From the red haze on the southern horizon, the coast ran cramped and arched between the dust and sea like a green wire. There were headlands, the most extreme of which formed the southern end of the bay, a prism of forest and stone that stretched out into the sea like a chain of pyramids. The tip they called the Nail and there was a cabin and a fire they would tend to at night to warn ships away from the bluffs, or to give those who had been driven into the rocks by the relentless northern gusts, those who survived, a point of reference on the hazardous climb from the shoreline. The fire had had not burned in months.
From the sea the face of the Nail resembled the face of a man, old and unwashed, with hollow eyes. Fringes of scrub grew in thick clusters around the promontory, tumbling around deep fissures and rocky orifices, a slab of sandstone shot out parallel to the ocean’s surface and sniffed at the winds, and the roots of trees, dead and living, fed into the shallows, stirring with each flow of air and water. Finn, who had not often look upon it, fancied it to be the face of someone he’d once known, his father, or a priest, perhaps. The personalities changed with every season, each new tide of the weather lending its own character to the vegetation to the jagged coastline. Every storm and fire and flood a new wrinkle on the face of Bendethera.
Slowly, he traced his journey around the inlets, the island-sized crescents of rotting wood and weed and debris, the wrecks of abandoned boats and caravans. The settlement’s ships, their hulls stained in oil and red foam, lay abandoned and wrecked, scuttled against the shore like irregular links in a chain. Some had been taken by the currents to the north side of the ridge. Out on the shoals, gulls fished in silent formations. He looked for smoke. There was none. Everything was down there and it wasn’t. There was no one following him.
He turned back to the rocky path and descended the bluff with careful eyes, treading lightly on the jagged stone, wedging the point of his harpoon between fissures for balance. A skeletal cockatoo pendulated on his shoulder.
Back at camp he ate the rest of the dried krait while he waited for the cockatoo to returned from her scavenging. Though she ate meat and weed from the deep she preferred the cracked seed of ghost gums, which the winds carried in their dusty arms over the clay from the west. He began fixing his backpack, checking the various bulges and straps and beating away the dust that had collected in its folds. ‘What you looking at?’ he said to the plastic doll hanging from the hip belt. The tarp he rolled into a ball and buried under dried weed. Then he siphoned the rain from the containers he’d placed in the branches of a tree overnight and covered his swag and footprints with bracken and stones.
When she called her return, he whistled and she flew to his shoulder, her remaining feathers stained ochre.
‘Good catch?’ Finn said and touched her claw.
The cockatoo stretched her wings and showed him her dimpled chest.
Finn looked to the sky as if he were reading the day, page by page into nightfall. Overcast. Rust and hot steel in the air. Rain after midday. The end. Travelling north made him uneasy. It made the bird uneasy. The dust loomed like a terrible wall in the west. Immobilised and fermenting. Sometimes it was one, sometimes several kilometres from shore, but it was always moving closer, always squeezing him closer to the sea. The more north they pushed, the narrower the edge of the world became. The winds blew a different breath. Like morning urine on the lungs. There were more storms. More wildlife. More competition. More danger from both sides of the line.
The deep yielded more bounty. And more scavengers. Magpies hunted day and night, swooping down from the trees in monstrous congregations to assail the slightest betrayal of movement. They’d been following him north for two days, waging wars over the guts of his catch, singing evil hymns to twilight, and berating his attempts to scatter them. They swooped on him when he collected firewood.
At night, the dust was alive with the poisonous scrapes and scratchings of claw and hoof, alien noises drawn to his fleeting fires and smell of his blood. Heavy panting movements that vanished in a dream the second he spun to face them. The south was dead, but at least the death he’d left behind in the south had been reliable and possessed no constant desire to meddle in his living.
Not far from camp in the mouth of a dead estuary, his boat was dozing under a quilt of camouflage. Normally he slept in or near the boat when the insects and other predators allowed it, but his paranoia had evaporated with every passing week of solitude and he took to making camp in drier and more comfortable surroundings further up the escarpment.
He swung his backpack onto the deck then threw his harpoon in after it. Even after last night’s storms, the estuary was barely a pond, singed with crimson foam and ankle-deep and swirling with nervous insects. But calm waters were calm waters no matter where or what colour they were, and if you found them, you thanked the dust, sky and deep all at once.
In the boat there were two plastic coolers, some pots, a tangled mess of wire, hooks and bottles of brine and water. More items were stored under casting deck, traps, odd pieces of diving gear, and artifacts.
‘Not a long one today,’ he said. ‘Not like yesterday.’
He untied the rope and hopped along the bank to where the water was deeper and leaned into the boat, back first. It was not far to the mouth of the inlet where he’d dropped the buoy, and the high cliffs on the northern side had protected the area from the buffeting squalls, so there was no heavy debris through which to navigate. Finn paddled in a slow rhythm. One stroke portside, two on starboard. Two strokes portside, one on starboard.
‘Tomorrow we’ll move on,’ he told the bird. ‘Maybe even tonight.’
The cockatoo flapped to the bow and danced in a circle and bit at the scorched rubber husk of the breasthook.
The morning sun’s glow pearled on the black water, gilding the barrels of the incoming tide. He met each breaking wave with dip of his head and took the blow with his gut in order to measure the resolve of the incoming swell. The bird squawked as it took the whitewash head on. Past the breakers, the water became clearer and he could see the forest of dark crystal beneath the emerald canopy. He rowed.
In flaps and dances, the cockatoo navigated their course. He smiled and occasionally splashed her with water until she hissed at him.
In the shadow of the low cliffs, the boat dissected a pod of wraiths. Opaque jellyfish. The tips of their tentacles flushed with blue embers. He lowered his hand and let his fingers skip over their glutinous bells. Soundless.
‘A good sign,’ he said to the bird.
‘Good sign,’ said the bird.
He scooped up a dozen of the creatures into one of the coolers and closed the lid.
‘A good sign,’ he said.
It took him some moments to locate the buoy. It was a molded plastic chair of forgotten white with two legs missing, and seemed like a shadow against the horizon’s sheets of blasted aluminium. It was attached to a twenty-metre rope and a bowling ball, which he had secured between two rocks at the bottom the previous day so that the buoy did not drift. With a length of wire, he fastened the chair to a rear cleat then prepared his equipment. He attached a mesh bag and a fixed blade clip knife to his dive belt and unscrewed the harpoon from his crutch and removed the cork end.
Do you want some water? he asked the bird and poured some water from one of the bottles into his cupped hand.
‘Water,’ the bird said.
‘Yes, water. Come on. Come and get it if you want it.’
With a flap the bird was on Freemantle’s forearm, one claw hooked over his index finger, and her black tongue darting in and out of the puddle in his hand. He drunk deeply from the bottle, then shook the cockatoo off. She landed back on the bow and took another bite at the breasthook.
‘Don’t let those gulls onto the boat,’ he said to the bird, though he didn’t have to tell her. She knew what to do.
The water was air, thick and silent and warm. Finn dolphin-kicked downwards into the folds of the deep, circling the buoy’s rope as he submerged. He kept the pulses small and controlled. Hips loose, thighs tightly pressed. Soon he saw the pink bowling ball resting at the rocky bottom between the two rocks, then rolled and took broad strokes towards the cloudy mass ahead. He sailed over rotting trunks, pale colours, rusted metal frames, and colonies of rubber tyres, all awash with the grey light filtering from the speculum ceiling. Ocean weed corkscrewed with the movement of the water.
The house appeared gaunt in the ocean fug, with its glassless windows and checkerboard tiles and walls pitched at an angle towards the coast. A path of brick, something once collapsed, led a crumbling path to a closed door and gave one last kick and let himself float towards it. He pulled himself around the house until he arrived at a window and swam inside.
It was larger than the one he’d searched the day before. An extra two rooms at the front under a drooping sheet of corrugated iron. The ceilings were two body lengths from the floor and the large windows let enough light in to guide him along the walls and recognise algae-riddled picture frames, overturned bookcases, lamps and other ancient artifacts for which he had no names. As he pulled his way along the ceiling into the kitchen, a small school of silver fins, infants, darted out from an open refrigerator. He worked quickly. The cupboards were all open and bare, save for sand and weed and clumps of cungee. As were the drawers and suitcases. An empty case rested against the rear wall, its covers hanging desperately to one surviving hasp. In it he found a strange log of rust and weed. He stabbed at it and it yielded and dissolved into the water. Among the strewn tiles and wooden planks, he collected two spoons and a shard of mirror and found a set of glasses frames caught on a door handle. An eel scudded past his thigh. A mottled green propped open a small flap in the rear door. After several tugs he pulled it free and added it to the items in his dive bag. Underneath a rotting mattress there were a few small bottles, closed but unlabelled. These he also took. To his right was a door, which he levered open with the end of his harpoon, inside he found only a swirling bloom of green slag. He explored the remaining rooms, adding nothing more to his inventory but a length of exposed wire and two small lamps, and was about to exit from a side window when he saw the flick of something large steal past the house. He squeezed the harpoon and brought it to his side. A tail perhaps? Four, five metres. Black. He spilled out the window and floated up to the roof of the house where he hovered, listening, and measuring the current’s flux against his cheeks. The shape didn’t return.
Before he was even close to the surface he saw the gloom in the sky. Rain was coming. He must have been under for thirty minutes.
The bird caught sight of him and shrieked. Finn waved then swam to the boat, threw in the bag and harpoon and heaved himself on board. An onshore wind howled at the cliffs and sent dead branches tumbling into the waves.
‘Rain,’ the bird said. ‘Rain.’
‘Best we head back now.’
Runner crabs scuttled under roots and sand banks as they approached. Finn dug into the mud with the harpoon, through the shallow channels, until the estuary floor let them go no further. Then he climbed out and dragged the Lucky Break under an low outcrop of red vine. He snapped off two pieces of vine and put one between his teeth, the other he held out for the bird, but she didn’t take it. Instead she flew off between the trees and disappeared over the trees, her screeches echoing off the unshakable mountain crests. He gathered up his bags and took the cooler with the jellyfish up to the ridge.
It was humid and the combing rains were sweeping in fast from the ocean. He peeled out of his dive suit and regarded the sky for a moment as he chewed the sugary sap from the vine, before turning to the clearing he called his camp. Which type of grave will I dig for myself this day? On which side of the knife would I fall best? Thunder rumbled like a boiling wave and he licked his finger and held it to the air. Higher ground and more shelter it told him, so, naked and sweating, he rolled up the bags and containers into the tarp then dragged the entire load up the sandy furrows and into the scrub. It was hard work and he was tired. He found a low ledge and made a lee against it with the tarp, securing it at the bottom with rocks. From the eastern end of his shelter he had a clear view of both the estuary and the boat below, as well as the incoming rains. He set the plastic containers out for the rain, setting a heavy stone in each of them to keep secure them, then settled in underneath the tarp and waited. The rock around him was warm and smelled of hot iron, and when he wiped his feet against it, he saw the red of the earth. The dusty tide had been not two days at this place, he guessed. With audacious flow, it had flared its drapes against the coast, daring to linger only for a moment, to taunt the pelagic conqueror before retreating back to the continent. He’d heard stories of salt-crazed people setting off into the russet barricade, wrapped in cloth and carrying jerry cans to search for buried towns and roads they’d seen on maps. They dug through the dust with compasses and carts and were never seen again.
The bird returned, her wings painted a new coat of ochre, and rain began pelting the tarp. Cannonball drops. The spit of the gods. She cocked her head into the lee and jostled between the swag and the backpack.
‘Find any of your old pals?’ Finn shouted over the din of the rain.
The cockatoo’s head pop out from behind the backpack. Finn threw her a strip of vine. ‘Blackie,’ he said. ‘Now he was something, wasn’t he? Magnificent. Did you like him? Did you like Blackie?’
Finn emptied the dive bag between his legs and sorted his treasure into piles according to their worth. The spoons he rubbed with his thumb and nail to test the hardiness of the rust. He placed them next to the wire and the slime-covered lamps. The bottles contained an oil, yellow-green when he held them up to the sky, and their plastic seals were fused with algae and sand, but still intact. When the cap of one would not yield to his hand he twisted it loose with his back teeth and then smelled it. Oil. Alcohol. He wanted to recognised the scent but he could not. With a handful of coarse sand he scoured away the algae from the piece of mirror, and when it was clean, he worked at it a little longer, while he decided whether he wanted to look into it, or whether the secret of his face, hidden from him since his departure from Bendethera, was one best left unknown. He held the mirror before the bird and when she saw her double, her yellow crest fluttered.
‘Come on, what have you got to say to yourself?’ Finn said, shaking the mirror before her.
The cockatoo approached the mirror, beak open and panting.
‘Don’t worry, you don’t look so bad for an old lady. I’ve seen worse.’
The bird squawked and Finn laughed and lowered the mirror. When he saw himself, he stopped.
His own face was a mottled map of browns and greys, gaunt, sloping and flecked with white scars. Vine teeth, red and shining. Hairs curled from his nostrils and his beard was decorated in weed and shell fragments. He quickly brushed them out. He was not old, nor was he young. He counted the seasons but could not remember when he had started counting them. In Bendethera they’d told him that he might be past thirty years or a sun-bleached twenty-five. So that’s what he said when he was asked. But he could not remember the last time he was asked.
He brought the mirror up to his left eye and studied the white filaments that were stretching out from the rim of his eye socket into his pupil. A solar flare into a black hole. He returned to his inventory.
The cup was dented and stained the green of the deep. It had been engraved. Bushrangers Under 19s Rugby 2053. A shallow outline traced a running figure, one hand stretched outwards, the other hugging a sack to its chest. Finn stared at the cup for a while then started a new pile. The Undecideds.
The rain had set in and was now angling in from the mouth of his shelter. Finn left the shelter to scan the bay and the horizon, and the swollen dust to the west. His boat was hidden, motionless under its camouflage. He shuffled under the ledge and wiped himself dry with a hessian cloth. He ate the rest of the dried krait and chewed vine a while. The bird had perched itself on top of a fallen branch and was sleeping. From the cooler, Finn took one of the wraiths by its bell and shook it until it unsnarled its arms and tentacles, ribbons and strings, and its dome burst into an incandescence that shone orange against the tarp. Then he sliced the end of one of the arms with a dive knife and threw the wraith back into the cooler. The sliver hung limply from the end of the blade, still aglow, and he brought it gently to his inner thigh and searched for a patch of skin that was not already criss-crossed with scar tissue. When he spread the slice on the area just behind his knee, he dropped the knife to the ground. He caught one last glimpse of the sleeping cockatoo before the searing deluge transported him into a chasmic trance.