[Word count: 4164]
The lantern was of simple home-made construction. An old cracked lightstone, flickering slightly as the magic faded, had been enmeshed in a fragment of fishing net and attached to the tip of a bamboo pole. The pale wood shone white in the stone’s glow.
Holding the light before her Sage led the way down the narrow stair, turning occasionally to check on the person following down the steep incline. Dr Cyn kept one hand on the rock beside the stair as she descended, eyes keen on the uneven surface beneath her.
Carved into a sheltered crack in the cliff-face the rough hewn pathway led from Sage’s back door to a narrow stone jetty where her small fishing vessel bobbed with the swell. The ever present coastal wind tugged at their clothing, tossing hair about as it sought to trip the two women.
Worn smooth by feet and water, the jetty was slick with salt spray. A hole in the end of the stone protrusion held the butt of the lantern stick, holding the light upright as Sage returned to offer Dr Cyn her hand. She didn’t want her client to fall into the sea.
Already the small waves that broke upon the rocks sparked with brief blue flames. Pushing off from the jetty Sage started the motor, nosing the boat out toward open water.
“How far out do you need to go?” she asked as the bow wave began to glow steadily.
“Into the main current,” Dr Cyn said, leaning over in her seat to peer into the water, “You’re sure this is the first night?”
“There were none down here last night,” Sage said with a shrug, stopping the boat and looking around at the gently undulating water. Wherever the breeze caught a few drops from the top of the swell and scattered them over the surface, the sea would glow a pleasant blue-green. The same glow encircled the boat as its solid presence disturbed the microscopic zooplankton filling the water around them.
It was these tiny creatures, hatchling cephalopods, that had brought them out onto the water. With deft fingers and working surely in the low light Dr Cyn removed a series of test tubes from a pack by her feet, dunking them into the water in turn. Points of light stood out as she held each up for inspection.
“What are you studying these for?” Sage asked, watching as the drops from Cyn’s fingers elicited more fire from the sea.
“We’re looking at a couple of things, growth rate, dispersal rate, spawning locations-”
“They’re from the Shallow Sea,” Sage said on reflex, wincing in the dark as she heard her own words. “Aren’t they?”
“That’s where the primary spawning event takes place, but a colleague has proposed a second event to account for the extent of the population’s range. By comparing the average age of samples taken from different points along the coast we can tell if they’ve all drifted down from the same breeding event or not.” Corking the test tubes Cyn returned them carefully to the pack, checking each tubes cork and that it was sitting upright in the bag before she closed it.
Turning the boat in a wide arc Sage kept the glowing halo of Carmine City to the south as she headed for the lantern bobbing in and out of sight at the end of the jetty.
“The restaurant must be busy,” Cyn commented, pointing up at a cluster of lights on the cliff top just north of their destination.
“The hotel in the cove filled up last week, they’ve been full every night,” Sage said.
Pulling the boat around to the leeward side of the jetty Sage helped Dr Cyn to disembark before lighting the way up the stairs. The top three steps were wooden, spanning the narrow gap between the living stone of the cliff and the back door of Sage’s own house.
Warmth wrapped around her as she stepped out of the constant buffeting of the wind and onto the enclosed back verandah, kicking off her salt stained boots as Dr Cyn closed the door on the cold stairway. A puff of air followed them inside, clinking its way through the strings of seashells hung by the window. Excited whining and the rhythmic thud of a happy tail greeted them as Lou, the old hound dog napping before the open fronted fireplace, awoke. His eyes shone as he stood to trot about the two women, sniffing their wind ruffled clothing for news of where they’d been.
“Do you want a warm drink before you go?” Sage asked, pausing to pet the dog’s floppy ears as she walked through the open living room to the kitchen, lighting the stove-top kettle. The chill of the night sea had crawled into her chest.
“Thank you, but I want to get these samples back to my lab,” Cyn said, patting the strap of her pack where it sat over her shoulder. “Are you still available in a few day’s time? No one else will go out so far while it’s passing us.”
“I’ll be here,” Sage said, smothering a yawn as she opened the front door for her guest, the warm light of the living room spilling out to show the way through the front garden. The silhouette of Cyn’s truck could be seen by the side of the dirt road beyond.
Waving goodbye as the trucks tail lights disappeared southward Sage smothered a yawn as she closed the door, returning to the kitchen to make hot cocoa before bed.
The morning sun held a sharpness that offended Sage’s eyes, squinting through the glare despite the dark glasses that pinched the broad bridge of her nose. Bobbing on the low swell beside the towering wall of stone she hauled up crab and rock lobster traps from the crisp water, keeping her fingers clear of the irate crustaceans as she dumped the catch into a large tub.
Lou dozed in the sun between the seats, his nose close to the bucket of bait that Sage used to reset the traps.
The crash of spray as a wave broke over the rocks caught Sage off guard, salt water trickling into her eyes. Swearing loudly she swiped at them, sending her glasses clattering to the bottom of the boat. Lou glanced up with a whine.
“It’s not my morning,” she said with a sigh, resting a hand briefly on his forehead before turning to start the motor, “Let’s go back before I run us aground or haul up a sea monster.”
Angling away from the cliffs was the easiest way to spot her home jetty. Purple bougainvillea flowers covered the wall opposite the stair, a clear flag amongst the red stone leading her home.
Two baskets waited for her, one large enough for the whole catch with straps to hang on her back, while the other could hold her fishing gear. Lou climbed from the boat as soon as it was secured, happily sniffing the length of the stone jetty before ascending ahead of her.
The smell of the bait bucket, sealed and stowed beneath the tackle box, grew into a cloud about her as she walked through the house, intensifying without the wind to blow it away. Sage reached the front garden with relief.
Leaving the fragrant bucket on ice in the shed Sage headed up the incline north toward her brother’s restaurant, the dog at her heel. To the west the road was bordered by a thin strip of cultivated fruit trees before melaleucas and banksias claimed the slope, to the east a band of coastal scrub separated the beaten dirt from the precipice.
Ahead the restaurant, the Sekesa, glittered as its many windows caught the morning sun. U-shaped, the building cradled a central courtyard from the incessant wind where staff grew fresh produce in raised beds. Trailing her fingers through a myrtle bush as she passed, Sage inhaled the fresh lemony aroma.
Glass paned doors led to the kitchen, held open with potted plants to let Ko’s enthusiastic off-key singing drift out on the oven-warmed air.
“Shellfish,” Sage called as she unslung the basket from her shoulders, sitting it to rest in the shade.
Ko stepped into the courtyard, still singing loudly as he slung an arm about her shoulders, the other sweeping before them to take in the sun filled garden. It was an old song, a ballad of love lost to the sea, familiar from summer afternoons spent in their grandparent’s flower garden.
The romantic refrain clashed with Lou chewing grass in the background, his furry face scrunched up as he struggled with the fibres.
“Morning,” Ko said once the song had finished, releasing her to flip the lid off of the basket to inspect the morning’s catch. His wavy shoulder-length hair was tied at the nape of his neck for work, neater and darker than Sage’s own sun-lightened braid. “Crab’s been popular,” he murmured, gingerly poking through the top few carapaces. “Coffee?” he asked as he straightened, replacing the lid on the basket.
Following him into the kitchen Sage perched on a stool by the large stone hearth, a remnant of the ruins the restaurant had been built on.
Little other than the ancient stone floor and the fireplace had stood when their grandmother had been young. A grainy photo of her standing within the windswept ruins hung beside the chimney, her broad face grinning into the sun.
Lou curled up in the gap beneath the bench while Ko poured two coffees.
“Cinnamon scroll?” he held out a plate heaped with breakfast pastries, naming her favourite. Pulling up another stool he sat beside her.
“You look tired,” Sage said once she’d swallowed her mouthful.
“You look like crap too,” he retorted before sighing and rubbing the heels of his palms over his eyes. “It’s just work, we’re low a kitchen hand, everything takes longer.”
Raising his coffee cup with a lop sided grin he drained it.
As Sage was finishing her own drink Hama the head cook arrived, her muscular arms filled with sacks of grain from the market in the cove just north of them.
With a cheery greeting the Tulan dropped the sacks onto a spare bit of bench top and began her day’s prep. She’d threaded flowers from her garden around the base of her antlers, one of the small yellow blossoms falling forward to dangle across the green skin of her forehead.
“Two boats were overturned last night, no one hurt too bad,” Hama spoke loudly for her news to be heard over the radio, “Some folk went out too far and were capsized for their trouble.”
Ko shot Sage a look, grunting before taking his mug to the sink. “I’d better get to work,” he said, gripping Sage’s shoulder and kissing the top of her head before collecting his apron and knife belt.
A yawn forced its way from Sage’s lungs despite the coffee and she took her time walking home, ambling through the sun and breeze while Lou chased a pale yellow butterfly into the grass beneath the strip of orchard. High above the cliff top path a brown-backed sea eagle rode an updraught, eyes keen on the fish filled waters below.
There was a skull on the reef. Algified and lumpy with barnacles it grinned from between a sea anemone and an oyster bed, the cavity within home to a young eel.
Sage thought she could make out the shape of the ribcage, as though the bones had impressed their presence on the coral and shellfish that had consumed them. Small rainbow fish darted through the gaps.
With gloved hands Sage searched for sea urchins, collecting the large spiky lumps in a bag on her belt. Few others foraged the reef so far south as most folk from the cove frequented closer beds, and she had her pick of the best, occasionally throwing one back for a better replacement.
Surfacing to empty her catch bag she paused on the boat, looking about for others on the water. A large fishing vessel rode beyond the reef and waves, while a spray of white triangles to the south marked the mouth of the city’s harbour. Some few specks to the north were her neighbours from the cove.
Submersing herself once more she collected her basket traps, pleased at their weight. It had been a productive dive.
Delivering her catch straight to the restaurant she found the kitchen in barely co-ordinated chaos as cooks prepared ingredients and dish-hands and wait staff dodged between workstations with arms full of ceramics. Signalling Hama, Ko was lost within the depths of the confusion, Sage handed over the full baskets of sea life before making a hasty retreat.
The last time the restaurant had been down a hand she’d been roped into dish washing service.
Arriving home to the thump of Lou’s tail she showered, rinsing the sea water from her hair, and curled up on the couch before the back windows, book in hand and at peace with the notion of a nap.
Wind rattled the cliff top house, knocking the bougainvillea boughs against the window. The drifting hatchling population had reached its height and below the sea glimmered despite the barest sliver of moon, short choppy waves stirring the brine to luminescence.
Rattling mechanics and the glow of the truck’s headlamps signalled Cyn’s arrival.
With a brief word of greeting Sage led the way out the back door and down the stair, moving slowly as the still building breezes curled about them.
“Looks rough,” Dr Cyn noted when they reached the jetty, leaning toward Sage to keep the wind from snatching her voice.
“I’ll bring us in if it gets too much,” Sage shouted back. It was a short trip and she’d been out in worse weather. Never-the-less she kept a keen eye on the water around them.
Just beyond the reef, where the deeper waters carried the main current, she cut the power, angling her ears into the flow of air to better monitor changes.
Cyn worked quickly at her task, dunking the vials into the water one after another, but she was only part way through when an uncomfortable tingling began in Sage’s toes. Flexing the digits didn’t dispel the sensation, and a tightness began to build behind her knees.
Quickly slipping a hand over the side of the boat she skimmed the top of the water with her fingers, recoiling from the jolt it gave her.
“We have to go,” she called over the wind, starting the engine even as the other woman shot her a wide-eyed glance.
Turning the nose of the boat toward shallower waters Sage felt her whole body tense as the tingling spread to her calves. With a rush of the disquieting energy the water surged, rising in a massive swell behind the boat as the sea creature that caused it broached the surface. The wave raised the back of the boat making both women grip their seats as the vessel shot down the side, skipping twice atop the smaller swell beyond the wave’s radius before it settled back into the water. Shining spray rained down on them.
Ready to ignore Cyn’s exclamations until they could talk safely Sage didn’t notice what she was doing until she was kneeling on her seat, staring back at the bright disturbance and wobbling with the movement of the boat.
“Sit down,” Sage yelled, reaching forward to grab at her shoulder one handed.
Falling back onto the bench Cyn’s grin was sheepish before she turned back toward the front.
Hands still shaking as she cut the engine beside the jetty Sage fumbled with the rope tie, forcing her breath to flow steadily through her nose.
“That was amazing, never have I seen a cetacean so close,” Cyn was saying as she climbed from the boat, bright eyes scanning the horizon for more disturbances.
“Me neither,” Sage said, wincing at how close they’d come to being overturned.
“I only got half of my sample set,” opening the pack she retrieved the empty vials and crouched by the side of the jetty, “But I suppose this will have to suffice. You know, the whales don’t want to disrupt human vessels, they feed off of tiny sea creatures similar to those I’m studying and run into boats by accident.”
“That’s nice of them,” Sage said as she sat on the bottom step to wait for her friend to finish collecting sea water.
The sun was higher than usual by the time she headed up the hill toward the restaurant, the basket heavier on her back despite the catch being no larger. None of Sage’s limbs had awoken properly that morning, tired and clumsy muscles had fumbled their way through trap collection and now protested the short trek.
Baulking at the shouting and clattering of pans that rang from the kitchen doors Sage paused on the edge of a garden bed, sitting on the raised wooden side to catch her breath before braving the chaos. Watching the back and forth dashing of cooks and kitchen hands she spotted Ko leaning against a bench at the back. His expression was blank, eyes unfocused on the constant movement around him.
With a resolute exhalation Sage straightened.
Thrusting the heavy basket into the arms of the first person she passed Sage muscled her way past a cluster of knife wielding prep workers to reach her brother.
“Morning,” she said, waving a hand before his unfocused eyes.
Ko blinked twice, jerking back from her hand as he looked down the slight distance in their heights. A frown twitched his brow.
“Come on, you need some air.” Taking him by the forearm she lead him from the crowded room, picking a garden edge without a kitchen view to seat him on. “Wait here,” she told him, re-entering the chaos in search of coffee.
By the time she’d succeeded in making two cups of honeyed black coffee and brought them outside Ko was looking a little better, his face relaxed as he pet Lou who rested on his feet.
“So how’s work?” Sage asked as she passed him a cup, taking a seat on the garden edge beside him.
Pulling a face he looked into his cup before taking a sip, satisfaction spreading briefly over his features before he sighed and frowned again. “Intense,” he said.
Letting the topic rest Sage finished her drink in silence, watching the tree tops beyond the courtyard dancing in the wind.
“I’ll be alright,” Ko said once he’d drained his cup, leaving it on the ground as he stretched his arms above his head, groaning as his shoulders creaked. “How are you though, you look terrible?” he asked, glancing over at her.
Sage pulled a face. “Been better, I cut it pretty close to getting capsized last night and didn’t sleep well.”
“Closer than when we played terror as kids.”
“You must be out of practice,” Ko said, lips curling despite the concern in his eyes.
Sage shrugged, forcing a brighter smile than she felt. “Dr Cyn only needs to make one more trip, so I doubt I’ll get the chance,” she reassured him as the sound of crashing metal pots rang from the kitchen.
Ko winced. “I’d better go see what that was,” he said, standing with a groan as he stretched his lower back, “Thanks for the coffee.”
Lingering in the late morning sun once she’d walked home, plucking small weeds from her front garden, Sage’s mind lingered on Ko’s comment, the words replaying in her mind, forming a brief tune as they repeated again and again.
Shaking her head she wandered inside, considering a brief dive.
As the shadow of the cliffs engulfed the water and the sky purpled overhead Sage stood at her back window, fingers warm around a cup of tea as she studied the sea below. It was the last night of the passing drift.
The spots of fire had been fitful that morning while she was out in the pre-dawn light and she’d called Dr Cyn to arrange an earlier time for their last outing. Taking her empty mug to the sink as the last light of day waned she stirred the pot lazily bubbling on the stove. The red of the tomatoes and paprika had deepened from the purple of the octopus, suspended with vegetables and herbs in the thick soup.
Checking through the front windows, the darkened road distorted through the coloured panes of glass, she saw the lights of the truck come into view.
“We haven’t missed it have we?” Cyn asked as she walked through the door.
“I don’t think so, but it’s fading,” Sage said as she led the way to the back door, wrapping an extra scarf about her neck and chin from the hook on the wall.
As stars blinked alight above them the women descended to the dark waters. Peering over the side of the jetty as they reached the bottom Cyn frowned at the occasional point of light that briefly sparked on contact with the rocks.
“There’s so few,” she said.
“Let’s go,” Sage called, holding out a hand to help her into the boat, “There’ll be more further out.”
Holding her bag on her lap Dr Cyn took a seat, knuckles paling as she gripped the fabric. “I only need this last set of samples, so long as the water has some spawn in it, and we don’t capsize,” she said.
Having heard her horror stories of projects falling through at the last moment, of population disruption and incomplete data sets and poor luck that destroys years of work, Sage knew she wasn’t afraid of another cetacean encounter.
Starting the motor Sage dipped her finger tips into the raised wake at the side of the boat, feeling for any changes other than depth as they passed the reef and stopped.
The waters here held a stronger sparkle as the last of the minuscule creatures rode the current southward. Tension left Cyn’s posture as she filled her vials, relaxing at last once they were all full and stowed.
“All done?” Sage asked.
“All done,” Dr Cyn said, gently patting the bag still held firmly on her lap.
Returning to the cliffs at an easy pace Sage took in the view as her own shoulders loosened, keeping the light at the end of the jetty before them.
“Thank you for doing this,” Dr Cyn said as she climbed from the boat, gripping Sage’s shoulder warmly once on solid rock.
Holding the lantern stick aloft Sage led the way up the stairs.
Outside the wind rattled past the tiny house on the cliff top, but inside was warm and rich with the scents of dinner. Opening the door to happy tail thumps she looked about for Lou, holding the solid wood aside as Dr Cyn came in with a burst of breeze. He was curled up before the fireplace, half laying in Ko’s lap as her brother waved. An instrumental refrain drifted from the radio on the side table.
“I’d get up, but,” trailing off Ko gestured to the dog.
“Thanks again,” Cyn said, walking to the front door. Waving goodbye she left with a smile still on her face.
“All went well this time?” Ko asked, sipping from the drink he must have poured before the dog claimed him.
“Yeah, why are you here? The restaurant’s still open isn’t it?” Sage demanded, dropping her salt sprayed outer coat and scarves in a pile by the door.
“Hama kicked me out,” he said before draining his drink and shaking the glass at her. Ice rattled. “She said I needed a night off, and that she couldn’t deal with my shit any more.” He shrugged.
Taking the glass as she shook her head Sage selected one for herself, finding a near-full bottle of golden liquor on the kitchen bench.
“Staying for dinner?” she asked, checking on the slowly steaming pot.
“If that’s okay?”
“Of course,” she said, adding clams and submerging them with a few prods of the wooden spoon, “I’m always good for a warm meal.” Carrying the drinks back to the hearth side she grinned at him, tossing a cushion onto the floor to sit on.
“You should be a chef,” he said, taking his glass from her with a low chuckle.
He laughed as he swallowed, sputtering as his throat constricted and disturbing the dog. With a grumble Lou got up and moved closer to the grate, making himself comfortable on the rug.
Composing himself Ko waved a hand at her. “It’s not that bad,” he said, “It’s fulfilling.”
“Sure,” she agreed amiably, watching the flames dance behind the grate.
Warmth from the liquor spread through her chest as she leant back against the couch, wind rattling the windows beneath the sound of the radio and Ko’s soft voice as he sang along.