The veins on Grandpa’s legs protruded like thick tidal lines. Sam and Caleb scrambled to catch up, their toes vanishing and reappearing in the chalky sand as they trailed him homewards. Sam stared up at the island’s cliff, its base gnawed away by the climbing ocean to leave only a thin shelf. Other places were submerging too: the jetty where he had nearly caught that white sea-snake was completely under.
I would have brought it in, jewelled skin glittering silver and white, if only they’d let me.
Once home, Sam and Caleb sunk into their beanbags and watched Family Guy as the aroma of stewing fish, breadfruit and coconut milk wafted out from Grandpa’s kitchen.
This was the family; Dad did not count, not anymore. He had nicked off to Brisbane. Their two aunts lived in New Zealand and never visited. Sam remembered his Grandpa’s words: ‘Everyone runs away.’
Caleb will leave. All his brother spoke of was Queensland and the trip their dad had taken them on. Those adventure parks where the mad rides were higher than any dune they had ever run down; the flash cars that purred; the beach girls that came in every colour.
Tavloa is a paradise – it just needs some care. It was their place and their island and their ocean.
‘Sam! Caleb!’ hollered Grandpa. ‘Set the table.’
The boys placed cutlery and bowls out on the small pine table that still managed to saturate the kitchen space.
‘Groper today, boys.’ Grandpa ladled the steaming stew out before them and clasped his ocean-scarred hands together. ‘Thank you, Christ our Lord, for our dinner, and take care of our ancestors.’ They crossed themselves and dug into the large fish, which was good, soft and flaky white. A change too – usually they used those finicky finer nets for tiny ones like baitfish. ‘Just got to adapt, I guess,’ Grandpa would say, ‘lil’uns are tasty. But years ago there was big fish everywhere.’ He gestured, as did all fishermen, spreading his arms to indicate size. ‘Those ships way out’ve scooped ’em up and the lil’uns have grown crazy with fewer big’uns to eat ’em.’
Ordinarily, Sam could not wait for Sunday. Tomorrow was when everyone gathered outside the town hall after church. They would gorge themselves on pigs off the spit, crunching on the salty crackle and then tearing into the white meat beneath as the juice and fat dribbled down their lips and over their fingers.
But tomorrow was the dance.
Sam stared at his plate.
‘You’ll get it too, Sam,’ said Grandpa. ‘Just be strong, be patient.’
Caleb laughed. Sam jabbed his brother in the rib.
‘Hey! I didn’t mean nothin’.’
Sam gripped his fork and stabbed down at some pale flesh on his plate. It isn’t right. My arms slap the wrong places. He often hid away behind the rusted goat shed and practised until his feet felt heavier than iron but his body did not respond like the other boys’. Disobedient knees buckled when he spread them; his shoulders slid when they should tremble.
They washed the dishes then sat at the table as Grandpa warmed some goat’s milk on the stove. He unwrapped a bowl next to him, revealing two mangrove crabs already painted red by boiling water, and brought them to the table.
‘We’ll eat ’em tomorrow night.’ Caleb grabbed a claw and pretended to cut his wrist off. ‘We only had one or two of these ever when I was a boy,’ continued Grandpa. ‘Didn’t really have a mangrove swamp back then. Caught six today, gave two away and sold the other couple.’
‘They’re massive,’ said Sam.
‘You boys be careful down ’em mangroves. Could really snap your hand off there, Caleb.’
Sam picked one up, rapped the hard shell and gingerly touched the spikes where the joints were.
‘Remember to take a long stick to test for bogs around the groves. Some of that mud sinks dangerously. You’ll do your part to grow that swamp on the east side and plant’em mangrove trees to keep the ocean back.’
Grandpa’s talk of the mangroves and combating the ocean was an echo the boys had heard time and again.
While they sipped their milk, Grandpa told a tale of an ancestor who called turtles to the boat. It was said he would feed the entire village in a single outing.
‘One day, however,’ his voice hushed, ‘he called too many, and turtles of all kinds: leatherbacks, greens, browns, leapt from the water onto the craft. Their shells cuttin’ into calves and feet. Others yelled at him to stop, eventually pushin’im down and wrappin’ their hands round his mouth, but it was too late, they kept leapin’ on board until the craft sunk, drownin’ the Turtle Caller and all the crew. Some say they’re still on that ocean bed and if you fish that spot you’ll know cause you can still hear his ghost callin’ for ’em turtles.’
The boys shared the mattress, feet to head. ‘You’ll be okay tomorrow,’ said Caleb. ‘It’s just a dance.’
‘Yeah.’ Sam said as he lay there, sleeplessly awaiting the grey light of dawn.
A throng of people gathered around the three pigs smoking on spits in the foyer of the whitewashed hall. The boys formed two lines with gaps so that everyone could see. It would be better if the girls weren’t watching; their brown eyes swallowed him. Grandpa, with an encouraging smile, stood behind Seth the instructor. Sam imagined Seth as his grandpa’s younger reflection. Muscular, able.
Caleb turned round in front of him with a wink that said it’d be fine. When they began the chant, Sam felt okay as his first knee bent but then the smoke from the spits floated over, almost choking him. He lost rhythm. Seth called a halt. ‘Sam, hit that leg, let your knee tremble and your body will follow.’
‘It’s the smoke,’ his voice quavered.
‘Don’t blame the smoke. Watch.’ And Seth shifted from one bent knee to the other, his chest shaking in response. ‘See?’
Sam gulped some phlegm and fought to hold back tears. There was too much shame in crying.
They started again. In the background, fat dripped onto the coals, striking it in sharp sizzles. The air was heavy, leaden in the heat. Once more, he missed the step. Everything buzzed. Sounds blurred and amplified: the laughter, the hissing and crackling, the dull thud of their feet on the pavement. He hung his head. His eyes watered a little, surely from the smoke. He was not some crybaby.
He pushed past one dancer, then another and another. Girls pointed at him; the crowd pointed too as he shoved his way clear through them all.
‘Sam!’ Grandpa called.
Grandpa wouldn’t catch him. Only Sam’s toes hit the ground as he sprinted through the village. Past the few tiny shops joined together by common walls. Past the sole asphalt road and the fenceless homes with overgrown beach shrubs. His mind emptied as the wind cooled his face and his heart drove blood to all parts of his body. He held his head straight and pumped his muscles, even when his calves ached and his thighs trembled.
Once out of the village he still ran, now more measured. One, two. One, two. At the slower pace he thought of isolated places. The caves? Too damp. Too dark. The beaches? Too open. He decided on the mangroves. This is my island. No one can steal it from me. Not the dance, not the rising ocean, not my father in Brisbane, and not the people drawn to the mainland that blinds them.
One, two, one, two. Across the island he ran. Around the small bracken lake that had held fresh water in his grandpa’s youth. Past the scrubland and the crumbling house of some former English governor. He ran until his breath wheezed and all that could move him were the numbers: one, two, one, two, one, two. He reached the swamp’s outskirts, jogged for a while before entering the shallows. As the foggy water sprayed his ankles, he did not feel the midges and sand flies or see the mudskippers hop away or notice the crabs retreating with their pincers raised.
The wind between the swamp trees sounded like the faint singing of old ladies who knew all the hymns. Soon he was in a world of shadow, mangrove branches above him, occasional blades of light piercing gaps between the trees. Standing cormorants, their prehistoric wings held out to dry, flew from him whenever he neared.
He’d go deeper, out to where the bogs stopped and you could swim if you were gutsy enough. But his feet sunk, plunging up to his calves in mud. He made to move and it swept up higher. Again he stirred and this time it climbed to his knees. Be still. That way it’ll take longer to sink. Move and no one will arrive in time.
He yelled, a wordless noise. If anyone were searching for him they would be a while yet.
To stem his breathing rate, he counted the air in and out.
His thoughts fled briefly to hopes of a vague future. To finding a wife who wanted to stay on the island; to becoming a fisherman like Grandpa and a better family man than his dad.
The mud rose slightly. Concealing his knees, he yelled once more. This time his mind sank into the past as if the mud laid claim on him. Sam remembered fragments from as far back as four. His mother, with eyes like warm coals and hair that fell in waves like the night ocean. He remembered when they all slept together, sandwiched on that same bed with Grandpa alone in the other room.
He remembered the UN men who came with countless sandbags, instructing the islanders on where and how to lay them to keep the ocean back. Sam could recall their words but only one face, John’s, a Welsh UN officer with a mop of red curls and a moustache that flamed down his face to his chin. ‘Nice place,’ John said and his lagoon-like eyes gazed at Sam’s mother. Sam, even then, knew something was askew, and grabbed his mother’s hand to lead her away. But their eyes stuck like the eyes of competitors. Who knew where they disappeared to on the island? His mother abandoned them all for Wales soon after. He wanted more from her than farewell, more than tears.
The mud gradually crept up to his thighs. By the time Sam was five, his father, defeated, no longer fished with Grandpa. He became flabby like a seal. It was Grandpa who allowed Dad to leave. When they came into the house that afternoon, it had reeked of that overly sweet stench of coconut left to rot. Dad had not cleaned at all but sat by the tinny radio, listening to the stories of others. Grandpa switched the machine off. Dad stood up, swung at Grandpa and missed. Another side of Grandpa unveiled itself as the old man’s hand snaked out and grabbed his son’s throat. Dad’s cheeks turned to the colour of a bruise as Grandpa spoke. ‘Don’t let this hurt swallow your life.’
The mud climbed, tickling Sam’s testicles. ‘Help!’ he screamed as loud as his lungs permitted.
He recalled his obsession with his teacher, Miss Rodanui, in Year Three. Drawing attention to himself by leaping onto a desk in class and reciting the opening of a Revolting Rhyme by Roald Dahl. He remembered those stinking hot days. Sandy coloured grass, no breeze, giant hornets terrifying them. He trailed her around the tyre-swings in the dirt playground to hear her voice and glimpse her face.
Muck seeped up to his nipples.
He remembered rafting with Caleb, way out past the breakers. The wind turned, slapping the raft, stirring the water. Shadowy clouds jostled overhead. They toppled and were caught in the white foam, twirling. Sam’s arms thrashed until he found the raft’s edge. He clambered aboard in a splutter and heaved Caleb – who was gripping the raft – back on as blood streamed from a gash in his brother’s head into the ocean where it stained parts of the water a powdery red.
It neared his shoulders.
Just off shore. Sampson, the sea lion that mauled everyone’s catch but they loved him regardless. Stingrays, which they hand fed in the shallows, moving like dark ponds over the ocean bed. The white sea-snake that he wanted to bring in off the guano-stained jetty but they’d cut his line. ‘Let me bring it in,’ he’d called out as others around him laughed, making him feel red.
‘Let me bring it in.’ Those words recurred in his mind over and over as the mud reached his forming Adam’s apple. Briny rivulets fled from his eyes, he lifted his head and shouted – or sobbed – repeatedly. ‘Let me bring it in. Let me bring it in.’
There were voices in the distance. Sam looked over, his throat raw, his body ensnared.
Grandpa and Caleb trudged through sludge on the far side of the bog. Is there time? Perhaps if there were, even with the jetty long since drowned, he would bring that ivory serpent in.