The Threat of Redemption
The promise of relief has been swelling and hovering for more than a week, and now an early morning Darwin September light glitters red streaks across a black sky.
A wall of rain claws its way from the distant Arafura Sea toward the city. A relentless giant storm painting the green waters grey with skyscraper nimbus shadows that reach from the ocean surface into the ocean of cloud above.
Two men are waiting, rolling gently, patient on the humid stillness of a moored boat.
The jade-coloured sarong of Kopu-Nui Hokitika rises and falls as his huge body softly sings.
At the other end of the padded wooden bench an athletic younger man listens. “What does that one mean Punga?” he asks.
Kopu pauses and rests his guitar across his chest
“battle ahead – before a war there must be consultation – before a storm” then he laughs and says “means many things –words really saying that the gods are thoughtless in their fierceness and their intent –an ending will rip through shadows with spears of rain and painful air to breathe– but who can know what really is ahead and what are the sacrifices for freedom“
The younger man shrugs and looks upward, his trained eye following the grain of the Douglas Fir mast. “I don’t always know what the hell you are talking about”
Kopu laughs loudly and freely and follows the young carpenter’s gaze up the polished tree trunk to the rigging high up the mast. There is no breeze to rattle the metal cleats, and yet the entire sky is full of cloud and angry morning darkness from the distant Northern horizon of the Arafura Sea all the way above Darwin City in the East and South over the treetop rainforests and red soil jungles. The world is clattering tumult deep inside itself in a monstrous heaving blanket.
They both look out to sea as the tropical sky rips out thunder on thunder, spilling waves of lighting downward through the heat into the water below.
Kopu continues “just got to get hold of the feeling” he looks back at the other man “its also about a journey in a boat you know - like that without knowing where to, but it is old times you know…. two great kings and the people must decide who to follow in their journey – an old story”
He pauses then strumming again he talks and sings in small snatches of words amongst the chords
“we all follow in the
pathways of the water…
great knowledge of the ancient ones…
hara mai te akaaka nui
hara mai te akaaka roa
hara mai te akaaka matua
hara mai te akaaka na
Io matua taketake te waiora…
and great heart strengthen your arms and axes
and your love of your ancestors makes your enemy weak…
and cuts apart the water for the land…” he sings on quietly as though half asleep.
The two men are on the deck of a large wooden sailing vessel, watching through the haze of breathless humidity, knowing at last it is coming.
A crackling exhaust pierces the wallpaper of cicada song, and both men stir. The crackle eases to idling gasps and rumbles as the machine comes to rest on the concrete apron of the wharf.
The sound of footsteps and then the square bearded face of Toby Armstrong appears.
The men on the boat look toward him. Kopu puts the guitar aside and gathers his sarong around him as he rolls onto one elbow and nods. The effort of moving makes the tattoos twitch over his massive neck and shoulders like a flag rippling its pattern over the shell of a giant turtle.
The other man on deck, Mick Tasakrios flicks his long knotty rasta hair, and throws his legs over the wooden edge behind him and tumbles up onto the deck in a roll. He sits up grinning and half waves, then casually brushes a fly from his knee.
Toby puts a foot onto the edge of the vessel “The famous navigator and the famous carpenter then” he says. Silence. Then he produces a rolled newspaper from his vest and holds it above his head. “Well, it’s just another croc story boys” and he hurls the paper in a high arc. It lands at Mick’s feet. Mick carefully removes the rubber band which he puts in his pocket. He unrolls the newspaper and reads, then flashes the front page to Kopu with its photo and trumpeting headline 'CROC STORY A CROCK'. Then he crosses his legs and spreads the paper and reads out loud "September 28 The amazing story of a savage crocodile attack along the North Arnhem Coastline played out in Darwin court this week when..."
Thud! Toby throws a package onto the deck from one hand and it lands inches from Mick's knee. Mick stops reading and looks up. Toby's face looks suspended, hesitating as it always does, if there is something to say but too many ways of saying, “Package for skip” he announces at last “from person or persons unknown… interesting” and his intense face informs Mick that he does not want to hear any more of the newspaper article.
Mick looks back down and reads on in silence.
Mick looks back down and reads on in silence.
Toby reaches inside his vest again and pulls out a thick parcel. Thud! The parcel is thrown onto the deck from the other hand and lands next to Kopu. “Provisions from treasury for the next chapter…. You can open that one”
Then Toby leaps aboard the vessel which rocks slightly to accommodate him. He stands legs together like a tree which has grown out of the deck. His legs are as brown as gnarled wood and the oil-stained shorts seem to sit like an afterthought at his thick waist.
Stained ragged shorts then a hairy belly-gap, and then a big loose leather vest out of which grow thick arms in an awkward clutter of too many torn muscles. He stands for a long pause looking at both of the men. “just another croc story” he repeats.
“Just a another crock of shit if you ask me” says Mick still reading.
Toby gestures to the newspaper “she sold us out, sold the skip out”
Kopu laughs out loud “she sold us out” he repeats laughing again with his peculiar high pitched almost hysterical laugh for such a big man “she sold us out – oh love where is thy sting”
Mick looks up “isn’t that death – death where is thy sting?”
“Exactly exactly that” Kopu says and laughs and shakes his head as if nobody really will understand anything about love or death. “End of story, and beginning of story” he says.
Toby waits for a break in the rise and fall of the cicada shrieking to speak again “You blokes going to get a wet arse for sure – you staying on?”
Kopu and Mick both nod - They look toward the approaching storm.
“Got to keep her alive” states Kopu. Toby nods.
“Skip wants you at Buffalo Creek 0530” says Toby “she’s all fuelled and gassed and there’s spare fuel for the Reach next to the chiller”
Kopu and Mick nod again “thank you the famous mechanic” says Mick, and Toby scowls at him, not enjoying his own little joke being sent back at him.
“Any news of the apprentice boy” asks Kopu
Toby looks up and down the length of the boat, running his eye over the winches and the trimmings “Sent him his first set of spanners” he replies at last.
“Mum will be pleased” says Kopu. Then there is a long pause as the three men turn toward the thunder. “Where to?”
“Skip didn’t say – anywhere I guess – there’s more you know – court was bad enough but that’s nothing compared to what else - I told him piss off skip - to Zanzibar for a couple of years or go fishing off Lebanon coast or something – I told him to get the hell out – maybe he will listen to me for once”
“What do you mean there’s more – more than this crap?” said Mick shaking the newspaper in the air.
Toby seemed to stop his inner emotional motor as he often did at a time of great crisis, and his face became like stone. He stood there looking from Kopu to Mick and back again. “I’m not coming boys” he paused and took a deep breath and the stone cheeks seemed to relax a little and life flowed back into him as his thoughts crystallised “business to run – you know – kids to run – skip will tell you all about it” that was all he would say, though it was a lot coming from Toby. “love to know what’s in that parcel” He turned abruptly and leapt off the vessel onto the walkway. The vessel rocked more violently this time. “Good luck boys – how’s Mary?”
“She’s fine, safe back with mum in Omokoroa” said Kopu and with a wave to Toby he rolls his body onto the deck mattress and looks away.
Toby stands on the walkway, seemingly smaller than he had looked on the deck. “love to grandpa” he says to Mick as he turns to walk away “worst of it should blow over by morning.... you can motor all the way if you want – tell that old Greek he owes me” and his voice begins to trail away “about time he took her back to Mykonos...” then he is gone with the click of the walkway gate, and a few minutes later the bike revs fiercely and swirls away.
And so the two men hold onto their promises as they listen. They are thrown together in their waiting, each filled with thought and memory and untangling the lies and truth of their wretched predicament, each in their own private sweaty breathing. They listen as the angry exhaust fades and rises and fades again into the distance and are enveloped once again by the silence of heavy tropical air, a silence accompanied by cicadas so constant and loud they are impossible to hear. Underneath their noise, and through the relentless thunder, the men can feel the nervous melody of thick lapping water whispering the answer, offering up to the carved arc of the wooden hull the knowledge of what happened at Yalingimbi inlet.
The whistle of a kettle rises innocent in the face of the nearing ocean stormfall.
Kopu rises from the deck and carefully picks up the package and the parcel. He tosses the parcel in the air and catches it. He throws it to Mick who holds it to his ear and shakes it as if to hear a rattle. “no change” he quips.
They both laugh, Kopu laughing his open free laugh of worldly irony, and Mick more nervous and questioning.
Mick tosses the parcel back to Kopu who then edges past him and eases his giant body down into the companionway, and like a great black shark squeezing into a small cave, takes the package and the parcel below.
Kopu reappears with two mugs of hot tea and the men sip on their drinks both deep in thought.
Kopu taps his fingernail against the metal rim of his cup “we have the key” he says in his deep sing- song voice “now let’s see if it fits the lock” and again he laughs out loud, laughing into the face of outrageous fortune and daring what is to come, to come. As always Mick eases his thoughts into the strength and comfort of the big man’s well of determination, and laughs too, more quietly, finding strength there to allow destiny to chart the outcome of what they now have to do.
The red air fades into the morning blues and greys around the two men who are etched like sacrificial soldiers in the pale tropical light of the marina. The sun lifts itself off the horizon to be swallowed by the day, and all that remains of the crew of the Saint Augustine, these two unwilling survivors and witnesses, are imprisoned and uneasy above the creatures of the water beneath them.
Shortly they will go below and batten down in preparation for tomorrow morning’s rendezvous.