The Threat of Redemption
The promise of relief has been swelling and hovering for more than a week, and now an early morning Darwin September light glitters red streaks across a black sky.
A wall of rain claws its way from the distant Arafura Sea toward the city. A relentless giant storm painting the green waters grey with skyscraper nimbus shadows that reach from the ocean surface into the ocean of cloud above.
Two are men waiting, rolling gently, patient on the humid stillness of a moored boat.
The jade-coloured sarong of Kopu-Nui Hokitika rises and falls as his huge body softly sings.
At the other end of the padded wooden bench an athletic younger man listens. “What does that one mean Punga?” he asks.
Kopu pauses and rests his guitar across his chest.
“Battle ahead – before a war there must be consultation – before a storm.” Then he laughs and says “means many things –words really saying that the gods are thoughtless in their fierceness and their intent –an ending will rip through shadows with spears of rain and painful air to breathe– but who can know what really is ahead and what are the sacrifices for freedom.”
The younger man shrugs and looks upward, his trained eye following the grain of the Douglas Fir mast. “I don’t always know what the hell you are talking about.”
Kopu laughs loudly and freely and follows the young carpenter’s gaze up the polished tree trunk to the rigging high up the mast. There is no breeze to rattle the metal cleats, and yet the entire sky is full of cloud and angry morning darkness from the distant Northern horizon of the Arafura Sea all the way above Darwin City in the East and South over the treetop rainforests and red soil jungles. The world is clattering tumult deep inside itself in a monstrous heaving blanket.
They both look out to sea as the tropical sky rips out thunder on thunder, spilling waves of lighting downward through the heat into the water below.
Kopu continues “Just got to get hold of the feeling” he looks back at the other man. “It's also about a journey in a boat you know - like that without knowing where to, but it is old times you know…. two great kings and the people must decide who to follow in their journey – an old story.”
He pauses, then strumming again he talks and sings in small snatches of words amongst the chords
“we all follow in the
pathways of the water…
great knowledge of the ancient ones…
hara mai te akaaka nui
hara mai te akaaka roa
hara mai te akaaka matua
hara mai te akaaka na
Io matua taketake te waiora…
and great heart strengthen your arms and axes
and your love of your ancestors makes your enemy weak…
and cuts apart the water for the land…” he sings on quietly as though half asleep.
The two men are on the deck of a large wooden sailing vessel, watching through the haze of breathless humidity, knowing at last it is coming.
A crackling exhaust pierces the wallpaper of cicada song, and both men stir. The crackle eases to idling gasps and rumbles as the machine comes to rest on the concrete apron of the wharf.
The sound of footsteps and then the square bearded face of Toby Armstrong appears.
The men on the boat look toward him. Kopu puts the guitar aside and gathers his sarong around him as he rolls onto one elbow and nods. The effort of moving makes the tattoos twitch over his massive neck and shoulders like a flag rippling its pattern over the shell of a giant turtle.
The other man on deck, Mick Tasakrios, flicks his long knotty Rasta hair, and throws his legs over the wooden edge behind him and tumbles up onto the deck in a roll. He sits up grinning and half waves, then casually brushes a fly from his knee.
Toby puts a foot onto the edge of the vessel “The famous navigator and the famous carpenter then” he says. Silence. Then he produces a rolled newspaper from his vest and holds it above his head. “Well, it’s just another croc story boys” and he hurls the paper in a high arc. It lands at Mick’s feet. Mick carefully removes the rubber band which he puts in his pocket. He unrolls the newspaper and reads, then flashes the front page to Kopu with its photo and trumpeting headline 'CROC STORY A CROCK'. Then he crosses his legs and spreads the paper and reads out loud "September 28. The amazing story of a savage crocodile attack along the North Arnhem Coastline played out in Darwin court this week when..."
Thud! Toby throws a package onto the deck from one hand and it lands inches from Mick's knee. Mick stops reading and looks up. Toby's face looks suspended, hesitating as it always does, if there is something to say but too many ways of saying, “Package for skip” he announces at last “from person or persons unknown… interesting” and his intense face informs Mick that he does not want to hear any more of the newspaper article.
Mick looks back down and reads on in silence.
Toby reaches inside his vest again and pulls out a thick parcel. Thud! The parcel is thrown onto the deck from the other hand and lands next to Kopu. “Provisions from treasury for the next chapter…. You can open that one.”
Then Toby leaps aboard the vessel which rocks slightly to accommodate him. He stands legs together like a tree which has grown out of the deck. His legs are as brown as gnarled wood and the oil-stained shorts seem to sit like an afterthought at his thick waist.
Stained ragged shorts then a hairy belly-gap, and then a big loose leather vest out of which grow thick arms in an awkward clutter of too many torn muscles. He stands for a long pause looking at both of the men. “Just another croc story” he repeats.
“Just another crock of shit if you ask me” says Mick still reading.
Toby gestures to the newspaper “She sold us out, sold the skip out.”
Kopu laughs out loud “She sold us out” he repeats laughing again with his peculiar high pitched almost hysterical laugh for such a big man “She sold us out – oh love where is thy sting?”
Mick looks up “Isn’t that death – death where is thy sting?”
“Exactly exactly that” Kopu says and laughs and shakes his head as if nobody really will understand anything about love or death. “End of story, and beginning of story” he says.
Toby waits for a break in the rise and fall of the cicada shrieking to speak again “You blokes going to get a wet arse for sure – you staying on?”
Kopu and Mick both nod - They look toward the approaching storm.
“Got to keep her alive” states Kopu. Toby nods.
“Skip wants you at Buffalo Creek 0530” says Toby. “She’s all fuelled and gassed and there’s spare fuel for the reach next to the chiller.”
Kopu and Mick nod again “Thank you the famous mechanic” says Mick, and Toby scowls at him, not enjoying his own little joke being sent back at him.
“Any news of the apprentice boy?” asks Kopu
Toby looks up and down the length of the boat, running his eye over the winches and the trimmings “Sent him his first set of spanners” he replies at last.
“Mum will be pleased” says Kopu. Then there is a long pause as the three men turn toward the thunder. “Where to?”
“Skip didn’t say – anywhere I guess – there’s more you know – court was bad enough but that’s nothing compared to what else - I told him piss off skip - to Zanzibar for a couple of years or go fishing off Lebanon coast or something – I told him to get the hell out – maybe he will listen to me for once.”
“What do you mean there’s more – more than this crap?” said Mick shaking the newspaper in the air.
Toby seemed to stop his inner emotional motor as he often did at a time of great crisis, and his face became like stone. He stood there looking from Kopu to Mick and back again. “I’m not coming boys.” He paused and took a deep breath and the stone cheeks seemed to relax a little and life flowed back into him as his thoughts crystallised. “Business to run – you know – kids to run – skip will tell you all about it.” That was all he would say, though it was a lot coming from Toby. “Love to know what’s in that parcel” He turned abruptly and leapt off the vessel onto the walkway. The vessel rocked more violently this time. “Good luck boys – how’s Mary?”
“She’s fine, safe back with mum in Omokoroa” said Kopu and with a wave to Toby he rolls his body onto the deck mattress and looks away.
Toby stands on the walkway, seemingly smaller than he had looked on the deck. “Love to grandpa” he says to Mick as he turns to walk away. “Worst of it should blow over by morning.... you can motor all the way if you want – tell that old Greek he owes me” and his voice begins to trail away “about time he took her back to Mykonos...” Then he is gone with the click of the walkway gate, and a few minutes later the bike revs fiercely and swirls away.
And so the two men hold onto their promises as they listen. They are thrown together in their waiting, each filled with thought and memory and untangling the lies and truth of their wretched predicament, each in their own private sweaty breathing. They listen as the angry exhaust fades and rises and fades again into the distance and are enveloped once again by the silence of heavy tropical air, a silence accompanied by cicadas so constant and loud they are impossible to hear. Underneath their noise, and through the relentless thunder, the men can feel the nervous melody of thick lapping water whispering the answer, offering up to the carved arc of the wooden hull the knowledge of what happened at Yalingimbi inlet.
The whistle of a kettle rises innocent in the face of the nearing ocean stormfall.
Kopu rises from the deck and carefully picks up the package and the parcel. He tosses the parcel in the air and catches it. He throws it to Mick who holds it to his ear and shakes it as if to hear a rattle. “No change” he quips.
They both laugh, Kopu laughing his open free laugh of worldly irony, and Mick more nervous and questioning.
Mick tosses the parcel back to Kopu who then edges past him and eases his giant body down into the companionway and like a great black shark squeezing into a small cave takes the package and the parcel below.
Kopu reappears with two mugs of hot tea and the men sip on their drinks, both deep in thought.
Kopu taps his fingernail against the metal rim of his cup “We have the key” he says in his deep sing-song voice. “Now let’s see if it fits the lock” and again he laughs out loud, laughing into the face of outrageous fortune and daring what is to come, to come. As always Mick eases his thoughts into the strength and comfort of the big man’s well of determination, and laughs too, more quietly, finding strength there to allow destiny to chart the outcome of what they now have to do.
The red air fades into the morning blues and greys around the two men who are etched like sacrificial soldiers in the pale tropical light of the marina. The sun lifts itself off the horizon to be swallowed by the day, and all that remain of the crew of the Saint Augustine, those unwilling survivors and witnesses, are imprisoned and uneasy above the creatures of the water beneath them.
Shortly they will go below and batten down in preparation for tomorrow morning’s rendezvous.
To The Lighthouse
The Saint Augustine is a silhouette between the jaws of an inlet as night creeps toward her. The huge shape of the vessel fills a splash of distant ocean beyond the narrow channel. Her larch planks moan quietly at anchor in the inlet under the last colours of a setting late August sun. In front of her a dense fringe of mangroves seem to close up and draw nearer around her as their branches and leaves disappear from green into reddish blue, and gradually dissolve into a darkening wall of black shadow shapes.
On deck, sitting on the edge of the deck, a figure pulls an arm free from a makeshift sling and rubs the shape of an injured shoulder, then, with deep rubbing, feels satisfaction in the density and definition of toned sinews and muscle.
The evening is growing and a half moon, tracked close by Venus, gashes a celestial image into the face of the sky creating a silent pathway for the carpet of milky way lights emerging behind. Hints of redness are still spilled across the warm horizon, but the only meaning for this nervous person is sufficient light to make out the lighthouse shed. “Two hundred metres – not too far - swim it in fifteen or twenty - no problem no problem mother – do the necessary – do the necessary.”
Only the tin roof of the lighthouse gleams out against the wall of mangroves. The inlet has now become a black cave.
The figure climbs down the rope ladder which hangs over the planks of the swollen hull. Dangling a foot into the water it is pleasantly warm and soft. “Not too deep” and then startles as a bird cries wheeling overhead.
Pausing, remembering a dream from last night where flocks of petrels, thousands of petrels which being hatched but were out of control, attacked swarming all over, but fluffy and warm but choking. “Did I die?” the casual thought is murmured. Hard to remember although the feeling of the warm feathers around the skin is mirrored by the skin of the water
The figure slides into the darkening water and beneath the surface it is cool against the legs.
The moonlight is beginning to make the tin shed of the lighthouse glow white – the tall bamboo poles of the shack are in darkness and hard to make out, but the roof is shining clear like a beacon and the water is a pulsing silver sheet.
“Be with me god and keep me safe” out loud, floating beside the comforting power of the wooden boat edge, and the child inside prays again and again. Pushing away and beginning to stroke the body through the clear stillness, pushing through the warm surface and the gentle coolness of the water.
The shape of the boat has now receded behind, and the black box shape of the wooden shack looms ahead. Tiring a little, feeling the ache growing in the sore shoulder. The tide is mild but it is coming in and helping, rubbing the shoulder while floating, rubbing gently.
Then a gentle bump against the left calf. The urge to shout leaps into a silent throat, a freeze rushing through veins rushing it to the heart. The moon watches passively as the shout of surprise is a silent alarm.
Taking a deep breath the figure now floats unmoving on the surface of the inlet water, like a log, feeling the soft swaying of the incoming tide beneath. Now edging closer to the mangroves in stillness and suspension. The reality of the bump against the leg fades into disbelief but then the reality of it cannot be denied. A look across to the glowing roof of the shed then back to the empty safety of the boat. The big hulk of floating black wood seems closer. “Do the necessary god – look after me – look out for me” quietly, and then propelling onward toward the shack. Not splashing or breaking the water, only gently breast-stroking.
Bang! This time the bump is harder. The victim tries to swim hard but now going side-ways and only one leg will work. Suddenly dragged beneath the water there is struggling and kicks with a free leg. The leg kicks against something huge – some monster – more kicks and twists with urgency and desperate anger. Then the figure bobs to the surface like a bloody cork.
The surface of the water is calm, lit softly as the moonlight picks out the detailed patterns of the tide like thousands of intricate scales moving and breathing in a glittering gown.
Now swimming furiously and splashing arms wildly but one leg is not working. The shack is looking closer, nearer “Please god let me...” Bang! hit again at the hip this time, and beating wildly silently screaming above the water and under again against the great jaws that have closed. Punching punches, punches, punching wildly at the huge head, searching for eyes to strike. Then released again to see the moon, but the sound of bone cracking is like a horrible signal of approaching doom. “Not me not me not yet god please” and a thrashing hand at last closes on the rung of the ladder of the shack and the figure begins to drag itself upward.
Then struck again and slipping under the water, only the silence of the inlet is restored, broken by occasional swirling as the great beast rises to shake and roll its prey.