Harry stood on the sand and looked down the wide, curved beach of Cloudy Bay. Everything was clean and golden and crisp, the sky almost violet with the winter light, and he wished that he wasn’t afraid. They were leaving him again, his brothers, Miles already half in his wet suit and Joe standing tall, eyes lost to the water.
Water that was always there. Always everywhere. The sound and the smell and the cold waves making Harry different. And it wasn’t just because he was the youngest. He knew the way he felt about the ocean would never leave him now. It would be there always, right inside him.
That was just how it was.
“What should I find?” he asked.
Joe shook his dry wet suit out hard. “Um . . . A cuttlefish bone, a nice bit of driftwood . . .”
“A shark egg,” Miles said.
And there was silence.
Harry waited for Miles to say he was joking, waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. He just kept waxing his board.
So Harry stood up and ran.
He followed the marks of high tide left behind on the sand and his eyes skimmed the pebbles, the shiny jelly sacks, the broken shells. Cuttlefish were easy but shark eggs were impossible. They looked just like seaweed. He kept thinking he’d found one only to realize it was just a bit of kelp or a grimy pebble. There was hardly any point in trying. But he did try. He always found everything on the list. Always.
There was a cormorant gliding low, its soft white stomach almost touching the water, and Harry watched it as it moved. He watched it slow down and land on a rock on the shore. He walked close, walked right up to the rock, but the bird didn’t move. It just stayed still. And he’d never seen one alone. Not like this, on the land. They were always in groups, cormorants. Huddled together in groups on the cliffs and rocks, long necks reaching up to the sun. Sometimes they stayed like that all day. Together. Waiting and watching. Resting.
The bird called softly, and Harry was so close that he felt the sound vibrate inside him. He wanted to reach out and touch it, to stroke the silky shimmering feathers down the cormorant’s back. But he stayed still, kept his arms by his sides. He thought that maybe the cormorant was sick. That maybe it couldn’t find the others. And he didn’t know how they made it, how they survived. Flying over all that ocean, flying and flying in the wind and in the rain. Diving into the cold water.
They washed up in the surf sometimes, the lost ones.
The bird called again. It bobbed its head up and down and spread its wings, then it was gone.
Harry left the beach and ventured into the dunes. Might find a good bit of driftwood in there or something interesting at least. He ran up and down the small humps and valleys, the loose sand getting firmer under his feet, and he kept on going. He could hardly see the beach anymore. It was farther than he had ever been. He slowed down, started walking. He looked ahead. There was some kind of clearing, small trees all around. Shrubs. It was a good sheltered place; the wind wouldn’t get in this far even if it was really blowing. You could camp here. You could stay here and it would be all right.
Behind a shrub, a pile of shells. A giant pile—old and brittle and white from the sun. Oyster and mussel, pipi and clam, the armor of a giant crab. Harry picked up an abalone shell, the edges loose and dusty in his hands. And every cell in his body stopped. Felt it. This place. Felt the people who had been here before, breathing and standing alive where he stood. People who were long dead now. Long gone. And Harry understood, right down in his guts, that time ran on forever and that one day he would die.
The skin on his hands tingled and pricked.
He dropped the shell and ran.
He had to wait for ages but finally Joe came in. Miles stayed out. He was way out deep and it didn’t even look like there were any waves out there. He was just sitting in the water. Just sitting there and Harry was starving, couldn’t stop thinking about those sandwiches. The cheese and chutney ones.
“I didn’t find it. The shark egg.”
Joe was struggling with his wet suit, getting his arms free, and he was twisting and panting, not looking at Harry. “Maybe next time,” he said, but Harry didn’t think it was likely.
When Joe was finally back in his clothes he started unpacking the stuff from the dinghy, the thermos and the tin cups and the rug and the sandwiches. As long as they didn’t have to wait for Miles—no, Harry wouldn’t be able to wait for Miles even if Joe said he had to because Miles could stay out in the water forever, even if it was freezing, and Harry just had to have one of the sandwiches now.
“This place is old,” he said, his mouth full of bread.
Joe made a sound but he wasn’t really listening. He was somewhere else, maybe still out there in the water with Miles. But it didn’t matter.
This place was old. Harry knew it.
As old as the world.
Miles got in the dinghy with the men, with Martin and Jeff and Dad, and he didn’t speak. No one spoke on the way out to the boat. He hadn’t been able to eat his toast at home in the early darkness, and now just at dawn he wished he had.
His stomach was empty, this first day.
First day of school holidays. First day he must man the boat alone while the men go down. Old enough now, he must take his place. Just like his brother before him, he must fill the gap Uncle Nick left.
Because the bank owned the boat now. Because the bank owned everything.
The boat chugged and rattled its way through the heads, and Miles felt the channel grab hold, pull on her hard. She was weak, the Lady Ida, she seemed old now, and the crossing was slow. She plowed through the deepest part of the channel leaving a wide wake of ridges behind, and Miles knew this was where it would have happened. Where Uncle Nick would have been dragged out alone in the dark where the rip ran strongest.
And they never found him.
Not one bit.
Not his boots.
Not his bones.
Just the dinghy floating loose, empty and washed clean.
Nobody talked about it now, but back then Dad talked about it. He said Uncle Nick must have gone out to check the mooring. He said he’d never forgive himself.
The boat was almost new, anchored out at the mouth of the bay because the swell was right up—a big winter swell, and all the boats were out there. But Nick wouldn’t leave it alone. He wouldn’t stop worrying about the boat. Dad said he went on and on about it at the pub and in the end Dad told him to go and check the damn thing. To go and check it or just shut up about it.
And Miles knew exactly how dark it was that night, the sky blacked out by cloud so thick that nothing came through—no stars or moon or anything. Uncle Nick wouldn’t have been able to see the dinghy or the land or even his own hand in front of his face.
And everyone forgot about him out there because that was the night of the crash.
That was the night when everything changed.
Martin touched his shoulder, stood close.
“It’ll be all right,” he said.
Dad and Jeff were in the cabin and Jeff was staring at him again so Miles looked away. He slipped his yellow windbreaker over his sweater. Dad didn’t have any small enough for him, so he had to wear a man’s size and it was baggy, hung way down past his hands. It was almost better not to wear one at all. He’d get soaked anyway. The only part of him that would stay warm was his head under the tight wool watch cap that made his scalp itch.
He rolled up the sleeves, he put on his gloves.
Bruny was coming clear in the new light.
Miles watched the surface change color—come to life. And even though they were still out deep, away from land, there were places where the water rose like it was climbing a hill, places where the water was angry. And it wasn’t the back of a wave. It wasn’t a peak in the swell. It was the current surging into rocks that hid below, rocks that you couldn’t see even when the tide was low. And if you didn’t know what the rise in water meant, you would never guess those rocks were there. The Hazards. They were called the Hazards of Bruny.
They were all around here, out deep. Rocks that weren’t attached to land but were big enough on their own to disturb the water—to change its path. And maybe they had been islands once, those rocks. Small islands or maybe even bigger ones before they got worn away. Worn by the water and by the wind and the rain until they were gone from sight. And only the foundations remained, hidden and lost under the sea.
There were things that no one could teach you—things about the water. You just knew them or you didn’t and no one could tell you how to read it. How to feel it.
Miles knew the water. He could feel it. And he knew not to trust it.
Past the Shallows
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Aunty Jean is the only female role model the boys have left. She is at times cruel and then caring toward them. Do you consider her a good person? Do you have any sympathy for her? What references within the text have led you to this opinion?
2. Do you think George Fuller sees Harry as just another puppy to rescue? Or does he genuinely care for Harry? There are a few other works of literature that use an ostracized figure in the community to enhance our understanding of the main characters. Why do you think this can be a useful plot device, and do you think it’s effective here?
3. This is a small community where everyone knows who everyone is, as we can see from Mr. Roberts, George and Mrs. Martin in the store. In light of this, why do you think the boys’ home life is allowed to continue? What is the role of men in this community?
4. There are few female figures in Harry’s and Miles’s lives. Is there any evidence of what they think about women?
5. What would be some of the challenges of living here?