Monday, December 7, 2009

Bycatch by Morgana MacLeod

SAM had no worries behind the wheel of his cruiser. He lived for the open sea, the tang of salt air mixed with diesel. The night before, a fierce storm churned the waves into a frenzy. Gale force winds speared gusts of rain, water turned brutal, clawed and slashed at the land. Now the ocean had settled, but there was still something ominous about the blood-red streak of sunrise. A gory stain leaking into the banked grey clouds on the horizon, it smouldered like a promise - no, threat - of more to come. Rounding the point, Sam saw spills of coffee rock exposed along the Coolum shoreline where tonnes of sand had been sucked back off the beach. Seal-sleek surfers bobbed in pods, riding the tail-end of the swell. Reflecting back the sulking sky, the sea was dull, a milky green-grey. Still, the current wasn’t strong enough to pull Sam’s boat off course, and although the wind had teeth he was heading leeward, following the line of the shark net. ‘Wouldn’t be dead for quids.’ Sam told himself.

At the big round buoy that marked a drumline, Sam dropped anchor. Small waves lapped the cruiser’s hull as he pulled up the chain, careful not to foul the float rope and net lead that anchored the whole set up to the ocean floor.

‘She’s right.’ Sam confirmed. The lump of shark carcass he’d used to bait the thick steel hook was a bit worse for wear, ragged edges trailing fringes of tattered flesh, but still secure. He was due to pull the lot out next week anyway. He was a Shark Control Program subbie, contracted to the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries. Check the nets every second day, replace the gear as it rusted out every three weeks, help the boffins when he was needed – that was Sam’s line of work. Not what he’d call hard yakka, either. With plenty of time out on the open water, no-one in his ear all the time, he was a happy man. Sam lowered the baited hook and chain back into position under the buoy, weighed anchor, and continued to check the shark net.

‘You’d expect a bit of bycatch, after the carry on last night.’ Sam told himself. The drumlines and nets were designed to discourage sharks from lurking around the Sunshine Coast’s beaches. Without some deterrent, the predators were liable to cruise past and devour tourists as if the patrolled shoreline was a fast-food drive-through. But sometimes turtles, dolphins, even migrating whales got tangled up in the nets and lines, and part of Sam’s job was to locate and free this bycatch. By the time Sam found them it was often too late of course, particularly for the active breathers, the big marine mammals that had to keep surfacing or drown.

Sure enough, between the next set of marker buoys, Sam spotted a problem. Instead of lying strung out neatly like a bead necklace on the surface of the water, the torpedo floats that marked the top of the shark net were bunched up in a clump. Something big was snared in the nets below. The floats weren’t moving much, so Sam suspected that whatever it was had stopped fighting – probably for good. The sky was still dull, the water murky, so Sam couldn’t see what was caught. He threw his anchor over the side, started hauling in the fouled net. It was heavy going. Sam wondered about using the electric winch instead, but decided it was less trouble to just get on with it and land the thing by hand.

Sam grunted, ‘Big ‘un.’ Sweat beaded on his forehead and started to trickle down his back, despite the chill sea breeze. He stripped off his flannel shirt, down to a singlet, and went back to work.

He saw the fluke first, a frilly sweep of tail that, despite the overcast dullness, scintillated with flashes of aquamarine and nacre.

‘What the …?’ He thought he’d seen most things in his years on the trawlers, but this was a new one on him. His attention was snared and he pulled harder, ignoring the fire in his broad back and shoulders. He hauled a few feet of tail fouled with net into his boat and stopped for a breather. He grabbed the side and leaned over. Just below the water’s surface he saw a woman’s face. A swirl of long hair streamed and undulated with the moving water to conceal, then reveal, her beauty. Her face was light brown, café au lait, but from the neck down her skin tone blended towards the colour of the scales on her tail. Her naked breasts were a pale khaki with bluish nipples and the skin at her narrow waist blue-grey, like a shark’s. Rows of scales started about where her hips flared, where a woman’s belly and arse and secret parts were replaced by long powerful tail muscles that still managed to swell with the promise of seduction. Sam stared for a timeless stretch, frozen in wonder. When he snapped out of it, he started to haul like ten men until she was with him in the boat.

‘Geez.’ His curse, soft and reverent, was almost like a prayer. He unsheathed his knife, cut the fouled section of net free from the rest of the line and then collapsed back in the stern.

Sam struggled to catch his breath and sort out his head. He tried to tell himself he was just seeing things ‘cos he’d had a few too many last night. He rubbed his eyes, scrubbed his palms across his stubbly cheeks and then looked again. Nah, it had nothing to do with the turps. Maybe he’d just gone berko and when he made it back to shore they’d have to lock him up, or shoot him, or something. Either way, Sam couldn’t take his eyes off his catch. No less beautiful out of the water, she lay relaxed, one arm flung up as though reaching towards him, the other draped across her torso. Her long thick tresses of green-brown - part hair, part ribbons like seaweed - trailed down past her waist. Her lower half lay enmeshed in the lines, curved in a sinuous S-shape. The netting had cut cruelly into the flesh of her tail, raw gashes oozing navy blue…well, Sam supposed it was blood. His chest ached to see her and he fumbled for his knife again, leaned forward to cut her free. When Sam’s shadow crossed her face, her eyes opened. A clear, light green like the shallows in summer they glowed, huge over her high cheekbones. For an eternal moment, she looked deep into Sam’s eyes.

‘You wou’ not be after harming me, now, wid dat knife o’ yours?’ She asked, in a lilting Creole accent.

With a strangled ‘Fark!’ Sam recoiled, almost flipped himself over the outboard and into the drink.

The mermaid pulled herself up to a sitting position, wincing as the netting bit deeper into her injured tail.

‘I tank you, Sir, for liberating me.’ She ran long, shell-tipped fingers through her hair, stroked tresses back off her face. She started to sing, a strange polyphonic chant with a melody that rolled, hypnotic, like the tides.

Images of caverns, deep undersea, filled with pearls and pirate treasure drifted through Sam’s mind. He smiled as shoals of shimmering fishwomen swam into his dreams, reached out to him in welcome, invited him to linger and play with them a while.

The injured mermaid held a hand out over the waves. A stream of water leapt up, lively as a jumping fish, into her cupped palm. The chant stopped as she rinsed her mouth with the salt water and Sam’s head cleared.

‘Would you… can I…’ Sam choked down the lump in his throat and started again. His head still felt frothy, too light on his shoulders. A practical, brine-soaked man, good with engines and his sure strong hands, he was allergic to magic. ‘D’ya want me to cut you out of the net?’

‘I would take it as a great kindness, sir.’ She replied, and flashed him a smile. Her pearly teeth glittered, disconcertingly sharp behind her lush curved lips.

Sam bent forward and went to work. The familiar rhythm of steel on rope brought him back to his senses. The mermaid held still, but when Sam tugged a deeply embedded loop of rope free her breath hissed in distress. He thought to chat, distract her from the pain.

‘My name’s Sam.’ He offered. ‘What’s yours?’

‘In my country, I am known as La Sirène.’

‘You’re not from around here, then.’

‘Oh, no.’ La Sirène laughed.

In her open mouth Sam thought he glimpsed more than one row of teeth. He looked away quick smart, back to her tangled tail.

‘I was born in da warm waters of the Caribbean, near Aytí.’

‘Long way from home.’

‘Indeed, Sam-you-el. But I am tireless, as restless as de sea.’ His name sounded lyrical as it rolled off La Sirène’s tongue. ‘I ‘ave sisters, everywhere in de saltwater.’

‘Fair dinkum? I’ve been going to sea for nigh on thirty years now, and I’ve seen all sorts. Never caught nothing… I mean anyone like you.’

‘You are a fisherman, den.’ Her tone was sharp.

Sam could have sworn a flash of dusky maroon swept through her scales, like an angry flush.

‘Not for a while. I’m semi-retired, now, odd jobs and checking these nets for the DPI…’ He broke off when La Sirène gasped, as if she was short of breath. Her skin was suddenly dry and ashen, her scales dull. Shaky, she reached out to the ocean. Streams of saltwater shot up from the surface and wreathed around her arms, cascading down her body. Glistening wet, she was restored. She ran dripping hands through her hair and across her face.

‘There you go.’ Sam said as he pulled the last of the net away.

La Sirène summoned more saltwater and bathed her wounds. With a few muttered words in a language strange to Sam and an undulating gesture from her elegant hands, scales shuffled and migrated to cover the gashes. Soon, the only sign of her injuries was the navy stain of her blood in the bilge water. Her long muscles rippled as she flexed her tail.

‘Why do you set dese cruel traps, Sam-you-el, in da water where we live?’ Her fluke flicked.

‘Keep shark numbers down.’ Sam muttered. ‘Make the beaches safe.’

‘Safe?’ She flushed purple again. ‘’ow is ripping, tangling an’ drowning safe?’

‘Safe for swimmers. Umm, people I mean, not you fellas.’

‘You people,’ La Sirène spat the word like a curse ‘rule de land. Dere, too you destroy, an’ burn, an’ poison. Wit’out respect, wit’ no concern, your waste gushes into my domain.’

Here’s a turn up for the books. Sam smiled to himself. Seems like it’s the top half of a sheila that causes all the grief. Before he’d met this mermaid, he would have sworn that all the trouble that came, part and parcel, with a woman originated from parts lower down.

‘Sorry, love. Not much I can do about that.’ He’d never had much time for hippies and greenies and the like.

La Sirène smiled again, tossed her hair back over her shoulders to expose her breasts.

‘Dere be sumtin I ‘ave in mind for you to do, Sam-you-el.’ Her song swelled again.

Visions wreathed Sam’s mind. He could have sworn the full moon rose over her shoulders to stroke her skin and scales with silver shimmers. This struck him as odd, at half-past daybreak, but soon his confusion was quelled. When her mouth opened wide at the song’s crescendo, revealing three jagged incurving rows of dagger-like teeth, Sam smiled and leaned into her embrace. Then there was no will left in him, only the thrall.

Questions were asked, of course, when a tourist was taken by a three metre tiger shark off Yaroomba. In damage control mode, the authorities talked up the fact that he should have known better than to go swimming at an unpatrolled beach, but that was beside the point. Shark Control Program officers sent to check the lines and nets found the floats and anchors properly positioned. On the surface everything looked unexceptional - but all the nets had been neatly sliced away, the hooks cut off the drumlines. The DPI&F had some serious questions for Sam, but no-one could find him. Some months later his boat washed up on Castaways Beach. The outboard was operational and there was plenty of fuel. Sam’s equipment was neatly stowed. His logbook, protected from the elements in a plastic pouch, was neat and legible and recorded nothing out of the ordinary. The forensics mob was meticulous when they went over the boat but they came away not much the wiser. The silver-blue streaks on the hull, and the scattered sea-green scales found inside, were dismissed as irrelevant – just traces of bycatch.

Morgana is a Sunshine Coast writer. This short story was published in "Coasters", the Coolum Wave Writers' 2009 Anthology. Visit her blog to find out more.