The following story appears in Going Down Swinging #38. Grab a copy here.
Yabbie King by Aaron Billings, from Going Down Swinging #38.
The last swim of the holiday, snuck between packing and leaving. Oliver heads back in, his fingers brushing jelly-blubbers at the end of each breaststroke. They bounce away, spun around and dragged by his wake. The water’s thick with them, like bits in soup. The low tide carries an ending – the shadows are longer, the air colder. The bay is aware of him, somehow.
He mentions this to Mae when she gets back from hunting crabs.
“This happens to you every year,” she says. “Right when we’re going home.”
“The bay’s sad to see us go.”
“Why would it care?” She’s covered in mud up to her boardies, flecks of dirt drying across her T-shirt and forehead. She looks like a predator meant to trudge through mangroves, to look down through silt and watch for armoured backs.
“I found three,” she says, holding up a bucket. “Males. A seventeen, a fifteen and a twenty. All legal.” The biggest muddie’s curled up with his claws tucked by his face, measuring twenty centimetres across his moss-green back. Underneath him, separated by layers of mangrove leaves, are two others big enough for eating.
“You’ve gotten really good,” he says.
“Better than you?”
“Absolutely,” he says, honestly. “No question.”
The two of them need to be out on the water, well away from shore before dark. Before the Nocturnals start dancing. They triple-check the knot-work of their raft, fastening each barrel: bright blue plastic, lashed around their gunnels in rows of four by three. They settle their minds to the idea of coming back one day but not, at least, for a year. High school starts in a month and there are haircuts and books to buy.
The raft slides off the jetty and it floats like they knew it would. Mae sets out with the steering pole, like a gondolier from Venice. She sings “‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’,” but gets the words wrong, strings them together too quickly: “My bodyliesovertheocean… My bodyliesoverthesea…” She laughs at her own private joke. Out towards the harbour, out in the open water where it’s too deep for them to steer, cruise liners drift like icebergs.
The sun reaches its peak. They hide from it in the shade of the mangroves, lighting a fire in a metal bin and letting the crabs bake on a grill above the coals. Their shells glow ridiculous orange, the tips of their claws a piercing white.
Eating crabs is a ritual of sparagmos and omophagia – of tearing apart with bare hands and ingesting fresh and raw. Breaking off their legs, slurping out the meat and tossing the sucked-out hollows into the water where fish can slither inside cavities too small for human tongues. Ash sticks to everything, on fingers sticky with sweat. Flies landing on cracked shells, getting filthy.
“If only we had butter.”
“You say that every year,” she says, wrenching open a carapace and scooping out a hunk of back meat. One crab each. One crab left.
The clouds thicken up towards the afternoon, giving them cover when they set out again. They take turns steering, playing games with their conversations. Young games with no rules: accept what is said and respond with something open and free. Even if you don’t understand it.
“If I were a Nocturnal I would eat you,” she says. “Like a crab. Tear you apart and suck the meat from your legs.”
“We’d probably taste the same,” he says back. “We’ve been eating the same things. We’d taste like salt and mud and crab guts.” She laughs at that.
“I would only eat you if I couldn’t bury you. So you don’t go to waste.”
“Just don’t chuck me overboard,” he says. “I don’t want eels swimming inside me.”
She puts her fingers together, like a ribcage, and slurps her tongue between the gaps. He shivers at the thought.
Salt cooks on their skin, muscles aching all the way, but they make it to the mouth of the estuary at the other side of the bay. A full day’s work. They drop their anchor – a bucket filled with cement, an eyebolt embedded into it – even though the water is so still it reflects the sky. If they look long enough they can get turned around, swallowed up. The two of them set up a tent in the centre of the raft and rest.
Night starts to happen. First in the water, when the bottom fades away. Then in the sky, when charcoal fills its edges, until the darkness is broken only by the reflection of the moon pulled and stretched across the bay. Neither of them notice it happening until they can hardly see into the trees.
At night the world belongs to other animals; invisible things lurk through the silt underneath, feeling for heat and vibrations. Oliver gets to the business of sleep. Mae stays sitting up, watching the mangrove forest.
“Mae,” he says.
“I just want to watch them dance.”
“I know.” A pause, reasoning. “But you shouldn’t.”
She stays, fixed on the tree line. They hear music, electronic and synthetic, the faint spores of rhythm moving ahead of the wind.
The Nocturnals emerge into the gaps between the trees, ear-to-speaker with boom-boxes, bass pulsating across the water. Some are wrapped in seagrass and mangrove leaves, others cover themselves in possum fur and stingray-leather, the tusks of wild pigs, the pelts of feral cats. They carry buckets of glow-in-the-dark, dripping radioactive light that leaks through branches.
“They must be driving the animals crazy,” Oliver says, but he is barely listening to himself.
The Nocturnals begin to dance. They dip their hands into the buckets, smothering themselves in glowing paint. They press their bodies together, mixing colours, thrashing like the daughters of Bacchus, lost and abandoned to the world. Paint spatters onto leaves until they’ve created a nest of writhing neon.
“Look,” Mae says, and she points back across the bay to the trees on the far side. Flickers of light created by rival gangs of Nocturnals, fires dotting the horizon. He climbs into the tent and sleeps, legs drenched in sweat.
In the morning, mist has settled over the mangroves. Oliver and Mae drink dew from a water catcher and set off into the mouth of the estuary. Their stomachs begin growling as the tide starts to rise, and so they split their last crab between them. One claw, half a back and a fistful of legs each. They throw the carcass into the water and watch a long, black eel slither away with it into deeper water.
They keep moving, up the river, pushing against the silt. The water is impeccably clear, filtered by thousands of roots. Oliver and Mae glide over the top of it all. They imagine fish looking up to see the stomach of an impossibly large beast, a wooden whale blocking the sun.
Their conversations start running away again, bouncing off each other. Going everywhere and leading back to nowhere.
“What do you want to be?” she asks.
“When you grow up?” She lies on her back and looks at the sky.
“I want to be me,” he says. “But more sure of who I am. Sure of where I’m meant to be. Exactly there.”
“You’re not there now?”
“Don’t think so,” he says, and pauses to think. “You?”
“I want to find someone I can fight, every night, someone who will bite me back and claw at me when I jump on them, someone who can hunt and scavenge and will run away and never come back sometimes,” she speaks faster and faster, chasing the clouds.
“Someone just like you?’ he asks, and she snaps towards him.
“Yeah!’ And they fight, rocking the raft from side to side. Splashes lap at the banks, scattering fish. Underneath it must look like a storm, a giant cloud rollicking and churning up a land of white hills. Mae goes too far, as she has been doing lately, knocking her head into his, crunching his nose and making his head spin. He stands back, catching his breath, fighting back tears.
“Sorry,” she says. He scolds her with red-rimmed eyes. She holds her knees and stares into the water. Sulking, Oliver grabs the steering pole and pushes them on, forward, back home.
“Look.” Mae’s voice snaps Oliver out of a daydream, their argument almost forgotten. She points towards the centre of the river, directing his eyes to a dark, flickering shape that sits under the surface. The water is deeper there – too deep for the pole.
“A house-boat,” she says. ‘Must’ve been left behind.”
“Let’s just go.”
“It might have food inside.”
“We’re out of crabs,” she snaps. “Want to starve before we make it home?’
“We’ll make it,” he says, but there’s no use arguing, she’s already kicking off her sandals, snatching up a wet bag and stepping off the raft. She wades out to the middle and treads, breathes in, out, in again. Her body floats on the surface until she lifts her legs, dips forward, and slips effortlessly under the water.
He tries to keep track of how long she stays under, but he lets a little bit of fear in and imagines what it would be like to be left alone. His thoughts won’t stay still. His chest tightens. It’s egg-laying season, and sharks have been known to swim this far up the river. The water seems darker: the afternoon must be setting in. Alone. He wouldn’t have any friends at school. He could never come back.
Mae’s head breaks the surface. She gasps, swallowing air, while Oliver breathes out, letting the worry out of his chest, deflating. He shivers. Mae sculls back to the raft and clambers on-board, flopping onto her stomach and rolling onto her back. She sits up and rummages through her wet bag.
“Find anything?” he asks. She looks at him, and he looks back, a small moment of unrecognisability in one another that disappears quickly but leaves an impression that won’t go away. They look older, tired, a trace of worry in their eyes.
“What happened?” he asks, making sure not to add, “to you”.
Mae pulls something heavy out of her bag. It thunks against the raft as she places it down.
“I found this,” she says, turning it over slowly, as if to show that she knows it’s not a toy. A knife, something made for camping or hunting, tucked inside a leather sheath.
“And these.” She empties out her bag and out spills a coil of wet climbing rope, and a tiny, plastic first-aid kit.
“Great,” he says. “Cool. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Can we go now?”
They set off again, Mae steering, not speaking a word until sunset. The light fades faster that deep into the forest. The night seems closer. Birdsong’s replaced by the intermittent barks, screeches and deep notes of owls – Boobooks, Frogmouths out hunting. They move their raft as deep as they can go. Mae sits cross-legged, looking out into the forest even though she can hardly see past the first row of trees.
“Mae,” he says.
“I know, I just—”
“—want to watch them dance. I know,” he says, gently. “Please don’t.”
She comes back. He smiles a ‘thank you’ at her. They climb into the tent and into their sleeping bags. Mae rolls onto her side, away from him, and he remembers that when they first started coming to the bay they would talk face to face all night, waking up with mutual morning breath blasting each other.
After a while, under the gaze of owls and night-hunters, they fall asleep with empty minds. Whatever dreams they have, whatever thoughts left over from the day, are carried away by the river.
Music pounds him into reality. Oliver opens his eyes to darkness, something wrong in the air. Smoke, ash, wood fire. The tent’s open and he can feel a breeze drinking away his body heat. Music, beating drums, reverberating bass. He feels around, searching for a body beside him. He is alone. Adjusting his vision to the darkness, he climbs through the open zip.
“Mae?” he says. She’s standing near the edge of the raft. She hasn’t seen him, can’t hear him, doesn’t know he’s watching her dance. She has her hands in her hair, throwing her head around, side to side, to the beat.
The Nocturnals are on the banks of the river, so close. Closer than he’s ever seen them. He can hear them laugh, smashing bottles against trees. A few of them twirl and leap over bonfires, covered in neon paint, painfully bright against his night eyes. Oliver can feel their music vibrating over his skin and fizzling out along his hair – the kind of music that ignores you or forces you to join in, to grapple with it, fight it, releasing anything pent up.
“Mae,” he says, louder this time, and she spins around, an animal reflex. “Let’s go to sleep.” His voice feels tiny compared to the frenzy of sound that engulfs him. She stays silent, searching for something – as if wanting to say no, as if wanting to turn back around and forget him – and it must be written on her face because he looks at her like she’s just said that all out loud, screamed it at him.
“What happened to you?” he says, and now it’s her turn to look hurt.
“Nothing, nothing happened to me.”
They stare at each other, letting the dance of the Nocturnals drown everything out. It fills their ears, and when they try to breathe it fills their mouths and noses until it’s all through them, echoing off of every hollow space inside – holding them, tugging and pulling at them – until they are full of it, made of it.
A beer bottle splashes in the water. They look to the banks. The Nocturnals are staring at them, calling them over. Their eyes are silvery and bright, flashing between branches like machine-gun fire. Mae watches them, staring without blinking for longer and longer. She steps forward, almost into the water, before Oliver grabs her hand. And yet she still watches. Still mesmerised. She leans away from him, and he feels like he’s going to be swept away in her wake.
He fumbles around in the dark, finding the coil of rope dragged up from the river bottom. Tying a knot around her wrist, and another around his, he holds her in place like an anchor. He keeps her there all night until the music starts fading, until the Nocturnals filter away to wherever they go when the world no longer belongs to them.
Mae stops pulling when the sun is well and truly up. Her shoulders sink, her chin drops to her chest. Oliver’s muscles are aching and cramping, his legs full of pins and needles. He closes his eyes, and then the knife is in her hands, her movements jarring him out of a microsleep. She examines the blade, the serrated edge near the hilt, the fold of metal. She looks at the rope around her wrist.
“What knot is this?” she asks.
“A bowline,” he says. “The rabbit comes out the hole, around the tree, and back in. Easy.”
“It’s pretty,” she says. “I like it.” She cuts through the rope with a few tugs, leaving the knot as a bracelet.
They crawl into the tent and sleep for a while, their sleeping bags open and kicked to their ankles. They wake at the same time – their body clocks synchronised after travelling next to each other for so long. The sun has passed its peak already; most of the day is gone.
“We better get going,” she says.
They brush their teeth, something they’ve forgotten to do for a while, and spit gobs of Colgate into the river. White foam floats away. They weigh anchor, Mae takes the steering pole, and they set off.
The river becomes dirtier, the air thicker. The trees open up to grass fields and football ovals. The mangroves disappear, crushed underneath stone slabs laid by a local council. Signs with rules on them appear – no dogs off leashes, a bushfire spectrum set to ‘low-moderate’. They can see the city in the distance, a tower poking up above a skyline. A plane leaves a trail of vapour behind, and from the way it’s flying overhead, it looks like a rocket has taken off straight into the sky.
“In the houseboat, I found something else.”
“What?” Oliver looks up at her.
“A boy,” she says. “Dressed in seaweed and fur. He tied himself down there. With the rope. Around his neck.”
She keeps pushing them on. People, families look at them as they go past, seeing only two sunburnt children in boardies and rashies with fading elastic.
“Like everything was becoming mud and silt, and fish were swimming around him and inside his mouth, and it looked like he was alive but really he was just trapped in this world. By the rope. By himself. So I cut him free.”
Mae looks at him. The way the afternoon light reflects off her irises – a glint of silver like a wildcat – lodges in his mind and he can’t quite forget it.
“I’m not sure if I was dreaming.”
“That’s never going to be you,” he says. It feels wrong but it’s the best he can do.
Mae looks at the knot around her wrist.
“It felt like me, and you, and all of us.” She stops pushing the raft, and for a while they are stuck between worlds.
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