They came mid morn, three men carrying spears shipped to their sticks. One man, taller than the others, wore a small iron axe in the twine of his belt and his chest and shoulders were marked with scars. Another man, shorter and straighter had knobbed his hair at the back of his head and emu feathers floating from a twine bracelet adorned each arm. The smallest man had two straight scars across his breast and to his possum twine belt was attached a long shard of gleaming green glass.
He put out his hands, palms facing upwards and waited. He wondered first if they would head to King George Sound with news of a wild white man hiding at the inlet. Then he wondered if they would kill him. He knew the natives didn’t like sealers and for good reason too.
The shortest man also seemed to be the youngest and was cloaked in a wallaby skin worn with the fur close to the body. He stepped forward, his eyes sweeping the camp. “No more wadjela?”
“No. Me.” He held up the herring he’d caught that morning. He handed it to him. Tithe. “Just me and the seal.” He nodded over to the inlet.
The young man held the fish by its tail, smiled and spoke to the other two. They laughed, the tallest in hiccupping chuckles that belied his authority. They thumped the middle man with the feathered armbands on each shoulder and he muttered and toed the dirt with his thorny feet.
“He loved the seal too. His wives got angry and clouted him and he go back home,” said the youngest. Maybe he was the only one to speak English. Maybe the others didn’t want to. “You go home too.”
“No, I can’t.”
“You go.” The man’s tone changed. He waved the herring in a floppy gesture towards the west.
“I can’t.” He shook his head again.
The youngest spoke to his brothers in Noongar. They stared at his clothes and the tallest man went to look around his hut. When he came out, he spoke to the others again.
“He says, why a stone house? Bark is much warmer.”
He shrugged and smiled for the first time.
They talked again and then the young one said, “Our women come here fishing. You see them. You go away.”
He understood. They would be watching him.
That seemed to be the end of talking. The short man shocked him by gripping his arm with big hands, the herring jammed between both their flesh. Then they left him, laughing, their spears held upright and against their bodies.
He wondered about the seal. He went upstream again and chopped more clay from his mine and continued packing the stone walls. Forcing the slimy, gritty mix between the cracks, he stopped and held his reddened hands in front of his face. He washed them in the inlet and sat to watch it breath for a while.
Three or four fires burned around him. It was difficult to tell how many, now that the afternoon wind was up. He sang one of his mother’s songs, waiting for the seal.
A bull seal lolled on the rocks in the morning sun. They gazed at each other, the seal with a curious lack of fear. He turned back into the land, looking for firewood and breaking up dry kindling from the dying underneath of the shrubs. Later, he fished off the rocks near the channel. Occasionally he saw a bulge of water across the inlet or closer still but she did not show herself.
He went to his hut hungry that night and dreamt lucid of the quicksilver flash of fish and water that bulged with the living flesh of people. Frannie emerged from the water like a Venus borne across the sea, her blonde hair streaming behind her; a sight unseen to him but for few precious domestic moments when she let it down. Her skin glowed dusky, not pale and freckled Irish skin but brown and shining with brine and her eyes were black pools where he could gaze and see her and himself at once.