Sport 17: Spring 1996
Lucinda Birch — Fin
Sometimes relationships can be difficult to extricate yourself from. The cookie-cutter shark (fig.1) is a parasite. It has large teeth forming a curving row on its lower jaw. It uses these teeth to bite off chunks of biscuit-sized skin and flesh from other sharks, porpoises and whales. It has also been known to have a go at submarines.
The Food Dream
I had a big pile of paua. I had to eat them, there was nothing else. I was on a steep stony beach, it was nightfall, calm and misty. I lit a small fire; that was easy. The paua were still alive in their shells sucking onto each other like soft magnets. I prised one off the pile and stuck my thumb under the oozing black flesh, between it and the shell. I could feel the muscle tense and shudder. I pushed hard and tried to flick the animal out of its shell with my thumb but the paua stuck fast. I tried again with all four fingers digging under the wet rubber meat but it was too slippery and too strong. I threw all the paua into the fire with their shells still attached. As they cooked they screamed like tortured babies.page 109
We stayed in a tiny wooden bach perched on the edge of the wild beach. There was no sand, only stones and rocks and wind. The sea was deep and treacherous, the noise of the waves stirring the stones continuous and deafening. We balanced on the steep beach and fished with enormous surf-casting fishing rods. Huge waves loomed over us then collapsed into the stones inches from our feet. The wind shaved the top of the waves off then threw the stubble back into our faces a thick stinging salt mist. I loved the beach and its uncompromising wildness, but I struggled with the size of my fishing rod. One day I caught a skate (fig.2). It glided through the surf like a stealth bomber.
‘Oh no a stingray!’ I yelled, ‘How do I kill it?’
‘Like any other fish,’ he said and belted in its head with a large round rock. He looked at me with contempt and cut up the winged fish for bait. Skates are flattened relatives of sharks. They have long tails studded with thorns and equipped with electric organs, the fourvolt impulses of which are thought to play a part in courtship.
The Teeth Dream
There were wire braces on my teeth. The insides of my lips were torn, my tongue could feel the little shreds of skin and taste the blood. My teeth had to be straightened quickly, within a week, I can't remember why. Something to do with a wedding I think. The wires had to be tightened every hour, my teeth groaned and ached. Then they were clamped and tied together, top to bottom. I couldn't talk, I couldn't eat, I was going to starve. I bashed out my teeth with a hammer. And then the pain was gone.
One day, tired of wrestling with my ungainly rod, I walked down the beach as far as I could go. As far as the river which sliced through the gravel and linked the sea with a vast shallow lake. Walking on the round stones was difficult, they rolled from under my feet almost as if they were alive. They scraped and clunked and groaned and whistled. I sat by the river, rubbed my bashed ankles and threw stone missiles into the flashing water. Glancing into the stream I thought I saw a small eel close to the bank with its head stuck under a rock. I looked closer. It was a lamprey (fig. 3). The lamprey is a parasite; page 110 jawless, scaleless and limbless. Instead of a jaw it has on its head a large round sucker armed with rows of sharp pointed teeth. With this it attaches itself to living fish, rasps holes through their skin with its toothed tongue, and sucks their blood. The lamprey in the river had clamped itself on to a stone and held fast against the current, swaying like a strange tubular seaweed. On the spur of the moment I plunged my arm into the frigid water, grabbed the fish around the middle and pulled it out, stone and all. I carried my prize back to the bach by the rock attached to its face. The lamprey was considered a delicacy by the Romans in 70 AD, and eaten in excess by Henry I, King of England, who died of a surfeit of lampreys in 1135. I thought it might make a passable dinner. Hey, no bones! He disagreed. He would sooner eat snails. Raw. The famous potted lamprey pies of Worcester made little impression on him. He thought it was fun though, to cut the lamprey's body away, piece by piece, until only the head was left, still stubbornly stuck to its stone.
The Alien Dream
I found there was a worm embedded in my cheek. It must have somehow come from the paua I had eaten. It formed a perfect raised circle, about an inch and a half in diameter. When it started moving I knew I had to go to hospital. I sat in the back of the car with my finger pressed hard against the base of my eye to stop the worm escaping out a tear-duct. The worm pushed and wriggled under my skin. I could feel it but it didn't hurt. It moved up between my eyes then stopped to form another circle in the middle of my forehead. ‘Hurry, hurry!’ I said to the driver of the car. I touched the raised skin on my forehead and it burst like a boil. Instead of pus, the worm squeezed out of the hole, blood-red and twitching it tumbled down my face and fell on to my lap.
You can't mend relationships with fish stew. The next day we stood on the beach, as usual, clinging to our long fishing poles against the incessant wind. He stood closer to the menacing surf than me, foam lapped around his legs. One minute I looked and he was there. The next minute I glanced back and he was gone. I didn't even notice that one wave was any bigger than the others. I couldn't think what page 111 to do. My mind was too crowded with useless possibilities; scream; run; dive in and save him! While I dithered the next titanic wave hurled itself onto the stony beach. It hit me, waist height, knocking me backwards and filling my gumboots with water and pebbles. The beach underneath me collapsed. I found myself falling towards the sea, drawn by the receding wave and accompanied by a screeching avalanche of stones. My boots came half-off. I kicked them the rest of the way and immediately lighter scrambled on my hands and knees back up the shifting slope to dry stones and safety. A bloody hand reached out to help me. He stood there, regurgitated by the ocean, every inch of exposed skin lightly grated and streaming bright red with blood and salt water. A strand of kelp encircled his neck, a fish's tail flapped like a cartoon out of his oilskin pocket. His skin glowed scarlet. All around him on the beach lay piles of dead and dying fish: sharks; dogfish; skates and sting rays; hagfish in pools of stinking slime; kahawai; cod; snapper; barracuda snapping their guillotine jaws; flounder; leatherjackets; and scores of inflated porcupine fish. The stones seethed.
‘Damn,’ he said, ‘I've lost my rod.’