In the first chapter of Book Two, Figiel makes reference to a particular word that becomes a repeated image throughout the rest of the novel. That is the concept of “moa,” or as our narrator Alofa describes it, “the middle of a human being, where laughter and tears and joy and sorrow live” (136). Alofa perceives these emotions as escaping from the moa and out of the mouth in the form of multicolored birds, an image given to her by grandmother Tausi whom also describes the moa as being a “universe of our own that lives within us. A universe of colorful birds that die only when we neglect them” (136). This first definition given to the reader is a quasi-spiritual one, something akin to the Sacral chakra center (well-being, pleasure, sexuality) and the nāḍi channels which give the energy passage to flow throughout the body.
The moa is imbued with a sense of strength which gives birth to the stories that the Maori people tell with the emphatic power of oral tradition. They are “living and breathing and fluttering. . . ready to fly” (134) as the birds that Alofa describes. The colors they exhibit reflect the nature of the story, where joy is blue or green and wisdom is gold and gentle is white, but most importantly, grief is a black bird with shades of red. This literary gothic bird sits in the moa waiting to escape and “screech” (134) as it does when Tausi first speaks in front of Alofa, the first time Alofa notices a bird fly from a woman's mouth.
The origins of the word moa, however, give a deeper insight into this “middle of a woman or a man or a child” (133). Describing the inhabitants of the moa as motley birds is no coincidence of writing. Through the 15th (and perhaps 14th) century, there existed several species of flightless bird known as moa that populated New Zealand. The irony between naming the “universe of colorful birds” after a flightless bird is stark, speaking volumes on the nature of the Maori oral tradition. Stories that can't fly, that can't escape someone...it is reminiscent of both Lalolagi and Tausi's warnings to not grieve, of Mrs. Winterson's plea not to speak or tell the stories. It hearkens a feeling that the stories are trapped, unable to be told.
Taking it one step further, the moa were hunted to extinction circa 1400 C.E. by the Maori. Where at first the moa had only one real predator (the Haast's Eagle, another bird—another story if I may push it that far?) they were hunted and eventually wiped out due to habitat reduction. What a powerful comparison. Lalolagi refusing to speak of Malu's mother, the people refusing to speak of her father; these untold stories corrode the memory of the events. Malu can barely remember the details of the woman who gave birth to her and allowed her to live. What has happened to the rich oral tradition of these people?
The stories become flightless, stories of grief in “a family history full of shame, suffering, pain, despair” (269) that sit “waiting to fly out of the emptiness of the stomach” (134) like the black bird with the red feathers on its face. But it never flies out. It did once, but not anymore. The children listen, in awe of the birds sitting, ready to fly out of the mouth, but yet haven't, despite Tausi's promise that “the rest of the story [will] fly out as she always says a story does” (133).