I hadn’t expected there would really be a cave.
It was a legend, a family myth, a story Dad told each year around the dinner table when the Christmas trifle was reduced to a creamy blur in grandma’s cut-glass dish. I wonder which sister snaffled that glittery heirloom in the post-funeral bun-rush? All Mum’s tarnished silver teaspoons, green Depression-glass dishes, vintage enamel cookware with chipped edges, all piled in cardboard boxes, stowed quickly into the back of the hatchback or the four-wheel drive. They left me just the basic Woollies-bought everyday stuff. I’d been living here on my own for so long, Mum in the nursing home, it was a wonder my sisters hadn’t taken all her good stuff ages ago. It was their right, it seemed, to plunder the kitchen—I had been given all Dad’s naval memorabilia at his death, ten years ago. This was their turn.
Beans. While the girls were looting the kitchen cupboards they discovered my cache of baked beans. Rows of tins—I buy them by the carton at the bulk grocery outlet in Wanganoo, along with over-sized tins of dog food for Brent—stacked three high on the pantry shelves.
“My God, Graham!” called Celia. “Don’t you eat anything but beans?”
“You really need to take better care of yourself than that,” said Kay. “None of us are getting any younger. Fresh foods, wholegrains…”
“Nothing wrong with beans,” I said, dodging out the door.
“Do you think he’s going a bit…funny…living by himself?” Celia asked, as I retreated across the lawn. I smiled. Beans are my breakfast staple, that’s all. There’s a two dollar roast at the club for lunch, or if they’re biting, fresh mullet; bags of tomatoes and huge bunches of silverbeet wrapped in newspaper from neighbours up and down the row of five-acre lots on our pot-holed, unsealed road.
I don’t bother with dairy. Black tea, no cheese, it never did suit my digestion, although Brent loves it when he gets a sliver of tasty cheddar from Norma and Bob next door, while we’re sitting over a few ales in the evening. And I have a tin of ginger nuts always full, but that’s in my room tucked under the bed, for sucking and dunking in my mug of tea over a late night read, and the girls, as sure as eggs, they won’t be allowed to ferret around in there.
The tattered screen door bounced and clanged against the door jamb as I walked beach-ward, to the growing tide swell that moaned like an injured dog in my half-deaf ears. Brent had woken from his slumber on the couch to follow me.
Past the kiddies kicking beach balls over stumped-up sand; past the wrinkled, tanned die-hards on their towels forever sunning their sandy, oiled backs with bikini-strings undone; past the surfers beyond the breakers waiting for a decent wave; past the fishermen’s eskies and their rods slung out across the tide line from sawn-off lengths of PVC pipe wedged into the sand. Brent lingered and sniffed, he was well known to all the locals. I walked past all these visible signs of humanity. The voices echoed fainter and fainter as the bird calls grew more and more plaintive as I neared the cape.
Normally I would stand on the headland and watch out to sea, or crouch in a sheltered spot on bare rock if the wind were fierce. Perhaps the funeral had left me with a basic need for shelter, but for whatever reason, today I eschewed the open knoll and climbed down the jagged cliff. I clambered over piles of exposed rocks washed by the sea’s relentless churning, like so many children’s blocks tossed by a child-giant into his foaming bath.
The sea was cold on my bare toes. I took off my rubber thongs and tucked them into the back pockets of my baggy khaki shorts, and headed around the point. The tide was leaving, drawing back as everything else in my life had a habit of doing. I took my cue from the forces of nature, an opportunist, as always, and began to remember the stories of the cave, embroidered with purple detail at each new telling, deeply engraved on my heart with the weight of childhood belief in a loved adult’s words.
My shorts were soaked by the time I was around the corner and could no longer see the long expanse of sand north of the point. Like a woman removing a veil, the tide withdrew inch by inch, until I could plainly see the curvature of the rocks, the tunnel-like entrance to the mysteries of family lore. I hesitated, for who could tell when the tide would return, and I would be lost, trapped or drowned, while seeking nothingness, a fairy tale of an old man’s making to bolster his position of authority in the tribal gathering. I plunged into the darkness.
Immediately I heard a ringing, like a bellbird, but echoing, chiming, resounding with a harmonic effect unlike anything I had ever experienced, As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I trod deeper and deeper into a cavern, the sound intensifying. I could just about make out the shapes of boulders on either side. Then I was astounded to see that a light glowed from an inner part of the chamber, leading me through the sand-lined tunnel, beckoning, pulsating, in time with the haunting song.
Her eyes, her wistful, strange eyes with the brilliant lapis lazuli irises, drilled into my skull like a speed bore.
She sat on the edge of a wooden dinghy, large gaping hole in its side, lying like a slaughtered whale on the floor of the cave. She was naked—her slender arms, resting by her sides had an olive green tinge, as did her exposed torso and the buoyant, dark-nippled breasts that bore no resemblance to the coy bosoms of the sunbathers on the beach. Gleaming, Celtic-black hair hung past her waist. She had no feet, no legs, just one muscular tail, not scaled like a fish, but smooth and curved like a dolphin. She raised one arm, grasping a harpoon of ancient design. I could see the glint of the bladed point and barbed hooks that would make retrieval from a bed of flesh impossible.
A leaping blur of wet, brown dog-hair crashed through the gloom, landing with a thud that coincided with a shriek of inhuman intensity, and a sudden plunge back into black silence. I heard a crunch of metal on bone and an animalistic sigh of expelled breath, either the dying spirit of the mer-woman or my poor Brent.
I turned and stumbled, half crawled, back to the opening of the cave. The waters were knee-deep. I had to hurry back around the rocks to the main beach. When I finally made it up onto dry sand, I saw that my clothes were splattered in red dots that could only be sprayed blood. I wept for my dog.
I sat for a long time, watching the breakers. A sailboat left the cove making swift progress towards the horizon. Two figures paced quickly along the beach. My sisters arrived without speaking, settled either side of me on the sand. Celia handed me a hanky as Kay said: ‘I knew it would wash over you before long, Graham. You can’t tell me you aren’t grieving.’
I let them fuss over me, couldn’t tell them it wasn’t Mum I was crying for.
“Sorry, Graham, but there’s more bad news,” said Kay. “Norma and Bob found Brent lying up on the headland. He’s in a bad way, lost a lot of blood…:
I was on my feet, stumbling through the churned-over sands.
“Brent doesn’t usually go off alone like that, does he?” asked Celia, struggling to keep up.
“Oh look!” she cried, pointing out to sea. “A dolphin!”
“Wrong color for a dolphin,” said Kay. “Sort of greenish.”
“Must be the light. What else could it be?”
“Dad’s mermaid. Remember the story of the mermaid’s cave, Graham?”
I was jogging up the slope to the car park, the quickest way home. “The warrior-mermaid …protecting …her …treasure cave,” I recited between gasps. “Corrupted by pirates …” I stopped now, hunched, hands on my knees, catching my breath. “She outlived them all to be sole inheritor of their sea plunder.”
Wondering what stores of gold sovereigns, pearls and emeralds Brent’s canine eyes must have seen on his desperate climb through smugglers’ tunnels to the headland, I began running.
Dodging cars entering and leaving the car park, loaded with spear guns and fishing rods; weaving through the flock of red and yellow lifesavers packing away their gear in the surf club; jumping the grevillea-edged pathway; cutting across the oval pocked with rabbit holes that Brent loved to sniff and dig.
Sprinting now along the unsealed road, I didn’t see the dusty track or the black cockatoo soaring overhead. I saw the lined face of my father, telling his tale, one drooping eyelid covering an empty eye-socket, his one green eye glittering as his booming naval commander’s voice declared: “Nothing else could have saved me, lad—I ripped it from that sea-bitch’s finger, and put it in place of my eye…”
I ran straight past Brent where he lay bleeding on the front veranda. Past Dad’s stern portrait in the hall, to my childhood bedroom. Pulled the bed roughly from the wall, reached for the suitcase that was pushed right to the back for safekeeping. I cursed the stiff brass buckles on the leather straps, fumbled with the rusty catch. At last the lid was free and I pushed aside old uniforms, medals and maps to find a water-stained calico pouch tied with string. I ran with it, loosening the wrapping with my teeth, finally shaking loose from wads of cotton a heavy, gold-set emerald ring. I laid it in Brent’s ragged wound. As Celia and Kay reached the house, the dog took one deep, slow intake of breath. And another.
Julie Anne Thorndyke has published two collections of tanka poetry, Rick Rack and Carving Granite. A graduate of the Master of Creative Writing program at the University of Sydney, Australia, she has published stories and poems in many literary journals. More of her writing may be read on the website https://jthorndyke.wordpress.com/
The cave was first published in Phoenix: the University of Sydney Writers’ Journal, University of Sydney Press, 2007.