penguin tracks
Type
Fiction
Category
Writing

Natural selection

Natural selection – The process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.

Everywhere Kate looked was saltbush and sea beneath a pan of impossible blue sky. She lifted her face and felt the white light fall on her and let it burn away the thought of Rosie sunk in the black hole of her room. Her parents were walking ahead, her mother somehow evanescent, her father as immutable as the geology around him.

There was just Harry. She listened to the car door open on the other side and scratch against the bushes and slam shut. She concentrated on the warmth on her face.

‘Gross,’ Harry said.

Kate opened her eyes. ‘What’s gross?’

‘Spiders. They’re everywhere.’

She walked around the car to where he was bent staring into the small greyish leaves. Kate leaned in. It took a moment to see what he was looking at and then her focus shifted. The spiderwebs spread all through the bushes like thick weather descending – the sort of conditions that cause accidents and misery. Spiders crouched at the mouths of their woven tunnels, black legs bunched like fists and bullet heads trembling. ‘Disgusting,’ she said.

‘But cool.’ Harry picked up a stick and poked it delicately towards a spider, which shrank back.

‘Harry,’ Kate said.

He did not look at her but advanced the stick into the tornado of web, further, until the spider erupted, its long legs scything the air before it rushed up the stick. Harry flung it away and flicked her a glance through his wheaten fringe and grinned. Sometimes his beauty smote Kate. She found it unfathomable, while others found it admirable, as if it were a personality trait she had fostered and might take credit for. People said to her: beautiful boy, nice-looking kid; they said: he’ll be a lady killer, he’ll be a heartbreaker. She said yes.

She looked down the path at her parents maundering towards the boathouse. ‘Come on, mate. Time to get going.’ He let loose his wonderful gangling teenage legs and galloped down her long black shadow headlong into his own, only stopping at the fingernail of dark shore. Kate followed.

Hybrid vigour – Increased vigour or other superior qualities arising from crossbreeding.

For a moment they all gazed across the ribbon of black water that separated them from the peninsula – land that wallowed along like a pod of whales: low, dark and undulate. Somewhere over there was the old family homestead, or what was left of it; it was why they were here. It was a national park now, but the old family stories reverberated down the generations. Bridget, one of the original settlers, was the stuff of legend. She had thirteen children; she kept house and garden and accounts; she turned sheep into money; she shot sheep duffers without a qualm. Kate had a pot of Bridget’s geranium, unchanged since the 1840s, smallish, scarlet and abundant. Cuttings of it passed around the family.

Kate’s mother was from a different mould. She had the fine pale air of a muslin-swathed Edwardian lady flinching from the elements, and was prone to migraines. ‘Old Adelaide Family inbreeding,’ Kate’s father said. Kate’s mother when complimented on her offspring’s achievements would say, ‘It’s all about the hybrid vigour.’ She meant Kate’s more humbly-born father. There was something beneath these words that Kate didn’t understand.

Survival – A natural process resulting in the evolution of organisms best adapted to
the environment.

Everything came down to survival, that was clear. At the end of third year uni, after her brother Oliver had left for Caltech, Kate had overheard her parents talking late one night. The study door was ajar and her father’s voice had rolled out like the tolling of a bell: ‘Maybe she isn’t first-class honours material. Only the best get through. I just presumed after Oliver.’

And her mother: ‘She’s a sweet thing.’

He sighed. ‘She is. She’ll make someone a good wife.’

It was the moment she knew she was no longer her father’s special golden girl, his Katie-Kay. She didn’t know if her father was a prophet or if his words carried such certainty that there was no course other than to fulfil them. Before a year had passed she was married and pregnant. Six years after that she was the mother of two and divorced. Her husband Jeremy hadn’t made the grade. Everything about him was ephemeral as a dandelion, his beliefs whims to any passing breeze. She’d liked that about him in the beginning.

About one thing, Jeremy had always held an unchanging view: that there was something wrong with Harry, that he needed to be assessed. How Kate hated that word. As if life were an exam. She wouldn’t give up on Harry the way her father had given up on her.

Outside the boathouse Kate’s father began dragging kayaks from the racks and dumping them on the ground. ‘I heard it was bad. But this. Look at it.’

‘What?’ Harry said.

‘That muck.’ He pointed at the black sludge that lipped the shore. ‘That’s what you get from hypersalination. Nothing can live in that. Don’t touch it, it’ll stink.’

Harry moved forward and stuck the tip of his shoe in and moved it about. The black moved slow and lazy as oil and a sulphurous stench welled from it.

Kate’s father looked at her. ‘Harry,’ she said. He continued his steady dipping and the reek rolled out in thick waves.

Kate’s mother stepped forward. ‘Harry, darling. Enough, sweetheart.’

And now Harry glanced at her and around at them all, his curiosity on them.

Kate’s father tossed the paddles to the ground and lunged forward and pulled him from the shore. ‘Enough, they said. Do you hear?’

Anomaly – A marked deviation from the normal standard.

Harry was different – volatile, Kate’s mother called it – always had been. When he was four he hit a neighbour’s boy over the head with a metal spade. It took ten stitches to sew his scalp together. Kate remembered looking from the kitchen window, at the sun falling through birches onto yellow sand and red geraniums. And Harry yanking the truck the boy held, and when the boy wouldn’t give it up, smashing the spade against his head.

Rosie’s scream mingled with the child’s.

When Kate reached them Harry was calmly pushing the truck, even when the bloodied sand scumbled up and caught in its wheels. Kate pulled the toddler into her arms and bent his rigid limbs against her, ‘Shh shh, it’s alright’, absorbing his unfamiliarity and trembling and breaths.

‘It was Harry, Mum. He didn’t listen. I told him. He got his spade and he—’ Rosie sliced the spade through the air and the wind sounded against its edge.

Kate flinched. ‘I’m sure he didn’t mean to.’

The boy’s mother was running down the side path towards them.

Rosie said, ‘He did mean to. He shouted.’

‘Be quiet Rosie’ – a hiss – ‘it was an accident.’ Then the mother was there. Kate said, ‘He must have moved at the wrong moment.’ The child was passed from one to the other and the history was written.

Sometimes she caught Rosie looking at her as if she was trying to work out a riddle, and she remembered the confusion in her face when she saw she was not going to be believed. But what else could she have done? Rosie was young enough to forget and Harry was too young to be labelled. An event like that was one of those childhood things.

They paddled along. The muffled sound of the sea came over the dunes, but it was otherwise quiet, not the teeming breeding ground for birds that she’d read of. A sparse band of silent black birds heaved above the strip of black water like wind-filled plastic bags along a street. The water hardly moved. The kayak began to drag. Kate looked back at Harry. His paddle was trailing.

‘Paddle up, mate,’ she said. ‘Out of the water.’ Harry pulled it out and rested it on his lap. The words ‘that boy’ drifted back to her across the water – her father’s voice. Well, bugger him. She paddled on.

It was true Harry wasn’t easy. A normal pleasure such as others might feel at a bowl of ice cream or a visit to the pool was never enough for him. It must be a tub of ice cream taken furtively and consumed entirely and the knowledge of it denied. He was interested by others’ distress, as if tears and anger were notions that must be examined to test their parameters. His curiosity did not fear consequence.

She knew without checking the dreamy look he’d have on his face right now, the one that made her understand the trouble at school. He’d be thinking of other things, the blurring of wings perhaps or the milkiness of frothing water and why the sky is blue and why when you shut your eyes against the sun you see red. And fire, matches, the way flames moved, lazy, slipping and flapping in the air, and how they poured across flatness and leapt at height. He would watch them for a while and keep watching until he ran out of matches and dry leaves and twigs. Kate had seen him do it. Boys, she told herself. Moths to flame.

Evolution – The change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations.

They arrived at a little landing place between low bluffs. Grasshoppers bounced away from their feet. The breeze was salty and soft and the sandy soil spilling into the edges of her sandals was warm.

Kate’s mother consulted her map and they turned from the path that crossed the peninsula onto one that was narrower, running below and alongside the dunes’ ridge, and finally into a hollow. A stand of wind-blasted trees staggered around the edges of a crumbled stone cottage. Here and there, scattered and small, drifts of geraniums hunkered down away from the wind, their flowers no bigger than a ladybird and dull as a sparrow’s breast.

‘From Bridget’s geranium, do you suppose?’ Kate’s mother said.

‘Weeds,’ her father said. ‘Something will have died to make way for them.’

Kate reached down to pick one. ‘Still, they’re here.’

Kate’s mother brushed a finger across one of the flowers. ‘They are the sweetest things.’ Her voice had a tenderness Kate felt she hadn’t heard since she was a child and things tilted inside her and she remembered her father saying, ‘She needs to toughen up,’ and her mother asking, ‘Why? Why does she? She’s the—’

There was a shout from Harry. ‘Look, look what I found.’

‘What?’ Kate called. She could see him across the mass of saltbush, which undulated in the wind as if it were the coat of some beast. He was working at something, his shoulders heaving. Kate heard dragging and scraping. They worked their way through the bushes towards him.

More scuffling, a clang and a muffled shriek – ‘Mum!’

She ran then, crashing through the bush, the sharp scent flying up. Harry was next to an old stone well, one side staved in and a metal lid pushed aside.

‘I nearly fell in.’

He let Kate hug him. They peered into the inky blackness and dropped a stone and it sounded as faint and articulate deep within as a pin on a wooden floor. For a moment Kate saw Harry lying broken at the bottom and looking up at her face leaning palely over the well’s rim and she wasn’t sure what her face might reveal, dread or horror or relief.

Perhaps she should have tried harder to leave him behind. But she’d seen him last week calling their ancient retriever Beau up the stairs and kicking him back down when he obeyed. More than once. It had taken Kate a moment to believe it. His voice was so sweet in the calling, so harsh in the repelling.

Kate had banged the study door, called out, ‘Harry. Time for bed sweetheart,’ and Harry came in. She didn’t say anything to him about Beau.

Rosie came to the door where Kate stood. ‘You saw that.’

‘What?’

‘Don’t, just don’t. I’m not five anymore.’

Bad timing that the trip to the coast had come up a few days later. Rosie could have kept a kohl-rimmed eye on him except when Kate tried to talk to her she’d been submerged in a fog of incense deep in the valley of her beanbag.

‘Rosie,’ said Kate, then louder, ‘Rosie!’

Rosie reached a languid be-ringed hand and opened a crack of space between earphone and ear.

‘Wot?’ and when Kate paused to absorb the English bovver boy accent that was Rosie’s current mask, went on, ‘Get it out, Muvver. Wot can I do you for?’

‘Could you mind Harry tomorrow?’

‘No.’ She pinged the earphone down and shut her eyes and resumed pulsing to the music.

‘Rosie.’

‘La la la la la. He’s yours.’

‘Please.’

Rosie opened her eyes. ‘You know he is bloody mad that son of yours only no-one will tell you. He won’t listen to me. You’ve never listened to me. No.’

Extinction – The end of an organism or of a group of organisms.

They left the ruined house and walked along a path that led through a valley of shells, millions, billions of them, broken and polished and laid out like mosaic pieces or teeth, hot and silky and mysterious through Kate’s fingers – some history there that no-one could tell.

On the other side of the peninsula the beach was long and white and wide and the sea was a heavy lace all along its rim. They walked along it, Kate with her parents, Harry travelling his own broken trajectory. He bent and picked something up, examined it, put it in his pocket. He kept treasures to himself. Secret things that he stored in containers and drawers in his room.

Her father was continuing an old rant. ‘Look at it now,’ her father said, sweeping his arm all about, as if he was its creator. ‘It supported thousands once, this country, and it’s come to this.’

‘Not survival of the fittest?’ Kate said.

‘Colonisation, despoliation, genocide.’ The environmentalist’s mouth clanged shut.

‘Imagine them living out here. What were they thinking?’ her mother said. ‘In petticoats. In the summer.’

‘Like cancer cells, breaking away and metastasising,’ her father said.

‘A cancer dies out.’

‘Not exactly. It kills the host.’

‘Not like people.’

‘Exactly like people. Look at this country.’

Ahead, something had made Harry pause for longer. He bent closer and stood again and began to prod with his foot. Something about his intentness made Kate hurry from her parents. She reached Harry’s side. It was a fairy penguin settled there as if the edge of the sea were its nest. Its head swayed about on the plinth of its neck. Though its eyes were beady, movement seemed an effort. Harry wagged his foot before the penguin and it struck out with its beak, missing. He jumped back and giggled.

‘Don’t, Harry,’ Kate said.

‘I’m not hurting him.’

‘There’s something wrong with him.’

‘I didn’t touch him.’

‘Don’t make it worse then.’

Harry reached out a foot and pushed the penguin and this time the beak stabbed his shin.

‘Shit, he got me.’ He swung his leg back.

But Kate’s father had got there and he grabbed Harry’s arm and jerked him back. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? What is wrong with you?’

‘Dad,’ Kate said.

‘You can’t tell me.’ Harry’s face was red, roaring. ‘You’re not my Mum.’

‘Or I would have smacked some sense into you. Now get on – go.’ He pushed Harry hard and he blundered away.

‘Don’t,’ Kate screamed, ‘Don’t you – You leave him.’

‘You want him doing that? He doesn’t care about anyone but himself.’

‘Where do you think that comes from?’ Kate said.

He glared. ‘What?’

‘Don’t you write him off. Don’t you dare.’

‘Kate,’ her mother said, and put a hand on her arm.

‘Open your eyes, for God’s sake,’ her father said.

Kate wheeled away after Harry, who was following a fixed line at the sea’s edge, not diverting for the waves. Some task he had set himself. Kate stopped and watched. Her parents caught up.

Her father’s mind was on the penguin. ‘We can’t help it. Too far gone,’ he said, looking back.

They turned. A few gulls were orbiting the penguin, closing in to assess.

‘Not pretty to watch is it?’ Kate’s mother said.

‘What?’ her father said.

‘Nature.’

The environmentalist bellowed and the gulls skittered away and circled back for the first peck. Kate watched the way her father’s face worked and twisted. She didn’t know this person. His eyes moved across the beach and he found a couple of stones, judging their heft before loosing the rocks, winging one gull, sending the others squawking. He turned again and again as they moved away as if it was something he couldn’t resist, to lob stones until finally the penguin was just a blob on the beach once more and the seagulls could have been pecking a fish washed up on the tide.

The wind was picking up and sand careered along the beach stinging their legs and their eyes.

‘Where’s Harry?’ Kate’s mother asked.

The beach was empty. There were just the grasses blowing against the dunes, the spume of waves scudding from their peaks.

‘Harry!’ The wind flung their voices downwind. They ran, looking from dunes to sea. ‘Harry.’ Finally above the roaring water Kate saw his head bob up dark and slick, and his hand. Without a thought she waded in.

‘Don’t!’ her father roared.

Kate didn’t look back. Even as she struck through the foam and pummel of water and felt it suck her clothes and her warmth she saw how that long ago overheard conversation had opened the door onto this sea, had driven her to it. It reached out its long white even teeth and took her into its mouth. She chose this. She chose it every day.

She remembered the day Harry was born, how fresh he was, the potential of him absolute, not a scar of disquiet or sorrow, not even the need or the thought of hope to keep her going. Just this: he was her boy. She would do anything to keep him safe. That was all.

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Lucy Treloar is a Melbourne writer, previously published as a children’s book author. Her stories have appeared in Seizure and Sleepers Almanac. Her first adult novel won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and she received a Varuna Publisher Fellowship for the same work.

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