Grievous and Blunty worked out where their nets were going while Grievous’ quiet mate looked on. The river mouth was the hardest set because it was straight across the mad wind that just arced up but it would also be productive and there was no way the perpetually hungry Grievous would miss out on a few dollars.
‘I’ve seen you out in worse weather anyway,’ I told him.
He nodded. ‘That’s because you’ve been out there too!’
Grievous clad himself in wet weather gear and started the motor. He was beautiful to watch in a boat, lithe and graceful. He shouldered the dinghy into the waves and started throwing his nets into the murky water. Blunty took off to the lee side of the estuary, churning an olive wake behind him.
As I fell asleep that night, I heard a flock of swans fly over, singing their songs to each other. I heard Grievous return in the early gloaming, talking with his deckie as they passed by my tent to the boat. I heard them bail out the dinghy and the motor start. Their wake chattered against Blunty's aluminium tinny. When I woke again, it was Blunty through the canvas walls: ‘You up, Toa?’
This morning was red all over from the smoke hanging in the sky. Molten sun climbed crimson over the sand bar. Blunty hauled in nets in the shelter of paperbark trees. Their ghostly figures danced against the ochre cliffs and grey green bush.
A sea eagle watched us from her paperbark eyrie.
‘You’ve got a pelican in the net.’
‘Nah,’ said Blunty. ‘Never happens.’ He screwed up his sleepy face. ‘Hang on. It does. I know who that is.’
At first it looked like a stump or stake in the water and there are plenty of those at the inlet. Plenty of pelicans too, ‘but this guy is sick. He’s got a hole in his neck and he’s a bit desperate. Poor bugga swallows the whole net to get at a fish and then he can’t throw it up again.’
We drew closer to the pelican. Blunt pulled fish out of the net and and they thumped into the bins. He’d set on the second channel, where the mullet come down at night. The wind would have helped. It always gets the fish meshing, oxygenates the water.
‘Wally’s got an injured pelican in Wilson’s,’ Blunty said. ‘He calls him Wobbles, ‘cause he’s got a busted wing. He feeds him every day, makes sure he gets fed ahead of the other greedy ones.’
This pelican looked meek and didn’t struggle as the boat came closer. It was so still I wondered if it had died. It’s beak and wings were wound up in the net, so it looked like an ungainly giraffe trying to drink.
We pulled up alongside. ‘You have to grab him and I’ll get the fish out.’
The bird had a large gash on one side of its neck, from fighting or something. The wound must have gone straight through to its throat, because a small black bream surrounded in nylon fishing net poked through the bloody hole. Blunty was right.
I held the bird’s wings and beak while Blunty yanked out the fish quickly, got it out of the mesh and chucked it into the water. I thought he was quite brutal, until I realised how much distress and pain I would have caused, faffing about, trying to be gentle.
‘Don’t wanna keep that bream.’
‘But it’s already cooked!’
He pulled the fishing net away from where the bird had entangled itself and then sat the pelican gently on the water like a baby. We watched it paddle slowly away. ‘Poor bugger needs a bullet,’ Blunt said. The sea eagle hadn’t moved, had watched the whole rescue.