Changeling’s Island – Snippet 23

“Well, at least you were quick,” said his grandmother. “Is she calling back?”

“Tomorrow. She’s out somewhere. She says she got my report.”

His grandmother gave him that sideways stare of hers. “And?”

“She says I did well,” said Tim, feeling a little defensive about it.

“An’ so yer should. Yer can do computers and things. I reckon yer teacher should have sent it to me, not her,” said his grandmother. “Now, we’ve got nearly no wind, the tide will be full about an hour after dark. Yer eyes are good enough, and the water will have warmed up. We’ll go spearing flounder. Get yer shorts on.”

She fetched out an old inner tube that had a cut-off twenty-five-liter tin jammed into the middle of it, and a barb-pointed fork on a pole, and a spare car battery from the shed, and a light on a pole. Minutes later Tim drove them, bumping down the track to the beach. The sea was mirror-calm, still and, in the shallows, not too cold.

The light was waterproof and pushed underwater. Shoals of tiny silver fish schooled to it, and then, in sudden alarm, darted away. “I can’t see well enough, Tim,” she said, as they waded in the knee-deep water. “You’ll have to look for the fish. They’re diamond shaped an’ you’ll see their eyes. They hide in the sand. You’ll see squid and flathead sometimes too.”

Tim looked. He saw the tiny silver fish, and a curious slim long-beaked garfish, skipping away…and nothing else, until he stood on a flounder. He screamed and fell over as it swam off.

“What happened?”

“I stood on something that squirmed under my foot and swam off.”

“Quick,” she said eagerly. “Up you get, see if you can follow the dust to where it settles.”

All Tim wanted to do right then was run for the shore, but she was so urgent, he stood up and looked around. And sure enough, there was a trail in the still water of the silt that the fish had stirred up. He walked closer…and nearly stood on it again before he saw it. It camouflaged well, and the edges of the fish were blurred into the sand. “I can see it. What do I do now?” he asked, looking down at it in wonderment, seeing the two small eyes looking up.

“Walk really slowly and quietly until it is less than an arm’s length from yer feet. Take yer time. Then lower the spearpoint into the water, until it is maybe a hand-width above it. Then yer push it down, hard, fast.

Tim did as he’d been told. He couldn’t believe the fish wouldn’t swim off, but it didn’t. It just lay there as the spear point got closer. He couldn’t breathe and it felt like the weight of the whole universe was pressing on him. Why should he care, a part of him demanded? But he did. He had to. He was sure he was going to miss…

He thrust the spear down into the water as hard as he could, and felt the sudden quiver and thrash as he lifted the fish. “I got it! I got it! I got it!!!” he yelled.

It was really weird. It sounded like a thousand people were yelling with him too, drumming their feet on the hard sand. Shouting in triumph, not in English, but he understood them anyway. And just then he felt like he was one of them. Like part of some huge family, generations of them, looking at him, and yelling in delight. The fish was beautiful and he was enormously grateful for it, that it had been there to be speared. To be food. That feeling was strange as an idea in itself, but right, somehow. He rocked on his heels in the sand, giddy with the adrenalin rush, as he stood there, holding the speared fish up to the star-patterned night.

“Well done!” said his gran, her voice full of pleasure too. “Hold him over the box, Tim.”

Tim did, and his grandmother worked the fish over the prongs with her knife. “Yer first fish. You done good, young man,” she said.

She’d always called him “boy” before. “That was just like…amazing!” He meant the way it had stayed still, and that really odd feeling he’d had when he’d thrust the spear through it. He was still shaking from it all.

And for once his grandmother seemed to understand without him trying to explain. She put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s in yer blood, Tim. My people have always done this. Always and always. This is our place. This is what we do, this is what we are. Without it, we’re just leaves in the wind. I’m glad yer here to carry it on.” Then she shook herself, and said gruffly. “Well, don’t just stand there. Get on with it. We need another one for our tea.”

Tim was thoroughly wet, and the air was cool, but absolutely nothing could have stopped him from getting on with it. And now that he knew what he was looking for, he saw the next fish, about twenty meters away. And then, a little farther on, two more close together.

“That’s enough for us. We can’t keep ’em,” said his gran.

Tim was still too fired up to want to stop. “But…”

She shook her head. “Yer don’t kill what yer don’t need. Other people will want a fish too.”

She sounded a bit like McKay about the flathead, thought Tim, as they walked towards the shore. And there, lying against a trail of weed, was an enormous flathead in his grandmother’s light. Tim didn’t care if they didn’t need it. He wanted that fish. He stalked forward, spear ready. Only this fish did not stay still, but swam off into the dark deep. He turned to follow.

“What is it?” asked his grandmother.

“Flathead! A really, really big one.”

“Yer won’t get it once they start swimming away. Yer came up in front of it, didn’t yer?”

“Yes. But I was careful. Slow.”

“Come up from behind next time. And don’t try to follow it. They’ll lead you out. I thought I saw that dratted seal-woman out there. She means no good to yer. Drowned a few of your ancestors and left their widows to raise the child on their own.”

“I don’t have any children.”

“Then maybe she won’t drown yer, yet.”

His grandmother was weird. Couldn’t see the fish, but thought she could see imaginary seal-women.

By the time they got to the beach Tim realized just how cold and wet he was. But he was still full of the hunt. He felt…right. His ears seemed still full of drumming, and his body was tired, but oddly full of energy.

He had strange dreams that night. Strange, but good. Full of smoke and drumming of heels on hard sand, and people dancing in the firelight, and he was there with them, dancing too, passing through the smoke.

* * *

Áed saw the spirits of the old ones weave and stamp their dance through the smokes of their spirit fires. They were a hunting people, and a young man’s first blooding was a very important matter to them. They had lived far more as part of the land, and the hunt, and the prey, had their love and respect. To hunt was what a man did. He brought food from the land — and the water — for his family with his spear and throwing sticks.

The seal-woman had been out there too, farther off to sea and hidden in the dark of the water. Her guile would have to be greater now. His master belonged to this land and it to him. They were part of each other, rock, sand, water, bush and blood. It would give him strength, if he learned to use it.