Man, my little brother was something else. No one really knew what to make of him, he always had his head up in the clouds. That was what killed him, I think. He never knew what was going on around him, and I suppose we all knew he’d get into some kind of trouble eventually. But it was about a year or two before he finally went away that I think I finally came to terms with just what kind of a soul he was.
Our family had a place by the beach. Nothing too flash. It was a two-room bungalow up in the ranges out of the city. A nice, sheltered little cove where sixty or so other families also had a place. The cove had young sand that was still made up of tiny seashells and larger stones. There was a rope swing hanging from a tree at the top of the cove and at high-tide you could swing out and drop into the water between the rocks. It was that kind of place.
Since I could remember we had always gone fishing. Dad, Mum, Uncle Mike, Aunty Nan, myself and, of course, Pete. Pete hated fishing but man, if you got him in the water he was something else. Sometimes when we fished in a bay he’d take off with a mask and snorkel and a big spear for an hour or two. He’d come back an hour later with a full bag most times, with a trail of blood spilling out behind him. It looked like dust, from beneath the water. Like a bag full of trailing dust.
The rest of us usually stayed in the boat. Dad and Mike would drink beer while Mum and Nan would spread themselves in the sun up on the front. They seemed to put so much effort into their tanning, but it was an endless task – they were never done. I fished – and Dad and Mike let me bait their hooks.
It was one of those summer days when everything just looks so crisp. It was about two in the afternoon – the water was bright blue, and clear, and when you looked at it you saw weird tentacles of light waving below the surface. Pete was long gone, and everyone had settled into their respective places and activities. No one was saying anything, you could just hear water lapping on the boat, and the occasional squawk of a gull.
It’s hard to describe just what was wrong with Pete. He was just different. He seemed to see the world in a completely different way to the rest of us. Sometimes you’d see an expression on his face that showed you a glimpse of how he saw the world and it was in those moments that you saw just how different it was from the reality. But sometimes as well, you’d think afterwards that maybe his reality was somehow more true than your own. And that was the worrying part.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at one stage Mike remarked: “Looks like a fin over there.” He nodded at a shape about one hundred metres from the back of the boat.
We all strained our eyes. If you went out on the boat enough times, you eventually saw some strange things. Once we saw a massive sunfish just floating around on its side. Another time it was a pod of whales coming through Century Bay. It wasn’t unheard of to see a shark, or dolphins.
“Yep, that’s a shark,” Dad said. “Mako I reckon.” He leaned his head over the side of the boat and called out to Mum. “Babe, see the shark over there?”
“Shark?” The ladies started making their way back. “Where’s Pete?” Nan called back.
He’d been to the left, over by some rocks closer in to the bay.
We saw him, his flippers occasionally kicking up a tuft of water as he made his way back to the boat. His head was down in the water, which meant he was probably carrying a full bag. A bleeding full bag.
“What do you reckon Mike?” Dad said. The good humour didn’t seem to be in his voice so much anymore.
“Can’t hurt to get the anchor up, I reckon.” He jumped up onto the side rail and quickly edged up to the front of the boat. Dad keyed up the engine.
It took a minute or two, and in that time both the shark and Pete were making their way to the boat. They looked set to converge at the same time actually. “Should we be worried?” I asked.
“No, he’ll be fine.” Dad said. “It’s just better to be safe I reckon.” Mum and Nan were both leaning on the side of the boat looking at Pete. They started calling out. From over there, above the chugging of the engine, you could faintly hear him calling back.
They tried pointing at the fin off the back of the boat, but he was too low in the water to see it I think.
It was about that time that Mike got the anchor up. The boat swung around and we chugged forward in Pete’s direction. It wasn’t long before we’d swung alongside him. He looked up as he treaded water with his mask sitting on top of his head, spear in one hand and catch-bag in the other.
“There’s a shark back there,” Dad called over from behind the wheel.
“Oh,” laughed Pete. “I thought something was wrong.” He shot me a devilish grin. I could see that he wanted to make a game of it – to show us all how unafraid he was of the shark. I knew better.
“Yeah, better to get you out though,” Mum said in a stern voice.
“Yeah, yeah,” Pete said. “Can you grab the bag?”
Where was the shark? I’d only taken my eyes off it for a second. “Dad?”
Mum was leaning over the side taking the bag from Pete’s up-stretched arms.
“Don’t see it anymore,” I said. Dad was looking too. There was a big cloud of blood-dust around Pete.
It was then, while Mum was taking the catch-bag that the shark snatched his leg. She instinctively dropped the bag and fell back into the boat – falling on Dad and knocking me back. Suddenly everything was yelling and splashing and you couldn’t see Pete’s head or body – just an arm flashing above the water. The water had turned bright red. It was Pete’s blood, definitely.
I will always remember and love my father for this: without hesitating he tore off his shirt and dove right into where the splashing was thickest. He appeared above the water in a second, pulling Pete up with him. I thought Pete had Dad confused for the shark at first- because he elbowed Dad in the nose and plunged back beneath the water.
Mum was reaching out to dad over the side of the boat. Mike was searching for something – the gaf, a knife – any kind of weapon. I was frozen to the spot – transfixed by the spectacle, and Nan stood behind me with her hand clutching my shoulder.
Suddenly the thrashing ceased. You could see shapes moving beneath the water. It had been less than a minute since the attack first started. From the centre of the mass below the water, massive clouds of blood were blooming. Dad gasped down a lungful of air and dove again beneath the water. He seemed to grab onto something, seemed to be fighting with something.
He came back with Pete. He pulled him above the water and Pete was choking and gasping in air. Mum exclaimed at the sight of the blood that surrounded them. Half of his choking seemed to be coming from the fact that Pete was trying to say something. Dad hauled him up onto the backboard of the boat. Pete paused for a moment, and seemed to be gathering some force of will.
I saw immediately that his leg was mangled. He needed surgery – massive lacerations ran from his thigh all the way down to the calf – and in parts you could see this white stuff that could only be torn muscle spilling out from the wounds.
“I killed it.” He finally gasped, staring wide-eyed into the face of my father. “I killed it,” he gasped again. “And I’m taking it with me.” And with that he dove beneath the water – kicking his legs behind him – kicking up further clouds of blood as he dove beneath the water. “Fuck’s sake,” Dad yelled, and dove after him. This time Mike went over the side behind him. The three of them went down together, until they clustered around the still, dark blue floating body of the shark.
And together they came back up. Once Mike had a firm hold of it, Dad saw to Pete. He put him into the cabin where Mum and Nan started tending to him with the first aid kit. Mum was screaming at Dad that they needed to go.
Years later, Dad would say that he didn’t know why he didn’t go immediately. He said that maybe it was something he’d seen in Pete’s eyes, that he knew things would never be okay in his life if he left the shark behind. But he looped a length of rope around the gaf and hooked into the mouth of the dead creature – secured it so that it could hang off the back of the boat, and then helped Mike back onto the boat.
Then together we headed back into shore. Mum sat in the cabin with Pete’s head on her lap the whole way. The whole time Pete kept saying: “I got him. I got him. Showed him.”
Pete was basically in and out of consciousness from then on. It was a long trip to the hospital and everyone was worried. But those few times he was awake, and lucid, he wouldn’t shut up about the shark. Mum, who never left his side, kept trying to ask him how he felt, but all he wanted to talk about was the shark. How big was it? Did they still have it? How he sure showed him. That shark had thought him dead meat, but he hadn’t counted on his opponent. And so on.
When he came out of the hospital, I think that was when things really changed for him. Suddenly he seemed to regard the world around him in some sort of adversarial context. The first thing he did when his leg felt better was to sign himself up for self-defense classes. This was Pete, who had never enjoyed anything physical if it was oustide of the water.
Even today, we still have that shark’s jaw above the fireplace in that house. You can fit your whole head into it, if you’re careful.