The sun was pinned to the horizon and flushed the sky orange like an electric stove.
Ray was loading the last of the gear from the landing. He squinted at each bundle to measure its dimensions and weight, before tossing it into the boat.
“John says the weather will be calm ‘til four. Looks alright to me. We’ll be out over the port, up to the north there, across from the headland. There’s a trough full of bream and snapper out there John says. He and the bigger boats aren’t allowed along, they’re out further where the billfish are and we’re not after them.” Ray dropped the plastic tackle box onto the floor with a muted thud. The box’s claps popped open, releasing a spurt of lead sinkers over the ribs of the boat’s floor. “Damn it!” he spat and as he crouched down his brown toes splayed in his rubber flip-flops.
“Leave that and help me get these. I told you to close the thing properly if you take things out. Didn’t I tell you?”
“Yeah,” Jared mumbled.
“Well? Can’t have things flying about over the place when we’re out. Hit a swell and whoomp! Things go overboard. You have to keep everything secure, under the seats or under the casting deck with the other gear. Count them, how many have you got?”
“Three,” Jared said and handed the sinkers to his father.
“They’re called barrels. Good, give ‘em here. Now, I’m going to start her up, it’s almost time. Go and sit tight over there on your seat and don’t let go of the gunwale.”
Ray snatched his arm. The motor shook into life and settled into a disciplined chug and began spitting warm petrol into the air. The other boats that lined the pier responded and the noise of it all bounced from the water into the lee of the wooden pier causing a terrific percussion. Ray sat at the stern with a hand on the tiller and waved at the men as they passed. “Good luck,” he shouted to one man. “Hope you remembered your bait this time, Mike,” he said to another.
“Hope you remembered the beer!” the man called back. The ocean was calm but Jared held tightly to the side as his father had instructed and tried to anticipate the rise and fall of the bow with his legs as the boat carved its way through the water.
“John reckons if we take the current from the south and drift until midday we’ll get some of the tidals,” Ray said. “Could be our day today, what do you say?”
“Just another fifteen minutes or so now. Enjoy the fresh air. Look out there, that’s where we’re headed. Nothin’ around you except the water and the sky.” Ray drove the boat like he parked a car: back straight, eyes squinting and jaw tight, like he was chewing on a nail.
They were about five hundred metres from the shore when he shut off the motor. Some of the other boats had kept pace and were arriving now too, hopping and criss-crossing over the whitewash as they approached.
After the last boat killed its engine there was only the hum of the breeze and the lapping of swell against aluminium. Ray stood up and rolled a cigarette. He then took off his t-shirt and wiped down the seat. “Best to keep everything as dry as you can. Did you put sunblock on yet?”
“It’s in my bag,” Jared said and, holding the side of the boat, edged himself around so that he faced the bow. Under the casting deck were two tattered life vests, an aluminium fishing net, several empty beer bottles in a red plastic bucket, a cooler box and Jared’s schoolbag, from which he took a tube of sun cream and a book.
“What you got there?” Ray asked.
Jared held up the glossy cover. “Journey around the Sun.”
“I can see what it is. You’re not planning on readin’ all day are you?”
“Put it away.”
“We’ll be out all day and there’ll be plenty to do. You won’t have much use for it unless you can use it for bait.” Ray finished his cigarette in three quick puffs and threw the butt over the side. “Don’t forget the back of your neck,” he said. “Let’s sort out our lines. You got that berley in that cooler over there, we’ll use some of that in a sec. Where’d I put me knife? What you do think, pilchard or squid? Jared? Pilchard or squid?”
“You won’t learn anything important like that in yer books.”
“There are books on fishing. I’ve seen them at school.”
“Maybe. But they won’t teach you how to fish. Granddad used to use chicken guts as bait, you know. Used to put ‘em in plastic bags and store them in the freezer. Used to drive mum bloody wild.”
Jared sat in silence, pinching the rolls on his belly. Someone whistled and Ray wiped his teeth with his fingers, then whistled back. “Today’s the day, today’s the day,” he repeated as he tended to the lines and the reel. Today’s the day, he sung, each word more quietly than the last, until he was almost mouthing them as he worked. Finally he smacked his lips and said: “Pass me a beer out of that cooler and get the berley. We’ll throw a cup or two out past that little ridge there. See that dark patch?”
“Are there any sharks?” Jared asked holding his glasses as he peered over the side of the boat.
“Nah. Not many this time of year. Water’s too warm. Although, John said he seen a great big bull shark a week ago Thursday out past the heads, just cruising by like a submarine on patrol. I never seen a bull shark out of the estuaries but John swears it was a bully.” Ray flexed and cast the first line. The reel spun like a brass kazoo. “Right in the trough. I bet there’s a great stinker in there just waiting to put my name on that trophy.”
The morning grew old and the sun swept higher into the sky searing the blue into white. Gilded peaks lapped against the hull of the tin boat. Jared obeyed his father and cut bait, replaced empty beer bottles and ensured everything was out of the way; every so often he’d catch a glimpse of something breaking the water – there would be a slap or a splash – but by the time he located the tell-tale bubbles, whatever had surfaced had gone. “Dad,” he said as he wiped his face with the sleeve of his t-shirt.
“Can I read now?”
Ray breathed in and his shoulders rose slightly. There was that pain again, that ache in his breast that kept scratching at the meat of his organs, as if something were in there trying to scrape its way out. He turned to inspect the other boats. Their panels shimmered in the sunlight as they floated, hushed over the cliffs and gullies, their rods twittering like antennae. Ray wound in the line a metre or two and hooked his finger under the reel.
“Your mother never wanted to come fishing either. Told ‘er there’s nothing better for yer soul.”
“She was too sick.”
“You weren’t though, were ya? You were never too sick to come fishin’ with yer old man,” Ray said, then swore under his breath. “You must’ve read that book fifty times already.”
“Maybe,” Jared said.
“Don’t you know it off by heart yet?”
“Well, how ‘bout I test you. How far away is the sun? Can you tell me that?”
“About 150 million kilometres, I think-”
“What’s that in miles?”
“I don’t know.”
“But it’s pretty far away though, no?” Ray leaned back and cast a sideways glance up at the cloudless sky. Sometimes I think it feels closer. Mum liked Earth the best, right?”
“And you liked Jupiter.”
“That’s right. The big one. The boss.” Ray’s voiced trailed off. “Bloody, big arse of a boss,” he whispered. Just three months ago he’d been the boss – of a moon-grey fibro house on two acres, three sprawling mango trees, a cattle dog, a son and a beautiful woman. Their life had sung to the rhythm of the trees and shores. They’d tried for another after Jared. Then another, but the drought had stayed. Ray had bought another boat – business was going well. His kid wasn’t the manliest boy at the school, but he was smart like his mother. They’d try again, she’d said and the forces of the land and sea came together once more and made the seed in her belly grow. Ray had wanted another boy. A fisherman. But it was a girl that had killed her, suddenly and finally. She had strangled her and had drawn her back into the ground, leaving him and the boy alone, floating.
“Alright,” Ray said finally. “But if I say drop it, you drop it. I might need another cup of berley over there in a minute.”
Jared retrieved the book and opened it. Ray watched the boy nod at the information he already knew – about Earth’s protective magnetic fields and its interaction with the Moon – he saw how he caressed the pages in confirmation of the facts and statistics and mumbled them back to himself.
Something tugged on the line. Ray sat up and inched his hindquarters squarely against the tin seat. He planted his feet on the inner side of the boat and began winding the reel in a violent fervour. The black rod was being dragged in the direction of the trough and was now convulsing in a writhing warp. Cigarette smoke blasted in spurts from the side of Ray’s mouth.
“Sweet Jesus!” he cried. “We’ve got a live one! Get out the net and hand me that towel. You got that bucket ready?” Ray whipped the towel around his hand and wedged it between his stomach and the end of the rod. “You little beauty, come on, that’s it. Come to daddy. Whoah! He’s gotta be an eight or nine pounder at least. Get out the gloves. Where’s that net?”
Jared set the book on the bow and scrambled over to the casting deck. He grabbed the bucket and tipped the empty beer bottles onto the floor, then took the net and put it under his arm. “Where are the gloves?”
“Not sure, try the cooler box. Might have chucked them in there by mistake,” Ray said. “He’s fightin’, he’s fightin’. John was bloody right! I can’t wait to see the look on his face when we bring in this one. Look at that, d’ya see that? See the fin under the water? Looks like a bream. What a little beauty! Ok, he’s comin’, he’s comin’.” The reel buzzed. Ray surrendered the rod a few inches just over the edge of the boat, where he held it for a few seconds, then, with measured purpose, drew it into his body until it almost touched the whiskers on his cheek. With each heave the veins on his arms rose in a triumphant wave. “Ok, mate,” he said, panting like dog in the back of a hot van, “now’s the time, there he is, you see him? He’s got to be at least eight pounds of fish. What a thing! Put the bucket down, just there next to me. Got the gloves on? Good. Now hold the net, make sure you’ve got a good grip on it, we don’t wanna lose him. Oh! See it? He’s fightin’.” The fish came closer to the boat and was flipping and rolling and bubbling at the water’s surface. Some of the fishermen had already noticed and were cheering him on with faint yelps and yahoos. But Ray could not hear them – his eyes were fixed on the speck of ocean where the line met the water. It was darting right and left, over ripples and behind crests in evasive spasms. “That’s it, that’s it,” he whispered. “Jared! Get that net in the water, we’ve got him! We’ve got him alright. John Fitzroy, eat your heart out!”
The boy hesitated then stood up and swung the net around to the front so that it was poised next to his father’s rod about a metre away. “Bring it back a bit, towards the boat,” Ray said. “I’m gonna try and get him closer in.” As Jared withdrew the pole he felt the end strike something. He turned and saw the grey, empty surface of the bow and then his book, floating in the water, its pages flared open.
“Jared!” Ray yelled. “What the fuck are you doing? Look, here. He’s coming. Get over here!”
“Leave it! Leave it I said!”
Jared brought the net over his head and stabbed it downwards trying to lift the book from the water. A long, deep scoop apprehended it but it slipped from the rim of the net with a splash. Again and again he scooped but with each attempt, each shallow breath, the book bobbed further out of reach. Ray snatched the boy by the back of his t-shirt and pulled him backwards.
“Give me that.” Ray yanked the pole out of Jared’s hands, twisted his body into the water and shoveled the silvery fish into the net. With the rod in one hand and the net in the other, he arched his back and let out a low grunt as he hoisted the load over the side and discharged it into the boat’s mid-section. Strangled, the bream hit Jared’s shin and slid down to the end of his foot. Jared whimpered and spilled back onto the bow.
“Ha!” Ray clapped his hands together and smiled. “Look at that then! Have you ever seen a thing like that!” Ray seized the creature by its tail and held its snapping body above his head. “Day’s already over boys!” he called out. “Someone tell John not to bother to come in today! Ha!”
“Dad! My book,” Jared said in between sobs. “It’s over there, can you see it?”
“Look at that monster, Jared. Got to be at least nine pounds on him. Don’t touch him without the gloves, those spikes are sharp and he’s still got life in him.”
“But my book-”
Ray stopped and narrowed his eyes. He looked up from the fish to his son who now sat plump on the bow, feet apart, face and arms red and wet. Behind the confused blur of the boy’s glasses he thought he snatched a glimpse of something he recognised: it was a pair of beseeching eyes, framed by dark eyelashes. He breathed in again. The ache had not subsided but he could smell the scales of the fish. He felt its rawness as it folded into his lungs like new steel and hardened around his ribs. There is no better smell, he thought. This smell of victory, not like the iron kick of hospital disinfectant, or the weeping of coffee and ash and old carpet or even the damp of cut grass. The smell of the sea: an undulating Arcadia, the freedom of living and being among the living, being among the eternal.
Ray shook his head, stepped over his catch and then, kneeling on the bow, craned his neck out to the sea. “Hand me the rod over there,” he said. Jared passed up the rod to his father. “Out of the way.” Ray placed a wet hand on Jared’s shoulder and thrust a long arm out over the bow and, with small revolutions of its shaft, drew the book back towards them. The book was almost completely submerged save for the front cover, which lopped face-up on the surface, the yellow sun exposed to the sky. The book’s inner pages fanned out in the green shallows beneath, tugging the entire thing slowly down into a sickly collapse.
“Here it comes,” Ray said and smiled. “ He’s not fightin’ this one. Not to worry. Look at that, here it comes. Get the net there, Jared. That’s it, just under its belly. Now you’ve caught him.”