Kei and looked forward to seeing him again soon.

As the sun began to set, Kei regretted that he had to return to his own island and reproached himself for staying too long.


“I have lost track of time in such company, enjoying such hospitality,” he sighed. “But there is a sick child that I must look in on and already it is late. My rowers will still be weary, however, and the trip will take a long while. I wonder if you might do me a very large favour, Tinirau.”

“Anything.”

“Would it be possible to have your pet whale carry me home on its back? I am sure it would shorten the journey.”

“Well,” Tinirau demurred. “Tutunui has never performed such a task …” For some reason he felt very reluctant to do as his guest proposed. The rowers would surely be rested by now, though perhaps a little tipsy and full from feasting. It did seem surly of him to refuse, though. “All right,” he said finally. “I will have him do this.”

He waded into the surf and called the whale, which had been cavorting offshore. It came immediately and once more Tinirau met it in the shallows and ran his hands over its head. After a few minutes he turned and nodded to Kei, who came up beside him to be hoisted onto the whale’s back.

Many others now waded out to wave him off, followed at a leisurely pace by his canoe and young rowers. With mixed feelings Tinirau watched his guest  disappear into the distance as around him his people sang and laughed and began drifting back to their homes. The day had been a complete success. Kei had been gracious, appreciative and amusing and everyone had enjoyed themselves. Yet still, the sense that something was wrong would not leave Tinirau.

Out on the waves Kei was thrilled by his ride on Tutunui’s back. It had not escaped him either that it seemed the great wound in the animal’s side had already healed. Using all his cunning and artfulness he began to speak to the whale, to charm it, attempting to seduce it away from Tinirau. Try as he might, however, he could not establish communication with the whale. It swam on, not reacting in any way, and finally Kei gave up and began to think along other lines.

Whether out of jealousy, greed, laziness or cruelty he made up his mind to act. As they neared his island Kei refused to respond when Tutunui gave the mighty shiver which was his signal for the magician to dismount. Again, Kei tried sweet talking the whale, begging the animal to swim just a little closer inshore, so that he could get off without danger of the water being too deep, for he was but a small man. His real purpose, though, was to attract the attention of the many villagers
sitting on the shore.

As if he understood, Tutunui did as he was asked and headed further inshore. The waters in this part of the bay were deceptively shallow, however, and the waves rushed in more quickly than one might have thought due to the shape of the coral either side. Picking his moment, Kei attacked, stuffing the whale’s blow hole with his clothing, and jumping onto Tutunui’s head to hold it under the surface of the water. As he struggled with the fast-weakening creature, Kei shouted to
his people to hurry out to him with knives.

Seeing their chief single-handedly assailing the whale, they rushed out and joined in, hacking the beast to death. This sort of ‘kill’ was very rare and the meat would feed them for a long time to come. Only the clever Kei, the islanders said, could have actually caused such a thing to happen right on their doorstep.

The feasting and celebrations went on late into the night and the smell of the cooking whale meat drifted far over the waters, even reaching the nostrils of Tinirau, who was growing increasingly concerned because Tutunui had not returned. Soon confirmation of the whale’s unhappy demise came from a girl who had married a man of Kei’s island. Tinirau was overtaken first by grief and then anger with himself. Eventually these feelings wore off and were replaced by an overwhelming sense of outrage at Kei’s ingratitude and treachery.

Calling all the men of fighting age together, he stood before them, but as he was about to incite them to wage war on Kei, Tinirau stopped, his heart sinking. This was the first such assembly in years and, looking round it, he was appalled by how few warriors he had. A generation seemed to have come where most people had delayed having children and there were too few young men of fighting age. It would be years before a force of sufficient strength could sally forth with any hope of success against so large and ruthless a bunch as Kei’s people.

“Let us women go and capture Kei,” Tinirau’s daughter whispered.

“You are not trained in war,” Tinirau began dismissively. “not strong enough in body …” He stopped abruptly, turned to her and smiled, seeing the look in her eye.

Forty women and girls were chosen and with an abundance of flowers, strong drink and musical instruments they set off in canoes for Kei’s island. Arriving in an apparently festive mood, denigrating their own men with a wink, and expressing a wish to join the on-going celebrations, they were welcomed by Kei. Singing and dancing and entertaining their hosts, passing around drink and promises never quite fulfilled, they kept the celebrations going until late into the night.

Shortly before dawn, all around Kei’s large house people lay sleeping but still the chief himself seemed to be awake, though he had not moved in ages. At last, Tinirau’s daughter, who had been watching carefully, crept up to him and looked deep into his seemingly wide-open and unblinking eyes. Suppressing a gasp and a giggle, she saw that the wily magician had put mother-of-pearl discs over his eyes so that in the dying firelight he would appear to be awake and still vigilant.

Tinirau’s daughter and the other thirty-nine women, who were only pretending to be sleeping, quietly rose and gently lifted the small body of the slumbering Kei. Forming a line in the moonlight, running from the house to the beach, they passed him easily from one to the other. For all his eating and drinking he was still light. Even as he was bundled into a canoe and the women crowded in around him and began paddling, he barely stirred.

When they got home, again they silently formed a chain and passed the snoozing magician from hand to hand until he was safely and comfortably installed in Tinirau’s house. Everyone then settled down to waiting, the whole village walking on tiptoes, with even the smallest children making no noise and no work being done.

At about midday Kei gave a yawn and stretched his limbs, the shells falling from his eyes as he opened them. The first thing he saw was the face of Tinirau.

“What are you doing here?” he asked with a start.

“I should be asking you that question.”

The magician smiled and relaxed again, yawning. “Ah, of course, you have come for your women. I take this as a sign that you recognize that we are the stronger and accept …”


“I think you are the one who needs to understand. What are you doing here?”

“But this is my house,” Kei snapped, rubbing his eyes. Hung-over and suffering an upset stomach, he was in no mood for foolishness.

“Is this your house? Is it really?” Tinirau chuckled softly.

Looking around, and with growing desperation, Kei saw that he was not at home, that there was a crowd of silent people behind Tinirau and not his people. He saw the grinning faces of Tinirau’s daughter and several other women, and then he knew. He knew where he was, that he was in Tinirau’s power and that the other man’s vengeance was at hand. With a sickening sense of poetic justice as well, he knew what his fate would be even before Tinirau spelt it out for him.

“As you can imagine, Kei, we are very happy for you to be here,” Tinirau smiled. “And we will be most pleased to have you for dinner.”

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