I bought lamb chops and cigarettes in Turangi, a small town on New Zealand's north island. The lamb was eel bait, the cigarettes for Allan Wilkinson, a local Maori I met at the Grand Chateau Hotel. Allan was a porter there, and he'd offered to take me eel fishing in Tongariro National Park. But, there was a catch: First, I had to tell his family about the attacks on the World Trade Center. I'd watched it happen from across the river in Jersey.
At first I was charmed by his invitation, but as the day wore on, I grew suspicious. The whole thing struck me as a set-up of some kind. There were enough American tourists prowling the world in search of quaint cultural exchanges with the natives - maybe Allan thought I was an easy mark. Who invites a complete stranger to their house within an hour of meeting them - for anything other than a business transaction?
Nevertheless, I laid the bag of lamb chops, sticky with blood, on Allan's kitchen table. Allan's wife, Kim, their two sons and Kim's parents sat on three small couches -- waiting for me. I was nervous.
Allan set a cup of instant coffee on the space heater in front of me. It was early November. Rain pattered on the corrugated metal roof. "Tell us," he said.
I started with the scale of the buildings. Most people back home couldn't understand how big the towers were -- the incredible pile of rubble that remains. I compared the towers to Ruapehu and Tongariro, two dormant volcanoes important to Maori legend. As I talked and made these sketches in the air, the boys sat quietly. Kim's parents glanced at the TV. I was losing them. Then I told them how I took the subway to the World Trade Center everyday before I got fired, and everyone started laughing. Why did I get fired? Was the subway like a train? How big were the holes in the buildings? I began embellishing my answers with personal anecdotes to make them laugh more.
It was midnight when I finished. Allan pulled on a wool cap and collected the gear for eel fishing. New Zealand has lots of eels -- and they're not delicate sushi eels. Some are longer than five feet and as wide as a linebacker's thigh. The rivers are full of them. What you do is you chum the water with meat, gaff the creatures onto the river bank, and beat them with clubs before they squirm away. It's much more personal than fishing. You have to get your hands dirty.
I huddled next to Allan on the bank of the Wairehu Canal. I offered him a cigarette and lit it between his cupped hands. He had a kind, disarming face. But still, there was that feeling. I felt like he was expecting something. How many other guests of the Grand Chateau had he invited home? He blew a stream of smoke and checked the bait with his flashlight.
"At our marae," he said, "which is our meeting house, we have what we call our message carriers. You brought right from your eyes and your mouth what you saw with those towers. And I put it strongly to you that you've come here to bring us a message. People will believe us because those two old people were there. We all know that old people don't lie. I'll see if I can bring you there tomorrow, to our marea."
The next day I woke late. Dressed in his porter's uniform, Allan was sitting alone at the piano in the Ruapehu Lounge, moving his fingers over the keys. The melody was familiar. I listened for a while then asked him what it was. "Titanic," he said.
He turned to me. "After work, we will go to Otukou to the marea I told you about."
It was my last day in Tongariro. I needed to pack and transcribe my notes. But Allan had already made appointments. I didn't understand why he was going to such trouble. I couldn't say no. And I couldn't shake the suspicion that at some point he was going to ask me for money.
That evening, in the car on the way to Otukou, Allan told me to act just like I did last night at his house. He seemed nervous, like I might screw things up and make him look bad in front of his elders. "No tape recorder," he said and paused.
"You're bringing a message. Ask many questions because I'm learning just like you."
It was happening so fast I couldn't keep track of it all. There was so much about kinship and tribal relations -- about eels. I couldn't put it all together. What coherent message could I deliver under these circumstances?
We were met at Otukou by Daisy Currin, a compact sparkplug of a woman with a thick head of curly, white hair. She explained the purpose of the Okahukura marae. She told me the stories behind the pictures that hung on the thatched walls. In exchange, I told her about what had happened in New York City on Sept. 11 -- what I saw and felt. Allan hovered nearby, listening carefully. He asked Daisy questions of his own about the tribe's history. Allan was from the coast, and only his wife was Okahukura. He was an outsider here, too. We were traveling from opposite directions to the same place.
On the way home he shot me a big smile. "You did good," he said. I asked him how he knew that. "Because she asked you to come back."
"I'd like that," I said.
A full moon cast a pale blue light on Allan's yard. Sheep wandered about in the tall grass.
I fingered the bills in my pocket with one hand and stuck out my other hand to thank him for everything. I hoped it would be enough.
"No," he said, narrowing his eyes. I started to withdraw my hand, but he grasped it and pulled me toward him by my shoulder. He put his nose to my nose, his forehead to my forehead.
"You are my lost brother," he told me softly. "And this is how we say goodbye."
--Steve Featherstone is a journalist living in Syracuse, New York. Steve traveled 10,000 miles from New York to tell the story of the World Trade Center explosions.