‘The Summer at Opouri Bay’, by Harriet McKnight


Image courtesy of the artist.

It had taken them five hours to drive up to Opouri Bay. The sun had sunk low by the time camp was set up, so Moll wasn’t allowed to go down to the beach. They were having sausages for dinner and she had to stay and play Squatter with Bronwyn and Cass.

The nights out in Opouri were bigger than back home. The sky was higher, more stars fit into it. They had forgotten to bring the coils again so the mosquitoes hummed around their heads. A couple of days before they left, their cat, Possum, had died on the driveway and they’d buried him in the backyard. Moll had sat beside him and stroked his fur as her dad dug the hole. Later, she had lain in bed, listening to the sound of her parents’ voices rock like small waves against the tent wall.

The nights out in Opouri were bigger than back home.

“Do you think they were very upset?” her mum said.

“Nah,” said her dad.

At Opouri Bay, the sea was crashing and the bugs were pinging against the tents. Moll found it hard to get to sleep. Nature was louder than she thought it would be. The night seemed very big and open when there were no walls. Somewhere out in the dark Moll could hear the quolls growling.

The next morning they were all down the beach. Her dad took the others up the tops of the dunes and they ran down full pelt, their steps getting longer and longer until they tripped over and slid the rest of the way. Her friend, Justine, was burying Bronwyn in sand then shaping it to look like a mermaid’s tail. Moll was poking around some rock pools at low tide and sticking her fingers into anemones to see them pull their tentacles in.

“You know that there are rockfish in these pools?”

Justine was standing there with one hand on her hip. Moll looked at her straight, golden hair. Justine’s bikini was red with white spots and little white ribbons around the top.

“People die from stepping on them,” she said.

“Like cockle shells,” said Moll.

“Or stingrays,” said Justine.

Justine’s family had been coming every year the same time as Moll’s. They usually had dinners together and after the kids would play card games in the tents while the adults sat outside, their laughs loud and uneven with wine and holiday time.

The sandflies came out in the middle of the day and by the afternoon everyone had raised, red bites across their legs. The sun was still high but pretty soon the other kids began to whinge and say they were hungry. Moll’s mum began to fold up the towels. It was still warm and the sea was glittering like a beaded dress.

“Can me and Justine stay for a bit?” Moll asked.

Her mum’s face paused.

“Mum,” she said.

“Be careful,” her mum said.

Mum said just a few days ago some kid stepped on a broken bottle that was tossed into the water. People came down to the beach for parties and made it dangerous for everyone else. There could be other stuff down there too. Like nails or syringes or anything. Mum said tetanus injections were the biggest needle you could get and that’s what you had to have when you stepped on rubbish.

They ran off to the part where the bay curled around towards the rock pools and the waves were small and even. Moll let the breeze that was coming low off the water catch her towel and carry it back behind her. She ran straight at the sea, her feet hitting the surface so hard that it felt, for a moment, solid. Justine was wearing her towel around her neck like a cape.

The sea was shallow where the waves broke but then it sloped down from underneath their feet. It got deep really fast. Justine stayed on the edge of the deep part; the droplets from where the waves had risen up her legs were running down her knees.

“You know that my mum got me a bra,” she said.

“Yeah?” said Moll.

The seafloor dropped away again past where Justine was standing. Moll felt the cold water slide up her thighs.

“She said it was probably time.”

“I don’t know.”

“Has your mum gotten you one?” Justine had to cup her hands around her mouth and yell as the wind whipped her words back towards the shore.

“Nah,” said Moll.

“When they get big you have to wear one,” Justine yelled. “Otherwise you get cancer or something.”

Moll was up to her waist now, the water calm and empty in front of her. Then she walked right into it. The shark was there in front of her and then it was sideways and her belly was between its jaws. Moll thought it was weird that she couldn’t feel anything, just a sudden lopsided heaviness. She didn’t scream because the air was gone from her throat. Then she was under the water and there were bubbles in her face. The shark twisted, her face was in the air. Her hands flapping around, she put them down on the shark’s head. Its skin was rough and cool, like sandpaper. Its tail-fin was sticking up above the water. Then the shark moved again and she was under, the bubbles in her eyes.

You were supposed to go for their eyes weren’t you?

You were supposed to go for their eyes weren’t you? Try and get your fingers in there. She couldn’t feel them. The surface of the water was just in front of her face. The sun was hitting it. It looked laced with gold. Her lungs were fire. She could reach up, maybe, and stick her mouth out. There was a tearing down on her belly, or a bursting. She screamed then, and it came out in bubbles. Her fingers scratching and ripping at everything. Her feet trying to kick up and tear it with her toenails.

She felt the pressure release from her belly and she shot to the surface. Mouthfuls of water were sucked into her lungs with the air and she spluttered. She was still screaming. Her feet scrabbled for the seabed, she grabbed handfuls of water to try and pull herself back to shore.

“Juz!” she screamed. “Go get Mum!”

Justine’s face was stiff like she had stepped on a bit of glass underwater. Moll looked down at her hands and saw red trickling over her fingers.

“Go get Mum!” she screamed.

The shore was so close that Moll could see the lacy pattern the waves left behind on the sand but her legs had stopped working. She lay on her back, her ears just underneath the surface. It was quiet. All she could hear was the sea rubbing the sand together and the hiss of the waves.

Her hands were tingling. There was a sickness in her guts that felt very far away. She could feel the blood all around her. It made the water sticky. Her skin always felt sticky after she’d been in the sea. She was probably going to have wrinkled skin. The sun was shining through little bubbles in the shallow water, leaving star-shapes on the sand. Fairy trails, her mum called them.

Moll remembered the inside of Possum’s mouth. He used to yawn so wide that Moll thought his jaw would crack apart. The roof of it was ridged like the bottom of the sea. Like it had been shaped by tiny waves lapping over and over. The waves were tugging her hair back and forth. You could sleep here if it didn’t get too cold.

When a person gets hypothermia they get so cold that they stop feeling it anymore. Then they get really sleepy and they fall asleep. A car had shot a stick out from underneath its wheel and straight into Possum’s stomach. He had dragged himself up the driveway a little, before just lying there. A trail smeared on the concrete.

“That was my favourite cat,” her dad had said. Then he put Possum in a garbage bag and went to get the hose.

“That was my favourite cat,” her dad had said. Then he put Possum in a garbage bag and went to get the hose.

Moll looked at the sky. The sun was setting lavender above her. There was pulsing in her stomach. Like her heart had fallen down through her body. When things died, something went out of them and made them all stiff and smaller than they were. She could taste metal in her mouth. Possum hadn’t looked like Possum. She couldn’t feel the fabric of her bathing suit. She was pretty sure it wasn’t there anymore.

Movies said that sharks could smell one drop of blood in one hundred litres of water. She didn’t know how many litres of water the bay held but she must have lost heaps of drops of blood by now. Any minute the sandpaper skin would brush against her feet again. Her dad would stand above her and say, “That was my favourite daughter.” Maybe he would punch the sand. Her mum would say, “Just like the cat.”

Possum had his tongue out when they found him, and a stick in his stomach like a tiny, wooden missile. Movies said it was better to leave the knife in because you bleed to death once it was pulled out. Old blood was brown, not red, like movies said.

She heard movement and looked up to see what it was. Two men were standing there with fishing rods.

“Are you okay?” they said, their voices uneven. They were looking at her with wide eyes, their mouths at a funny angle. She thought they were staring too hard. She was pretty sure she was naked. She didn’t want them to look at her.

“Yeah,” she said. There was water in her ears.

“You don’t look okay,” they said. Her eyes were getting sore from straining up in her head and she couldn’t move her arms to cover herself.

“I am,” she said.

Her cheeks were hot, there was a scream in her throat as they splashed into the water and lifted her from the waves. The world was spinning like on a roller coaster. There was a theme park down near Nelson. All the Year Sevens were going next month. The water was gleaming purple and gold like an Indian sari. They had done a project on India last term. Moll had got a really good mark. Her skin was prickling but she didn’t feel cold. Her heart was still in her belly.

The fishermen’s arms felt solid under her knees and back. Her head stayed loose and hung backwards, and she was looking at the sand like it was the sky. They must be running. Her body was jolting up and down. Deep hollows in the damp sand from the fishermen’s feet turned shallow and shapeless as the sand became drier. Moll’s head was still facing back the way they had come. The footprints made a pattern back down to the water behind them. Moll could see the red smudge on the water’s edge. It might have been the sunset. She couldn’t hear much anymore, she felt really sleepy. If they stopped rocking her in their arms she might be able to stay awake.

This story was first published in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 12. It is a work of fiction based heavily on This American Life episode 476: Just Keep Breathing. You can listen to the podcast here

Harriet McKnight is a writer from Melbourne. She is also the Deputy Editor of The Canary Press.