This short story was shortlisted for the New Millennium Writings fiction competition
The town hall was as tense as a boot-hooked fishing line.
Red-rimmed eyes darted from one person to the next, teeth bit chapped lips, weatherworn hands rubbed the backs of necks and a high-pitched babble ran through the gathering: some sitting, some standing in the overcrowded space.
At the front of the hall stood a man. He wore glasses, a tweed jacket and an authoritative expression. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Quiet everyone,” he said. “Quiet.” And the townsfolk were silent.
“Thank you all for coming. I know this part is never easy for anyone so we’ll get this over and done with as quickly as possible. First things first.” He turned towards a man in a policeman’s uniform sitting near the front of the hall. “Mick, you will go.”
“Robert, no,” said a woman sitting next to Mick. She was much older than him and was wringing her hands together, eyebrows knitted. “He’s only just started the job last week and… his father, you know, we just lost him and… we only have one cop after all. Shouldn’t we… shouldn’t we have him stay here?”
Robert looked at the women. “I’m sorry Rhonda.” He was sympathetic but stern. “It’s your son’s duty. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.” He put his hand on a large leather book propped up on the lectern in front of him. “We must obey the town charter no matter — ”
“But surely we can make an exception — ” Rhonda started in a shrill tone but Mick stood up. With a grave face, he put his hat over his heart, set his square jaw, and said, “I’ll accept this burden on behalf of my father, our forefathers and our town.”
A smattering of applause ran through the crowd then petered out.
“Very good,” Robert said. His eyes roamed the room. “Who else?”
Silence hung like limp sails. Someone coughed. Rainwater still dripped steadily from the gaping hole ripped into the roof’s corner just a few days prior.
“What about Jack?” an older man called out.
All eyes turned to look at Jack, folded arms and a sun-aged farmer’s face beneath a frayed straw hat. He said nothing.
“He’s… he’s done it heaps of time,” the older man added. “And he did that last one a few years back.” Then, quietly, to the person siting next to him, “Besides, it can’t make him any madder than the other ones already have.”
Before Jack could respond, a man named Roger jumped to his feet, knocking his chair flat on the ground with an echoing clatter. “I’m ya man!” he yelled much too loudly.
“Roger, keep quiet!” the woman next to him hissed, yanking on his threadbare orange jacket. “You’re too sick. And you’re drunk!”
“No, youuu keep quiet!” he hissed back. “I’m sick alright. Sick of sittin’ at home listenin’ to you!” then he said to the crowd, “I wanna go! Besides, my boat was the only one not damaged so I gotta go.” He swayed slightly. Everyone at the meeting took in Roger’s drawn face and sallow eyes. They exchanged nervous glances.
“Well,” Robert started carefully from behind the lectern. “The voyage doesn’t usually need three people. It’s only a few hours there and a short hike. Plus this year I believe the cargo is particularly light…”
“If he wants ta go we should let ‘im,” someone said from the back of the hall. “Hell, send all three of ‘em. We should spread out tha responsibility.”
“That’s right,” someone else piped up. “Help is so far away if… if anything were to go wrong.”
“The bigger the group the better,” a third person called. “Strength in numbers.”
Everyone at the meeting started nodding. “Strength in numbers,” a few of them repeated.
Robert looked down at the dusty book. It was adorned with an illustration so faded that all was left was the outline of a snake-like tail covered in ink-black scales resembling razor sharp oyster shells, and two iridescent eyes, deep green like swathes of tangled seaweed. He sighed.
“Fine then. Everyone in favour of sending Mick Sampson, Jack Davison and Roger Rickard on the voyage to Cape Barron Island please raise your hands.”
It was unanimous.
Of the 200 townsfolk over 14 years of age, four residents hadn’t turned up to the meeting: Sarah Plichard the school teacher, who was looking after the young children, Tom Fowley the carpenter, who was minding the cargo, Rachel Mathison’s mum (for obvious reasons) as well as her best friend who was comforting her. Aside from Rachel Mathison’s mum, who’d hardly been seen since the last meeting two days ago, most people thought that Tom Fowley had it toughest. Not only did he have to do all the measuring and make the box, of course, but the afternoon before the voyage a stream of people always stopped by and dissolved into tears or lavished him with extra items to add to the cargo like toys and soft blankets and knitted gloves. Then he would have to reopen the box, throw them all inside, and hammer it shut again. Once, he’d even had to restrain Mildred Jansen who turned up with an axe and the idea of splitting the box apart and running off with its contents. But that would all be over by this evening while Mick, Jack and Roger would still have their task in front of them.
“We’ll leave at sunrise,” Mick told the town hall. “I don’t think we’ll get a wink of sleep.”
Roger hiccupped in agreement and Jack still didn’t say a word. Robert declared the meeting over with the ringing of an old brass ship bell.
It was the first blue-sky day since the terrible storm and after filing out of the meeting some of the women wandered through the cobbled streets, avoiding the puddles and any newly fallen roof shingles, to the little alcove in the town square. They stopped in front of the long list of names carved into a wall, above which hung various remnants of old wooden ships: sections of fractured hulls, snapped oars, tattered sails.
The women spoke in hushed tones. “What brave little souls,” one said to another. “Truly, they are saints,” the second one replied and the group around them nodded their heads in solemn agreement.
A few of the men strode down to the stone jetty for some fresh air. Nearly all of the wooden fishing boats lined up along the wharf had been severely damaged, giant splinters hanging from their masts; some grey and white pelicans were sunning themselves along the hole-ridden hulls like washing on a clothesline.
The men spoke about the voyage and nodded and grimaced and looked out to sea. “Has to be done,” one said to another. “No doubt about it,” the second one replied. “It’s the only way.”
And eventually all the townsfolk wandered back to their homes, the winter sun holding just enough energy to warm their faces, thawing out worried expressions like morning frost.
The next day dawned bright on the unlikely trio. Mick, the policeman, and Jack, the farmer, stood upon the wharf looking down at Roger, the fisherman, and his boat. It was 30-feet of flaking paint and split wood with a dingy on the back.
The fisherman stumbled around the cabin, scooping up empty wine bottles and flinging them from his vessel into the calm water. They landed with a plunk.
Mick wore his full policeman’s uniform while Jack’s straw hat was still lodged firmly on his head. He also wore a yellow trench coat as if preparing for a coming downpour. Behind them, a large group of the more morbidly curious town members shivered in the tender cold.
Roger stood up and gave Mick and Jack the thumbs up and a bleary-eyed wink. Mick took a long shuddering breath of sea air. “Ready Jack?” he asked.
Jack grunted in reply and the trio glanced at the coffin-like box sitting on the wharf. It was smaller, smaller than the men, made from a dark-coloured wood and adorned with the town’s motto written in gold lettering: Courageous are those who depend on this sea. We will be forgiven.
Mick and jack picked up the cargo and lowered it into Roger’s waiting arms. Roger swayed violently with the weight and someone from the crowd issued a weak moan.
“Jesus man, be careful!” Mick said.
Roger placed the box gently on the floor at the back of the cabin so there was enough room for it and the three men standing. Mick and Jack threw off the ropes and descended into Roger’s boat.
He started the engine, which putted loudly as the vessel began on its way. Mick took off his policeman’s hat, placed it on the wooden console above the controls, and glanced back through the cabin door, jammed half open on its salt-encrusted hinges. He pitched an encouraging smile at the townsfolk. Back on the wharf, a woman began to sob.
Ahead of the men lay a sheet of milky blue water that stretched to the horizon, interrupted in the distance by a large craggy grey rock with patches of forest a green-tinged knoll. The trio stood; the cargo behind them.
“Righty o’!” Roger glanced either side of him at his boat mates. His hand griped the wheel and he wore a strangely manic grin. “Away she goes!”
Luckily for the men, whose minds were all elsewhere, there wasn’t much boating to be done in the strait. The water was deep between the mainland and the island and Roger had already set a diagonal course to allow for the current. The craft cut smooth lines through the silken water.
Mick heard a clinking sound over the rumbling motor and turned sideways to see Roger snatching a brown bottle from a cupboard under the controls. Without taking his eyes off the water, he twisted the top off with one hand and took a long drink. Mick sighed, ran a hand through his hair.
“Jesus, Roge,” he said. “I heard you were at the tavern last night. You were saying goodbye to everyone as if you weren’t coming back. What the hell was that about?”
Roger raised the bottle again and shrugged mid-swig.
“You know, John phoned mum about it and she came to my place crying,” Mick continued. “You scared her! You know how she is at the moment. Please. Please tell you me you’re going to take this seriously once we’re up there. You know how important this is for me.”
Roger snorted. “Oh, don’t you worry Constable Sampson!” he tipped the bottle back again. “I’m takin’ this seriously.”
“Don’t call me that, I’ve told you.” Roger said nothing.
Mick glanced over at Jack, who was staring out the opposite cabin door at the water, arms wrapped around his bulky body.
“Listen,” Mick said quietly to Roger. “You’re sick Roge. Jo told me it’s getting really bad. I know that’s why you’re so angry, and that’s fair enough. But you can’t keep taking it out on everyone.”
“Why not?” Roger said. “Why should I be good to any a them? No one treats me like nothin’ but trouble no more. Everyone always asking after me and trying to take the booze out of my hand,” Roger rolled his head back and took an exaggerated drink, “Didn’t ya hear Jo telling me to keep quiet in that meeting? It’s pathetic!”
“So is that why you volunteered then?” Mick said. “To prove something? This isn’t the way, Roge. You could have gotten away without ever having the burden of this voyage.”
“This voyage is the burden?” Roger raised the empty glass to his eye level and looked out at the glittering brown-tinged sea. “Pffft, right.”
A soft sea breeze shaped a slight ripple along the water. Roger placed the second empty bottle on the floor and eyed Jack’s trench coat.
“Hey,” he said. “That’s an odd getup for a cattle farmer. Bit calm out here for that don’t ya think?”
Jack said nothing, not a single muscle twitched.
“Why don’t you take it off Farmer Jacko?” Roger stared at Jack. Then he took one hand off the wheel and reached out towards him.
“Giddoff me!” Jack bellowed and leaped backwards, his foot colliding with the wooden box behind them.
“Watch the cargo!” Mick yelled.
“Woah!” Roger said.
“Alright, alright, calm down Jacko. You can keep it on. No need to get all gruff.”
“Then don’t touch me,” Jack said, face lined with a deepening scowl.
“Hey,” Roger said. “You didn’t say nothin’ when they picked you for this voyage, ya know, so don’t look so damn disappointed ta be here.”
Roger turned back to the wheel for a moment, and then swung his head around to Jack again. Their eyes met.
“Say,” Roger said slyly. “What exactly have ya seen out there that’s turned you so mad anyway?”
The back of Mick’s neck began to prickle. The motor let out a particularly loud PUTT!
“Come on, tell us,” Roger continued. “I wanna know!” He leaned a little closer to Jack and lowered his voice to a slippery whisper. “Have ya… seen it?”
Jack’s anger showed in veins and blotches. He pointed a gnarled finger at the cargo.
“Just knowing what’s in that there box is enough to make anyone mad, don’t ya think?”
“Oh come on, Jack! Ha!” Roger said, his voice a rising cackle. “We’re not talkin’ ‘bout the cargo!
Roger grabbed at Jack’s coat again, turning the wheel and sending the boat rocking. Salt water wet the deck; beer bottles clanked over the cabin floor.
“Tell me!” Roger said with a handful of Jack’s collar. “I wanna know what ya seen.”
Jack raised a clenched fist. Mick stepped towards them. “Stop it!” he yelled. “Stop it!”
Roger let go of Jack’s collar and whirled his ruddy face around to Mick. He put his shaking hands back on the wheel.
“Jesus, Roger,” Mick said. “We need Jack! He’s the only one of us who’s been to the island. He’s the only one who knows what to do with the cargo and —”
“Oh please!” Roger said, spit flying like sea spray. “People have been doin’ this for hundreds of years for god’s sakes. John Griffin has been telling me how ta do it in the tavern every bloody night for thirty years! And if John god damn Griffin can do it, we hardly need Farmer Jacko over here to show us the ropes.”
PUTT! went the engine. Jack’s fists tightened again. “You have no bleedin’ idea what you’re facin’ up there, son!” He anger shook the cabin.
“Stop it!” Mick said yelled once more. “Stop it or you’re both going in the slammer tomorrow!” He let out a trembling breath and continued, “This is my first voyage! Everyone is relying on me, don’t you get that?” His voice faltered and he put his hand to his mouth. Then, “Do you have any idea what happens if we fail? Have either of you even read the charter? What about what’s in that box behind us, huh? Do you have any respect for that? Or my dad? I - “
“Alright!” Roger said. “Alright. We know,” and he returned his gaze to the water. The trio was silent.
The boat motored on; the island grew closer.
At this point, Mick, Jack and Roger felt, as people who had untaken the voyage before had often remarked, that they were no longer motoring towards the island but the island was pulling them towards it. Or, more specifically, pulling the cargo towards it. But they said nothing to each other.
Around the boat, the wind swell had increased to mimic the three men’s tempers. Inside the cabin, a small moan escaped from the cargo.
“Jesus!” Mick said, screwing his eyes shut. Jack reacted to the sound, too, with a pained grimace. Roger looked ahead.
“Right,” Mick said after a few shaky breaths. “Let’s go over the plan.”
“We don’t need ta go over the plan,” Roger said. “It’s simple. We moor the boat, take the dingy in and haul the cargo ta the stone at the top. We open ‘er up and leave it there and run like hell.”
Jack glared at Roger with disgust. “You might not wanna sound so relaxed about it, son,” he said. “Once you open up that there cargo —”
“Can we please stop calling it cargo?” Mick said.
Jack and Roger looked at him.
“It’s just…,” he continued. “I know that’s what it’s called in the charter but it… it just feels wrong somehow.”
It was Roger’s turn to groan. “Well sure then, Mick. What do ya wanna call it? The sacrifice? The child? Or maybe just Rachel?”
“Christ, Roger!” Mick slammed his fist on the control panel. “How can you be so okay with this?”
“Hey!” Roger said. “If you couldn’t cope with the voyage, ya shouldn’t have become the coppa.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have!” Mick yelled, his voice catching. He lowered his head. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this, Roge.”
Roger looked around for Jack, who had walked outside onto the deck. “Look Mick, s’not our fault,” he said. “It’s the only way ta keep The Creature happy. It’s this little girl or the whole bloody town. We just give it what it wants and we gets to live our lives in peace.” He hesitated, then put a hand on Mick’s shoulder. “Listen mate, I’m sorry ‘bout your dad and all but you lived through that storm, even if he didn’t. You know more than anyone what The Creature can do to our town. We ain’t got no choice. It was time.” He glanced at the cargo, “Besides, what’s fair is fair. She was picked at random.”
Mick’s throat tightened and he blinked, hard. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “I guess not. No choice.”
Roger nodded, “That’s right mate.”
A moment later Jack stepped back into the cabin. He opened his trench coat to reveal an enormous axe. “I’m gonna kill it.”
Roger’s eyes widened and he whirled around unsteadily to look at Jack.
“You’re gonna wha-” he started.
“No Jack!” Mick said. “No! You’ve heard the tales of other men. It’s not possible. You’ll put the whole town at risk!”
“They were sea men! Fools!” Jack said. “They tried ta' take it in the sea! The Creature is no match for me on land, not a chance! Trust me son, I know what I’m doing.”
“Jack, this things tail is like knives, and it’s eyes! If you look into them you — ”
“I wouldn’t care if it was made outta poisonous leeches!” Jack’s furrowed face set hard as a hull. “I’ve let it take too many innocent lives. Me own granddaughter for Christ’s sake! It won’t take another one, not on this here voyage. I’m gonna kill it.”
Roger bared his yellowing teeth. “Oh no!” he raised a shaking hand and pointed at Jack. “Oh no ya don’t! Not before it kills me first!”
Mick drew in the sea air and held it like a buoy in his lungs. Then he let out his breath at last and said, “WHAT?”
Roger spun back around to Mick. “That’s right!” he said. “I’m not gonna die slowly. I’m not gonna waste away, in bed and pathetic in front of the whole town. I’m bloody sick of feelin’ like a burden, Mick. I’m gonna go out with a bang! I want to stare into the belly of The Creature and feel a rush of adrenalin before I leave this bloody place for good!”
“Roge!” Mick started. “Roge, you can’t —”
“Don’t you tell me I can’t!” Roger roared. “A man should be able to choose how he wants ta go and this is the way I’m goin’, damn it!”
Mick’s expression was a stunned kind of horror like a man who’d been snap-frozen in a winter storm. He turned to the Jack with pleading eyes. “Jack?”
Jack stood holding his weapon down by his thigh, the sharp metal tip grazing his trench coat, looking quite unaffected by Roger’s statement. “The man wants ta go,” he said. “We should let ‘im go. He’ll still be whole enough for a fine funeral when I cut that creature’s bulging belly open end ta end.” Jack turned to Roger. “But if it goes for that child first, don’t think I’m holding off for you.”
Roger’s eyes were two bright flares set in sallow bags of skin. “You betta bloody hold it off or axe me first cause I don’t plan on leavin’ this island alive,” he said.
Jack sneered. “No problem, Cap’n!”
The pair stood, fixed, glaring, lips drawn back over teeth.
Ahead, the island loomed.
Twenty minutes later the trio was scrambling over grey boulders and rocks on the island’s shore, avoiding the slippery orange lichen that grew like stubble. Mick and Roger held the cargo between them and Jack, walking up ahead, swung his weapon by his side.
By now, the cargo was letting out small muffled whimpers on every slight bump that were entirely recognizable as a young girl’s and all three of them were puffing and panting, grunting and struggling loudly over the rocks in an effort to try and drown them out. By the time they traversed the granite fringe of the island and reached the hill, the day was turning, made cooler by the wind and more menacing by darkening clouds lurked on the horizon.
The slope was short but steep and slippery from the recent storm and the men kept their eyes on the ground, on the strewn boulders and snaking tree roots, not daring to look up at the smooth stone slab that sat at the summit.
“So what’s the heroic plan, Roger?” Mick said to the man on the other side of the box. “Should we place you on the stone slab too, like the sacrifice, or will you just launch yourself in the direction of The Creature as soon as it emerges from the sea for her?”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout me, Constable Sampson,” Roger said in between great rattling puffs. “By all accounts there’s just no getting’ away from it once it’s upon ya. It’s a sure thing! Ain’t that right Jack?” he called up ahead. Then he looked sideways towards Mick. “Don’t play the hero now, buddy. I didn’t come out here ta get you killed with me. You gotta get away as soon as we open that cargo.”
“There’ll be no need ta get away,” Jack called from ahead and held his axe up to the sky; a dark wooden handle as thick as a tree branch and a shiny black blade the size of Jack’s head. It glinted in the otherworldly green light of the coming storm.
The men trudged on, sucking cold air over slowly numbing lips. A wild hare bound in front of them. In the distance, thunder rumbled.
The three men reached top of the hill. On all other sides the slope descended quickly into dense and tangled forest. Beyond that, the sea was not more than two miles away. The stone slab was a great piece of granite, a flattened and smoothed boulder that had been lugged up the hill hundreds of years before. No bones or splintered remains of the cargo boxes lay on the ground.
“Swallows ‘em whole,” Jack told his axe.
Mick and Roger placed the cargo down carefully on the stone and stood looking at it. The whimpering had stopped. Mick pulled a hammer claw from his belt.
“Ready?” he asked. Next to him, Roger was wearing a greenish hue. Mick glanced over at Jack standing a few yards away, between the stone and the forest. He had taken off his trench coast and laid it on the ground; he held the axe low and his eyes were darting wildly around him. Both men nodded and so, with a deep sigh of resignation, Mick began to pry the nails free from the box.
One, two, three, four; the lid came loose with a creak and Mick lifted it away. Inside, swaddled in a white hand-knitted blanket decorated with seashells, sat Rachel. A tuft of blonde hair upon her soft round head, she was barely a day over two. The smell of her still-new skin began to mingle with the salty sea air breeze and she looked up at the sky, clouds reflecting in her blue eyes. Back in town, at that very moment, her name was being etched into the tribute wall in front of a hysterical Mrs. Mathison.
“We can’t leave her in there,” Mick said to himself as much as to Roger. “Come on, darling,” he cooed, holding Rachel under the arms of her blue jumpsuit and lifting her out of the box, leaving two teddy bears and an empty bottle of milk behind her. Mick pulled the blanket tightly around her and placed her softly on the stone where she sat with one bare foot sticking out from under her.
“Muuaam?” Rachel asked tenderly.
Mick glanced over at Jack. His axe was held at shoulder height, gnarled hands a gentle quiver. In the distant heavens, thunder clapped and the three men jumped.
“Time to get outta here, Mick,” Roger said.
“I’m not leaving,” Mick replied. “I’m staying with Rachel.” Roger sighed and threw up his hands.
“Suit yaself hero. Was nice knowing ya,” and he walked to the other side of the stone slab, dropped down in a heap and took a flask out of his jacket. He held it up to the open sea in a cheers, then took a long gurgling swig.
Rachel let out another murmur and Mick’s stomach churned. “Jack?” Mick said, walking over to him.
Jack glanced quickly sideways at him, keeping his axe at the ready. “Once it comes for her, you gotta run,” Jack said. “Take Rachel. Just in case.”
“Jack… Jack, if you don’t kill it and I take the sacrifice —” he looked at the man’s weathered face and age-diminished stature.
“I’m gonna kill it!” Jack said.
Mick hesitated and ran a hand though his hair again. He had left his hat on the boat. “Jack, I need to know your plan,” he said. “Please tell me. I need to know.”
The man with the axe looked at Mick blankly. “I plan to kill it,” he said.
“Right,” Mick replied. “Right.”
He pulled his gun from his holster and turned towards the churning sea.
Twenty had minutes passed. Roger was on to his second flask.
“Where the ‘ell iz it?” he yelled in Jack’s direction.
Jack’s axe had stayed ready the entire time, although his tanned arms were now trembling with its weight. “It knows we’re here with ‘er,” Jack growled. “It’s a god damn coward!”
On the stone, Mick had put down his gun and had his arms around Rachel, who leant against his uniform, shivering and sniveling. The wind that ruffled her hair had brought the blackening clouds closer to the group. A smell of decay from the island’s damp forest wafted towards them. Thunder rapped the sky again and Rachel began to cry.
“Shhhhh shhhhh little angel,” Mick said and held her tightly.
“Ohhh ho, we’re makin’ it angry!” Roger cackled then hiccupped. “Come on, beasty!”
Jack’s legs began to tremble. Another minute, two, three, they waited, BOOM - more thunder. Rachel let out a haunting high-pitched wail and Roger began to slurr an old sea song.
It's all for me grog, me jolly, jolly grog, All gone for beer and tobacco. Spent all me tin on the lassies drinking gin, And across the western ocean I must wander.
Four, five, six, they waited, then -
“Whas that?” Jack slurred.
Ahead of them, in the darkening forest that bordered the sea, the trees began to shake. Branches whipped like animal’s tails and a faint crackling hiss, the sound of something moving on the forest floor, slowly grew louder. Behind the tree line, a dark shadow, 20 feet wide, swam into existence and started slithering towards the men: a flicker of ink-black scales, a flash of luminescent green eyes.
“’Er she comes!” Roger yelled, swaying violently in an attempt to stand up before tumbling forward onto his knees.
Jack raised his axe higher and took a few steps forward.
The dark mass grew closer, seeming to spreading its bulk out as it snaked through the trees. Mick eyed his gun and held the screaming child tightly against him.
“Shhhh shhhh,” he said. “Come on Jack,” he muttered. “Shhhh shhhh.”
The shadow reached the end of the trees and Mick held his breath until it began to emerge from the forest.
“It’s The Creature!” Roger yelled and began scrambling wildly towards the trees.
Mick looked at his gun, hesitated, then scooped Rachel into his arms, taking one quick glimpse in The Creature’s direction before running for the boat. He froze and… slowly… released the slightest door hinge of a moan.
The group of people emerging from the forest wore various rags made out of animal furs and tree bark and scaly fish skin. They were of all ages. They all had very tanned skin and huddled together closely, the older ones holding spears made from branches by their sides, and they walked towards the intruders. As they grew closer, one of the younger ones looked at Jack with an inquisitive recognition. If fact, she even looked a little bit like Jack. Jack’s axe made a dull thud as it hit the grassy ground. His mouth fell agape. Mick turned towards him.
“Jack?” he said over Rachel’s gentle sobs. “Jesus, Jack. Please. Please tell me you’ve actually seen The Creature before.”
Jack said nothing.