Published in the Newcastle Short Story Award 2019 competition Newcastle Short Story Award Anthologies - Hunter Writers Centre
Word limit - 2000
I don’t think it’s somewhere you have been. Not unless you know every cove and headland in the National Parks along our southern coastline. I’d say only a few locals might know this place. I’m not from there but I’m always searching for good spots to dive, that’s how I know about it. Cold water is best for diving because it carries more nutrients and the light in the water is softer, plus the further south you go the bigger the fish grow.
There’s a place three hours from here that you get to by a track without a name on the map. It’s easy to miss if you’re doing the highway speed limit. Just a track like any other along our coast, sandy and winding between heath-land for kilometres, then it ends without warning in a clearing for a single car. From there you make your own way to the water, sometimes you think you’re on a path, but most of the time you have to push through the grass and banksias. When you get to the rocky shelf and turn around, it’s amazing how windblown the vegetation looks with everything leaning to one side. At the water’s edge, the rocks are sharp and coarse, so it’s best to wear shoes. Tiny dormant shells pepper the surfaces, and everywhere you walk you’ll watch scuttling red crabs. Along this part of the coast the rocks are grey with white bands that make them look like boiled sweets. And pieces of rusting steel from boats sometimes get wedged between the rocks.
Last month I took a girl there. A country girl fresh from boarding school who started the year at my university and who enrolled in a biology course I run. I prefer girls from the land; they have fuller figures than the city women who worry more about their reflection. Farm girls are made to be held, not just looked at, and this girl said she swam well. I like swimmers with strong legs.
Fishermen must use the spot I took her that day because we saw tangles of line and old lead sinkers. The girl looked at the ocean as I collected the rubbish, saying how seagulls can get the lines caught around their legs. It was thick fishing line so they must catch big fish in those waters. Before we put on the gear I had brought for diving, we walked around the rock pools exposed by the low tide. With a captive audience, I turn into a lecturer and need to explain everything I spot. I’m sure she hadn’t walked on cunjevoi before because she squealed the first time the water sprayed up her leg.
It was perfect conditions for diving that day. We got as far as two hundred metres from the headland at one point. Only the brightly coloured tips of our snorkels would have shown we were there. I love that feeling as you rise and dip with the waves in a ceaseless motion that’s continued since before the land existed. You’d be wise to remember our oceans are ancient, with ancient things living in them.
Below the surface the water was shady but clear, the seafloor a patchwork of granite boulders with clumps of bright green seagrass and long ropes of dark seaweed. Black spiny sea urchins lined themselves along crevasses and abalone held to the exposed areas where waves didn’t reach them. Between the enormous kelp striped fish darted out from safety then back again. We even found olive green moray eels lurking between the rocks waiting for the right sized prey to swim too close. The number of fish in this area would stun you. Schools of silvery bream and morwong, khaki wrasse in the weeds and the occasional huge blue groper. Groper is delicious, but I never take my spear gun unless I’m on my own. It’s too dangerous and most people don’t enjoy sharks being attracted to the dead fish in the catch bag.
She said it was the most gorgeous place she had ever been. I watched her blonde hair trail behind her as she kicked like an amateur, helped a little by the lead weight-belt I had brought to hold her legs below the surface. I often looked at those legs tensing and her skin rippling through the water. For an hour we heard only our breath through our snorkels. My diving knife was handy for smashing up sea urchins so tiny iridescent fish schooled around our hands and masks. She enjoyed the funny little things frantic to eat the pieces and not afraid of dangerous people. The girl didn’t carry a knife because the scabbard bothered her ankle, which was fine; but I prefer to have the knife on me.
Out past the rocks where there is nothing but sand, the sting rays bury themselves because they love that area. But I wanted to show her the deeper water where large cuttlefish live, the kind that warn you to stay away by coruscating rainbows along their sides. One of the most intelligent creatures in the ocean, they have huge eyes and vision takes a lot of brain power. She said she’d love to get out to the deep and see them. She kept up with me and we held hands until we reached the point where the water went cold.
I saw the fin before she did. It stood out from everything around it, a blue snorkelling flipper far down the side of a rock shelf, caught somehow otherwise the rubber would have floated to the surface. I pointed to it and the rock shelf that disappeared into darkness past where the fin was lodged. Then asked if she thought she could get that far and she said she would try, so we hyperventilated to fill our blood with oxygen and dived, my ears popping twice with the change in pressure as we went down.
We found the fin lodged between rocks as though a foot had pushed it there; the rubber sides scratched but otherwise looking new. Near it drifted a lifeless nylon cord, coiled around itself many times with the end leading into the rocks. It looked like it had once been part of a crayfish pot that snapped off long ago.
As she tried to pull out the fin, she didn’t see the cord go around her ankle. The girl twisted to see what had touched her as I pulled the knot tight and kicked away when she thrashed. I’ve tied knots all my life and that constrictor knot would not come free. Responding to the panic in her eyes, I pretended to go for my knife, then stopped and watched her. She kicked and dug her nails at the cord as I floated beyond her reach until the pulse in my ears became so slow I had to kick hard for the surface, ripping the snorkel from my mouth to suck in the air.
I didn’t dive back because what lived in the darkness could now be rising and I had to get out of the water quickly. Anyway, the gear I had given her was cheap, just like the blue fins had been.