Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for July is Flames by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), a tale of grief and love and the bonds of family, tracing a journey across the southern island that sings out with joy and sadness.
The sand was hard and sharp and blowing up into Karl’s shins, whipped cruel by the dead northerly coming in over the white-chopped sea. He increased his pace, trotting across the beach, juggling his bucket and tackle box and rod, heading for the boatsheds and the trail that lay between them, the one that curled through the boobialla and up to the smoky heat of his house and lounge and family.
His haul: two blackbacks and three lizards, dragged from the water near the salt-pocked pylons of the old jetty, the one that rotted around the turn of the Hawley headland. Each fish killed by a smack of Karl’s knifepoint between the eyes. Some people nicked the gills and left them to bleed out in a bucket of seawater. Others filleted them alive, sliding fillets off wriggling spines. And some left them to drown in the air, gills pumping, scales darkening. But a well-aimed strike to the brain is the fastest way to render a fish dead, and this was how Karl did it, with speed and precision and an absence of feeling.
Yet this – this standing on a rock, casting, waiting; slow breathing, glum patience, big stillness – this wasn’t fishing. Not really. This was angling. Fishing, as far as Karl was concerned, happened out over the break of the waves and in the rolling navy, bobbing high and steady with a spear in one hand and the slick scruff of a seal in the other, waiting for the run of a beast more weapon than fish: the Oneblood tuna. A man couldn’t hunt it alone, and neither could a seal, but together they could kill a beast twice as heavy as the two of them combined.
Men from the north coast of this southern island – muttering men, salt-rinsed men, men like Karl – had been hunting this way since before records of the coast were kept. Each hunter formed a bond in their youth with a pup they would seek out from the rocky colonies offshore. Here, past the narrow heads that sheltered Hawley and its neighbouring towns from the wider strait, the seals hauled out on the narrow ledges of a few rock spires that rose from the sea, jostling for space amid gull guano and mussels. In spring the young northmen would row out to them, leaving their soft beaches and dappled bluegums to seek out a hunting companion; or more than that, if they believed their own myths: to find the half of themselves they had been born without.
Men from the north coast of this southern island – muttering men, salt-rinsed men, men like Karl – had been hunting this way since before records of the coast were kept.
Karl’s seal was a New Zealand fur pup he’d locked eyes with while swaying in the slimy touch of a kelp forest. Their connection had been sharp and sudden: Karl diving from his dinghy, stroking across a reef to the kelp, then stopped by a head that emerged a metre in front of him. Two black orbs glowed out of the smooth brown dome with a heaviness that Karl had never known, and he had reached, without thinking, offering his hand for the pup to sniff or lick or maul.
After what had felt like a whole season the pup leaned in to his grip and rested a slippery cheek and a comb of wiry whiskers against the lines of Karl’s palm. Their staring continued. The pup grunted. Karl, now exhausted by furious water-treading, reached out with his free hand to cup the pup’s other cheek. The ocean rolled into his mouth as he sucked upwards at the low sky. The seal rested, the waves chopped, and the true meaning of salt and water and air wobbled inside Karl’s mind. And just as a blinding curtain of sting-water bobbed over his eyes the seal barked, jumped and flashed away into the underwater forest. Karl flopped back to his dinghy, drowned-rat wet and sore and numb, with no idea if it had worked, if he would ever see the pup again, if he’d done anything at all.
But two days later he moored his dinghy on a buoy out near the gushing current of the strait, lifted his grandfather’s spear and looked out over the big-blown waves to see the pup, flippers in the air, eyes boring once again into his own. Karl sucked air and dived headfirst into the swell, kicked his flippers hard and headed for the tuna grounds – and with each double-kick of his skinny legs he followed the twirling, back-and-forthing figure of his fur seal.
In their first year together they learned little and caught nothing. They were too young, small and inexperienced to take down a Oneblood – which weigh, on average, around four hundred and fifty kilograms. The most they could do was swim to where the fish congregated and watch them feed on kingfish and salmon, their huge barrelled bodies torpedoing through the water, scales shining, jaws lunging.
To behold a Oneblood is to gaze upon a manifestation of strength and purpose that no human, no matter how gifted or determined, will ever even approach. A creature this large, this heavy, this wrapped in bulging muscle, should be sluggish; yet a Oneblood can fly through saltwater at over one hundred kilometres an hour. A fish this strong should hunt by force; but no, a Oneblood would rather sneak and pounce than rip and roar. A beast this mighty should be impossible to miss; but a Oneblood is camouflaged by the murk of the ocean, only appearing when it cares to be witnessed.
Hanging in the ocean, Karl saw the Onebloods appear from the depths as if through a portal: dark blueness one second, a missile of muscle and scales the next, rising up after its prey at a speed so fast the water boiled around its body. And then, with its quarry captured, it was gone – zipped back into the darker depths. Seeing one hunt was tricky enough; to Karl, killing one seemed impossible. But he knew it could be done – he had seen them brought back on Hawley boats since he was a child, mountains of ruby flesh with a long spear protruding from the thick, purple-red artery that ran from their throat to their dorsal and gave the species its name.
To behold a Oneblood is to gaze upon a manifestation of strength and purpose that no human will ever even approach.
His seal seemed to have no doubt they could do it. In that first year he joined Karl on every expedition, flicking his fast, sleek body around Karl’s bobbing limbs as they watched the Onebloods feed. Sometimes he chased a tuna for twenty or thirty metres, but always broke off and returned to Karl, a doggish smile hanging from his whiskers. With no tuna meat to hand he fed on squid and salmon, slowly growing in weight and girth and strength.
Karl kept himself alive by working as a decky on a fishing charter, helping smooth-gripped tourists drag in snapper, couta and some of the smaller tuna varieties, such as bluefin or albacore – beasts that were to Onebloods as house cats are to jaguars. It was after one of these trips, while depositing some lawyers back on the docks at Hawley, that Karl saw the McAllister matriarch rising from the tide, reborn, bedecked with cowries, sand-skin and a large abalone stuck to her neck. Karl didn’t take much notice; McAllister women, he’d always been told, were trouble, whether they breathed with lungs or gills or not at all.
After work, after helping his parents around the house, Karl was always back out in the water with his seal. In their second year together they began making half-hearted chases after juvenile Onebloods. His seal now weighed eighty kilograms, and would feint and slip after the tuna in a twitchy dance that their supposed prey would largely ignore. Karl ignored him too, for the most part, until the day his seal flipped back to him with a single glimmering scale clenched in his mouth. Three weeks later he drew blood; a mid-sized Oneblood shot away from them leaking a thin trail of ironrich redness, and the seal could barely move his jaws for days after nipping at such a ferocious force of movement.
In their third year they began choreographing the moves that every tuna team must master. First, the seal must pick up the flashing premonition of the Oneblood as it surges from the depths. Then he must dive below the great fish and begin to harass it, through a series of turns, nips, circles and feints. A Oneblood is faster than any seal over a straight line, but in short angles its massive bulk can’t keep up. Corralled in this way the Oneblood will seek to catch the seal and rip the irritating mammal into hot pieces. When it can’t, its next move will be to escape, and it is then that the seal must really get to work. As the fish looks for an easy exit the seal must herd it upwards, gradually, patiently, towards the stabs of sunlight and the wind-cut surface and the waiting spear of his partner. By now the Oneblood is uncomfortable, furious and, probably for the first time in its life, afraid. Since the seal has begun its corral the fish has not been in control of its movements, and it does not like this: not at all. Most of all it hates the seal – in the same way humans hate the whine of a mosquito that fizzes past the ear just as they are tumbling into sleep – so it does not even notice the dangling legs of its other hunter, nor the gleaming barb of its weapon.
Since the seal has begun its corral the fish has not been in control of its movements, and it does not like this: not at all.
When fish and seal have come within three metres of the sea’s lid it is time for the human to act. And it is not hard, really, not when compared with what the seal has done, but it takes precision, and speed, and a certain calmness. As the Oneblood reaches striking distance the paddling hunter must dive beneath the surface, ready his aim, wait for the flash of the fish’s white underbelly and, most importantly, the purple seam of life that threads through its body. When the artery is visible he must strike. He cannot miss, not even by an inch, because a spear plunged into scales and muscle will no more annoy the tuna than the nips of the seal, and it will escape. The point and barb of the spear must cannon into the glowing artery, where the scales are thin and the life is beating. Blood will cloud the sea, and the eyes and mouth of the Oneblood will yank wide.
Now arrives the hardest part of the hunter’s job: holding on. As its life-juice leaks away the tuna begins to thrash with all the strength and panic stored up in its mighty body, and the hunter must not let go of his spear; he must remain connected to his prey, even as he is torqued and whipped through the water like a kite in a storm, even as the air is shaken out of his lungs in big rush-rising bubbles. It is only when this wild thrashing slows down – which could take two, three, five minutes – that the watching seal flies in to clamp a hard mouth onto the spine at the back of the Oneblood’s head, crunching down on the brain stem; and finally, out of blood, out of mind, the great fish dies, and the exhausted seal and drowning hunter must drag it to the boat, where it is gaffed and winched aboard before sharks sniff the blood and bring more, unwanted death.
This process is easy to describe, much harder to carry out. During that third year Karl and his seal attempted it dozens of times, never getting close to making a kill, usually coming much closer to being killed themselves by their harried, huge prey. More happened in this year – Karl’s parents gave up on coastal life and moved to a unit down south in the capital, leaving the family cottage to Karl with the proviso that he occasionally visited them; his seal swelled to one hundred kilos and began to grow a thick mane around his scruff; a storm smashed up the fishing boat Karl worked on, robbing him of three months’ wages; and when it was repaired, on their first charter with a group of tourism-industry bigwigs, he met Louise.
Early on there was talk that he’d move across to Devonport, where she ran her holiday-booking business, but this idea never caught on. (Karl only went along with it out of courtesy; he knew that Hawley had hooked her.) When Louise realised there was no uprooting Karl she moved herself into the cottage, bringing her business with her and turning the spare room into an office. Karl, by now in his late twenties, felt an itch beneath the salt on his skin when he started seeing her on his shabby deck every evening as he trudged home, and knew, even though he had never spoken to anyone about women or courting or even the reddening notion of love, that he needed to do something permanent about her. He knew it as surely as he knew the Hawley tides – but it wasn’t all up to him.
Even though he had never spoken to anyone about women or courting, he knew he needed to do something permanent about her.
For the final approval he goaded Louise into his dinghy, muttering not much at all in response to her questions, and chugged out to the spires beyond the heads. Here he raised his spear, as he always did, and within a minute his seal joined them. He splashed Karl with both fore-flippers, eager to hunt, but stopped when he saw Louise. A heavy stare. A long blink. A slow, submerged circumnavigation of the boat. A reemergence and a querulous bark. Louise baulked. Reach for him, Karl asked. Please.
After a few moments of hesitation she did, looking back and forth between Karl and the seal, not panicked, but certainly not comfortable. The seal splashed, barked louder, and moved in. The heat of its breath stank across her knuckles. The seal’s mouth opened, revealing small, bright-white daggers. Its head dipped, rolled, twisted…and then it was butting her hand, turning it over, revealing the thin, vulnerable skin of her wrist and the blue veins shining through it. Her eyes shot circular and she nearly yanked back her arm, but Karl said: Wait, wait. Let him come. Against all her instincts she did, with her eyes closed, so she didn’t see the seal swim an inch closer and lean his face against her palm; she only felt it.
At his touch her eyes opened, and she looked down to see the resting watery face throwing a heavy stare up at her. Now your other hand, said Karl. Use both. And just as he had done years earlier, she moved in and cupped the seal’s head, now far larger than when Karl had first held it. The moment lingered. A contented bark leapt from his hot mouth and then, with a diving flip, he was gone, leaving Louise to shriek with relief and wonder, and turn to Karl and see two trails of hot water running down his cheeks, mixing salt with salt.