Tilting her face up towards the sky as the water rolled over her feet, she willed the sun to invade her, to fill her up with warmth and energy. Opening her mouth, attempting to somehow breathe in the sun, she caught some sea spray on the wind and the unexpected salty taste caught her off-guard.
She always felt so alive when she was near the ocean; it was the place where she felt the weather most keenly. The wind didn’t blow madly, like the city wind that sent unpinned hats flying down crowded streets. Instead it managed to lift the stress that had settled into her body and blow away the worries she’d been weighed down by. The sun, fierce in its awesome yet ultimately destructive power, signalled the early warning sign of a tomato-red complexion followed by blistering burnt skin.
She dug her feet in the sand, squelching the tiny grains up and between her toes as the tide dragged out.
Looking up the beach, she saw him. His shirt was off and he was standing on rocks at the base of the headland. He’d fastened a couple of rods to the rocks and was clambering back and forth between them, methodically checking the lines for snags and bait. She wondered if he’d put any sunscreen on.
She’d woken to an empty bed that morning, like she had every other day that week. She’d go to the beach every morning to find him, rods and buckets set up for the catch with all manner of tackle at the ready. Each time he’d been in a different spot and she’d had an interesting, at times exhausting, journey searching him out; exploring rocky caves, barnacle-encrusted rock pools and lifeless sand dunes as she went. Twice she hadn’t found him until the sun was almost gone.
He saw her down the beach, slowly making her way towards him. She fit in well with the surroundings, he thought; as though this was somehow her place, like the windblown Pandanus trees or the spinnaker grass on the dunes. Not like him. Even out here, where they were the only people for miles, with no-one else around to notice, he knew how at odds he appeared with the environment. He felt awkward, like a fraud. He knew he didn’t fit. Couldn’t fit, somehow.
At night they would came back to at the shack, sit on the verandah and drink wine, cold beer, tea; relishing the cool night air, discussing their day’s adventures. She shared tales of blindingly white sandy beaches, icy cold rock pools and fish that swam towards you. And him, always the tales of the ones that got away, speculating about what tomorrow’s catch might bring.
It’d been a hot summer, the hottest she could remember living through. By the time they’d left for the island, cracks were starting to creep along the walls of their house. The drought had wreaked havoc on much of their home; the earth under them hardened after years with no water, building foundations choked, every drop of moisture sucked out of structures.
She wondered how the old place was handling being closed-up all day. Heat building, steam unable to escape. She imagined the hot air swirling around inside the house, trying to force its way out under ill-fitting doors or through vents in the stucco; vents clogged with the scum left from lives lived by past tenants.
As they sat in the dark sipping their drinks she wondered if he was keeping his favourite adventures to himself. He hadn’t caught any fish this week and as far as she knew, he never did.
It occurred to her that he must be exceptionally inept to go almost an entire week of dedicated fishing and not catch anything. Maybe those were his favourite stories, the ones he left unshared.
Her favourite was of an underwater cave she’d come across accidentally while snorkelling around the island. She guessed the mouth of the cave would be partially exposed during a low tide. Though wide and cavernous inside, the roof was low and had been pummelled smooth over the years. The floor of the cave was shallow enough that she could dive to the bottom and lie on the white sandy floor, watching the tide move in and out above her until her lungs burned and an unseen vice tightened in her chest.
Her hair caught some highlights from the sun as she walked along the shoreline. She was beautiful. He watched her move effortlessly along the beach and that little voice inside his head recognised that he resented her immensely.
She walked into the water until it reached mid-thigh then dove in, pressure building as the water tried to force its way into her every pore. She came up to float on her back, drifting in the tide with her arms outstretched at right angles to her body, and felt her dress billow and ride up as it caught the waves when she moved against the tide.
Warmed through, she turned to see him looking her way and waved, one arm first and then two when he didn’t respond. Still getting no response, she gave up her waving and turned to look behind her to see what was keeping him so engrossed, but saw nothing. When she turned back he’d resumed his line maintenance, re-fixing some and attaching fresh bait to others that were completely stripped, skilfully nibbled by fish he would never see, but who would continue to arrive for the easy feed while it lasted.
He’d seen her waving with one arm first, then with two arms like a lunatic, and he found himself wondering what she would do if she had no arms to wave with. He stared at her, his mind filling with possibilities.
Movement on a rod caught his gaze. His thoughts turned back to the lines and he began checking the tension, re-fixing bait.
Cutting a snagged line, he let out a cry of pain when he accidentally nicked his finger. It wasn’t usual for him to misjudge the lines that way but she had distracted him. He’d seen her walk into the water and float on her back; she was wearing the sun dress with the little yellow flowers and somehow it appeared to be buoying her up in the tide.
The voice in his head, that voice that told him what was worth catching and what was best let go, came back.
A slack line went taut as a fish took what would be its last bite of food. He deftly reeled it in, watching dispassionately as it flipped back and forth on the rocks, gulping desperately for oxygen it wouldn’t get.
It was already dead; the fish was fighting the inevitable. Maybe it was impulse, some animal instinct will to live. He wondered whether she would display similar instinct. If she would fight with those waving arms, that billowing dress.
He would know soon enough.