This Tim Winton short story appeared in Meanjin shortly before the his first novel, An Open Swimmer, was published.
Did a man ever wish that he would be swallowed up? And now men cannot look on the light when it is bright in the skies, when the wind has passed and cleared them.
If I roll over I can see the shore where the old quarantine station still stands. Once, men dragged whales up that granite shore and cut them up and boiled them and left their skeletons to rot in the shallows. I speared fish here as a boy.
On this, my third dive for the morning, I feel the cold hands of gooseflesh on my body. It is not like the first dive when the water seizes your limbs and shakes them to life. My body is dull, as if asleep.
I submerge and slide into the wedge of pressure that closes upon my head. Algal turf extends, and pomfrets disappear into the blue that is beyond vision. Between rocks, concise granite faults. Into these I cautiously slip my fingers. Larger shadowy fissures are dark; into these I ease my head but see nothing.
I dived here with friends. We stayed down as long as we liked for we knew we could not die. We dived deep into the cold. Deeper into the dark, taunting it.
I am looking for whales’ teeth. I have found two this morning. They lie gritted in places between rocks, yellow, horny specimens. I collect them, but to no purpose. I can think of nothing to do with them.
Gliding around a rock, I am suddenly confronted with another diver. See! The bubbles squeeze thickly from his, snorkel. But the face. The face bunched into the black mask is mine.
I am choking, breathing in water. I ram up to the sheen of the surface. After coughing for a few moments, I roll onto my front and scan the bottom. I am not there. There is no-one else, nothing except the pomfrets with their auras. Barely able to feel my own limbs, I make for shore.
Over there, the old buildings. They chatter in the wind. People died there, so it was an adventure for us.
I am crouched by the fire, olives tucked in the corners of my mouth, remembering. It is night. I wonder about times when I was a child. Camping here. We left our tents tightly rolled. The others slept in the old quarantine hospital’s quarters. I lay stiff all night on the slab in the mortuary with two pounds and a pocket mirror in my fist. Sheets of iron shuddered. Unblinking stars showed through the roof. I saw open sky but did not look for anything.
Near dawn I stumbled out the wrong door through a maze of gravestones, skinning my knees. Singing drifted from somewhere.
Some days ago, from a long way up, I saw myself still there on the slab, and I saw—clearly—the careful slots crossing the concrete beneath me, each leading the dark in several directions. From a long way up. And … I knew I was up there, watching it.
But I was planning to come out here again, regardless. Nostalgia, perhaps. But I almost regret that I have come. One cannot waste one’s time in dreams; there is too much life to be lived.
Away from the fire the ground is cold. I writhe in the sticks and thick, dripping blades of grass, then run back to the fire and feel the stinging vibrancy of my skin coming to life again. I do this several times.
Around me the bush breathes, ticking. I savour the bitterness of the olives, pare the flesh away from the seeds and chew. I leave the seeds in my mouth until my cheeks ache with them.
I sleep, disturbed.
I have decided to move away from the buildings. There is another bay over the hill.
Perhaps I am too old for this business, but I must. There is so much, even here, that I have not seen, things I’ve not felt. Suddenly, time is short.
The clotted bush has been tunnelled into by small animals. In some places it is impossible to walk through. On all fours I burrow through it, feeling sharp things in me as I scramble. Openings lead off in all directions. I begin to work my way uphill, hoping that the vegetation will subside on the top. The ground becomes drier and I slip; it is difficult to find a grip. Suddenly there is a hurry. Flexing up on my toes, I dig into the dirt with my nails and claw my way upwards, but thorns open my skin. The incline steepens. I use my belly for traction, but it is no use; I am slipping back, tearing toenails.
Another passage opens. I thrash my way off on a downward slope which steepens quickly. Now I am running on all fours like a terrified animal; I can’t stop.
One of the boys gave me a small mirror. It was the only thing of value he had. The others gave me two pounds between them. I never knew why he took a mirror camping. Perhaps it was for signalling. None of us shaved.
Flailing myself down the slope. Stop! I am shouting at myself to stop. But I have stopped already, there in front. My face and an emaciated body. Stop! It has the voice of a child. It is gone and I am running like an animal after, grunting with pain.
On an exposed granite point there was (as now) a stone-block cell. We shut each other inside, thrilled in the dark. There was a small window high in the wall that let in a golden bolt of light. We wished it was gone and the darkness complete.
I am sprawled, bleeding, on a rock back down by the water. Back where I started. The sun breathes on my back, suddenly hot. I feel myself drying and burning. Why does this thing with my face appear? I close my eyes and see myself languishing, covering my nakedness with two pounds and some skin. Dried skin. Am I burst at the seams?
The sun burns me and I must open my eyes and see reddening flaccid skin. I cannot bear this; I must escape the sun. The sun was not like this yesterday. I remember it filtering coolly down through the water, showing through the transparent bodies of shrimp that arc only eyes supported by fluid-filled husks.
Down there, close to the water, there is a cleft in the granite. I am running, limping, whimpering towards that triangle of black with the sun pressing down on me, squeezing from me the last drops of moisture.
Inside. A rare air tasting of pennies. I shuffle deeper, arms extended, as the floor slopes down, cold, gritty. It is darkness. Not black, but totally without light. As I walk forward, pressure closes on me. My feet are moving; it must be deeper. Then suddenly the walls contract. I did not hear them move, only felt my elbows tight against my sides and my head between my knees. There is room to sit. At least I am safe here from the sun. There is a chill on my shoulders as the sweat cools.
No sound but for the comings and goings of my breath—or is it the sea? I can see nothing. Closing my eyes I see lights, but they cannot guide me.
Now I lie in the grit. And now there is room to turn over. Looking up there is nothing. Either side there is nothing. There is more when I close my eyes but I eliminate this. Cold seeps into my back. I am moving! No, no, the sand and shell pieces are beneath me still.
Is this an adventure?
No, I can’t help it, I’m moving. Grappling with numb fingertips, I take hold of the ground. It is cold, cold.
Oh, but now the ceiling brushes against my face. I am floating. I weigh nothing, as in water. My face is grazed and stings. I must stay down. Like rough, unshaven cheeks, the walls rub and coarsen my flesh. They distort—I can feel it—as I bounce, am thrown, bounce again.
Walls and ceilings clamp me and let me loose. They squeeze things from me until I am unable to distinguish contraction from expansion. I cry out but there is no sound in this nothing. The walls are still. I feel nothing, nothing. My old limbs do not respond.
But down there in the corner there is … is it light? No, but something. The bones are gleaming, skull wide-eyed, as if surprised to see me.
‘But are you surprised?’ It is a child’s wilful voice. I did not say it. The voice repeats the question. Am I saying this? Where does it come from? I wish to move but there is nothing to move.
‘Get up!’ A desperate, childish voice, full of authority. Who is this? What? What is this? ‘Bones, get up!’
This voice, I cannot touch it, nor smell it; I cannot even hear it.
‘Can you be surprised?’ It is fading. ‘Can you be surprised?’ It is moving through all the unseen fissures in this nothing, I can tell by its echoes. I wish to follow, to pursue this, but I cannot.
Is it not sometimes my own voice, this voice that is not ? The breath—yes, I can hear breath within me—roars.
My calves and feet come alive in the water and begin to thrash unseen. My whole body convulses with fear. Water is surging in with tidal thrusts. I move: it is deeper there. Upright, I wade and grapple with rock faces. Water pursues me. I move in the colourless dark. There must be another opening, I call in my old man’s croak. I heard the travelling of the echoes. Water thunders behind. I scramble blind, having willed away all light. And screaming.