I’ve been regrettably quiet on this site for the last few weeks so thought I’d start things up again with a story that recently won The Antipodes Short Story Competition, a small local competition run by Anitpodes Bookstore (in Sorrento, just south of Melbourne). This story is adapted from a story from the manuscript of an unpublished novel, Once.
‘There was once an Island of Women.’ Sarah frowned. Why did Lu want a story now? Why had it all come to this?
Through the window she could see Mike hoisting a bench onto the roof-racks.
Lu brought the doona around her. Silence. ‘Auntie Sarah?’
Silence…then a thump outside and Lu’s dad, Carl, laughing while Mike, his brother, muttered low.
‘On this island,’ Sarah said at last, ‘there lived a beautiful girl. Her name was Tarantella. The islanders spent their days gathering food. And when the seas were peaceful the strongest would row to their fishing grounds to cast their nets.
‘Sometimes, when they found themselves fishing alongside the boats from the nearby Island of Men, there would be great excitement. The young women would fluff their hair and taunt across the water. The men would stand proud and boastful above the waves. There would be loud mockery between the fleets, and silent admiration.
‘One afternoon the women’s nets came up empty at their favourite reef and they decided to try another spot.
‘Tarantella’s net snagged as she hauled it in. “I’ll join you,” she told her sisters, “once my repairs are done.”
‘As Tarantella untangled her net she heard the dip of oars nearby. Looking up she saw a boat from the Island of Men approaching. “Where are your others?” she called.
‘“I’m alone,’ the man called back. “Elders sent me to check if the turtles had returned.”
‘“What’s you’re name?” said Tarantella.
‘“Pelorus,” he replied.
‘“Can you fix nets?”’
A knock at Sarah’s door interrupted the storytelling. Carl stuck his head through.
Lu’s face flashed delight. ‘Sarah’s telling stories.’
‘It’s alright, Carl’ Sarah said.
‘OK then. Mike wants to know if he should take the sofa?’
‘Can’t he ask me himself? Yes, take it. He knows I hate it. Why does he need to ask?’
‘He just…,’ said Carl, and his voice trailed to nothing. He coughed to recover it. ‘Be good for Aunty Sarah, Darling.’
Sarah took a long breath. ‘Where were we?’
‘Mending the nets.’
‘Oh, yeah. So Pelorus brought his boat alongside Tarantella’s, and lashed them together, then he jumped in among the tangle of her net.
‘Tarantella and Pelorus began working on it. Tarantella stole glances at Pelorus as he knotted. Pelorus stole looks across towards Tarantella too. When their eyes met they laughed, bright and happy. Do you know what was happening?’
‘No,’ said Lu.
‘They were falling in love. Imagine that. Floating out in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Remember, Lu, this was a magical place.’
‘It was not until the sun began setting that they knew they’d have to part. They embraced with tears in their eyes.
‘Just then Tarantella heard another boat. Even at a distance she recognised it as her sister’s. “Hide, quickly,” she said, pushing Pelorus onto his boat. He ducked beneath his own nets, listening as the dinghy approached, barely daring to breath.
‘“Tarantella, what’s this? A boat from the Island of Men?”
‘“I found it adrift,” she replied.
‘“You can’t keep it. You know what our mother will say. We’ll have to cut it loose.”
‘“Such a waste, though.”
‘“Yes, but it’s not ours,” replied the sister, slicing the boats apart with her knife. “Now row quickly or it will be dark before we’re home.”
‘When Tarantella reached the Island of Women the evening star was bright. Gathering her nets she glanced down. Submerged in the slop of water was the carved shell amulet that had hung on cord about her young man’s neck. Tarantella scooped it up and tucked it beneath the band of her skirt.
‘Later, as she undressed for the night, she realised her own shell necklace was missing.’
Sarah took a sip of water, and the laughter of the men downstairs drifted into the silence.
‘Wanting to keep him close about her, she dared, that night, to hang Pelorus’s charm about her neck. If her mother found her with it she would be in a great deal of trouble. So she went to bed before the others.
‘Her sleep was heavy, as if a net had been cast across her. Soon a vision came to her of Pelorus, wearing her necklace. In her dream they talked of being together. Then he was gone and Tarantella was in the company of an albatross. The bird whispered to her. “I’ll show you where you can be together. Follow me. Follow the moon.”
‘Tarantella looked down. She had become white with feathers. She tried her new wings and they lifted her easily. With long strokes she set off after the albatross in the direction of the moon, which was rising bright and round.
‘They flew many miles across the sea. Eventually they came to a ledge of rock that stood above the waves. “This is where you can be with him forever,” whispered the albatross.
‘“But how will I get here?” said Tarantella.
‘“As you have just now,’” said the albatross. “With salt spray under your wings. Follow the next moon.”
‘On the next full moon, Tarantella crept from the house the moment the others were asleep. At the sandy beach she prepared herself as she had been practicing since the dream. She shed her clothes and transformed herself, instead, with feathers and wings. Then she set out towards the place where she and Pelorus could be together.’
‘She really made herself a bird?’ asked Lu.
‘An albatross. Have you ever seen one?’
‘Only in books.’
‘She flew all the way across the sea. If the rock wasn’t there she might not have the strength to fly back. Besides, the clothes and the signs of magic would have been discovered. No more would there be a place for her on the Island of Women.
‘At last she saw the rock, as she had seen it in the dream. She flew down, and as she landed she regained her old form. She lay, naked, lonely and exhausted, wondering how she could have done such a thing. She looked to the sky all around. Not so much as a cloud broke the inky blue. No bird coming to meet her.
‘Then she heard a splash at the water’s edge. A sea lion, shiny skinned and muscular, shook itself onto the rock. As it shook it transformed and Pelorus was there. The lovers ran to each other and embraced. They fell upon each other with kisses and questions.
‘When the questions were over they wrapped themselves up in each other so close they became one.
‘Tarantella and Pelorus were still holding each other when Tarantella felt something cold beneath her feet. The tide had risen around them and the platform that held them was about to be swamped. Waves began to buffet them and Tarantella feared they’d be washed away.
‘“Transform yourself, Tarantella,” cried Pelorus. And squeezing her hand he dived into the sea. Tarantella shook herself free. Moments later she was circling overhead. From high above she watched the sea claim their sanctuary.
‘Even in magical places, things are never so simple. Each day, when the tide rose, their rock was swallowed by the sea. Pelorus and Tarantella had condemned themselves to spending half their lives divided; he unable to join her in the sky and she unable to share the depths with him. Only when the sea was at its calmest could they float on the surface together, and that was small comfort for it was only on solid ground they could be who they truly were.
‘Can you imagine, poor Tarantella? All those hours circling above him, watching him? And Pelorus, seeing her silhouetted against the sky, so close but so apart?
‘They became so tired of it they stopped transforming. Had a sailor passed their rock at low tide he might have wondered about the big white bird and the sea lion perched there, cheeks pressed together.
‘Later the lovers stopped taking to the sea and the sky at high tide. Instead of being washed from the platform they became part of it, so a sailor might have described a rock of an amusing shape, a sea lion and a bird embracing. And in this way their dreams came true, for on that place they would always be together.’
There was another knock. Carl again. ‘We’re done, Sarah. Do you want to come down?’
‘No. I don’t think so. We’ve said everything.’
‘OK then,’ he said. ‘Oh, and Sarah?’
‘We can still pop by from time to time, if you want. Lu and me. Lu would like that, wouldn’t you Lu?’
‘I’d like it too, Carl,’ said Sarah.
‘Best be off then. Take care, eh. C’mon Lu.’
Sarah listened as they went, and when the door closed behind them she listened to the silence of the house and in the distance the ocean crashing against the shore.