Sea Sampler

It’s a long thin journey there and back, like a curve of

fishing line arc-ing in the wind. With one end

anchored in the past – its wooden handline handle

wedged in the crack of the jetty and the other end

weighting baited for the future on the fathomy floor.

I could haul it in but the slack will always tangle and

knot. I could haul it in but the last of the line could

slice my fingers to the bone.

I used to love to drive these long roads before Jack was

born, when I was footloose, though full of fancy.

Even when Jack was little we would sometimes make

this trek, the rush of speed almost compensating for the

weeks of preparation and the hours of packing.

This time I packed nothing, walking from the house

with my handbag and keys. I stare straight ahead at the

arrowing road and try to remember what I am wearing

but fail, jeans probably and a t-shirt, sexless, ageless,

thoughtless clothes.What else is there? I can feel the

gridded rubber on the accelerator – no shoes. I can see

the pale band of skin on my wrist like a watch ghost,

an anti time tattoo. If I glance at my face in the

rearview mirror would I see anyone I know?

The car is like a running dream where you can’t move

fast enough, chased or chasing through a landscape

molten as honey.

No matter how fast I go I can’t out run myself.

I open the window to the roar of air then click a

random cassette into place, it’s one of Jack’s favourites,

bright and simple. It tightens my throat like a noose.

I punch it off and out and spin it through the window.

Then I panic.What if a day comes when I can bear to

hear it, when it is the only conjuring key to my

memories of him? I know the inertia of regret will come

slamming in if the momentum stops but I brake anyway.

The world comes to a halt then reverses.

I need it back.

It’s so unexpected that everything outside a speeding

car is real. Has it really stopped or is it still spinning so

fast that it appears motionless? I test the limping gravel

and the edgy bluemetal carefully with my bare feet.

The cassette lies undamaged (maybe the only thing) in

the dangerous middle.When I reach it I linger,

appearing motionless, carefully arching the camber into

my instep to feel the tarry warm. I don’t look left or

right for cars because what I don’t know can’t hurt me

anymore, it’s what I know that does me damage. I

return to the car where distance settles on me as

inevitable as dust and lock the tape away in the

glovebox like a gun.

This is where I have come.

Down along an evening beach where the fishermen

and fisherwomen and all the fisherchildren

throw their lines like stitches into the sea. Sewing the

sea to the sand like fancylace with barbed needles and

slanted uneven stitches (except along the jetty where

they are as straight and numerous as a buttonhole and

where the edge is decorated with sequin scales).

I find a space to try my hand, to sink my sinkers like

coins sewn in the lining, to sow my seed pearl floats on

the surface of the quilty sea, to patiently tension

(or pull though I know it puckers).

But still the fragile fabric pulls apart, coming adrift

under fingers and thimble thumbs until one by one all

the fishermen and fisherwomen and fisherchildren

unpick their work and spool their thread (the

sometimes smooth and sometimes catch), gather up

their beaded nets and boastful buckets leaving the

sequins scattered in the sand.

Down a bit and along a man walks in the scalloped

trim. He has hemmed the sea to his trousers and tries

to shake it free. He knows he shouldn’t walk so close

but rolls his reasons higher out of reach and carries on.

The seagulls smock and snip and avert their eyelets. So

often the sea is too close for comfort.

In the gauze dark small boats cut on the bias out

beyond the reef. In the silk dark I walk back fishless

and fancy free through the ruched grass and the felted

sky, past a sugary shop and a war memorial prickling

like a spine. Fastening my hooks and eyes I pin tuck to

bed to dream of fish bone needles and my fingers sewn

together like a fin and the in-out-in-out running

thread bucking like a live thing in my hand.

At night the silver net of light that rides the water

luminesces on the inside of my eyes like a silent movie.

In the morning it is different.With the jelly night just

set, the fisherchildren stay still and asleep, as curled and

dangerous as shellfish.

Only the industrious are up, trawling in the slick distance

– and me, sandy with sleeplessness.When we ventured

here as children my father always sewed our holiday boxes

in sacking against the water crossing.

His needle (as long as my hand) curved and flared like a

tiny silver tusk, goring through the rough fabric, raising

seams like scars that were proof against pilferers and salt

spray disintegration.

What would I catch today with such a hook, knotted with

jute and dropped unbaited in the clear deep?

Tiny fish wickedly impaled, medium fish edgy as tin, or a

giant fish, big as a torpedo with a frightery of teeth (or

nothing as usual but the tucks and darts of my childhood)?

The sea is too big for me and needs taking in.

Around the rocks the bay curves like a bodice cinching

and pinching with whalebone and pearlshell buttons

while the waves flounce and petty and are more my

size. Here I can master cast in secret, practising my

loops and swirls, retrieving my shortfalls and untangling

the snags and once, just once, feel the meaty muscle

weight of the whole sea pulling on my line then

cutting off with a sharply metalled mouth so close to

the surface that it rolls me backwards on the sand.

Soon the the sun is up and the beach will be full in the

hiving heat with children smallishly hauling at the

helpless sand and beating the cool out of the water, so I

retreat to a clam of shade and lick my salt and clean my

needles and whet my threadends in readiness.

Once when I was here, long ago, I caught a flip or two

of silver bream and reeled them rankling to my feet

where they twinkled and jewelled like christmas and

soon embroidered my breakfast. Still the memory of

that capture pulls at my fingers. But there again, a man

unpinned their mouths and cut them thinly with his

sickle scissors and cured them of their seaishness with

salt and vinegar.

Could I do it for myself, identify their tastiness, avoid

their poisons, free them from the disingenuous prawn?

Could I clean them lovingly and scale them ready for

bed? Could I cut them anonymously behind the gills

and fillet down along their backs, close but not

catching like the rattling of a stick along the bars?

(And necklace their pierced scales and tattoo their

names with bones and fan myself minutely with their

fins.) Of course, Haven’t I mastered everything else?

Haven’t I been doing everything (though nothing for

myself) for years?

This is all I know.

Things my father taught me, small gleanings like wood

shavings from his ship shaped timber. If I stand and spin

in the dizzying sand I will feel the strands of DNA like

spiders silk from the past, twisting and turning into me.

He reminded me once that none of my thousands of

ancestors died as children. Imagine all those exemplary

lives, carefully living long enough to pass on their genes

(in long twisty spirals like marionette strings directing

my every move). None of them ever died in childhood

until me, only I didn’t die in my own.

I wish I was born by the sea, living my life on and off a

splintery greywood boat with fishnets for stockings and

a sailcloth cloak, with my father’s seagoing genes and

hat. Singing fish into my boat like a castaway, or a

fishwife with cold wet kisses.

Jack could catch fish, they sensed a certain wateryness

in him and clustered round. My father said that fishing

and catching fish were two different things but to Jack

they were one and the same. He always caught fish,

they came to him, lured.

Up close, his eyes swam about like minnows behind

aquarium glasses.They were the shallow water kind, he

had no hidden deep, he always silted up and floated on

the surface. He had a nice life harboured from the

worst storms, a childhood deprived of nothing but

oxygen and he had a gift – a miracle of fishes. If he

swam (and he never did) he would curl up like a

comma with his air pumped down a tube and go back

from where he came, the sea of me, where he was safe

for a while until the day he went out with the tide.

Caught in the rip and suck of childbirth, following the

water down, he somehow misses the moment, that

miracle of birth where the head breaks the meniscus

and the lungs fire up and the holes in the heart that let

you live on your mother’s blood snap closed like shell

fish. Or he doesn’t lose the moment only mistimes and

comes gulping for air where there is none, drowns in

the backwash, sinks to the bottom. But he didn’t die.

The doctors saved him, pumped him full of air –

refloated him, and all things being equal they declared

him fit to sail. Only you can’t go down and back

without some sacrifices and Jack decided to stick to

safe and shallow from then on. I didn’t blame him, the

deep worried at me as well, but I envied him his trick

of fish while he had it.

I never had it but they often say that things can skip

the generations – rhythmically hopping over splice

ended genetic ropes.

N o t l a s t n i g h t

b u t t h e n i g h t b e f o r e

t we n t y f o u r r o b b e r s c a m e

k n o c k i n g a t my d o o r ,

I g o t u p t o

l e t t h e m i n

a n d t h i s i s w h a t

t h e y s a i d t o m e .

Grandpa also netted fish in his strong hands but he was

more an estuary man, half salty, half sweet, pulling his

babynamed boat up on the black grained ilmenite

beach not far from where I am now. I turn my back on

the distance and walk a careful line back to their once


It was a long car journey, 3 hours or 4 with stops,

fraught with carsickness and elbowed shuffling.

Hunchback packed, knockneed from chair back

kicking and dangerously shrill with are-we-there-yet?

voices. A sun creamed ferry crossing and an oily swell

sending a pram shooting like a cannon past and back

on its lanyard.Are we there yet?

At an uncertain, summer seaside town,CWA baked

fibro cottages resolutely retired and grimly backed to

the sea.

We would tumble out of the feisty ferry like a circus

troop; the gang plank drumroll arrival, the

somersaulting children with fairy floss hair dodging

high flying tempers and the tired tamers with baby

lions growling in their sleep. I would run all the way to

the familiar house, back and check round the pointed

teeth of a small malevolent dog and throw myself into a


This was the house.

A treasury kitchen with dressersful of string and cards,

of coins and button, with preciously polished linoleum,

with a table set with care and cream and swirling

golden lustreware mugs of warm milk. A net covered,

dairy coloured, jammed and sugared farmhouse kitchen

retired to the sea.

A workroom, furniture ridden and plumply panelled

with books and on the wall a sewing sampler of our

family tree. I loved that epic embroidery on its likely

linen, the cross and stitched, the great and grand, the

ends knotted behind like clasped hands, the coloured

silks twisting and spinning into me.

Our room was a once upon a time verandah, long and

narrow minded with beds end-to-ended like an

epidemic and bubbled louvre windows cellophanely

shivering in the wind.

At night the heavy canvas awnings unfurled like sails

then sucked and bellied with the draught. In full sail

the room was as snug and sound dampened and safe as

a boat.

The beds and bedding were the post war purchases of

bulk army auctions, blankets scratched and grey, hospital

sheets of thick white linen as cold as damp.

Back breaking mattresses lumped and hollowed, perfect

for small animal nest or children. I would cocoon to

sleep in the early dark with the next door kitchen

dimly ticking like a night clock. Sleeping then like I’ve

never slept since, rocking and crooning.

Up up in the Grandmother first morning I would

collect the holiday bucket, catch the rocking thump of

the screen door before it hit and skiptoe out into the

whispering garden. A Grandfather garden, urgently

green and inedible with rhubarb and silver beet, but

also lined with the lucrative cash crops of childhood.

Vine sided, straw bedded and lanterned with

passionfruit. I’d search for berried treasure, eat and fill

and swing the strawberry bucket breakfast back to the

table. After that I was free to roam, over the road,

wincing across the lawn that prickled like barbed wire

around the war memorial or running steeply down to

the tiny sugar countered shop. Sometimes I would stay

and sit at the work table, watching my Grandmother

who sewed, while I pricked the pads of my fingers or

cushioned the pins in my palm.

Sometimes I would go fishing.

Down I would go to the evening, balancing in the

beachy boat while my father scrunched it into the glass

green (where the sea hooked into the river mouth and

pulled it out). I never learned my lessons, of patience

and quiet calm, but would watch my Grandfather

pulling in the fish then false my nails with their scales

or coquettishly spread their fins or comfort them all,

dying breathlessly in the bucket.

Nothing and everything has changed, funny how so

many things can wash away leaving my childhood

shiny and intact like a pearl amongst the seedy weeds.

The garden too has gone fishing. Only the bellyup

boat, riding saw horses resolutely into the ground,

catches my fingers.The name, (my tiny maybe baby

name) SHELL still traces blockily along the bow. I lever

and turn until she tips dipsily up onto the ground and I

climb aboard

(to rock autistically on the bearable bottom, curled like

a comma, breathing stale tubular air like a diver).

We took a little Jack in this boat, holding him up like a

talisman, bagging his catch, handfeeding him my perfect

childhood, (mopping it as it dribbled down) and

pretended nothing mattered.

Not last night but the night before when I arrived, the

screen door rocked and thumped and fell off in my hand.

The house splintered into my fingers and reeled me in.

How long since I was here? 10 years maybe, with Jack

12 and heavy with baggage (breathing tubes and

aqualungs, glassy eyes and a swim bladder).The fish still

came to him but getting him to the water required man

handling.That’s why we stopped coming, the man

handler up and left, not because being the father of Jack

was getting harder but because he thought it was never

going to end.

David was the catch of the day, a perfect specimen.

I hooked him right here in this holiday town with a slick

of suntan that smoothed the water round me like a skirt.

I stood posing in a scallop shell which enticed him in

then clicked shut like a locket. He didn’t resist and he

didn’t fight so I reeled him in as pretty as you please.

My grandparents by then had retired to heaven and

handed the house to the next generation. I, by then, was

silkily sulkily bored with family holidays. I went to the

beach to practice drowning and to save myself.

After I had saved myself for David we married in a

breathless rush (with me inflating like a dinghy). Jack was

born not six months later on the crest of a wave which

dumped us broken onto the beach.To be fair he stayed as

long as he could stand, lying when he couldn’t stand, then

not bothering to lie, just dissolving into the horizon.

I hardly noticed, what with keeping things breathable.

This is what I became, lean mean and submarine,

checking the pressure and adjusting the dials, moving

like a shadow through the sea dark, sharing the stale

tubular air with Jack. I looked after him and before

him, avoiding wrecks and recognition, always keeping

one eye open. (lying floundered on the deep sea bed I

swear I could feel both eyes growing round to one side

of my head.)

Now I sleep the sleep of the dead, panicky and short of

breath, bothered by silence.

In my Grandmother’s cupboard is her sewing box.

I spread the filagree stuff on the table, the rustily sharp

and the tangled. I empty the fillet of needles and lightly

acupuncture the back of my hand. So many things she

could make with her hands, (tapestries and toys) and so

much time to do it in. My mother too had time for

lots of things. She even helped me with Jack when she

could, until she used it all up too soon.What happened

to mine? Maybe it is still here closed up and boxy in

the cupboard with my midriff tops and my trouble

shooting shorts. Maybe someone bottled it under

pressure in a hissing oxygen canister, tightly valved and

misty as dry ice.

In my Grandfather’s shed is his fishing box. It tackles

and tightens at my entry. I hang a diminishing chain of

hooks from my earring where they coldly catch my

cheek. Mothers should all be able to sew, mending tears

and rents with tiny invisible stitches. But it’s too late for

that so I take the fishing box and go down to the beach

where the fishermen and fisherwomen and all the

fisherchildren eye me sideways as I try to hook my

seadrowned son from the deep and draw him up to the

sand where he cannot sink or swim.

Not last night or the night before, but the night before,

night before, night before that I lay listening in my

sealess suburban house with the endless pieces of my

broken sleep knotted together, with the househum of a

hundred tiny motors, with the oxygen tanks coldly

sidling beside his bed.

Jack lived in fish years, in long slow waves of

childhood, while I grew old around him, carrying him

and laying him down though he was twice my size,

cleaning him and scaling him ready for bed, needling

him and monitoring his breathing. In the day as well

but every night his airways would falter and catch and

call me from my dreams again and again and again to

stop him drowning.

Skipping on my string of sleep that was snapped and

tied like shoelaces, twentyfour robbers came knocking

at my door and this is what they said to me.

“Stay under the surface. Let him swim.

You were never so good at fishing.”

Then they took him away.

Too late I catapulted from inertia to the floor.

This was my life forward and back, an endless line

paying out into the deep, so suddenly released by a

sharply metalled bite just under the surface that it

rolled me roughly to the ground.

My guilt spreads like an oil slick.

My relief is wickedly barbed.

Did I hear the hush of his breathing and turn away?

Burrowing back into my nested bed, just once, just

once let me sleep! Did I, onetime too many, wish to

cut him adrift, wrapped inside the quilty sea and sail

away unsnagged? I know I dreamed of a silver sided

fish that wriggled and jewelled like Christmas then

flipped back into a dimpled wave and swam away, while

all my ancestors, who scrimped and saved themselves,

who passed their DNA like a baton, who never died in

their childhood, rolled their bones.

The line has snapped, their catch has got away.

Funny how things under water are so close and large

you can’t see past them. Funny how fishing is so endless

it can take your whole life, then everything happens in a

finnish flash (while the rest of your life reels out,

reflecting endlessly underwater all ripply and blurred).

So quickly Jack was so gone he might have never been.

Everything sewed up and tie ended. Everything

removed as quick and efficient as gutting fish.

(Sharp sharp knife from tail tip up, neat and clean and

never been.)

So quickly was I gone I might have never been, driving

the coast road fast, 3 hours not 4, (with only one minor

stop on the barefoot road) fraught and dangerously shrill.

Am I there yet?

Standing prowed on the feisty ferry wishing someone

would sew me up in sacking, proof against the bitings of

fishes and salt spray disintegration, then sink me into the

swell and tide me over.

Sometimes the sea is too close for comfort

I dream and dream in my pieces of sleep, of Jack curled

like a comma, down in the dimpled deep and every time

I dive to him and bring him up I breathe into his mouth

like a fishwife with cold wet kisses.

Heaven could be a lighthouse. How often did I see my

grandfather shining out of Jack’s face like a beacon?

Heaven would be a lighthouse full of fishermen (and all

the fisherchildren) that overlooks the rocks and wrecks

and black grained ilmenite beaches.

The place where I go to lay down my worry on the

wet sand and walk away.

This is where I have come.

Retreating to my holiday childhood to relearn my


Be patient, be fragile, don’t speak or tip,

throw the small ones back, don’t let the line go slack.

There are plenty more fish in the sea, leave them be.

In the house that still quietly ticks like a night clock

(my house now since my father, watered down and

weakly, couldn’t keep it up any more) I take down the

sampler of the family tree and prise it like an oyster

from its frame. I lay out all the coloured silks, clean my

needles and whet my threadends in readiness. Under

my (not baby) name which still traces blockily under

my fingers MICHELLE, I sew JACK’s letters with hard

learned patience and quiet calm.Then I attach a line of

fishhooks with parallels of stitches straight and

numerous as buttonholes.Then I embroider tiny fish

with blue and green and silver, then quilt around the

salty stains like bubbles.

In the silk dark I go, fishless, with the last of my line

broken and tied like shoelaces, with my hooks loosened

and seething to rust. In the velvet dark I rock away in

the babyname boat with my face pillowed on the sea

sampler and sleep for the first time until morning.


About Mikaela

I am an artist and writer living in the Perth Hills
This entry was posted in Prose. Bookmark the permalink.

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