The Shark Catcher’s Daughter

2012-11-17 15.23.18Welcome to my personal blog. First post on a new blog.

If you have followed me here from my education blog you will know I am far from being  a first time blogger. (If you know nothing about the other one, please forget it. This has nothing to do with it.) This is my creative writing blog. Well that is the intent at the moment.

I might be tempted to post a few opinions about education here too along the way. So you may get some political comment if you stick around.

I thought I would start by getting straight into it and sharing one of my short stories with you. I have called this one The Shark Catcher’s Daughter. There will be some follow up posts to tell you how it came about, more about the woman involved and my relationship with her.

This is a true story.


The Shark Catcher’s Daughter

Golden Beach was the forever beach to Angelica because it went on forever no matter which way you looked. Sometimes the waves would dump onto Golden Beach. Rolling pins of long powdery showers would drift across the white sand and spit into the little fires of driftwood Angelica’s family always built. Other times, most times, the ocean thrashed this isolated part of the Ninety Mile Beach coastline of Victoria. Angelica would watch as waves taller than any building she had ever seen crashed onto the shore. At high tide the biggest waves would almost reach the wind lashed bush that trickled down from the dunes.

Angelica’s father, the shark catcher, could stand on the highest of the dunes above Golden Beach in all weather and see the fins behind the surf. Sometimes he could see frothing schools of fish where the green of the ocean met the green of the skies and he would watch as the fish were herded in a seething cloud towards the shore. These were the shark feeding grounds. He taught his children to see all of this too.

Most of all he taught his children, specially Angelica, his eldest child, this is where the ocean belongs to the sharks. This is never a swimming ocean. You never walk into to it, not even to pee. Angelica had learned the lesson well. She could play on the sand dunes or in the bush or on the rusty swings in the overgrown playground way back near the road. She could play with the fire the shark catcher lit. In fact he seemed to like seeing his children playing around a fire, poking it and feeding it as he fed his three huge shark catching lines into the surf.

It was the ocean that was forbidden. Not a foot not a toe. Never, ever. By the time she was seven Angelica did not have to be reminded. Just a little slop of frothy surf that sometimes grabbed higher on the beach was something to fear. She would watch the little ones constantly to make sure they were not caught by surprise by the shark ocean.

Later as a grown woman, with all of her gardener’s patience and life learned serenity, where ever Angelica met with the sea it was always the shark ocean to her. Up the coast, across the Strait or lapping some tropical beach, she knew what could be in there.

That day it was not just Angelica and the shark catcher on the beach. Everyone was there, Walter the shark catcher, Waltraud, Angelica’s mother, and the babies, a three-year-old girl and two year old boy. To Angelica they were always the babies, brought into the world for her to love.  As they grew and more brothers and sisters joined them, they were still the babies to her.  Eventually there would be five little fires on the beach as each child had their own fire to tend and poke, with no fights about who owned it.

Angelica’s parents were known as Wally and Wally. The joke of their same name had been made in many ways over the years. They grew to understand the way it amused people and by then had also begun to call each other Wally, as it amused them too.

Shark catching time always started with a walk along the beach. The hour of driving in the old Holden station wagon and the walk through the bush to the beach, carrying gear, deserved a reward of legs stretched and footprints filled with the foaming stamp of arrival. There was something immensely satisfying about turning to walk back and the only footsteps to be seen on the beach were from your own family. It was a moment of ownership and always marked the highest tide of expectation for the shark catcher. The sharks were waiting to be caught and he would catch them. It was a promise that grew stronger the closer he came to returning to his carefully handmade fishing gear sitting innocently unconstructed on the beach. Soon it would swish and flick and reach out beyond the surf. Today, whatever the day was, would always be the day his rods would deliver.

Often the beach walk offered gifts from the ocean. The most prized were planks of kauri pine harvested from ancient forests in Tasmania and tossed off ships by massive Bass Strait storms. They were seldom the same shape or size yet all were grey from their salty voyages to the mainland. The shark catcher would leave none of them. The smallest to the longest and heaviest, those that needed both Walter and Waltraud to carry, stopping and resting with the strain of it, were taken back to the shark catching place, through the bush and put into the station wagon to be ferried home. The shark catcher made furniture for his family from this Golden Beach harvest. He had already made his children’s beds and had begun building a huge family dining table to fit the big family he planned to have with Waltraud.

That day there were no planks. The walk was leisurely and for a little time Angelica joined Walter and Waltraud in enjoying the sun on the babies and the endlessness of the morning. If the babies had not been there Angelica would have been rolling down the sand dunes, turning and turning in sea gritty freedom.

Instead from the very same sand dunes, just as the family arrived back at the shark catching spot, a small kangaroo came bounding out and across the beach in front of them. It was close and moving quickly. The family’s delight and surprise at seeing the creature turned to horror as it headed straight for the surf.

Walter yelled at it and waved his arms. Everyone joined in running towards it before it reached the ocean. The kangaroo hesitated then turned and fled back into the bush with the whole family running after it.

They stopped running, flushed by their success at having saved the creature.  Suddenly it appeared again a little further away and bounded for the surf. Walter left his family and ran between it and the sea. This time it seemed determined to pass any human barrier to reach the water and leaped mightily to dodge Walter. The shark catcher was quick. He grabbed at the frightened animal and caught a foot as it flew past. They hit the sand with a wet thump. The kangaroo struggled feebly as Walter lifted it by its feet.

Walter hesitated for a moment then brought the animal back to Waltraud rather than return it to the bush. She took it from him carefully and her arms tightly bound its legs. It might have been a joey it was so small, almost small enough to fit in her lap. It shivered as she examined it. One eye was milky and bush ticks bulged on its eyelids. Waltraud sent Walter to fetch his fish pliers and she carefully removed the ticks from its eyelids and other places she found them. She knew kangaroos are usually immune to bush tick toxin but this creature seemed to be carrying more than its share. It submitted to Waltraud’s ministrations with only an occasional weak struggle. Eventually, after the babies and Angelica had felt its tail and rubbed the coarse dusty fur on its chest, she called Walter from his rods and he took it from her and carried it back over the dunes to the bush.

As Walter turned to come back the kangaroo again bounded out onto the beach. This time it was steps too far away and it was leaping with renewed terror or determination. It quickly reached the water. They all watched as it plonked through the first small waves and then disappeared and reappeared between breakers.

All they could see was a grey head in the foam when suddenly the kangaroo’s body flew up into the air and flipped over gracefully as though it were leaping off the very edge of the waves. It flipped again more clumsily, then again for the last time. Every movement of the sea around it looked like a fin. A splash or flash, the dark spot between breakers, they were all fins.

Perhaps the babies saw nothing. Then it was over and no one spoke. Waltraud groaned, Walter sighed, Annie whined a little. They knew this is what happens in the shark ocean. The kangaroo may well have known too. Now it was done, and there were no words that needed to be said about it.

Waltraud returned the pliers to the tackle box. Walter returned to his rods. Angelica returned to a deeper, harder dread of the never ever sea. She was grateful to have the arms of the babies reaching for her.

By the time the fire was lit in mid afternoon one baby was asleep in his mother’s lap and the other had settled into the sand beside Angelica to watch the fire feeding ritual. A soft wind was becoming gusty. Not enough to send a stinging wave at calf level but enough to make you sit with your back into it. That meant turning away from watching the shark catcher tend his rods.

So far there had been nothing more than the constant reeling in of empty lines and the careful rebaiting and recasting of lines. The sun was low. The family was patient. Soon the sharkcatcher would reel in for the last time. He would not catch anything today.

Then he did. His roar reached above the sounds of the surf and wind. His family knew the call well and thrilled to it. One baby woke and the other laughed and hugged her little arms across her body. They all looked down to him, alone on the tidemark. The whistle of the line flying from its reel cut through to them, high and hard. The shark catcher’s rod, four times his height, bent almost at a right angle as he dug into the sand with his feet and let the line run out.

Neither Angelica nor Waltraud left their perches near the fire. The babies were still, their eyes wide. No need to run down immediately. If there was gaffing to do it would not be for while yet. The line could break. He could reel in quickly a smallish fish giving the biggest fight of its life. If it was a shark, the shark catcher would take his time. He would need to. His family knew.

They watched until he snapped his reel shut and did the first tentative pull back. It seemed like a long time, a lot of line had disappeared into the surf. Soon they heard the whistle of the line going out again.

The babies went back to sleep. Waltraud took out her book. Angelica warmed her eyes and poked the fire with sticks. The wind gusts stayed and played and the few clouds that had popped above the surf joined together and lined up like cancan girls ready to dance over Golden beach. All the while the shark catcher waltzed with the sea, dipping into the receding water and then hauling his rod up high and hard against the beach. Backwards and forwards he went, leading and following on the sandy dance floor. As the wind blew into his face and cooled his fists, they were taut and strong as a boxer’s.

Waltraud was still reading when the shark catcher called her. She gently lifted the baby off her lap and onto the sand, leaped up and grabbed the gaff with a grunt of relief. But as she ran towards her husband, eager to join his last thrilling dance steps, she realised all he wanted was for her to haul in his other two lines. Both were empty. She laid them carefully on the sand ready to be dismantled and packed as only the shark catcher could do and went back the babies.

The clouds were overhead and the last of the afternoon grey when finally Waltraud went back down to the shark catcher. She had packed up, put woollen jumpers on the children and had been watching him for some time.

Angelica could hear her mother’s voice raised and angry above the ocean and her father’s above that. Waltraud had to shout at him from beyond the surf. The fight had taken him into the sea, sometimes up to his knees. Still he relentlessly dipped and pulled, his hand on and off the reel with a rare skill. Angelica watched. This was the shark ocean; her father had his feet in it. The shark was pulling her father into the sea.

Waltraud’s voice changed from demanding to begging. Her parents’ voices clashed and trilled and flew at Angelica and away with the wind. If there was still a sun going down somewhere it was not on this beach. Angelica strained to see the forms at the edge of the waves. The white of the breaks held them in relief for only seconds at a time.

Her father was bent into the surf, waves sucking at his knees. Then her mother was in the surf. Angelica could see her pale arms flailing. The arms waved and flew and finally reached the dark form of the shark catcher. The man and woman melted together in the wild of the tossing waves. The rod was now invisible to Angelica but she could see the way the now one form moved that her parents were fighting the shark together.Waltraud was not bringing her father back in, she had joined him. Waltraud had Walter, Walter had the shark and they were all in the shark ocean.

The babies cried as Angelica stood, trying to keep her little girl eyes on her parents in the ocean. She could see them as part of the dark, for a second not at all, then again only just.  With each wave the shark catcher and his wife moved deeper into the sea. Then in one long white crash that thundered onto the emptiest beach on earth, they disappeared.

Angelica screamed and left the babies. She ran screaming to the edge of the surf and screamed into the waves. She screamed at the cloud-hidden night, the ghost sand under her feet. She screamed at every frothing line that disappeared into the black ocean. She screamed with horror so deep it can still visit her today, sharp and sudden like a shower of arrows.

She had seen her mother and father vanish into the never ever shark ocean. No sight could be worse for the shark catcher’s daughter. But that night Angelica saw something that was.

From the darkness and the sea, in front of the little girl, the shark catcher and his wife emerged. Waltraud had her arms wrapped around Walter’s waist and his strong arms were still hauling and dipping as they both struggled to get foothold backwards in the surf. Little more than a boat-length from them twisting, fighting and snapping at the line caught deep in its gut was a shark bigger than Walter and Waltraud together. Angelica turned and fled back up the beach, the swallow of her scream of aloneness caught by the shrillest of all shark screams coming out.

The weeping babies reached out and clung to Angelica. The three of them cried loudly into the wind over the last light of the fire. Their mother and father dragged the shark further and further into shallow waters. Its mouth filled with sand but it kept snapping and flipping from side to side as inch by exhausting inch the man and woman pulled the life from it. Finally Waltraud reached for the gaff.

When the shark lay mostly beached, its enormous jaws locked open, Waltraud turned to her children.  The shark catcher staggered a few steps up the beach and collapsed. Waltraud ran to her crying children. Her salty and cold arms were the most comforting Angelica had ever felt. With cries subdued and faces rubbed eventually they turned back to the shark catcher. He had not moved. His eyes were open, not blinking at the covered sky. The luminous darkness of the night clouds reflected blood wet in his stare.  The shark and the shark catcher lay together on the beach. They were the stillness between the vast moving ocean and the sky.  Waltraud called to him.  He did not answer and he did not move.

Waltraud ran back to him, her babies following. She knelt beside him and howled, with all the hours and the shark and her terrible fear, into his pale face. Angelica knew he was dead. The shark ocean and the monster shark had killed him as surely as if he had been eaten. She knew her mother knew too. Then they could see his chest rising and falling in the cloud light.

His eyes blinked and he looked at his wife and turned his wrist to tell her to wait. His family sat together, a warm woollen bundle, beside him on the damp sand and waited. Angelica kept her eyes on the rise of the beach and the glow from the dying fire, holding her vision as far away from the shark shadow as she could.

Eventually Walter stirred and rolled over to look at the shark. He sat up and groaned, but it came through a smile Angelica could see as clear as if it had been midday. And because she loved him deeply she smiled too. They all watched him stand slowly and walk over to the shark. He reached out his hand and touched it. The shark catcher had his shark, the biggest he had ever caught.

There were things to do. Angelica was sent back to the car park to wait in the station wagon with the two babies. It was exactly what Angelica wanted to do. She was the big girl, carrying one baby and leading the other as she hurried up the beach to the track, away from the shark ocean. Grey sand trickled into dark scrub. Angelica knew where the track was by the break in the outline of the trees against the clouds. She had walked it a hundred times but never at night. Noises shifted from the ocean to the bush. You stamp hard anyway to scare away tigers and snakes. Every child knows that because their mothers make sure to tell them.

The further Angelica got down the track, away from the beach, the more the blackness of the night washed towards her until even though she knew her feet were still walking she could not see them at all. When she burst into the black hole of the car park she almost bumped into the side of the station wagon.  She sobbed at the sight of the feeble trembling roof light when she flung open the door.

Locked doors are better than leaving something open for a little light. So when she had the babies inside on the back seat with her she banged every door shut and pushed the locks down. As she settled into the darkness, for the first time in hours, she felt safe.  The babies slept.  Angelica didn’t think of locking the tailgate door in fact even if she had, she would not have known how.  She woke to the sound of her mother and father pulling and pushing the shark through the bush.

Suddenly the tailgate cranked open, a shocking breech before the shark’s head thumped onto it and into the wagon. Angelica was out in the cold night again, holding the babies as Walter and Waltraud juggled with their sandy and dirty prize. Eventually the shark was in the station wagon, as fully as it could go. Its nose and open jaws were crammed bloodily against the front windscreen between the driver and passenger sides. Its bulk filled and swelled into and through the middle of the wagon. Its tail flopped stiffly over the end of the open tailgate barely clearing the dirt of the car park.

The shark catcher and his wife went back into the night to get his fishing gear. Angelica sat in the back seat, the shark between her and the babies.

The shark smelled of never ever ocean. A deep water chill seeped out of it and all over Angelica as she sat close beside it in the dark. It was a big black thing in the big black night. But it was also very dead and the tailgate was very open. The babies stirred a bit and slept.  Angelica stayed wide-awake, listening and breathing in the great stillness of the dead shark. She heard her parents long before they flung their warmth into the two front seats each side of their catch.

The family sped through the bush then onto the highway, the night getting lighter as they went. Angelica’s face was so near the cold sandpaper of the shark’s skin she did not need to touch it to know how it felt.

The shark catcher had filled her world with shark. That night, when she sat behind him as he drove his family home, she never thought for even a second it should be any other way.

© Maralyn Parker 2012

Creative Commons License
The Sharkcatcher’s daughter by Maralyn Parker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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