Even though the island of Moondarrawah is fictitious, this story takes place within the landscape of Quandamooka country. Moondarrawah is a Ngugi word granted to me by revered Ngugi Elder, Uncle Bob Anderson. All Indigenous content was written under the guidance and encouragement of Uncle Bob who decided upon the spelling of the Ngugi words phonetically because he learnt through an oral tradition. Please accept this as my love song to a place that formed me, written with deep respect for the three clans who belong to the Quandamooka past, present and future – the Ngugi of Moorgumpin,
and the Nunukul and Gorenpul of Minjerribah.
Chapter 1 – Excerpt
On the wind, Ayla heard a tune so sweetly mournful it made her toes curl in the sand. Had she imagined it? She glanced behind her to see the world had turned a sickly green. Even the rich red of Mud Rock was tinged.
The pied cormorant’s heart pounded against her wrist through the stained pillow case. She placed its webbed feet gently on the shoreline, uncovering the head last. Freed, the bird skittered up the deserted beach. The only remaining sign of its ordeal with fishing line was a featherless patch on its curved neck.
‘Go Buster.’ Ayla knew not to name rescued wildlife, but a name always came.
Buster opened his yellow beak and cried to the sky at the injustice, before uncurling his oily blackness to glide over the water and behind the headland.
Even my voice sounds green, she thought, as she heard it flop onto the sand. She looked down to see her voice had turned into khaki seaweed – faded and brittle. She stood on it, imagining vocal chords crunching underfoot. The stench of rotting seaweed clung to the roof of her mouth.
Moving out of the sinister shadow of the Rock, she saw the source of the strange coloured light was the sun caught behind boiling black clouds, miles out to sea. The storm that passed over earlier, still lingering.
A ripple came across the water, reaching the shoreline as a breeze, filling the air with electricity. Her hair stood on end as the eerie music came again, twining itself around her, drawing her up the beach into the pigface – its feathery flowers closing on the day. A thrill coiled through her as she followed the melody into the trees, creeping as lightly as soldier crabs scuttle across sand.
She paused in the thick stand of bent she-oaks.
He was sitting, his bare back to her, on a dead banksia in the clearing, a strange wooden flute dancing in his hands. The colour of his jeans blended with the faded log so he became part of the tree. The spirit of the old banksia, perhaps? Ayla enjoyed the fantasy, peering through the she-oak’s prickly curtain at his hair, so black it looked blue in the sun. He turned his face to the sky and she saw it was a gentle profile. His music reached out, took her by the hand and she danced with him in her mind.
He stopped, flute poised, staring toward her clump of trees.
Ayla merged with the she-oaks she had known since childhood, when she had rested on their horizontal trunks bent by the wind, murmuring her grandfather’s stories.
The stranger’s dark eyes were unblinking. He blew one low solitary note. She felt the ends of her hair split. Was it the music, or the eerie green light that was so bewitching? She considered stepping into the clearing, but backed away, stumbling onto the beach. Where the sand was wet and firm, she danced, eyes shut to let her body connect with his rhythm, slow, deep, divine. She lost herself in the pulse of him.
He paused. She ran, exhilarated, leaping on the tide line to notes on the wind then running again for sheer joy along the empty beach. Who was he? Where had he come from and why was he here on her little island in the middle of the wild old sea? She scrambled to the top of Mud Rock. Little Beaudy bobbed on the water of the next bay. Her grandfather’s launch, a ruby floating in the turquoise inlet. Hibiscus Bay curved in a crescent moon: the headland jutted out to protect the calm water from open sea.
She cooeed. Her grandfather emerged from the cabin, barefoot and bare-chested. He waved, unhooked the dinghy and rowed to shore.
‘Getting in or am I getting out?’
She was already in. The small row boat felt safe and familiar and the stranger with his music could not touch her here.
‘What?’ He rested his oars for a moment. The hem of his favourite shorts frayed now, the strands of white matching the hair on his chest.
‘Usually go round the Rock, not over it.’ She shrugged. ‘Felt brave for once.’
Her grandfather rowed and said the wind was unsettled. She agreed and felt tingly all over.
Climbing from the rowboat into Little Beaudy, the mixture of smells she had known all her life – kerosene, fish guts and whisky – wrapped comforting arms around her. They sat at the table that folded to a bed and he put the kettle on. ‘You look flushed.’
She felt her hot cheeks and picked at the sand under her nails. He threw tea bags into chipped enamel cups, slurping a dash of whisky into his. They waited for the water to boil, listening to the waves lapping against the boat, as they always did.
Ayla’s heart began to settle. ‘Tell me one of your stories, Grappa?’ Grappa had been the first word she had spoken, a failed attempt at Grandpa. Because Grappa was a form of alcohol, the island community thought it apt, so the name had stuck.
Ayla’s heart tightened at the sad look on his crinkled face. It had been too long since she had asked for a story. ‘You told me about a dark-haired man once. Far…something?’
‘Far Dorocha.’ She repeated it like a secret. ‘God help those who fall under his spell.’
‘You said he played an instrument?’
‘Can do. A flute, a pipe, sometimes a drum. The one I met didn’t play anything.’
‘You met one?’ Ayla acted as if she hadn’t heard the story. When she was a child, this technique could always draw the tale from him.
‘Up at the hall. The Stop Progress Association’s Annual Masked Ball was on. You know the rest.’ Grappa was wise to her. She was twenty now, too old to get away with it.
‘Tell me again.’
He looked at her sideways.
His voice dropped so there was a dangerous edge to it. ‘No moon that night. I remember ‘cause he appeared from nowhere – stepped straight out of the blackness. Not a soul had seen him catch the barge across. No water taxi back then. Barge was the only way on and off. Nettie and I weren’t long married, but he took her under his spell. Last thing I remember was her twirling round with him – couldn’t take her eyes off the bugger, like she was in a trance or somethin’.’
‘What do you mean, the last thing you remember?’
‘Dunno. Lost time. Woke up on Three Mile with sun in me eyes, sand in me ears and couldn’t for the life of me remember how I got there. Thought he’d taken her for sure. Ran all the way home, but there she was sweeping the kitchen with the kettle on, waitin’ like nothing had happened. ’Course she denied everythin’. But I knew she was under his spell. Counted the hours ’til he came back.’
‘He came back?’
‘Nup. Must have known Nettie’s heart was part of mine. She could never truly leave me. One thing about ‘em…they respect love.’
‘And usually they play an instrument?’
‘That’s what Gran said. They pull you towards ‘em with their music.’ On the word, pull, he gestured with his hands, drawing in an anchor. ‘Once you’re under his spell, then he takes you down into the black abyss, into his realm, never to return.’
‘What did he look like?’ Grappa watched her. ‘Why?’ ‘Maybe I just saw one.’
His eyebrows jumped. ‘Maybe it’s the same one?’
Grappa was so serious, she hid her smile. ‘Can’t be. He looked my age.’
‘Ayla, they don’t age. Where was he?’
‘Beyond the she-oaks. I heard this music and had to follow it.
Couldn’t help myself.’ Her laugh escaped. ‘It’s not funny. What was he playing?’
‘A strange wooden carved looking thing, curved at the end but held at the side like a flute. It had markings burnt into the wood. Never seen an instrument like it.’
Grappa looked like he was about to explode. ‘And he had pitch-black hair?’
‘Holy Mary, Mother-of-God.’ He poured more scotch into his tea. ‘Don’t worry, he didn’t see me. I hid in the she-oaks.’
‘They don’t need to see you. They can feel you.’
Grappa was scaring her now, not because she believed him anymore, but because something had happened. The stranger’s music had woken something in her. Something dormant deep inside was alive again. She glimpsed herself as a child, sitting here at this table with a head full of possibilities and a fist full of Smarties – rainbow colours smudging her palms.
Grappa peered through the porthole towards Mud Rock. ‘Unless…’ ‘What?’
‘The she-oaks hid you.’ His rumpled features sharpened. ‘Those trees know you. They would’ve protected you. That’s how you escaped.’
She smiled. He always brought it back to the trees.