Far in the South (1 Viewer)

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Hailstones Melt

Collected Consciousness
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Aug 15, 2016
Perth, Western Australia
I was going through the contents of an old suitcase and found this short story written in approximately 1983-84. It still reads as freshly today as it did when I wrote it. I hope you enjoy reading it, and get an evocative feel for the place, and the industry that propels it.

FAR IN THE SOUTH - a short story by Hailstones Melt

Far in the south is an island, far below the latitudes where the water is opalescent green and warm to the touch, much further than the grinning arcs of palm trees that fringe those basking islands. This island is very far south, a small offering amid the vast expanse of sea. Here the sea is fresh to the eye but cold to the touch, ice-cold, for the waters are the frontiers of the Antarctic Ocean. The island is not very far from the south of New Zealand, two hours at most by boat. It is not a lonely rock protruding half-heartedly from the sea, but a grand sweeping dome of land, that recedes layer by layer into misty distance.

White New Zealanders found a beach and settled there, and with the tenacity that belongs to man clung to that small claim for over a hundred years. They advanced a few metres into the bush, staking land here and there where they had the strength to clear it, so a settlement grew up, dependent on the produce of the sea. The deep, rich, mysterious, magnanimous sea, that yields and in another pitch takes all that it has given, reclaiming the sand and the rocks, sometimes a tree, and even then in a sweep of its severity it will claim a boat.

A boat that had ridden the waves of the sea now rode at anchor, gently. The wide shores of Halfmoon Bay cupped a mouthful of the sea, and the boat rocked gently in its watery nest. Other boats were around, boats of a breed, with the same stubborn prow and short cocky cabin, the same low, sea-slick lines. This boat, however, was double-masted; one of the old ketches, but just as capable as newer vessels.

Her name was the John A Settree. Not many boats boasted a full title – they were simply Gypsy, Wanderer, Midnight. The John A Settree sat gracefully in the wash, showing a long blanched side like a dolphin.

The skipper was on board. He was a full-set man, looked as if he could withstand rough weather. He looked like a sea-man. His body was in tune with the sea. It too was voluminous, passive, but looked as if it could gather itself into a giant muscle and fight with battering strength. He was pottering with the small diesel engine, down in the bowels of the boat.

Standing in the small opening, his blue overalls just showed at shoulder height. He was bending and grasping, turning.

The clear morning light on Stewart Island erupted into a thousand ripples as the sun rose over a bank of cloud. A pink tulle mottled the sky, effused like a climbing rash all over the clear apricot. The cloud sank to a few crumbling morsels and hovered doubtfully.

A small dinghy manoeuvred towards the boat, oars dipping silently. The silhouette moved in rhythm. Across the stretch of water the dinghy came, and clung to the white side, while the shadowed figure heaved up onto the stern.

There was movement on the water. The day was yawning. Soon the John A Settree was prepared, the anchor drawn up and the boat puttered in a sleek line down the bay.

In the wheelhouse instruments tickered, the skipper checked barometer, radio, depth sounder. PJ was out on deck, with knife and bait by his knee. He was stringing the frozen heads onto wires, which would tantalize other fish. They stared glassily with a pout. He had on a yellow plastic apron, plastic pants and his coarse bloodied gloves. PJ swayed to the music of the waves.

Mick leaned out of the wheelhouse. “Looks like we’ve got a good day.”

PJ nodded. The clearness of the morning light radiated from the waves which were spread like butter slippery to the horizon.

“Yer can’t count on the little buggers, though. Give ‘em a day like this and they think it’s a picnic.”

“Just bring ‘em in, that’s all I hope for.”

The boat swept on across the plains of salt-spray, a small determined dot across the vastness. On the starboard side, cliffs reared out of the sea, bastions of the island. The waves, though gentle to seaward, still slung recklessly against the rock, breaking like whinnies in the rush of air.

The motor was quiet. The boat dipped gently like a rockinghorse. Across to starboard the two men were pulling in a net. Its glistening bulk coiled slowly onto the deck. Stuck in its fibre was brown old seaweed, dripping and smelling. At odd angles, but coming quite rapidly, were the distraught lengths of fish, with glazed defiant stare as they lay trapped by the fine threads. Dark scales glinted as they gave an occasional uncomfortable heave. The fish lay conquered but not dead, awaiting their fate, expressionless save for the sour, unearthly eyes and mournful curve of their lips. Some of them had a different countenance. They were light and silvery with a pursed grin. They seemed not so sombre, though their fate was identical.

Mick went round, lowered the winch, and switched on the engine. As the boat slowly churned through the wash, PJ remained on deck, extracting the fish from the net. They were his living – thanks to their plight his life was assured for the next few weeks. He grasped their thin bodies, at one moment releasing them and in the next hurling them down the deck to a small boxed compartment. Soon their heads would be frozen, strung on a wire, awaiting the deep sea again.

The water was slightly choppy now, a wind ruffled the surface. The colour of the bright sky was reflected in the myriad motions of the sea.

The work was ready to begin. In view against the dark of the water were iridescent pink buoys. PJ was ready with a grapple. The rope was hauled onto the winch, which with unparalleled strength lifted the craypot through fathoms of water. From the depths, only the taut rope could be seen, tightly spiralling its way upward and the wet spray falling off the rope as the cogs worked round and round.

Mick was ready to help PJ balance the heavy pot on the railing. It was a large wire box, completely full. In the confined space of the pot were fifty rustling bodies, with a smattering of gasping fish. The gaping bait, chewed and frayed, was macabre.

The lid was opened and the crayfish slithered onto the deck, which became alive with a congestion of waving legs and feelers. The purply-orange warriors were nonplussed in the dry atmosphere. They were used to cold currents, where they could walk gracefully along the sandy bottom; now they raged fearfully as the air racked their breathing, and they stumbled into each other. The small beings, bizarre in their armour, did not know their enemy, and of course, could not counteract it. They unwittingly were an infinitesimal part of the gigantic system organised by nature. For the question remains – is man a natural or avaricious predator?

The fishermen were quite gleeful of their catch; this was their business and they had been successful. PJ quickly tossed the undersized crayfish back into the water, to give them time to grow. The other crays were relegated to a compartment on the deck. Their legs moved more feebly as they crawled and smothered each other. As the boat steamed on to the next buoy, PJ began to sort through the catch, measuring each by its tail and quickly slicing it. The rich white meat, primarily in the tail, is the marketable commodity. Rich nations assumed the dominant right to have this delicacy at their tables.

Soon the next buoy was reached and the catch was taken in. It yielded about half of the first catch, but it provided enough chopping and slicing until the third buoy was reached.

The pattern of the fishing day was in progress. Buoy after buoy to be approached, the pots hauled up through countless tonnes of water, the bounty of living animals released, the fresh superb cray meat slowly building in the bulwarks. The fisherman cannot gauge the number of his catch. It merely depends on the number feeding in the pot when it is raised.

The fickle sea is another factor: it sways lazily but with an inward turn and rough shudder it can upset the craft.

Towards lunchtime, as the boat diligently pondered on the sea, a beast of a different nature was drawn from the depths. It had a murky primeval strength as it pushed its tentacles to the top of the cage. Its head like a central pivot, with fast-engaging legs all round, seemed to glower furiously as it squirmed on the boat. It grasped the man in an ugly sinking handshake. He sliced deftly at the pulpy mass and at last succeeded in attaching its head to a hook aft on the boat. The thing, gruesome in its veined red body sucked at all the surfaces, but found only boards and the strangling air. As it drooped further and further into recession, the men moved adroitly to their task, but with the strange sensation of a presence behind their back.

PJ felt cold and stiff but it was the genre of his work. He was used to the wind buffeting his ears, rasping his nose, fingering him hour after hour, almost like an exuberant lover in its attention. He was used to the wetness in his boots, to the blood slimed on his clothing, and to the untenable stench of dead and rotting fish. His cheeks faced the bracing air, he squinted his eyes for a long look, and his body moved with the unpredictable motion.

The day, with its repetition of fishing, grew late, the sun moved swiftly to the west, the shadows of the cliffs loomed blackly. The catch bulked on the deck was washed, cleaned and packed. All that remained for PJ was the stowing in the freezing section while Mick guided the John A Settree to its comfortable harbour. The water licked the old boat, allowing it like a friend to ride the surface.

And so the fishing boat drew in for another day, safe in the cool bay with its embracing headlands, and the other boats tinkering on their chains. The men were approaching the small community which was their safe light in the dark oceans. They would bring ashore their catch, tally and register their trade, and their wives and children would tell them of their day on the island, with its myriad chores and delights.

The men were cold, bruised, but they preferred this life to any other. The women are another story.

The fish in the sea lapping around the island far in the south lure men to the impenetrable mystery: the wildness and generosity of nature.


Here are some pictures that are on the internet today, about that place - Stewart Island.

The colour of the crayfish differs when alive under the sea, and when fished for their meat. It turns a bright orange when prepared for table.
Towards the southern aspect of the island, the mountains rise quite high and are devoid of human settlements.

Steward Island is the third of the 3 main islands of New Zealand (the upper two being the North Island and the South Island). Stewart Island is found in the Foveaux Strait south of the South Island. The cray fishing boats range around the island and in waters south of it (some are equipped for long trips of 2-3 weeks at a time). The trip I actually experienced was for 2 weeks, before coming back into harbour.

thB89IRMQP.jpg This is what a cooked cray tail looks like.

th4Q13J1T5 (2).jpg A fairly typical fishing boat.

th09W2XP9X.jpg The craypots are generally made of wire, with an inward tapering neck. Once the crayfish (or other prey) have entered through the hole, they are unable to swim back out again, as the angle of the opening does not permit it.

thOTEOI05B.jpg A cray (rock lobster) is at home on the bottom of its ocean habitat.

thKJRZML2S.jpg My memory of the plastic (or rubber) aprons and measuring devices is accurate!

thW8KZ5QXA.jpg The beautiful scenery inland on Paterson Inlet.

thIFE3ULQO.jpg The protected inlet is accessible by many walk trails.

thJ8OHGSAK.jpg Other wildlife, such as seals, dolphins, and birds abound.
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Collected Consciousness
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Jul 28, 2016
Thanks for posting this memory.
  • I agree
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