Emily pummelled the paddle into the shallow water as she positioned her kayak against the waves.
Beyond her reach, a grey greenish shimmer disappeared under a wave. Even if she dug her paddle into the sea with all her might she could not keep up with it or see it clearly. A fish? A seal? A dugong?
Emily stopped her paddle for a second – A Shark?
The coastline was only a few metres away from her craft.
She looked for channels between the limestone where she hadn’t yet explored. The catacomb caves were one of Mandalay’s natural formations and Emily had been into several of their hidden entrances. No one had mapped its entirety because of the dangerous quick high tides and unpredictable rips as the ocean pulled out.
She looked beyond the breakers and once again what appeared to be a dull greyish fin flipped close to the water’s surface before disappearing under its dark cover. Desperate to see what the creature could be, Emily grabbed the paddle and began scooping at the water with percussive strokes. Her lean arms and muscular shoulders rolled under her compact life jacket as she attempted to get the nose of the kayak closer to the unknown object.
The blue plastic of the kayak tipped quickly through the water edging easily over the small waves making their way towards shore.
Drips of ocean fell onto her arms and face as the paddles circled the water. Emily kept watching with her peripheral vision for the cream coloured rocks lurking beneath the surface. Twice her right paddle banged against a sharp limestone crater edge and Emily managed to jut the craft along without scratching its underbelly or getting stuck.
Her breath caught at the back of her throat as the kayak thrust towards where the grey fin had splashed. A plastic grocery bag swayed in the current then sunk under the ocean’s weight. Sweat caught behind the neck of her T-shirt and the life jacket collar.
She twisted her head around and arched herself and her craft forward with one heavy deep scoop of the paddle but the dull object submerged and disappeared once again behind the crashing line of waves. Emily released a breath and lifted the paddles end out of the water, coasting along in her own current.
She ran a hand behind her neck allowing a cool breath of breeze to ease its way down the hollow of her back as it momentarily parted a little way from the stickiness of the jacket heat.
The mystery sea-dweller disappeared. If it was a turtle it was way off course, since they weren’t found this far down the Western Coast. Razor fish had been found washed up dead on some beaches, but they were famous for being the brightest of shimmering silver and were four metres long and never found swimming near the surface.
Emily knew she’d missed her chance with the unknown creature so she let her kayak float to a stop before she back- paddled to turn around. She scooped up a palm full of water and released it down the front of her neckline. As the breeze blew against her skin she felt her temperature drop and her head cleared. The plastic bag came to the surface where her hand had been. Emily scooped it on board with the paddle. From a pocket on her life jacket vest, she pulled a plastic zip-lock bag that held a small note book and pencil.
The outline of the rocky coastline was sketched as a mud map. Emily crossed on her hand drawn map the location of her sighting of the large grey fish. She looked into the limestone caves and their inlets – some were too small for her kayak to fit into.
She’d explored much of Mandalay’s hidden coastline since she was a girl. A girl brought up with the legend of her grandmother, Meg, and the ship wreck she’d been saved from. So, the one exotic sea creature Emily had always longed to find was the wooden figurehead of the Mandalay wreck.
The Mandalay Mermaid that had saved Emily’s grandmother from drowning during the ship wreck, had never been recovered. Bits of wooden frame, artillery, coal, rope and netting had been found washed up amongst the limestone inlets near the Catacomb Caves but Meg’s saviour had been lost.
As Emily approached the jetty that lay opposite her home, her grandmother’s family home where she had been brought up, a brown Labrador sat watching, earnestly out to sea.
Seeing her edging the kayak toward shore, he howled an “about time” welcome, his tail wagging furiously the closer Emily approached.
- Leo! Come in. Have a swim.
Leo paddled furiously towards the kayak, jutting himself through the waves with his rudder-like tail. Emily grabbed the back of his wet, feathery neck as he scrambled, scratching onto the front of the kayak - her very own living, breathing figurehead.
She held the paddle over the sea and raised the other hand to her dog's neck.
- Have you been waiting for me?
Emily rubbed the scruff of Leo’s neck.
- Good boy, Leo, Good boy.
They coasted into the shallows where Leo jumped in and paddled to shore. Emily dragged the kayak across the sand and grass towards the road.
- I saw something out there, Leo. Something disappeared under a wave. But it wasn't Grandma’s Mermaid.
Emily shook her head and smiled to herself, while she gripped the handle of the kayak and lifted it to her hip, skittering across the road to her driveway, past the tiny vacant lot with its forever "for sale" sign and the neighbour next to it with ten old washing machines against the fence.
Emily grabbed the garden hose from its perch on a wiry model black swan sitting among the bromeliads and sprayed the salt scum off the sides of the kayak then turned the hose onto herself.
Her wet clothes dripped as the sand fell in drops to the lawn. She took a gulp straight out of the hose and ran the stream over her head. Scooping up the plastic grocery bag, Emily turned off the hose. She went to pitch the plastic into a garbage bin in the garage but felt something solid scraping inside.
Flipping the bag inside out Emily found a mess of fishing line with small shells threaded along the tangled length. She threw the shells onto the tool bench and the bag into the bin. Inside the garage she stripped herself of the wet garments and threw them into the cracked concrete tub.
Faded crabbing pot buoys hung dried and cracked from the sunshine on the fence line. A fish-shaped metal cut-out was hammered into the mail box with a looping number eight painted on the tail.
She slammed the side door and ran into the house. A hot breeze found its way over her body and momentarily cooled the mugginess of its heat. The salt and vinegar smoke from the other neighbour’s kitchen window reminded Leo it was dinner time. He followed her into the house as Emily shook her keys from the pocket of her life vest and opened the back door.
Scooping up a t-shirt and pair of tracksuit pants from a drying rack she quickly fitted them on and grabbed a beer from the fridge, threw Leo a handful of crunchy biscuits from a plastic container and strode out the back door where Leo positioned himself on his basket, happy to be home and to be eating something, anything.
Emily sprang over the back steps onto a crisscross of permanent scaffolding she’d attached to the house. She clambered her way up the ladder using her free hand to steady herself until she reached the top level, aligned with the uppermost tip of the roof.
She had a chair and small table positioned overlooking the ocean view. She made her way to the railing, grabbing it then drinking another refreshing mouthful.
She focused on the far crashing waves and breathed in the sea weed air. She found it hard to fully imagine what was out there.
Had her grandmother encountered something unknown when she gasped for her life on the back of a wooden mermaid figurehead? Grandma had told her a few stories but seemed to give up thinking about how she had made her way to Mandalay.
Emily should have asked more before her grandma died. She stared out at the sea, longing to know the full story, knowing that she would have to explore more.
She relaxed into the deckchair and allowed herself to drink and rest. She lent her head back and took another swig and smiled to herself.
With her eyes closed she imagined the caves of the catacombs filling with water and the evening tide. Somewhere, caught in a ragged, sharp hollow of the Catacomb Caves, was the chipped wooden painted mermaid of the Mandalay.
Emily squeezed her eyes tightly.
- One day, I will find you.
If she stared out to sea long enough her vision would blur and images of the past would float before her retina.
She would see her grandmother as a girl and that girl would jump into the pounding waves to save her life – losing her parents in the sinking coal ship.
If Emily thought hard enough, she could see the mermaid figurehead, the Mandalay Mermaid breaking from the thrust of a wave, cracking into the black vortex, spinning in the suction down and down, hitting against the rocks, bouncing up and out of the water.
She could see her grandmother as a girl bobbing up and down, in and out of the dangerous rolling rips.
What were the chances of this girl meeting up with the broken, lost figurehead? Their figure eight circles meeting in the middle and colliding with each other. The wooden woman bashing against the small human body. The tiny floating legs twisting around the wooden tail. The meeting in the middle and the crashing to safety of the shore.
If she closed her eyes now she could see how it was possible.
Until she found the figurehead and saw the clawing grasping fingernail and toenail scrapes of survival, how could she know the truth of her family history?
Her body could feel the weight of her journey and she sat again staring at the moon hanging over the waves.
As its crescent rose above the horizon, a far-off howling sounded across the water to her scaffolding deck.
It was a yowling naked howl of survival.
It could have been a dingo searching for its lost thylacine sister or brother.