The kids followed Hunter out to sea and watched his perfect strokes in and across the water from the perches of their kayaks.
Cleanest air you’ll ever find out here, Hunter said. And the city kids, who’d never been out from the land further than they could touch their feet flat on the sand, believed him. They didn’t question him even when he paddled away from the school-shirt blue waters and into the shadows of seaweed and kelp. They didn’t ask him if it was safe; he went first and they followed. And it was mostly safe.
Behind Hunter, Bill splashed his paddle against the water and tossed the sea’s spray into Karen’s eyes. Hunter chuckled to himself. Bill was one of those stick-thin kids who managed to be lanky and short all at once. His paddle was the smallest one he could get and it was still too big for him. It was a miracle he could splash anyone at all.
And to Karen’s credit she didn’t squawk much. Some city kids could really make a racket over these sorta things—tide being choppy, water too deep, something down there moving. Karen wasn’t really like that. In fact she got Bill back pretty quick, and splashed him better too, cause Karen had grown into herself faster than he had.
Fuckin hell, said Bill.
You started it, she said.
So? I wasn’t tryin to hit you.
You’re just a weakling.
I’ll capsize you.
Gotta catch me first, she said over the sound of her paddle slapping against the water. She wasn’t slicing the surface like Hunter was, but even then she was quicker than Bill, what with his toothpick arms, and so Karen caught up to Hunter pretty soon after, leaving Bill up the rear of the dozen or so kayakers in tow.
Hey, she said to Hunter, looking over his body, his unkempt facial hair, the worn outfit under his lifejacket.
Hey, he said, not turning away from the horizon.
You kayak much? she asked.
It’s my job.
This is all you do?
More or less.
Do you have an office?
A boat and a trailer.
Hunter stopped paddling then, and turned to her. Without thinking about it, she stopped paddling when he did.
And then she was in the water. Her kayak upside down. Her hair soaked through and across her face.
The boys were laughing from their kayaks behind her. She shook the hair from her face and Hunter leaned in near her and smiled. Advice, he said in her ear. Careful of the scrawny ones. They’re the ones who’ll get ya.
Her eyes were wide and stung from the salt. She was treading water faster than she needed to.
You can stand up, Hunter said and she did. The water would’ve been waist-deep on him if that. He jumped out and helped her turn her kayak back over. He got the others to get out too. It’s low tide, he said. There’s a sandbar just ahead.
Hunter dragged his kayak and ran through the water ahead of them, the water falling all the way from his hips to below his ankles.
You look like Jesus, Bill shouted out as Hunter ran.
Can’t quite grow the beard, he yelled back and all the kids laughed.
He beached his kayak on the sand that was about a hundred metres from the island coastline. He got the kids to do the same.
All in a line, he said. If one of em drifts away they all do. Means we’re in this together.
The kids nodded. Hunter pulled a cigarette from a ziplock bag and lit it. They followed him across the sand that was under a centimetre of water so clear it might as well not have been there at all. It felt nice on the feet, though. Cleansing or something. The kids looked glad to be on solid ground. They stretched out their arms and craned their necks.
There’re stingos out round this time of year, Hunter said.
The kids all quit stretching and looked at each other. Stingos? Like, stingrays?
Yeah, said Bill. You know, Steve Irwin and all that.
Is it safe?
Dunno, Hunter said. You can walk ahead of me and find out.
Relax. Hunter paused and puffed smoke. I’m gonna go first. Besides, you can see em easy if ya look. Big flat things with tails like snakes.
He made gestures with his hands and some of the kids looked even more worried.
Real thin snakes, Hunter said, smiling and tossing his cigarette butt into the waters.
Karen came up front again, her hair still dripping.
Where’d you learn so much about stingrays?
Like, did you go to uni and study them or something?
How old’re you?
Hunter nodded and kept walking. He saw Karen’s mouth open in his peripheral but just as she did he shot his arm up quick: Hold up.
Everyone stopped mid-step and some of em nearly fell over they were so nervous.
See that there? asked Hunter, and when they all shook their heads he said: Come closer.
So the group was huddled near Hunter, and all of em but Karen were behind him, scanning for anything strange in the sand. He pulled a shell from beside his foot. He lifted it and tossed it a couple metres ahead of himself. The sand writhed, a tail whipped round, the stingray shot away from them. One of the kids fell over.
C’mon now, said Hunter. I didn’t ask you to do an impersonation.
Hisssss, said the kid in the water.
Do stingrays hiss?
I bet. They have tails like snakes, and snakes hiss.
They have those weird mouths.
Big slots on their chests, said Callum, speaking up for the first time that afternoon.
Stingos don’t hiss, said Hunter.
What noise do they make then? Callum asked.
Dunno. Not a hiss.
Hunter shrugged and kept walking. Karen had fallen back after the run-in with the ray, but Callum had shuffled up to Hunter just as the water started coming up to their knees again. Behind them, the kayaks were still lined up on the sand, and from where the group stood they looked like they’d been anchored to the seafloor.
They all stopped moving and admired the ocean. They looked out across the water and they could see the expanse of it all, the smaller islands dotted out on the horizon, the mangroves jutting out of Straddy’s shore.
Me? Callum asked.
Nah. I was talkin to the stingo.
Oh. Wait, what sting—
I’m kidding, mate. I was talkin to you.
Callum straightened himself back up.
So, Hunter asked again. What do you think?
Hunter turned to Callum, who was all quiet behind his glasses, which he’d insisted on wearing out in the water even after being warned they’d probably get lost.
I mean, Callum went on. I mean, it’s beautiful isn’t it? It’s just so blue.
Which bit? The ocean or the sky?
All of it.
Hunter paused a moment before answering. Yeah, he said.
And they stood around, and the kids talked among themselves, and Hunter lit another cigarette. When he was done he started back toward the kayaks.
They dragged the boats about fifty metres along the sandbar till it got deep enough to paddle again. Hunter got em to race out to where the coastline reached its farthest point, which was where they’d had to make a sharp turn around it.
Karen won the race. All the boys made excuses, and the other girls looked down at themselves. When Hunter announced the winner Karen’s eyes were on Bill and his eyes were on her and all three of em were smiling.
They pulled the kayaks onto shore about half an hour later, when the sky was starting to dim a little with the sun trying to set itself out west behind the mainland.
Their packs were waiting for them, and their tents were prearranged around a circle of stones with ashes piled in the centre. Some of those ashes were fishbones from the night before—some of em even caught by the kids. Bill had snatched a real whopper, but he’d accidentally dropped the fish too deep in the hot coals to wrestle it out, which’d made him foul for the rest of the night, especially considering the best try anyone made at cheering him up was Callum saying: It was a shitty fish anyway, bro.
On that second day, they’d been too busy kayaking out and around the island to catch any fish. So when the fire went up, and when the sun went down, everyone grouped by the fire to watch the alfoiled potatoes turn soft. Whenever there was a break in conversation the kids asked Hunter to tell em a story.
He’d start off with something simple.
I was scubaing off the other side of the island. Coupla mates and me. Went out, down deep. Beautiful day, and not much current either. One mate of mine, Jim, snags himself on some coral. Cuts right through the leg of his suit and he’s bleeding.
The kids were all eyes on him, even Callum, who was on the other side of the fire with the smoke blowing in his face.
Now, there ain’t many sharks out and about this far north, but still, Jim freaks. Starts gesturing. We need to break the surface, says Jim, and none of us argue. And we rush—
Did he get bitten?
Hunter stared down at the fire.
Do you lot want the nice ending? he asked. Or the ugly one?
A few of the boys yelled out Ugly pretty quick. Karen and Bill were distracted by each other.
Right. You asked for it, said Hunter. So Jim’s swimmin upwards with me behind, and I’m watching the red spill out of him, like a little stream, like his leg was pissin itself with blood or somethin, and we’re just going quick as we can to get back to the tinny. We break the surface, and we grab the edge of the boat. We’re all pulling ourselves over the edge and into the tinny, all three of us, and then—
The fire spit something or other at the kids.
—and then there’s just two of us.
The fire stopped making noise and the kids started murmuring among themselves.
Did that really happen?
Is he alive?
I don’t remember seeing it on the news.
I thought I did, actually. In the paper.
And Hunter went silent while the kids entertained themselves, and he smiled, and he lit a cigarette, and it didn’t taste quite as good as it had out in the middle of the bay, where the air was clean, and it was just him and the tobacco and the sea salt seasoning it all.
Karen and Bill got up after a bit of whispering and tried to slink off.
Where do ya think you’re going?
Karen shrugged. Bill gave him the finger. Hunter puffed smoke.
And then the kids left.
And just before he couldn’t hear leaves crushing under their feet anymore, he called out: I warned you about the scrawny ones.
The fire was down to embers by the time most of the kids started packing it in. Callum was the last to leave, though before he did he came to sit by Hunter. Callum didn’t say anything for a while, but he did sit close.
Fire or ocean? Hunter asked.
Fire, Callum said after a bit.
No sharks in a fire.
Hunter was still smoking.
Can I have a try?
Your cigarette. Can I have a try?
Hunter turned to the kid. What would your mum say?
Save it till you’re older.
Callum looked up again. But I’ll never be allowed.
Hunter took a puff and held the cigarette close enough to Callum that it might look like an offer. The boy watched the ember of the tip, the small smoke rising. He sniffed at it, trying to do it so Hunter wouldn’t notice.
And then Hunter lifted his arm to inhale again, deep and filling his lungs. After a bit he breathed it all out in a torrent.
Hunter turned to the boy. You hesitated, he said.
Sorry, said Callum.
Hunter breathed in smoke again. Makes you worse at diving, you know.
Messes with your breathing.
Did your friend really get bitten by a shark?
Happens all the time.
Yeah, but did it happen to him?
You just gotta be careful in the water, that’s all. Get to bed.
Callum watched the shrinking fire and then he nodded, got up, and retreated into his tent.
And after a while of Hunter poking deep in the fire with an ashen stick, Callum came back out.
I don’t reckon Jim was bitten, he said.
Is that so?
What makes ya think that?
Callum held up his phone. I googled it. No shark incidents involving a Jim on Stradbroke. You’re a liar.
Hunter chuckled. And there I was thinking I was a bad storyteller, he said.
You are, said Callum.
Nah I’m not. I’m just a liar.
The boy stared at Hunter for a while like he was looking to know something he couldn’t. Hunter frowned and scratched his beard. Callum went to bed, for real this time.
When the embers began to dim Hunter decided he better go grab Karen and Bill from wherever they’d got to. He reckoned they’d be on the beach, which was where the kids usually ended up taking their romances.
Hunter wandered out through the trees and toward the beach. He could hear the small waves breaking. He could hear the crickets and the mozzies buzzing. He could hear the possums rustling round the trees.
And when he finally saw the two kids—arms round each other, all their clothes still on, lips pressed together on the shoreline—he didn’t say anything. He shook his head and turned away; he lit one last cigarette and grasped it tight. It was a cold wind that blew the smoke from Hunter’s mouth, but he felt warm inside, wandering the campsite and nodding to himself.