For my grandfather
From the breakwater an archipelago of shivered rocks clasps the sea like the bones of a hand. A child crouches at the tip of the index finger. It is winter.
A wave breaks upon her like glass, falling on her already wet skin, and her pale trembling legs in their wet grey kneesocks. Her school tunic is wet, and her dark hair falls wetly across her forehead beneath a ragged flatcap. In the hollow of the waves she crouches low to a knee, clutches a scalp of greenweed with one hand and with the other shears as close as she dares to the marbled rockface. If she blunts the knife she will be beaten. She slips the weed into the hessian bag in her satchel, and half-straightens her legs, remaining huddled, bent low, jaw loose and tongue curled away from her teeth. She folds her left arm about her body like a broken wing, and extends her right high from the shoulder, angling the knifepoint away, like a statue. There will not be time to sheathe it before the next wave.
A sharp one, the body of it tears the back of her knees like a whip. The pinion of its crest slashes her cheek. Wet through, foraging on the rocks for an hour or more—each wave strikes with a new cold. She swallows pain by forgetting it.
As the wash passes she scuttles back crabwise to a higher perch on the black lichenous rockface. She squats there, catching breath, rolling back and forth on her haunches to keep her muscles from seizing. From the clean furrowing waveback by the rocks a cormorant sleekly pokes its head. It circles the limited calm of the brief valley that opens between the waves. It turns side-facedly to regard her with the liquid black eye couched in the mottle of its face. It dives and surfaces, gobbling a small silver fishtail in its hooked bill. When she has enough greenweed she will ride six miles on her pushbike, stowed among the rocks, and bring it to her uncle up by the punt. Then she will ride three miles back towards school. On the warm purple rocks by the river there will be cormorants too, arching their wings out to dry in the sun, still as statues on a churchroof.
To eat fish you need bait, and to smoke fish and sell them for bread and wood you need bait. The best bet in winter is blackfish. But to catch blackfish you can’t use worms or prawns or rolled crust. You need greenweed. Her uncle tells her that it used to grow thick as baby’s breath along the river from the depth of a knee; manna from heaven. But what remained of the weedbed after the smelting started up at Laperouse was finished off by the times. Too many out of work. Too many pulling up the weed and raking mud all over the shop without knowing what they did, or caring further than the next piece of bread. Hard to blame them, might be.
Edie, girl of eight reads herself the creature of another time, a flint time without purchase for milkwords like blame. Soon, she would need to go with as much as she had, or her uncle would miss the bite entirely. When she handed the hessian sack—wet to keep the weed fresh—to the man he would take it in his gnarled hands and loop its neck over his belt. Then he would move up carefully through the trees to the cliff. At the overhang he’d reach down and under to pull out the stowed rope. It was a thick and heavy. Bunched in knots for footholds. One end of it was fast around a bridge of rock in the cave under the lip of the overhang. But you couldn’t leave it hanging there. First as people might see, and second as the sun and the salt in the wind off the river would brittle it. He’d check the rope and the knots and then climb down hand over hand to the spit below.
Her uncle said that her father, Jimmy, salvaged the rope when the Hereward ran in at Maroubra. He’d been young then. He was working at the wool scourers when the crew came in. They’d lit off from Sourabaya to Newcastle, to take on coal.
When her uncle told this story her little sisters were sat next to her on the scarred floorboards by the hearth, and Mother not far, giving Billy his bath. Her uncle sat on the chair with the torn cushion and looking into the fire with his hands joined on one knee. From time to time he’d lean forward to stir the embers, and the joints of the chair would creak, and sometimes they would creak when he breathed. His voice when he spoke was low in his throat.
Jimmy was at the wool works. The crew came in from the wet. The winds were howling. The skip had seen it coming and tried to pull the shroud in. The Hereward was ship-rigged, so that made 15 sail. First the hawsers start groaning, then there’s a sharp crackling sound, then whirring of the rope swinging in the wind. Worst though, is the keening high to low of tearing canvas. The mizzens and the topgallants go, so the captain’s looking at canvas falling and twisting like torn swan’s wing, and the ship’s limping, listing. In an ocean storm the sky beds thick with quarrel, and the edges of the horizon shimmer greensick from all the ice in the air.
The sail clings to the main a while, bellying up in the wind, screaming at the edges, arcing over the boat crosswise, the mast sends a rending tremor through all the timbers. Knowing that mortal sound the Captain puts a shipping axe through his belt and clambers up the ratlines. The cords are slickwet, and the wind catches him and his clothes so it’s all he can do to keep himself on rope. And the wind is shaking and tugging the shroud, and the hull below is rolling and kicking in the swell, so one foot to the other is an article of faith. Somehow he climbs his way to the maintop. He knows that if he just sets to the force of the wind will rip the spar clean off, snap the mast, take him with it. So he clambers out over the futtock across the mainyard. The length of the mast now ripples in each sway, so it’s thumping back and forth in the wind and wet like a compass-needle. It would have been conifer, so at the edge of each stroke the wood gives and bends and groans. So he’s crawling now. Clinging to the yard and the footrope, with the dark above and below. But he makes it somehow out to the stunsail and with one hand gripping on he takes out the axe and hacks at the stays and as each goes it flicks out and whirrs through the rabid air and comes back cruel like the lash on his face and his shoulders but he shimmies down, feet first, back towards the maintop, cutting the stays until there’s a full half-shroud and a half-shroud of stays flapping and screaming in the squall.
One half is one half of a cross, so he crawls hands and knees out towards the other, with a chill seizing in his muscles, and as he swings the axe is slipping in his grip with the rain and the sweat and he’s praying and cursing in one breath praying to the storm and cursing it, praying to the ship and cursing it, cursing himself and praying to himself tender and hateful and awestruck.
He’s not far now, four stays out. There’s a strick of tangled line, knotted and burred and swinging around, and as the storm’s pupil widens the lightning licks its way down the black valleys of cumulus above. Inevitable as music, the clawed grip of tangle falls upon his left hand that grips a footrope, and seizes intricately the hand and wrist and rope.
A harp of lightning moves in the black air. He drains his cup, and gripping the spar with his knees he takes his breath and brings it down behind the blade of the axe, which moves through the rope and the wrist and the wood. There’s a high cold sound above the windrip and the rainpour, and then he feels the rain move from his face, and a sound like god drawing breath. The shroud bellies up high over the mast and the ship and the sea, plucks the lingering stays like nettles. High over him where he perches bleeding on his bare and splintered tree, the shroud folds like a mother-dove’s wing, lit by lightning and daubed with its shadows. From the clew of a shroudcorner came reaching pitifully down from heaven’s black canopy his own little hand, where it turned on an innard of rope.
It augured him with the hectic twitch of an index finger, then it clenched sharply, and unfurled, opened like a book as the angelbacked shroud boarded a driftwind, and lifted the artefact high and away through the hail-strafed, lightstitched cloud.
Shroudbroke and rudderless, it’s his to murmur from his pulpit an only winddrowned rosary as he catches a stray end of line between teeth and cuts down with the axe through the rope into the mast and leaves it there to quiver, winds a clovehitch tourniquet one handed. And then his to watch, stilled with grace as the wind bears them through the heads between two bitter shoals, and up onto a clean slope of white sand with scarce a sigh. Of all souls all live to tread shore, less a hand, climbing somewhere to mercury.
That’s the murmur of a bedraggled crew coming through the doors of the works dripping their feet through intensifying circles of yellow gaslight. They’re fed and shod and warmed. The cargo ensured, and the wreck claimed for tuppence by Carlyle of Melbourne, tried twice to shift it and twice failed, until it broke up, in two pieces like a pitted peach, and the woolers and dockers picked the jetsam for use. Of whom Jimmy Wright, finding himself a coil of good rope and a wind of chain.
Edie did not much remember her father. Of a morning, though, her uncle would let her spool and thread the three blackfish floats that her father had made from spinifex and the feathers of a blackswan. Once on a Sunday she and Peter Mills who lived up the hill had gone into the bush and made a roving party. They would move quietly through the pale and high and crooked eucalypts over the purple sunwarm rocks to where Mick and Robbie’s gang had their hideout. If Mick and Robbie heard them coming quietly through the trees they would holler and shout. But if they didn’t hear her and Peter Mills coming, she and Peter would shoot them dead with slingshots. The water coming up from the river was purplish when it touched the shore, but blue in the middle where it touched sky and boats.
That Sunday and Sundays were receding. On a brisk sharp day in autumn she was riding her trike left to right around the widening socket of a cul-de-sac waiting for her uncle on his walk home. He did not arrive until much later, when she saw his shadow lean through the lamplight beneath the door. She heard his voice which though low was tremulous, and heard then her mother’s voice but not its words, low and smooth and calm, like when she tripped on the curbstones in front of the butchers. When she did then she had held her and folded her in the warm and soft myrtle smell of her, and Mister Larsson had come out and said she was a brave lass and given her a chew.
This time though by the slant of their shadows her mother did not embrace her uncle or touch him, but gathered her hands into a knot.
A solid curve of force catches her about the hips like the flank of a bull. She moves first upright, like an iceskater on the rockface oily with lichen, then pitches forward into a cataract of rock edge and oyster. In the channel the outspent wave regathers itself into a sea’s jawbone, force coils her body like a python, and pulls her feet slanted up and back through a churn of breakwave. A passing crop of stone blunts her forehead, and her cheek tears on a jag of oysters. The knife knocks from her hand, and swept along, a thick frond of bull-kelp runs through her open palm. She clutches and grasps it leaf and stem as the void turns and gnashes her small body and the knotting, circling forest-threads of blood and word and sense that flow and fold from the crucible of solitude caged in the body of the child.
As the drawling lip of the sea retreats she gasps and breathes and pulls herself back to the firm world. Higher on the rocks she drops her satchel and kicks off her school shoes, then her jumper and the rest of her uniform. On the mottled greygreen flank of rock she stands naked and pallid in the morninglight, her ribs etched from her body, hips pointed and ridged like those of a medieval saint. The vein-corded and roped muscles of her leafless arms and back cling to little more than future. She plunges back and curtain-parts the brine halfblind rooting and mucking in the sand and the weed and the shattered shell debris of the seabed. She pants for air three times, before she finds her pearl wedged between two purple cushions of stone, covered half with sand, a notched rigging knife from the merchant navy, its ordinary wooden grip scarred and coalblacked, its point snapped by a wary hand elsewhere adrift somewhere in other conditions of time.
Grip teethbit she pulled back through the buffet to the height of the rockshore where she spat the blade and clambered and crawled to lie hauling and shaking air through her living body. The milky firmament touched her upon the head and the shoulders. Fresh drops of blood appeared in the salted cuts on her face and chest and arms to spill down her pale body and bones. She laughed up into the more apparent emptiness, and spat her own tumult of language bloodied and biled upon the abrupt horizons of her solitude.