Excerpt from The Windy Season, Allen & Unwin, 2016
Spinning over and over, like a plane going down
Jake turned into the street early, the headlights travelling through the morning dark at a greater than normal speed. The deckhands gave each other a look before the ute pulled up. Paul jumped into the skiff without daring to utter a word, and when Michael had to run back into the house to get his gloves Jake shook the steering wheel with such a rage that the boat trailer shook. When he was in this mood, every delay was enough to make him scream aloud. Any obstruction, like a stubborn door or stray cray pot, received a full-blown strike with a fist or a boot. On those mornings even Michael would put his grin away. Michael had said before that the more sober Jake was the worse his mood. It was as if he could see all of his problems more clearly, see all the shit in his world in greater detail. And Paul figured Michael was right. Jake was almost better when in the fog of a hangover or even still half drunk; at least then he was some way towards being tranquilised, deadened to things.
They went hard for the first four hours of the morning, propelled by Jake’s fury. They were on their sixth run before lunch. Michael manned the winch and Paul emptied and baited the pots. They spoke less to each other, worn out by fighting the roll of the deck.
Jake gave a blast of the horn and Michael gaffed the line. He looped the wet rope around the winch head.
The pot slammed into the tipper and Michael swore.
What? Paul said to him. You okay?
You have a guest, Michael said and slid the pot along the tipper to Paul.
Paul noticed in an instant the lifelessness of the trap, the absence of sound or movement. There were no feelers poking through the slats. There wasn’t a single crayfish, just a lone sleek muscular shape that took up the entire pot.
What is it? he said.
That is a Port Jackson, Michael replied.
It looks like a shark.
It is a shark.
What do I do?
Well, it cannot stay in there.
I have to pull it out? Paul asked. With my hands?
I have not heard of any better way.
Paul looked at the shark curled up at the base of the pot, on its side. It was no longer than his arm, but its diamond head looked almost reptilian, like the head of a giant snake. It was marked almost like a snake too, the cream skin patterned into triangles of different shades. He could see its strange mouth, unlike any shark he had seen before. Rows of pointed teeth were clustered together in a ball. The shark’s gills pulsed.
Grab the tail. Go on.
Paul put his gloved hand through the entrance of the trap, half expecting the shark to twist on itself and tear his fingers clean off.
We cannot take so long, Michael said. You have to get its tail.
Paul hooked his arm to the top corner of the pot where the shark’s tail fin was caught between the slats. He held his breath and clamped his hand down on it.
Hold it right there, Michael said. At the base.
Paul could feel the wrenching muscle against his grip. The shark rolled itself upright.
It will bite me.
Not if you keep away from the teeth.
The shark kicked and its head butted the wooden slats of the pot.
It will fucking bite me, Paul said again.
It does not think you are dinner, Michael reassured him. It just thinks you are an arsehole.
Shit, Paul muttered as he began to draw the fish back through the entrance of the trap, tail first.
Look at you, Michael chuckled. Shark man.
Do I just throw it?
But you are friends now, Michael said.
What do I do?
Put it in the sea, Michael said, and laughed. It is best to do it slow.
Paul held the shark out over the water. He leant as far over the side as he could, arm extended, lowering it until its head and most of the trunk were submerged, only its tail free of the water. The animal arched its head back toward the surface. Paul weakened his grip and the shark seemed to sense it, freeing itself with a strong kick of its tail. It darted down into the green sea and they watched until it disappeared into the clouds of silt and sand.
I shall call you the shark man, Michael said. He lifted the pot from the tipper and carried it to the back of the deck.
It was only then that Paul noticed he had been shaking. He felt the throb of his heart.
That shark was lucky it found this boat, Michael said, reaching for the bag of tobacco and pack of rollies in his shorts pocket. I tell you what. All the others, they would kill it. Michael stepped near the cabin doors and out of the wind to roll the cigarette. Except for Jake, maybe, he said.
He wouldn’t kill it?
No, I do not think so. Maybe our Jake knows what it is like.
To be a shark?
Michael laughed and shook his head. To be despised, he said. Hated. Even a little feared. Maybe he knows that.
Why does everyone hate Jake? Paul asked, realising it was true. I’ve heard the way people talk about him. Say he’s scum.
Michael shrugged, put the cigarette to his mouth, lit it. That is not my point. My point is that men always hate the shark, even more than they hate octopus or stingrays, or any other scavenger that finds its way into the pot of a fisherman. I am telling you, they would always kill the shark.
Michael blew a stream of smoke that disintegrated in the sea breeze beyond the cover of the cabin.
I once saw Noddy cut bits from a shark while it was still alive, the pectoral and dorsal fin, the end of the tail. That is how he sent it back into the water off the jetty, very much still a living shark. I watched it spiralling down into the depths, spinning over and over, like a plane going down. Michael shook his head, the smile gone. Do you know what it is? he said. Why they hate the sharks?
Paul shook his head.
Because they have convinced themselves that a shark might be the cause of all the trouble for them. It is the reason why there is no lobster, they think. The reason there is no fish. It is responsible for everything. The shark is their shit luck. The shark has made them poor. It has made their wives not want to fuck them. So when they get hold of a shark, they finally have all of the shit things in life right there in their hands, in their control.
Michael drew on his cigarette then exhaled.
And you know, he said, there is nothing more hereditary than fear. Nothing. A man passes it on like the colour of his hair. You have seen the boys at the jetty?
It was true. Paul had seen the severed heads of whaler sharks on the beach near the jetty, the coarse skin sun-wrinkled.
They are worse than their old men, Michael said. It has been handed down. They throw those little sharks alive on to fires. Stab their eyes. They will saw the heads off them. Not to eat—just to extinguish it, the fear.