Illustration: Mick Connolly.(For E. O. Wilson)
IT WAS cold on the beach that summer. I was picking small, grey-backed snails from the low-tide line when Darryl Tuckey went by, a gun in his hand. When I asked him what he was doing with the gun, he said he was hunting stingrays.
I’d never met Darryl Tuckey before, and anyway, we were summer people, so we didn’t know anything about him or his family or what had happened to them. Ice-cream lickers, the locals called us. They resented us city people for our clean cars and our big brick-and-glass holiday houses, which lined their flinty old coast.
You caught any? I asked.
No, said Darryl Tuckey. Not yet. But I will. You betcha.
He stomped on down the beach, shoulders hunched, booted heels flinging out clods of grey sand. He wore stone-washed jeans and a faded, pea-coloured T-shirt. The hem of the shirt fluttered out in a skirt around his stomach, as if it had once belonged on a fatter bulge. I followed him for a while, at a respectful distance, the ocean sighing against the shore. The holes where tiny mites burrowed deep on the waterline sucked and gulped.
Darryl Tuckey didn’t turn around, didn’t look back.
I followed him down to the end of ”our” beach, where the big rock spat out, which was as far down as I was supposed to go. Then I stood on the rock and watched him pace away across the damp sand, gun swinging.
He disappeared behind a turn in the dunes, and I was alone again.
A tanker pulled through the heads of the bay, tiny and tinny as it made its way out to the open ocean.
I’D NEVER come across a ray, although I’d seen the anatomical drawings of them at the newly built Marine Biology Discovery Centre on the road into town. Huge, malevolent flat things with mocking mouths on their undersides and long stings in their tails, the colour of aliens.
I longed more than anything to be able to follow Darryl Tuckey that first day, but I wasn’t, as yet, very good at breaking rules. In the summer of 1983, I was 11, nearly 12, and even when I was alone I was scared that I was being watched, sure my parents saw every deviant thought I had.
I should have known better, of course I should’ve: I was barely noticed on those long summer holidays, battered by the shrill femininity of my sisters as they dressed for whichever sun-greased, sand-struck surfer was their obsession du jour; shunted outside by my permanently pressed mother who was forever folding canapes – pigs in blankets, curried eggs – for the endless fruity cocktail hours that were held along the long beach road at 4pm, when city women emerged from their front doors like elegantly painted cuckoos carrying Glad Wrapped trays and tottered from holiday house to holiday house.
As for my father, the closest I got to him on those holidays was a gruff pat on the head as he made his way out the front door early in the morning to ”hit the course”, an expression I found intriguing.
I knew the mechanics of golf – the stately swing, the connecting pop, and the long, boring walks where nothing much happened – but the idea of ”hitting” the course was confusingly and excitingly manly, a violence I supposed happened only in my absence, something that I, as a child, was to be protected from.
In my mind’s eye, my father slammed the long metal clubs into the freshly shaved green, furiously attacking the turf so that it was flung up in great, stinking slabs, earthworms cartwheeling through the air, ants peddling at the emptiness in shock before plunging to their deaths. Until that summer, I was a child: adults were mysterious, complex. All-powerful, all-knowing.
Anyway, I needn’t have worried about missing my chance with Darryl Tuckey that first afternoon because the next day he came down our beach again, this time without the gun.
I saw him approaching a hundred metres away. I didn’t get up and run to him, knowing intuitively that eagerness was babyish. I just sat there, shivering, under my towel, trying to look cool. When he drew level with me he slowed, and I looked up, let my gaze lock with his, raised my hand in a half-wave.
What you doing? he asked, coming to a stop.
Nothing, I said. Thinking.
Thinking, huh? Thinking about what?
I dunno, stuff, I guess. You catch any rays yesterday?
Darryl Tuckey shook his head angrily, gestured an arm at the steely sky, at the incoming wind.
Too much chop, he said. Too much wind, too much swell. Rays don’t like it.
Are you hunting stingrays today, too?
What? Not today. Other stuff to do today, don’t I.
He looked at me with eyes that were big and wet, sizing me up, the whites all pearly, the blue irises drifting slightly one way and then the next.
Hunting. Taking care of stuff. Down the coast, up the dunes. The secret places. I know everywhere here. I know everything about this place, don’t I.
He turned away and started off down the beach again with his steady, stomping march, his shoulders hunched in against the wind. After a moment of hesitation, I shucked my towel and trotted after him, shivering, rubbing my hands along the rising goosebumps on my arms.
We walked in silence. When I tried to talk, to make conversation, Darryl Tuckey got annoyed and said: you shut up. Watch.
What are you looking for? I asked.
Things, he said. Signs. Dead birds. Dogs coming. Hooded plovers. Tracks. That sort of shit. Rays, if the water is still, and clear, and you know what you’re looking for.
The days were long in the late summer. We walked until my beach had disappeared behind twists and turns in the coast. My bare feet began to feel numb and heavy in the cold sand, more painful with every step, my ankles struggling against its shifting surface.
My feet are sore, I said.
You ice-cream lickers, said Darryl Tuckey. You ice-cream lickers, you’re like the surfers. Bare feet on the beach. Stupid, isn’t it.
We were approaching a pile of surfboards, laid out on the high-tide line, long and sleek. Darryl Tuckey looked up and down the beach, eyes scanning the dunes, and then he was moving fast, with a sudden grace, a knife coming out of his pocket, not a Swiss Army but a real knife, a sock wrapped around its blade, he was squatting next to the sleeping boards and hacking through their leg ropes – one, two, three, four.
Then he strode away. I stood, frozen, my heart thrumming as I stared at the sliced tendons of the ropes. When I ran after him, I snatched dizzy glances back at the boards. But no one came spilling out of the dunes in pursuit.
Around the next turn of coast Darryl Tuckey slowed, stopped, turned to face the ocean, hands on hips, the skirt of his T-shirt fluttering.
Why did you do that?
Darryl Tuckey smiled, his thick lips parting, and I saw that one of his teeth was missing, further back in his jaw.
To drown ’em.
He laughed. I looked longingly at the space where the missing tooth was, wondering if I could talk my father into removing one for me, too, and then we started walking again.
EVERY summer before that last summer I remember as being scaldingly hot. Too hot to walk on the beach, too hot to do anything but lie on the floor panting while my sisters dashed around covering themselves in oil so that they would go ”golden brown”, a colour that they seemed to think would act as a sort of lure. Of course they never went golden brown, they went lobster red, and then lay moaning in baths full of ice. Afterwards they would all sit on the porch in the mosquito-heavy evenings and get me to peel their backs while they read magazines and drank Fanta.
But that last summer was different. It was cold. I was due to start high school in the new year, but before Darryl Tuckey I hadn’t met many older kids, except for my sisters’ friends, idiot girls who ignored me when I talked to them. I realise now that Darryl Tuckey was only 15, maybe 16 at a stretch, the same age as my big sister Elsie, but he looked older.
He looked like a real man. Maybe it was his big, black boots against the washed colours of the beach, maybe it was his impressive, stubbly regrowth, or the underarm hair I could see in the gaping sleeve of his T-shirt, or maybe it was what had happened to his family.
Through the long, wind-swept days while the sand scurried down the beach and the sky filled and burst with grey clouds, Darryl Tuckey taught me how to find the warm nests of gulls buried in the dunes and raid them for their eggs. He showed me the fine-shelled, fragile homes of the hooded plovers near the high-water mark, and told me if I touched those nests he’d beat the crap out of me. He showed me how to squeeze the pissy-doodles on the exposed reefs so that they spat thin streams high into the air.
We went crabbing in the shifting, shallow pools of the point at low tide. Darryl Tuckey stirred the water before he let us step in. One day, as the pool settled, I saw an octopus swirling away through a slit in the rock, a flash of electric blue.
That’ll kill you, Darryl Tuckey said. There are plenty of things round that’ll kill you, or hurt you. You be careful.
Nothing, I began to realise, was what it seemed. And we were in the centre of it, guardians of an ever-expanding universe.
He knew everything, Darryl Tuckey, every turn of the coast, every rip, every current, every nest. He knew how to kill quick and clean, swift-slitting the throat of a great-winged muttonbird taken down by stormy winds and flopping along the beach, its hectic eyes swivelling at us as we approached, its broken wings heavy with sand and blood. The bird’s eyes fixing as breath rasped through its open neck.
I’d never seen anything die before, at least nothing with blood in it. We sat for a while as it bled out, and for a moment I thought I could see its life lifting up, seeping into the salt winds, and then Darryl Tuckey picked up the bird and put it gently in a sheet of folded newspaper he took from his pocket.
Moonbird, he said. Tastes of the sky and the sea, both at the same time. It’s been to California and back. That’s in America. You been to California, kid?
No, I said.
Darryl Tuckey nodded as if he’d proved something.
I always knew that I was being tested, with Darryl Tuckey; that we were building up to something. That all the small lessons in silence and stealth, in sticks and lines and the electric swirl of death were preparing me for the future, for something beautiful and terrible.
ON THE last afternoon of the holidays Darryl Tuckey didn’t come down the beach for a long time. I grew frantic, pacing up and down our stretch, standing long sentinels on the sand, the perpetual shush and groan of the surf, the urgent orange dash of the lonely pilot boats through the heads.
Finally, in the early evening, he appeared. Even from a distance I could tell that something was different. He was moving faster than normal, jerking his stride out and snapping his legs through their paces, his elbows cantilevering from his trunk for extra thrust and balance, his chin leading the way, questing forward. I fell in beside him, trotting to keep up.
Where are we going? I asked.
Darryl passed his hand over his mouth, which meant: silent from here on in. It was the movement he used when we were stalking birds, the movement he used when we were hunting. We followed a path that cut up through the dunes. Then he flattened his palm, and we both dropped to our stomachs on the sand.
We lay there, listening to voices in the next valley. There was the crack of cans opening, someone laughing. The thin complaint of music on a radio, at a distance. Very slowly, we moved forward. Over the lip of the dune we went, fast, and I caught a glimpse of concrete bunker, parked cars, tied about with surfboards, a sad, daytime fire, then we were down in a low gutter, going along the bunker’s wall.
I remember thinking we were invincible, invisible, like the tiny sigh of the wind taking the thinnest layer of grains off the top of the dunes, and moving them about in the air.
There were slits in the bunker, some big up the top, and some a bit further down, where you could fit guns through and kill people who were coming to attack you. Next to my head, down low, was one of the small holes, for long rifles. Darryl Tuckey put his eye to it and stayed there for what seemed like a long time, his chest going up and down. When he pulled his head back his face was flushed, as if he was excited or angry, his opalescent eyes turning at me. He nodded for me to look.
The air was cold on my eyeball. My eyes were trying to see two worlds at once, and because of that it took a moment for my single eye to adjust to the darkness inside.
At first, I couldn’t work out what I was seeing. There was a bare, sandy mattress on the ground. And people fighting. And then the limbs became bodies, a man’s body, so much hair, a woman’s body lying with its arms out to either side. And the man had his boardshorts around his knees and his arms holding him up, and he was ramming his penis into her, in and out.
I knew even before the woman turned her head around to the wall where my eye was looking in that it was my sister Elsie, but with naked breasts, breasts like I had never seen before. I knew it was her because on her wrist was a cherry-red Swatch watch, the kind with the visible mechanisms that tick joyously round and round as you watch, the glint of the balancing jewel. Mum had given it to her for Christmas three weeks before.
The man started moaning then, as if he was in pain, as if Elsie was hurting him, and Elsie turned her head fast, little sighs, her face half-obscured, red and raw, her lips parted. And I pulled my eye back from the hole in the wall, and turned, and ran, up the side of the dune – there was a yell from behind but I didn’t stop, didn’t stop running, up and over and down through the valley and up and over the next dune and on to the beach and still I kept running, and running, forcing myself over the sand.
High overhead, shearwaters turned in the sky, their cries lost in the wind that came roaring in from the open ocean beyond the headlands.
I ran all the way through town, and down to the main pier, to the fishing platform at the end, low to the gentle rise of the passing waves, until there was nowhere left to go. And then I sat and let my legs pulse towards the water, the silent sigh of seaweed lifting and lilting from the pylons.
Darryl Tuckey found me there, later, and sat down beside me. When I didn’t say anything, he said:
I’m not like that.
I didn’t reply.
Suddenly, he put his hand on my knee. He was breathing, hard. His fingers were damp and heavy and I slapped his hand off, with enough force to leave a red mark on his skin.
The seaweed breathed out with a passing swell. Darryl Tuckey thumped his leg against the pylon.
He got up.
I felt his footsteps creak away, and then nothing.
The sun began to flare behind the clouds. The water shifted, the colours changing as the evening drew in, building up in the bay behind me.
I was still watching the water when the ray came gliding like a shadow out from under the pier, stately and poised in the deep, its edges rippling as it passed, its long tail trailing.
For a second it was beneath me, its beautiful silkiness, and I felt like I was flying on with it, my feet on its smooth back, taking me out to sea. Then it was passing, I could see its darkness moving away, out towards the headlands, away from the oncoming evening and into the setting sun.
I went home. Elsie was sitting on the couch, painting her toenails, drinking Fanta and watching Neighbours re-runs with my other sisters. When I sat down next to her, she leant over and whispered hot in my ear: I know that was you, f— face. You tell anyone, you tell mum and dad, and I will kill you. I will kill you.
I went up to my room, lay on my bed, and listened to my sister’s low voices, the faraway sea.
After that summer, we never went back.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.