Perilous Adventures
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by Sue Pearson

fishing boatMere cannot imagine a life without the river and the sea—especially fishing from Grandfather’s boat—but that always depends on the moon cycle, and the weather. On either side of low tide Grandfather’s boat cannot putter upriver to the village because of the mudflats. But when the tides are right—when Grandfather and Mere leave the mud and the river behind—then Mere is truly happy.

This morning Grandfather fetches Mere on the slack of the tide, when most of the mudflats are covered. The mud below the village is a weave of bird tracks and crab holes. In the dark early morning  the river’s edge is filled with the scuttling of their hinged, eggshell bodies—for the crabs love the moon, not the sun—and they dance and mate until the moon goes back into its hole in the sky.

Mere has learnt how before and after feels on these burrowed mudflats, and out on the sea, more than she ever did in the school with the clock and the times of the hours and the teacher impatient, shouting: ‘Mere, the time, tell me what the clock says now!’ The teacher would move the big black hand and the small black hand—the little hand one way and the big hand the other—and tap the big white clockface with his pointing stick. 0845 was a quarter to nine or fifteen minutes to nine; because it was all three things, they would knot up in her mind and Mere didn’t know which one to say.

Mere’s teacher didn’t understand about her knotted-time thoughts. ‘Are you so stupid?’  the teacher would ask, but Mere knew he did not expect an answer. The shame of being stupid was worse when the teacher told her stepfather.

Her stepfather pulled her out of the school: ‘If you cannot learn, you must work!’ he shouted and Mere knew great fear. The rere rose up, but it had no way out in words for it had tangled itself into the knot along with her shame.

Grandfather started taking her with him during the day. He began to teach Mere all that he knew. He did not think the girl needed vavalagi ways in order to learn. Nobody minded much—least of all the people in the village who did not want anything to do with her because of her father and grandfather. Her mother was simply relieved Mere was away from the fists of her stepfather.

Mere was always proud and glad to be out with Grandfather. She knew he could not read nor write yet he fed half the village with his fishing. Grandfather is as generous as sunshine and what he doesn’t know about the sea doesn’t matter. ‘We will have a squall,’ he tells Mere, long before the banks of cloud lumber in threatening rain and wind from the ocean. Suddenly the clouds are there, waiting to break, hanging like dark angels.

Grandfather shows Mere so much: a trick of light, which turns the side of their boat into a rainbow, how to know where the fish are. He tells Mere of the big fish that could be on the hunt when the mackerel and walu shoal and leap and rush at the surface from the deep.

They go out before the tide turns. Mere knows it is the moon that pulls the sea even though they cannot always see it. Sometimes in the daylight it shows her its eye. Mere thinks it looks like Grandfather’s—where he has the moon growing over his right eye—a small globe of white.

Most days, unless the weather is so bad that the fish shelter deep, Grandfather and the girl go fishing. Sometimes Grandfather dive-fishes while Mere watches from the boat, other times they both fish with handlines. Sometimes they see, way out past the reef, big boats with sails like butterflies.

‘Grandfather, look at that—is that not beautiful?’

‘That is the vavalagi, white people, rich people, not for us,’ Grandfather says.        

Mere knows he is right, but just once she would like to be right up close to such a large ship and see the big butterfly sails flapping in the wind and the decks crowded with people. Grandfather tells her then of the long voyages his people and her mother’s people made in their boats. Across oceans, with only the wind and the waves and the stars, and as he talks his eyes shine like small dark cowries and his hair is the colour of ash, the colour of mourning, and she thinks Grandfather’s heart is reaching across the water to those long-dead people. Mere knows then that he, too, has a churning in his heart like the churning she has in her own. She thinks it is like the shadows and sunlight under the trees on the river. She looks at Grandfather and worries about his becoming old. Old with his hands twisted like tree roots, his shadowed lips, and the lines and folds, which swim out from his eyes like fish when they do not know which way to go.

When the conditions are right, they go out beyond the lagoon. Mere knows this is going to happen when Grandfather steers out the river mouth and turns right. The boat putters across the still water. They travel parallel to the shoreline in the same direction as the dirt road leading eastwards out of the village towards the point. Mere knows this road—trees overhang much of it—frangipani, viliyawa. At high tide the road is not far from the sea but now it is too dark to see it. Further along they approach the point where in daylight they would see what the villagers call the Indian house. Two cows are always tethered to trees there—munching, always munching on the grass that is tended daily—and, behind a spiked fence, there are two graves that are tended daily, too. Beyond that the flat green world of the sugar cane farm—a quiet world, only ripped open at cane-cutting time when the dusty machinery rumbles over from neighbouring Ram Singh—and his cutters come to help Dādājĩ’.

The boat stutters past the house with its cows and graveyard and sugar-cane field. Mosquitoes hum around their ankles but Mere pretends they are not there, just like Grandfather does.

Grandfather swings the tiller as they reach the point. The bow of the boat turns into the unmarked channel, which leads out through the reef to the open sea. They putter across the slick surface of the lagoon—so quiet and flat. But now the sky is lightening and the water turns as grey as the underside of a heron’s wing. Soon they are out in the deeper water. It is dark and green, and Mere looks over the side. She cannot see the bottom, only the early light laddering down into darkness. Then they are out near the reef, a half-mile from land, and the boat rises high and dips low. The waves hiss as they try to reach over the sides but the punt rides up the swell, up and up,  then down, down again. The tradewinds wake for the day, blowing through their hair, under the seats, around their legs, blowing all the mosquitoes away. Mere smiles behind her hand for it is not seemly to laugh out loud, even with Grandfather.

They are closer to the opening in the reef—the swell is rising higher. Grandfather throttles back so he can watch the waves under the swelling pearl-light of the sky. Then a flicker like a first matchlight and the sky colours like the mouth of a conch shell, flaring into orange air. The girl, like Grandfather, is reading the sea and the sky. The water catches fire—ochre, rust—until a fish bites the surface and the water turns yellow. The day flies in, like a flock of parrots skimming down the hills, and Mere sees tiny red beacons fire up and down Grandfather’s skin. All this brightness outlines the dark shore behind them. If they turned to look they would see the dark lizard skin of hills, but they are concentrating on the surge of the sea in front of the boat.

The tide is slipping from the landward side of the reef, leaving many of the corals and sponges exposed. Mere sees the water rushing off the reef in little waterfalls but on the seaward side the reef is still covered by water. The blue waves tower over the outer edge of the reef. As they climb higher they turn as green as trees. They arch over the reef with the sunlight shining on them but they are so thick and full of water that Mere can’t see through the green. Then the waves topple, shattering on the coral reef one after the other, flinging white plumes into the air, so high and white that Mere has to squint against the hard chips of sunlight. The thunder of the waves as they crash on the reef is so loud that Grandfather and Mere don’t speak because they know they will not hear each other.

The old man opens the throttle of the outboard—he has timed it just right. The boat shoots through the gap, rises so high over a wave that Mere’s stomach swoops up behind her teeth, then the punt is sliding down, down the long, dark back of the wave and they are out through the gap in the reef, rising and falling over the swell of the waves, which have travelled all the way from Africa. Or so Mere’s teacher said.

Grandfather has decided to teach Mere to dive-fish. He has loaded the boat with his two old spearguns made from metal and tubing. He has taught Mere to swim and dive but this will be the first time she will use a speargun. Grandfather drives the boat until he reaches a small passage cutting back into the reef. Again Grandfather slows the boat to watch the waves as Mere grasps the gunwales of the punt. ‘Hold on,’ he calls, and the boat shoots through the passage on the wave Grandfather has chosen. Grandfather grips the tiller and holds the boat steady until the wave subsides under the hull. The boat slides slowly into the channel, which curves like a  hook in the calm water.

Grandfather tells Mere to throw out the anchor. The water is so deep Mere cannot see the bottom. Grandfather nods at her. Mere bites on her lip. ‘I am afraid, Grandfather, of what is underneath. There could be oqo.’

Grandfather shakes his head at Mere. ‘Would I let my only granddaughter be eaten by oqo?’ The quietness and certainty in his voice makes the fear leave Mere. ‘I am here watching from the boat, always,’ Grandfather adds.

Mere spits into her mask, rinses it over the side, then places it over her face and bites softly into the phalanges of the snorkel. She slips quietly into the water, holding the speargun, and as she does a calm comes over her. The water is as soft as her mother’s skin used to be. The sea cradles her and whispers, just like her mother once did. Mere is right on the edge of the drop-off. As soon as her ears are under the water she knows she is at home.

Nibbles, clicks and grunts, beats, rumbles, and even the old echoes of canoes, the depth of the water coming at her in little circles of cold. Mere pictures squid tentacles wrapped around whales like she’s seen in an old book at the school. Mere looks up and sees the silhouette of Grandfather standing in the boat above her. She kicks once, twice, and glides over to the reefwall. Mere sees coral dust dropping from the  lips of fish, and a spill of  plankton ahead. An explosion of cuttle fish shoots past her and small shrimp, bright gaps of reef, and ghostly shapes of coral a short distance away. The scuffed hull of her grandfather’s boat above—a scraped slip of a boat. She knows she is in a sacred place, but especially her and Grandfather’s sacred place. The language of clicks and scrapes feels more easy on her ears than all the words in the world. An octopus twitches its tentacles and shoots away beneath her, disappearing into the dark space of the drop-off on her left.

She is directly over a school of kaliya, hundreds of kaliya, huge and hovering, the bumps on their foreheads rising like hills. They are still but for the fluttering of their fins and the sway of the current. Mere could float and watch them forever but she knows she is expected to provide food—so she raises the speargun and pulls back on the band and whoooosh—the school is so large and close that she spears two of the parrotfish in one hit. Fruits and flowers bloom red under their skins, the pastels on their flesh shift, spread and trail out into the water in dark threads. The girl pulls the line in hand-over-hand and in an amber thrash she surfaces.

Grandfather tries hard not to show his pleasure and pride when he sees his granddaughter’s first catch.

When Grandfather’s gunnysacks are full of fish, Mere hauls herself aboard.           

Grandfather hands her a towel and looks over the side at the sunlight undulating through the water while Mere removes her wet t-shirt and dries her hair. Mere’s back is to Grandfather, she is bent over her knees as if in prayer. Mere pulls on a dry shirt she has retrieved from a plastic bag stowed in the bow of the boat and moves forward, pulls up the anchor as Grandfather starts the outboard. He turns the boat into the blue saltwater rushing over the reef. Out the passage and back through the gap in the reef into the lagoon and they speed over the water towards the Indian house on the point.

When they are there, Mere knows they will sort the fish to sell in the village, then they will eat their mid-morning meal. Afterwards, Grandfather will bring his little alarm clock to the kitchen table from its usual perch beside the bed he used to share with dādĩji . He will twist the button at the back of the clock so the black hands swivel around the clockface. And Mere will try, desperately,with Dādājĩ’s marvellous old hands holding her tight as if everything on earth is in its proper place. ‘Paun bajā hai.’

The twisted fingers will  twist the little button at the back of the alarm clock.

‘Do baje haĩ.’

‘Now in English,’ Grandfather will say.

‘Oh Dādājĩ.’ But Mere will try, because she knows he is helping her discover inside what will allow her to speak. So she will repeat the Hindi words in English. ‘It is a quarter to one.’

Another twist of the button.

‘Now, Dādājĩ, it is a quarter past four.’ And all the sounds she never utters when anyone else listens, will come out of her as easily as if Dādājĩ has opened a door.

‘Come,’ he will say, ‘come,’and Mere will know it is time to visit the graves—of Dadĩ’jĩ and Pitājĩ—Grandmother and father. The fence holding their graves  will hum in the sun and Mere will move to pat the cows and whisper into their soft ears as she does every day. When Grandfather appears beside her, she would like to bend her hands about his head and kiss him so much his eyes ring, but it would not be seemly.


About the Author

Sue Pearson grew up in Fiji and Zimbabwe, where she worked in journalism, and later in events and conference organisation ,copywriting and film script-writing for the National Tourist Board. It was purely coincidental that tourist numbers plummeted while she was at her post. She moved to Botswana, England and The Gambia before immigrating to Australia one grey and gale-ridden winter. She nearly headed back again but gradually defrosted. Now that she has moved north she is much warmer.

Her first poem was published at the age of 10--she found it carefully wrapped in the bottom of her mum's blanket box after she cleared her mother's house after her death. That was a real 'wow' moment—and it makes up for all the times her mum grounded her as well as packing her off to the nuns for those many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many years! Well, come to think of it, the kept poem doesn't really make up for all those years at all! Sue has won awards and is published in anthologies and in literary ezines and websites. But it is the writing which is her main motivation, not so much the being published, which is a lovely fillip, and of course a cheque is always good. She cashes them very quickly before the judges change their minds. She is completing Honours in creative writing at Griffith University under Nigel Krauth.


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