“Is it her? Is she the one?”
They peered at the blurred photograph on page four. The woman smiled at them from beneath her mortarboard. Even the indistinct photograph didn’t hide her prettiness. Excited blue eyes, white teeth, mousy hair with a faint red tinge, and the slightly snubbed nose all said “talk to me, I’m fun”. The memory they had of the woman was one crying, begging, bleeding, and naked.
“It says they found her near Jan Juc. God, that’s a long way down the coast. They haven’t mentioned Angelo. No sign of him.”
They thought about their mate, dead on the rocks. Gone after the gale had passed. Washed out to sea.
His body may turn up in the coming weeks, they’d thought, and then the police might believe their story. He’d got out of the car for a piss and probably walked too close to the cliff, they’d said.
The third one leaned over his mate’s shoulder. “What’s the name in the paper?”
“What the fuck’s the difference? You don’t know her name. I don’t know her name. None of us bothered to ask her.”
Frightened and ashamed he closed his eyes as sober tears ran down ridges in his young face. “No,” he said quietly. “None of us asked her name.”
Echoes of pebbles, pushed by her toes, grew louder as they rolled down the steep path, gathering momentum, pulling with them sand and scree. Salt encrusted her lips and lined her Bloody Mary nostrils. It stung her eyes, flying at them from the crests of chopping ocean but her eyes stayed wide, as white as boiled eggs, comical even in terror.
A whipper-will stole the rags from her weakened fingers. A shriek burst from her bruised lips when she saw her shredded clothes dancing in its spinning centre, performing a frenzied pirouette. They skipped and bowed to the edge of the cliff, over, and fell down to the beach where they danced no more.
Rain threatened as blackness rolled in towards her. Her flesh goose pimpled, anticipating the cleansing the storm would perform, washing away the blood stains and the smell of the men.
The wind and rain and earth were on her side, urging her to go down to the beach, to run and hide.
The wind carried a voice from the scrub around the car park. The beast was enraged by the loss of its prey and by its boiling testosterone. Her adrenaline responded, rising from her abdomen to clutch her heart, squeeze and pump it harder.
The mesmerising effects of the whipper-will blew away and she began to slide down the narrow path. Wallabies and rabbits had worn the way but it was unkind to her bare feet and the sharp pieces of scree and the branches of salt bush tore at her arms and body. But the senses of physical pain were pushed away by the fear as she heard the baying of the bloodhounds who had hoisted their trousers and were zigzagging their way towards her.
She could not understand what they were saying. Nor could she hear where they were coming from as their voices bounced in and out of caves, doubling back over dunes and finally blowing out to sea.
The icy fingers of rain from Antarctica revived her flesh, washed her hair out of her face and plastered it to her head like a skullcap. The approaching storm clothed her in rain, dirt and sand. The fair maiden adorned with nature’s gown wrapped her soul with the symbiosis of survival and revenge.
Her careful but swift descent brought her to the beach, the concave cliff sucking in its obesity. She clung to this crevice thirty metres below the men who reached the cliff edge seconds later. She remained silent and statuesque even as the pebbles they dislodged pelted down, biting her as they fell.
“She was here. I saw her. I think I saw her.”
“You’re piss-weak, you dickhead. How’d you let her go? We all managed fine. But no, you let her go.”
“Fuck you. She was here. What do we do now?”
The men spread their gazes up and down the beach like searchlights, seeking her out in the grey and amber dusk. Two ran off along the eastward path and one headed west. The fourth began to climb down the same path she had used.
While the scree had been cruel on her feet it promised to be treacherous on the smooth soles of his patent leather boots and fashionable high heels. He moved with cowardly caution.
The woman observed him until he was a quarter of the way down, below the top level of the cliff, out of his companions’ earshot and helpless to return to the top. Then she ran out to the waters’ edge where the sand was compacted by tide, easier to gain a footing, to run. She ran east.
The salt burned into the cuts in her feet, the sea’s healing hands washing over her toes, rolling up to her ankles.
He caught sight of her and, excited by the belief that he had flushed her out of hiding, screamed his triumph. The victorious hunter stood erect to bellow abuse at the naked woman, ignoring that his dress boots didn’t have the same purchase as climbing boots or even bare feet. The marble-like pebbles and silky sand beneath his soles acted like ice to a skater’s razor-sharp blades.
Hardly had he the time to scream before his body fell chest-first to the rocks below, onto the clothes he had torn from the woman’s body.
She heard his death dive but she did not stop to savor it. She was confident in the earth, the sea and sky. And there were four more out there looking for her.
Night moved in rapidly, blown by the rising wind. She skipped over the surging tide, around piles of rotting kelp. The beach stretched forever into the growing darkness, the jaws of the open ocean snapped at her, danger behind, danger in front. And ice sheathed her body.
She ran towards dunes which cowered away from the water’s edge. Spikes of salt grass scratched at her legs. She threw herself down between the tussocks, working herself into the sand. She though of the echidnas she had seen at a wildlife park working their way into leaf mulch until there was nothing to see except a small mound of dirt that pulsated gently with their every breath.
The sand was the blanket she yearned, the safety of a warm towel she remembered her mother placing over her shoulders when she was a child. Her mind sought the darkness of hibernation. Her cramping muscles began to let go of their powerful grip on sinew. Liquid blackness washed around her like a warm bath.
It evaporated as suddenly and as violently as the world she knew so well only a few hours earlier. Sulphur from a fresh match quickly found her nostrils and she did not need to look far before seeing the red ember bobbing along between tea-tree.
“Over here,” the cigarette yelled in answer to an unheard shout. “Did you find him?”
“Yeah. Jesus, Rob. He’s dead. Ang is dead. The tide’s up. Couldn’t grab him. Man, he’s gone.”
Sobbing was cut short by a loud slap.
“Get a grip. Fuck, you’re piss-weak.”
“Yeah. So you keep telling me. He’s dead and there’s a naked woman out there who’s going to have us thrown in jail for the rest of our lives”.
“Not if we find her.”
“What are we doing? Jesus, what are we doing here?”
“Don’t you bloody back out now. You’re in this up to your fucking dweeby neck. If I go, you go, Grant goes, Johnno goes. Got it. We all go. Besides, that slag killed Ang. We have to get her for what she did.”
Their voices faded. Their odour didn’t’ and she finally let herself role over and vomit. Blood she’d swallowed from her lacerated mouth mixed with salt water and the acid contents of her stomach seeped into the sand.
She lay back, forced breath into a regular, reliable rhythm. She moved her limbs slowly, bringing back circulation, then slowly stood erect and listened for clues, hoping to hear where the men had gone, praying they would not smell her vomit as quickly as she had smelled their smoke.
Suddenly she saw the ember dancing in the darkness. She squatted low and scrabbled around the side of the dune, back towards the beach. She had four hundred metres start on them.
Darkness hid the barrier and it was not until she was on it that the glinting broken teeth of rock loomed up in front of her. The land jutted at this point into the water and her only escape was to try to climb across it. She crawled carefully over the slippery rocks, edging around the large rock pools. As she picked her way through the maze she again became aware of voices.
She began to crab along around the outcrop, not knowing if it continued much further past the corner or if it was a dead end. Or even worse, that another of the hunters would cut off her retreat from the other direction.
Eric cursed as he fell flat on his arse. The best idea he’d had all night was to sit there and take his shoes off. Grant kicked him, stepping over him to look towards the beach. It was pointless to continue the search, Eric had told Rob and Rob had punched him in the mouth. How Rob the Runt got away with belting the hulking football hero was beyond most people, but only those who hadn’t felt the pull of his charisma.
Grant noticed the flashes of sheet lightning on the horizon. His mates never knew his deepest fear. It was primeval. It was probably impossible but Grant believed he could hear the rolling drums of the storm.
“What the fuck is it with Rob anyway?”
Grant heard Eric but didn’t bother to answer. Doubts arose, thoughts that he couldn’t acknowledge let alone cope with.
Neither of them wanted to be here but no-one said “no” to Rob. All the guys wanted to fall within the circle of his light, his strength. No woman could resist his charm, until tonight.
“What in Christ’s name are we doing here? She said ‘no’ to him. Big deal. So he decides to have her anyway and we figure if it’s all right for him to just take what he wants then it’s okay for us too. Jesus, where did that come from? What the hell did we do that for? And what are we supposed to do if we catch her?”
“Stop your fucking whining.” Grant withdrew from the coward as his own fears were bolstered by the deep-throated growl from the horizon.
He looked up at the sky anxiously but movement on the rocks below instantly took his mind off his own fear. There she was. She was almost helpless, labouring over the rocks beneath the frothy claws of the sea.
Grant screamed at Eric to run and he took off along the path to the top of the wooden steps that led to the beach. Eric rolled onto his knees and lumbered after his mate.
Impervious to attack on the oval, Eric was fast when in full flight, but he was not nimble and it was slow going through the dunes. Grant, on the other hand, could weave through packs of players, dip, jump, roll, and fly high. He powered along the sand just as the woman made it to the other side of the rock pile and edged her way around the ledge that kept her just out of reach of the ocean’s grasp.
A warning flashed across the sky like a sailor’s lost soul.
The woman blinded herself to the men charging along the water’s edge. She put her trust in her feet as they edged across the rocks, finding narrow ledges, footholds to carry her out of their reach, taking her higher and further along the outcrop. Her slim body edged along the cliff, just above the salty claws that lashed at her ankles. Her back was a mass of abrasions from the sharp edges, by the sand and salt. Limpets and marooned muscles drilled into her arches but her fear anaesthetised her and she barely felt their intrusions into her flesh.
She took her mind away, closed her ears to the shouting men, filled her mind’s eye with the beauty she had seen in her life, had translated to the canvas. She imagined the tide lunging at her to be a paint brush dipped in the finest silver. And far below the ominous bodies of kelp thrashing about in the wild sea called out to her, held their hands out to her, pleaded with her.
Her arm snagged and her eyes snapped open.
“Please. I’m sorry. We’re sorry. Come back.”
The man’s long, sinewy fingers encircled her wrist like it had no substance. His face was white and he pressed his chest hard against the cliff face. He feared for her as for himself. He feared the light in the sky, the water that threatened to take them both. But most, he feared for his own soul.
“Jesus, Grant. Get back here,” his mate barked from the beach like a stocky mongrel in a dog pound. “For Christ’s sake let’s get outta here. Leave her.”
The sky’s unheeded warnings gathered in force. No longer sheets of white across black rolling clouds, lightening forks collided and split the air. The ocean’s surging fingers grabbed at the woman’s legs, almost her thighs, trying to drag her into its embrace.
“It’s either you or the ocean,” she screamed. “Both will kill me but you are filth.”
He begged her to hang on to him, told her she was wrong. Her spitting contempt was not lost on him and he yelled as she lunged forward. The next wave, almost as high as her waist, crested and pulled her away in its retreat.
Her would-be saviour fell too, no swan dive, and the wave left him on the rocks. He screamed his agony; agony from his shattered leg and from the knowledge that he had helped push the woman to her death.
A wave surged forward to grab him and he was drowning beneath its weight. It pulled at him like a spider pulls at its web, its grasp slipping and finally letting him go. Pain in his head relieved as water ran out of his nose. He coughed salt from his lungs and pulled in air a split second before the tide fell again across his body and the rip tried to pull him out again. Senses dulled and confused, the man did not gasp for air straight away and almost missed his opportunity before the next one bore down on him. He felt its pull as it too withdrew, leaving him behind.
It escaped him that a phenomenon was alive – an invisible hand held him back from the depths of the ocean. He gasped for oxygen, thought he heard screams, felt his body pulled and rolling. The pain overcame him and he fainted.
The swimming illness was at odds with the firm ground beneath him when he began to surface. Anxious hands tapped his cheeks.
“You should’ve stopped him. Fair dinkum, Eric, you’re piss-weak”.
“He tried to grab the woman.”
“Didn’t need to grab her if she was going to top herself.”
“Lucky his trousers caught on the …”
“Lucky? Look at his leg. Jesus. Look at it … what’s left of it. He’s finished. He’ll never play again.”
“Your fucking unbelievable, man. He’s alive. She’s dead and all you can think about is the game.”
“Don’t know she’s dead. Probably wash up on a bloody beach somewhere.”
“You know what, Rob? I never realised how bloody stupid you really are. And Jesus, now I know and it’s too late. I’m a murderer because I followed you”.
Far away voices shouted above the storm, a winch whined, chains clanked wetly, sodden hemp ropes creaked as they strained under the load they pulled in from the ocean floor.
Inside the net a substance of kelp wrapped leathery tendrils around an ankle, brushed its fingers tenderly along an arm, embraced the body and carried it up, lifted the head above the water, quieted the madness, kissed the eyelids – and they opened.
I am not dead, I’m not alive
This is no way for one to thrive